CHAPTER EIGHT--Queens Gambit


Though he wore a crown, N'Str'D'Ms--or Nostradamus, as the rest of Islay called him--was no true king. And though he sat upon a throne, there was nothing regal or noble in his bearing, for Nostradamus had long since left behind the world of men to embrace the world of shadows and darkness.

For over seven centuries of time, as men counted it, he had sat upon the throne of Serpen atop the First School of Sorcery. And unlike those who made up his Conclave--themselves Liches of great power--Nostradamus had never consciously turned to Sorcery as a means to pass from life into unlife; the Sorcery itself had, of its own accord, turned him into what he was. He had welcomed and embraced the power of Hell beneath him and the throne and crown that were tied to it, allowing Hell’s power to flow into him, becoming one with it, inhaling it and bending it to his will before finally breathing it out again.

Yet even as he had sought to subjugate that power to his will, that power, in turn, crafted him into its own image. Where once had been a man, there remained only the grotesque, skeletal remnants of a human now able to sustain life only through the power of death. Eyes that might once have been able to look upon others with love or mercy now burned with anger, hatred, envy, and every other emotion of evil--all of which grew, century after century, as the Liche’s existence lingered while its humanity was left further behind in the mists of its memories.

So far behind it was the Light that the Liche had long since passed the point where it could even make a choice to turn from the Darkness. Now, only hatred powered the creature, and the degree of good will one might have had with the Liche varied with the degree of hatred it felt toward him. Those he favored--if the word favored could be used--he may have felt no more than disdain or resentment toward, tempered by their usefulness to him.

But his enemies were a different matter entirely: To them was reserved an implacable hatred and thirst for vengeance that only Hell could produce--for hatred drove Nostradamus. Hatred tormented Nostradamus. Hatred strengthened Nostradamus. Nostradamus hated everything and everyone--starting with the Lord of Darkness who had given him the “life,” he now knew. Where in his youth he had served Asmodeus with zeal as he sought aid to climb above his many fellows, he now hated him with as much fervor as he had ever served the God of Darkness with.

The favor and power of Asmodeus had granted him sovereignty over both the School and Hocwrath--but now, after having served him century after century, Nostradamus’ kingdom comprised no more than the central tower of the School. Only here, in his Throne room, was he at his full power. Outside it, his powers quickly began to weaken to those no greater than that of a mighty human wizard.

Beyond the central complex of the Upper School, normally open only to himself and his Conclave, death awaited--for only the strongest level of power flowing through the Throne room out to the remainder of the School could now keep the monster’s body from collapsing to dust.

Thus it was, that the most powerful being in Hocwrath rotted, waited and sought some means apart from Hell’s mocking mercy to prolong its existence no matter how empty that existence was.

Thirty seasons or so past, the Liche nearly had its chance. Into its life had come a man of mystery. A man named Baltar Revenwood--or so he called himself--who somehow knew what ten thousand years of Schoolmasters did not: the true fate of both Goth and his master, Serpen; and the possible resting place of his Mind Sapphire, that portable focus of the School Serpen had crafted with the aid of Asmodeus, which permitted the original Lord of Hocwrath to carry with him the full power of Hell that flowed through the two Schools.

A team of skilled treasure hunters, led by Revenwood, had been procured to seek it deep inside the Land of Shadows, the deadly region of mystery beyond the inhabited lands of Hocwrath. And but for the youthful capriciousness of one of them, the Mind Sapphire would have been his. But the half-elf, Cormorant TenTolliver, had found and secreted the precious device on his person, and by so doing Nostradamus lost his chance at immortality.

If he could have but donned the necklace of the golden cobra and the large sapphire set into it, the Talisman would have preserved him for as long as the life energy of those slain by the possessor lasted. Not only could he have left the tower--but he could have left the School itself. Not only could he have left the School, but with the power of both the Crown and the Sapphire, his Sorcery would have been amplified tenfold…or perhaps a hundredfold--there was no way to know. He suspected it all depended entirely on how much of the life energy stored in the device that the wielder chose to direct into his spells.

He would have eagerly experimented, for life energy was cheap to come by--and Nostradamus could have found untold numbers of victims whose souls could power the device.

But he would never get the chance to experiment, for the young half-Elf had stolen the Talisman. And though Nostradamus had sent a Leviathan to slay and loot the group as they left for their homelands, somehow that boy and a young Dwarf had escaped the clutches of the monster, though no one realized it then.

In time, the half-elf activated the most basic powers of the device when he slew some nameless person. From that point on, he became the man known as Nightshadow, and the Sapphire became bound to him, protecting him in battle and making him all but invulnerable. Today he was feared as the most powerful swordsman in Islay.

And Nostradamus had made that possible, for that was the fruit of the mistake.

But now, perhaps, this was about to change. Through the vanity of an important relative of the half-Elf, he would be given a second chance. In her own desperate quest for eternal youth, she would soon come to him--and she would bring Nightshadow with her, for only with him at her side could she have hope of standing against the Lord of the First School. Then what should have been his would be his! And once it was, all Islay would fall to him, starting with Throckmorton, the thorn in his side for centuries.

Master of the Second School--Goth’s original School--Throckmorton was nearly equal in power to himself, despite being much younger. His School was almost a duplicate of Nostradamus’. Both Liches had armies of equal size quartered in the outer wings of their Schools, but neither relied on these to keep them in power; they were only for enforcing the joint edicts both were forced to agree upon when circumstances called for it, or to keep the Schools of Disdoma--the other great city in Hocwrath--in subjection to Serpenalik. Otherwise, these mercenaries--whose loyalty varied with what they were paid, or how much they were afraid--served no true purpose.

No, it was the sheer numbers of wizards and Necromancers in both Schools that held steady the delicate scales of balance between the two opposing forces. Throckmorton could never defeat the more-powerful Nostradamus, but neither could Nostradamus defeat the Second School without weakening his own so much that he would be at the mercy of Hocwrath’s remaining Schools. This gave Lord Draconerius, master of the Third School, a relatively safe position as a neutral third party in the city.

Heading a School nowhere near as powerful as the two great Schools, Draconerius was too little of a threat for the other two Liches to bother with, for all their attention was devoted to out-maneuvering each other. Thus, Draconerius--and all of Islay--was spared the wrath of the Liches as each dwelt together in acrimonious harmony with the other, ever-watching, ever-planning, ever-hoping for the other to make the one mistake...the one false move...the one miscalculation that would give his eager enemy the advantage that could spell his opponent’s doom at an acceptable cost.

The opportunity had never come, but now, Nostradamus sensed as the two Gypsies approached the Throne room more quickly than usual, the time might be at hand.

There was nothing that Madam Olga and Sonja hated more than being in the presence of Nostradamus each dawn and each dusk to report the results of their divinations. Every day, the message was the same: Not yet. But this night, as dusk was falling, their message would be different. With luck, this would be their final meeting with the Liche before they would be free to return with their caravan to Sarvia--this time, with the wealth that would buy them their freedom once and for all from the Boyars and Cossacks.

Together, they hurried across the great causeway above the Pit toward the two great doors of engraved gold that sealed off the Liche’s Throne room from the rest of his huge basalt tower. They opened of their own accord, for the Liche knew they were coming--he always knew--and the two Gypsies, one old, the other much younger, heads lowered, entered into the shadowed gallery beyond that was lit only by the glowing runes upon the huge onyx throne atop a dais at the other end of the chamber. Neither dared look up to see the two pinpoints of red light staring back at them from the recess of the throne, which also hid the half-skeletal/half-incorporeal body of the shade seated in it.

Drawing near, the pair dropped to their knees before the throne and leaned forward to touch their heads to the ground in an act of ultimate obeisance.

“She approaches even now, Lord,” Madam Olga, the older Gypsy, said in a thick Sarvian accent without looking up.

“And?” came the hoarse response from the throne.

“We foresee death, Lord--obviously hers.”

“Do you think me stupid, that you must explain that to me?” the irritated sibilation questioned.

Neither woman spoke, but they merely shook in unison, knowing that the slightest thing said in error spelt instant death.

The fact that the most powerful wizard in ten thousand years had to lower himself to seek counsel from Gypsies was loathsome. But detestable as that fact was, none could deny they possessed a unique gift in being able to divine the future. This acquiescence to utilizing them, however much he resented it, would pay off by the destruction of all his foes through their advance warning of his enemies’ movements.

How ironic, thought the Liche, that with all he had been able to accomplish. and with his growing power over time itself, he had to rely on these two women. But now the end had come. They had served their purpose. His enemies had been over a year in planning their attack--and he had been over a year in planning his defense. He knew the day soon approached when they would come--but the precise day he could not know of his own accord.

But now, with the Gypsies’ warning, his would actually be the first move.

They would come through the tunnels, of course--just as that other Witch had done a few years previously. These enemies would fare better, naturally, and he expected them to reach the catacombs at the bottom of the Lower School. Most of them would undoubtedly die there, and it was a matter of speculation just how many of the rest would actually manage to reach the Upper School where his main defenses awaited.

Not that the plan was ever to slay the intruders outright--that would have been simple, of course. The power of the Liche and his School could lay waste to any number of Witches and warriors who managed to infiltrate the complex. Had he wanted, most of them--from the Witch on down--would be piles of ash before they had taken their twentieth step inside the School.

But that would have left Nightshadow alive, and with everyone else dead he would simply leave, and no one could stop him. That, or lay waste to the School with everyone in it powerless to stop him.

No, the plan was to draw the invaders deeper into the web, weakening them a step at a time--weakening all of them, but particularly Nightshadow himself. In the end, as they neared the very center of the web where the spider awaited--deceived into thinking they were advancing toward victory--Nightshadow would finally be vulnerable. Then the Queen would enter the game and finish them.

All these musings had taken but a moment of time in the Liche's mind, and just as quickly as he had rebuked Madam Olga, he was again speaking to her.

“What do your tea leaves say about Throckmorton?” the Liche now demanded.

“The leaves say Throckmorton will not attack you. There will be no battle between the two Schools tonight.”

The Liche’s eyes then exploded in color, and blood burst out of every pore of the old Gypsy. Screaming, the old woman writhed in agony for several moments until she finally lay still, a large pool of blood beneath her.

The burning red eyes now turned toward the other Gypsy.

“What do your cards say about tonight, Gypsy?” the Liche calmly asked the younger Sonja.

Nearly unable to function, Sonja raised a single tarot card. Despite the fact the card was vibrating in unison with her trembling hand, the Liche easily discerned the picture of a tower being destroyed by lightning. Satisfied, he now debated whether to slay the Gypsy for the temerity of using her wits to try and prolong her life by saying nothing and letting him draw his own conclusions. However, it was closest thing to humor that he’d experienced in decades, so he willed to let the Gypsy live until morning when he'd be certain her skills were no longer needed.

“Yours is the correct interpretation,” he finally said. “If she is coming now, then she has already sought alliance with Throckmorton. He has rejected it, naturally, and now waits to see how she will fare. He knows she has little chance to defeat me, but if she does--or if she weakens me sufficiently and escapes--he plans to launch his own attack. In the meantime, he makes no direct preparations, lest he arouse my suspicions or risk my retribution for failing to warn me of her plans. If I do defeat her, he knows he can never overcome me, thus he does nothing to kindle my ire beforehand, lest he need me to show mercy once I place him in a position where he never can be a threat to me. The Fool! I will destroy him simply because he is no threat. So indeed there will be battle between the Schools tonight regardless, and his School shall fall to me! Your mother should have been more careful with her interpretation.”

She wasn’t really my mother, Sonja thought, and thank you for getting her out of the way. Now if we can just finish this and leave for home in the morning....

Reading her mind, the Liche nearly chuckled.

“Precopius,” Nostradamus then called out.

Silently, a second Liche moved out of a darkened alcove to the side of the dais and bowed its head.

“Only you are to know of my plans for Throckmorton. Martial our forces--but do so quietly, and keep them out of the catacombs. Order all Masters, Acolytes and Apprentices capable of summoning to bring forth every Nether creature they can. As Revenwood is gone, Nabonidus is to place our forces in defensive positions around the lower levels and inform the commanders they are to be on specific guard against a possible attack by the Second School of Sorcery. We will let Throckmorton’s spies amongst us believe our position is only one of defense. Then you are to place the Conclave in position and assure they know that if any of the burglars survive to reach Lilith’s temple, they best not pass the temple unless each of the Conclave is a pile of dust on the floor.”

The second Liche bowed.

“And, Precopius--that goes for you as well.”

Precopius froze for a moment. He no longer had enough muscles left to show any emotion on his facial features, but the displeasure showed in his eyes, whose pinpoints of light narrowed at the comment.

Nostradamus paid it no mind.

“Once our burglars are slain and I have retrieved the Mind Sapphire off Nightshadow,” he continued, “I will personally lead our remaining forces against the Second School, and we will destroy it and Throckmorton once and for all. You and the Conclave will remain behind, of course.”

The Liche turned his glance to the quivering, silent Gypsy.

“Why are you still here? Leave the scrolls you’ve managed to make for me, and get out. Assemble your assassins and pray they do not fail me or I will show you more shed Gypsy blood in one night than she has spilt in her entire life. And cause no harm to that long-haired Bard if she is with them!”

Keeping her head lowered, Sonja removed a sack from beneath her cloak and placed it on the ground. Then she arose and hurried away--not too fast, lest the Liche be offended, and not too slowly, lest he think she was dawdling.

“This chess game is over,” the Liche hissed as she departed. “In one night, I achieve immortality, the destruction of Throckmorton and his School, and the death of Nightshadow and Raven TenTolliver. So,” the Liche said to the air, “hasten to my welcome embrace--little Witch!”

The last comment was made with such venomous hatred that Sonja almost felt sorry for Raven’s having to endure whatever the Liche had in store from her.

Behind, the two portals slammed shut and thankfully Sonja was left alive and alone.

All too quickly, the sun was gone and night overspread its shadowy wings upon the world, bringing with it a disquieting fear to the Bard. Somehow, with the sun out, she felt far safer than she did as the shadows fell, for night was the realm of the Undead.

The Widow took no notice and used the darkness to her own advantage, continuing unseen with her lamps out. It didn’t take long for the mist to begin, and dew started to form on the surfaces of the vessel as a heavy spring fog settled over the coast. The stars were the first to vanish, hidden by the haze, then the sea below was lost in a carpet of mist, and in a few moments the bow of the ship began fading from view as the fog thickened.

All of a sudden, it was as if they had passed into the Ethers, for the fog became as thick as one might find on the dreariest night upon a Torrencian moor. Doremi had been in those before. When they were this bad, all you could do was stop where you were at until it burned off the next day--that, or wander off to your death in a pit you couldn’t see or a bog you couldn’t detect until you were knee-deep in quicksand. The last thing you’d do was try and make your way out of it.

Cyllindrethifl broke the eerie silence.

“I see the coast,” she spoke. “You’ll hear the surf soon.”

“Me’re glad you’re able to see that!” Fosmo exclaimed, squinting. “Can’t see me hand in front of me face!”

Raven chuckled. “That was part of our plan. The fogs in April are thick to start with, and Cyllindrethifl researched a spell to make the mist twice as bad as it is even normally. She’s stuck the mountains surrounding the First School in a pea soup so thick--”

“Will we be able to take a boat to shore without wrecking in fog this bad?” a concerned Romulus broke in, looking over to her.

“Actually...we’re not taking a boat, Romulus,” Raven replied. “In fact, we’re not coming up through the tunnels at all.”

Her words hit them all like a blow from a mace as they realized precisely what she meant.

“You mean we’re going to fly this whole ship into the School?!” Doremi gasped.

“Precisely,” Espidreen answered.

Romulus opened his mouth to gripe, then halted and instead let out a breath.

“Why not?” he finally exclaimed. “It’s no madder than any other part of this plan.”

“Is that even possible?” Doremi asked. “Won’t the enchantments make the ship fall out of the sky when it passes over the School?”

“We already tested the wheel last year,” answered Cyllindrethifl, glancing over to her. “We put it on a boat and flew right over the Upper School with no problems. The wheel’s enchantment is greater than that of the School. The ship can fly straight in.”

“Wi’ the fog a-hidin’ us, eh?” Mac Tavish spoke with a grin. “I like it. This plan’s good as if a Highlanderr made it up!”

“Cyl,” Raven now spoke, leaning in toward the Elf, “swing to the southwest and come up through the bay. I want to come at the School from the west, flying over the city, rather than approach from the back of the School.”

Cyllindrethifl quickly looked back to her mistress, the worry evident on her face.

“Raven, that will take us too close to the Second School, and Throckmorton! The east way is the quickest, and will give us the best chance of surprise. That was our plan.”

“Just do it.”

“But I centered the fog spell so that it would screen the sea east of the First School--there may be insufficient fog over the bay to hide our presence from the city!”

“No argument, Cyl,” Raven spoke calmly, “--come in from the west.”

What is she doing? Doremi wondered. The body language of most of the rest of the Fellowship showed they were equally apprehensive at the Elf’s comments. But Nightshadow and Thor, she noted, showed no concern--suspiciously so, she thought. Perhaps they knew something she didn’t about this.

As ordered, the Elf spun the wheel and the Black Widow turned to port, veering away from the School, still invisible in the fog. Quickly, the fog began to thin and after a few minutes Doremi could see all the way to the forecastle as they departed the nearly impenetrable bank of fog from Cyllindrethifl’s spell and traveled on through the normal spring mist off Serpenalik. The group at the stern remained lost in their thoughts, the only sounds coming from the quiet creaks of the ship’s timbers as they sailed forward.

It took about a quarter-hour to reach the bay of Serpenalik. As they flew, every so often Cyllindrethifl glanced over to Thor, who stood next to her. The Elf had apparently never seen a Scandian and found his stature and appearance of interest. She made several furtive glances, trying not to stare, but finally she fixed her eyes upon the Scandian, who, when he became aware of it, returned her gaze.

“I have heard,” Cyllindrethifl spoke to him, “that the Barbarians drink the blood of the wolf in the belief they will gain its speed and stamina.”

Unblinking, she kept her eyes upon Thor, apparently awaiting an answer.

Fosmo burst out laughing. “That’s why they call ‘em Barbarians!” he said, grinning at his own joke.

Thor’s scowl cut him off, and the thief fell silent. Then the huge Norseman turned back to the Elf and leaned--way down--until his face was scant inches from her own.

“I wouldn’t know,” he answered quietly. “I’m a Viking, not a barbarian!”

The Elf froze for a moment, blinked, and then turned back to the wheel, a look of puzzlement on her face.

A few more minutes passed before Cyllindrethifl swung the ship round to starboard and it began flying toward the city, still invisible in the distance. Those aboard could also feel her rising now as the Elf lifted the vessel high above the surface of the sea.

“Cyl,” Raven spoke again, “I want to avoid most of the city. Approach from the west, near the Second School since it’s on the outskirts of Serpenalik. We’ll go north from there, cross into the mountains and swing around to come in from northwest. Keep us no higher than three hundred feet or so. But bring us in along the south side of the Second School. If we can’t see it, let me know as soon as it’s off our port beam.”

Cyllindrethifl’s look said it all, but obediently she complied and adjusted course. Fortunately the fog, though not magical, was still relatively thick, and since they couldn’t see anything Doremi was certain nothing could see them either. Long moments passed, and several times the Elf altered course, directing the vessel as Raven had ordered.

“We’re passing the School,” the Elf soon whispered. “There are ramparts about a hundred feet to our left. Everyone stay quiet, lest they hear us.”

Raven stepped forward and took hold of one of the ivory spokes. “Give me the wheel.”

Cyllindrethifl looked at her, then stepped aside as Raven moved into position.

“Everyone hang onto something,” Raven now ordered.

Hands quickly reached for stanchions, ratlines, or some sort of support; and a moment later Raven spun the wheel with all her strength to the right until the helm was hard over. In concert with the movement, the stern swung sharply in the same direction as the wheel as the bow snapped to port. Everyone was thrown off balance for a moment as the ship heeled to its left, but just as quickly Raven snapped the wheel to port and, centering the helm, concentrated on stopping the vessel.

The Black Widow lurched back to starboard and lost forward momentum, but still she drifted north from the initial maneuver.

Espidreen took a quick glance over the side of the ship. “Raven, the fog’s thinning!” she whispered.

Cyllindrethifl, who was obviously under a spell allowing her to see perfectly through any sort of smoke or fog, understood even more clearly the predicament the ship was facing.

“You’re drifting straight toward the central tower!” she exclaimed, quickly looking back and forth.

Romulus had just about had enough, and stepped toward Raven. “Risking our lives against one Liche isn’t enough, that you have to flaunt our presence in the face of the other?” he asked nervously. “If Throckmorton sees us flying over his School, he’ll blast us out of the sky and we’ll never even reach Nostradamus!”

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl whispered frantically, “they’re going to see us!”

“Arre y’ all too daft to ken she wants ‘em t’ see us?” whispered the Highlander from the transom.

Raven, meanwhile, remained silent, concentrating on maintaining altitude.

Doremi, holding onto a rail along the portside weather deck, peered over and down. The fog had indeed thinned, and she could make out the dim shapes of spires and towers below, some of which she could almost have stepped out onto now that they were passing the ramparts of the Central School.

The Highlander had to be right--the Hocwrathians would have to be blind not to see a hundred-and-fifty-foot ship flying above them!

And see them they did.

The Black Widow had now drifted over the top of one of the School’s temples where five of what Doremi presumed were priests were gathered in its courts. One of the group, facing toward the ship, lifted a hand, pointing, and the others turned. They remained frozen in astonishment, staring at a sight none could believe.

“They’ve seen us!” Espidreen exclaimed.

Immediately, Raven concentrated on moving the ship gently forward and the Black Widow vanished into the mist heading northeast, leaving the Second School behind. She then looked over to Cyllindrethifl and nodded for her to take the wheel.

“Now, Liche,” Raven muttered as she stepped back, “do exactly what I expect you to, and total victory is ours!”

It was Friday night, and as was his wont, Throckmorton was in weekly council with the Masters of the Second School. His Council of Masters, skilled in Necromancy and Sorcery, were thirty-seven in number compared to Nostradamus’ Conclave of twelve, but the twelve making up that Conclave were Liches of the highest order not only equal or even surpassing in skill to Throckmorton’s own Masters, but in their state they possessed all the benefits enjoyed by those who dwelt in the realm of the Undead with few of the weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that Conclave, which for all practical purposes made the School invincible to outside attack, could not leave its confines, unlike Throckmorton’s subordinates. This gave Throckmorton, as Lord of the Second School, more versatility than that enjoyed by his counterpart, who often had to employ outsiders in some of his more nefarious tasks when he didn’t wish to risk any of his other Masters down in the Lower School. Even so, the power of the First School was unquestionable, and any thought of outright defiance an unthinkable act that could only result in the destruction of both Schools as one side initiated conflict with the other through some overt action born solely of pride.

“Master Paracelsus,” Throckmorton was saying from the recess of the ebony throne, emblazoned with its ancient glowing sigils of power, “on to you.”

Most of the Liche was visible in the huge, skull-like throne that crowned a dais of thirteen steps. Unlike Nostradamus, who was clothed only in the remnants of a black sorcerer’s robe, Throckmorton, still fully solid, reclined in an opulent robe of scarlet and gold, looking every bit--from a distance--like a king. Yet the form of the throne permitted his head to remain in shadow inside the recess of the skull, his burning red eyes and the glowing ruby of his crown alone faintly illuminating the rotted visage within.

A gray-haired mage, attired in a robe of black embroidered with symbols of alchemy, drew near from the group and bowed, the pentagram inscribed upon his silver skullcap glistening from atop his hairless cranium.

“I cannot recall the last time this School produced a new potion or elixir,” the Liche spoke. “This is entirely unacceptable. You are to undertake to produce something useful. Cull your students for worthwhile ideas. Concentrate especially on the younger students. Oftentimes the young, in their zeal, are more creative, if less skilled, than older students. Entice them with a reward. Allow that the student who produces the most useful item shall become your second apprentice. I want some preliminary ideas by next week.”

The wizard bowed once again and stepped back into the crowd.

“Now,” continued the Liche, “on to Master Necros. You were to report on the results of your new spell dealing with--”

Suddenly, the Liche halted and looked up. He concentrated, and the room was filled with a rumbling sound as the two great doors at the rear of the Throne room, both fashioned from the bones of one of the most powerful dragons of the First Age, began sliding open. Two acolytes and an officer from his Guard rushed forward past the two halves of the dragon’s skull as it parted to allow passage.

Murmurs arose from the assemblage. Such disturbances were unheard of, and the three rushed through the crowd to fall on their faces before the throne.

“Why do you come, unbidden, into this kahal?” the Liche demanded--quietly, yet firmly.

“Sire,” one of the acolytes spoke, “something was just seen! A flying vessel passed over the School!”

“A what?!” the Liche exclaimed.

“True, m’lord,” the other acolyte confirmed. “It was a flying sailing ship--a huge ship! It flew over the central complex despite the enchantments. It vanished in the fog, moving northeast.”

“Toward the First School,” muttered Throckmorton. “Now the game starts.”

The Liche’s head wheeled to the left where, inset into the lower jaw of the skull, was a great ball of crystal nearly three feet across. It lit up as the Liche concentrated, and he was looking down over Sepenalik through the fog. Throckmorton concentrated again and the fog vanished from his sight. Now he saw the ship clearly--moving directly toward the First School.

“So that’s how she’s doing it--a flying ship!” exclaimed the Liche. “Marvelous! Yet how, I wonder, could the enchantments upon its permit flying over the School? Is it possible its enchantment is greater than twenty-fifth-circle? That would mean a god must be responsible. Certainly the Pirate didn’t do it. Something to ponder.”

The vision moved closer to the vessel and Throckmorton began to scan the stern.

“Let us see whom she has brought,” he muttered. “The Elfin Witch, as expected--and Nostradamus’ little Bard! Well, well…what might this mean? I must consider the ramifications of this. Hmm…and that must be her standing behind the Elf. And next to her--ah, Nightshadow! Just as I intended; good. Who else? Some more Witches, apparently, and some warriors. And--by the gods--a Northman! Look at the size of him! That brute could battle an army by himself! No wonder his ancestors laid waste to us in the First Age. Even so, you should have brought more power,” the Liche mused. “It will be interesting to see how far you get. Nightshadow will survive, but I wonder how the rest of you will fare. And what part might that Bard play in all this? Has Nostradamus known of this attack from the beginning?”

Throckmorton turned away from his crystal ball and was in thought for several moments, stroking his chin from long habit. Then he looked up and his arm lashed out, casting a bolt of energy that streaked forward and struck Evo, one of the assembled Masters. The force of the bolt threw the man backwards with a grunt, and he crumpled to the ground, stunned for a moment as a space instantly formed about him while his fellows scattered, leaving the hapless wizard to whatever fate, for whatever cause, that the Lord of the Second School had in store for him.

“Seize and gag him!” the Liche commanded.

Just as quickly as they had scattered, several Masters rushed back to obey, and the man’s mouth was gagged with a turban as he was dragged back to his feet, still stunned from the blow of the energy bolt.

“Did your master think me so stupid that his lackey could deceive one such as I?” the Liche asked. “Incompetent fool--I knew from the first week you were here that you were a spy for Nostradamus!”

Frantically, Evo began to shake his head, begging to be heard.

“Why do you think you advanced with us so steadily and so speedily?” the Liche continued. “Because of your skills as a Necromancer? Nay--but the closer you got to me, the less likely your fool of a master would send other spies to infiltrate us, some of which I may not have uncovered as easily as you. And with you as a member of my Council, I assured that Nostradamus would be sufficiently satisfied to send no other spies.”

As he was speaking, a red-robed acolyte rushed through the portal into the chamber. “Master!” he cried.

The Liche directed his gaze to the new intruder. “What is it now?”

The bearded acolyte came and bowed before the throne. “A familiar from one of our spies at the First School has flown here with a message,” he said, keeping his gaze downward. “Nostradamus has brought the First School to alert, anticipating an attack from us,” he read from a small parchment.

The Liche waved him back and directed his attention to Evo. “I know not if this will be Nostradamus’ last night,” he spoke, “but this I do know--it will be yours!”

The Liche’s voice now rose so that all heard him clearly. “Against my warning, the Guild of Freeport is launching an attack against Nostradamus,” he announced. “You are to go to your stations and assure that no actions are undertaken that give him leave to suspect any complicity on the part of the School in this. Do not bring the School to alert! We will intervene only if events warrant it. For the present, I will monitor the incursion from here. You are not to disturb me for any reason. Now--get out, all of you, and cast that dog down the Pit as you go!”

Desperately, Master Evo struggled against the grasp of three Masters who began dragging him toward the back of the Throne room as the Liche returned to his crystal ball.

After the Liche was left alone with its thoughts, it began to wonder.

Throckmorton leaned forward slightly and reached up, removing the crown from his brow. It was the first time in centuries it had left his head, and as he removed it the Liche felt the power drain from him, leaving behind the emptiness of unlife. He had forgotten what it was like for a “normal” Liche, despite its own intrinsic sorcerous powers. What a feeling of utter destitution and hopelessness.

But that was unimportant.

What mattered was the inscription upon the golden rim of the inside of the crown. Slowly, the Liche ran his fingers, bony with their leathery skin stretched tightly over them like a parchment, upon the age-old letters.

There was no longer any true feeling left in Throckmorton’s touch; his fingers always felt numb. But still he could perceive the indentations and ridges of what was written therein. Ancient, and tracing itself to some nameless Master early in the Second Age if not to Goth himself, the words were written in the oldest tongue of Hocwrath. Over the last ten thousand years, none but the hundred and sixty-eight Schoolmasters preceding him had ever seen what it Proclaimed:

When flies the raven overhead,

And the fury of the Northmen return to the land,

The age between comes at last to its end,

The School of Serpen put to the ban.

  Serpen’s throne overthrown,

Yet the West again shall rise,

Restoring again the power old,

And the throne of Goth survives.

“Prophecy being fulfilled?” wondered the Liche aloud to himself. Then he returned the crown to his rotted head and the power surged through him once more, the only substitute left for actual life.

“No, little Pirate,” he spoke with contempt as he turned again to watch the ship nearing the First School, “I’ll not be manipulated by you. You’ll not use my pawns in your Gambit; you’ll use your own pieces. Only after you’ve used up all of your own pieces will I consider entering the game, and then only if you play well enough to make it worthwhile to me. But I shall wish you luck, for you may indeed have been born for such a moment as this--to give my School ultimate power, and myself immortality!”

With a quiet laughter, the Liche extinguished all light in his chamber and settled back to watch.

They had left the city behind and were swinging around in an arc to approach from the fog-shrouded mountains above Serpenalik. It was a matter of minutes now.

“Venivica,” Raven spoke quietly.

The Witch stepped forward to her mistress, awaiting orders.

“Get into the hold and make sure those portals are still working,” Raven ordered, leaning back to speak to her without turning. “At the first sign of any attack on us, we’ll try to get the ship out of here--but if we can’t, we’ll leave through them. If there’s no attack on us when we reach it, then we’ll know we’ve succeeded.”

Nodding back, the Witch looked over to a pair of deck hands nervously standing around, their crossbows in hand.

“You and you with me,” she commanded. That said, Venivica then made her way from the weather deck, the crewmen following.

Fosmo watched the three leave, and then moved to Raven. “You don’t think they might let us land and ambush us somewhere inside the School, assuming they know?” he whispered, brushing a lock of his hair out of his eyes.

Raven slowly shook her head, saying nothing.

Overhearing his question, Espidreen took in a breath. “Not in his personality as I told you before,” she answered. “In Nostradamus’ way of thinking, the way you meet an attack is to respond with overwhelming force as quickly as you can.

“Oh, he might indeed plot and wait twenty years before striking his own enemy, having considered every aspect of his own strategy, but if someone attacks him--the response is swift and severe with no thought of strategy or tactics. It’s kill your enemy before he kills you.”

The Witch nodded to herself. “If they know we’re coming, we’ll know in a few moments, Burglar, because they’ll attack us!”

“Aye,” spoke the Knight, unsheathing his sword in readiness. “If I knew Nightshadow be sallying forth to strike against mine own stronghold, an army would I have set to meet him, and attack I would, the moment I could. Only a fool alloweth an enemy inside his own house in hope of trapping him within his own chambers when first he could set ambushments outside and perchance ensnare him there. Thus, my sword be more ready for battle now, rather than later.”

“Yeah, maybe so,” Fosmo muttered, cautiously slipping a dagger out of its scabbard and readying it for a fast throw.

The Knight’s words seemed to hold wisdom and most of the rest of those gathered near the helm likewise prepared themselves, readying weapons. Only Romulus stood out as unconcerned, arms folded against his chest, waiting to see what would happen. Nightshadow, too, waited patiently, his swords still tucked into his belt sash.

Doremi noticed Nazier slip the lever of his crossbow into the rapid-fire position, and she gave him a You sure you want to do that? look.

He winked back. “Maybe I’ll be lucky, and this’ll be one of the times it will work.”

On they continued, and after a minute or so the ship heard the School, for the clamor of its population penetrated the thick fog even if one couldn’t see through it. It was somewhat different, Doremi noted, than the quiet of the Second School. Perhaps suspiciously so.

But Raven paid no attention, focused only on completing the most harrowing portion of the journey. The next few moments would tell whether or not Nostradamus had known her plans.

Then, all at once, the bow emerged from the fog like passing through a curtain--into a clear night sky.

They were no longer hidden, and the Upper School was right in front of them!

“Fog’s gone!” Fosmo exclaimed.

“They do know!” Romulus added, his calm a thing of the past as he drew his gladius.

Raven raised a hand to calm them. “The Upper School has a spell around it that keeps out fog and clouds. We expected this. Nightshadow--go!”

The Rogue nodded, and now Doremi watched as again he began to fade into the Ethers, his cloak fluttering in the Ethereal wind. Then, wraithlike, he was lifting above the deck and went flying out before the vessel toward the School ahead.

“Now listen, the rest of you,” Raven spoke firmly. “Once we’re in that School, not one word about this ship! Not one word about the Scandians! Understand? Don’t mention them! Don’t think about them!”

As she spoke, the ship was bearing down on the gigantic edifice Romulus had pointed out at the council. It loomed before them, a massive rectangular structure of brown basalt fronted by a gaping black aperture outlined by an ornate frame of gold leaf, if not solid gold, on its three sides. It was eerily beautiful to behold, but Doremi was more in awe of how ancient this fortress was. It was old beyond comprehension. That, and its size.

Now that they were actually here, those who had never seen it realized just how big the Upper School was. No wonder Raven would be so bold as to take an entire ship into this place, for the Black Widow was easily dwarfed by its immense scale. Battlements, crenellated turrets projecting forth from great curtain walls, barbicans, cornices, iron gates, bridges connecting buildings with towers, sculpted stone corbels, dormers looking out over courtyards, stone arches set upon huge pilasters framing enormous windows of stained-glass gleaming in the silver moonlight--the scope of the place was staggering.

And above it all loomed the tower at the very back of the complex, crowning the mountain upon which the School was built--a featureless dark cube pointing to the sky like some great fist shaking itself in defiance of the very heavens.

But for all its size, there was not so much as a sign of life in the place. Where there were windows in the walls or within towers, no lights gleamed suggesting warmth and occupation--only an inky blackness, darker than the blackness of night, hinted at what creatures made this place their home, for this place was a home of the dead…a place where life was the invader, where humanity was unwelcome, where goodness was the ultimate enemy.

Doremi’s thoughts faded away as she felt the ship slowing to a crawl while the Elf guided her toward the waiting aperture.

They were obviously going to enter.

Raven looked up and then quickly down to the ship, trying to compare the height of the aperture with the vessel’s masts. It would be close.

“Careful of our masts with that overhang, Cyl,” she warned.

Cyllindrethifl was confident of her judgment, yet to oblige Raven she concentrated and the ship dropped a few feet as it prow began to penetrate the darkness. Doremi took one final glance up as the mainmast slowly passed into the entry several feet below the upper lip of the doorway, its skull and crossbones flag gently fluttering as they went.

Then they were inside.

One could hardly see a thing for the darkness that hung like a curtain, though a feeble light made its way in from the outside, bathing the floor of the great chamber in a faint blue haze. Those aboard could just make out large shapes scattered haphazardly within the vault, though what they actually were wasn’t apparent.

The ship now drew to a halt, and Cyllindrethifl held her steady as if awaiting orders.

They were silent for a few moments, then Nightshadow appeared, flying back to them through an opening of equal size at the other end of the chamber. His flight over, the Rogue glided to the stern, passing through the ship’s masts as he went, and began to solidify until he was standing on the deck once more.

“Empty,” he announced, once he was back in his physical form. “No one’s outside or near the stairs that I could see. If there’s an ambush, it’s waiting inside the tower. Something prevented me, even in Ethereal form, from penetrating the walls of the buildings--but there’s no light from anywhere, no sound from anything--this place is, pardon the expression, dead as a tomb, Raven.”

Espidreen relaxed and expelled the breath she’d been holding. “No one waiting for us. We’ve done it,” she whispered, a note of actual surprise in her voice.

Raven now reached under her blouse and came up with a locket that she opened up to reveal a glowing jewel within. A soft glow, akin to the light of a torch, emanated from it, and she hung the locket upon her leather vest for illumination.

“Espy, hand out some of these,” she answered the Witch. “I’ll be back in a moment. Cyl, keep us where we are.”

With that, Raven draped her left arm down to protect her swords so they didn’t get caught on anything, and she was off, hurrying toward the hold.

Down below, Venivica and the two hands were waiting. The three panels Doremi had seen Nazier removing a tarp from had been set up in a triangle, one on each side of the hull with a third set forward. The surfaces of each were faintly glowing, providing just enough light to see by.

Completing her descent, Raven moved forward, a smile spreading across her face as she caught sight of the panels. Grinning herself, Venivica swept her hands back to the three teleportals.

“All ready, Raven,” she spoke.

“I knew it would work,” Raven whispered, awed at her own success. “It’s the one thing they couldn’t protect against--someone like us bringing in our own teleportals!”

Tentatively, she reached out and, as her hand began vanishing through the enchanted portal, Raven nearly giggled.

“We’re going to succeed--I know it!”

Then she regained her composure, becoming serious again, and directed her glance from the portals to Venivica’s eyes as she leaned forward, placing her hands upon the Witch’s shoulders.

“Venivica, it’s all been to bring us to this point in time,” she spoke. “The moment of our triumph is at hand and you’re the linchpin--it all hinges on you. For the next ten hours, you need to be perfect!”

Venivica nodded in response. “I understand, Raven,” she replied. “You can count on me.”

“I know I can. Now--off with you. We’ll see you in a few hours.”

Raven then released her grip and the Witch mouthed a farewell, vanishing into the forward portal, leaving the three alone.

The Mistress of Freeport then let out a breath and looked over to her crewmen. “You two stay down here until our reinforcements come through. ‘Til then, no talking, and defend these with your lives, all right?”

Espidreen’s pack held a pouch of the enchanted necklaces, and quickly the Assault team placed them around their necks. Now that there was better light, the interior of the vault was revealed more clearly. To either side of the vessel, great black chains, their links thick as a man’s middle, were anchored to giant iron loops driven into the walls or the floor. Studded bronze collars, green with patination from age, lay scattered about the chamber, restraints so large that a half dozen large men could comfortably stand within them.

“By the gods,” spoke the Highlander leaning out over the side of the ship to gaze down, “wha’ sorrt a beasties need chains like that t’ hold ‘em?!”

“Dragons, Clansman,” Espidreen answered as she swung her pack back onto her shoulders. “In the First Age, they tamed and kept dragons here. This was the dragon stable.”

“And at times since, they have housed pterodactyls, although not for some centuries,” Cyllindrethifl added from the helm.

“Doremi,” Raven called out as she was re-mounting the stairs up to the weather deck.

The Bard looked around to her.

“If we walk from here to the tower, how long will it take for you to lead us to the third story of its base?” she wanted to know as she approached.

“If we move fast...a bit less than an hour,” Doremi answered. “Slower if we creep and move carefully.”

Raven thought for a moment. “Too much time,” she concluded. “Cyl, get us moving--we’re going to fly up to the third story of the tower complex and break in through a window. Doremi knows of a chamber we can be sure no one will be at.”

The Knight took a step forward. “Lady, be that wise?” he asked. “A fellowship of ten, moving by stealth, be harder to see than a big vessel that flieth through the air.”

“No, Raven is right,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up, still grasping the spokes of the wheel. “Even if we walk in the nighttime darkness, moving from shadow to shadow, our life force would stand out to an undead like a torch would to us. We cannot hide from them, and the longer we’re out in the open, the better a chance that one of the Liches might spot ten living beings in their courtyard. We would do better to fly to the tower and disembark quickly as possible. Remember--we’re not dealing with mortal beings. Our strategy must be tailored to what we’re facing.”

Anything lowering their chances of being spotted by Liches sounded like a good idea, so the tension at Raven’s bold suggestion quickly subsided.

“All right, get us moving, Cyl,” Raven ordered.

“Douse our lights,” Espidreen spoke, snapping closed her locket.

The Black Widow was plunged into darkness once more as the Team complied, and the Druid guided the ship forward. It took only a moment to pass from the stable into the great court of the Upper School, and then they were out in the open once more. On either side of the stables they could just see the large stairways, thrice as wide as a man’s height, that led down into the lower levels of the School--the same stairs Thor’s Vikings would be called upon to guard. Then these were gone, left behind in the darkness.

Shadows blacker than the night crouched in every corner of the ancient citadel. Stairways stretched upward to floors or catwalks of the outer complex, marked off by vaulted windows at each level up to the third. Beyond that, only cold stone walls with bricked-up windows made up the last hundred feet or so to the top battlements. Innumerable carved gargoyles or other figures of evil leered down from every corner of the structures at the vessel as it turned to make its way around towers or buildings rising from the floor of the court, and Doremi wouldn’t have been shocked if every one of them suddenly animated and flew in for the attack.

But thankfully, the guardians remained silent and dead, taking no notice of the intruders.

Then they came upon the statue.

It rose up over a hundred feet in height from the flagstones of the courtyard, set before the final complex of the Upper School: A lone figure crowned with a twisted diadem emblazoned with coiled cobras, its flowing robes hiding any true features of the creature that filled them, standing as one last sentinel over the School.

A pair of gauntleted hands, sprouting from the sleeves of the robe, were brought together before it, resting upon the handle of a huge mace that stood from the being’s feet to its waist. The statue was frightening at a distance just as it was, but most terrifying was the horrid emptiness behind its empty cowl, for not even something so human as a head looked out upon those who dared approach--only an empty, featureless void.

“So that was Serpen,” Raven muttered, gazing out to it. “Second Lord of the Triad...First Lord of the First School of Sorcery...the one who destroyed the Dwarves of the West, and nearly destroyed the Elves....”

Cyllindrethifl slowed, porting the vessel to pass around the monolith, and everyone took a good look at the horrid idol.

“Raven, look,” Espidreen spoke as she pointed, “--Nightshadow’s Mind Sapphire.”

Sure enough, there it was, depending from a chain that emerged from beneath the cowl of the being: the Mind Sapphire. Identical in form to the true Talisman worn by Nightshadow, the fanged cobra, tall as a man, looked out upon the invaders as if hissing its challenge to anyone who would provoke this place.

“Espy, why did they call it the ‘Mind Sapphire’?” asked Raven. “That seems like an odd name for such a Talisman.”

“Unknown, Raven.” The Witch looked over to the helm. “Cyllindrethifl?”

The Elf likewise shook her head.

Reluctant to move her eyes from the statue, Raven momentarily glanced past Doremi to the Rogue. “Nightshadow, have you ever noticed it granting you any--mental powers, or anything like that?” she inquired.

“No,” came the curt reply.

It was then that Doremi spoke up, saying, “What an evil, horrible monster he must have been. Look--they didn’t even give him a face.”

Nightshadow, standing to her left, slowly turned his head to the Bard.

“I, too, have no face,” he said quietly.

Then he turned back to glare at his predecessor who had first owned the Talisman he now bore.

At his words, silence fell upon the deck and no one said a thing.

The Black Widow swung round the left side of the monolith, and then she was covering the last short distance to the tower complex. It spread out before them atop a stone court reached by a short but wide stairway leading up from the main court below--a great square building, nearly the size of the Raven’s Inn, lined with soaring lancet windows upon the four floors of its three exposed sides, their innumerable diamond-shaped panes glistening in the moonlight.

“Doremi, where’s that Music Library again, that you said we could count on to be empty?” Raven asked for Cyllindrethifl’s benefit.

The Bard pointed to the southwest corner of the structure. “It’s the corner room at the third level there.”

Cyllindrethifl nodded and concentrated, swinging the bow to port and gaining altitude. It was now that Doremi finally noticed the Elf wasn’t spinning the wheel but simply willing the ship to move as she wanted.

“How come she isn’t turning the wheel, but the ship still turns?” she asked Raven.

“You don’t have to turn it, Doremi,” came Raven’s reply. “It responds to mental commands, but turning the wheel helps one’s mind focus in on what it expects the ship to do, and thus it follows suit. But you don’t have to do it that way.”

Silent as a ghost, the Black Widow floated up to the edge of the building and slowed to a crawl as the Druid now brought her alongside the structure. The moon was nearly covered by its white clouds tonight and gave off a brilliant white light that bathed much of the structure in an eerie glow. Rising in the east, it was positioned in such a way that the complex cast a great shadow that hid them as they made their final approach. Still they were unseen, for not so much as a stir came from any part of the School they could see.

It was as if the place were totally abandoned.

With a final creak of her rigging and timbers, the ship drew to a stop alongside the building and floated silently in the darkness.

“Doremi,” Raven asked, “will those windows open, or do we have to bust in?”

The Bard leaned forward to answer quietly, “They can open--there’s a catch on them if they’re like the ones in the Karnaki room next to it.”

“Good! Okay, team,” Raven loudly whispered, “let’s get moving!”

Silently, the Fellowship began moving down the stairs to the main deck as Cyllindrethifl gave the helm over to Nazier.

“Nazier,” Raven spoke, turning to him for a moment, “once we’re inside, get back to the stable and stay in there. “We’ll foot it back there once we’re done, or else send a message for you to pick us up.”

The mariner nodded, laying his crossbow aside and grasping the spokes.

“Oh, Doremi,” Raven now spoke as she began following the rest down, “I left my bow and arrows on Nazier’s bunk--would you go fetch them for me?”

“Okay,” answered the Bard, falling in behind. She hurried over to the door into the cabin and slipped inside. Spotting the bow and belt quiver, she walked over to grab them, but then she heard a squawk.

“Avast!” came a voice.

A talking bird, the Bard realized with a jump!

Forgetting the bow, she moved, transfixed, to the stand upon which the beautiful green and blue creature was perched, squawking and whistling. It was so colorful, that it almost seemed as if someone had taken the sky and its rainbow, and given them feathers and wings.

“Hello,” she spoke. “My name’s Doremi. Can you talk?!”

“Pretty bird,” it squawked in response.

“Yes, you are!” she exclaimed, trying to reach out and pet the bird, but it hunched down and retreated to the edge of its perch. “Are you someone’s familiar?” she then asked.

“Port tack! Port tack!” the parrot repeated. “Pretty bird!”

Doremi would have loved to spend more time with the bird but time was of the essence, and so she reluctantly left Pete behind and retrieved the arms for Raven.

Outside, as the door swung closed behind her, she observed that a gangplank had been let out from the side of the ship to the ledge below the window, and the group was preparing to cross. The Bard took in a breath and then stepped forward to her comrades, knowing the time had come.

Nostradamus, meanwhile, had been reclining in his throne, focusing his consciousness to be one with his School, and the moment the plank touched the ledge, he knew it.

They’re here, he exclaimed to himself, but not in the catacombs! Then his consciousness was outside the tower, looking down upon the vessel.

A flying ship. Interesting.

Forgetting any question of how one might come possess such a marvel, the Lord of the First School directed his attention to looking over his opposition, a feeling of satisfaction coming over him as his gaze fell upon Nightshadow. It had all been for this--and just as he had planned, his enemy was walking straight into his trap, bringing the Mind Sapphire right to his waiting grasp. That was all he cared about--the others were of no consequence.

The Liche restrained himself from the pleasure of materializing on the roof of the tower and blowing the ship in half with an energy blast, watching as it would fall to the courtyard in flames, killing most of those aboard.

No, he had to show patience and let the burglars think their plan was working. Time enough later to slay them and take their flying vessel as his own.

“Think you can remember how to jimmy open a window, Fosmo?” Raven was asking.

The thief flashed a big grin and rushed across the gangplank to the vaulted windows, reaching into his pouch for his set of lock-picks. Even in the dark, he was able to select just the right tool for the job: a thin, hard piece of steel that he wedged in between the two halves of the window. He tapped the bottom of the tool with his palm, and with a quick lift the catch gave way so that the burglar could swing open the window. He peered in, then replaced his tools in his belt pouch and pushed himself up with his hands against the bottom frame of the window. In one move, Fosmo swung his legs up and over, then vanished into the darkened room, drawing his rapier. The Cutpurse had eyes like a cat, and taking a moment to satisfy himself there was nothing harmful awaiting them, he returned to the window and gave a thumbs up for the rest to follow.

“Wait,” Raven spoke. “Pull in that gangplank.”

Two crewmen stepped lively as Raven bolted partially up the stairs to the weather deck. “Up three or four feet,” she whispered out to Nazier, her head just above the deck level.

Nazier nodded and the ship began lifting. When it was high enough, Raven waved at him to stop, and Nazier held the vessel in place.

Clearly excited, she braced her arms against the railing of the stairs and kicked out her legs, sliding down to the main deck. Then she ordered the crew to reset the gangplank from the ledge to the window for an easier ingress. It took only a moment to do, then Nightshadow moved out to enter the building followed by Thor. Raven then retrieved her bow from Doremi, strapped on the quiver, and hurried across next with the Bard nervously following behind.

“Me was worried you was all leavin’ me!” Fosmo whispered to Raven as he helped Doremi enter the darkened chamber.

“We thought about it,” came the reply as Raven looked around to verify Thor and Nightshadow were at the door, keeping watch.

Behind, the two Witches were coming in, and--last of all--the three remaining warriors.

Once they were all inside, Raven stepped to the window, waved to the ship, and the gangplank was withdrawn. Then, wasting no time, the Widow was gliding off as Nazier turned her about to retreat back into the courtyard on the way to the stables.

Raven watched the ship go, holding her breath. This was the last test of their strategy: If Nostradamus knew they were here, now would be his last and greatest chance for killing or capturing them. If the ship wasn’t blown out of the sky right now, there was no question they had succeeded, and ingress was theirs.

Nervous moments passed, and the ship was lost to sight. The Mistress of Freeport then leaned out, taking a long look at the empty courtyard below. Still, not a sound came to her ears, and after a few more moments when she was certain the vessel was safe, Raven released her breath and carefully latched closed the window.

“Okay,” she whispered, “we’ve done it!”

For the first time, Doremi actually noticed the trace of a smile pass across Espidreen’s face at Raven’s words.

“Everyone get their gear ready, and let’s move out,” Raven continued. “Doremi, you’re going to be our guide--just tell us which way to get to the upper levels.”

The Bard shrugged. “I’ll do the best I can, though I’ve never been above this level.”

Mac Tavish checked that his axe was securely strapped across his back, then hefted his shield and unsheathed the claymore. “What about lights?” he asked, looking around. “We usin’ torrches, orr them magic stones y’ gave us?”

“The lockets for now,” Raven answered. “Liches may be able to see in the dark, but we can’t. If we’re going to have light at all, we may as well have some good light. As Cyl says anyway--even if we walked in darkness, they’d see our life force, so we have nothing to lose.”

The darkness vanished as the light necklaces came out, and now they beheld that they were in a room twenty feet square. At first glance, it didn’t seem as if there would be much of interest here, for there were but three bookcases, each half-filled with various old tomes or stacks of music; and a small desk was set before the windows they had entered by.

This was certainly not what one might have expected for the world’s greatest repository of magic to possess on the entire field of Bardic magic!

Even so, Doremi naturally headed straight for one of the bookcases and removed the first volume her eyes fell upon--a small, simple little tome with a green leather cover that was probably nothing more than some simple poetry.

“Sure isn’t much of a Library,” observed Raven, glancing around. “Desmore’s bookshop is at least five times its size.”

“The School would consider Bardic and Gypsy magic unworthy of serious study, Raven,” answered Espidreen as she readied her mace. “These were probably a few basic materials they had stored here.”

“Whatever. Okay,” Raven now spoke up, “here’s going to be our marching order: Thor and Nightshadow in front, followed by Giles and Mac Tavish. Next, Espy and I will be behind, and behind us Doremi and Cyllindrethifl. Bringing up the rear are Fosmo and Romulus. If anything from behind attacks us, Giles and Mac Tavish fall back to reinforce Romulus. Fosmo, since Doremi’s coming along, you’ll be her guardian. Keep an eye on her the way Romulus and Mac Tavish will for Cyl and Espy.”

“Aye,” the Cutpurse answered, winking at the Bard.

But Doremi wasn’t paying attention, for her eyes were opening wider and wider as she read the preface to the small book she held:


A translation from the Avalonian of a work,

“Diatesseron of Dellenthar”

--Being a treatise on affecting elements with sound.

Usefulness: Low/Nil. Makes repeated reference to 19-stringed instrument, a “Torban”, with 9 bass and ten treble strings.

Unable to duplicate claimed effects with 19-stringed Arwinian rhubab or with 15-stringed lute.

Slowly, her mouth opened wide with each moment she read, then finally she squealed, taking in deep gasps of air like she was having some sort of fit.

“The Lost Chord! The Lost Chord!” she squealed.

Raven leaned around Cyllindrethifl to glare at the Bard. “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded.

Doremi, hardly aware of the question, blinked and shook the book at her. “That rotten, lying Nabonidus!” she exclaimed. “I asked him if they had a copy of the Diatesseron, and he said they had nothing but a few basic manuscripts in here--and it’s the first thing on the shelf! Oh, that liar! These may all be priceless,” she muttered, looking over the manuscripts as she ran her left hand gently along the row of books.

Raven marched over to her and grasped her arm, pulling her away from the bookshelf.

“Doremi, we do not have time for you to be looking through books!” she said sharply. “You can grab some of these on the way out if you want, but first things first.”

The Bard knew she was right, but this was absolutely one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do--turn away from what might possibly be one of the greatest Libraries of Music on Islay if what she suspected was actually true. But turn away she did, gritting her teeth. Then she stood there, hands locked about the book in a death grip, unsure where the safest place would be to keep it. One thing she knew--it was coming with her. Period.

“Now what’s the matter?” Raven exclaimed.

“I’m not sure where to keep this where it won’t get hurt,” Doremi answered, standing there, looking confused.

“Put it in your pack.”

“What if I lose my pack?”

What if? What if?” Raven repeated. Then she snatched the book from the Bard’s grasp.

“Heyyyy!” Doremi started to say, trying to take it back.

Raven held it up and away with her left hand, out of Doremi’s frustrated reach. “If this book is that important to you, I’ll keep it tucked safely in a pocket of my cloak. Unless I die, it’ll be just fine.”

“But...what if you do die?” she asked.

“Doremi, between you and me, whom do you think would be more likely to survive this place?”

The Bard hemmed and hawed for a moment. “Well...I guess you,” she finally said.

Raven nodded. “Thank you. Now that you’re calmed down, you want the book back so you can worry about it all night; or would you like to leave it safe here, where we can pick it up on the way out; or would you like to leave it with me where it has the best chance of surviving?”

“Give it to me!”

Rolling her eyes, Raven acquiesced and tossed the book back to Doremi’s eager grasp. Off came her knapsack as the Bard knelt down and shoved the tome at the very bottom, where it would be safest from harm. Then she removed her lute, which had been placed within and covered by a burlap sack, and began hooking a strap to it so she could wear it without fear it would drop from her grasp. That done, she made sure her flute was safely tucked into her belt, and then she was ready.

Catching sight of the instrument, Raven looked down to the lute and then back to the Bard. “You think you’ve got enough strings on that thing?” she asked. “I’ve never seen a lute with so many strings! How many are on there?!”

“Nine bass courses--or, eighteen bass strings tuned to double octaves, with ten treble strings! Twenty-eight total!” Doremi boasted as she stood up.

Raven ran her hand lightly along the polished neck of the lute. “Is that good?”

“Yes! Normal lutes have fifteen strings. This gives you quite a range, though I still don’t tune anything above G to above middle C.”

The Mistress of Freeport glanced over to Cyllindrethifl. “You understand what she just said?”

The Elf nodded. “Of course, Raven--we Elves invented music, you know.”

Rolling her eyes and looking back to Doremi, Raven exclaimed, “That thing must have the most strings of any instrument on Islay other than a full-size harp!”

“Actually, Raven, there’s a zither in Arwin called a santur, with a hundred-and-twenty-six strings--or so I’ve heard,” Doremi answered

The Elf likewise found the instrument of interest, leaning over and taking a close look at it. “What range do you sing in?” Cyllindrethifl now inquired.

“Well, I have a three-octave range, but my voice sometimes cracks in a real high soprano. But there’s a song I do that has a cadenza in which I have to sustain an F above high C, so I’d say that’s my best on a good day.”

The Elf nodded her approval.

Raven squinted. “I have no idea what any of that meant,” she spoke, “--is that good?”

“It’s very good, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl answered. “About what an Elf can do.”

The Mistress of Freeport seemed satisfied. “Well...bard away then.”

Having spoken that, Raven began moving for the door as Cyllindrethifl stepped up to make a closer examination of the instrument.

“Splendid,” she spoke, looking down at it. “I have never seen such a beautiful lute. Is it Elven?”

“No,” Doremi replied, taking it off and offering it to her. “It’s ancient Avalonian. From the First Age.”

“Do tell!” Cyllindrethifl accepted the opportunity and tested the instrument.

She clearly knew how to play, Doremi realized.

“Its name is Faire-chlaidh-ceol,” added the Bard.

The Elf thought for a moment and looked up. “Gravesinger?” she asked, cocking her head to the left.

“Um, yeah--that’d be one way to translate it. I think it belonged to Dellenthar; I found it in his tomb and was allowed to keep it.”


Espidreen, meanwhile, knelt down and started rummaging through her pack to retrieve a water bag that she quickly slung over her left shoulder.

“Water or wine?” asked Fosmo, peering down at her.

“Water--but holy water,” the Witch replied. Then, to show what she meat, Espidreen pulled off a cap, revealing a small metal nipple had been attached to the bag’s mouthg. “To squirt at an undead if the situation calls for it.”

“Not a bad idea, eh,” Fosmo replied.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Doremi exclaimed. Then she turned back to her pack and came up with a small brass lamp.

“Vampire lamp,” she noted.

What’s that?” several interested voices said.

Obligingly, the Bard held it up for all to see. “Well, as you can see, it’s got a cross-shaped hole in the shutter, and it casts a cross-shaped beam of light. I figure it might hurt a vampire if he gets hit with it.”

“What a marvelous idea!” Cyllindrethifl spoke in response as Espidreen muttered a “Hmm.”

The Bard hooked the lamp to her belt, then reached back down and donned her pack. “I’ll light it if we need it.”

Espidreen then looked over toward the men. “We’ve also got some holy oil here for smearing on your weapons,” she noted, holding up a vial taken from her pack. “Should make them a bit more effective.”

There were a few grunts of approval from the fighters, and then the Witch uncorked the vial and allowed a thick, rose-smelling ointment to pour down and coat their various arms, one at a time. She then finished by drenching her own mace with some of the concoction.

Meanwhile, Cyllindrethifl returned the lute to Doremi. “You’re fortunate. Thank you for letting me handle it.”

The others now had the door open and were filing out into the hall, weapons at the ready. Cyllindrethifl--taking the opportunity to flip up a small hourglass affixed to her belt--and the Bard followed the rest out. As she exited the chamber, Doremi caught sight of Raven opening up the door to the Karnaki Library next to them and peering in.

“So that’s their Karnaki Library, huh?” she asked as Doremi approached.

The Bard looked over her shoulder into the darkened chamber. “Yeah, that’s it.”

The Library itself was of comparable size to the Music Library but held quite a bit more, for its shelves and bookcases were stuffed with scroll cases holding parchments or papyri, along with the journals Doremi had scribed with their translations.

“It was a pretty good experience being here,” she told Raven. “Here and there, they had some real old Hocwrathian spell books that had a few hieroglyphs listed with some translations of what they said, and it helped me learn some things I didn’t know. The most important thing was, they actually had a translation of an ancient Karnaki funeral song. Between that and the spells, I was able to basically complete learning what I needed to know, not only about the language, but the way they wrote music.”

Doremi’s comment seemed to generate a bit of interest on Raven’s part.

“So the School knows some ancient Karnaki spells then?” she asked.

“Not that I know of, Raven. From what I could surmise by the books, Karnaki spells can’t be cast anymore. The wizards who wrote them expressed a puzzlement as to why, and the general theory was that the Karnaki gods were all dead by their time, and so the magic won’t work for that reason.”

Raven’s eyes narrowed as she looked to the Bard. “I hope that’s not true,” she spoke, a note of concern on her voice.

Doremi shook her head. “I don’t think it is; I think they just don’t have the right translations, or else they didn’t know how to pronounce the words correctly. As you know, if you don’t pronounce magic words just right, they won’t work.”

“Which is what makes Witchery so superior to Sorcery,” spoke Espidreen from a few feet away as she listened in on the conversation. “We need only to learn the simple prose and focus the power placed within ourselves by our goddess to do our magic, whereas these accursed Sorcerers need to master some poly-syllabic language given them by demons ages ago that releases the power within the words themselves. Witchery is thus vastly superior.”

“Well said, Espidreen,” Cyllindrethifl agreed with a nod.

It was about then that the Bard caught sight of something upon the desk, and she pushed past Raven to enter the dark chamber.

“How odd!” she exclaimed as she stepped to the desk.

Raven followed her gaze and observed that upon the mahogany desk, next to a silver candlestick covered with the wax from a burnt-out candle that had flowed down its shaft, was a piece of parchment tied into a roll with a red silk ribbon.

Doremi held up the parchment as she turned back. “This was the note I left them when I finished. It looks like they never even read it. It’s like they don’t even know I’m gone.”

Raven seemed to be considering her words, looking for an explanation. “Probably they didn’t really care about your work, Doremi,” she finally concluded. “They may only have wanted them translated just for the sake of formality.”

The Bard shrugged as she looked down once more to her note. “I guess. Strange, though.”

Thor now stepped up to the doorway, the hammer in his right hand and his huge red shield in his left. “We going to be here all night?” he asked, leaning in. “Let’s go!”

He didn’t see it, but Raven rolled her eyes at the comment before stepping back out into the hallway.

“Doremi, which direction?” she asked.

The Bard laid the scroll down and returned to the group, slipping out the doorway as Raven swung the portal closed. She then lifted a finger, indicating north.

“There’s a hallway about halfway down that leads east. That takes you to the stairways. One of them will lead to the fourth story, and maybe one even leads into the tower.”

“Thor?” Raven now spoke, nodding in the direction Doremi pointed.

The Viking nodded back, then he and Nightshadow began trudging down the darkened hall, their footfalls muffled by the thick carpet that ran like a blood red stream from one end to the other.

The hall varied little in its appearance, with carved stone archways set every twenty feet or so between the barrel-vaulted roof and the walls. To the group’s right, the walls bore no entryways, but were covered with old tapestries every few feet to break up the monotony of the smooth stone. But the left side of the corridor featured doorways to other small Libraries spaced every twenty or thirty feet apart. They ignored these, and in a short time they were at the branch Doremi had spoken of. Thor took a quick right to a floor of smooth white marble, and now they were moving east. It took but a minute or so and then everyone emerged into a great landing that stretched nearly a hundred feet as it ran north and south.

Here the Fellowship halted, stunned at what lay before them.

The Grand Stairway

Stairs. And not just one set. Not just ten sets. But more than twenty sets branching off into every possible direction, creating an eerie maze of stairways twisting and turning and rising and falling like some great maze ready to drive mad anyone seeking to navigate its many pathways.

From the ten-foot-wide platform they stood upon, some stairs swept upward, disappearing into the shadows where the hint of other landings was suggested by the light from the group’s lockets reaching the outer perimeter of their range. Other staircases wound their way down to different chambers, or perhaps to the lower levels for all anyone knew.

There were broad staircases. There were narrow staircases. There were large staircases. There were small staircases. There were circular staircases. There were straight staircases. There were staircases of every form and size beckoning the Fellowship to come explore if they dared.

Some staircases led directly into darkened chambers, while others reached alcoves that split off into two or more sets of stairs leading off to different areas. Most confusing of all, however, was the fact that from the landing one could clearly see stairs leading up or down to at least seven different levels--and this was only a five-story building!

What is with all these stairs?!” Raven muttered in shock as her head looked back and forth, trying to take in the scene.

Then a gloved finger stretched back over her shoulder and beckoned.

Assuming it was for her, Doremi pressed past Espidreen and obediently stepped up.

“Please tell me,” Raven spoke without turning, “that you know which of these stairs will eventually take us to the tower.”

“Sorry, Raven,” came the Bard’s answer. “I’ve never gone beyond right here. Any of those stairs could be the ones--except, of course, those ones there,” she added, pointing to a set leading down some thirty feet. “Those lead down to the second level. The others lead all sorts of places, and, like I said, it’s like a maze in here. Sometimes you even have to go down before you can go up, or up before you can go down.”

Smart as she was, Raven still wasn’t getting it.

“But why are there so many different sets of stairs?” she asked. “It looks like there are seven or eight levels to this place, and we know it’s only got five stories. I don’t understand.”

“Well, like I said,” Doremi attempted to explain, “this place is a maze, Raven. Not just lengthwise--but heightwise.”

At those words, it finally began to sink in--and the Mistress of Freeport blinked as her jaw dropped.

“Are you telling me this place has levels inside of levels?!” Raven exclaimed.

“Yes,” Doremi replied with a nod. “That’s a great way of putting it. Each actual level is fifty feet tall or so, but within it you could have areas where five whole floors of ten-foot-tall rooms might be stacked on top of each other, making five sub-levels on the one main level. So you actually have, here and there, way more than just five levels here in the base complex. I can’t even guess what the tower itself is laid out like.”

Almost as if on cue, the group expunged a collective sigh as their countenances fell.

“Why didn’t you tell us this before?!” Espidreen angrily exclaimed as she glared at Doremi.

The Bard turned right to her and placed her hands on her hips. “I tried to, remember? You guys just cut me off and went on about how it made no difference because Fosmo could just scale the Pit, and you’d save time that way!”

Doremi then thought she heard Raven muttering something about ravens and heaven under her breath, and then the Mistress of Freeport let out a sigh.

“Irrelevant,” she declared calmly as her face tightened up and her voice became calm once more. “We will simply deal with the problem, and overcome. Thor--any chance your tracking skills can pick up where the heaviest traffic up is?”

But the Viking was already down on one knee, looking for any indications of travel. Eyes to the ground, he scanned for any signs that might indicate what stairs were most traveled upon. Everyone waited in silence—certain he’d provide the answer--as he moved up and down the platform, checking for any telltale evidence. But finally he walked back, and his look spoke before he did.

“Not so much as a speck of disturbed dust, scratches on the stone, or worn pathway from ten thousand seasons of foot travel,” he uttered, shaking his head. “It’s like this place is brand new.”

Raven took a look up and down the platform. Far down at the south end, the platform appeared to turn into a corridor leading someplace east.

“Do we split up?” asked the Highlander, guessing her thoughts as he folded his muscular arms.

Raven, continuing her scan of the area, nodded slowly. “Yeah,” she said quietly.

“Bad idea in a dungeon, Raven,” Espidreen warned from behind.

“Let’s just be careful,” Raven added, ignoring her advice. “Nightshadow,” she said, pointing east, “see where that corridor down there goes. Follow it down as far as you feel comfortable. Thor--just pick some stairs that look good to you, and see if you get lucky and find a way up to the fourth story.”

The Mistress of Freeport then pointed to a landing directly above them. “Fosmo--up onto the landing there. See if anything leads off it that might go up to the fourth story. Romulus and Mac Tavish, you two check out those stairs there,” she ordered, pointing to what seemed to be the highest set--though, as Doremi had pointed out, there was no guarantee the stairs would lead where they needed to go.

Espidreen raised her mace toward a broad set of stairs. “Those stairs there seem a bit wider than the others, Raven.”

“Except they only go up about ten feet, Espy,” Raven observed.

“Still, we should check them.”

“The rest of you do that, and Doremi and I will take some other set. No one go too far, and for goodness’ sake be careful! Beat feet back here at any sign of trouble! Oh, and by the way--let me know if you spot a garderobe or piscina.”

Doremi looked over to her. “Need to find a water closet?” she asked.

Raven scowled back. “Not for me--a garderobe may have a cess hole leading down into the Pit! If it’s big enough, we might be able to go down it!”

Doremi grimaced, for the idea sounded none too appealing.

Fosmo was no happier. “Me thought me sewer-crawlin’ days was over, eh.”

“Apparently, you were wrong, Burglar,” Espidreen spoke to him as she passed by.

“D’ y’ rreally think they’d build a sewerr overr the head of Asmodeus?” Mac Tavish asked.

Cyllindrethifl’s face showed surprise at the Highlander’s casual use of the name so close to the Pit, and immediately her ears turned stiff.

“I wouldn’t speak that name too loudly in here,” she whispered.

“I’ll speak that name,” broke in the Knight as he raised his blade, “and speak it with an oath, too! And if he care to defend it, my sword be ready to give satisfaction!”

“Who knows, Mac Tavish,” Raven answered the Highlander, ignoring Giles’ comment, “--it’s just a stab in the dark. Let’s go!”

That said, the Fellowship now began splitting off in what could be a fatal gamble. Nightshadow, moving at a fast limp, hustled south, disappearing around the corner while Fosmo reached up for the railing from the landing above and, in one move, pulled himself up and vanished from the group’s view as he swung his legs over.

Raven and Doremi made their way up a stone stairway to a small round platform that split off in three directions. Quickly, the Mistress of Freeport was drawn forward toward a dark recess another ten feet above them, and she slung her bow, unsheathing the smaller of her two swords.

Only Doremi’s trained ears noticed a ringing as the blade was drawn forth. High-pitched, it resonated for several moments as Raven positioned the sword close in to her body before starting forward toward the recess.

The Bard was impressed--the steel the sword was made from must have been near perfect in its alloys and form to ring with such a musical tone.

“You’re really gonna use that funny scimitar, huh?” Doremi spoke from behind as Raven’s eyes scanned forward for the first sign of danger.

“The only thing funny about this sword,” came the reply, “is the look on its victim’s face as it tears out his throat about the same time he realizes he was disemboweled a moment before. And it’s not a scimitar; it’s called a wakizashi. The bigger one is a katana.”

“I’m no expert on swords, but it seems to me a good longsword would be much better since it’s a heavier weapon that you can also thrust, unlike your wakizashi, which obviously isn't made for thrusting as a regular sword is.”

“Like you said, Doremi--you’re no expert on swords,” Raven muttered. “Now quiet down.”

They were nearly to the alcove and Raven slowed to a creep as she began moving the last few feet in an almost sideways gate, keeping her weight on her right leg. Doremi surmised she was prepared to pivot to the left and bring down the sword down toward her in one fast slash against any enemy that showed itself, an unusual stance for a warrior.

Then the pair were at the opening, and enough light penetrated within to reveal it was nothing more than an octagonal-shaped alcove piled high with stacks of dusty old tomes. Again showing caution, Raven paused just before the opening, scanned left and right to assure herself nothing dangerous was within, then quickly ducked her head in and out, looking up to the roof. Nothing was there either, and so she stepped in for a fast look, glancing about the chamber for anything of special interest.

Doremi leaned in for her own look.

“I appreciate your caution,” the Bard mentioned to Raven as she braced herself against the two sides of the entry and peered in. “You can’t be too careful in a dungeon.”

“My feelings exactly,” Raven agreed.

“I hope we do find a water closet somewhere along the line, though.”

Raven gave her a look.

“I have a weak bladder--I can’t help it!” Doremi exclaimed in response.

The Mistress of Freeport shook her head. “Just find some corner, and go,” she suggested.

“You mean on the floor?! Isn’t that rather rude?”

“Afraid of offending the Liches, are you? We’re going to do a lot worse to this place before we’re done tonight!”

Shaking her head, Raven then made her way past the humble Bard, looked around at the maze, and then started up a different set of stairs. These led up to a small chamber where another steep set of stairs headed somewhere down. They ignored this chamber, turning back for the landing.

The others, save for Nightshadow, were also returning and emerging from their brief explorations.

Raven paused, looking across to Fosmo, who’d come back from the landing he’d climbed up to. The Burglar shook his head and extended his palms.

“There’s chambers behind here, and some have stairs going up--but how do we know they go up to where we wanna be?” he asked.

Meanwhile from below, Espidreen stepped into view and looked up to the pair.

 “We found something interesting, Raven,” her voice echoed out as she raised her mace back toward the chamber they’d just emerged from. “A zoo.”

“They’ve got a zoo in here?!” the Mistress of Freeport exclaimed in shock.

“Not one with living animals, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl explained as she looked over Espidreen’s shoulder. “These stairs lead into a large chamber with many stuffed creatures, including some I have never seen before.”

“And at the far end is a double stairway leading up--possibly to the fourth level,” added Espidreen. “We didn’t go beyond the chamber itself to check it.”

“I suppose that’s as good a place to start as any then,” Raven spoke, continuing down. “Let’s wait on the landing for the rest.”

It took only a few more minutes for everyone else to return, and none bore any better news than the two Witches. There simply was no way to know, without simply picking a direction and exploring it completely, which path would lead to the next level.

Last of all, Nightshadow emerged from the hall he’d explored and made his way over. His arms, holding both scimitars, were swinging in somewhat exaggerated movements to control his balance as he approached, and his limp was very obvious.

Apparently, his left leg was giving him some problems.

“Anything?” Raven asked him.

“Something interesting, at least,” he replied.

The Mistress of Freeport nodded back, encouraging him to explain.

“That hall goes down to the very end of the building, where it seems to end in an area of natural rock,” he replied, gesturing south with his right-hand scimitar.  “I’m guessing it’s where the mountain is, behind the complex. Down at the end of the hall is a huge bronze grate blocking the way to someplace behind the building. I tried to go Ethereal to move through it, but something prevented the Talisman from allowing me to shift into the Ethers.”

“Natural rock...the Pit, maybe?” Raven wondered.

The Rogue shrugged. “Don’t know. There are lots of doors, along with other corridors branching off north, undoubtedly leading toward the Pit, anyway. But as to whether the Pit is behind that wall of bronze, I can’t say, Raven. I can tell you there’s no obvious way to move it. I couldn’t even budge it with my strength.”

Hearing this, Raven looked about at the others in the group.

“What about with the help of the other men?” she wondered. “I’ve got to believe we’ve got enough stallions in this party to lift anything.”

“Maybe,” Nightshadow said with a nod. “Thor’s strength added to mine, with the other men here, might be enough to force it up. Even if we can’t get it open we won’t be wasting much time, and can always come back here to look for another way up.”

Raven turned to have a brief council with her two Witches, and as she did Fosmo drifted over to Nightshadow.

“Leg givin’ ya problems, Mate?” he asked, looking down at Nightshadow’s left leg.

“It always gives me problems,” came the somber reply as the red eyes looked back at him.

“What’s wrong with it, eh?”

Nightshadow’s gaze dropped for a moment to his left leg. “Dragon crushed my heel years ago.”

“Snap dragon?” asked the Cutpurse, looking down to the Rogue’s boot.

Dragon dragon,” came his response.

“Ya mean a real dragon?” he asked in shock.

The masked visage nodded.

“‘Thought there wasn’t no more true dragons in Islay!”

“There aren’t--now.”

Fosmo then glanced to the Mind Sapphire for a moment, then looked into Nightshadow’s eyes. “Don’t yer Talisman heal ya up?”

Nightshadow shook his head. “It happened before the Mind Sapphire activated,” he explained. “They splinted it up, but it never healed rightly. Ever since, every time I put any weight on my left heel it’s like a knife. It wasn’t so bad at first, but as the years have passed it hurts more and more. Most of the time, I can deal with it; other times, it’s quite a bother. Right now, it feels like someone’s pounding on it with a mace--and, of course, it had to pick tonight, of all nights, to act up! I’ll be fine, though.”

“Okay,” Raven now spoke up, turning back to the Rogue. “Let’s give Nightshadow’s grate a try. If we’re lucky, it’ll get us into the Pit and we can make our way straight up to the Throne room.”

The Gladiator now glanced back and forth between Raven and her cousin. “You’ve mentioned that a couple of times now,” he spoke. “I’m still not picturing it--just how is this Pit thing laid out?”

“Let me answer that, Raven,” Espidreen broke in.

The Witch locked her eyes with those of the Gladiator. “At the very top, and roughly center, of the tower should be Nostradamus’ Throne room,” she explained. “It’s directly over the center of the Pit so that the power of Hell below flows up through the throne and keeps the Liche alive. We assume it’s built fundamentally the same as Throckmorton’s own Throne room. That Throne room is likewise centered over the Pit at his own School, and a bridge leads to it from other areas of what would correspond to the tower complex here. By scaling the sides of the Pit, or by using a moon rope spell, we presumably can reach the bridge and gain ingress to the Throne room.”

“How do you know there’s a bridge even up there, and that it’s laid out the same?” Romulus now questioned. “It’s always possible all that’s up there is the bottom of the floor of the top level, right?”

“We know,” spoke Raven, “because the Schoolmasters are famous for throwing people down the Pit. There must be an opening for Nostradamus, just as there is for Throckmorton. Even if not, we’ll simply break through the floor using brute force or Cyl’s magic, and get in that way.”

That seemed to satisfy the Gladiator, and he fell silent as he glanced up into the shadows, trying to catch any possible movement.

“I think we should definitely have a map in this place, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl suggested.

“Good idea, Cyl,” her mistress agreed. “Doremi, why don’t you handle that? You’ve got some paper and a piece of charcoal, I assume?”

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Raven,” Doremi responded. “I have a perfect memory. We don’t need a map, because I can remember every twist or turn we make--even in this place.”

Raven cocked her head to the right and stared back at the Bard. “And what if you die, Doremi?” she asked. “How do those of us with lesser memories find our way back?”

The Bard grinned. “Guess you’ll just have to keep me alive, huh?”

No one else seemed to appreciate the humor of the statement, so Doremi’s smile faded after a moment.

“Fine--I’ll make a map then,” she spoke.

“Thank you. In fact, I want you to make two maps. Just copy a second when we take a break from walking or something, and that will be fine. Also, when you get a chance, please make a fast diagram on how to go from the outside up to the stairway here, and vice versa.”

“Why two maps?” asked the Bard.

“How about, so if we split up again, both groups have their own map? Is that a good enough reason for you, Doremi?”

“You don’t have to snap at me; I was just asking, Raven!”

“Lead on,” Raven now ordered, ignoring the Bard’s irritation, and silently the group began falling in behind Nightshadow and Thor as they marched to the southern end of the platform.

The Black Powder

Anyone who knows will tell you the most dangerous part of a School of Sorcery is its alchemical laboratories. It’s here that all wizards must spend a considerable amount of time in training to master the art of brewing potions and elixirs, for even so much as a slight imperfection in their preparation can result in disaster. One can easily imagine, for instance, the tragedy that can befall a person if an elixir of detoxification fails to work, and work immediately when swallowed.

Yet aside from the demands of general potion and elixir manufacture, the true danger posed by the laboratories arises from the experimentation the alchemists may undertake in researching new potions or elixirs. This can be very dangerous, for the process of trial and error can produce everything from poisonous compounds, which may do precisely the opposite of what the wizard hopes, to fires or explosions that can burn down not just the lab, but the whole School if not properly dealt with. Because of this, the laboratories are usually set in an out-of-the-way place where the harm to other persons or property can be minimized; and also, for this reason, it’s rare that any truly new alchemical discoveries are made. Those who do experiment with producing new compounds invariably do so at great risk.

They wasted no time in moving eastward down the long passage as the glow from their enchanted lockets brought light into a place where darkness usually ruled, chasing away the shadows for a moment before they swept back in to reclaim their place. Though no one spoke, and although their footfalls were muffled by thick throw rugs upon the floor, it seemed to Doremi they made as much noise as a marching army as the sepulchral silence of the complex was broken by the sound of clanking armor and rustling robes. Unsettling as that was, even worse was the feeling she couldn’t shake that they were being watched.

The feeling was understandable, for it was eerie to be penetrating, at their apparent leisure, one of the most forbidden areas in all Islay. But no opposition to their invasion showed itself as they moved past darkened alcoves, closed doors, or hallways branching north to unknown places.

The one truly bad thing everyone was painfully aware of was that nothing before or behind them could possibly fail to see them because of their lights. Thus, their chances of actually surprising anything were nil. Any enemies who did happen to be in this place would undoubtedly have a first strike at them, something that could prove deadly for whomever was the recipient of that attack.

Yet when the first threat came, it was not by surprise, but with plenty of warning--for everyone heard it before they ever saw it.

The group was nearing the end of the long hall with Nightshadow and Thor twenty feet ahead of the rest when the pair began to pass yet another corridor branching off north. It was then that they heard the steps--a slow, heavy shuffling of something beyond the range of their locket lamps, drawing nearer each moment.

Both men halted, knowing it was impossible to hide, and immediately Thor reacted, leaping into the hallway and bringing up his shield as he set himself to face whatever it was as the rest hurried up behind, ready for trouble.

The huge Viking seemed to fill half the entryway as he stood there, muscles visibly taut through his leather jerkin as he tightly gripped his hammer, prepared to rear back and hurl it. Nightshadow, meanwhile, took his place next to him, one scimitar positioned up to his right as the other was held laterally, either one ready to slash out at the foe as soon as it got close enough.

But Raven wasn’t waiting for the enemy to get any closer. Thinking quickly, she shifted the bow to her left hand, then reached down with her right and slid open one of the doors of the metal can upon her belt. Out popped a small ceramic marble, and she hurled it down the hall into the darkness.

As it hit the flagstones, its thin ceramic shell broke, releasing a pellet upon which had been cast a spell of light similar to that upon the lockets.

The added light now revealed the creature advancing toward them: It had the form of something that might have been seen in Krella, for it resembled a warrior in greaves, breastplate and skirt, with an open helm upon its head.

But this was no warrior of flesh; it was a construct of reddish-brown metal a good ten feet tall, slowly advancing toward them, its heavy footfalls loudly thudding against the stone floor of the corridor.

“Iron golem!” Espidreen realized as it was revealed to view.

Darts!” Raven instantly ordered.

The golem seemed to take no special notice, continuing its advance toward them with the same slow gate, leaning from side to side so that its jointless limbs could be lifted enough to shuffle forward in a jerky five-foot stride.

Espidreen was first to strike the creature with an energy bolt as she pulled a silver stud from her belt and threw it. The glowing dart streaked out, impacting straight into the chest of the golem with a small explosion when the creature was still a good twenty feet from Thor and Nightshadow.

Cyllindrethifl’s own bolt hit its shoulder and the construct seemed to flinch, though it continued on, unfazed. Finally, Raven pulled a silver pellet from her belt pouch and hurled it.

The bolt hit and exploded in the golem’s face, halting it for a moment as it was nearly thrown backward from the surprising force of the spell.

But then it slowly leaned back upright and once again began moving forward.

Even so, Raven was satisfied. “Front rank, finish him off, but don’t throw the hammer, Thor--too much noise,” she cautioned.

The two warriors eagerly rushed forward to engage the creature, which now halted and raised its two fists, focusing on Nightshadow. Thor was first to reach it, bringing his hammer around in a powerful swing to collide with the golem’s upper leg as he held his shield up, ready to parry any punch.

The hammer connected with a solid thud against the construct’s thigh, but the golem ignored the blow and swung both fists at Nightshadow.

Realizing he was the target, the Rogue stopped in his tracks, instinctively leaning backward and twisting to his left with surprising agility despite his less-than-trim physique.

The blows missed, and the creature was delayed for a moment as it straightened up for another strike.

The Rogue now jumped forward, swinging twice against the iron form’s right arm while bringing in his left scimitar for a slash against its leg.

Sparks rained out from where the blows struck, and then the golem’s arms were ready for another attack.

Thor, directly against the monster, leaned back and snapped forward, driving the hammer against the golem’s hip. The Viking struck so hard that even he gave a shudder from the sting in his hand as the unyielding iron form of the construct took the full impact of a blow that would have killed any normal man.

Still the golem paid him no notice, but again brought its fists down on Nightshadow. This time, the Rogue was too close to dodge, and the golem’s right fist struck him full in the left shoulder. There was actually a crunching sound as his shoulder was crushed, almost driving him to the ground as Dellendryll, the scimitar in his left hand, flew from his grasp.

Sensing the golem was fixed upon his comrade, Thor dropped all defense, stepping forward and making a roundhouse blow against the golem’s kneecap, its weakest point. A tremendous clang rang out as the blow struck home, yet the golem seemed unfazed as it remained fixed on its original target.

As soon as the huge fist broke Nightshadow’s shoulder, the Mind Sapphire healed its bearer, the power flowing through him and repairing the crushed bone and torn cartilage. Even so, the masked warrior felt the ghastly pain for a moment as he nearly went to the ground from the force of the strike. Then he retaliated, swinging his remaining scimitar for two quick slashes against the golem’s arm and leg as he backed up a step.

Thor now dropped his shield and grasped the hammer with both hands for extra power, windmilling it, over and over into the knee of the golem. The blows were beginning to bear fruit, for the construct’s knee began flattening out of shape with each hit as the golem, totally ignoring the threat to his left, seemed fixed on trying to strike the smaller target to its right.

The golem now made a backhanded swing with its right arm that connected with Nightshadow’s upper body, and the Rogue was driven into the wall, nearly knocking him senseless. Yet the Talisman again did its work, and the warrior recovered, instinctively slashing out with Brigit, his remaining blade.

The others were holding their breath in the hallway, a few yards away, transfixed by the battle. Mac Tavish, though, was fidgeting nervously at seeing the beating Nightshadow was taking, and he looked over to Raven. She glanced back and forth between he and the fight, and then nodded her permission. Quickly, the Highlander sheathed his claymore and laid down his shield. Reaching back for the massive axe strapped across his back, Mac Tavish moved forward, eager to join the fray and give the golem a taste of steel.

By now, Thor had maneuvered behind the golem and was striking again and again at the rear of the creature’s knee, while Nightshadow focused on dodging and getting in a swing whenever the slow golem straightened up before raising its fists for another blow.

As the Highlander approached, Nightshadow ducked to his right as one of the iron fists missed, passing through where his head had been a moment earlier.

This was what Mac Tavish had waited for: As the golem pivoted round to its left, the Highlander timed his own blow perfectly, bringing his powerful arms back and up in a great circle, whipping the two-handed axe in for a massive blow against the iron body.

The axe struck dead center in the golem’s belly with so much force that the corridor rang out with a loud clang as the enchanted blade broke through the golem’s shell. The creature nearly staggered back from the force of the blow, but then a hissing sound was heard as the blade struck, and as the Highlander wrenched it free for another strike, a cloud of green gas shot out the crack just opened by the axe blade.

Instantly, Mac Tavish was enveloped by the gas, and the axe dropped from his hands as he brought his hands up to his face, choking as he tried to back away.

“Poison gas!” Espidreen shouted, backing up the corridor as the cloud slowly expanded toward them.

“Cyl, finish it off!” Raven cried.

The Elf immediately thrust a hand into a pocket of her cloak, withdrawing a small black pearl. Without even waiting to see its effects before retreating to a safer position away from the noxious cloud, she cast it forward, then moved away.

In flew the black pearl straight at the golem like an energy bolt. The creature didn’t even try to dodge--and probably couldn’t have even if it wanted to. The ether ball struck it full in the chest, and for a moment the space around the construct seemed to contract and distort in a sphere several feet in diameter. Then, despite its tremendous mass, the golem seemed to fold back in half, contract, and was instantly sucked into the portal with a loud WHOOSH.

Then the sphere was gone, leaving behind the cloud of gas and the three warriors.

The Highlander, meanwhile, was choking as he stumbled backward, and Nightshadow reached out to pull him back to the hallway as Raven dropped the bow to fumble in her pouch for an elixir. Thor, apparently able to hold his breath before the gas affected him, grabbed Mac Tavish’s other arm to drag him out of the corridor as quickly as possible. They laid him down on a carpet as Raven popped the stopper and knelt down, trying to pour the concoction down Mac Tavish’s throat.

But he simply spit it up as he continued choking.

The Highlander’s contorted face was covered with a green film, and several sets of hands were trying to help wipe the thick goo off, but amidst all of it he seemed unable to swallow or take in a breath--he just kept choking even though he had no air left. It was as if whatever poison he’d been affected by was forcing him to choke up his very lungs!

“He can’t swallow!” Raven exclaimed frantically, looking around. “Cyl--cast on him!”

The Druid rushed back and knelt down next to him, reaching into a belt pouch for some herbs. Then she waved them over the fallen warrior, quickly intoning some words in Elvish.

Mac Tavish’s face was now a beet red as he shook in his death throes, no longer exhaling but still unable to inhale. Face bathed in sweat and his veins nearly popping, the warrior was starting to pass out as he slipped toward death, but then the Druid’s spell started taking effect. The Highlander’s body jumped and he started gasping, wheezing in deep breaths as he writhed on the ground. After a few moments, the writhing stopped as his burning lungs began to relax and his breathing became more normal.

Raven by now had maneuvered behind him and knelt down, cradling the warrior’s upper body as the strength returned to his limbs.

At last, he took a deep breath and looked around.

“I’m arright now,” he muttered hoarsely.

“Just sit there for a moment,” Raven ordered, patting his shoulder and regaining her feet as she reached for the bow.

Romulus now leaned over to Cyllindrethifl as she stood up. “Good thing you had that memorized,” he remarked. “If it’d been me, I’d have relied on elixirs, and memorized something else in its place.”

“That’s why you’re a Gladiator and not a Witch,” remarked Espidreen from a few feet away. “Smart Witches always plan for the unexpected.”

After a few moments, Mac Tavish held his hand up and Thor reached down and helped pull him to his feet. The Viking winked and slapped the Highlander’s arm with a nod as he handed back the axe. Mac Tavish nodded back and was shaky for a bit, but then he nodded and related that he was recovered enough to continue.

Raven looked up and down the hall. “Seems like our luck is still holding--don’t ask me how, but no one seems to have heard the fight, thank the gods.”

“It may well be the Liches are either in the tower itself or in the other buildings, Raven,” Espidreen speculated.

“Let’s hope, Espy. Other than that, I wish I knew what that poison was the golem used on Mac Tavish. It’s got to be some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure our ruby dust is as good!”

“Do golems normally have poison like that?” asked Doremi, with a note of concern.

“If you enchant them to,” Cyllindrethifl answered, clasping her hands behind her back and standing there demurely. “Golems can be enchanted to do any number of things. This one, it seems, had been crafted with a chamber containing the poison gas. Very cunning, if I may say so.”

“Well, we were wondering what sort of guardians they might have had up here. Now we know,” Espidreen added.

“Doremi,” Raven now spoke as she glanced to the Bard, “have you ever seen any golems here before?”

The Bard shook her head. “Not when I was here,” she answered.

“They could be something new, Raven,” Espidreen commented. “Or perhaps they limit their patrol to only critical areas.”

“A wise choice on their part to use golems,” Cyllindrethifl remarked. “Golems work twenty hours a day without rest, they can walk about the whole level, and if they meet anything, they have a good chance of killing it.”

Raven looked to the Bard. “Did you by chance ever do much exploring in the tower where you would be able to speculate if these would actually be a new addition, as opposed to something here you didn’t know about?”

“No, I didn’t set foot outside the limited area they assigned to me. I took some walks in the courtyard, but that was it.”

“I see.”

Doremi caught the tone, and so she added, “Of course, if they had led me to believe I did have the run of the place, then I would have looked around!”

Raven picked the bow up from where she’d dropped it as Nightshadow moved down the corridor to retrieve the other items. “This brings up the question about how to handle them,” the Mistress of Freeport spoke as she nocked an arrow. “If we’re going to be meeting more of these--and if they have a poison that deadly inside them--do we rely only on spells to kill them, or do we fight them and hope for the best?”

“The only spell that will guarantee an instant kill is an ether ball, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl answered. “And we need them for the Liches.”

“Well, fortunately Espidreen has brought along some extra ether ball scrolls. How many you got, Espy?”

“Five, Raven,” answered the Witch, patting the pouch that hung from her belt.

“Well...keep them ready. If we run into any more of these, we’ll hit them with those unless we decide we can risk fighting.”

With the Highlander able to walk again, the group continued east, quickly reaching the grate discovered by Nightshadow at where the hallway ended and turned north. As the Rogue had indicated, it was a massive portal, crafted of beaten bronze reinforced with girders bolted to it by rivets whose heads were big as fists. The whole thing was twenty feet wide and three-quarters as tall, and it sealed off the hall from some other area.

The question was just how to raise it.

Fosmo quickly moved up and began tapping and pressing the stonework, hunting for some hidden switch or secret panel, but soon concluded either there was none, or else it was hidden awfully good.

Finally giving up, he looked over and shook his head at the Fellowship.

Espidreen, meanwhile, reached out and ran her own hand along the stonework, observing where it turned from finished stone into natural limestone a few inches before the portal.

“The Pit, you think?” Raven asked her.

She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know, Raven. Possibly. But we’re awfully far from the center of the complex. Unless it leads around part of the complex to the eastern side of the Pit.... Raven, I just don’t know,” she concluded. “This may be part of the mountain’s may be some sort of mine....”

The Witch turned away from the wall to look at her mistress. “We won’t know unless we get through,” she spoke as she turned now to view the portal itself. “But as to how to do that....”

“Want us to try and lift it?” Nightshadow offered.

Raven instead nodded to the western wall. “There’s something on the other side of this wall. Let’s backtrack to the last hallway and try to find out what it is. We may find a windlass or something. If not, then we’ll see what brute strength can do.”

The last corridor was only fifty feet behind them, and so it took only moments to retreat up the hallway and turn north, where a wide old oaken door, inset between two pillars of stone to the sides of an archway, beckoned.

Thor reached out and tried the handle, and it came as no shock it was locked.

“Check it, Fosmo,” Raven ordered, and the Cutpurse quickly moved up to examine the lock mechanism and the doorway itself, scanning for some sort of trap.

He made a quick wink and plunged a pick from his pouch into the lock, twisting and turning it. “She’s fine, methinks.”

Fosmo seemed as good as his reputation--it took no longer to unlock it than if he’d had the key, and then the handle turned freely.

His task done, the Cutpurse stepped away and swept his hand back to the door, inviting Thor to open it.

Holding his hammer in his left hand with the shield, the Scandian turned the knob and pushed the door open, quickly shifting the hammer back to his right hand as he peered in, prepared to fight whatever might be inside.

But no creatures met anyone’s gaze. Behind the door loomed only a shadowed chamber vaguely revealing sets of tables and shelves of pots and beakers in the light of the group’s lockets.

The Viking stepped in and the group began following.

Everyone but Raven, that is.

As the others moved in, she retreated to the corridor, listening, then held up her locket, peering back down the way they’d come. Thankfully, no sounds met her ears, nor did anything show itself.

Satisfied they were still unnoticed, she joined the others into the chamber.

“An alchemical lab,” Espidreen spoke as she entered. “No windlass, though.”

Sure enough, Raven noted that it was a large workspace for the manufacture of some sort of magical concoctions. Large mortars and pestles rested upon tables at the center of the chamber while other parts of the room were stacked with barrels or shelving, or had workbenches and nooks placed against the walls. Northward, thirty feet or so down, the room turned left, extending west.

Cyllindrethifl, standing near a stack of small kegs, was prying off the top of one with a dagger, and then looked inside. She reached in and withdrew her gloved hand, allowing a stream of black granules to fall back in.

“Some sort of powder, Raven,” she announced. “I do not recognize it.”

Espidreen stepped over to the Elf and took her own look, rubbing some of the powder between her own gloved fingers.

“Espy?” Raven asked.

“Don’t know, Raven,” she concluded.


“We gots some stuff over here in these big barrels, Raven.” Fosmo now spoke from the eastern side of the chamber, pointing to several large barrels behind him. “Smells like sulfur, looks like charcoal or fireplace soot, and resembles some kind of salt or something.”

“Whatever the crystals are, don’t get any on your hands, Fosmo--probably kill you,” Raven warned.

The Cutpurse moaned. “Gimme some credit, Raven--me’ve been known to be stupid, but never bloody stupid!”

Intrigued by mention of crystals, Cyllindrethifl wandered over to Fosmo as Raven joined Espidreen.

“I’ve seen crystals like this before,” spoke the Elf as she looked down into the barrel. “Looks like the ones you see in bat caves.”

Raven was looking down into the keg next to Espidreen when a thought struck her, and she spoke out: “Anybody got a torch? I wanna see if this stuff burns.”

“Got one in me pack, Raven,” Fosmo answered up as he removed his pack and began rummaging through it.

“Not a good idea, Raven,” Espidreen cautioned. “Could be dangerous to just throw a torch into this stuff.


“I’m just gonna test out a handful of it, Espy,” Raven answered as she reached into the barrel for a small handful of powder. Then she looked round for a handy spot and spread the powder upon a table.

Fosmo quickly had a torch out and was striking some jasper and steel to light it, then he headed over to Raven.

“Okay, stand back and hold your breath in case it gives off a gas or something,” Raven spoke as she took the torch from Fosmo. That said, she held her breath and tossed the torch on the table as she twisted and ducked away. The powder instantly vanished with a loud WHOOSH, leaving behind an acrid smell and a small cloud of gray smoke.

“Hmm,” was Raven’s conclusion after she looked back.

Fosmo waited for a moment to make sure it was safe, then retrieved the torch and stamped it out.

“Well, it burns...sort of,” Espidreen spoke.


For the third time, Raven now heard the sound.

“Who’s making tha--Doremi, what are you doing over there?!”

The Bard, standing by a workbench against the western side of the wall, looked over her shoulder. “Nothing,” she answered, “--I’m just looking at this fire-starter thing.”

Raven walked forward. “What fire-starter thing?” she wanted to know.

Doremi held it up, and whatever it was, it was beautiful. The Bard’s first thought had been that it was an instrument of some sort, for it bore a tube of steel, ornately engraved with knot work and spirals, that flared out at its end like a flute or wind instrument. It was set in a walnut stock that curved down at its end into a silver pommel of sorts that was fashioned in the form of a skull.

The curious part was that it had a trigger, and if you pulled back a fitting on the side that held a piece of flint sandwiched between two small jaws, it would snap forward and make some sparks when it came into contact with another metal fitting before it.

Raven grasped the device by the tube and examined it.

“Some kind of mace? Club?” she wondered as she pounded the skull into her left palm.

“No, I think it makes fire,” Doremi insisted. “It sparks, and if you hold it by a torch, it will probably light it.”

Raven now withdrew a metal ramrod set beneath the metal tube and stared at it.

“Then why’s it got this plunger?”

The other two Witches were intrigued by now and also drew near to examine the queer object for themselves.

In fact, this was not the only one, but there were a number of similar contrivances, though decorated differently--some with pommels at the bottom of the stock, and some without--set upon shelves as if waiting to be used for some purpose.

Cyllindrethifl reached out and took one up.

“I don’t know, Raven,” answered Doremi. “I have no idea what the plunger is for.”

Several times, Cyllindrethifl pulled back the flint-fitting and tugged on the trigger, producing sparks. Then she looked upon the workbench and observed a number of nooks holding parts corresponding to those upon the device, and some others that did not, but which notably were filled with some silver pellets.

“Since these are here in the same room with the black powder, Raven,” the Elf spoke, “it could indicate that they go together.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Raven responded. “In fact, I think I know what this does!”

Raven grasped a small keg of the black powder and poured it down the tube until it was almost to the top. “First you pour in the powder,” she spoke.

“Okay,” Doremi said, watching. “Then what?”

“Well...then you take one of these pellets,” Raven continued, wedging one into the top of the tube, “and stuff it in with the plunger to cork it off.”

This she did. Then she pulled the flint fitting back into position and held the device with the tube pointed upwards.

“Then you pull the trigger...and you throw it,” she speculated, imitating the move. “And it will explode, doing some damage.”

Cyllindrethifl squinted, unconvinced. “Seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through, Raven. Wouldn’t you think a bottle of oil would do just as good?”

“You’d think,” Raven agreed.

“It has to do something else, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke.

“Well, I’m open to enlightenment, Cyl.”

Espidreen, meanwhile, was wandering down a few feet when she came upon a rack holding a dozen more of the odd devices.

“Raven, look at this,” the Witch spoke, leaning down and coming up with one twice as long. “This one is bigger, and looks like a crossbow!”

Sure enough, the device was longer, with a brass tube over a foot and a half long that flared out almost like a trumpet at its end. But its short stock, rather than designed to be held in the hand, resembled something more like a crossbow’s, for it was flat and could be held up to one’s shoulder--although it would be somewhat cumbersome to do so, and a person would be in an odd position with their right arm bent out sideways as they grasped the trigger, while their left arm reached across to hold onto the wooden stock beneath the brass tube.

“Must be made for a Wighead,” Raven spoke. “A normal person couldn’t hold that comfortably.”

Espidreen experimented with the positioning of the device, finally concluding that wedging it against her hip was the best place to hold it.

Doremi stepped over to the Witch and watched for a moment, then noticed a row of even longer versions of the device, about as long as a broom, set into their own rack.

“This one looks more comfortable to use,” she spoke as she took one up and raised it to her shoulder. “You know, it does remind me of how one handles a crossbow, although it’s a couple feet longer, obviously.”

It was then she pulled the trigger and the device made a flash of smoke and exploded with a tremendous report, the like of which she had never heard before! Just as quickly, something went banging around and off the walls of the chamber, ricocheting about the room as everyone stood frozen in shock. Finally, the pellet struck Thor’s helmet, making a scratch, and bounced off.

The Viking bent over and picked up the flattened silver pellet, then dropped it back down after examining it.

The device, meanwhile, had clattered to the floor from the shocked Bard who let go like it was a snake.

“Why’d it do that?!” she gasped.

Intrigued, Raven walked over and picked up the device, running her hand upon it, trying to draw a conclusion about the gadget’s purpose. Then she sniffed at the smoke coming out from the mouth of the tube.

“Either the Bard did something wrong, or else it is meant to do whatever just happened, Raven,” Espidreen concluded.

“Sounded like thunder,” Thor observed, repositioning his helmet. “I don’t think I like it, whatever that thing is.”

“Perhaps it’s a weapon,” Espidreen speculated.

“Can’t be much of one,” Raven answered, laying the device aside. “A pellet that small isn’t going to hurt something bigger than a rabbit. It didn’t even scratch Thor, and it hit him in the head! Of course,” she noted with a wink, “you do have a hard head, Thor.”

The Viking grinned.

“That’s what his wife says, too,” Nightshadow spoke, looking over to the Viking. “In fact, I think she’s going to remind him of that when he gets home!”

Thor groaned and shook his head. “Had to remind me, didn’t you? Well, maybe I’ll be lucky and the Liche will kill me tonight!”

“Oh--so I can go face her, and tell her you’re dead?! No thank you--you stay alive, and deal with her yourself!”


The joking was interrupted by Fosmo, who had moved down to the other end of the room where it turned west, across from a forge in the northeast corner of the chamber. He was waving for them come down, and pointing to something.

The something was the largest version of all the devices! It had to have weighed ten stones or more, for it was a bronze pipe four feet long and almost a foot wide, set upon a carriage with four wheels. Forty or fifty feet before it lay the broken remains of a section of stone wall that had been erected there, possibly as a target.

A triangular pile of bronze balls, several inches in diameter, lay stacked upon the floor next to it with a long plunger laid against them.

“I don’t know too many rabbits I’d use this thing on, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke as she picked up one of the balls.

Ignoring the comment, Raven likewise picked one up. “Half a stone’s weight or so,” she noted.

“This thing is meant to shoot these balls at stonework, Raven,” Espidreen concluded. “It’s a sort of siege weapon. Perhaps it’s as good as a catapult, while being much smaller!”

Raven’s eyes widened. “Catapult!” she exclaimed. “What if we put one of these on the Widow? If it’s as good as a catapult, imagine what it might do to the wooden hull of a ship!”

Espidreen shrugged. “You’d know better than I about that sort of thing, Raven.”

“You’re not planning on us dragging this thing around, I hope!” Romulus exclaimed.

Raven shook her head. “No. Not that I’d mind hauling this thing out, but there’s no need--this thing is only a bronze pipe with a hole drilled in it at the front, and one drilled in the top here,” she noted, patting a small hole at the back of the device. “I can cast it back in Freeport with no problem. The key is that black powder! That’s what makes it work. We need to figure out how to make the powder.”

“Seems pretty simple, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl answered. “Sulfur, creosote, and bat guano crystals. We just need to find the right combination, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem.”

“Well...I’ve got so many chimneys at the Inn, creosote won’t be a problem! And heaven knows there are enough bat caves in Islay that we should be able to get the crystals. Sulfur is all over Krella. So, if nothing else, I think we’ve found something that will prove very useful to us in the future!” was Raven’s final conclusion.

“Raven!” Nightshadow called out, nodding for her to join him.

He was standing by a desk, leafing through some parchments, and he held one out. The Mistress of Freeport grasped the parchment and noted it was a diagram of an even bigger device--this one tall as a man by its looks.

“They’re thinking of making an even larger one,” Nightshadow spoke. “One that big could knock down some pretty thick walls it seems to me.”

“And we can guess who they plan to use it against, too,” she responded. “I wonder what Throckmorton would have paid to know what Nostradamus was planning for him?”

Thor let out a breath. “We really should be moving--this is taking up too much time, Raven.”

She nodded in response and took a last look around. “For some reason these small devices are more complicated than the bigger one. Let’s take some so we can reproduce them back in Freeport. We’ll figure out how useful they are later.”

Cyllindrethifl reached over and removed one of the hand devices from the rack and tucked it in her belt. She retrieved another and offered it to the Knight.

“Want one, Giles?” she asked.

“Nay--’tis unchivalrous at best, Lady,” came his reply.

“Me’ll take one,” Fosmo spoke enthusiastically, looking over the rack and snatching one of the devices to tuck in his belt.

Doremi approached the racks and chose a brace of them for herself: Identical twins with lion’s head butts, hanging from a leather baldric. Quickly, she slung the baldric around her, then removed her pack and rummaged through it for a small sack that she then filled with some of the black powder from a keg atop the table. She finished by tossing in some of the silver pellets.

“What should we call these things?” Doremi asked as she stood up and slung the pack back on.

The Elf thought for a moment. “Thunder-strikes?” she suggested.

Thunder clubs?” Thor spoke up.

“I like Thunder fires,” Espidreen added.

“Let’s call them Thunder sticks,” spoke Raven, making the decision. “As to the bigger stuff here, Espy--can you get a portable pit open so we can dump some of the barrels inside it?”

The spell was something Doremi was aware of: It was a handy, though higher-rank spell that would permit an enchanted pit to open up on a floor. Items could be stored within it until such time as the pit was reopened elsewhere and the goods retrieved.

“I have two scrolls of it, Raven, but I’m sure it wouldn’t work here inside the School.”

Raven pondered the problem for a moment.

“What about that area back there with the grate--where we think it turns into caverns?” the Mistress of Freeport asked. “Would it work on the other side, do you think?”

The big thunder stick, stacked high with smaller ones, made quite a racket as Mac Tavish and the Knight pushed and pulled it down toward the end of the hallway, but Raven was confident that if they hadn’t been heard yet with all the noise they’d been making, no one would hear the clattering of the four wheels either.

And, in fact, they didn’t.

Then the Fellowship arrived at the portal and halted once again before the wall of bronze, trying to judge how hard it would be to raise.

“They sure want to keep people out of there, don’t they?” Raven remarked as she looked it over again.

“That, or they want to keep something in,” answered the Gladiator.

Raven squinted at him. “Ever the optimist Romulus. You’re wrong in this case, though.”

Doremi twirl. “And you know this because...?” asked the Bard.

“Because the windlass isn’t on this side, Doremi! More likely, this grate is meant to keep people here from going past this point.”

Nightshadow, who looked rather comical toting a fifty-gallon barrel of the black powder above his head, set it down upon the stone floor and came up. “Well, let’s have a try at lifting it then.”

“Stallions,” Raven spoke, gesturing toward the wall, “have at it!”

The order given, the men sheathed their weapons and filed forward, lining up along the grate with Nightshadow at its center and the others spreading out to either side. Only Fosmo, knowing he was outclassed, held back with the ladies.

His part would come soon enough.

Hands now reached out, bracing against the grating’s girders as the men readied themselves.

“All right,” Nightshadow spoke, looking to his left and right, “at the count of three. One...two...threeeeee!”

Groans filled the hallway as the men strained to lift the giant portal. The Gladiator’s back and shoulder muscles stretched taut beneath his thin layer of skin while the sweat flowed out the bronze warrior’s pores as he grimaced from the strain. The other men were grimacing and groaning from their own strain as muscle battled the incalculable weight of the wall of bronze. A blue glow, meanwhile, was visible in front of Nightshadow as the Mind Sapphire began strengthening him, and each moment his strength increased as the glow brightened in unison.

Finally, the grate began to move. A loud scrape of metal against stone echoed down the hall as the huge portal jerked upward several inches as the men struggled to move it up.

The other side was apparently lit, for light was visible beneath the bottom of the grate!

Bracing against the wall of bronze, Nightshadow slipped one hand, and then the other, under the bottom lip of the grate for better leverage. Now using his legs for more power, the portal began jerking upward. Thor copied the move, and then the other warriors followed suit.

It was easier now, and up slid the grate, moaning in protest with each inch. Yet they kept lifting, and in a few moments they had it nearly two feet off the ground.

“Fosmo,” Raven spoke, “inside--check for a windlass.”

The burglar crouched down for a fast look, then nimbly rolled under the door, coming to his feet on the other side.

“There’s counter weights,” they heard him call back. “Raise it another foot or two so I can attach ‘em!”

Nearly at the point of exhaustion, the men made another big push as Raven dropped her bow to the ground and, in one move, dropped and rolled under the portal, hoping to aid the thief.

“Another couple inches, then hold!” she called out as she hurried opposite to where Fosmo stood trying to secure a large hook to a huge eye on their side of the grate.

Again, those on the door called upon the reserves of their own strength and made one last push, bracing their knees against the bottom lip of the grate and holding it. For a moment, they held it, then they felt the pressure ease somewhat and Raven called out, “Okay, let her go!”

The wearied men released their grip and the grate dropped over a foot, but held. Then everyone could hear the sound of a windlass as the grate slowly began rising as the two inside winched it up.

In a few moments, the others could see that beyond the grate was a cavern, brightly lit by spells of some sort. A great windlass, connected to a pair of thick chains, was hooked both to the door and a set of large counter weights a few feet inside the passage.

Before she’d even taken a step, Cyllindrethifl sniffed the air.

“Smell that?” she asked Espidreen.

The Witch likewise sniffed and nodded. “I suppose we now know where they get their crystals.”

Guano, Doremi realized. The smell of that, mixed with the aroma of ammonia, was wafting through the open portal. Somewhere ahead was obviously a large cavern that was home to a colony of bats.

The women followed the men into the next chamber as Nightshadow went back to retrieve the barrel and the big thunder stick.

“Raven, can you smell the bats?” Espidreen asked as she ducked in.

The Mistress of Freeport reached out to retrieve her bow from Doremi, who was thoughtful enough to bring it in. “Yeah, and I suspect I know why they have such a big door here--to seal the smell off from the rest of the complex,” came her answer.

Are Liches able to smell? Doremi wondered.

Several large tubs lay about the chamber along with some tin sifters and ceramic pestles. Apparently, the guano was allowed to dry, then the crystals were sifted out and later brought into the laboratory for mixture with the other ingredients.

“This bringeth up a question, Lady,” spoke up the Knight as he unsheathed his sword again. “Who closeth the gate, for it seemeth to be raised and lowered from this chamber, and not yonder?”

“That we’ll have to find out, Giles. Just keep your eyes open. Espy,” Raven now spoke to the Witch, “try and get that pit open, would you?”

The Witch laid aside her mace, then removed her pack and began looking through it. Quickly, she retrieved a scroll along with a black cloth that she unfolded and spread upon the cavern floor. It was a circular patch of black silk three feet wide emblazoned with Elven sigils, and Espidreen silently read the scroll, imbuing her with energy. Then she began speaking the sigils, each of which glowed with a silver fire until she spoke the last one, whereupon the cloth vanished, replaced with a hole several feet deep.

“I really like that spell,” Doremi leaned over and whispered to Cyllindrethifl. “It’s very handy.”

“Yes,” agreed the Elf with a nod, “Princess Lr’Zl made some wonderful spells. I admired her greatly, and have tried to emulate her.”

“Did you know her personally?”

“I did. In fact, I Fellowshipped with her for a period of time.”

Doremi was impressed. “I would have loved to meet her!”

The Bard then patted her belt pouch. “She made my pouch, you know.”

The Elf’s eyes widened and she glanced down to Doremi’s waist.

“Which one is it?” she whispered excitedly.

“The spider web one.”

“Really! She lost that one on the trail between Nordenrodd and Erin’s Gate, you know. I was with her at the time. She was very troubled at the pouch’s loss. Where did you ever come by it?”

“I got it as a treasure pick in Avalon. A vampire had come to own it somehow, and I took it as a pick since our Sorcerer wanted his spell book. It’s the most precious thing I own--other than my lute, I suppose.”

“Well, I am glad to see it in good hands.”

“It’s interesting,” Doremi spoke, “that Lr’Zl--like you--broke with tradition to learn magic and become a treasure hunter. I suppose it cost her personally, though, since she had to leave Ashvryl to do it.”

The Elf shrugged. “Fortunately for her, she was a Princess, and thus above the judgment of most others, for as a Princess she had the right to be a priestess of Brigit and thus to learn the art of Magic. Even so, her boldness in using spellcraft outside of Talon made her unpopular with many of our people as they considered it brash. Most passed it off to her youthful age, however. She was only about two hundred.”

“I don’t mean to be critical of your people, but honestly I’ve never understood the logic of abandoning the use of magic in order to honor your ancestors who died fighting Gorus. It would seem to me a greater tribute to have continued the study of magic since it was you Elves who invented it after all.”

The Druid paused for a moment and then spoke.

“There are Elves to whom that logic also makes no sense,” she admitted.

“Well, I’m glad you’re one of the exceptions, Cyllindrethifl. You’re a bright spot in this Fellowship.”

The Elf folded her hands behind her back and smiled at her. “Why thank you. I appreciate your company as well. It is a refreshing change.”

“How long have you known Raven?” the Bard now asked.

“Over twenty seasons. We met when she formed the Adventurers’ Guild with Arcana. I had heard that Witches were being invited to settle in Freeport, and I had a desire to come see the place.”

“So you’ve worked for her that long?”

“Yes,” came the answer. “Our relationship has been mutually beneficial. I have learned quite a bit from her, and the things she wishes me to do are unusual and interesting.”

Doremi glanced around the chamber. “Like spying on the School here?”

“Indeed. I found it quite stimulating to undertake the challenge of spying on Nostradamus without his being aware of it. I consider my success in that endeavor noteworthy, and a demonstration of the superiority of Elven Witchery over human Sorcery.”

“Oh you do, do you?!” Nostradmus spoke to himself as he watched them.

As the pair continued their conversation, the others had dropped the thunder sticks and the barrel of powder into the pit. Espidreen, deciding to forego her wimple, cast it inside as well, then leaned down, and in one tug pulled the patch up like a bed sheet, causing the pit to vanish.

“Done,” spoke the Witch as she then folded it for storage in her pack.

Raven nodded, pleased at the rescue of the items. “Okay,” she spoke as she nocked an arrow, “let’s take a quick gander at where this passage leads. If it doesn’t lead anyplace useful, we’ll backtrack to the stairways. Lead on, Nightshadow.”

Getting back to business, the group formed up again and started to continue east, but they had not so much as taken ten steps when danger again reared its head--and this time it would not be so easily dealt with as a golem.

As one of the warriors in the front rank stepped upon a section of flooring, a series of circles with glowing runes of power within them suddenly appeared on the ground. It happened so fast that before anyone could even react they glowed and pulsated, vanishing in a flash of red haze that arose from the floor into the shapes of some sort of creatures.

“Conjuration traps!” Cyllindrethifl shouted as she looked about the floor.

If the Fellowship had been nervous as they watched their means of escape flying away, it paled in comparison to the apprehension felt by those left behind on the Black Widow. These may have been hardened seamen, bold enough to face the terrors at sea or the wrath of pirates, but everyone knew they were out of their element here. Now, with the guardians of the voyage left behind, they were on their own.

Back flew the vessel, passing over the empty courtyard. If the truth be known, Nazier fully expected an energy blast to hit them, or, at minimum, some sort of ambush by the stone gargoyles leering down at them from every corner of the complex. But the attack never came, and in a few minutes they were retreating into the dark safety of the dragon stables.

Inside, the vessel glided to a halt and Nazier concentrated. The Widow then began pivoting about, and in a moment her prow was again facing toward the courtyard. Then Nazier shifted her laterally until her spars were against the southern wall of the stable. Finally, she touched the ground with a solid crunch as her timbers groaned from the stress of her own weight. The ship settled over with a slight list to starboard, and then she was still as her spars braced against the wall of the stables.

Nazier then let out his breath and reached over to retrieve his crossbow.

“Mister Grayson,” he whispered as he looked over to his First Mate, “check the men--remind them, no talking!”

“Aye-aye,” came the hushed response. Then the officer was gone, quietly descending to the main deck.

As he had been ordered to do, Nazier stood near the helm for a quarter of an hour in silence, giving every indication that the ship would do nothing more than wait for its passengers to return.

And Nostradamus fell for the ruse.

He had observed the ship leaving his tower and retreating back into the Aerie, thinking itself safely hidden. A few dozen sailors, even with their obvious repeating crossbows, were no more a threat to the First School than a few ants. They’d be dead even now for the sheer pleasure of the act but for the fact that the Liche had designs on the flying vessel, and he chose to let ship and crew survive until he had dealt with those who dared infiltrate his tower.

So it was, that Nostradamus chose to ignore the Black Widow and focus only upon watching the Fellowship as they made their way through his tower, just as Raven had intended he do if he became aware of their presence.

It would be one of the few parts of her intricate set of plans that would go exactly as predicted that night.

The Back Door

There was almost no time to react.

Position Two!” Raven shouted as she grabbed Doremi and shoved her roughly back against the wall of the cavern.

Already trained aboard the Widow for this, Fosmo and the Witches jumped toward the Mistress of Freeport as the other men rushed to form three sides of a square around them. Even so, they barely had time to get into position before the enemy was upon them.

Hissing in rage, a dozen creatures swarmed upon the Fellowship the instant they materialized.

Immediately Doremi’s throat tightened and became sore, and she knew these had to be demons, for anyone who’s ever had contact with them knows the sore throat that comes upon you the moment you’re in their presence.

Even apart from that, one could have guessed the Infernal origin of these creatures just by the way they looked, for while they bore the general similitude of men, that was where the resemblance ended, for each was a twisted, grotesque being that could only be born of Hell. From a pair of tiny webbed feet that seemed all too small to bear the weight of the creature, two spindly legs supported a torso that spread out in a V-shape to a bulky set of hunched shoulders from which sprouted two thin, muscular arms ending in a pair of vicious claws. The hides of the beasts also weren’t the color of flesh, but rather a pallid green marked by hosts of warts and carbuncles that only served to make them seem all the more twisted and contorted in their appearance.

Espidreen recognized them as soon as she saw them.

“Givosh demons!” she shouted as she reached for a belt stud. “They’re hard to strike, but keep attacking them!”

Quickly, the men realized what she meant: Hissing and drooling, two came at Thor, and his shield blocked the claws of one while his hammer came round to the other’s head--but the Givosh momentarily became transparent and the hammer passed right through it! Then the beast solidified again and drew a claw across the Viking’s face, opening four red gashes on his cheek as Thor reared back for another swing.

Nightshadow was having better luck--his two scimitars were slashing against a demon, and one of the strikes connected as he brought it down on the creature’s shoulder. The Givosh, stunned by the strength of the blow, failed to enact its ability to shift partially to the Ethers, and the Rogue’s next swing with the razor-sharp scimitar cut the beast in half at the waist.

Instantly, the Givosh vanished in a puff of green smoke.

Meanwhile, one of the circles had chanced to form within the square where the three women were, and Raven barely had time to drop her bow and pull the wakizashi before the monster was attacking.

The Givosh leapt forward, trying to rake Raven’s face with its claw. But even as it began the attempt, Raven enacted what Doremi later found out she called the scorpion kick, a move the Bard would have sworn was impossible for the human body to make: As the creature started its strike, Raven seemed to sense its intention, and in no more time than it would take to blink one’s eye, she leaned forward and contorted her body like a rag doll, ducking her head while twisting her torso violently to the left.

The Givosh’s claw struck only air as it missed.

A dodge like that would have been impressive enough--but that was only half the move, for as her torso bent forward and passed beneath the creature’s arm, Raven’s left leg seemed to rise behind her as a counterbalance and then snapped forward, with the flat of her heel kicking the Givosh full in the face!

The beast hadn’t been prepared, thus it failed to Ether-shift in defense, and the smack-in-the-face stunned it for a moment.

Had Raven’s move ended right there, it might justifiably have become source for the telling of a legendary blow, a tale told by Bards around the campfire of a move by a warrior so unparalleled in its effect that it merited becoming a part of Islayan history.

But it didn’t end there.

The moment her foot made contact with the face of the Givosh she snapped back, raking the blade of the wakizashi deep against the right side of the beast with the move, pushing forward on the sword’s handle with her left hand as her right and shoulder pulled back on the handle. Then, as she became upright again, the Mistress of Freeport finished by whipping the blade around in a circle and drawing it across and down the front of the beast from its shoulder to its waist.

The Givosh vanished in a puff of green smoke, and all this had taken place in no more time than it took for the beast to simply swing its claw and miss!

It was then that Doremi somehow comprehended what Nazier had been talking about, and in that same instant of time she understood both how Raven fought, and the implications of her style.

The Bard had seen countless fine warriors in her time. Men trained for battle all had a skill of learning to counter the moves of their opponents while perfecting their own strategies for attack. But these strategies varied little from man to man, and often it was the person who was fastest or strongest who came out the winner in a fight.

Typically, be one a man-at-arms or a skilled Knight, the moves were the same whether you fought man or monster, and came in a sequence of threes: Slash at the leg/shield bash/slash at the head. Or, shield bash/thrust to the torso/slash to the leg. The idea was to force the opponent to react and protect one area, then use one’s own shield either to lock the opponent’s shield to make an opening for one’s sword, or else come back with another attack to the most vulnerable part of his body.

In a way, it was much like a dance, with two warriors moving and counter-moving until one opponent out-lucked, out-fought, or out-lasted the other. Other times, the unskilled, or those with great strength or agility, might simply lash out with fast thrusts or slashes, relying on little more than luck, power, or speed to get the blow in that would put down his opponent.

The key in both cases was that combat, regardless of its speed, was generally conducted either one move at a time or three moves at a time, and that was how battles were usually fought.

But the Bard realized that Raven had taken that concept far beyond the norm. For her, an entire fight was one single move made up of many parts. Battle to her was just like a chess game: She would allow the enemy to come and make the first move--an attack she would avoid. Then she would retaliate with some sort of attack he wasn’t prepared for, calculated to make him react the most predictable way for the circumstances of the surprise. In doing so, naturally some part of him would be left vulnerable and her next attack would be right there. This would force the opponent to now react in a predictable manner from that blow, predictably exposing some other part of his body--which was her next target--and by means of this continuing sequence she would come out the winner sooner or later, for the moment her enemy missed his attack he was on the defensive from that point forward, always one step behind her as he was led like a sheep to the inevitable slaughter.

Yes, it was just like a chess game: Move and counter-move--only she was the one forcing her opponent into moving into a position she knew he would have to go, where she would already be prepared like a waiting spider to end her victim’s life while he was entangled in her web.

That was why Lightfoot had come at her, swinging as fast and as hard as he could. It was as close as he could come to mimicking what she could do, but the difference between them was the difference between night and day. His only hope was dumb luck, while every move she made was coldly and calculatingly done with the full knowledge that she would manipulate her opponent into doing exactly what she wanted without his even realizing it.

So it was, that the Givosh was dead the moment it tried to attack her. It made a strike Raven knew would cause it to lean over to its left; her superior speed allowed her to dodge, then she gave the demon a foot in the face it hadn’t been prepared for. For a split-second, that caused it to pause as the wakizashi was now dragged across its exposed right side as the monster was frozen in surprise and unable yet to respond. Instinctively, the Givosh would then flinch to its right from the cut while simultaneously trying to recover from the missed claw, leaving its left side now vulnerable and open to a final slash of the blade, sealing its doom.

And all this, Doremi somehow knew, Raven could do instinctively without even having to think about it, and she got away with it because that thin, small sword of hers seemed to strike as fast as lightning because it was like it was an extension of her arm!

It was interesting, to say the least.

A few feet distant, the men were having a tougher go of it. Their swings were much more predictable and slow, and the Givosh were phasing in and out, frustrating most of the attacks while successfully raking their opponents half the time.

One of the monsters managed to squeeze between Thor and the Highlander, heading toward the Witches. Raven, having just slain the other Givosh, saw it from the corner of her eye and managed to intercept, spinning around and blocking its advance. Snarling, the demon halted, lashing out toward her face and shoulder with its claws, but again she seemed to twist her body like it was a tree blowing in the wind, and both attacks missed. Then she pivoted back as the Givosh raised its arms for another strike, and in one flurry of moves, she brought the blade down in a slash, then up and across the torso of the creature, and finally around and back down. Two of the three blows missed as the demon managed to slip out of phase, but her last slash struck home as her foot also shot out and impacted against its knee, throwing the beast off balance as Fosmo leapt into the melee, his daggers slashing the unprepared monster in a dazzling flash of steel.

Two energy bolts from the Witches finished it off before she could do any more and the Givosh vanished, returning to the Hells from which it had come.

The demon gone, Raven took a step back toward the three women.

Shift attacks on those three,” she whispered to them as she looked across to the fight between Romulus, Giles and Nightshadow.

Both Witches seemed to understand her words and pressed forward, lining up with her as they readied their weapons.

One...two...three!” Raven whispered.

Instantly, the three women vanished, invoking shift spells, transporting themselves from within the circle to behind three Givosh fighting the men. In unison, the trio then attacked, with Raven decapitating the Givosh on Nightshadow, Cyllindrethifl driving two daggers into the back of a demon fighting Giles, and Espidreen crushing the skull of a Givosh on Romulus.

The three demons dispelled back to Hell as Nightshadow and Giles quickly took advantage of the move, leaving their positions to attack the Givosh on the group’s right flank.

But a lone demon that had been on the Gladiator now turned toward Cyllindrethifl, thinking her to be the weakest available target.

The Witch backed off, twisting and dodging its claws as the demon struck air with every swing, then the Elf’s foot shot out and struck the monster’s knee as she then leaned forward, swiping her two daggers at it in a series of lightning-fast figure 8s.

Apparently, Doremi realized, she knew some kara-te!

The Givosh lasted only a moment longer before Romulus thrust his gladius through its back and Espidreen’s mace struck it for good measure. Then it was gone.

Behind them, Thor’s slow hammer finally made solid contact with his enemy’s face, and his Givosh vanished with the blow.

Now the tide of battle was turning, for the remaining demons were being double-teamed as the formation of warriors shifted from protecting the Witches to finishing off the opponents.

But now noise had at last become a factor, for from a dark aperture ahead of them more enemies appeared: A band of six, thick-bellied ogres, attracted by the sound of battle, had come up and was peering out toward the invaders. Then, grunting in challenge, they lumbered forward.

Now if you’ve ever wondered why ogres are called ogres, it’s because they make a sort of a grunting sound that sounds like a snort, followed by a Grr. So they often sound like they’re grunting out, “Oh-grr.” And these did that as they charged forward.

They were greeted by Raven and Nightshadow who left to engage them as Doremi simultaneously reached to her belt for the flute. She began to play as soon as she whipped it up to her lips, and the last monster in the pack suddenly halted as it entered the chamber and looked about in confusion.

Then its head sunk down and the beast simply dropped to the ground, fast asleep.

The first one to reach Nightshadow raised a club over its head to strike, but was moving so fast it ran headlong into his scimitar and impaled itself, crumpling to the floor in a heap as the club dropped to the ground and the Rogue spun to the left to let him fall.

The second reached him before he could reposition, and grasped the Rogue in a bear hug, wrapping arms nearly as thick as the legs of an elephant around him, lifting Nightshadow off the floor as it sought to squeeze the life from its enemy.

The Rogue could be heard crying out in pain, then he was exerting all the strength he could muster to break the clutch. But even with the power of the Mind Sapphire behind him, the ogre somehow managed to retain its grip, exerting every ounce of strength it had in hope of crushing his spine.

Finally, Nightshadow released his right scimitar and struggled to free his right arm. Kicking and twisting, he managed to get the hand free and reached up to grasp the throat of the ogre.

Then he started to squeeze.

Almost instantly, the ogre released its grip and brought its hands to the Rogue’s hand, desperately trying to break his grip. But now Nightshadow was at full strength, the Talisman shining brightly, and he was squeezing the beast’s throat as hard as he could.

In moments, there came a snapping sound and the monster fell limp, hunched against its enemy’s shoulders. Then, with a grunt, Nightshadow stiffened his body and raised his arm to lift the ogre off of him--and he hurled the thousand-pound carcass across the cavern and into a wall with no more effort than one might toss a pillow!

Thor, meanwhile, had disengaged from the last two remaining Givosh and charged forward to meet an oncoming ogre at least two feet taller and hundreds of pounds heavier than himself.

Both collided at a full run, but the Viking held his ground, halting the ogre with a wicked bash of his shield as he braced it with both arms. Then he swung the hammer into the left knee of the ogre for all he was worth, and the monster cried out in pain as it brought its own club down upon the shoulder of its foe.

The Viking was jolted by the blow, but immediately lashed back with the hammer, swinging it again at the ogre’s knee while driving the top of his shield up into the bottom of the ogre’s jaw with a THUD.

Og Face-Cutter, chieftain of the ogres, was a bit smaller than the others, but he was twice as smart as any of them (nearly as bright as a ten-year-old spoiled child), and his one great possession was the glowing blade given him by one of the Conclave some time in the past. The blade was long as a human greatsword, and Og eagerly wielded it with one hand against anyone failing to obey him with sufficient zeal. Thus, his kingdom had been whittled down to five ogres from thirty over the past few years, so he rarely unsheathed it anymore since the loss of any more of the tribe would leave him to scoop crystals from the bat droppings instead of being overseer.

So it was, that Og Face-Cutter gazed out with delight at the intruders before him engaged in battle with some demons. This was precisely what he had been waiting for: someone outside the tribe to practice on--who probably had treasure to boot--and the skinny human female in the dark blue cloak was made to order! He’d kill her, then take his choice of the best loot and meat when the fight was over.

His tribe, meanwhile, had their own designs on the fresh meat, and pressed forward for the kill. One of them, in his excitement, made it no further than a masked warrior who drove a scimitar into him and killed him on the spot. Then another of the tribe, right on his heels, grabbed the masked man in a death hug.

Calling behind him for Orgoth, last of the ogres, to back him up, Og Face-Cutter yanked the sword from its sheath and lumbered forward.

Another of the tribe managed to reach the woman first, and made a bad swing with a long stalactite he used as a club. The blow didn’t even come close, and the female rewarded the miss by whipping her own sword against the ogre’s right leg. Screaming, the beast went down like a tree to the woodsman’s axe, but then Og Face-Cutter reached her. At sight of him, she was backing away from the fallen ogre as it howled in pain. Then Og’s own sword whipped down toward her, but his own swing missed too!

Quickly as he could, the ogre chieftain then began whipping the sword from side to side in a wild series of X-like slashes, trying to hit the woman as he wondered where Orgoth was.

It was like trying to hit a chicken with a tree trunk--each blow missed, and no help was coming from Orgoth as the masked man a few feet away now snapped the neck of the tribe mate on him with one hand and threw him across the chamber!

Then the woman paused, and Og Face-Cutter made his final move, swinging his sword down on her in a great slash with all the strength he had, knowing that any connection would spell her doom from the sheer force of the blow.

But the blade snapped in half as the woman intentionally struck it with her own sword, and by the time the ogre chieftain’s blow came to the end of its arc, all that remained in its hand was the broken hilt of what had once been a mighty blade.

A moment later, he felt a burning in his belly and instinctively looked down as the woman’s sword now raked across his throat. Then a trident struck him in the chest and he was swallowed up in a web of electricity.

Screeching, the beast instinctively backed away, tripping over his fallen tribe mate, and as things went dark for the last time, Og Face-Cutter’s final thought was to wonder who these people were.

Doremi watched the fight with fascination. The armed ogre had come at Raven swinging a two-handed sword for all he was worth. She dodged several of the blows, then held her ground and paused, allowing the monster to take one last swing. Then, as the ogre brought the sword down, she whipped up the wakizashi and the two blades collided.

Instantly, the ogre’s glowing sword snapped in two, and instinctively Doremi stiffened and hunched down, fearing that an explosion might occur, for she’d seen that happen before: One comrade of hers from earlier times had chanced to find a sword everyone concluded was probably made by a 20th-circle wizard, for it could cut through most anything. Because of its power and durability, its wielder had made a common practice of using it to shatter his opponents’ own swords before dispatching them.

The strategy worked great until he chanced to wind up in a duel against someone else with a 20th-circle sword who used the same strategy. Both blades shattered as they struck each other, and the accompanying explosion nearly killed both men!

That ended the fight, but they both paid with the loss of their weapons.

Fortunately, there was no explosion as Raven broke the ogre’s blade, then brought the wakizashi about in a lateral swipe from left to right against the beast’s tummy, laying it open. A moment later, she had arced her hands around and made an upward slash about the beast’s throat. Then, from somewhere behind the Bard, Romulus took the opportunity to test out his new trident, hurling it into the chest of the monster, and the trident transformed itself into a shaft of lightning, exploding into the beast.

The beast then took a dirt nap for good as the trident reappeared at the Gladiator’s feet.

Raven made a quick scowl back toward Romulus--she’d have been electrocuted if she’d made another strike into the beast as the Gladiator’s trident had struck.

Romulus shrugged at her. “Next time, I’ll know,” was his response.

The incident was forgotten as Raven caught sight of Thor, still battling his own ogre. It took no more time than that for her dagger to streak toward it and lodge in its neck, then the Viking used his own great strength to shove the beast into the limestone cavern wall and pummel its face with the hammer. He bashed it with the shield once more, then made another blow with the hammer against its head, and the ogre slumped forward, falling to the ground with a crash as the Scandian stepped aside looking around for other enemies. But none was left to his sight save for the one whose screams ended as Raven thrust the wakizashi into its head.

The Viking’s chest was heaving as he took in deep breaths and expunged a combination of blood and spittle.

“Good fight! Good fight!” he was muttering.

Far above them, the Liche cared not for the battle, but instead was communicating with one of the most powerful guardians of the Upper School--one he could actually rely upon to bring some harm to these intruders.

“You will unable to slay him directly, so use your powers to wear down the one in the mask,” he was hissing into the air as his words carried downward on an Ethereal wind. “Your continued existence is secondary to your primary charge of wounding and weakening the one in the mask and the warriors around him. Do so effectively, and I may relieve you of having to sacrifice yourself to assure the death of one or more of them. Now go, and do not fail me or you know what to expect!”

Hundreds of feet below, the Liche’s words were heard and obeyed as a shadowy figure began flying out of the forgotten area of the complex it normally called home, toward its unsuspecting prey.

With Thor’s ogre hitting the ground, the battle was finally over and the Fellowship grouped together, agitated but remaining alert.

“Everyone elixir up,” Raven ordered as her head darted back and forth, satisfying herself that no new enemies were ready to join battle. “Let’s stay healthy. Even if you’re not scratched, stay fresh.”

Thor exhaled one last deep breath and reached down into his pouch for a crystal vial. “We don’t have things like these potions in Scandia,” he spoke as he held it up before him. “This will heal me up, you say?”

“That’s right,” Raven answered him as she also reached for one. “It will refresh your energy and heal your wounds. You won’t even have a scar--which is a good thing since it looks like you took a good hit to your face, Thor.”

The Viking paused as he brought the elixir to his lips. “Any way for it to work and let me keep the scars?” he asked, looking around to the women.

Cyllindrethifl cocked her head to the left and gave the Norseman a puzzled look. “Why would you wish to keep the scars?” she wondered.

“They’re tokens of battle,” came Thor’s answer. “No one respects an unscarred warrior.”

“I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it, Thor,” Espidreen replied, shaking her head.

This brought a chuckle from Raven.

“Espy--I can actually remember when we would just have to pour some honey on a wound, bandage it up, and hope for the best since our Witch didn’t even have a healing spell, starting out.”

“As can I. Fortunately, those days are long behind us, Raven.”

“Yeah,” she said quietly as she shathed the katana and leaned down to retrieve the bow from the floor. “Long behind us.”

Hearing the conversation about warriors with scars, Nightshadow now took the opportunity to lift the left cuff of his black shirt up to reveal a thick, discolored band running across the top of his wrist, clearly a scar from some old battle.

Thor looked over and shook his head as he swallowed the elixir.

The Rogue paused a moment and then lifted his sleeve higher, until he displayed a rather nasty purple scar upon his forearm almost three inches long, appropriately surrounded by some discolored skin.

Thor glanced down, shrugged, and almost nodded--but not quite.

Somewhat frustrated, Nightshadow lowered his sleeve, looked around, and then said, “Well--what about a permanent limp caused by fighting a dragon? Would Scandians respect that?!”

“Absolutely,” the Viking confirmed. “We’d sing songs of such a warrior.”

Then the Viking grinned. “Know of one?” he asked, teasingly.

Satisfied, Nightshadow said nothing more.

“I’ll say this,” Mac Tavish now spoke up as he approached, “--if that’s the best the Liche can thrrow at us....”

“It’s not, Clansman,” Espidreen assured him. “This is nothing.”

“That’s right,” Raven added. “But it does seem to be the best he had guarding his back door.”

“Still, keepin’ it all in perspective,” Fosmo spoke, “that woulda been a tough fight for a normal group of treasure hunters. Even Arcana’s group might have had a time of it with all them demons at once, eh.”

Romulus, who’d been readjusting his armor after the battle, glanced over to Raven. “You think Arcana’s group could have made it this far?” he wondered.

“No,” Espidreen answered for her. “Their map led to the catacombs, and they were only going to loot treasure from down there. Under no circumstances would they have risked penetrating the Upper School, and especially this complex!”

“At least,” Raven spoke, “that was the plan. I suppose we’ll never know exactly what happened to them, but they must have died in the catacombs. They invited me, and I almost went with them on that expedition, you know. But fortunately I was busy at the time. I warned them it was a bad idea, but they didn’t listen to me.

“Ever notice,” Raven now said, looking to Espidreen, “how people who don’t listen to me have a bad habit of winding up dead?”

“I have, Raven,” answered the Witch with a nod.

“Arcana should have listened to me. She’d be alive today if she had.”

“Frankly, I’m glad we had this fight,” Cyllindrethifl now spoke. “I was starting to get nervous over the complete lack of any real opposition.”

“Makes two of us,” Raven agreed. “This does give me pause to think, though: There’s no question this is a back way into the Upper School. If the best he had to guard it was a dozen demons and a few ogres, that tells me he isn’t really worried about anyone attacking him here.”

“You mean he hasn’t really planned for it?” queried the Elf.

Raven nodded. “I don’t even think he fears Throckmorton’s attacking him here. If he did, he’d have had this door guarded by a whole lot more than these lackeys,” she answered, jerking her thumb back toward the fallen ogres. “I think Espidreen may have hit the nail on the head when she mentioned there are bounds that the two Liches don’t go beyond. Apparently, Nostradamus, at least, presumes Throckmorton won’t risk a direct attack against him up here. If he was worried about that, I think our fight here would have been a lot tougher.

“No,” the Mistress of Freeport concluded, “if I’m reading his strategy correctly, I don’t think the Liche has...” she searched for the right words “--dedicated himself to defending this place to the full potential of his abilities. In other words, whatever guardians there are up here, I suspect are not remotely as powerful or as dangerous as they could be. Cyl--he’s relying, not reacting!”

React, don’t rely,” the Elf muttered. “Possibly, Raven. But I wouldn’t rely on that theory myself. We may just have been lucky.”

“I think we’ll find out soon enough as we penetrate other areas of the tower, Cyl. But certainly we stay careful.”

“And stay on guard,” Espidreen added.

Romulus dropped his empty vial on the ground and retrieved the trident. “I don’t know much about demons. Would a Necromancer have been able to banish these without us fighting them?” he asked, looking back to the Witches.

“Probably not,” Espidreen responded. “Under normal circumstances, a powerful Necromancer might be able to exorcise these and send them back to Hell, but this close to the Pit...even with us technically outside of the School, I doubt it. The power that conjured them is just too powerful to overcome by that of a deity foreign to the School.”

“Is therre anythin’ that might prrotect us frrom ‘em if we find s’morre? Like a crross orr somethin’?” the Highlander now asked.

The Witch shook her head. “Excepting a Necromancer using them to exorcise some Nether creature, crosses only work on vampires like pentagrams only work on werewolves. They are no direct protection against demons.”

“Strange, too,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up, “that crosses have such an effect on vampires. You wouldn’t think that a mere symbol could so terrorize them.”

“That is a mystery,” Espidreen agreed.

“Oh, I know why they work,” Doremi now interjected from a few feet distant.

All eyes turned toward her, and when she didn’t immediately follow up, Espidreen spoke. “Well--are you going to make us beg you?!”


Quickly, the Bard fumbled beneath the front of her blouse and came up with a golden symbol hanging from a leather thong. It looked like a “T” with an oval circle centered atop it.

“See this cross-like symbol?” Doremi continued. “This is called an ankh. It’s a symbol from ancient Karnak.”

“I’ve seen those before,” Raven noted, peering to the symbol.

Doremi nodded. “Well, the Karnakis worshipped sun gods, among others, and the ankh was symbolic of the sunrise, with the loop representing the sun rising above the horizon which is represented by the crossbar. Now since vampires are killed by sunlight, this symbol of the sunrise somehow affects them, and causes them to recoil. Crosses aren’t exactly like ankhs, but they’re close enough that they work like ankhs. At least, that’s my theory.”

Raven looked over to Espidreen, who shrugged.

“Well, I suppose that does make some degree of sense,” the Witch remarked.

“You’ve tried this against vampires?” Cyllindrethifl asked her.

“Well, no,” Doremi admitted. “And I hope never to have to. But I do think that’s why crosses work against vampires.”

“Good an answer as any,” Raven concluded. “Oh, and Cyl--good fight against that demon.”

The Elf nodded. “React, don’t rely,” she repeated.

“Well--where to now?” Thor asked as he lifted his hammer and indicated the way forward. “Continue down there, or do we go back?”

Raven weighed the options for a moment, looking back and forth. “Let’s try a quick look ahead,” she decided, “and then we can go back and take our chances with those blasted stairways.”

“Too bad we couldn’t have taken one of these ogres alive and questioned him about the way up to the tower,” Espidreen mused.

“Oh--you know, that ogre over there by the hole is only sleeping. We could wake him up and ask him, assuming someone speaks ogre,” Doremi announced.

Raven looked up. “You mean we’ve got a sleeper?!” she asked excitedly.

Doremi nodded and pointed toward Orgoth.

Orgoth wasn’t as smart as Og Face-Cutter, but he was smart enough to know this was the time to run for it. Doremi’s spell-song had worn off a few moments before, and he had opened one eye to see if it was safe, since a discomforting silence met his ears rather than the sounds of battle.

As he squinted and looked, the ogre could see lying about him the bodies of the rest of the tribe while the Humans stood together a few yards away. Orgoth was going to play dead and bluff it out, but then he saw a female pointing toward him and the rest glancing his way.

They must have seen him open his eye!

In a move surprisingly nimble for a creature of his size, but born from a knowledge that it was escape or die, Orgoth rolled to his knees, stood up--and bolted back down the aperture he’d come up from, his legs racing to put distance between the he and the enemies.

“Hey, somebody--”

Raven didn’t need to finish because the Highlander was charging after the beast with the Knight right on his heels.

The Swarm

The two passed through the hole to emerge in a chamber that was another conglomeration of finished stone and natural cavern, but with a decrepit and abandoned look to it. Neither of the men had time to take a good look, for the ogre was running downward upon a wide path leading off to the southeast, a path where the putrid smell of guano wafted up toward them.

The Knight and the Highlander followed him down, twisting and turning, and both hunters and hunted finally emerged into a large dark cavern. Here was a rift in the ground, its limestone walls stretching down into the bowels of the great mountain upon which the School was built. Two narrow paths ran along the cavern to either side of the rift and the ogre took the one on the right, which led forward and then bore left until it cut right once again, vanishing out of view.

Mac Tavish, forced to slow down, stayed with the ogre, but Giles paused as he entered the chamber and took a quick look about. Then he started down the left path, since the two looked as if they might intersect at some easternmost point, and perhaps the creature could be trapped between them and attacked from both sides.

The rest of the Fellowship weren’t far behind, and were hurrying after.

Also hurrying to the scene was what they did not see: a large black bat that flew with them. It flapped its wings silently, flitting from shadow to shadow, staying near the roof of the passage, as it made its way toward the sounds of the pursuing party.

Focused as they were on following their comrades after the escaping ogre, no one caught sight of the creature as it emerged into the cavern with them and flew upward until it was beyond the range of their lockets of light.

The Highlander and Knight had rushed beyond the group’s sight, and now faced with a choice of paths, the others halted for a moment, trying to decide which way was best.

Then everyone heard it: a rustling, like the flapping of many wings coming from within the blackness of the void, a noise that grew louder each moment--and no sooner did they hear it, then they were smothered in bats!

Thousands upon thousands of bats!

An uncountable army that swarmed up from the rift like some blackened cloud of smoke from a furnace, and all the spellcraft, sword prowess, or skill in kara-te in the world couldn’t save them from the horror everyone now found themselves in.

For a brief moment, Raven held her composure and froze, knowing that bat swarms won’t actually make contact with you if you keep still, but instead will fly around you.

These didn’t.

They swarmed at the Fellowship like hail from the sky, wings buffeting, teeth slashing and claws raking. Dozens were on each of the eight heroes, and no one could do anything but thrash about, trying to ward them off.

Doremi instantly dropped, trying to pull her cloak around her head, and curled up into a ball as the Gladiator tripped and went down on top of her, his half-naked body an inviting feast to the devilish bats that fastened onto his exposed limbs and began sucking the lifeblood from him.

The mighty Thor, equally helpless, swung his shield around, trying to swat them away, but several fastened upon his face, forcing him to drop the hammer and tear at them, crushing the small creatures as quickly as he could grasp them.

It took no longer than the time it took for the first one to scratch her face for Raven to realize these bats weren’t benign, but the Mistress of Freeport was totally caught off guard and could do little more than wrap her cloak about her while trying to move out of the way of the swarm.

Espidreen was screaming in panic, ducking and swinging her mace in wild arcs against the black mass upon her while Nightshadow, equally helpless, flailed about with the scimitars, unsure what to do.

Only Cyllindrethifl was able to think fast enough to react. Pulling the cloak about her with her left hand, her right reached into a pouch for a small pumpkin. Managing to focus her concentration for a moment, she cast the pumpkin to the ground at her feet as the bats swarmed about her, trying to attack.

With a WHOOSH, a ball of orange fire exploded around them dropping a host of the creatures to the ground, and for a moment the area was cleared.

The Elf didn’t pause. No sooner had the first fireball went off, then she was going for another and cast down a second small pumpkin a few feet away to kill more of the bats.

Another ball of fire exploded about the group and though everyone’s skin was singed and blistered, the space was momentarily cleared about the party.

That bought the other Witches just enough time to react.

Espidreen managed regain her composure, dropping the mace as she intoned an energy blast spell in record time. A ball of orange plasma appeared in her palm and she threw it against the wall before them. Immediately, an explosion rang out through the cavern as the plasma exploded into a ball of energy, incinerating most of the rest of the bats that had come up into the cavern while again catching half the group in its blast.

Now Raven had her own opportunity to attack with a witchfire spell, bringing her hands together with her palms spread outward, and a stream of red flame shot out in an arc, consuming every bat it came into contact with.

It took but a moment to empty the cavern above everyone with what remained of the first wave of bats, and then she directed the fan of red plasma flame down into the rift, a roof of flame to impede the onslaught that continued to seek its way up and out of the chasm.

Quickly, Cyllindrethifl moved up and cast in her own energy blast. The ball of plasma sailed downward until it hit the cavern floor somewhere below and a massive explosion, far stronger than she expected, went off as the guano and assorted minerals down there ignited, spewing up a host of charred bats in the rush of flame like a volcanic eruption.

Yet that was only the first blast, for even as it went off, the sound of other blasts came to their ears as some huge area beneath them erupted into flame from the initial spell, sending up a wall of fire running along the length of rift.

Those of the Fellowship near the rift were almost roasted by the flames, but as quickly as the fire erupted, it settled back down, leaving behind the acrid smell of burnt bats and smoking flesh.

Then all was quiet, and everyone had pause to take a breath. Espidreen had scratches upon her face and hands. Thor had a variety of bleeding bites upon his face. Raven had a long cut running down her cheek. Fosmo, beyond a dozen bat bites, had a bruised lip from where he’d struck himself while trying to rebuff the attacks.

All this was in addition to their red, blistered skin from the variety of spells they’d thrown.

Members of a half-dead party thus looked back and forth at each other and, as if on cue, began reaching in pouches for elixirs.

“This is disgusting,” Raven spoke, wiping some blood off her face with a gloved hand. “A bevy of bats caused us to do more harm to ourselves than a dozen demons from Hell! This is why, Cyl and Espy, I say never to underestimate the power of a weaker opponent with a superior plan, or plain dumb luck on their side!”

React, don’t rely,” Cyllindrethifl muttered once again.

“Those were not normal bats, Raven,” Espidreen spoke as she unstopped an elixir and drained it. “Normal bats won’t attack people,” she added, throwing the empty vial down the rift.

“Rabid bats do,” grunted the crimson gladiator, who was almost drenched in his own blood. “Or so I've heard.”

“You--think we might get rabies?” Doremi nervously asked as she regained her feet and double-checked to make certain her lute was all right, and that she hadn’t taken any bad bites.

“Won’t the elixirs--” Thor began.

“They restore vigor and heal damage, not diseases,” Cyllindrethifl broke in. “It takes a separate spell for that.”

Fosmo, wiping his own flesh clean of blood with his sleeve, now spoke. “How about casting some of those spells, ladies? Might be a good precaution, eh.”

“Waste seven, fourth rank spells?!” Raven exclaimed. “Forget it, Fosmo. We’ll take our chances.”

Thor’s head turned ‘round to give her a Let’s think about that look.

“People, rabies takes weeks to kick in,” Raven reasoned. “Tomorrow, after we’re done here and have our spells back, we’ll cast all the disease-curing spells you want. Even if all of us have rabies, we wouldn’t feel it for weeks.”

“But what if these are some kind of evil, mutated, monster bats, whose rabies affects you in hours instead of weeks?” Doremi wondered, giving in to her natural fears.

“What if they’re vampiric bats that turn us into vampires?! What if they’re lycanthropic bats that turn us into were-vampires at the next full moon?! What if?! What if?!”

“You know, she could be right, Raven,” Romulus spoke, backing up the Bard.

The Mistress of Freeport let out an irritated breath. “As soon as someone starts feeling sick, then we’ll cast them! Can you all hold off ‘til then instead of having the Witches use up all their fourth rank spells on nothing more than speculation?! What if we run into some mummies, and your arm starts rotting off? You’ll wish they had those spells then, won’t you?!”

“Raven,” Espidreen spoke, “it might be wise, just for caution’s sake, to have one of us cast it on ourselves--just in case. That way, if somehow a disease off these creatures starts to hit us all at once, that person will be able to heal the others.”

Raven, still annoyed, gave in. “Fine. Cyl, go ahead and cast it on yourself.”

Espidreen’s eyes widened at her mistress. “Well...why should she be the one to do that? I came up with the idea!”

Raven’s eyes narrowed, and she glowered at the Witch. “How about, because she has twice the spells you do, and can afford to waste one better than you can? Is that a good enough answer for you, Espidreen?!”

Espidreen paused a moment. “I don’t think that’s very fair,” the Witch then muttered under her breath as she turned away to retrieve the mace off the ground, clearly unhappy. “It was my idea.”

The Mistress of Freeport let out a second irritated breath. “Cyl,” she spoke with gritted teeth, “cast it on Espidreen so she can stay focused the rest of the night. We wouldn’t want her falling prey to some evil, mutated monster bat disease that affects you in mere hours instead of weeks, now would we?!”

The Elf hesitated a moment. “Raven, I do think it would be most sensible to cast it on myself,” she opined. “As you point out, I do have twice the spells, and that way, I can be certain of handling the entire par--”

Raven’s scowl brought the sentence to a quick end, and the Druid-Witch reached into her belt pouch for some herbs.

But now Espidreen was offended.

“I’ll not be talked to like some child--she can keep her spell! I won’t let her touch me!”

Raven now let out a third exasperated breath and shut her eyes in frustration.

A few yards away, Thor leaned over to Nightshadow.

“Still wonder why I left Sif home?” he muttered quietly, nodding toward the women. “This is what happens when you bring women along!”

He may have said it under his breath, but the females in the party still heard it clearly enough, and were appropriately offended, forgetting their own conflicts to give the Scandian some nasty looks.

The Mistress of Freeport started to turn and give him a piece of her mind, but then she regained control and simply paused and threw her hands up over the whole thing.

The group hadn’t even entered the branch taken by Mac Tavish and Giles before the bat had been summoning the swarm from deep below. Then, lost as it was in the swarm of its fellows that met the party as they emerged, the creature continued after the pair who had separated from the rest, hoping to slay them out of sight of the others.

Mac Tavish and Giles, meanwhile, pursued Orgoth along both sides of the rift, but it was the Highlander who caught up to him, forcing the monster to fight.

The bat, meanwhile, had flown up to the top of the cavern and, hidden in shadow, transformed itself. Where there had been a bat before, now a shadow within the shadows silently crawled along the roof and sides of the cavern like some sort of gecko stalking its prey.

Ahead and below, the Highlander was thrusting and slashing at the ogre who was trying--unsuccessfully--to get in a good pummel against the wiry warrior with its fists.

Unseen, a black finger then pointed at the fighter, and as he swung it, the claymore flew from Mac Tavish’s grasp, falling down the rift.

The Highlander nearly froze in shock, he was so surprised at losing the blade, and Orgoth struck him full in the face, flinging him back and dropping him to the ground. The beast wasted no time following up and stepped forward, trying to smash the fallen Highlander.

Mac Tavish rolled to his side and the blow missed, striking the floor of the path. Then, as the ogre growled and leaned back to strike once more, the Highlander was scrambling back like a crab, trying to get away.

Orgoth missed again but kept lumbering forward, determined to slay his attacker. Mac Tavish, meanwhile, had managed to get to his feet and was trying to draw the dirk from his boot since his axe had been knocked loose and left behind during the struggle.

A few yards away, Giles could do nothing but watch. Then the thought came to him, Jump across the pit and save him. You can reach the other side. It’s not too far!

Without pausing to think, the Knight obligingly stepped to the edge of the rift and hunched down, preparing to leap the twenty-foot chasm. At nearly the last moment, he regained his senses and shook his head, realizing he must be mad--he could never jump that far!

“Highlander!” he then shouted out as he recovered, tossing his own sword toward the unarmed warrior.

Mac Tavish caught the move from the corner of his eye and jumped up, hands clutching for the enchanted blade. In one lucky move, he caught the hilt with his left hand, then brought his right onto the hilt as well while falling back down and whipping the blade down and across the chest of the ogre.

No sooner had that strike ended, then he was whipping it up and to the left, slashing open the beast’s body.

The first blow caught the monster unprepared and interrupted its own attack as Orgoth staggered backward to take the second slash. The beast cried out in pain, and then as that slash reached its zenith, the red-headed human was flipping his hands to the left and back over his left shoulder--only to then plunge the blade into the ogre’s chest!

It was then that an explosion sounded from somewhere down the pit, but Orgoth saw only the flame that he was being pitched down toward as the Highlander withdrew the blade by kicking him over the side of the path into the chasm below.

The beast now dead, Mac Tavish let out a breath and looked back to Giles, managing a nod in thanks for his help, though it could not but irk him to accept aid from a Knight of all people!

Two spells later, the rest of the group were preparing to split up down the paths when the pair returned, saving them the trouble. Raven, catching sight of the Highlander carrying the Knight’s sword and his own axe, was surprised and stiffened up, looking as if she wanted to know what was happening. Neither of them explained, however, and Mac Tavish handed the blade over with a grunted “Thanks”.

The Highlander then caught sight of Raven’s surprise. “Lost m’ best claymorre overr the side, ‘n he loaned me his,” he explained. “What was wi’ that firre, by the way? Nearrly rroasted us, y’ know!”

“We were attacked by bats, and had to burn them up,” Doremi answered him.

The Highlander gazed back toward the rift. “Don’ s’ppose therre’s any way we can go get the claymorre, eh?”

Fosmo grimaced, suspecting a cavern-climb was coming.

“I can take care of that,” Espidreen spoke up, removing her pack. She quickly rummaged inside and came up with two skeletal hands that she placed in her palms. Concentrating, the Witch intoned her spell.

Hands in life, taken by knife, arise to my call, be servant in all.”

She withdrew her hands and the bony hands remained floating in the air, apparently waiting to do as she willed.

“If you’ll show me where you lost the sword, I’ll send these down to fetch it,” the Witch spoke.

The Highlander pointed back the way he’d come and the two set off down that way as Raven paused and turned to Cyllindrethifl while Doremi took the opportunity to update her maps.

“Cyl,” Raven called.

The Druid glanced over.

“Pen and paper--I want to let Morgaine, back in Freeport, know how we’re doing.”

She nodded and began fumbling around in a large belt pouch for a pen and paper that she handed over to her mistress. Then she removed a small mahogany box and waited as Raven hastily wrote out her message.

Raven finished, folded the letter, and Cyllindrethifl slid open the box so the note could be placed within. She then slid the top closed, and concentrated. There was a WHOOSH from inside, and then smoke wafted up from the box as the note vanished.

Message box, huh?” Doremi remarked as she sketched out the path they’d taken on her map. “I’ve never seen one before, but that’s got to be one of the most handy magic items ever made.”

“We agree,” Raven answered. “Unfortunately, we only have two, of which Cyl’s, here, is one. The other is in the Guild offices in Torrence. Wish we had more.”

“We may find another before we’re done tonight, Raven,” the Elf pointed out. “The First School must have one or more within its confines.”

“Well, we’ll put it to good use if we do get our hands on it, I’ll promise you that!” Raven spoke as she retrieved her bow.

Not every invader in the Upper School was nervous and apprehensive. A few hundred yards away, the Vikings were eagerly rushing through a portal, emerging into the hold of the Black Widow. Quick as they entered, the crew were shushing them, trying to keep down the noise of their exhilaration, but it was a hard task--these warriors had been waiting months for this, and now the time for battle was nearing!

After the last of the Vikings had entered, a hooded figure emerged behind them, hands clasped behind her back.

It was Venivica.

The Witch looked about, surveying the hold and the anxious Vikings. Then, with a wave of her hand, she indicated the portal to her right.

“Rolf,” she spoke, “this stone panel goes to the north, the other to the south. Set them up inside the stairways and stand guard out of view of anyone in the Upper School who may look toward the stairs. When the other two Witches arrive, follow their orders, and you’ll take up positions at the head of the stairs.”

The Viking nodded his understanding and looked back to his men. “We need those two walls lifted up on deck and then taken with us,” he said in Norse to his men as he indicated two of the three permanent teleportals. “Some of you get on deck and let down some ropes to haul them up.”

Several of the strongest Vikings answered the call and mounted the ladder up to the main deck as others started to maneuver the ten-foot square panels beneath the open hatch. After lines were secured to the frames, the Vikings began hefting the first teleportal up and then muscled it onto the deck with them. The Widow’s regular crew now took over, sliding it over toward the side of the ship in preparation for lowering it to the floor of the stables.

Jon,” Rolf spoke once more to one of the Norse as he clapped his hand upon the man’s shoulder, “see to your side. Take the wall part way down the stairs and hide there with it. You and your men will join us after one of their Witches comes through with the Dwarves.”

Jon nodded and turned away, climbing up to the deck as three other Vikings moved the starboard teleportal into place beneath the hatch, awaiting its turn to be lifted on deck.

“Very good, Rolf,” Venivica went on. “Now you may not see me again until you’re finished here. Until then, do as the Witches bid you, and may your gods grant you good fortune and spoil this night.”

Alu!” Rolf spoke, raising his sword to her.

Bonam fortunam!” the Witch responded with a nod. Then she turned about to step through the second portal, vanishing from their view.

Venivica emerged into a vast cavern somewhere deep beneath the surface of Jewel and quickly took a look around to orient herself. A great rumbling sound pervaded the place, and the heat was almost as hard to bear as the smell of sulfur that nearly choked her. The whole area was lit by the flames of lava running below her, a great underground river of molten rock that bathed the walls above it in an eerie orange glow.

She was not alone, for dozens of Dwarves, armed with everything from swords and axes, to copies of Raven’s repeating crossbows, were grouped around the thick slab of blue stone erected at the edge of the precipice from which she had emerged.

“Everything is going according to plan,” the Witch spoke to the assemblage as she looked them over. “They’ve been in the tower for an hour now, and haven’t met any resistance from the Liches.”

That was as far as she got as a spontaneous cheer erupted from the ranks of the Dwarves.

“Give them another three-quarters of an hour or so to get the portals situated, then come on through,” she continued.

Another cheer rose up from the anxious warriors and Venivica now turned to one of her cohorts, a younger, black-haired woman, dressed like herself.

“You have your scrolls ready, Varinia?” she asked.

The woman lifted a scroll book in response, nodding.

“Excellent. What’s there should be sufficient to provide you with at least some defensive magic against a large group of attackers. As for the teleportal spells, Espidreen thinks that once Nostradamus is dead, the spells preventing the opening of teleportals within the Upper School will be canceled. You can then portal the Dwarves back to Orlon. Assuming that does not work, make for the Black Widow.”

“How will we know the right time to go?” the younger Witch asked.

“They plan on sending you word through a message box. When you get it, immediately try to open a teleportal because the ship will be leaving to pick them up at the tower. If the portal does not open, do as I said and make for the ship. They’ll spot you coming and wait for you to board before continuing on to the tower. There is, however, always the chance that Cyllindrethifl may somehow die or lose the box, which means they won’t be able to contact you. If that happens, you’re on your own. Use your best judgment, but stay as long as possible.”

Venivica now redirected her attention to the Dwarves. “You’re certain this slab of stone will not melt down in lava?” she queried, running her gloved hand along the side of the monolith.

One of the Dwarves nodded. “This is the strongest marble in Naz-Al. It would take the breath of a dragon to melt it.”

Satisfied with the answer, she stepped away from the edge of the chasm. “Excellent. I will take my leave of you now. Good luck to all of you.”

The Dwarves likewise wished her well as she removed a scroll from a pouch hanging at her side and unrolled it.

Return,” she then spoke, vanishing from their sight.

“So, we ready to move on?”

It was Thor who spoke, slipping the loop of the big hammer over his glove, prepared once more for battle.

Since they were again healed up, the group once more fell into marching order at his words, and the Viking began leading the way back, followed by Nightshadow and the others.

Still unnoticed, the shadow trailed behind, concentrating and summoning its next attack on the group.

It took only a few moments to leave the bat cavern and re-enter the larger chamber they’d briefly traversed. As they’d noted, this area had a somewhat cluttered look to it, for the floor was covered with a conglomeration of dirt, guano, and silt, interspersed with crumbling bits of masonry or fallen pillars. Eastward, a set of small stone buildings, stacked in three levels atop each other and reached by steep stone stairways, had been cut from the walls of the cavern. None had doors, though some had tattered rags or old blankets as substitutes.

They chose not to explore these, presuming them to be quarters of the ogres. Instead, they fixed their attention on a hall of finished stone running north.

It seemed a bit more intact, with its limestone floor and walls polished and whitened, though cracks and holes showed here and there along its length as the group passed through. Quickly enough, the hall came to its end and the Fellowship found themselves at the bottom of a circular shaft thirty feet wide. Here, the roof towered forty or fifty feet above, barely visible in the light from their lockets. To reach it, they would have to ascend a narrow staircase that spiraled its way up the sides of the shaft until it reached a landing far above.

“That, my friends,” Raven spoke with a satisfied smile as she peered upward into the shadows, “leads up to the fourth level!”

The others nodded in satisfaction and were about to mount the stairs, but then they heard it: The noise came to everyone’s ears from what seemed all directions, but particularly from the hall they’d just came in from. It was cacophony of squeaks from many small creatures running swiftly--and getting closer each moment!

“Up those stairs!” Giles cried out.

He may not have been the leader of the group, but no one had to think twice as Nightshadow rushed to the steps, followed by Thor and the others, single file, as they sought to put distance between themselves and whatever was coming.

The stairs were so steep and narrow they were hardly different from climbing a ladder, and one slip could mean a fall over the side. Thus, the group moved slowly, like some great snake, winding its way up toward safety as whatever behind them got closer.

Then they appeared, swarming onto the floor of the chamber.


An entire army of rats, churning in toward them like a great black wave washing against a pier. They poured in from both the hallway and from cracks in the masonry on the sides of the shaft, then began piling up atop each other at the foot of the stairs making a mound that others climbed upon to reach the stairs behind the party. A few even jumped up toward the heroes, and one actually made it onto Romulus’ shoulder, biting and holding on only to be crushed as the Gladiator instinctively drove his back against the wall.

At the sight of them, Espidreen panicked and froze only ten feet above the undulating mass of rats, her eyes locked upon the horrid creatures.

“Move, Witch!” Fosmo screamed, his way blocked by her.

That brought Espidreen out of it and, her breast heaving in panicked breaths, she began scrambling up after the others, pushing with her feet while pulling with her hands to climb all the more quickly.

And so up they rushed, with safety seemingly a few yards away.

Then Nightshadow activated the trap.

As soon as his foot touched the third step from the top, it flipped downward, throwing him off balance and causing him to fall over the side with a loud cry.

He wasn’t alone.

The moment the step folded away, the other steps below it snapped out from under the feet of the party, withdrawing into the wall.

Ten heroes thus found themselves falling into the writhing mass of rats anywhere from twenty to forty feet beneath them.

Nightshadow would have been killed, but the Mind Sapphire healed his broken neck the moment it happened. Thor, limbs flailing helplessly as he dropped, broke both his legs the moment his three hundred-and-fifty-pound body made impact with the ground. Raven, meanwhile, managed to come out relatively unscathed, tucking in and then rolling as she hit bottom. Even so, she made hard contact with the side of the chamber, stunning herself for a moment as the rats moved in and covered her.

Doremi couldn’t imagine anything much worse than falling into a pit of rats, for even being bitten in two by a snap dragon was preferable! But, helpless to prevent it, fall she did.

The Bard nearly died of a heart attack on the way down, but she didn’t quite make it, and remained conscious enough to shatter both wrists and crush several rats as her fall came to an end.

Then they were upon her!

Espidreen screamed and kept screaming as she dropped, relatively unhurt, into the swarm below which actually broke the fall of she and those behind her, though the moment they hit the ground they were being bitten by the enraged vermin.

Only Cyllindrethifl came through unscathed, falling twenty feet and landing on her feet like a cat.

Wasting not so much as a moment, she instantly came erect and spread forth her hands, calling upon her powers as a Druid.

“In the name of Dellendryll, begone!” she shouted.

For a moment, it seemed to work, for at her words a hole formed about where she was as the rats pulled back, leaving her alone.

But that wasn’t what she’d hoped for: She’d expected them all to retreat. The fact they didn’t, showed that her abilities were obviously weakened here in the School.

The others, meanwhile, were still being ravaged by the vicious rats, and the Druid knew she was left with no choice.

Quickly, she reached into a fold of her cloak for two pieces of magnetized iron wrapped in a copper wire.

From earth to the sky, lightning arise!” she spoke.

The iron and copper vanished from her hand and, from her feet on back down into the hall, blue tendrils of electricity began to rain upward, frying hosts of rats within the area it affected.

No sooner had she done that then, before the rest could turn on her, she intoned an energy blast.

The moment the ball of plasma appeared in her hand, she threw it against the other side of the chamber and tried to duck as it exploded with a loud WHOOSH and a burst of energy.

Everyone in the shaft took the blast and Cyllindrethifl was powerful enough that her spell packed a strong punch! What was left of the rats was instantly incinerated, and between the spell, the fall, and the rat bites themselves, the party itself was nearly killed, with some left lying at the point of death.

Only Cyllindrethifl herself, along with Raven and Nightshadow, seemed to come through in one piece. Rats now gone, the Druid stayed on guard, scanning up to the landing for any new enemies as Nightshadow and Raven scrambled to the others to feed them elixirs. Nightshadow quickly found Doremi and knelt down, searching through her pouch for an elixir as the half-dead Bard lay quivering in shock. Then he found it, breaking off the top of the vial and forcing the contents down her throat.

Thor managed to remain conscious and downed his own elixir, shakily rising to his feet as the strength returned to his body.

“Wotan’s curse on this place,” he grunted in disgust. “Rats and bats! Rats and bats! What is it with this accursed tower?!”

Doremi couldn’t even feel the pain of her broken wrists from the pain the rest of her was in, but quickly the strength began returning to her limbs as the pain in her wrists turned to numbness and then finally vanished. Even so, she moaned softly, curled up in Nightshadow’s arms, having no desire to go any further.

The groans of others in the group showed they were still alive, though Espidreen lay prostrate and unconscious. Cyllindrethifl moved over to her, casting a healing spell as she drew near, and the Witch awoke sufficiently to receive an elixir from Raven.

For her, it had been close.

It thus took but a few minutes for the broken limbs and other injuries to be a thing of the past--though the memory of this place would surely live on!

Seven cure disease spells later, they sent Fosmo up to check the platform and the door set into it. The burglar easily shimmied up the sides of the shaft, using the protruding stubs of the vanished stairs as footholds. Then he was at the top, pulling himself onto the platform.

Very carefully, he tested each step on the platform, making certain it wasn’t trapped as well, then he went to work on the iron door before him, running his hands along the sill and checking the crack with a piece of steel. He found no traps, opened it for a quick look, then anchored a rope to the handle of the door that he let down to the others below.

As they were outside the actual tower complex, Nightshadow shifted to the Ethers and simply flew up to the landing, re-materializing there to help the Cutpurse haul Thor up first as Raven took the opportunity to ascend as Fosmo had done. In this manner the others climbed, hopefully ready to face whatever monsters from the Liche’s arsenal of beasts that guarded this new area.

“Fortunate I had these cat slippers, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl remarked as she stood near the front of the platform, twisting her left foot to show one of the furry set of slippers she wore. “Very handy in a situation like this.”

Raven looked down to the Druid’s feet, then back up. “I’m just glad you got us out of this, Cyl,” she answered. “That was cutting it too close!”

The Elf lowered her voice and leaned forward, eyes shifting back and forth in nervousness. “You should know that there is a power at work here greater than mine, Raven. I should have been able to banish those rats, but I could barely affect them.”

Doremi and Espidreen, standing nearby, both heard the comment and looked over to the Druid. Romulus, too, had heard it, and likewise directed his gaze toward her in the event she would speak further.

“You think something was controlling those rats, rather than them just attacking intruders?” Raven quietly asked in response.

The Elf nodded slowly. “Someone or some thing summoned them and sent them after us, I’m sure!”

Raven’s eyes narrowed, and she whispered even lower. “Nostradamus? One of the Conclave?”

“Can’t be,” Espidreen now spoke up. “They wouldn’t toy with us by using rats and bats.”

“I don’t know I’d call it ‘toying’,” spoke the Gladiator. “Most of us nearly died here a few moments ago.”

“Yeah,” Raven spoke, looking to him, “but not because of the rats, but because of the power of our own spells. Same with the bats. Really, such creatures are only a nuisance--we just happened to be forced into hurting ourselves with our own spells to be rid of their nuisance.”

“Still, it’s an effective tactic, Raven,” Romulus maintained, looking down to the smoking mass of rats below, “--let us kill ourselves off!”

“Couldn’t we have tripped some kind of trap that brought them on us like the demons?” Doremi speculated, wringing her hands nervously.

Cyllindrethifl looked to the Bard and shook her head. “No conjuration spell can summon so many creatures. If anything, it was some sort of spell or ability exercising control over the two colonies.”

“It may just be the power of this place, Cyllindrethifl,” Espidreen spoke. “A Necromancer couldn’t exorcise undead here effectively, and perhaps Druidic abilities are likewise weakened.”

The Druid said nothing in response. Obviously, she was unconvinced.

“What about an evil Druid or an undead Druid?” Raven speculated.

“There is no such thing as an evil Druid or an undead Druid, Raven!” came the Elf’s response, her ears pointing stiffly upward.

Espidreen looked back to her, eyes narrowing. “I’m not certain I believe that, Cyllindrethifl.”

At her comment, Raven glanced to the Witch and then back to the Druid. “Cyl, I’ve known a Druid or two in my time I had doubts about myself,” she noted.

“Well--then you simply misunderstood them, Raven. Evil is simply not the way of Druids. One cannot be evil and have a true love for nature! Besides, of all things in the world, the undead are the very antithesis of what Druids believe in. No Druid would ever be found here, helping guard this place!” the Elf assured them.

“Well, could some spell-trap do it, Cyl?” Raven now asked. “Take control over creatures already here, and send them after anything in sight?”

Cyllindrethifl shrugged and looked to Espidreen.

“I’m not specifically aware of any spell-traps like that, Raven, but we are dealing with Sorcerers,” the Witch spoke after considering the question. “We’re not certain what all they can do, but if it is possible for such a spell-trap to be created, this School would be the place for it.”

The Gladiator squinted and reflexively tightened his grip on the handle of his gladius.

“If there was some wizard controlling those rats, he could have finished off most of us just now,” Romulus spoke up. “One more energy blast would have killed off everyone but Nightshadow. The fact we didn’t get hit with anything else tells me these rats and bats weren’t under anyone’s direct control--unless the Liche knows we’re here and is just playing with us...toying with us like some cat with a rag doll.”

Espidreen shook her head. “No. I don’t think so.”

Romulus frowned, and let out a breath. “I know you’re sure of that, but if this Liche is as arrogant as you say, wouldn’t it be in his character to show contempt for his enemies, and toy with them?”

“It would,” the Witch reluctantly agreed. “But only against a group he had absolute contempt for, and no fear of. He’s not stupid enough to play games against a group this powerful. He’d send the Conclave and everything he’s got in the Lower School against us, not pick at us with some rats! No, whatever this is, it’s not from Nostradamus directly. It simply can’t be...unless he knows we’re here and has some strategy to slay us all at his whim with no possibility of failure. But as Raven said--what could he do against Nightshadow? What possible strategy could the Liche have that would let him be so arrogant that he could simply toy with us? And why wouldn’t he have used it long before now?”

Nightshadow, Nightshadow, Doremi was thinking. Always, it comes back to Nightshadow. ‘He can’t stop Nightshadow so we’re safe’. ‘We’ve got Nightshadow with us, so what can he do?’

We stand or fall with Nightshadow. But what if he knows some way? Some strategy we haven’t thought of? Some spell that will somehow neutralize him? What if you’re wrong, Raven? What if there is a way to stop Nightshadow?

“We have to go with what’s most logical,” Raven concluded after weighing the possibilities. “It was probably some sort of trap. Once we’re back in the tower itself, I think we’ll be rid of these sorts of things. The Liche wouldn’t have rats and bats running around his tower--at least, I don’t think he would.”

“Yes,” Cyllindrethifl agreed. “The tower, strangely enough, seems safer than out here in back of it.”

“That could be,” Raven speculated as she looked toward the iron door, “because there’s something important out back here, like a secret way up to the tower’s upper levels or Nostradamus’ own Throne room. We could be exactly where we want to be. Meantime, let’s just keep our eyes open.”

“Is there any way we can send Fosmo ahead of where we walk, checking for traps on the floor?” Doremi suggested.

From a few feet away, the Cutpurse looked their way as he munched on a piece of jerky.

“Eh? Me hear me name bein’ spoke?” he asked.

Without turning to face him, Raven waved Fosmo off with the back of her hand.

“You know how much time it takes to walk that way?” she answered Doremi. “Yeah, it’s safest, but we simply don’t have the time to be that careful. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open, and keep the stallions in the lead with everyone else spaced out.”

“I’ve seen traps go off ten feet behind the guy who stepped on it,” the Bard noted.

“I have too,” Raven admitted. “But what choice do we have? Oh, Cyl,” the Mistress of Freeport now spoke, ”--how long we been in here? You keeping track with your glass?”

The Elf looked over and reached down to tip up her hourglass for a quick peek. A look of puzzlement passed her face, and she replied, “A little over a half an hour, Raven,” as she released the hourglass and looked up.

“What?! Half an hour? It’s been longer than that, hasn’t it?”

“It’s been a good hour anyway,” Romulus noted.

The Elf shrugged. “Not according to the glass.”

“You sure it’s accurate?” Raven asked.

“It’s never not been accurate.”

“Could it have turned in that fight, and you didn’t notice?”

“I don’t think so, Raven.”

Doremi now spoke up. “This place can do that to you, Raven. You think you’ve been working for two or three hours, and when you take a break and glance out the window, the sun shows you’ve only been working for an hour or so.”

“My sense of time is pretty good, and I’d swear we’ve been in here close to an hour-and-a-half,” Raven mumbled to herself.

By now, Nightshadow had hauled up Giles, and as soon as the task was accomplished the rope was untied, recoiled, and returned to the Cutpurse’s pack.

“We all ready, Raven?” Thor called out from the doorway.

“Yeah, we’re ready,” she spoke in response as the knot of heroes in the conversation broke up to take their typical places in the order of march.

Marcus Flavius Valerius, Tribune of the 27th Legion, paced nervously at the stern of his galley. He hated Sorcery as any good soldier would, and the night had long fallen with still no sign of anyone’s passing through the large square wall of wood taking up precious space on his deck.

As if looking for an answer he knew wouldn’t be coming, he glanced back to the young, red-haired Avalonian Witch who remained silent and unconcerned as she sat upon a cushion beneath a canopy at the stern. The grizzled old warrior didn’t like any of this--his entire fleet was being made to sit still off the coast of Hocwrath for reasons he didn’t know, and the fact he’d been ordered by the Praefect of Draconium--a man he wasn’t even directly under the command of--not to question the Witch about the order she’d given to wait for further instructions once he neared Serpenalik made him even more uneasy. That the Witch had in her possession a letter presumably explaining the entire situation which he’d been forbidden to receive until someone used Sorcery to come through the wooden wall and appear on his ship to give her leave to hand it over, made him doubly irritated. His own officers were themselves on edge, and rumors had been spread for weeks by the Legionnaires, above and below decks, speculating on what this all meant.

It was he pondered these things that the back of the wall now began to glow. Marcus stiffened--perhaps now he would get his answers.

A moment later, two women stepped out of the swirling pattern of light onto the deck.

More Witches, he thought to himself.

One certainly looked the part: Robed, with a hooded black cloak fringing curled blonde hair, dragging a large sack. The much younger one looked more like a pirate than a Witch. Yet it was she who did the talking.

“Who is in charge?” she asked.

Valerius stepped forward, placing his hands upon his hips.

“I am Marcus Valerius,” he answered.

“Do you know who I am?”

The woman did look vaguely familiar. The pair were obviously from Freeport, and had something to do with the Guild.

Then he remembered. “You’re the one who runs the Guild offices in Libertasium...Morgan--is that your name?”

“Morgaine,” she corrected. “Ronessa has a letter for you.”

Morgaine beckoned to the red-haired Avalonian who had now risen from her seat. She then produced a sealed scroll from her own cloak that she handed to the Krellan officer.

Marcus broke the seal and unrolled the scroll. Quickly reading it, he looked up to Morgaine.

“This says only that Draconium is aware of your mission, and that you have orders for me. I don’t understand. What, precisely, are you doing on my ship, and why are we stopped here? We’re the relief force for Arwinium--are you planning on using the Imperial Fleet to guard some convoy?”

“You are no longer sailing to Arwinium,” answered Morgaine. “You are to prepare your men for war, take your fleet straight into Serpenalik, and attack one of the Schools of Sorcery as the woman next to me directs you.”

Voices exploded at once from those on deck.


At the Tribune’s shout, the voices on deck faded away until they left only the noise of the waves lightly slapping against the wooden hull of the vessel.

“You presume to order me to attack the nation we’d most like to avoid war with?! On whose authority--Drusis’?! You must be mad! Only the Senate have the authority to order an attack against Hocwrath!”

It was time to play the trump card. From a fold of her own cloak, Morgaine held up an ornate black wand capped with a golden eagle. Murmurs instantly went up amongst the crew--none had ever seen one, but they knew precisely what it was.

One of Drusis’ two subordinate Tribunes behind him whispered, “A Senatorial wand!” to his comrade.

“You recognize this wand of your sacred black ivory?” she asked. Then Morgaine, in the manner of the Krellans, tipped the wand toward Marcus.

“In the name of Raven TenTolliver, First Citizen of the Krellan Republic, I command you to attack Serpenalik as directed.”

Marcus held his hand up to silence the men.

“Have the Senate conferred a Praetorship or Consulship on her?” he demanded.

“Of course not--those would be subordinate positions to that of First Citizen.”

“Then by what right does she presume to order the Twenty-Seventh Legion into battle? Her rank as First Citizen may give her the right to represent the Senate and make trade treaties, but she has no authority to command the armies of the Republic! Only a Praetor or a Consul, as appointed by the Senate, may enact war.”

Venivica now spoke.

Ego Vestale. Inquam iussu Decretum Baltarus permitto.”

The Tribune seemed only mildly impressed with her words, and Morgaine now locked her eyes with his.

“This wand is the delegated authority of the Imperial Senate,” Morgaine continued. “It gives her full authority to direct Krellan forces she may have need of in time of emergency for the good of the Republic, or the Guild--and this is an emergency!”

Marcus cast the scroll to the deck.

“Ridiculous! Obviously, this scheme was cooked up by your mistress and Drusis. The Senate clearly know nothing of it. I don’t care if Drusis is the Chief Legate of the Praetorian Guard, and Praefect of Draconium! I am under the command of Praefect Aristides of Atlantium, not Drusis of Draconium. Go back to your mistress and tell her the Senate will hear of this outlandish incursion on its authority!”

Morgaine fearlessly stepped forward, locking eyes with the officer.

“The Senate will indeed hear about this! One of your own poets, as I recall, once wrote something I think went like, Heavy is the brow that wears the crown of command. I’ve just made you aware that the Guild--and Raven specifically--requires the aid of your fleet. Even as we argue, she is attacking Nostradamus and the First School of Sorcery, and this fleet is needed in the operation she is undertaking!

“Now there are two things you can do--you can sail to Arwinium or sail into Serpenalik. Assume you sail to Arwinium. One of two things happens: Raven fails in her mission, is killed, and you get to stand before the Senate to explain why the woman who has brought your Senators untold wealth for the past twenty seasons is now dead because you refused her direct order for assistance--or two, she succeeds without your help, and in her report to the Senate she makes pointed mention of the Tribune who refused her direct command to assist her, and sailed away, deliberately placing her life at risk. In that case, I hope you can count on Aristides standing at your side and supporting your actions--not in Atlantium, but in Draconium before Drusis, the Grains faction, and the rest of the Senators who heed her every word. So make your final decision now--but weigh carefully the consequences!”

“We’re only half a legion, woman!” the Tribune grumbled after a moment. “That’s three thousand men if you don’t know! We’ve no siege equipment; only our regular arms. We have no cavalry. No battle plan. We can’t conquer Serpenalik with half a legion of foot soldiers!”

“You aren’t conquering the city of Serpenalik--you are going to destroy one School! Other allies will be joining you, including, probably, the wizards of another School. Raven has planned the operation out to the smallest detail, and Venivica, here, carries written battle instructions from Drusis for all your Tribunes and Centurions. Provided you follow the instructions we have for you, total victory should be ours! Now will you follow the orders I’ve related from Raven, or not?”

Silently, Marcus cursed and turned away, leaning down upon the port rail of his ship.

By Jupiter’s beard, how I hate politics, he thought. I despise politics!

The Scriptorium

The busiest places in a School of Sorcery are its Scriptoriums. Now one might think that wizards spend the majority of their time learning how to cast spells, or else mixing up potions and elixirs, but the actual fact is that wizards in the great Schools spend most of their time doing humdrum scribe work. The reason for this is that as repositories for the world’s written works dealing with magic or Sorcery, the Schools must continuously copy these works so that they are not lost through the process of aging. You see, only stone lasts forever. Everything else crumbles with age.

Most often, people write on parchment, which is made from the skin of sheep, though goat or doeskin is also used. The best medium to preserve one’s writings, however, is vellum, which is made from calfskin exposed to lime, which is then worked by tanners into a usable writing skin. In the South, people still use papyrus to write on as did the ancient Karnakis. (Papyrus actually comes from plants that grow near the sea off Arwin.) In the past few years one also sees Raven’s inexpensive mulberry paper in use more and more.

Of these writing media, Parchment can last for several hundred years, whereas vellum is known to last for up to a whole millennium. Raven’s mulberry paper will last a few years, though it seems to crumble easily, and does not hold up well. But it is at least inexpensive compared to parchment.

Papyrus is actually the worst medium to use, for while it lasts for thousands of years in the dryness of Arwin, it falls apart in only a short time when taken to moister climates such as Hocwrath’s. But fortunately the alchemists of ages past developed some sort of concoction they dipped the ancient papyri in which bonded to it, allowing the papyri to last almost indefinitely. This concoction does not work on animal skins, unfortunately, and thus parchment and vellum decay normally at the Schools.

It’s for these reasons wizards at the Schools spend most of their time copying, recopying and rebinding ancient texts of the wizards that preceded them, a boring and monotonous task, but one which is nonetheless critical.

The Fellowship realized immediately that the iron door led back into the tower, for the architecture resembled that of the third story below them, and the group found themselves entering from the side into a great hall running north and south. A slight draft wafted its way down the empty hall like some ghost touching and caressing their faces. With it, the feeling of dread--that feeling they were not alone--seemed to return.

“Hold up a minute,” Raven spoke, her voice lowering. The Mistress of Freeport then looked back and forth, her gaze finally settling to the north.

“Let’s go as far north as we can and see what’s there--I’ve got an idea,” she continued.

This they did as Nightshadow and Thor led the way forward, the others again spaced out every ten feet or so behind them. Once more, they seemed to make all the racket in the world as rustling clothing and creaking armor broke the tomblike silence as they trod upon the tiles of blue and gold the hall was floored with.

For over a hundred feet they walked, passing doors and hallways and unlit torch brackets or darkened chandeliers, until the corridor ended at a wall covered by a large tapestry. Naturally, they took a quick peek behind it to find nothing but a bare wall of basalt, and Raven looked back toward a set of doors a few yards behind them.

“Through those doors,” she ordered.

They no sooner had begun to move toward them and then the sound came to their ears from back the way they’d come: The same metallic shuffling and sounds of heavy footfalls as they’d heard earlier.

“Another golem!” Espidreen cried out, reaching for a pearl.

Raven’s hand dropped down to her belt and out came another pellet that she hurled down the corridor.

As designed to do, the pellet broke, the light revealing another mechanical construct moving toward them. It had apparently come out from one of the side passages it patrolled and, having heard the noise of the group down the hall, was investigating.

This golem, however, was different from the last: It was smaller, about eight feet in height, and bore a different visage from the iron warrior they’d fought on the third level. This wizard-made monstrosity was crafted of a silver-like metal and was in the form of a pot-bellied human dressed in a loincloth and helmet, bearing no weapons but its fists, each of which was about the size of a man’s head.

It was sixty feet away, and advancing.

Raven looked to Espidreen, intending to tell her to get her scrolls out, but the Witch was already fumbling for them. The situation thus in hand, she then raised the bow and let fly an arrow.

It flew true and bounced off the construct’s chest.

“Save your spells, and hold your breath--I’ll take it out.”

It was Nightshadow who spoke as he moved out to meet the oncoming enemy. He advanced quickly, covering the distance to the creature while it was still more than ten yards distant. Then he held up his left scimitar and spoke the words, “Sword be flame!

Immediately, a fiery glow spread up the surface of the blade until the weapon seemed to pulsate with power.

Nightshadow now stood before the golem, waiting for its attack.

The monster obliged, stepping up to him--but it didn’t swing its fists as everyone expected. Instead, it seemed to lean toward him and expunged some sort of fiery spittle!

Nightshadow managed to lean back and to the left, and the spittle flew past him, splattering against the floor. Then came his attack as he lurched back and slashed against the golem’s right leg.

The scimitar cut through and severed the golem’s thick appendage with no more effort than one might slice through a loaf of bread with a sharp knife!

“A sword of sharpness!” Espidreen gasped in awe. “That’s nearly an Artifact of Power!”

The golem collapsed against the wall with a great crash and then rolled forward, colliding with the ground. Once more, the Rogue brought the sword down, driving the blade into the construct’s head and nearly splitting it in half. But no sooner had it struck then the corridor seemed to explode in a cloud of fire and a spray of molten metal that spewed out from the golem’s head.

The group was driven back against the wall from the heat, and they could hear Nightshadow crying out in pain. Thankfully, the effects lasted only a few moments, then all was still again as the Rogue, smoke rising off of him, was hurrying back to them, shaking in pain.

Behind him lay the golem, dead in its own pool of molten metal.

“Wonderr what the next one’ll do,” Doremi heard Mac Tavish muttering beneath his breath as he retreated from behind his shield and arose from a crouch.

“You okay?” Raven called out as Nightshadow approached.

He nodded in frustration. “Yes. I just wish we could fight something with some life energy that the Sapphire could absorb. It’s been a losing proposition so far!”

At those words, Raven suddenly got concerned.

“It’s not being drained too much, is it?”

The Rogue shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said calmly. “It’s just rare that I’ve been in so many situations where the Sapphire is being drained without the counterbalance of killing someone to recharge what gets used up.”

“So the demons and ogres didn’t help, then?” asked Espidreen from a few feet away.

“No--they don’t have actual souls. The Sapphire requires me to kill people to recharge it. And typically, I find myself in enough situations where that’s not a problem.”

That’s what makes it such an evil device, Doremi thought to herself.

Nightshadow caught the look on the Bard’s face. “I only kill bad people, or people who have done something wrong,” he explained. “There never seems to be a shortage of those. I don’t kill people who don’t somehow deserve least, I try not to.”

“Well,” Raven spoke with a wink, “I don’t think we’ll find too many things up here who count as ‘people’, but you’ll be fine.”

“Your swords, brother,” Cyllindrethifl now spoke up. “--are they from the First Age?”

Nightshadow nodded. “They were made by the matriarch of the TenTollivers, Princess Ellendyryl.”

Espidreen looked down, admiringly, at them. “Are both swords of sharpness, Nightshadow?”

“Yes. The enchantment doesn’t last long, however. I’ll save Dellendryll’s enchantment for Nostradamus.”

That brought the conversation to an end and they formed up upon the nearby ornate wooden doors of white and gold, finding that they opened to reveal a large chamber stretching beyond the range of their lights.

Large bookcases, rising up from the floor to nearly the ceiling, fifteen feet above, met their gaze as the doors swung open.

Two rows of these bookcases ran down the length of the chamber to its end, over fifty feet distant. Between the two rows lay a space of ten feet, and at the center of the room stood a large table piled high with parchments, books and ink vials.

“A Library,” Nightshadow spoke, glancing around.

“Now this is more like what I expected a Library to be,” Raven remarked, scanning the room from left to right.

“I believe this is actually a Scriptorium, Raven,” Espidreen pointed out. “If you’ll notice, the bookcases on the right side are stuffed full, while some on the left are empty. Typically, books needing to be copied are placed in one bookcase or series of bookcases, while the recopied works are placed in their own separate bookcases.”

The Witch pointed down toward the table. “Those stacks of parchment down there on that table I’ll wager are blank, ready to be used for scribing.”

“Whatever, Espy.”

Raven then turned back to the Bard. “Doremi, get your maps out. Let’s use that table down there.”

The Mistress of Freeport, after glancing up to the roof, led the way in and the ten heroes followed, making their way forward to the big table at the center of the room.

Behind them the shadow followed, flowing through the crack of the right door between its hinges. Unseen, it wrapped itself around the stone wall and disappeared into the northeast corner of the room. Then, in the blink of an eye, it shot up to the ceiling, hiding in the shadows behind a thick roof beam.

Down at the table, Raven brushed aside the pile of papers and Doremi laid out her charcoal sketches of the complex. The Mistress of Freeport examined them as the Witches crowded around.

“I want to know,” Raven spoke, jerking her thumb north, “if this wall has the Pit on the other side.”

Leaning over, Thor looked down to the maps. “Depends on how wide the thing is,” he replied.

“Throckmorton’s is about a hundred-or-so-feet wide,” Doremi informed them.

“That’s right,” Cyllindrethifl agreed.

“Well, if the Pit here is the same general size,” Raven muttered, then by the amount of distance we just walked down the hall--the Pit should be on the other side of the wall!”

Raven now looked toward the west end of the room where another set of double doors led to some new area.

“Nightshadow,” she spoke, “would you go take a peek through those doors and see if the wall here--” she pointed to the north side of the room “--extends out into whatever is on the other side of the door?”

“All right.”

The Rogue nodded and departed off toward the doorway.

“Now we’re about two hundred-and-fifty-feet below the top level of the tower,” Raven spoke to herself. “Too high for a moon rope spell.”

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up, “the sides are very rough. Climbable for at least some of us.”

After taking a peak through the doorway, Nightshadow was returning. His left scimitar, Brigit, everyone noted, had lost its enchantment and no longer glowed.

“I think it’s a reading room, and yes--the wall extends out from this chamber,” he reported.

“Okay,” Raven spoke, satisfied. “We need to consider our options for getting up the side of the Pit quickly. Maybe the best thing to do is see what we’re facing, and go from there. Come on, Cyl--let’s break into the shaft of the Pit.”

Raven laid down the maps and made for the northwest corner of the room, followed by most of the others. Doremi took a moment to gather up the maps, then she paused to take a good look about the chamber.

As Espidreen had noted, the bookcases on the north side of the room were stuffed full with tomes on both sides of each case. Those to the right, however, were more sparsely filled.

The Bard casually wandered down toward the eastern end of the room, and as she looked about a tome caught her eye. It was on the second bookcase to her left, near the northeast corner: A thick tome bound in fiery red leather with fancy golden hinges securing the cover to the spine.

Curious about it, she reached up and tried to grab the book. Unfortunately, it was on a shelf almost ten feet above the floor, out of reach.

Temporarily stymied, Doremi looked around, finding no stool or ladder about. She considered fetching the chair to stand upon, but instead she chose merely to step up upon the lip of the second shelf of the bookcase, using it as a ladder.

The others, meanwhile, were in the northwest corner of the Scriptorium, grouped near the wall.

“Cyl, hit that with a stone form, and make a hole for us,” Raven was saying as she tapped the stone. “Then we’ll see what we have to do to get up to the top.”

The Druid obediently complied, kneeling down before the wall and placing her palms upon it as Raven stepped back.

“O wall of stone,” she spoke, “I ask your pardon, but I must alter your form somewhat.”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Cyl, it’s just a wall!”

“Still, Raven, it’s good to ask.”

Raven squinted and looked to Espidreen, who shrugged and gave her an It’s a Druid thing look.

“Y’ rreally think it’ll mind, eh?” asked the Highlander, tugging on his beard.

“I just don’t want to take the chance of offending it, sir.”

“I suppose you Druids also believe that trees know when you cut them down?” Thor asked, equally puzzled over the whole matter.

“They do, and you shouldn’t unless absolutely necessary!”

Having spoken that, Cyllindrethifl closed her eyes and concentrated. The surface then seemed to shimmer and pulsate, but after a few moments the shimmering faded and it returned to normal, unchanged despite the spell.

Surprised, the Druid looked up.

Fosmo, arms folded across his chest, started laughing. “Guess it did mind after all!”

“What’s the problem?” Raven demanded to know.

Cyllindrethifl stood up and turned to her mistress. “The spell won’t work, Raven. Apparently, the enchantments in this place prevent altering the stone work.”

The Mistress of Freeport let out a sigh. “Okay,” she reluctantly concluded, “we have to do it the hard way. Let’s keep moving.”

Raven looked around.

“Where’d Doremi get off to?” she then asked.

Doremi, standing on the second shelf, had her hands on the book. It was wedged tightly, and she gave it a tug. The tome didn’t budge so she tugged again harder and it moved out slightly. Sensing victory was at hand, she leaned into the bookcase and then snapped back, pulling hard on the book, and it finally gave way.

Above, a shadowy arm extended out from the darkness--and pushed the entire bookcase forward from the other side.

The Bard felt the bookcase starting to tip over and she jerked back, trying to stop it--but it was too late. Doremi gave a shout as she struck the bookcase behind her, injuring her elbow, then she dropped to the ground as the entire bookcase slid toward her. It rolled forward with a groan and struck the bookcase behind it with a great crash, forcing that one to fall, in turn, against the next.

One thunderous cash after another then resounded throughout the chamber as bookcase after bookcase fell into the next and forced it forward, until the last finally collided against the far wall--where the party had just jumped and scrambled out of the way.

The noise eventually faded away and Doremi thanked her lucky stars she was still alive, lying on the floor within a small triangular space created by the bookcase as it lay atop its mate. The tome still in her hands, the Bard took in a breath and managed to roll onto her stomach. Then, using her elbows, she began to wiggle out to safety. It took a few moments and then she began to emerge, halting when she ran against someone standing in a black woolen robe.

The Bard looked up into Espidreen’s scowling face.

The Witch stared coldly down at her for a moment, then turned to give Raven, who was hurrying forward, a you brought her look.

“Is there any possible way,” Raven was saying through gritted teeth, “that Liches are so deaf they somehow could fail to hear those eight crashes, each of which was louder than the loudest peal of thunder I’ve ever heard in my life?!”

“I suppose we’ll know shortly, Raven,” answered the Witch.

A tear began falling down Doremi’s cheek. “I’m sorry--it was an accident!”

Seeing Doremi was still in the land of the living, Nightshadow reached down to help her up.

“Raven,” he spoke in Doremi’s defense, “if they haven’t heard us yet with all the noise we’ve been making, I doubt they heard this either.”

“She nearly got us killed just now! Espidreen exclaimed.

After helping the Bard to her feet, Nightshadow turned to the Witch.

“Stop picking on her,” he warned in no uncertain terms.

Stymied, Espidreen took the warning to heart and said nothing more.

“People--and that means everyone,” Raven began, “--we can’t afford any more mistakes like this! I want everyone thinking twice before they do anything, understand?”

Cyllindrethifl, presuming that Raven’s words couldn’t possibly be applicable to her, leaned down and picked up one of the tomes that was scattered about the floor. She opened it and her eyes seemed to widen. Then she retrieved another, and her mouth dropped open.

“Raven,” she whispered, “these are Witch spells! This is a Library of Witchery!”

“WHAT?!” Raven and Espidreen exclaimed together.

Suddenly, they no longer cared about Doremi’s accident as the two Witches rushed to the Elf’s side while she held out the book in her hands. Espidreen eagerly took it and began reading as Raven looked over her shoulder.

“She’s right--it is,” the Witch spoke excitedly.

Raven then glanced around, the wheels in her head turning, trying to figure out how to take a whole Library of books with them.

“There must be thousands of spells here, huh?” Fosmo spoke, looking the bookshelves over.

Espidreen looked up. “No, that’s not how they work,” she replied. “There are only around five hundred spells Witches can cast, not including unique ones individual Witches may have researched. Spell books like these contain a Witch’s spells she has acquired, along with notes on any experiments she’s conducted using substitute ingredients and the like. Here and there, one might find new spells, but these books, by and large, will contain the same spells. It’s the notes by their previous owners that could make them priceless to us--along with any new spells that may be present.”

Espidreen turned to Raven. “We need this Library, Raven.”

“Guess you guys know how I felt, huh?!” Doremi couldn’t help exclaiming.

“And just like your Music Library, Doremi,” Raven answered, “we have to leave them for now.”

The look on Espidreen’s face showed she clearly wasn’t happy.

“Espy,” Raven now spoke to the frustrated Witch, “you need to learn how to simply let it go when there’s nothing to be done. There’s no way to take these, and we have a job to do. Set those books down, and let’s get going!”

Reluctantly Espidreen set down the tome she held. Doremi also complied and tossed the attractive spell book with the cover of red leather and golden hinges upon one of the fallen bookcases.

For now, they’d have to remain where they were.

“Boy, me would love to loot this place from top to bottom, eh!” Fosmo exclaimed.

“You’d die of old age before you could haul it out, Fosmo. There’s probably not enough space in all of Freeport for all the wonders here,” Raven speculated. “They’ve had ten thousand years to acquire treasure--and this is just one room of it!”

Thor let out an anxious breath. “We moving on?” he asked.

“Yes, Thor, we’re moving on.”

Raven nodded toward the doors to the reading room Nightshadow had found. “Let’s start moving west, and look for some stairs into the tower itself. Maybe it will be laid out less haphazardly.”

Leaving the tantalizing Library behind, they passed beyond into the next chamber, finding it an almost charming mixture of desks, chairs, ottomans, writing tables and bookcases beneath a coffered ceiling of cherrywood panels. Long ago, wizards once comfortably studied here in an atmosphere conducive to research, but one could sense nobody had used the chamber within living memory.

Doors led off in three directions from the chamber and the Fellowship now began passing through a maze of corridors and rooms, trying to find a way up into the tower itself.

To say that the layout of the place was confusing was an understatement. They would make their way this way and that, and up and down, and sometimes even backtrack the way they’d come in their quest to make sense of the maze-like layout of the structure.

As Doremi had warned, it was a warren of levels inside of levels with seemingly no logical thought given to make the layout to make sense. They might enter into a small chamber that was illuminated by a spell, walk forward ten feet, then turn to go down three steps past an arcade of arches into another larger room, pitch black, that had a stairway leading up to two open halls, one lit and one dark, leading off to the gods knew where.

How then could they tell the difference between a passage leading on to where they wanted to go, and one that did not?

Some places looked brand new, as if they’d never seen use, while others were decrepit and even dangerous to traverse. Yet on and on they pressed, taking comfort in their belief that the tower complex was at least lightly guarded.

Above them, meanwhile, the Liche was gloating in confidence. Nearly all of the intruders had been seriously wounded by confronting nothing more powerful than a cloud of bats and a swarm of rats. However many of them lasted to reach the top of the tower, they would never survive the final trap: a band of Gypsy assassins backed by a host of life-draining spirits and all twelve of the Conclave! It was only a matter of time before they would encounter enemies so far beyond their ability to defend against that the mightiest of them would be left lying dead upon the floor in the first moments of the attack.

Nightshadow would survive a while longer, of course. But the moment the rest of the Rogue’s allies were dead, the Lord of the First School would enter battle and the end would come swiftly.

Even if by some miracle the burglars managed to defeat the Conclave--something not even Throckmorton with all his Masters could do--the Liche had one final power piece to play that none of them could withstand. His would be the last line of defense, and he would not be broken by Nightshadow or any of the rest of them.

Either way, the Talisman Nightshadow wore would be no help to him whatever.

Thus delighted with the brilliance of his own plan, the Liche continued on with the entertainment of watching his enemies march on to their own doom.

Across the courtyard, meanwhile, a small army of Dwarves poured through the enchanted portal, entering the darkened stairway leading down to another maze of passages and chambers between the Upper and Lower Schools. Last to enter was Varinia, who halted a moment to let her eyes adjust. Though it was dark, she could see the wide steps of the stairs running both directions and a canopy of stars spreading out overhead.

“Us go Rolf now?” one of the Vikings spoke from the crowd.

The young Witch squinted, trying to see who it was that spoke from the shadows. “Yes, go--but quietly, though!” she whispered.

Eagerly, the knot of Scandians began separating from the Dwarves to file up toward the courtyard above.

The stairway was huge, at least thirty feet wide, leaving Varinia and the Dwarves with more than enough room to remain hidden in comfortably. Quickly, the Witch opened her locket up, shining its light down as far as she could see. In the distance below, she could just make out a landing.

“Dwarves,” she spoke, pointing, “set this wall down there a few feet above that landing. A few of you should stay as close as you can to keep an eye out--but watch out for the heat. Face it at an angle so it points to the south somewhat; we won’t be able to move it once it starts.”

There were some grunts of understanding, and gruff voice called out, “Faust, Red Fist, Silver Blade and Two Hammers--lend a hand.”

The four powerful warriors lowered or sheathed their arms as they moved up to take hold of the wall of stone and its scaffolding. Wasting no time, they began carrying it downward, away from the rest of the group.

“The rest of us will remain hidden here,” Varinia went on as they left. “If our presence is detected, we’ll move out into the courtyard to hold these stairs.”

“Orc Bane,” the gruff voice spoke again, “use your cloak to remain hidden and keep watch near the top of the stairs. Warn us if you see anything.”

One of the Dwarves raised his axe in response and hurried upward, wrapping his long gray cloak about his platemail as he went. Almost immediately, he seemed to meld in with the stonework and was lost from view, leaving behind only the muffled sounds of his footsteps and creaking armor as he ascended.

Down below, the Dwarves maneuvered the portal into position. Then, their task complete, one of them stepped in and passed through, back to Naz-Al.

“Now!” he spoke to three of his fellows who had been left behind.

With that, he ducked back into the stairway and hurried behind the wall of glowing wood.

It only took one heave for the Dwarves to shove the wall of marble over the precipice. Down it tumbled into the reddish orange river of lava far below. It struck and seemed to float like a raft for a moment, then it settled into the stream and vanished into the fiery muck.

Back at the School, a stream of lava began flowing out the portal. For the first few moments, the stream was barely noticeable. Then a ten-foot river of molten rock began spilling out as it poured down the stairs and covered the landing before flowing south along a passageway.

The Dwarves were elated, for it was working just as they had planned: The lava, slowly but surely, would flow along the passageway and eventually down other stairways until it would meet up with the water from the Vikings’ portal someplace down below. It would then solidify--or so they thought--blocking off the Upper School from its reinforcements. And indeed, most of the lava flowed exactly as expected.

Most of it--but not all of it.

The Athenaeum

The group’s sojourn within the lower levels of the tower complex continued. There were still several wonders left for them to behold, and they came upon the first as they passed through some sort of alchemical laboratory on their way to a set of doors at its far end. Nightshadow thrust them open and the first thing everyone beheld was a large chamber brightly illuminated from the nighttime sky!

Their first thoughts were those of puzzlement, for as the Fellowship entered they looked up to observe the moonlit sky shining above them and lighting up the circular chamber. For a moment, Raven wondered if somehow they could have been transported to the top of the tower itself, but just as quickly as the thought came she realized that was impossible.

No, apparently--through some miracle of sorcery--the roof had been altered into a sort of window allowing one to view the sky above.

Below the night sky nestled a comfortable chamber ringed with graceful Doric columns along its outer circumference. Vine orchids wrapped their way around the columns, giving one, as he stood upon the floor of clay tiles, the impression of being in a garden.

“I don’t know how they did this,” Raven remarked, looking about as she stepped inside behind Nightshadow and Thor, “but I wish I could do the same with the Inn! Closest I could come was the glass ceiling over the Elven section!”

It certainly was a marvel, but it took only a few moments to realize the Liches had constructed it not because they cared for beauty, but for reasons much more in keeping with their lust for knowledge and advantage over others.

The key lay at the center of the chamber: a huge wooden ball, twice the size of a man, that had been meticulously carved with constellations and stars upon its surface. It was set within a frame permitting one to rotate it in any direction, and a brass rim round its center was scribed with numbers and symbols.

“An astrological lab, Raven,” Espidreen observed as she looked over the great ball. “The Liches must use this to divine the future.”

The Mistress of Freeport snorted derisively as she stepped over to a second astrological aid nearby. “I refuse to believe in astrology,” she declared with contempt as she reached out to examine it. “I make my own future!”

Raven ended her comments at that, focusing her attention on the smaller contrivance before her.

One would have to call what her hand laid upon a machine, though none of them had seen its like before. It appeared to reproduce the universe in miniature, for a golden ball lay at the center. Surrounding it, attached by a complex maze of wires and rods, lay seven spheres representing planets. Some even had their own moons circling them.

Like the wooden ball of constellations, a large ring of brass encircled the machine, and inscribed thereon was a calendar of sorts, showing months and days and years--seven of them, to be exact. A crank was set upon the machine and as Raven turned it, the planets and moons all began moving--at different speeds--around each other and in a great circle as the rim spun with it.

“What is this thing?!” Raven exclaimed, looking over to her Witches.

Espidreen squinted and looked up and down and all around the queer device. “I think it is meant to be a depiction of the universe, Raven,” she finally concluded. “It shows the seven known planets, two of which are closer to the sun than Jewel, and the four which are further from it.”

The Witch pointed to a set of two planets, third from the sun. “I think that is Jewel.”

Raven’s eyes narrowed. “But why did he make the moon so big? And look how large the sun is--it’s positively gigantic! Why would he depict things that way?”

“I don’t know, Raven. Perhaps he believes some planets are much bigger than others.”

“Cyl, what’s your opinion?” Raven now asked.

The Elf looked it over and shook her head. “I think Espidreen is correct, Raven, though I do not pretend to understand the rationale behind this. I can tell you, however, that in the temple of Brigit there is a depiction of the universe that also shows seven planets, with Jewel being third closest to the sun.”

Raven continued turning the crank and the machine clicked and whirred as all the planets compassed about the sun on their courses. Then she let go and stepped back.

A toy, she concluded, and nothing more.

“Isn’t it interesting that he has the planets look like balls?” Doremi now spoke as she pointed. “Not flat, but spherical.”

“Strange that,” Raven spoke. “Makes no sense.”

“A wizard I know once told me he believed all planets were round like balls,” Doremi continued as she gazed with curiosity at the contrivance. “He said you could tell just by looking at the sun and moon, which are spherical.”

“Well, that’s obviously ridiculous!” Espidreen exclaimed, scowling toward her.

“Why do you say that?” asked the Bard.

Raven squinted. “For goodness’ sake, Doremi,” she spoke, “if planets were spherical, all the water and all the people would slide off! Planets are circular, yes--but flat, not spherical!”

The Bard considered her words for a moment and decided they made good sense.

“He also has the sun standing still and everything moving around it,” Cyllindrethifl pointed out. “Obviously, that’s wrong as well since the sun revolves around Jewel, not Jewel around it!.”

“Let that be a lesson to you,” Raven spoke up. “Just because you’re a Liche, that doesn’t mean you’re smart.”

The astrological aids weren’t the only things in the chamber. Shelves were stuffed full with parchments and books, presumably for use in predicting the future, and Doremi supposed it might be fun to see what she might learn about her own future if she could figure out how everything worked.

“Hey, Raven, has anyone ever told you your fortune?” she asked innocently.

As seemed to happen all too often, Raven’s response wasn’t what she expected: Her face tightened and became angry.

“Only some accursed Gypsy, who put a curse on me!” she spat back. “Fortune-telling is bunkum! That’s why only fools believe in it. Make your own fortune, I say! Right, Espy?”

The Witch stood there, not immediately responding.

Right, Espidreen?” Raven repeated.

“Well, um, yes--fortune-telling often leads a person into the wrong directions,” the Witch spoke in response. “I’ve seen it happen more than once. I don’t know as I’d reject all of it out of hand, but certainly it’s not fully reliable.”

“Yet Nostradamus seems to believe in it,” the Bard observed.

“And look what good it’s done him, Doremi--he didn’t even foresee Nightshadow would wind up with the Mind Sapphire instead of himself!”

Doremi had to admit that was true.

“The hard part seems to be in understanding the omens,” Espidreen went on. “It is so easy to misinterpret them. Be one a Vestal, Witch, or Sorcerer, understanding omens, dreams or prophecy is challenging.”

“All the more reason it’s a waste of time!” Raven shot back. “No one’s ever prophesied about me, and I’m the most important person in Jewel’s history since Gorus! So there you have it! Omens, prophecy, dreams, bird entrails--all superstition meant to lower people’s potential by forcing them to fit their lives to someone else’s false, preconceived notions.”

Having finished her assessment of fortune-telling, Raven proudly nodded her satisfaction with her own words.

“Odd thing is, the Gypsies seem to be best at divining the future,” Espidreen mentioned. “Strange that a people so useless should have one ability in superior measure to that of the rest of Wizardry.

Raven let out a moan. “Don’t get me started on Gypsies, Espy,” she said.

As they were having this discussion, the others in the group had fanned out within the chamber. Thor, investigating the far side of the room, addressed a large door of brass inlaid with sorcerous symbols whose function he couldn’t guess. Most interesting was a large human palm inscribed in the center of the portal, upraised and silently conveying the message keep out!

Thor wasn’t intimidated, of course, so he reached out to take hold of the door’s golden handle and give it a tug. The next instant, everyone heard his cry and looked over, then they were rushing toward him.

Doremi caught what happened from the corner of her eye: Thor had grasped the door handle and at the same instant the door seemed to come alive as a great fist reached out and caught the huge Scandian in its own grasp!

There was no time for him to react, and in the blink of an eye he was off his feet, being crushed in the grasp of the fist.

Groaning in pain, the Scandian was using his massive arms and legs to try to leverage free, but the magic seemed superior to even Thor’s strength!

The group was there in moments, but then they all heard his cry and the horrid crushing sound of the Viking’s bones as they started to break under the fist’s grip.

Nightshadow immediately swung a scimitar into the fist, but he could tell the moment it struck that the blow had done nothing.

Mac Tavish, meanwhile, charged the door right behind him, dropping his claymore while retrieving his axe as he ran. When he reached it, the Highlander swung the big axe into the door with all his might--only to have the shaft break, its head flying off and nearly striking Cyllindrethifl.

Nightshadow’s scimitars joined the claymore on the floor as the Rogue now reached over to try and force open the fingers of the hand with his own great strength.

“Witches, cast something!” Raven was shouting as she reached the scene, reaching for an elixir to pour into Thor’s mouth.

In response, Espidreen began mouthing a disenchantment spell as Raven poured the elixir down Thor’s throat to keep him going.

A moment later, the door glowed as the Witch’s spell targeted it, but then the glow faded away and the crushing fist remained wrapped around the Scandian.

A soften material song, the Bard thought as she ran--that might do it!

The problem was, that song, which could soften the metal of the fist and perhaps allow it to be cut through, needed a violin to be played on, and Doremi didn’t bring one! Then the idea came to her: She’d never heard of it being done before, and it might not work, but she’d make the attempt and see what happened.

The Bard pulled up, hands reaching for the strings and neck of the lute. Faire-chlaidh-ceols voice then sang out through the chamber, but as Doremi rubbed her fingers across the strings, trying to mimic the draw of a bow, the sound of a violin could be heard accompanying it!

Instantly, the fist began to quiver and resonate as the Bard played, though its grip remained around the Scandian’s body.

“Try cutting the fist with a sword--hurry!” she urged.

“Move!” Giles cried as he leapt forward, raising his sword with both hands.

Nightshadow swiveled to the front of Thor, keeping his hands on the index finger and thumb of the fist, still trying to pry it apart as Mac Tavish, still surprised at losing his ax, ducked and twisted away at the Knight’s word.

Giles grunted, swinging the blade around in an arc, hoping to sever the fist from the door. The blow rang out through the chamber as the blade connected with the brass fist--and the hand nearly came off the door!

Again the Knight swung, and this time the hand fell to the ground, the Viking still caught within its grasp. But now its enchantment was gone and between Thor’s own strength, coupled with that of Nightshadow and the softened metal from Doremi’s spell-song, the fingers were quickly pried apart and the Viking rolled free, cursing the fist in Scandian while thrashing about in pain.

He lay for a few moments grunting in pain as Raven fed him another elixir. Then he took several deep breaths and held up his hand, indicating he was all right.

Raven smiled and patted him twice on the knee. Then she stood up, her eyes seeking Doremi.

“Excellent move, Doremi!” she exclaimed.

Raven’s eyes next fixed their gaze upon Espidreen. “Lucky thing we had a Bard along to do that,” the Mistress of Freeport added. “We almost lost Thor!”

The Witch said nothing, but looked away to the door, crossing her hands and expelling a breath.

It was the proudest Doremi had felt all night.

“Witches and Doremi,” Raven now called out. “I don’t have to tell you what would have happened if that had been any of you caught in that thing--you’d be dead right now!”

She shook a finger at them. “Be extra careful--let us take the lead into new areas, remember that!”

Thor coughed and struggled back to his feet, looking for Doremi. “What did you do?” he asked, looking over to her.

Doremi held out the lute. “I played a song to soften the metal of the fist so they could cut through it. It actually takes a violin to work, but I got lucky and it worked with my lute.”

The Viking was satisfied--and grateful.

“Our Scalds do magic like that with stone and wood,” he continued. “They don’t use instruments, though, but neither do they cast spells like the Islayans do; they sing the spells because the spells won’t work unless you sing them out.”

“Really!” Doremi exclaimed. “Some Bards can do that too. I’m fortunate enough to be one of them, though it doesn’t always work.”

Thor cleared his throat and scowled at the door, intending to make sure he didn’t leave this chamber without getting the best of the enchanted portal. Angrily--yet warily--he took a step over to it.

At the same time, Doremi suddenly gasped in shock as a thought struck her out of nowhere and she realized she might have just solved one of the great mysteries of Islay.

Meanwhile, the Viking reached out and a muscular arm took hold of the handle, roughly throwing the door open, prepared for whatever lay ready to meet him.

Light flooded in from the other side and the Scandian’s head turned from side to side as he took a good look. His muscles relaxed, but everyone could see from his expression that he was surprised.

Still looking around in near wonderment, Thor moved within as the others followed behind, anxious to see what so entranced him. As each reached the doorway, they understood as the same wonderment fell upon them.

One by one, they filed slowly, languidly onto a balcony, their mouths falling open and their eyes widening as they beheld the next chamber.

If one can compare a campfire to the sun or a pond to the sea, then the word Library might have been an appropriate word to use for what came to their eyes beyond the door.


Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of books!

More books than there were grains of sand on a beach! An uncountable myriad of books, scrolls, papers, and even tablets of stone filling a chamber so big the only thing Doremi had seen to compare to it was the rotunda of Raven’s tower.

The chamber was a vast circular shaft nearly a hundred feet tall and equally wide. From a regally tiled floor of red, yellow and gold inlaid with glowing symbols of Wizardry, eight gigantic rows of bookcases radiated out from the central hub of the room like the spokes of some titanic wheel, stretching from the floor to nearly the ceiling.

“By the gods,” Doremi heard Raven muttering as she gazed out upon the magnificence before her, “--a Library!”

“By the bloody gods you mean!” Fosmo exclaimed, at a loss for other words.

Behind, Espidreen stood still, her mouth hanging open at the sight.

“No, Raven,” she managed to speak despite her own shock, “not a Library--an Athenaeum!”

Raven, unwilling to look away, leaned back toward the Witch. “I don’t know that word.”

Espidreen drew in a breath and began to speak.

“An Athenaeum is a...repository! A repository of the sum total of Mankind’s knowledge. Records chronicling everything ever written by the hand of man. The written knowledge of ten thousand years of history and humanity. All that’s known about magic, sorcery, medicine, religion, astrology, alchemy...everything from the natural sciences to the arcane--all gathered in one place.”

The Witch swallowed to moisten her parched throat.

“They were legendary,” she continued, “for no one but the highest Masters of the Schools supposedly had access to them if they existed. But the story always was, that the First and Second Schools both had an Athenaeum somewhere within them. Now we see the legend is true.”

“In here is everything ever written?” Romulus asked, incredulous at the thought.

“Not literally, Romulus” Cyllindrethifl responded. “But there are copies of every noteworthy book or treatise ever penned, that the School has been able to get its hands on.”

The group stood silent for a few more moments, taking in the sight. Finally, Raven nodded to a circular iron stairway leading down to the floor of the chamber about forty feet below.

“Let’s head down. Thor?” she spoke.

The Viking, no less amazed than the rest, managed a nod and began descending followed by Nightshadow and the others.

They reached bottom  without incident and milled about, gazing upward at the vast bookcases, still awed by their sight. Other doors, they observed, were positioned in the eastern and western ends of the chambers.

“Desmore’d go crazy in here,” Doremi remarked, at a loss for other words.

Raven nodded. “We’d never get him out, I think.”

Giles, looking up and down and around, asked, “How do they fetch the books, Lady? There be not so much as a ladder to climb yonder bookcases.”

“Simple cantrip,” Cyllindrethifl answered for Raven. “They could use a simple first rank spell to will a book to come down to them, or return itself to its place.”

“But how would they know what book is where?” Romulus wondered.

“The same way a dragon knows when so little as one piece of gold is missing from its treasure horde,” Espidreen replied. “The mental powers of Liches are vast--far beyond those of a living wizard. They know every single one of these books, what they’re about, and where they’re to be found.”

“Surely they could nay be so bright they could know every single one of yonder books, could they?” the Knight questioned.

The Witch looked about with a shrug. “’s hard to know for certain exactly what Liches can do, Giles. But I believe it’s possible.”

That’s why Nostradamus had his Conclave become Liches!” Raven suddenly exclaimed as her eyes flew open. “He wanted to increase their mental powers and bring them under his control! The Liche knows knowledge is the key to power.”

“Perhaps that’s how he invented the black powder,” Cyllindrethifl speculated.

“And who knows what else?” Nightshadow spoke, glancing about.

It was then that the mood of wonderment felt by the group was suddenly broken by a shout.

“A ghostie!”

The cry was from the Highlander, who was peering down between two rows of bookcases. Then, just as quickly as he’d spoken, Mac Tavish vanished from view as he charged forward.

The others rushed to follow and beheld the Highlander, sword ready, bounding toward a diaphanous figure standing as sentinel between two of the bookcases. In one fast move, the claymore slashed through it twice and ended by thrusting through the center of the spirit.

The ghostly figure vanished in a POOF!

Mac Tavish then halted, scanning about for any others as Nightshadow reached him.

Fosmo, bringing up the rear of the group, looked back between another set of bookcases.

“Eh! There’s another one!” he cried as his rapier found its way into his hand.

Instantly, Raven pivoted back, raising her bow as the Cutpurse leapt forward, the business end of his rapier heading for the image as he ran toward it.

“Wait, Fosmo!” the Mistress of Freeport suddenly shouted out.

The Cutpurse slid to a stop on the polished floor, looking back and forth between Raven and the spirit, waiting for leave to do something against this new enemy.

The shade, however, stood still, doing absolutely nothing as the group cautiously moved up to the Cutpurse, who stood on guard a few feet from the creature.

Raven looked the spirit over, puzzled that it seemed entirely unconcerned over the group’s presence, standing still as a statue.

“Espy,” she spoke quietly, “is that a ghost, or what? And why doesn’t it attack?”

The Witch’s eyes narrowed as she gazed at the shade. “It’s a spirit of some sort--that, or a conjuration, Raven. I don’t know why it’s just standing there; it doesn’t seem to be much of a guardian, does it?”

“Let’s not wait for him to decide we’re enemies; let’s just kill it and be done with it,” Romulus urged, raising his trident.

Raven held up a hand, still pondering what she thought of the spirit.

“Doremi,” she spoke after a moment, partially turning her head back as she kept her eyes on the figure, “what was the name of that book you found in the Music Library?”

“The Diatesseron,” answered the Bard.

“You,” Raven then spoke to the shade, “--fetch me a copy of the Diatesseron!”

Immediately, the figure departed, wafting upward and across the room until it vanished between a set of bookcases as the Fellowship started following along. They watched as it floated up nearly thirty feet above the floor of the chamber until it reached out to withdraw a small tome from a row of books. It then glided back down to the floor and a ghostly hand held the book out to Raven.

“It’s not a guardian; it’s a ghost Librarian!” Raven exclaimed as she accepted the book.

A collective sigh of understanding came forth from the others as they began to relax.

Apparently, the shade was harmless.

Raven tucked the small tome into a pocket of her cloak and then stiffened as she thought of something.

“Show me where the diagrams or sketches are of this tower!” she suddenly said.

Obediently, the shade moved off, gliding across the floor until it found itself at a set of sliding wooden drawers crafted into one of the bookcases.

Raven eagerly followed with the others. Everyone knew what she had in mind, and if it worked the problem of finding their way through this place would be solved!

The shade drew near to a set of at least fifty different sets of drawers, and Raven was visibly excited.

“Fetch me the diagrams of the third level of this tower complex up to the very top of the tower, where the Throne room is!” she ordered.

The shade complied, opening drawers and withdrawing long leaves of parchment that it handed over, one at a time, to Raven’s enthusiastic grasp.

After it was finished, the Mistress of Freeport looked back to the open central area of the Athenaeum.

“Some of you shove a couple of those desks together to make a good large work space,” she ordered, “and let’s see what we’ve got here.”

Three of the men moved back to do as she wished, while Raven, the shade in tow, carried the stacks of parchments back with her and laid them down on a desk she sat down before. Quickly, she spread them out upon it, and they pushed a second table up against the one she was at, then the Fellowship crowded around, looking over the diagrams and trying to make sense of them.

“This place is an architect’s nightmare,” Raven quickly concluded as she pored over uncounted rooms, chambers and hallways, “but I think we can figure it out.”

She stood up and backed a step away from the table.

“Doremi, sit,” she ordered, patting the chair.

The Bard unslung her knapsack and laid it down, settling into the chair as Raven stood behind, keeping her eyes upon the parchments.

“You,” Raven then spoke, looking to the shade, “--show us any secret way up to the Throne room.”

Everyone paused, awaiting the shade to do something.

The spirit, however, stood unmoving and was either unable or unwilling to heed her command.

Then Fosmo suddenly had a thought.

“Eh, mate!” the Cutpurse exclaimed, sticking his face toward that of the shade. “Show us where the nearest treasure room is to us, eh!”

The group held their breath in anticipation, but again the shade did nothing but stand there.

“Perhaps his knowledge is limited, Raven,” Espidreen speculated. “He might only know what books and materials are in here.”

Raven’s lips tightened together as she thought for a moment. “So then this--Athenaeum, as you call it--is like the master Library, correct, Espy? It’s got copies of everything else in the First School--like Doremi’s Diatesseron--along with whatever else might not be in the other Libraries?”

“According to my understanding, yes.”

The Gladiator began to fidget. “Which might be a good reason not to stay here too long. If there’s one place a Liche might visit in this tower, this must be it,” he pointed out.

“You’re right, Romulus,” Raven answered. “Let’s stay on guard while we milk this place for what it’s worth.

“Doremi,” Raven now spoke, patting the Bard on the shoulder, “try to figure these out and make a map we can follow to get us up to the Throne room. Cyl--sit down and help her. I want you to make a second copy of the maps.

“Nightshadow,” she then spoke, “stand guard on that door we came through upstairs. Thor--you and Giles take the doors down there to the west. Mac Tavish and Romulus, take the doors to the east. Stay alert, and let’s get this done soon as we can.”

The men grunted their approval and filed off to their posts, spirits lifted somewhat at the thought that they might soon actually have a map to follow.

As they departed, Doremi focused in on the many maps. Some had legends indicating what the particular chambers were, but the vast majority did nothing more than show the legion of rooms within the structures of the great School. Even so, it took no time to pinpoint the Athenaeum--she merely looked for a giant circular chamber on the maps of the tower complex, and there it was.

“Raven,” she spoke, pointing down to the map, “here’s where we are.”

“Okay,” Raven answered, leaning over her and looking down.

“Now,” Doremi spoke, drawing her finger westward on the map, “those doors to our west lead to a large chamber, and just beyond that is the Grand Stairway.”

“That may be the zoo we found, Raven,” Espidreen spoke up.

“Raven, look at this!”

It was Cyllindrethifl who spoke as she laid out a latitudinal map depicting a cross section of the School, trying to compare it with Doremi’s longitudinal map. She pointed to what appeared to be a gigantic hole running the length beneath both complexes.

“We were wrong about the Pit--it doesn’t just extend from the central tower downward; it runs the length of the entire School!”

Espidreen now leaned forward to examine the map, surprise evident on her face.

“We never suspected. No wonder this place is so powerful,” she whispered. “Even the Lower School has access to the power of Hell! What the wizards are able to summon up must be--incredible!”

“So the whole place is hollow underneath,” Fosmo noted.

“Cyl,” Raven now asked, “does this affect any of our plans?”

The Elf shook her head slowly. “No--but it is interesting.”

“Raven,” Doremi now spoke, “I think the set of stairs Espidreen mentioned at the eastern end of the zoo leads to the fourth level. See? Look at this.”

She laid down her map atop Cyllindrethifl’s, and they tried to make sense of them.

The Bard traced the point from Cyllindrethifl’s map to another map whose legend indicated was the bottom of the fourth level of the tower.

“There’s another chamber similar in size to the zoo above it, and at both ends of that room a set of stairs goes to what looks like the top of the fourth level. From there...we walk east, twisting and turning, until we reach this big chamber which opens to the tower itself!”

“Good job, ladies,” Raven complimented. “Draw out our path as quickly as you can. Doremi--also update one of your maps with the route from the outside of the tower complex up to the third level, please.”

The Mistress of Freeport then leaned back up, turning to Espidreen. “Espy--while we’re here in the Library, if you can think of two or three significant books we simply must rescue and take with us, have the ghost fetch them for you.”

Espidreen blinked. “Raven, I can think of two or three dozen works of antiquity we should take if they’re here!” exclaimed the Witch.

Raven rolled her eyes. “Yeah--which we have no room for, Espy. Make it two or three!”

The Witch sighed and looked to the shade. “Bring me any books containing the spells of the Witches Ladenna and Lr’Zl, along with a Book of Destinies if there is one!” she commanded.

“Oh, and shade,” Raven suddenly spoke as she straightened up, “also bring any books dealing with a place called Yamato, and the Sorcerer al-Arwin’s legendary tower. Additionally, if there are any books here that can magically increase a reader’s abilities as a spell-caster--bring those as well.”

Obligingly, the shade flew off as Doremi and Cyllindrethifl continued their task.

Raven let out a breath. “Doremi,” she spoke, leaning over again, “I’m going to tie my bow to your pack if you don’t mind. It doesn’t seem to be doing me much good so far; I think I’m better off keeping a sword in my hand.”

“Yeah, sure,” answered the Bard as she sketched out a path up to the tower.

Cyllindrethifl, meanwhile, was looking through diagrams of the tower.

“Good news, Raven,” she spoke, “--it looks like the tower is designed differently from the base. It appears that most of it is hollow, as we supposed, and a stairway winds straight up to the very top level.”

“Excellent,” Raven exclaimed. “We’ll keep to our timetable and be out of here in three or four more hours!”

“Even so,” Cyllindrethifl muttered, “there seems to be something odd about the’s...strange. I think they may have altered it parts of a number of times and the maps don’t indicate which is most current. But I think we can still get to the top easily enough.”

Doremi, meanwhile, pointed down to a map before her. “Here must be the Throne room. And look--just behind it a small room of some sort reached by a set of stairs.”

Raven excitedly leaned forward. “That’s it--his treasure room!” she exclaimed. “Right where I thought it would be--in plain sight of the room he can’t leave!”

“Ah, so that’s where we’re headed, eh,” Fosmo spoke.

“That’s right, Fosmo,” the Mistress of Freeport affirmed, “we just need to get past the Liche that guards it.”

The Cutpurse rubbed his hands together over the thought. “Me can’t wait to see what all’s up there, eh! Even if ol’ Fosmo took the dirt nap before leavin’, it’d be worth it to see what ten thousand years o’ treasure look like!”

Raven winked at him. “If you survive to the end of this, Fosmo, I vow you’ll walk out of here with all the treasure you can carry!”

Fosmo licked his chops. “Me can carry a whole bunch, Raven!” he announced.

That ended the conversation on a positive light and the women went to work, taking about a quarter of an hour or so to complete their homemade maps. Raven then took Doremi’s in her hands, looking it over.

Message box, Cyl,” she ordered as she began tightly folding the map.

The Elf seemed puzzled by the request, yet she complied and removed the box from her pouch, handing it over.

In went the map and Raven concentrated. There was the typical WHOOSH, and then she returned the smoking box to the Elf’s possession.

“Where’d you send those?” Doremi asked.

“Morgaine, back in Freeport,” Raven answered. “Just in case we get caught but not killed, perhaps she can figure out a way to come rescue us.”

Even as Raven spoke, Doremi knew the statement was a lie. If they couldn’t survive this, Morgaine and whatever forces were left to her certainly couldn’t. The only question was why would Raven utter such an obvious untruth? She couldn’t possibly think they were foolish enough to believe that.

Then the Bard understood: It was in case Nostradamus was listening in! Raven really believed there was a chance the Liche knew they were there.

So to whom did she send the maps?

Doremi thought a while longer and finally decided it was to Nazier.

Espidreen, meanwhile, was on her knees poring through a stack of books brought by the shade.

“Time to go, Espy--decide what we take,” Raven ordered.

A pained look on her face, the Witch selected five tomes from the stack--enough not to weigh her down dangerously--and placed them within her pack.

“I think those will be the ones of interest to you, Raven,” she indicated, pointing to a small stack of several books that she had not selected anything from.

“Let’s form up again, people,” Raven spoke out loudly.

She watched to make certain the men had heard her, then reached down to retrieve the books Espidreen had pointed out.

“Thor,” Raven then spoke as the Scandian moved up, “could I trouble you to pack these along?”

The Norseman shrugged and turned round. Raven quickly lifted the flap of his large pack and slipped the books inside. That done, she looked over to Giles and Mac Tavish.

“Move the tables back to their original position.”

As the men took hold and separated the two tables, the Mistress of Freeport gave her final command to the shade: “Replace these books on the floor on their proper shelves; do likewise with the maps.”

The spirit immediately began to do as commanded, and Raven seemed satisfied that nothing coming down here was liable to notice the group’s incursion apart from the disappearance of one of the shades.

“Out to the zoo, and up to the fourth level!” she ordered.

Their spirits revived, the group now filed west, and as they came upon the doors leading out, they now found something of interest: Crafted into the wall next to the door lay a series of four golden rings, each within the other, and each one scribed. The outer ring was scribed with some sort of spell while the three concentric rings within it were instead scribed with numbers ranging from 0 to 9.

“Okay, what is that thing?” Raven asked her Witches as they came upon it.

“The big ring is inscribed with the Sorcerers’ version of a teleportal, Raven,” Espidreen noted.

The Mistress of Freeport reached forward to touch the outer ring and found that both it and the other rings were set into frames permitting them to turn freely if one manipulated them. As it stood, the rings were set to 012.

Cyllindrethifl now spoke up.

“Raven, do you remember we once speculated about how difficult the Liches must find moving about the tower because they walk so slowly, and can’t use most spells to get around?”

“I do.”

The Elf nodded back to the golden circles. “I believe that’s how they do it. This is some sort of device permitting them to travel about the School. I am guessing one turns the numbered rings to correspond to linked devices in different areas, then perhaps you read off the spell and it will portal you to the room in question.”

Raven came erect. “Then we could use this to reach the Throne room!” she exclaimed.

“If we knew what number room it is,” Espidreen added. “It could be any of up to nine hundred-and ninety-nine different chambers from the looks of that thing. If I were to guess, maybe room zero-zero-one, or nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine is the actual Throne room.”

“Then again, that’s rather obvious,” Cyllindrethifl pointed out, clasping her hands behind her back as she stared at the device. “If I were Nostradamus, I’d make my throne any number but the highest and lowest possible numbers to avoid the risk of intruders like us appearing out of nowhere. That being so, we dare not try using this thing, relying on dumb luck--the gods know where we could arrive, and what might be there to greet us.”

“Agreed,” Raven spoke with a clear note of disappointment. “But maybe....”

Quickly, she rushed over to address the ghost, who was stuffing books back into their respective places.

“You,” Raven ordered as she moved up, “--there is some sort of device over there on the wall with numbers on it, and I want you to fetch anything which lists what those numbers correspond to, or which explains how to operate it.”

She then paused, waiting, but the shade ignored her and continued its task.

“That would have been too easy,” Espidreen called after her.

“Well,” Raven admitted as she walked back, “it didn’t hurt to try.”

“There’s one of these down on the bottom floor at the foot of the stairs,” Doremi pointed out. “I always did wonder what it was for.”

Raven frowned nervously. “They don’t have these down in the Lower School, do they?”

“We’ve never heard of one,” Espidreen replied.

The Mistress of Freeport glanced to Doremi.

“I’ve never seen one there if they do,” answered the Bard.

“They may have one anyway,” Cyllindrethifl speculated. “I suppose there’s no way for us to know for certain.”

Raven was visibly concerned at the thought, and everyone knew why: Their strategy depended on the Vikings keeping any reinforcements from coming to Nostradamus’ aid, and if the forces below could bypass the two stairways held by the Scandians, things could quickly go bad.

“Well, no time to worry about that now,” Raven spoke. “Let’s Just keep moving and we’ll reach the top of the tower the hard way.”

The Museum

After Thor’s encounter with the fist, they had Fosmo check for any magical traps upon the doors leading west, but the Cutpurse found none. A second check through a spell of Cyllindrethifl’s, just to be sure, confirmed the thief’s assessment and so, with everyone satisfied it was safe, the doors were opened to reveal the wondrous chamber beyond.

It was a vast open vault extending far beyond the light of their lockets. A double row of carved pillars ran east and west down the length of the chamber, towering forty feet up to its coffered roof. Beneath that roof a hundred and one black shapes stood as quiescent sentinels. Most were hidden, their shadowy forms melding in with the darkness, while a few were illumined by the group’s lockets. But they were all shown to be creatures, large and small, from every corner of Islay. Everything from Arwinian unicorn-like rabbits, to forest drakes, turtle toads, griffins, lions, trolls, Fomorian ogres--even a small Krellan elephant!

One of the beasts before them was a small dragon around fifteen feet tall. From two muscular legs upon which it stood upright as it balanced with its tail, an almost beautiful conglomeration of yellowed scales and mottled hide of green leather rose up to where two small, yet graceful, wings were outstretched as if the beast were ready to fly. Finally, the dragon’s green and yellow whip-like neck, easily as long as the rest of its body, curved back in a great S-shape, ending at its open serpentine head where three rows of razor-sharp teeth were prepared to rend apart their victim.

“Thor,” Doremi spoke quietly.

The Viking looked back as the Bard pointed out the dragon.

“That’s a snap dragon.”

The Viking followed her gaze and took a good look at the beast, clearly impressed. “Flies, does it?” he asked.

“No, it has wings but can’t fly. It jumps pretty good, though, and that head of his moves so fast it can bite a person’s arm off before they even know it!”

Thor grunted, looking around as if searching for something. Then his eyes found what he sought and he directed Doremi’s attention to it.

“See that?” he spoke, raising his hammer to point. “That’s the great ice bear of Scandia.”

Sure enough, standing guard in a corner was a huge white-furred bear in a terrifying pose, its black claws sprouting from paddle-like paws looking ready to rend as effectively as the snap dragon’s teeth. Its mouth was nowhere near as big as the snap dragon’s, but even so it looked well able to stand its ground against a snap dragon, let alone a human huntsman.

“In Scandia, our enemies in Bear clan send their young men out of the camp, four at a time, to slay one of those,” the Norseman continued. “They may not return until they each have a paw to bring back as proof of their victory in battle, then they’re considered men. They often lose one or two of the warriors before the fight is over.”

Doremi found the comment interesting--that was probably one of the many things that accounted for the might of the Scandian people.

“Does your own tribe have a right of passage like that, Thor?” she asked.

The Viking shook his head. “We’re not that stupid to waste the lives of our young warriors like that. However, when a young man wishes to marry a girl whose father objects, he sometimes goes out to retrieve the sword of a famed enemy from the barrow mound of a dead Scandian to show his courage.”

Thor then turned and locked eyes with the Bard, adding ominously, “And half the time, its owner fights to keep it.”

He left it at that and Doremi shivered at the thought, for she’d encountered barrow wraiths a time or two in Torrencia.

“I wonder if they actually went to Scandia to get that bear,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up.

Raven, however, discounted the wonder of the many assembled creatures. What was on her mind was the danger everything here might pose, for if there was anyplace in the tower they’d yet seen that all but screamed “I’m a trap”--this was it!

“People,” she spoke quietly, “let’s stay focused and stay careful. If this place comes to life all at once....”

Her voice trailed off, but everyone could well understand the ramifications. They’d all encountered things like that in the past, and the thought of every powerful creature in Islay short of a dragon suddenly descending, en masse, on them was none too pleasant.

In response, Espidreen drew her hand across her eyes and then gazed up and down and left and right, using a spell to see if any enchantments lay upon the stuffed creatures.

“Nothing, Raven,” she reported. “No enchantments upon the creatures here. Only a slight aura of magic up ahead of us in the shadows.”

Curious about what the spell might have revealed, Raven, her sword ready, edged forward, followed by the others.

Then they saw it.

Cyllindrethifl let out a sigh and tears formed in her eyes, for before them, stuffed and mounted atop a pedestal of white marble, was a beautiful white unicorn with a golden mane flowing down the sides of its short neck.

“What sort of evil could be so loathsome as to murder a unicorn and stuff it like some trophy?!” the Druid demanded to know. That said, her sadness turned to anger and she drew forth a dagger. Then she began climbing up upon the base.

“That Liche deserves to die, and die slowly!” Nightshadow muttered, tightening his grip on his weapons.

The Mistress of Freeport watched as Cyllindrethifl climbed up upon the pedestal and then reached out with her left hand to grasp the unicorn’s horn while her right hand began sawing with the dagger.

“Good idea, Cyl--that horn’s worth a lot,” she spoke.

“I’m going to take it back to Ashvryl and bury it in the Forest!” the Druid vowed as she pulled it free.

Raven and Espidreen looked at each other, and then Raven spoke again.

“Let’s not be too hasty, Cyl.”

“I’m not arguing with you, Raven--I’m burying this horn, and that’s final!” Cyllindrethifl answered as she jumped off the base to the floor.

“Cyl, the poor unicorn is dead--it won’t miss its horn. We can make at least one elixir of youth out of it! Now that may not mean anything to you--”

The Druid shook the horn at her mistress. “The discussion’s over!”

The Mistress of Freeport let out a sigh as Espidreen flashed her an It’s an Elf thing look.

Raven,” Raven spoke aloud to herself, “is there anyone in Islay whose people give them as much back-talk as yours do to you?

No, Raven,” she answered herself, cocking her head the other way, “no ruler in Islay has to put up with as much rebellious, back-talking servants as you do!

The Druid ignored the comment, crossed her arms, and deliberately turned away, refusing to look at her mistress.

The only options were to kill the Elf or let her have her way, and killing her wasn’t an option, so Raven let out another sigh since further argument was clearly pointless.

“Fine, Cyl--if that’s what you have to do!”

Satisfied, Cyllindrethifl relaxed and knelt down to shove the horn into her knapsack.

“May I see it before you put it away?” Doremi begged.

The Elf handed the horn to her and the Bard eagerly examined it, for she’d always wanted to see a real unicorn horn, and this was probably the only chance she’d ever have.

It was over a foot long, being a beautiful conglomeration of ivory and gold wound together in a spiral ending in a sharp point.

Only a fool could doubt the magical potency of such a thing, and it was no wonder Raven lusted after it. Such a trophy was near priceless.

What a crime, Doremi thought as she examined the horn, to kill such a creature.

“Thank you,” she then spoke, returning the horn to the Druid.

Cyllindrethifl placed the pack on again and stood up, returning to her place next to Doremi.

The incident now behind them, Raven pointed the wakizashi to an imposing set of marble stairs leading up to a landing that split left and right as it continued up to the next floor. “That way, people,” she spoke.

The group now began its climb, filing off to the left stairway as they made their way up to the chamber above, leaving Nostradamus’ zoo behind.

Leaning on the railing as she nervously ascended the sculpted marble steps, Doremi peered upward into the darkness, aware that an attack could come at any moment from an unseen enemy that wouldn’t be noticed until it made the first move. Yet still their luck held, for in a few moments Nightshadow and Thor reached the top unopposed, and then the rest followed to emerge in an enormous gallery equal in size to that of the zoo beneath.

The moment their lockets began to illuminate the vaulted chamber, everyone perceived this was another trophy room. But it was different, for rather than holding trophies of creatures this room seemed to be a museum of artifacts!

Scattered front to back about the stone floor were numerous strange objects, the like of which they had never seen. To describe most of them would be impossible, for few bore resemblance to the sort of items one might normally find in Islay. In fact the only familiar thing that came to Doremi’s eyes as she looked about was a clock, much like Desmore’s, although it was divided into only twelve hours instead of twenty.

The room immediately attracted Raven’s attention and she brought her hand across her eyes, enacting the spell to detect the aura of magic objects as Espidreen had done in the zoo below.

She was disappointed to find no aura of magic appeared within her spell’s range as she looked about--except for the center of the vast chamber where a blue aura of something was already clearly visible.

“I think this is a museum,” Espidreen remarked, “though what it holds is a mystery.”

Raven, still looking about, spoke.

“Cyl, is this stuff Elven?”

The Elf slowly shook her head. “There is nothing Elven here that I’ve ever seen, Raven. I have no idea what any of these objects are.”

Slowly, Raven looked back and forth, trying to form a conclusion about the place.

“I’d like to take a look around this chamber before we go further. In the meantime, Nightshadow, can you do something for me?” she requested.

The Rogue looked over and nodded.

Raven gestured to the stairs they’d just come up from.

“Please take a run back to the Music room and have a peek outside--I’d like to know if the courtyard is still nice and empty.”

“All right.”

“I’ll go with him t’ keep him company,” Mac Tavish spoke up.

She glanced to the Highlander and shrugged. “Fine. The rest of us will wait here--just don’t waste time, and remember what stairs lead back into the zoo from that maze of stairs!”

“Raven, is it wise to have Nightshadow leave us?” Espidreen questioned.

“I think we can survive the brief time they’ll be gone, Espy. We’ll just keep on our toes, and if we have to, we’ll to beat a hasty retreat back downstairs.”

Mac Tavish then nodded to Nightshadow and the duo started back down the stairs, leaving the rest of the Fellowship to explore for a few minutes.

As they departed, Raven slowly made her way forward, looking about as the others followed behind, equally fascinated by the oddities they beheld.

Doremi noticed two things about the contrivances in the room: The first was that most appeared to be machines, though what they did and how they worked was beyond the scope of her knowledge. The second thing was that very little was made of wood. Most things were of metal, or perhaps wood and metal. What the significance was of that was lost to her, but it was definitely strange to see so much metal work in the objects.

The first wondrous device that particularly caught the Bard’s attention was a very large brass horn--almost three feet long--that was crafted in the shape of a flower bud affixed to an ornate wooden box atop which lay a round black platter.

Pausing to examine the contrivance while the others drifted away from each other as they continued forward, the Bard noted that upon the front of the box lay an inscribed plate depicting a dog standing before a similar sort of device. Above the dog, some letters spelled out a name.

A Wighead device, she concluded.

A crank was mounted on the side of the device and carefully Doremi turned it but nothing happened, though she was sure it was attached to a spring she could feel tensioning up. She then looked upon the top of the box to observe that a shaft next to the black platter held a metal arm that ended in a round disc made of metal and glass from which a needle stuck out. A lever protruded out from under the round base holding the platter, and Doremi pulled on it.

Immediately, the platter began to spin very quickly.

Cyllindrethifl, meanwhile, drew near to see what Doremi was fidgeting with.

“What is that thing?” the Elf inquired.

Doremi shook her head. “It’s a Wighead device of some sort, but for the life of me I don’t know what it does. It’s pretty, though. I think the inventor’s name is Victor from the plate on the front there.”

Cyllindrethifl reached out to examine the arm and found that it swiveled. Puzzled, she moved it back and forth, perceiving that it would make an arc above the spinning black platter. Finally, she released it upon the black platter to see what would happen, and the most marvelous thing began to occur: As the needle touched it, loud music came out of the brass flower bud!

It was not music like that which one might hear from a music box, but was more like an entire orchestra playing very a very fast tune unlike any they had heard before.

The startled women looked at each other in shock as they heard the sounds of Raven and the others hurrying up.

“What is that thing?” the Mistress of Freeport demanded. “What did you two do?”

“It’s some sort of Wighead device!” Doremi spoke above the din of the music. “It makes music! Isn’t it wonderful?!”

“Well, make it stop--it’ll wake the dead!” Raven shouted back. “What’s the matter with you?!”

Quickly, Doremi shoved back the lever and the disc stopped rotating, the music stopping as she did so.

Raven then settled down and let out a breath. “Didn’t I tell you two not to touch anything?” she hissed at them.

“Actually, no, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl replied as she thought about it. “I don’t believe you gave a specific order to that effect.”

“We didn’t know it would happen, Raven,” Doremi explained. “Besides, we were curious.”

Ignoring Doremi, Raven addressed the Elf.

“Cyl, this is a dangerous place to be curious in! I expect better from someone three hundred years old!”

Cyllindrethifl said nothing, but tightened her lips and looked down to the floor.

Having properly rebuked the pair, Raven relaxed and again began drifting west, followed by the others.

“Raven,” Fosmo spoke, looking off to the side as they walked, “whaddaya think that funny bird-thing over there is, eh?”

The Mistress of Freeport looked over to see what he meant, and gazed upon a very strange object that had been tucked off in a dark corner of the room. It was barely visible in the shadows, but they could observe it was far larger than a bird, being about twenty feet long and half again as wide, roughly fashioned in the general shape of an avian creature. Two sets of wings sprouted from both sides of the contrivance, one set atop the other, held together by some wooden supports. Whatever the thing was, it sat atop a pair of wheels, suggesting it could be towed or pushed. From its front protruded two wooden blades akin to those that might be found upon a windmill.

Curious, Raven diverted from her course for a closer look.

As they neared the bird-thing, it became apparent the contrivance was a conglomeration of wood, green painted canvas, and wire, all made in such a way to mimic some sort of a large bird, for there was a tail in addition to the wings.

It struck Doremi that it might actually be a work of art rather than a machine.

Raven finally reached it and paused before the contrivance, looking it up and down, at a loss to comprehend its function.

Fosmo, having wandered off to the side, suddenly drew a dagger and from a distance of about twenty feet away, heaved it forward with a THUNK into the side of the thing.

“Bullseye!” he grinned, looking over to the others.

Raven’s eyes narrowed. “Why’d you do that?” she asked, puzzled at the move.

The Cutpurse pointed to the left side of the thing. “It’s got a bullseye painted on it.”

The group walked round the wings to look, and indeed beheld there was a target painted upon the side of the device with Fosmo’s dagger solidly impaled in its center. And not only that, but as Raven leaned over to look beneath the bottom wings, targets were painted there as well.

“Huh!” Raven exclaimed, standing back up. “I think this is some kind of target…thing. You...tow it and shoot at it. At least, that’s my best guess.”

Cyllindrethifl had been trying to understand what the device was and suddenly her eyes opened wide in amazement.

“Raven, do you think this could be a machine that’s meant to fly like a bird?!” she asked excitedly.

The party expunged some sounds of amazement at the Elf’s question, and Raven looked up and down at the contrivance trying to form an opinion.

“I don’t think so,” she finally said, reaching out to grasp the upper wing. “Look,” she added, shaking the wing up and down, “--the wing won’t flap. It’s built to stay stiff. How would it fly?”

“I also think we’d have heard if Nostradamus had invented a machine that could fly,” Espidreen remarked. “Perhaps this is an example of his failed attempt to invent such a device. As you say, those wings don’t look as if they can flap very well. I can’t see why he want to construct a machine to fly anyway--a spell is much simpler.”

“But a flying machine could let him infiltrate the Second School as we did with your flying ship,” Romulus pointed out. “Maybe that’s what he had in mind--using machines to invade the other School.”

The Cutpurse stepped up to retrieve his dagger. “Eh, there’s a seat in it,” he spoke, looking up.

The rest edged closer to see, and indeed there was a small seat above the bottom wing where one might sit before a lever and some foot pedals.

Curious, Fosmo stepped upon the wing and squeezed inside to sit down.

“Careful, Fosmo,” Raven cautioned.

“Sure is a tight fit,” he muttered as he settled in. “Eh, you,” he then spoke out to the machine, “--fly!”

He held his breath a moment but nothing happened, so Fosmo then experimented with some of the contrivance’s controls, discovering that one could cause portions of the wings and the tail to flap somewhat. He gave it everything he had, but he simply could not get them to flap quickly enough to lift the device off the ground, so after a time he gave up on this as well.

“That thing’ll never fly, Raven,” he concluded as he maneuvered himself out of the tight fit of the seat compartment out onto the wing. Then he jumped down to the ground.

“I didn’t think,” she responded. “Maybe this whole place is just a graveyard of failed projects.”

It was at this point that Doremi caught sight of another wonder a few yards away.

“Raven,” she spoke, pointing, “look at that beautiful coach!”

Beautiful was the word, for as they looked to where she pointed they beheld the finest coach any of them had ever laid eyes on. The coach was about ten feet long, crafted of metal, not wood, and painted top to bottom in attractive shades of green. A small cabin was housed at its center with just enough room for two people. Large windows--set into varnished wooden frames--allowed one a clear view out the front and sides of the cabin, and as the Fellowship got close enough to see into it they noticed a sumptuous seat of black leather that practically begged them to enter in and sit.

Four gleaming brass oil lamps were mounted at points in the fore of the coach and, last of all, its wheels were covered by something akin to black leather to make a quiet, comfortable ride.

At the very front, two brass letters revealed the person who owned the coach apparently had the initials of RS.

Even Raven was impressed, exclaiming a “Wow!” as she admiringly looked the coach over.

“That’s a coach fit for a king, eh?” Fosmo exclaimed.

“Or a Mistress of Freeport,” Raven added.

“It’s missing the tongue,” Espidreen observed. “There’s no place to harness it to a horse.”

“And how does one hold the reins?” Cyllindrethifl wondered.

“Mayhaps it useth steeds that obey by command,” the Knight suggested.

Doremi by now had the coach’s door open and was looking within. Spying some pedals and levers on its floor, she spoke out, “There are some pedals here! Maybe you hook the reins to them somehow.”

Curious, the Bard then climbed within and settled into the seat behind a wooden wheel attached to a shaft sprouting from the fore end of the cabin.

“There’s a wheel here that turns, but it turns real hard,” Raven heard her say.

At the same time, those outside of the coach noticed the its front wheels pivot slightly.

“I think that swivels the wheels,” Raven remarked, puzzled at the coach’s design.

“Isn’t the tongue supposed to do that when you tug on the reins to turn the horse first?” Espidreen asked.

“It doesn’t have a tongue, though, Espy. Maybe if we put one on it, it would make more sense.”

Cyllindrethifl leaned around the front, examining the coach. “There’s a crank on the front, Raven,” she announced. “Maybe if you turn it, a tongue pops out.”

Wondering if that was true, the Mistress of Freeport sheathed her sword and came over, bending over to wind the crank, quickly noting that it was surprisingly hard to turn.

“Either it needs oiling or it’s hooked to some kind of spring,” she spoke, pausing. Then she stood up.

“You know, I think this coach doesn’t need horses--it uses a spring! If you wind it up, I believe it will move on its own, and you maneuver it from inside of the coach where Doremi is!”

“Wind it up and let’s see!” Doremi encouraged Raven from inside.

Everyone, in fact, wanted to see, and Raven--no less curious--leaned back down and turned the crank sharply.

For a moment, it made a whirring noise that stopped when she halted turning the crank.

“Definitely springs,” she muttered. “Feels like they’re tightened, though. Are you sure there’s no release or something in there, Doremi?”

Raven spun the crank yet again, and they could hear more of the whirring sound. Faster and faster she tried spinning the crank, and then the most incredible thing happened:

The coach seemed to roar to life!

It stunned everyone by making a horrible sound that took Raven by complete surprise as she backed up in shock, eyes wide open. But this time the racket didn’t stop, continuing in a ghastly whirring, roaring, clattering and coughing cacophony of sound that made the Wighead music device seem tame by comparison! It was a noise so terrible that even Thor found himself backing away in fear the thing would explode or else do some other dangerous thing.

Raven, on the verge of panic over the thought that every Liche in the School would hear the racket, cried out, “Stop!”

But the coach ignored her and Raven, in frustration, kicked one of its wheels.

“Quiet thyself!” she shouted over the din as she drew her sword. “Be still, I say!”

Still the coach kept up the racket, and Raven then began beating on it with the wakizashi, hollering for it to be quiet.

The Bard, meanwhile, likewise worried the coach might somehow explode, began scrambling to get out. Then Raven shouted at her to stay in.

“Try and stop it, Doremi! Push the pedals or something!”

Not without a great deal of trepidation and misgiving, Doremi retreated back in, looking down and around, with no idea of what pedal did what. Then she started pressing pulling and turning everything she could see--but all she did was somehow make the noise ever louder.

The coach seemed to quiet down somewhat as she pulled upon a lever, though in doing so there came a horrid grinding sound from someplace. Thinking she might be on to something, the Bard then pulled on the lever as hard as she could while bracing herself with her feet.

The grinding sound continued, but suddenly the coach began to move!

It lurched forward with a jolt, shoving Raven out of the way as it began hurtling into objects on pedestals or things standing upon the floor as Doremi tried desperately to halt it. Spinning the wheel, she turned it this way and that, knocking things over, until finally it headed directly toward a pillar of stone as wide as the coach itself.

The Bard closed her eyes, waiting for whatever was going to happen.

She nearly went flying through the window as the coach finally smacked to a stop, its regal front end collapsing in like an accordion.

But at least the contraption was silent again, and it didn’t explode!

Fortunately, Doremi wasn’t hurt too badly and quickly the men were rushing up, trying to help her out of the torn mass of metal and wood.

Raven was there too, brushing her hair aside, looking for any cuts.

“You all right?” she asked, examining the Bard for any broken bones.

“I...I think so. I guess we shouldn’t have fiddled with that infernal contraption.”

Raven let out a long breath and released her. “I should have listened to my own good advice. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!”

She looked about and then spoke up as the stragglers arrived. “All right, people--no one, including me, touches anything in this room that looks like a machine! Leave it alone!

“You think the Liches could have missed that noise?” Romulus now angrily asked.

Raven let out a frustrated sigh and hung her head. “We’re still not even on the fourth story yet. If they’re in the tower itself, or in one of the other buildings, then we’re still fine. If not, I suppose we’ll know soon. Either way, there’s nothing we can do but go on.”

The Mistress of Freeport now looked around to the group, spreading out her hands, trying to calm everyone down. “Let’s just stay focused and move on,” she spoke quietly and calmly. “Fighters, keep an eye out on the two stairways.”

That said, she began heading for the glowing area at the center of the chamber. The rest--nervous, but knowing she was right--followed along.

They hadn’t gone far when Raven caught sight of something hidden against one of the large pillars holding up the roof. Instantly, she pivoted about, facing it as her hand thrust into her component pouch while the Knight rushed in front of her to stand guard.

It was an iron golem!

No faster than it took to grab a black pearl, her hand was cocked, ready to ether ball the construct. But the creature remained unmoving, giving the Mistress of Freeport pause to think.

“Espy?” she spoke, keeping her eyes trained at the thing, prepared to act at the first sign of life.

The Witch, fumbling for her scrolls, likewise paused when she beheld the golem not so much as flinching at the group’s presence.

“I don’t think it’s activated, Raven,” she concluded.

“Shall we kill it anyway?” Giles asked, his eyes fixed upon the ten-foot statue of metal.

Raven shook her head. “No--save the spells. If it’s not threatening us, let’s leave it alone. But be ready! Espy, if it so much as twitches, cut loose at it.”

Espidreen nodded as Raven cautiously backed away, keeping her eyes on the golem.

“There’s another over there,” spoke Thor as he gazed off to another pillar.

Sure enough, everyone spotted a second golem also standing sentinel in the room, barely visible in the glowing blue light at the chamber’s center. Like its mate, the golem stood stiff as a statue, apparently unconcerned with the Fellowship’s incursion.

Now the fellowship was twice as concerned.

“Let’s just be careful,” Raven urged. “If they move, we know what to do. Thank goodness they’re slow.”

She then tucked the pearl in a pocket, shifted the wakizashi back to her right hand, and made for the center of the chamber, which was now only a few yards away.

Even from this distance they could see that the blue glow emanated from a large circular depression in the floor that was forty or so feet wide. As the group approached, they observed that a raised lip of stone encircled the pit and inset within that lip were large crystals cut into the form of Hocwrathian runes. Each pulsed with a feral light that changed color every few moments from gold, to red, to an inky blackness, thereafter repeating the cycle. Beneath these, inscribed in solid gold, ran what looked to be Karnaki hieroglyphs! Finally, an ivory podium reached by a narrow silver stair rose at the far end of the pit, positioned just above it, permitting one to look down into the misty pit below.

They chose to draw no closer than ten feet from the pit as each took in a good look, trying to guess the pit’s function.

“I don’t know what this thing is,” Raven spoke, “but whatever it is, it’s important!”

She glanced over to Espidreen who had stepped up to join her mistress, equally fascinated with what lay before them. “Well, Espy?”

The Witch remained silent for a moment as she circled the perimeter of the pit, trying to read the inscription. “I’m not certain, Raven,” she eventually replied. “Some sort of conjuration pit, I think. I don’t recognize the spell and the formation of runes. I think they’re using sorcery to invoke some sort of priestly magic if that makes any sense. This seems to be a strange mixture of priestly and sorcerous magic.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” remarked the Mistress of Freeport.

“That thing could conjure up a pretty big demon from the looks of it,” Thor spoke, tightening the grip on his hammer.

Raven glanced to the Scandian and then back to the Witch. “Is Thor right? Could this thing conjure up a demon, Espy.”

The Witch nodded as she stepped back to the others. “The runes are Sorcerer-tongue, but they must be an evocation to some demon. So far as the hieroglyphs go, I do not understand their purpose, but the runes start out with a being’s name. I don’t recognize it, though--it’s S-S. Ssssssssss?” she supposed, hissing out the word.

“Sounds like yer a snake, eh,” Fosmo joked.

“Burglar, if you have nothing useful to say, then hold your tongue!” the Witch snapped back with a scowl.

“Fitting name for a demon, Lady,” Giles observed.

Espidreen ignored Giles’ remark and looked over Cyllindrethifl, asking, “That name mean anything to you at all?”

The Elf shook her head. “It’s not the name of any demon I’m familiar withl. As Fosmo said, it sounds like some snake-like sound. Or, it could be an S-H shound. Sh-sh?”

“What’s it actually say, Espy--the actual translation?” Raven now asked.

Espidreen returned her gaze to the pit, trying to decipher the runes.

O S-S...who is seeing...the was...and the open a door.”

“No, that’s not it,” Doremi broke in. “The two S’s are a transliteration of the hieroglyphs, Raven. It’s the Hocwrathian way of writing the name of the Karnaki goddess Isis.”

“That could be it!” Espidreen exclaimed. “S-S is how you’d have to render Isis in Hocwrathian!”

“The Hocwrathian inscription I think is actually an attempted translation of part of the hieroglyphs--a bad one too,” Doremi added. “I think the hieroglyphs are some sort of spell they can’t activate, and they’ve tried to duplicate it using their sorcery.”

Raven now looked over to the Bard, clearly impressed. “All right, what do the hieroglyphs say, then? How would you translate them?”

Doremi looked back, and began reading.

“As I said, there’s more to the hieroglyphs than there is to the Hocwrathian spell, Raven. The hieroglyphs read: Isis, the Queen of eternity is with me. What was commanded for Osiris, let that be done for me. O Isis, who sees past and future, open now the gate.”

Raven and Espidreen looked back and forth at each other and the pit.

“Thank you, Doremi,” Raven finally spoke. “Once again, you’ve proven your worth on this quest. I don’t know what any of this means, but at least we have some clues to ponder. ”

Somewhat embarrassed at the public praise, Doremi nodded and fell silent.

“Either it gates something in or is used as some sort of teleportal...or perhaps some sort of scrying device, Raven,” Espidreen speculated.

Meanwhile, Cyllindrethifl leaned in toward Doremi as Espidreen was offering her opinion. “You’re very fortunate to be able to read that ancient tongue,” she spoke. “Would you be willing to teach me to read it as well? We Elves love to learn languages.”

“Sure,” Doremi answered back, smiling. “It’s not easy, but I can try.”

As Espidreen and Raven began speculating about the function of the pit and whether it might be used as a means to portal into Nostradamus’ Throne room, Doremi’s eyes caught sight of a large Karnaki statue of a skirted warrior over by a wall.

“Oh, look,” she spoke to the Elf, “there’s a statue from Karnak over there. Let’s see if it’s got an inscription.”

The pair then wandered over a few yards away to investigate a large sandstone statue of a muscular, spear-armed warrior with the head of a hippopotamus.

Doremi chuckled. “He’s funny-looking, isn’t he? The inscription on the base says, Who would seek to harm Pharaoh must face my wrath.”

For some reason the Elf did not smile, but gazed up to the face of the statue for a long moment.

“Rather frightening, isn’t it?” she spoke. “Half animal-half human. The Karnakis worshipped a lot of gods like that, didn’t they?”

The Bard nodded. “Oh yes, Anubis, Thoth, Seth--many of the Karnaki deities were part animal. Strange, isn’t it?”

Cyllindrethifl turned away from the statue to lock eyes with those of the Bard, looking very serious.

“Do you know the background of why that was?” she inquired.

Doremi shook her head and looked back to the ten-foot-tall statue. “No, I suppose it was just their beliefs. Karnak, you know, was green in the First Age. Perhaps the Karnakis were nature-worshippers of a sort who incorporated aspects of nature into their worship.”

The Elf said nothing in response, but gazed back at the statue in silence.

“Look--there are some more artifacts,” Doremi observed, for stretching back along the wall were assortment of Karnaki statues and artifacts, including some unusual swords that looked like a queer combination of gladius and sickle.

She and the Druid meandered west, examining some of the items. Then they came upon a true treasure: a large stone sarcophagus which had within a coffin of solid gold!

“That’s a Pharaoh’s sarcophagus!” Doremi whispered excitedly to the Druid. “They would wrap the dead Pharaohs in strips of linen and then encase them in a coffin of gold housed in a stone sarcophagus. See the way the gold is painted, especially in the face, to make it look more like the actual Pharaoh?”

Moderately interested, the Elf pointed to a flared headdress encircled by a coiled cobra depicted about the head of the image. “Is that the sort of crowns their kings wore?” she asked.

“Um, yeah. They had several sorts, actually, but that was one of them. I think it’s called a nemes. They had another called a pschent, which I believe was a little like a hennin.”

“And they buried the Pharaohs in pyramids?”

“Or in tombs, depending on how wealthy and important a particular Pharaoh was.”

As they continued on their exploration, it occurred to Doremi that someone had actually paid some thought to the way the museum was laid out, for rather than being a dumping ground for unusual artifacts haphazardly placed wherever they happened to end up, some related things were actually grouped together in certain areas. For example, immediately following the Karnaki artifacts they happened upon a selection of Krellan objects, notably a legion standard and a set of Krellan armor along with one of their chariots.

“I wonder why they’d have Krellan things here,” Doremi spoke. “What’s unusual about those?”

Cyllindrethifl was studying the artifacts closely as the Bard posed her question.

“I’ll tell you what’s unusual about them,” she responded, “--they’re wrong. They’re Krellan, but not Krellan.”

Puzzled by the comment, Doremi’s waited for the Elf to elaborate.

“Look at the legion standard,” she said, pointing. “See the letters SPQR, thereon? It should be SPQK.”

Sp-qk?” the Bard spoke, trying to figure the word out.

The Elf chuckled. “They actually stand for three words: senatus populusque Krellanus, which means the senate and population of Krella. What SPQR stands for, I have no idea. And look there, at the image upon the standard--two babies suckling from a dog or wolf. I’ve never seen anything like that on a Krellan standard. Also, there’s no scrollcase hanging from it.”


Cyllindrethifl reached out and ran her hand along the top of the standard. “Legion standards have a scrollcase that hangs from them. In it, they place documents recording any failures on the part of the legion. When a particular legion has performed well and not earned any criticism, the scrollcase is uncapped, which you can observe when they march. If a legion has somehow tarnished its reputation, the scrollcase is capped, and at times the people will pelt the soldiers with rotted fruit and vegetables when they see them march.”

The Elf looked into the Bard’s eyes. “To tarnish the reputation of the army is considered a great insult in Krella, and the offense is not forgotten until fifty years have passed, or if the legion redeems itself by some great act.”

She returned her gaze to the standard. “This is not Krellan--I believe it’s Poliffian.”

“What’s that?” Doremi asked.

“Those were what the Krellans were before they became Krellans in the First Age,” Cyllindrethifl answered. “Originally, their legends say they came to Islay on ships after their home continent sank into the sea. Back then, they were known as Poliffians. In time, Baltarus’ father led a revolt, was killed, and his son completed the revolt. After that, they were known as Krellans. That standard and the other artifacts must date from the First Age.”

“Well, that might make sense,” Doremi supposed. “Since Krella and Hocwrath were members of the Triad back then, perhaps they had some Krellan artifacts left over here at the School from the First Age.”

“Yes, perhaps.”

The pair continued on, passing another assortment of strange objects, until they happened upon a section apparently devoted to odd clothing. Here were hats and coats and other strange forms of attire, none of which they recognized, but some of which were rather smart-looking.

They paused to make a closer examination.

Back at the pit, meanwhile, Raven had concluded that she wanted to try activating the portal to see if it could be of any help to them.

“Where’d Cyl go?” the Mistress of Freeport asked, looking about. “Let’s get her over here, and try to figure out what this does. Maybe we can portal straight into the Throne room!”

Espidreen pointed to the southwest end of the chamber. “She and the Bard are over there, Raven.”

Raven took in a breath to shout for them to return, but then paused, concluding that would be too much noise.

“Go get them, Espy,” she spoke to the Witch, nodding toward them. “I don’t want to holler in here.”

“As you wish, Raven.”

The Witch walked off to gather the pair as Thor, keeping his eyes on the eastward stairs, muttered, “Nightshadow and the Highlander sure seem to be taking their time, don’t they?”

Raven glanced to the stairs. “They should be back any moment. If they’d run into any fighting, Mac Tavish would have come back to get us while Nightshadow fought whatever was there, I’m sure.”

Some of the clothing was not only attractive; it was actually practical. Doremi, for one, discovered a fine coat of leather with a comfortably warm interior lining of shearling wool displayed upon a clothing stand. A matching leather helmet came with it that featured a set of glass lenses in a frame that could be placed about the head to keep the wind out of one’s eyes. The outfit was completed with a white silk scarf.

All in all, very useful, and smart as well!

Cyllindrethifl, meanwhile, removed her cloak and laid it aside to don a coat of soft gray wool with golden brocade upon the sleeves and a double set of brass buttons running down its length. A matching brimmed hat with a golden wreath upon its front and pinned up along the side with a red ostrich plume, came with it.

“You look really nice,” the Bard complimented.

“Thank you; you do too. I wish there was a mirror handy!”

It seemed as if the Elf had only to ask, and Doremi caught sight of a large, regal mirror, inset into the gold-leafed frame of a floor harp, standing a few yards away.

“Right there!” she said, pointing.

Excitedly, the pair went over and dragged the mirror closer to the clothing section, then stood before it, admiring themselves.

“Oh!” Cyllindrethifl suddenly exclaimed, withdrawing her hand from a pocket of the coat. “Mine has a gold coin in the pocket for luck,” she spoke, holding out her palm.

Indeed, there was a beautiful golden coin within her palm. It was perfectly round--which was impressive--and showed a woman with a spear, seated and holding out a scroll. Letters ringed the coin, but they were words the Elf was unfamiliar with.

“Cuh...coe...con...con-fay-de-rate sta-tees of am-er-ih-cuh,” she spoke, trying to phonetically read off the words inscribed upon the golden disc.

Cyllindrethifl looked up, puzzled. “Torrencian? Not Krellan.”

Doremi was equally mystified.

“I know the word states. Don’t know the other two big words, though.”

They turned the disc around and beheld an inscription of CSA which was identical to the letters upon the front of the Elf’s new hat. Beneath these were the Torrencian numbers “20”, and a strange word, “dollars”.

The two decided to forget about the mystery of the coin and focus on the more important subject of the sartorial splendor before them, and it was then that Espidreen arrived.

“Cyllindrethifl, Raven wants you back there,” the Witch spoke as she approached. “She wants to try activating that portal and see what happens.”

“All right,” the Elf replied, turning round.

Espidreen’s eyes roamed back and forth between the two as she examined their new attire. “What are you two dressed up in?” she asked.

“We found some wonderful new clothes!” Doremi exclaimed, holding open one side of the coat to show off the lining.


Suddenly, interested, the Witch stepped up, taking a look about. Finally her eyes fell upon a straw hat with a flat brim so wide it extended nearly out to her shoulders, and she reached out to try it on.

“This would be good in the sun,” she remarked.

Espidreen then spied a rather interesting helmet that hung upon the wall. It was a open-faced, black, with a golden eagle upon the brow and a spike that stuck up through its top.

Off came the straw hat to be replaced by the helmet.

“I like this helmet,” she concluded, turning to admire herself in the mirror.

“There are some very interesting clothes here,” Doremi remarked.

“Nice hat,” Espidreen then spoke to the Elf. “I think the big feather really makes it distinctive. It would be a good hat for a ball.”

“I favor it as well. In fact....”

The Elf’s voice suddenly trailed off as she looked past the other two.

“Oh-oh, here comes Raven, and she’s mad,” she muttered under her breath, trying not to move her lips.

Espidreen and Doremi then made the mistake of instinctively turning round to observe Raven stalking toward them--which clued Raven in on the fact that Cyllindrethifl had warned them about her, making her twice as angry as she already was. They could tell that as she paused for a moment in mid-stride, then ground her teeth together and let out a breath as she approached.

The three didn’t have long to wait for the rebuke.

“I can’t get you to stay focused for three hours before you’re running off after new clothes!” she spoke in disgust.

Cyllindrethifl tightened her lips and said nothing.

“Raven, I just thought--since I don’t have a helmet--” Espidreen started to say.

“Don’t you dare start, Espidreen!” Raven responded sharply. “I sent you to fetch these two, and instead you ran off to play dress-up with them!”

“And you,” she then exclaimed, looking to the Bard, who was peering back at her through the framed glass lenses, “--take that ridiculous thing off! You look like a bug-eyed fish! Dump this stuff and get back over to the pit--and I mean now!”

Having given her orders, the Mistress of Freeport angrily turned her back to the three women in disgust, muttering to herself.

When Raven was out of earshot, Cyllindrethifl whispered, “She takes life much too seriously.”

“I heard that!” they heard her say in the distance.

Raven was returning back to the pit, but then she halted, standing transfixed before something. She didn’t move for several moments--long enough for the three to retrieve their bundles and approach close enough to observe her standing frozen before an odd set of armor that was propped up upon a stand.

“A Samurai,” they heard her mutter in a tone that was a mixture of awe and surprise.

Doremi realized the armor resembled bits and pieces from the blacksmith’s shop. But instead of being made of metal like normal armor, this oddly formed suit was crafted from rows of lacquered iron or wooden plates laced together with beautiful silk cords, giving the armor a variety of colors from black, to red, to gold, to green. A black iron helmet, similar to the one the Bard has seen on a workbench, crowned the set of armor and likewise was crafted in a form akin to the scowling face of a demon in front with an articulated lobster’s tail behind. Below the waist, the armor was scant, being only a few pieces of plates covering a pair of silken pants.

All in all, attractive and lightweight, though how much protection it actually gave was certainly debatable.

“Strange armor,” Doremi remarked. “Is that what they wear in Yamato, Raven?”

“Yeah. It’s called yoroi,” Raven whispered. “How could he have gotten it?”

She reached out to withdraw a katana from its sheath, her eyes examining it closely as gloved fingers ran their way along its blade. Then, in one lightning fast move, she brought both hands together and whipped the sword around in several fast slashes until she ended the sequence with her arms extended and the weapon held out before her.

“How could he have gotten this?” she whispered again.

Obviously flustered, Raven leaned forward and slipped the sword back in its sheath, forcing herself to regain her composure. But then she stiffened again.

“Hey--where did you ever hear about Yamato?” she now demanded of the Bard.

“Uh...Nazier mentioned it,” Doremi found herself answering.

Doremi could tell from the look on Raven’s face, and the irritated breath she expunged, that Nazier was really going to catch it from her. But it was too late--she’d let the cat out of the bag.

“Come on,” Raven now ordered, again making for the pit.

They quickly found their way back to the misty pit, where the warriors still stood guard. As the three women came up behind her, Raven patted one of the silver railings of the stair sweeping up to the platform as she looked back to them.

“Cyl,” she spoke, “I want you to get up there, read the spell off, and try to activate this thing. See what it does.”

The Elf blinked once, then looked back and forth between the pit, the platform, and her mistress.

“Raven,” she balked, “if you think fiddling with machines is dangerous, trying to activate an enchanted portal we don’t understand carries with it infinitely more risk!”

“True, but you’re skilled enough that I’m certain you can handle the power of this spell,” the Mistress of Freeport reassured her. “Give it a try. If it becomes too much, just back off.”

“What if something dangerous comes through and attacks?”

“Cyl, do you really think there’s anything can come through that the fighters and I can’t handle? Go to it!”

Nervously, the Elf gave in and tentatively began ascending the narrow silver stairs until her slippered feet stepped upon the circular ivory platform. She rested her hands upon the rails, and then, concentrating, began to speak:

O Isis, who is seeing the was and the to-be, now open a door,” she spoke in Hocwrathian.

As the words left her lips, the Hocwrathian runes on the outer perimeter of the lip began glowing and pulsating. Brighter and brighter they glowed until they seemed to cause the golden hieroglyphs beneath them to burn with magic fire as the mists within the pit began swirling. Everyone there could feel the magic power surging through the pit. Then the mists seem to pull back, leaving in their wake a blackness...a void through which they could see nothing but stars.

Suddenly the Elf grew stiff as a board, and froze.

“Can anyone still see or hear me?” she asked.

Yes,” several of the group answered at once.

“What’s happening, Cyl?” Raven demanded.

They observed the Druid turn her head this way and that as if looking around--but clearly there was something wrong.

“I’m in a dark place,” she spoke. “It’s like being in a cave. It’s all black, but for a ghostly path before me that leads to stairs going down someplace.”

“See if you can walk down them,” Espidreen urged.

The Elf’s feet didn’t stir, but from the vacant look on her face, they knew that something was happening.

“Tell us what you see, Cyl,” Raven now spoke, leaning toward her.

“I’m going down the stairs...there are--images--starting to appear about me.”

“What sort, Cyl?”

“Places, I think, Raven. I can’t see them well...and I hear voices...thoughts, I believe. The Liche’s thoughts! Raven, his essence pervades this place! I don’t like it!”

Cyllindrethifl began taking in shallow breaths. “His thoughts are deafening . I...I can’t many much anger and hatred. I don’t like this, Raven--I wish to leave.”

“Cyllindrethifl, try to concentrate and isolate the voices,” Espidreen spoke up, trying to aid her. “If that doesn’t help, relax and empty your mind.”

Everyone could see the Elf struggling with whatever she was experiencing, but after a few moments Cyllindrethifl seemed to relax.

“It’s a little better now,” she whispered. “The thoughts are rushing through my raindrops falling. I...feel them more than I hear them.”

Giles moved near to Raven. “Lady, this may be dangerous,” he whispered. “Pray, let the Elf withdraw, lest she run afoul of some danger and we be unable to help.”

Raven waved him off and spoke again as she leaned back toward the Druid.

“Cyl, focus on one of the images and tell us what it is. Do you think it’s an area of the School we can portal to somehow?”

Cyllindrethifl seemed not to fully hear as her head began to hang low as if she was falling asleep.

“He comes here,” she spoke quietly. “He comes here to see the future. But he doesn’t understand it.”

The Elf paused for a moment, and then she spoke again, but this time differently.

Magic is must be the Third Age,” she whispered in a throaty baritone. “Have we failed to stop it? How then, has Jewel survived?

Within the pit, the mists now began to clear and the group beheld a vision: It was of Krellans fighting other warriors.

The Krellans have survived, but who are they fighting?” they heard the Druid ask.

The vision now began to change and the Fellowship observed great sailing ships battling each other with thunder sticks--just as Raven had imagined they could.

Cyllindrethifl, meanwhile, began to slip in and out coherency.

Is this another dimension or another time? Are there other worlds besides Jewel?

“He doesn’t understand it,” she repeated in her own voice once more. “He watches, but he doesn’t understand.”

Then she began to slip away once more. “The machines must never be made. We cannot allow the Third Age to start. If magic remains, we are safe. Magic must not die.”

The Elf began to slump forward slightly. Clearly she was weakening.

“Throckmorton,” they heard her say. “He hates Throckmorton. He must destroy Throckmorton. His hatred for Throckmorton consumes him.”

Now her face began to contort in rage as she began taking in deep breaths.

Why can I not destroy him?!” she hissed. “Every move countered...every plan foreseen. I must be free of this chain!

Then her own voice returned. “He can’t overcome Throckmorton’s magic, Raven.”

Again her face contorted, and she began to hiss in rage.

“I will take the risk. I will use machines to destroy him. Then I will destroy the machines and magic will survive....

Cyllindrethifl’s eyes closed shut as she leaned forward and swallowed hard, trying to regain control. “He...brings...the machines back here, through the portal, Raven. The machines...they’re from the future.”

The Mistress of Freeport jumped at her words and quickly mounted the steps up to the platform until she stood behind the Elf.

“How far in the future?” she asked, leaning forward to her.

Blinking and still confused by her surroundings, Cyllindrethifl seemed to look up and about at the various images near her, trying to focus in on them.

“He can’t overcome Throckmorton’s magic, Raven,” came the response. “He brings the machines back here through this portal, hoping to find one that can destroy Throckmorton. He...he...can see further than he can reach. He can only reach so far to bring things back. If he reaches further, he can’t control what comes back and it weakens him too much. He learned how to make the thunder sticks by watching the future and bringing one back. But he...he can’t reach all the way forward.”

Her voice trailed off as the scenes in the pit began to change. The group now beheld horrible things: men battling each other with thunder sticks, machines that could fly, spitting out fire at each other, great towers that soared high as the tallest mountains, huge armies marching....

“Something about the machines, Raven,” she went on. “He fears them, yet he still uses them. But he can’t bring all of them back yet. Every year brings him closer to the point he can bring back horrible machines that can kill for him.”

She was quiet a moment and then spoke once again.

“I see a huge metal bird that people fly inside of. There’s a metal egg in the bird’s belly he thinks can destroy Throckmorton. I see it--it looks like a big metal teardrop with writing and numbers on it...but he can’t grasp it yet. He’s waiting until he can reach out and bring it back here. It will only be a few more years.”

“If you can read it, tell us what the writing says,” Espidreen urged.

This one’s for T-O-G-O...I don’t know the word,” came the Elf’s answer. “The Liche is obsessed with these machines,” she repeated once more. “Yet he still fears them. He...he thinks machines will cause a new Age to start. He fears them because if the Third Age starts, Gorus will return. As long as...magic is strong...Gorus won’t return. He’ll risk using the machines against Throckmorton, but then he’ll destroy them so the Third Age can’t start.”

Now her voice began to soften somewhat, and it was as if she was addressing someone.

“We must turn our minds to a task beyond any that has ever been undertaken in Islay. To do that, I require all of you to become as I, that your minds may be used to their full potential.

Cyllindrethifl took in a deep breath and her face tightened into a scowl again.

A machine must be made,” she hissed out again. “This is the key. With this Karnaki enchantment, we can use our sorcery and build a machine. Then we cannot be stopped. It will be my ultimate triumph!

The Elf’s breast now began heaving in quick breaths as she further weakened and swayed back and forth, trying to stay on her feet.

“He’s angry,” she muttered. “He has it, but he can’t use it. Why does everything I do fail at its moment of triumph? Why will not it simply work as I wish?!

Now her voice changed once again, almost sounding pleasant.

Take that which is of your folk with my blessing,” the now heard the Elf say. “That which is Hocwrathian or of Humankind shall be our portion--with those others in your fellowship recompensed well, of course.

Cyllindrethifl paused again for a moment and then let out a horrid scream of rage. “You promised It and brought me nothing! Incompetent fool, think not that I care so much about Prophecy that I won’t slay you where you stand! Fine--we shall employ a different plan. There is a legend in Arwin.

She fell silent as the pictures continued changing, then she spoke again.

I sent you for an Artifact and you bring me a helmet?!” she roared. “Again you fail me!

Then she paused for a moment.

Wait...wait...there is a better way,” she said with an evil whisper.

Then she chuckled malevolently.

We will let It come to us. Now watch and see a Master at work.”

The Elf’s voice now softened as if she were having a pleasant conversation with someone. “It is my wish she be assisted in her studies--and also that she not know I am watching her.... Merely a pawn I am developing. Nothing more.... Thank you--old friend!

It was finally too much, and Cyllindrethifl fell back into Raven’s arms, the visions in the pit vanishing. Quickly, the Mistress of Freeport backed down the stairs and laid the Elf out to restore her strength while the others rushed up to help. Only Doremi held back, the Elf’s words still burning within her. For some reason she suddenly had a very unsettling feeling that she was the person being referred to in Cyllindrethifl‘s last statement, though how and why that could happen was a mystery.

“Espy,” Raven called out, “a healing elixir!”

The Witch instantly reached into a loop of her belt to retrieve a vial, and she unstopped it, pouring the contents down the Elf’s throat.

Cyllindrethifl began taking in deep breaths, and after a few moments, the color returned to her.

“I don’t remember all of it, Raven,” she spoke. “But Nostradamus uses this portal to see into the future. The things in this room all come from the future.”

Raven nodded. “Yes, Cyl--you told us that.”

“I saw horrible things from the future,” Cyllindrethifl spoke, looking up to those gathered round her.

The Mistress of Freeport nodded. “We saw them too. I think this portal shows things that might happen, not necessarily things that must happen. Don’t you worry, we’ll take steps to subvert all this.”

“When I was in the darkness, I imagined a chess board,” the Druid continued, taking in fast breaths. “One game, many players--each deceiving the other, like puppets on a string, and kings about to fall.”

Cyllindrethifl now sought Raven’s face and swallowed hard. “I think the may Liche know we’re here, and he’s waiting for us up in the tower! Waiting like a spider in its web...waiting because he knew, sooner or later, that we would come here.”

Raven’s face fell, her look becoming solemn. “Do you know that for sure?” she asked quietly.

The Druid shook her head. “’s just a feeling. A feeling that he’s expecting someone--sometime--to come here and attack him, and so he’s prepared himself.”

Raven seemed to relax a bit. “That’s just prudence,” she spoke. “A prudence that’s no different from my own security measures back in Freeport. It doesn’t mean he knows we’re here right now.”

“You might be right, Raven. I don’t know if he is aware specifically about us, and whether he knows we’re here right now, but I do know one thing: he’s angry at you,” she spoke.

The Mistress of Freeport was taken by surprise. “Me? Why?”

“You did something in the past. Something bad. I kept hearing his voice in my head saying over and over again, We were wrong! We were wrong! And I knew he blamed you for something. He wishes he had destroyed you long ago, because now it’s too late.”

“Hah!” Raven laughed. “There’s a legion of my enemies who realized that too late as well! But he’s right--it is too late for him to stop me. I just wonder what I did that set him off.”

“He thinks Gorus is coming back because of you.”

Raven let out one of her famous breaths.

“Oh, for goodness’--I am so sick and tired of hearing that bunk,” she spoke. “He’s not coming back, and even if he did, we’d just destroy him all over again.”

The Elf, her strength returning, now rolled over and tried to stand, assisted by the Knight.

“I don’t know why the Hocwrathians have that odd tradition about his return,” Cyllindrethifl went on, looking into Raven’s eyes. “We destroyed him; he can’t come back.”

“And even if he did come back, Cyl--this isn’t the First Age! He doesn’t have any followers left; there’s no more Triad. The Krellans wouldn’t follow him, I guarantee you that! The Schools of Hocwrath--led by Nostradamus who won’t give up his throne--would come after him. The Torrencians would come after him. I’d come after him. Nightshadow would come after him. The whole continent of Islay would come after him. He’d be one wizard against the whole world, and there are a whole lot more wizards now than there were ten thousand years ago. He wouldn’t last three days!”

Thor, standing over them, was still fidgeting nervously. Then he caught sight of something and looked up.

“About time!” he exclaimed, looking back to the front of the chamber.

The others turned back to observe their fellow party members, illuminated by the light of their lockets, ascending the set of stairs the group had entered by.

“Well?” Raven questioned as she moved to meet them.

Nightshadow halted. “Empty,” everyone heard him speak. “Nothing in the courtyard.”

“Well--so far, so good then,” Raven concluded. “Let’s move on up.”

“So what’s this thing?” Nightshadow asked, nodding toward the portal.

Raven looked back, pondering the best way to answer the question. “Another way the Liche tries to divine the future,” she finally replied. “Let’s be moving.”

The Time Machine

The group filed returned to their order of march, advancing westward to the staircase at the far end of the room. They climbed up and to the right, and in only a few moments they found themselves at the fourth and last level of the tower’s base. Here, a vast hallway led east, and down it they went, making for the final passages their map showed would take them into the tower itself .

They hadn’t moved far from the stairway when Nightshadow paused to stare at the wall to their left.

“What do you suppose is in there?” they heard him ask.

Raven glanced over to the featureless wall and gave a shrug. “More libraries?” she supposed. “Who knows?”

Nightshadow seemed surprised at her answer and lifted one of his swords toward it. “You don’t think that door is hiding something good?”

What door?” several of the group said in response.

“That big brass door!” he responded, puzzled at the Fellowship’s response.

Raven, equally puzzled, looked back at the wall, then she shut her eyes, concentrated, and opened them up again.

“Illusion!” she exclaimed.

Now most of the others began imitating her move, shutting their eyes and emptying their thoughts to try and overcome the phantasm that was apparently affecting them.

Thor, however, had no experience with such things, and wondered what was happening.

“What are you all doing?” he asked, taking a step back towards the group.

“There’s an illusion on that wall,” Raven exclaimed, pointing to it. “It’s hiding a big door. Shut your eyes, clear your mind of any thoughts for a moment, and then look at it again.”

“There’s a what on that wall?” he asked.

“Just do what I said--you’ll see.”

Thor didn’t fully understand, but nevertheless he complied. When he opened his eyes again, the Viking’s expression revealed he also now saw the door.

Fosmo, however, wasn’t having as much luck.

“Me don’t see nothing but wall,” he exclaimed.

Raved reached over and slapped him across the back of his head.

“Try it again!”

“Ouch!” the Cutpurse exclaimed, rubbing his scalp. Then he concentrated once more, and now he could see what they all could: a great door of brass over a foot taller than Thor and almost thrice the width of his shield. It varied from other portals they’d come across as it bore no ornamentation but was instead a combination of both a machine and a door, for a thick glass panel upon its front covered a complex series of gears, springs and levers attached to thick brass rods extending three directions into its massive frame, solidly anchoring the portal in place.

Whatever lay behind the door was clearly important!

“Some kind of vault door,” Espidreen speculated.

Treasure vault, y’ think?” Fosmo asked, excitedly.

“Maybe so,” Raven muttered as she appraised the door. “The vault doors at the Guild aren’t as elaborate as this. This could hide something priceless. It could be one of the main treasure vaults!”

“I think we have just discovered an ability of your Talisman, Nightshadow,” Cyllindrethifl now spoke up as the Rogue looked over to her. “Apparently, it renders you immune to illusions.”

The masked warrior nodded silently.

“Let’s kill the Liche before we loot his treasure,” Thor spoke, anxious to be off. “That’s the plan, right?”

“Yes, but there may be something in here we can use to help kill the Liche,” was Raven’s reply as she licked her lips. “Let’s see if we can get it open.”

The possibility of ingress was suggested by a large keyhole positioned on the right side of the door, and Raven gestured toward it.

“Okay, Fosmo--this is what you’re here for. Go to it.”

The Cutpurse flashed an eager grin as his hand moved down to his belt to retrieved his pouch of lock-picks, and quickly he knelt down before the door, preparing to pick the lock.

“Everyone back off in case some sort of spell goes off that incinerates anyone in front of the door,” Raven cautioned, stepping away.

The comment certainly dimmed Fosmo’s enthusiasm, for it’s true that magic traps are often difficult to find and remove compared to mechanical ones. Even so, he knew that, but this was his job, along with the risks that came with it.

Others in the Fellowship heeded Raven’s words, and Doremi joined Cyllindrethifl in retreating a few feet back down the eastern stairs to duck behind a banister while keeping the door in sight so both could safely see what was happening.

Raven, sword ready, stood before her while Nightshadow, unafraid, remained at Fosmo’s side as the thief began jamming picks into the aperture, trying to manipulate the loch mechanism.

Problems arose immediately, for no sooner would the Cutpurse get a pick positioned to move one tumbler, then the pick would fall free as he tried to add the next. This went on for a while as he tried, unsuccessfully, to pick the lock.

Finally Raven’s patience gave out.

“Come on, Fosmo--you’re better than that!” she exclaimed from the head of the stairs.

“Not a normal lock,” he answered back. “Keeps pushing me picks out!”

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl called out from where she knelt down next to Doremi, “it may need an enchanted key. It may not be pickable.”

The Mistress of Freeport stepped forward, thrusting the wakizashi into its sheath. “Move!” she ordered.

“A moment! Me’ll get it!” Fosmo was saying.

“I said move!”

Raven knelt down, jostling the Cutpurse out of the way, and whipped off her gloves in frustration. Then she began shoving picks in, trying to manipulate several at once between her thumb and fingers as she attempted herself to pick the lock.

Doremi nearly fainted from shock. I don’t believe it--there are hands under those gloves!

But Raven’s attempts bore no better fruit than those of the Cutpurse, and after a while she gave up and stood to her feet, slipping her gloves back on.

“Cyl,” she spoke, looking back to the stairs as Fosmo reclaimed his picks, “try and use a spell on this thing. I want that door open.”

The Elf obliged and rose up, focusing her concentration on the door. Cyllindrethifl then extended her right hand and folded in her fingers as if she was trying to manipulate a key, and for several moments she made the attempt, but nothing happened and the door remained closed. Her continued efforts fruitless, she abandoned the attempt and shook her head.

“No affect, Raven. The lock is beyond me.”

Her mistress wasn’t ready to give up, however, and re-examined the door, trying to think of some new strategy to use.

Nightshadow now took the opportunity to try and force it open, but though he put his shoulder into it, the door didn’t so much as shake.

Even the huge grate at the back of the complex seemed easier to budge than this contraption.

“Maybe if we break the glass we can force those gears to open it up,” Raven proposed.

The suggestion seemed made to order for Thor’s hammer, and the Viking moved up to give the door his full attention. He reached out and ran his hand along the surface of the glass, then tapped it, trying to gauge whether it could be shattered.

“I think I can break the glass,” he concluded.

“Wait, Thor,” Raven now spoke as she moved toward him. “Let’s try to muffle the noise.” She then glanced toward her champion and said, “Giles--can we use your cloak for a moment?”

The Knight quickly sheathed his sword. Then he removed his pack, unclasped his cloak and stepped forward to hold it up against the surface of the glass.

Thor responded with a quick rap against the cloak but nothing happened, though the glass vibrated from the force of the strike. The Norseman glared at the door with surprise--then he reared back and struck the glass with all his strength.

Again, the surface of the pane vibrated, but as they pulled away the cloak to look, not so much as a crack was seen.

Nightshadow laid one of the scimitars against the wall.

“Let me try, Thor,” he suggested.

Still irritated at the door’s resistance, the Viking removed the loop of the hammer from around his gauntlet and passed the weapon over to his friend.

“Forget the cloak,” Nightshadow spoke as he took up position before the portal.

Giles stepped away, returning the cloak to his shoulders, and Nightshadow took aim at the exact center of the glass, whipping the hammer around in a great arc to strike the surface with all the strength he could put into it.

The glass bent inward slightly with the blow, but again it remained unyielding as the Rogue lowered the hammer, equally taken by surprise at the portal’s resilience.

“Me don’t think we’re gettin’ in there, Raven,” Fosmo spoke up. “If Nightshadow can’t even break through, eh.”

It was indeed starting to look that way.

“Okay, I’ll give it one last try,” Raven now spoke up. “Perhaps my magic can overcome it.”

The Mistress of Freeport positioned herself before the portal and began to imitate Cyllindrethifl’s spell, seeking to manipulate the lock through her own sorcery. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. But as she concentrated and continued, there came a faint sound of metal rubbing against metal as the tumblers seemed to respond.

“I think I’ve almost got it,” Raven whispered.

Above, the Liche was taken by surprise at the power of Raven’s spell. It went without saying that no normal wizard might have hoped to overcome the sorcery used to lock that door, but this Witch clearly was something out of the ordinary. Instantly, Nostradamus sensed the level of power directed at the door from her was at least equal to his own--if not superior--and quickly he resorted to the power of the throne to withstand and counter her spell. Even at that, he barely managed to keep the lock from submitting to her, but the spell did fail.

But now the Liche was left with concern: How could this female’s magic function at a level of power so great, and what were the implications of that? Among Humans, including half-elves, no 20th-circle Witch had been known to walk Islay since the First Age, so how could this upstart pirate from Freeport boast such power?

The conclusion was that she possessed some sort of Artifact of Power that either enhanced her spell-casting abilities, or else granted those powers to her.

Either way, he intended to find out and make use of her secret before he was done.

Raven let out a breath, and rubbed the sweat off her brow. “Couldn’t do it--but I nearly did!” she exclaimed in frustration.

“Looks you’ll have to take the key from the Liche and come open it later,” Thor spoke, retrieving the hammer from Nightshadow .

“Apparently so,” she reluctantly agreed, looking toward the darkness beckoning from the east. “We may as well continue.”

As all these things had been going on, Doremi found herself inching forward to watch, fascinated at the resilience of the portal.

“Want me to give it a try?” she now asked, stepping forward, resting her hand on Faire-chlaidh-ceol’s strings.

From a few yards away, Espidreen snapped her head over with a typical scowl. “If Raven’s magic can’t do it, what makes you think yours possibly could?”

“I don’t know that mine can open it,” Doremi went on as she came to a halt. “But my magic isn’t the same as yours. I use sound, not sorcery, to open locks. It’s wholly different from the type of magic you and the Sorcerers here use.”

“Doremi has a point, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up from the stairway, looking over to Faire-chlaidh-ceol. “They might not have ensorcelled the lock against Bardic magic. She should make the attempt.”

Raven glanced over to Espidreen and then back to the Bard.

“Go ahead, Doremi.”

Doremi nodded and then asked for silence as she shut her eyes and focused her concentration upon the lock. She then began to pluck the lute, her fingers changing positions as she sought to match the resonance of the tumblers.

“An F sharp,” she muttered.

The Bard made that note three times just to be sure, and each time she could feel one of the tumblers vibrate in response.

“Yes, an F sharp.”

She continued on strumming and plucking, experimenting with different notes and chords until she could detect the next tumbler’s response.

“A C chord....up a quarter step and then down a major third to E....”

“This is a complete waste of time, Raven,” Espidreen insisted, hands on her hips.

But Doremi knew she had it and quickly she began to play the same chords over and over, and faster and faster, until the lock was vibrating in unison with her instrument.

Then they all heard the CLICK as the tumblers fell into place, and the door began to activate!

Within, springs started unwinding, gears started turning, and levers started moving as the rods began withdrawing from the frame and sliding back into the door. One by one, they slid down and locked into place with loud THUNKS, and finally the door fell silent as the last rods withdrew from the right side of the frame.

The Liche nearly went berserk. Of everything in the School, this was the one place it didn’t want anyone entering under any circumstances--and now a lowly Bard had overcome the most powerful enchantments the First School was capable of creating to walk right in!

“The invaders have managed to enter the Kronosium,” Nostradamus spoke into the air, his voice carrying down to the hidden Conclave. “Use the portal generator to reach the temple, then assemble and attack them there despite the risks and disadvantages. The Machine must be protected at all costs!”

Instantly, the Conclave responded, enacting shift spells to leave their hidden positions and materialize before a portal generator in the temple below them as they prepared to carry out the order.

The first Liche to reach the generator extended a bony arm and manipulated the numbered rings until they read 401. Then the creature spun the outer ring, and the runes inset upon its surface began glowing as faster and faster turned the ring on its own power until the runes seemed to come alive with magical energy. Then came a WHOOSH and a pentagram-shaped field of energy appeared on the floor.

Raven’s eyes narrowed as she looked to Espidreen. “Outstanding, Doremi!” she exclaimed, giving the Witch a cold stare.

With that, Espidreen at last seemed to get it through her thick skull that she should stop harassing and criticizing the humble Bard who twice now had made a valuable contribution to the party when the Witch herself had done little more than show how fast she could run when faced with poison gas or attacking rats. Thus, Espidreen looked down to the carpet with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, making no further comments.

Raven wasn’t the only one proud of Doremi either.

“I agree--that was outstanding!” Nightshadow spoke up. Then the Rogue reached out to grasp the side of the door and slowly he pulled the massive portal open.

Cyllindrethifl winked at the Bard and then waited to see what would be revealed as Nightshadow pulled open the door.

Others now edged around to get in a good look as well, anxious to see what lay within--but they were quickly surprised if not outright disappointed.

Instead of gleaming piles of treasure, arcane books too valuable to even risk placing in the Athenaeum, or priceless enchanted items--they beheld a vast wizard’s laboratory or workshop.

Spread out before them in the well lit chamber lay a conglomeration of tables, workbenches, shelves, bookcases and racks filled with the accouterments of Wizardry: beakers, books, parchments, tomes, balance scales, conjuration circles and so forth. But beyond these normal things stood a variety of other objects that could only be called machinery of various sorts. Two huge discs of quartz, positioned upright upon thick shafts, ground against each other by means of some spell, and by this created electricity, as suggested by two copper coils attached to them gave off sparks of lightning.

Elsewhere, metal panels stood against walls, hooked by thick stranded cables to other panels or plates of iron wrapped in copper coils, the whole conglomeration eventually weaving a web of cables and wires up to the very top of the chamber.

The whole area seemed alive with the force of magic, from the tables piled high with parchments and tomes, to a set of long silver poles near the quartz discs between which sparks of electricity danced as they hummed like a hive of bees.

What stood out most, though, was a large glass sphere floating above the floor of the chamber. Within was entrapped--a something: a black, cloud-like creature that ebbed and flowed within its confines with neither head nor limb nor body.

Raven took a quick look up to verify nothing was ready to swoop down on them from the ceiling fifty feet above, and then she glanced back to the group, her eyes seeming to settle on Doremi.

“Nobody touch anything! Nobody break anything!” she warned.

“Wait!” Nostradamus now hissed to the Conclave as he relaxed slightly, loosening his crushing grip from the obsidian armrests of the throne. “They may not disturb the chamber. If so, we shall continue as planned.”

His command arrived to late to halt the first Liche, Selabbilus, who had already transported down to the temple at the bottom of Nostradamus’ tower when the order came for the Conclave to halt.

The Lord of the First School now turned his attention to him.

“Hold where you are,” Selabbilus heard his master speak.

Obediently, Selabbilus relaxed and took position before the portal generator as he awaited his master’s bidding.

Vast though the chamber was, there was sparse room to move about freely, for it was choked with items and work areas everywhere. And not just upon the floor, for iron stairways wound their way up to three different levels above the group where more of the mysterious machinery lay scattered about upon elevated platforms and the upper walls of the room.

Raven took another look about, then asked Nightshadow to stand guard at the door. That done, she led the way in followed by the rest, most all of whom were eager to explore the chamber and its wonders.

The floating glass sphere was obviously the first mystery that called out for investigation, and they drew toward it, pausing a few feet away to examine what lay trapped within the five-foot globe.

The creature they beheld--if it was a creature--was unlike anything the heroes had encountered before. It undulated and moved like some gaseous beast, yet to call it gaseous, in the sense one would call an air elemental that would convey a false sense of its true form. It more accurately might have been described as a “hole,” that floated within the confines of its globular prison, for its mass was totally black and devoid of any true solidity. If one walked round the glass sphere to gaze upon the creature from the side--it had no depth! It was no thicker than the thinnest piece of metal a blacksmith might pound flat upon the anvil.

A glow shimmered around its outer edges suggesting that this might actually be some sort of rip in the fabric of reality as there was a distortion about the aura that showed the area within the sphere contorting and bending in toward the blob until it was swallowed up in absolute darkness.

They stared in silence for a few moments until Raven, at a loss for other words, exclaimed, “What is that thing?! Espy?”

The Witch, no less puzzled than anyone else, shook her head as she pondered the creature. “A demon of some sort?” she speculated. “I’ve never seen anything like it, Raven.”


The Elf looked to her mistress, glanced back at the creature, then likewise shook her head. “It is very interesting, but I have never seen, nor have I heard of, a creature like this. It must be something made through Nostradamus’ sorcery. We should certainly leave it alone.”

“Wise advice, methinks!” Fosmo, a safe distance away, answered as he lowered the rapier slightly.

It was about then that Espidreen happened to glance toward a table a few feet away, and, curious, she wandered over to see what lay upon it.

“Cyllindrethifl,” she suddenly called out, “look at this!”

Everyone answered the call, moving toward her as the Witch reached down to retrieve a heavy piece of crystal. It pulsed with colors that changed from gold, to red, to black...a black very similar to that of the creature in the glass prison.

The patterns were familiar: it was the same as the glowing crystals inset below in the museum.

Gathering round the table, the group observed that it held dozens of similar crystals, large and small.

As she took hold of the crystal offered to her, a look of concern passed over Cyllindrethifl’s face and she seemed to realize what Espidreen’s point was.

“Raven, these crystals hold the captured essence of the creature in the globe,” Espidreen spoke as she released the crystal to Cyllindrethifl. “See how the red and the gold resemble the glow from the outer edges of it, and the black matches its body?”

“And not only that,” Cyllindrethifl added, “but look how many crystals he has here. He must have close to a hundred lying on this table!”

Raven now observed that both Witches had a most uneasy expression upon their faces as if they understood something the others did not.

“And?” she asked, raising her left hand toward them, encouraging them to explain.

“Raven--where did he get them?” Cyllindrethifl whispered, fixing her eyes upon her mistress. “How could he have access to a capture essence spell?”

The Mistress of Freeport looked back and forth at her two Witches, apparently missing the reason for their concern. “He doesn’t have any Witches here at this whole School of Sorcery who can cast that for him?” she asked.

“Impossible, Raven!” Espidreen exclaimed. “No Witch would work for a Sorcerer, let alone a Liche.”

“The thought is inconceivable,” Cyllindrethifl agreed. “Her goddess would never permit it.”

“Even if he captured Arcana and tried to force her to work for him,” Espidreen went on, “her goddess would have withheld her spells so she couldn’t.”

It seemed to the Mistress of Freeport that there were more important things to be concerned with, and so she asked, “Is there some reason we should be concerned about it either way, Espy?”

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke in a somber tone as she held out the glowing crystal, “there should be no way Nostradamus could possibly have access to that spell short of finding a few scrolls that he could employ. He couldn’t possibly have found sufficient scrolls of that spell to allow him to make so many enchanted crystals, for we do not permit that spell to leave our possession except for very good reasons. The implications are that he’s found a way to either cast the spell or else--because he’s a scribe--he’s found some means of duplicating our scrolls to make copies of it!”

Doremi now offered up an opinion as she reached for one of the carved crystals.

“You know, it is common knowledge that scribes can make scrolls of spells they can’t actually cast,” she pointed out. “But most Witch and Druid spells don’t work for them. I’ve never heard of a scribe being able to make a capture essence scroll. But given the fact that they’ve had ten thousand years to try and find a way to copy it...maybe they finally have.”

At her words, a nervous silence pervaded the atmosphere, and the Bard took another look at the crystal, carved into the shape of a Karnaki hieroglyphic falcon. Then she slipped it into her pouch as a keepsake.

“Raven, if that’s true,” Espidreen eventually spoke up, “we must destroy the knowledge of how to do that and slay anyone who knows the secret. Everything takes second place to that! Capture essence is that which makes us is that which makes us different from all other wizards. If the knowledge of that spell has passed to Sorcerers and Necromancers, it will mean the end of us! No matter what the cost, we must destroy the knowledge if it exists!”

“Let’s not panic, ladies,” Raven spoke, trying to calm down the agitated Witches. “Nostradamus is going to be dead soon enough, and my guess is, if that knowledge exists, he’s greedy enough that he wouldn’t share the secret with anyone, including his Conclave. Kill him and the secret--if there is one--probably dies with him, okay?”

Neither of the pair looked any too confident at her words, but both knew there was nothing else they could do, and so they held their peace.

“This all brings us back to another question, though,” Doremi added, nodding toward the glass sphere and its occupant. “Just what is the thing they’re capturing the essence of, and why are they doing it?”

There was silence for a moment at the question.

“I suppose, “Raven finally answered, looking back to the sphere, “that’s going to remain a mystery...unless we can find a clue here amongst all these papers. Cyl, Espy--and Doremi--take a fast look through some of the parchments and see if you learn anything. We can’t spare much time here, so go to it! Let’s see what we can find out.”

At her command, the women drifted off to examine what they could of the written materials while Raven and the remaining men explored other parts of the chamber.

“These parchments are Hocwrathian, but some of the books are written in what looks like Torrencian,” Espidreen noted to Cyllindrethifl, who likewise was leafing through a thick old tome on a table next to the Witch.

“Very odd, isn’t it?” the Elf agreed. “Also, these books are filled with words I do not know--axial rotation, for example,” she added lifting her tome toward Espidreen. “And look--the words inscribed hereon were not written by someone’s pen--the letters are perfect and identical! A machine must somehow have made them--or sorcery....”

“A machine that can write books?” questioned Espidreen. “How could such a thing be?”

“Hey, Cyl,” Doremi now spoke up, “look at this diagram.”

The Elf seemed taken aback for a moment, but then moved over to Doremi. “Please call me Cyllindrethifl,” she requested, looking the Bard in the eyes as she obligingly stepped up.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the Bard apologized. “I know Raven calls you Cyl, so I thought that was what you liked to be called.”

“Yes, and I have been unable to get her to stop calling me that! Even when she informed me it was that, or ‘hey Elf!’, and I told her ‘Hey Elf!’ was preferable, she ignored my wishes, and continued with her own name for me. In any event, what have you found?”

Doremi held out a parchment, allowing the Elf to see that it was an illustration of a ring inscribed with the Karnaki-Hocwrathian runes they had observed below in the museum.

“This is the spell they inscribed onto the portal underneath us,” the Bard spoke.

Cyllindrethifl nodded and released the parchment, directing her attention to other drawings upon the shelf. Most were sketches, over and over again, of rune-inscribed rings--derivatives of the same basic idea as the portal below as the Liches had relentlessly sought a means to enact one sort of spell through the power of another. Apparently, it was here in this chamber that they had experimented until they had mastered the process, crafting the portal in the museum as the zenith of their achievement.

It was about this time that Raven called out for them.

The trio found she and the men gathered around a corner, staring up at an odd sight: massive boards of slate were erected across a wall, their black surfaces covered, top to bottom, with chalk markings of numbers, letters, symbols, brackets, angles and diagrams interspersed with notations about various spells. Again, these all seemed focused on circular, hieroglyph-inscribed rings. But beyond the odd scribbles and drawings of spellcraft and runes of power, more than one drawing appeared to show such rings attached to mechanisms of some queer sort. The display was nearly an entire tome of work emblazoned upon a single wall, its purpose and meaning as mysterious as any other thing they had yet seen.

Raven stood before the wall, trying and failing to make some sense of it, her left arm resting on her hip.

“Some kind of code,” they heard her exclaim as they drew close.

It didn’t take more than a single glance for Doremi to decide it was pointless for her to try and decipher the writings, while the grimace on Espidreen’s face showed enlightenment wouldn’t be coming from her either. Only Cyllindrethifl, really no less puzzled than the others, paused and slowly moved her head back and forth as she contemplated every letter, number and symbol, seeking to decipher the mystery.

Raven leaned back and cocked her head toward Espidreen who stood behind.

“Espy?” she asked, hopefully.

“I don’t understand codes, Raven,” answered the Witch. “The meaning of this is no less a mystery to me than for you.”

“Cyl?” Raven now asked.

“I’s...a language, Raven,” came her answer.

Raven turned and looked back. “Did I not just say that, Cyl?”

The Elf returned her stare. “No, you said it was a code,” she replied. “I do not believe it is a code; the Liches haven’t transposed letters with numbers in hope of hiding the meaning of words--I believe this is an entire language of numbers. A mathematical language if you will.”

Raven turned back to the wall, observing the cipherings thereon, and then she spoke again.

“Can’t be math,” she concluded. “No one’s better than I am at math, and that bunch of chicken scratch makes no sense to me. What do you think, Espy?”

The Witch held her peace a moment and then took in a breath. “Raven, I’m a Witch,” she exclaimed. “I can add and subtract, and that’s it--you know that!”

Doremi wasn’t quite able to stifle the sound of her smirk, but as the Witch turned to glare at her, the Bard quickly tried to make as if she’d coughed.

“Sorry,” she spoke, patting her chest and clearing her throat.

Espidreen, though, wasn’t fooled, and gave the Bard a nasty stare in response.

“Why would anyone want to complicate something as simple as mathematics?” Raven now asked.

Cyllindrethifl advanced another step to join her mistress as both gazed to the wall before them.

“If my supposition is correct, this is actually a simplification of mathematics, Raven,” she concluded.

Raven chuckled sarcastically, and her brow furrowed. “That looks simpler than writing it out the normal way, Cyl?! Come on!”

The Elf Paused, trying to find the words to explain her point.

“Imagine,” she finally spoke, “if you took a full page of ciphering, Raven, and could--condense it--into a half-dozen symbols. My speculation is that this is what that wall represents. Complicated as those writings look, perhaps to write them out normally--simply, as you put it--would take many times that number of slate boards.”

“What could possibly require so much mathematics that you’d have to invent a whole new way of ciphering just to write it out, Cyl?”

The Elf shrugged. “I cannot hazard a guess, Raven. But since we seem to see a similarity between the portal below us and some of the writings and objects in this chamber--perhaps this represents the trouble the Liches had to go to in order to activate the Karnaki enchantments with their own sorcery.”

“I suppose that could make sense,” Raven agreed.

“Look there at the end,” Doremi spoke, pointing.

The others, looking to the board at the far right of the wall, now observed that all the symbols and all the notes concluded with one interesting notation:

= 0 drag coefficient

“Anyone know what that could possibly mean?” Raven wondered.

No one spoke up, and after a moment, she went on.

“Cyl, is there any chance you can figure out the basis and meaning of this so-called mathematical language if you study it long enough?”

The Elf’s mien seemed to take on an air of irritation, and she came erect, the tips of her ears pointing sharply upward.

“Raven--I am an Elf!” Cyllindrethifl responded. “Elves do not study mathematics; we have better things to do. I have no idea what all this means, and I have no wish to learn it. I’d rather learn to play a new musical instrument, than understand this language, since instruments at least do something useful. Mathematics is for those who lack creativity in their heart. That is why a Liche would spend its time crafting a language out of mathematics when it could otherwise learn to draw, sculpt, or play music.”

The Mistress of Freeport squinted.

“Cyl, you’re as good at doing math in your head as I am--what’s this sudden contempt for ciphering?”

“I am only good at it because of its simplicity, Raven. Even a child can cipher the numbers of human mathematics in its head. That doesn’t mean it, or me, has a regard for it. This Liche-made number-language can be consigned to the flames for all I care.”

That ended the conversation, but Espidreen had been looking over the wall of ciphering, and she directed Raven’s attention to one diagram of three intertwined rings.

“There, Raven, look,” she spoke, pointing. “See the notation, The central ring stabilizes the field? What do you suppose it means?”

Raven took a quick look and shook her head. “Some incantation to affect crop growth?” she speculated.

From across the room, the group now heard Fosmo snapping his fingers, and they looked his direction to see the Cutpurse in the northwest corner, pointing to the wall.

Secret panel,” he whispered in excitement as the group drew near.

The wall seemed no different, at first observation, from any of the other finished surfaces of the chamber, being a single large panel of dressed stone inset between two decorative marble arches. But Fosmo indicated with his finger for Raven to examine the area between the panel and one side of an arch, and there was a hair’s breadth of space between the two. The space was insufficient to press the blade of a dagger through, but it was enough to reveal the surfaces were not truly flush against each other.

The Mistress of Freeport winked in response and patted him on the back. “Good job! How do we open her up?”

Fosmo winked back and began tapping, pushing and pulling about the area. For several minutes, he prodded and examined the stonework, hoping to locate some catch or loose piece of masonry behind which a keyhole might be hidden. But his efforts bore no fruit and eventually he looked back, shaking his head in disappointment.

“Must take a command word,” Raven concluded. Then she took in a breath and began to speak.

“! In! Up! Down! Move!

She continued on, using every word she could think of, but the wall stubbornly remained fixed in place.

“Espy--try it in Hocwrathian,” she finally spoke.

The Witch complied and began repeating many of the same words with no better results.

“Okay, everybody try it with every language you know,” Raven now ordered.

The group now cut loose at the door with every language from Pirates Cant to Elvish, but it seemed to be an exercise in futility as the panel withstood their attempts, remaining immovable.

Thor quickly grew impatient.

“We could be here all day shouting at the thing before you get lucky enough to hit upon some word, out of the thousands of words, that it likes. Let’s be off, and stop wasting time!” he urged, lifting the hammer toward the brass door leading out.

Doremi leaned back and craned her head up toward the Scandian standing behind. “No, that’s not how it works,” she quickly explained. “There has to be a command word it will respond to--something that, orders it to allow passage to the other side. A word like open or lift. The trick is to find the word and whatever language it’s in.”

“Cyl, try it in Dwarvish,” Raven suggested, shouting above the din of the others’ voices.

The Elf paused, apparently surprised at the suggestion.

“What makes you think I speak the language of the Dwarves?” she asked.

“You’re an Elf,” came the answer.

Once again, the ear tips were pointing stiffly upward and the head cocked to the left. “What is there about being an Elf that would convey to you the notion that I must speak the tongue of Dwarves, Raven?”

“How about, because you Elves like learning languages?!” Raven snapped back.

“Dwarvish is so...guttural, Raven. We don’t typically learn non-melodic languages. Avalonian, yes. Hocwrathian because I have to--but Dwarvish? Please!”

“If you don’t know any Dwarvish, Cyl--fine! Try something else you might know, for goodness’--”

The Scandian, meanwhile, had lifted his gaze from the Bard to the section of wall. “Haro--drepa!” he spoke.

At his word, there came a loud grinding sound and the floor they stood upon began to shake as the entire panel began sinking into a recessed hole beneath it.

“--Okay, who said what?” Raven immediately wanted to know, whipping her gaze from Cyllindrethifl back to the wall as she heard the block begin to slide away.

“I think it was me,” Thor answered proudly. “I said the word drepa, a word meaning something akin to I’m knocking, so open up’.”

“Good job!” she exclaimed. “And a smart move on their part. How many burglars speak Scandian?”

She paused and waited as lower and lower sank the great stone until they could finally peer over its top to make out a small chamber behind. A few moments later, the thick block came to a stop, tucked in its recess, and the group eagerly crossed upon its top into the area beyond.

The chamber was filled with shadows, but as their lockets brought light to the darkness, they found a most wondrous sight: Standing before some glass cylinders to its left side, and resting upon the flagstones of the circular chamber in which it was housed, was a large throne.

It was eerily beautiful yet it conveyed a disturbing aura, for this throne differed from any they had ever seen: a sumptuous seat of tufted black leather, easily able to fit two people or one single person in overmuch comfort, lay crafted within a gilded frame of black and gold that vaguely resembled a sedan, but for the fact it rested upon a rounded base with three steps that allowed one to enter and sit therein.

Most curious, however, was that three great rings of gold encircled the throne. Two crossed in the shape of an X while the third enclosed its mates, positioned at the point where the others crossed. Unlike some of the diagrams in the laboratory, nothing seemed to hold these rings in place, for they simply floated freely in the air by means of sorcery. Similarly to the portal in the museum, each was studded with glowing crystal hieroglyphs along the surfaces, though they lacked the Hocwrathian runes scribed into the portal below. Each ring also was crafted with a series of slotted ribs and holes drilled within it, their purpose unknown.

“Lotta gold there, eh!” was Fosmo’s exclamation at the sight.

“Got that right,” Raven muttered in response as she cautiously crept up for a better look.

Entering, the group observed that some sort of control panel was positioned in front of where the occupant would recline in the sumptuous seat. A lever sprouted forth from it and to the left of the lever was fashioned a mechanism with numbers inscribed thereon: five zeros lined in a row.

“The golden rings,” Espidreen pointed out,”--they have the hieroglyphs, but not the Hocwrathian spell they used to enact the Karnaki enchantment. I wonder what the implications of that are.”

“Cyl,” Raven said quietly as she ran a gloved hand along the rim of one of the golden rings, “when you were making use of the portal downstairs, you said something: A machine must be made--that was what you said. Can this throne be a machine of some sort?”

Joining her, the Elf crossed her hands behind her back and assessed the seat and panel before it for a few moments before she slowly nodded to her mistress. “I do not recall what I said, but this throne clearly is enchanted, Raven. Beyond that, yes--I believe it is part machine.”

The Witch now spoke up. “I think I know what this does, Raven.”

Espidreen took in a breath as she leaned forward between two of the rings to gaze at the controls of the device. “Everything we’ve been seeing here, from the astrological laboratory to the portal down below, has dealt with time and divining the future. From that, I believe this is a vision chair,” she concluded. “Like the portal below, it will allow one to see visions of the future--or maybe the past as well.”

It seemed a reasonable conclusion, and Raven looked over to Cyllindrethifl for her opinion.

“Possibly, Raven,” the Elf agreed. “This obviously is related to the portal be--....”

Cyllindrethifl’s voice trailed off as her mouth slowly fell open in what seemed to be shock.

“What?” Raven wanted to know.

“No,” she whispered after a moment.

Then her voice rose in pitch. “No! No! No! Not a vision chair! As Espidreen said, everything deals with time, Raven. I think this is far more than a chair to divine the future--this may be a machine, meant to travel through time itself!”

Raven glanced from the Elf, to the throne, and back to the Elf once more. “What do you mean, travel through time?” she asked.

Cyllindrethifl braced her arms against one of the rings and nervously leaned forward, her eyes examining the interior of the throne and the control panel before the seat. “I mean, Raven,” she continued, “that the purpose of this throne may actually be to physically take Nostradamus into the past or into the future.”

The Mistress of Freeport took yet another look at the throne, trying to comprehend the Elf’s words, and after a moment the silence was broken as Doremi started to speak.

“We must turn our minds to a task beyond any that has ever been undertaken in Islay. To do that, I require all of you to become as I, that your minds may be used to their full potential,” the Bard said, repeating Cyllindrethifl’s words in the museum. “A machine must be made. This is the key. With this Karnaki enchantment, we can use our sorcery and build a machine. Then we cannot be stopped. It will be my ultimate triumph!

A hushed silence returned to the chamber for a moment, and then Espidreen spoke again.

“Can such a thing be? And just how far into the past or future?”

“An interesting matter for speculation,” Cyllindrethifl noted. “My supposition is that he believes it could take one either to the very beginning or the very end of time itself. But one might wonder if a machine could actually travel back before it was actually created, or whether it would stop at the point it was first completed. Hmm.”

“A bigger question,” Espidreen now spoke, “is how does it do it? No spell could be so powerful, so how might a machine do it?”

“It’s possible,” the Elf speculated, “that it’s meant somehow to shift into the third plane and then re-emerge in our world again at any point of the timeline. But how could a machine possibly do that?!”

“What do you mean, Cyl?” the Mistress of Freeport queried.

Cyllindrethifl knelt down, tracing a circle upon the floor. “There are three spheres--three planes of existence like three wheels inside of each other,” she explained. “The first plane is the Nexus--the physical world in which we live. Beyond that, is the second plane--the Realm of Faerie,” Cyllindrethifl went on, tracing a second circle outside of the first. “One side of that is the realm of Brigit. But the other side is Hell and the realm of the demons and the supernatural. As you all know from the stories you’ve heard, time functions differently there. A man might visit and dance with the fairies for one night and return to our world to find that twenty years have passed.”

“Something like that even happened to me once!” Doremi exclaimed, looking down at Cyllindrethifl.

The Elf now drew a final circle outside both of the other ones. “But beyond the Realm of Faerie is the last dimension--Eternity! Eternity exists outside of time and space. There--the past, the present and the future of our physical realm are all the same. This machine may--I say may--be intended to plane shift into Eternity and then re-emerge in our own world at any point of our timeline in the past or future. That, or perhaps draw power from there to accomplish the same goal.”

Raven suddenly snapped to attention as the implications started becoming clear. “Then this thing could take a person back twenty years into the past, Cyl?!” she asked excitedly.

“Well...that is, I believe, what Nostradamus wants it to--”

She got no further than those words before Raven, in one fast move, stepped through the rings, moved her swords aside to keep them from catching on the throne’s sides, and settled into the seat.

“Get back!” she warned. Then, quick as that, she began tugging and pushing the lever and manipulating the brass tumblers of the machine, trying to make something happen.

But nothing did, and the throne lay dormant.

After a few moments, Raven pounded on the control panel with her fists, furious at being disappointed. “Maybe it takes a control word or some spell to get it going,” she speculated.

Cyllindrethifl reached over and grasped her by the shoulder. “Raven,” she spoke, “you should not be so hasty. I could have told you this machine does not work.”

Slowly, the Mistress of Freeport turned her head to give the Elf a positively icy stare.

“You magically just knew that, Cyl? Who needs portals and visions to tell the future when we have an Elf who can?!” she spoke caustically.

Cyllindrethifl released her grip and stood back.

“Raven, it was obvious this machine couldn’t possibly work.”

Puzzled, Espidreen now looked to her and asked, “Why do you say that?”

The Elf clasped her hands behind her back.

“If this device worked, we would already be serving Nostradamus,” she said with a confident nod. “He would simply send his forces out to attack Throckmorton, see what Throckmorton’s defense strategy would be, then travel back a day in this machine and attack him again--this time, with a plan to overcome those defenses. Put another way,” she added as Raven climbed back out of the throne, “imagine that you played a chess game, then went back in time to replay it, but this time, you knew your opponent’s strategy.

“No,” Cyllindrethifl concluded, “this machine does not work because Nostradamus has not conquered the Second School yet. That’s what he’ll do first, before he does anything else.”

“Then why’s this thing herre, eh?” the Highlander wondered as he squinted at the device. “What’s the use forr it if it don’t worrk?”

Raven took in a breath. “Another failed project, perhaps,” she muttered.

The Mistress of Freeport then shook a finger at Espidreen. “Remember I told you they were up to something? Well--this is it! They’re trying to build a machine that travels through time!”

“Looks like they’ve already built it,” Romulus observed.

“At least they’ve not succeeded in their task,” Thor observed. “It would be a dark day for Islay if they had. Let’s destroy this thing, and move on.”

If he still lived, Nostradamus would have suffered a heart attack at hearing Thor’s words. As it was, the Liche immediately opened his mouth to order his servant shadowing the party to attack Nightshadow in hope of drawing the others outside to save his precious machine as the Conclave--joined by their master--gathered for their own climactic attack as quickly as possible.

“No! No!” Raven exclaimed. “Leave it alone.”

“Wait!” the Liche hissed.

“Why?” asked the Scandian, lifting the hammer toward the throne. “It’s dangerous.”

“As Romulus pointed out, they’ve already built this thing, and they can’t make it work. We might be able to study it, and find a way to make it work ourselves.”

“How would we study it?” questioned Cyllindrethifl. “You plan on taking this machine with us, Raven?”

Raven paused a moment and considered the question.

“We’re not carrying this around with us if that’s what you’re thinking!” Thor quickly made clear, shaking the hammer at her.

Irritated, Raven raised her hands against one of the rings and leaned forward in frustration, looking down to the floor. “I know that!” she exclaimed. “But I want this thing. There must be some way to get it out.”

“I don’t think it would even fit through the door,” Doremi pointed out.

Raven exhaled. “A million ounces of gold to anyone who can figure out a way for me to get this thing back to Freeport!” she announced.

Instantly, Fosmo spat out the water he’d just sipped from his canteen. “Fer that much, me’ll carry it out on me back!” he choked.

That said, the Cutpurse threw down the canteen and reached out to grasp a rail at the fore of the throne. Then he gave a tug for all he was worth, leaning backwards as he sought to pull the throne toward him.

Groaning as he strained to pull it, the machine did budge an inch or two, and clearly with enough manpower it might have been movable--but even Raven realized this was a fool’s errand.

“Leave the thing be!” Thor ordered. “It’s not going anywhere, and we need to be moving!”

“He’s right,” Raven reluctantly agreed. “Leave it, Fosmo. It’s staying here. Drat it all! If we could just get it home, I’m sure we could get it to work.”

“How, Raven?” questioned Espidreen. “If Nostradamus and his Conclave can’t make this thing work, how can we do it?”

The Mistress of Freeport pondered the question for a moment. “They’ve already expended the full range of their knowledge of Necromancy and Sorcery in what they’ve done to this point. Even at that, they had to employ Witchery as well--but they aren’t true Witches. What if we Witches were to add the fullness of our knowledge to what they’ve done so far? Might we be able to figure out something they haven’t, and perhaps get this thing to work?”

“Well...certainly we’re smarter than Sorcerers,” Espidreen acknowledged. “But I wonder what about it doesn’t work? What needs to be done with it?”

“I believe I know why they have not--and may not--be able to solve the problem with this device, even though they probably could make use of what they’ve learned otherwise,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up.

Raven looked back. “All right, why?”

Hands again clasped behind her back, the Elf gazed upon the throne. “The task of moving a machine and rider through time is so staggering that in determining to solve that problem, the Liche has failed to see the obvious simple alternative: have the machine remain while only the rider travels through time. That’s what the insurmountable problem is: they desire too much, for they wish to be able to move back and forth through time at will, rather than settling for gradual movement through steps. Very foolish and greedy of them, if I may say so.”

Suddenly, Doremi snapped her fingers. “I know what the thing is in the glass ball!” she exclaimed, looking back toward the workshop. “It’s a time elemental!”

Espidreen’s mouth opened wide. “A time elemental!” she repeated in a hushed tone. “She’s right, Raven--it must be!”

The Mistress of Freeport glanced back and forth between the two. “I’ve never heard of that sort of an elemental.”

“They’re very rare, Raven,” Doremi pointed out.

“More than just rare,” Cyllindrethifl added. “They are legend, more than anything else.”

“How about someone telling me just what they are?!”

“Supposedly,” Espidreen began, “they are creatures that can be created or brought forth when two spells affecting the flow of time occupy the same area.”

“Or so apocryphal tales assert,” the Elf added for her mistress. “From what I have been told, when someone is foolish enough to allow two time distortion spells to target the same area, a time vortex is created which is similar to an Ethereal whirlwind spell, although it sweeps people and objects out of their own time the way an Ethereal whirlwind sweeps people into the Ethers. Tales exist that time elementals have been known to exit these vortexes, though I stress they are unverified by any reliable sources I am aware of.”

“They must have cast the spells like that until they got a time elemental to come out, then captured it somehow,” Doremi speculated. “The Liches must be mad to risk dangerous sorcery like that--they could easily have wound up dead by doing that.”

Cyllindrethifl thought for a moment, and blinked. “It does make sense, Raven,” she admitted. “They can’t cast the Karnaki spell they’ve been employing, but the hieroglyphs themselves apparently have power just as runes and our sigils do! The Liches carved crystals in the form of those hieroglyphs, somehow captured the essence of their time elemental, and then used a Sorcerer spell of some sort to imbue the crystals with power, thus triggering the effect of the hieroglyphs and allowing them to see into the future! After that, they continued their research and built this machine in hope of actually moving through time, but they can’t quite pull it off.”

“That’s right!” Doremi agreed. “Why does everything I do fail at its moment of triumph? Why will not it simply work as I wish? You said that, Cyllindrethifl. It must have referred to this machine!”

“Raven,” Espidreen now spoke, “I believe we have enough information between this device and the portal below that we could make a spell to allow us to travel through time--at least a little bit through it. That could be very useful.”

“Doremi,” Raven asked, “your memory good enough to draw out those hieroglyphs encircling all these various rings?”

The Bard nodded. “Yes. Plus, there’s a sketch of the runes out in the other room, anyway, that we found.”

“Then the essence of that time elemental is the key,” Espidreen continued. “I don’t think we need to have carved crystals in the form of the hieroglyphs to enact the spell, but we do need its essence. Once we have that, with enough time and experimentation we can create our own spell. I don’t know about going back twenty years, Raven, but hours, days...very likely!”

“A seventh-rank spell for sure,” Cyllindrethifl observed.

“Espy, fill your pack with those crystals out there when we leave,” Raven ordered. “If we get nothing more, that will be enough for us to start work.”

The Witch agreed and briefly continued in conversation with her mistress as Cyllindrethifl, along with Doremi, took the opportunity to wander over to examine the glass tubes north the throne. Mounted against the wall, each was comprised of two half-cylinders of glass set into sliding, rune-covered bronze frames that permitted them to be slid open or locked closed, and they were hooked by thick stranded cables to the back end of the throne where another lever was mounted. Small piles of ash lay at the bottom of each tube, and the Elf found this most interesting. But suddenly, an odd look passed across her face as her gaze followed the cables from the tubes to where they hooked to the throne. Then she seemed to look back towards the laboratory.

She knows, the Liche realized as he observed her.

Doremi, catching sight of the Elf’s expression, asked what was the matter.

“This machine is very evil,” was Cyllindrethifl’s cryptic answer, and she said nothing more.

“Raven,” the Bard now heard Espidreen speak from a few feet away, “I think we’ve been here about three hours now.”

The Mistress of Freeport nodded. “I know. Time to pick up our pace. Time to finish this.”

As all this had been going on, Giles had been standing toward the south end of the chamber, and at one point he casually took a step nearer the wall. It was then that his sword started to glow. Surprised, he lifted it toward the wall and as he did so the glow brightened somewhat.

“Lady,” he spoke, nodding toward his uplifted blade.

The whole group now glanced over toward the Knight, catching sight of the silver blade glistening with a red glow that grew slightly in intensity as he took a step toward the wall.

There was a pause and then everyone could clearly make out the word Liche as Raven silently mouthed it.

That was all Thor needed to hear, and the Scandian was charging from the chamber.

“They’ve seen you!” the Liche hissed out.

Now one of the problems Nostradamus had, both in life and in death, was a habit of failing to clearly explain his orders to those who served him. Typically, he would bark out a command, leaving it to the servant in question to determine the full range of what his master wished done, and how to do it swiftly in a manner acceptable to the Liche--or his end would be anything but swift! The bad fruit of that trait now showed itself, for when Nostradamus warned the shadow, in his mind was the presumption that it would naturally retreat and hide (since that’s what he would have done), leaving the group confused, which might permit a return at a more opportune time.

It didn’t.

Because the Liche had ordered it to attack only a moment before, when he spoke again, the shadow raised its hand and a ball of orange plasma appeared as it sought to provide a diversion before it retreated to safety.

Its blast went off when most of the Fellowship were still yards from the door.

Nightshadow never saw the ball of fire that sailed along the roof toward him, and the Rogue took its full brunt as a sphere of flame erupted at the door, stopping Thor in his tracks until the flame died out a moment later. Then the Viking was surging forward again.

“I didn’t tell you to attack! Run, you idiot!” the Liche exclaimed in rage.

At its master’s command, the shadow--eagerly--began fleeing west as the Fellowship began pouring out the door.

Nightshadow, who’d been on watch facing east, had been taken totally unaware as the hall around him exploded into flame. Recovering from the blast, he made a fast glance backward, seeing nothing, and then--assuming the attack must have come from before him--started moving away from the shadow as the flames began to vanish. It was then that Thor emerged from behind and sprinted the opposite direction, causing Nightshadow to pause, change direction, and follow the Scandian--just in time to collide with Romulus as he rushed out into the hall.

The pair tumbled down in a heap as Raven jumped over them, beginning a spell as she flew into the hall, whipping her hand forward to hurl a sunstone.

Instantly, the gemstone began to glow as it streaked westward like a sling bullet until it exploded into a burst of sunlight.

That same moment arose a ghastly screech from the roof above, and a smoking black mass, writhing in pain, dropped to the carpet as the light from the spell faded out. Still howling in pain, the shadowy figure scrambled to its feet and in one quick moment bounded off like some four-legged beast as Thor just missed striking it with his hammer.

The whole thing happened so fast that neither of the other two Witches even had time to cast before the monster was scurrying around the corner at the back of the hallway, vanishing from their sight.

“Not a Liche--it’s too fast!” Raven shouted as she started running after Thor.

“It was something else,” Espidreen yelled back as she began following, “--a werewolf, I think!”

“An undead werewolf?!” Giles questioned as he, too, sprinted down the corridor, behind the faster-moving women.

“Who knows in this place?!” Cyllindrethifl exclaimed as she drew a dagger and passed him.

Doremi had followed the rest out of the laboratory, pausing at the door while Nightshadow and the Gladiator go to their feet and rushed after the others. She was about to do likewise when she felt the Highlander behind seize her by the arm.

“Y’ said y’ rrememberr maps ‘n things good,” he spoke quickly, nodding to the eastern stairway from the fore end of the museum. “Could whateverr the thing is cirrcle rround and come back this way?”

“Uh,” Doremi said, trying to recall the maps of the fourth level, “I think so. I didn’t get a close enough look to remember the exact path, but from what I remember, yes--I think you could go south from the back of the complex and then wind your way around until you were at the south side of the building, then come back here.”

“In case it’s trryin that, I’m cuttin’ it off,” he spoke releasing her arm as he began running east. “Tell the rrest,” he spoke, looking back.

Fosmo moaned.

“Wouldn’ do that, mate!” he advised from behind as he looked over the Bard’s shoulder.

But Mac Tavish was gone that quickly, vanishing from view in a dead run as he rounded the head of the eastern stairs.

“Come on,” the Cutpurse then spoke, grasping Doremi’s arm and pulling her down the hall with him.

Thor was first to reach the turn as he came to a halt, Raven right on his heels despite the time she took to cast the spell. Both whipped their heads about, looking and listening, but the corridor was empty, and the two realized the shadow could have bolted down a variety of passages along with at least two stairways from what they could observe in the great shafts of moonlight that thrust their way through the arched windows running along the western side of the building.

Raven unleashed a second sunburst spell in the event the creature had simply become invisible or was somehow hiding in the rafters above them, but this time no sounds of agony came forth.

Whatever the creature was, it had managed an escape for now.

The Fellowship were now catching up, and it took only a moment to verify there was no sign of whatever it was that had attacked them.

“Raven, we need to find and kill that thing!” Espidreen exclaimed as she looked about. “We can’t let it escape to warn Nostradamus!”

“Would a werewolf be smart enough to warn him?” Thor asked.

“It was smart enough to cast a spell at me!” Nightshadow exclaimed, stepping past him. “Let’s move!”

Raven was about to speak, when she caught sight of Fosmo and Doremi joining up with the party.

“Where’s Mac Tavish?” she wanted to know, looking to the Bard.

“He went southward, along the other stairs, to cut the thing off in case it tries to circle around!” Doremi panted in response.

“Split into three groups!” Raven angrily ordered, moving forward as she shifted the wakizashi into her right hand. “Meet back here in a quarter-hour at the latest! If you run into the Highlander, link up with him.”

They’d trained to do this on board the ship as well, though they hoped it wouldn’t be necessary since nothing could be riskier than splitting up in the face of known danger. But the situation called for it and the Fellowship now scattered different directions, weakening their overall strength in hope of finding and killing whatever creature had discovered the party.


The Highlander, meanwhile, had already bolted southward in a dead run, ignoring doorways, corridors and stairs until he arrived at the enormous vaulted windows lining the southern side of the building. It was there that Mac Tavish paused a moment as he reached over to snap closed the locket, hiding its tell tale light. Then only shadow and silence was left in the hall as he held position against a wall, waiting and listening. He stood there for long minutes, a lone sentinel constantly shifting his eyes right and left in hunt of anything that might show itself, but his vigilance was rewarded by neither sound nor sight of any enemy.

His patience eventually wearing thin, Mac Tavish began creeping west, the thick carpet beneath him muffling the sound of his footfalls. Still no enemy had shown itself, and the unarmored Highlander crept some fifty feet west before a wall blocked his way. A set of stairs off the hallway here led up to the north, and Mac Tavish cautiously began to ascend, sword upraised as he listened for any sounds, other than his own beating heart, that could alert him to what his eyes might miss in the darkness.

Up stepped the Highlander until the stairs ended at a door nestled in an alcove. It was difficult to see, but there was just enough light from the windows behind to reveal it was crafted of thick wooden planks bound together by wide iron hinges set into the stone wall. The room beyond was apparently one of those in the complex that was lit, for light showed from beneath the door.

He debated what to do for a moment, and then Mac Tavish reached out to grasp an iron ring, opening the door just enough to peep inside.

Through the crack of the door, he beheld a two-story atrium ringed by an arcade of arches and a set of stairs leading up to a mezzanine. The light within emanated from some sort of spell that dimly illuminated the chamber, revealing shadowy alcoves, some with doors set therein, and some empty. No creatures were visible, and the Highlander decided to shut the door and return downstairs.

Then he felt it.

It started with a shudder from what felt like a sudden draft, except that there was no breeze coming out the crack of the door. Then the hairs on the back of his neck began to grow stiff as the warrior sensed something.

Something he knew was evil.

Tightening the grip on his claymore, Mac Tavish held his breath and thought he heard the faint creak of a door opening at the far end of the chamber. That portal was set into its own dark alcove, and the Highlander couldn’t see it open. But open it did, and he sensed, more than saw, something emerge and position itself in the alcove as the door creaked shut behind it.

Whatever the thing was, it didn’t move, and Mac Tavish had to direct his sight a foot or two to the center of the alcove for even his hawk-eyed vision to focus clearly enough to perceive that something just a shade darker than shadows around it was standing there.

Moments passed, and neither sound nor movement came from the alcove, but the Highlander still knew it was there, remaining motionless.

Something in him told him whatever it was knew he was there as well.

That settled it: The Highlander stepped aside and maneuvered his left elbow around the door, swinging it open. He paused a moment, waiting to see if the movement would provoke a response, but nothing happened and he boldly took a step inside, his eyes remaining fixed on the shadowed alcove.

“Arright, beastie, ghostie, orr whateverr y’ arre--let’s see what y’ got,” he spoke to himself as he hunched down behind his shield, advancing another step.

Whether or not it heard him, the shadow seemed to take up the challenge. It now emerged from its alcove into the atrium, and he saw it clearly for the first time. It had the form of a hooded creature the size of a man, all black, the folds of its robe and hood undulating in an eerie, almost etheric manner. Not really spirit and not really solid, the faceless monstrosity stood there for a moment and then casually began to lean forward in a manner no living man could do and remain on his feet--until it bent over, nearly touching the floor.

Both adversaries then paused a moment, waiting to see what the other would do.

The shadow was first to move, slithering forward like some sort of snake as it ventured a few feet nearer. Mac Tavish, in turn, now crept across the blue floor tiles toward his foe, muscles taut as a cat ready to pounce.

He took another step, and the shadow seemed to reconsider. The Highlander likewise came to a halt, though both still focused upon each other. Nothing happened for a moment and then the shadow--almost nonchalantly--seemed to turn away and slither back toward the alcove where it turned, stood up and appeared to direct its gaze back at its enemy once again.

It made no further move, so the Highlander continued to edge forward, not even blinking as he kept his eyes locked upon his quarry, ready for the first sign of hostility. If whatever the thing was so much as raised its ghostly arm or made more than a slight languid motion, he was leaping in for the kill.

Yet, curiously, the shadow did nothing but stand there until he was almost within ten feet. Then, as the Highlander took another step, it retreated into the alcove, seeking to blend into the darkness.

Mac Tavish didn’t wait to figure out what the creature was doing. He sprang into the alcove like a lion, slashing up, down, left and right with his claymore in the darkness.

Yet the moment he entered, he knew the figure was gone.

Instinctively, he then thrust open the door he knew hadn’t been opened only to find an empty hall beyond.

There was no possible way the shadow could have slipped through the door without his seeing it!

Puzzled, but still alert, the Highlander slowly began backing out of the alcove taking a blind swing or two as he went, eyes locked forward, waiting for the first sign of his enemy in case it materialized.

The shadow couldn’t have gone invisible, he reasoned, else his blade would have made contact with it. But how could it have vanished? Could it have simply flown through the wall like a spirit?

Then it came to him--a shift spell! Maybe that was it. The creature might have used sorcery to escape.

But to where? And what to do about it?

Depending on its power and how well it knew the tower layout, the shadow could have transported itself to the safety of chambers as far distant as a hundred or more feet from him. In that case, it might make good its escape if it wasn’t hunted down, and hunted down quickly.

But where to search? It could have gone up. It could have gone down. It could have gone to the right. It could have gone to the left.

...It could even have moved behind him.

When Raven had ordered the split, she, Fosmo--taking the Highlander’s place--and Giles moved toward a set of stairs leading down as Thor, Cyllindrethifl and Romulus charged down the corridor, turning left to search down the first hallway they came upon.

Last of all, Nightshadow, Doremi and Espidreen made their way south, passing Thor’s group as they turned left to mount a set of stairs leading upward. The Rogue leading the way, the trio ascended to an opening that led into a rectangular antechamber, but no sooner had Nightshadow’s boots taken the first step inside, then from above the doorway came the attack: a ball of electricity shot down, transforming itself into a shaft of lightning that struck the Rogue in the back.

In the next moment, a second will O’ the wisp followed after the first, streaking down from the roof to attack.

Crying out as he was hit, Nightshadow spun around, his scimitars instinctively slashing out at the second will O’ the wisp as he caught sight of it moving in from the corner of his eye.

But it was the wrong thing to do.

His right scimitar struck the ball of electricity before it made its attack--but the crackling bolt of energy now flowed down the blade into his arm!

A few feet behind, Doremi and Espidreen halted in their tracks as the first will O’ the wisp struck the Rogue. There was a shout and then both saw Nightshadow pivot around to slash at a second will O’ the wisp that had flown in after the first. This time, the silver blade struck home, but instead of harming it, a blue bolt of electricity struck him!

It took only a moment and the surge was gone as he screamed and dropped the scimitar, but now the third attack came! Streaking down like a comet, a small globe of fire dropped from the roof to the floor before Nightshadow.

Witch and Bard immediately knew what it was--a foo fire spell! That realization was as far as they got before there came a loud WHOOSH and the foo fire exploded into a sphere of flame, its force knocking both women to the ground as its flames singed their skin. Fortunately a regular foo fire like this didn’t do much damage--but both were in pain from the red, blistered skin caused by its explosion, something that was becoming a habit in this place.

The attacks were over, and Nightshadow was now moving into the chamber, spinning around as his eyes searched all directions for any sign of an actual enemy.

“Witch spells,” Espidreen was muttering in frustration as she got to her feet, pulling out an elixir. “Cyllindrethifl’s wrong--it’s got to be some sort of undead Druid!”

Doremi took a quick sip of her own healing draught. “Can’t Gypsies cast those spells?” she asked. “I once saw a Gypsy attack a Cossack with a will O’ the wisp. Maybe it’s some undead Gypsy thing we’re facing.”

Espidreen paused. “Maybe,” she admitted, looking over to Doremi as the pain from the burns vanished. “I don’t know everything those accursed Gypsies can cast, but neither of these spells requires the essence of a creature, so they might be able to enact both of them and an energy blast. In any case, none of these spells is above the third rank, so the creature’s Wizardly abilities might be limited--that’s good!”

“Yeah,” Doremi muttered. “At least it’s not a Liche. A Liche would have hit us with something a lot more powerful.”

“We still need to find and stop it. Come on.”

Pausing at the doorway for a good look, the duo then cautiously entered to observe Nightshadow busily opening doors to see if he could find the enemy in any of the rooms off the chamber.

“I don’t think it’s here,” Espidreen called out. “It left these behind to delay us. It’s probably running away as we speak.”

Halting, the Rogue looked back and then toward two separate corridors, considering what to do next.

“Stay here!” he ordered. Then he hurried down one of them, turning right at its end and vanishing.

Doremi and Espidreen now found themselves alone, tensely awaiting Nightshadow’s return. Both were silent, avoiding making the slightest sound, and as the moments passed, they eventually found themselves standing back to back, each on the lookout for danger.

Though they may have been silent, the building wasn’t. Without the sounds of the group drowning out the ambient noise of the complex, they noticed every creak and groan that was natural to the place.

The slight moan of a draft from someplace cast an eerie aura about the room, and--with nothing else for the women to focus their attention on--that palpable feeling of evil seemed to come alive now that they were left by themselves.

Unsure whether or not it was her imagination, Doremi thought she might have heard the sounds of dark, evil little things scurrying about, but when she would focus her hearing, the sound was always gone, only to start up again the moment she began to relax. Espidreen, meanwhile, constantly kept her eyes on the shadows above them, where the attacks had come from. More than once, the Witch was certain she’d caught sight of movement out of the corner of her eye up there among the thick wooden rafters, but each time she shifted her gaze, nothing was there.

It was almost like the place was toying with them.

Eventually, it occurred to Doremi that here she was, standing out in the open in the most dangerous place in Islay with her only guardian a Witch who didn’t like her, and who seemed to be more practiced in running than fighting.

About the same time, Espidreen realized her only protection in the event of trouble was a Bard with a lute!

“Why are we standing here alone?” Doremi asked nervously from behind Espidreen.

“I don’t know--we must be insane!” the Witch responded.

The duo then looked at each other for a moment, then bolted down the hall Nightshadow had taken, leaving the room behind.

Raven was first to emerge back in the hallway after their fruitless search down the stairs they’d taken. Hoping the others had better luck, she gazed down the hall where Thor’s group had been searching only to see them likewise come rushing back out of a room after an obviously fruitless examination of it.

Catching sight of her, Thor shook his head.

Raven nodded and led her own group down the hall to them to compare notes.

“Those stairs I think go back down to the third level,” Raven exclaimed. “The gods only know where the thing could be if it went that way.”

“Nothing on our end,” the big Viking grunted. “It’s slipped away, whatever it was.”

A few yards up, Nightshadow’s group were now descending the stairs, and the Rogue waved to the others to join them.

“We know which way it went,” he exclaimed as the six rushed down toward him. “But we lost it.”

“Raven, it cast foo fire and will O’ the wisp spells to delay us,” Espidreen noted.

“Witch spells,” Raven muttered as she came to a halt, lowering the katana.

“The Bard thinks it could be an undead Gypsy creature,” Espidreen continued.

“Raven, that might make sense,” Cyllindrethifl quickly spoke up. “The thing looked like some kind of lupine beast when it ran from us, and Gypsies can curse people with lycanthropy. If Nostradamus managed to capture some hapless Gypsy who’d already been cursed with the disease and then turned it into an undead--he might very well have an undead werewolf to use as a guardian. Something retaining the power of a werewolf while possibly keeping its ability to reason as well!”

“Then again, it might not be an undead,” Espidreen interjected. “It could be a ‘normal’ were creature of some sort and the sunlight from your spell may simply have caused it pain. We could have mistaken that for the effect of sunlight on undead. Anyone ever hit a were creature with a spell creating sunlight? Maybe it hurts them.”

Cyllindrethifl shook her head and Raven’s silence was answer enough.

“The moon is full tonight,” Doremi observed.

“I’ve never heard of werewolves--or were-anythings, for that matter, casting spells--have you?” Nightshadow asked.

“No, but werewolf, undead, or whatever the thing is, we need to find and kill it,” the Mistress of Freeport responded.

The Knight now stepped forward. “Lady, hast thou any enchantment that could discern which way our foe passed?” he asked.

Raven shook her head in frustration.

“Too bad we don’t have a good old fashioned hunting dog to track the thing!” Doremi exclaimed, looking back up the stairs.

At her words, Raven and Espidreen both paused then, in unison, they looked over to Cyllindrethifl.

Had any of the Liches been in that portion of the tower complex, no doubt they’d have been shocked at the sight of a bloodhound leading a knot of eight heroes down the empty halls and past silent chambers, yet that’s exactly what happened! Up and down and around they went until the hound paused at a door, sniffing. It looked back to the others, and Thor stepped up to grasp the iron ring set thereon as a handle, tugging the door open.

A huddled mass lying on the tiled floor of an atrium was the first thing they spied. It took only a moment for the Norseman to recognize the red hair, the plaid tabard, the yellow shirt--and in he ran. Raven followed, turning round in a circle to seek for enemies as her eyes searched the chamber.

Kneeling down and laying aside his shield, Thor grasped the Highlander’s shoulder and quickly turned him over.

Mac Tavish was dead all right, his throat mangled by whatever he’d encountered.

Raven now advanced, looking down at the body with, it seemed, an air of sadness.

“He was a good man,” Doremi heard her say. “He shouldn’t have split off from us.”

Thor stared at him a moment longer and then took up the fallen warrior’s sword, placing it in Mac Tavish’s hands atop his chest. “He was a brave warrior,” the Scandian chieftain spoke out. “We’ll avenge him on whatever did this.”

“Got that right,” Raven muttered, getting down on one knee and leaning over for a close look at the body. “Espidreen, come here,” she now called out.

The Witch, standing at the alcove with the others, looked back and forth at her fellow party members and then tentatively stepped forward, averting her gaze at the mangled throat of the Highlander.

“Would a Liche kill a man like that?” Raven asked without turning.

The Witch stole a quick glance.

“Yes,” she replied, turning away. “With its claws--that’s exactly how a Liche would kill someone if it wanted.”

“What about a werewolf?” Thor asked her, keeping his gaze upon his fallen comrade.

“I--think werewolves might do more damage...but who knows?” the Witch speculated as she moved back to the others.

“A ghoul?” Thor now wondered aloud, looking to Raven.

The Mistress of Freeport shook her head. “A ghoul wouldn’t be smart enough to kill and run--it’d still be here, enjoying dinner. Though a greater ghoul, maybe....”

Her voice trailed off.

Nightshadow now joined them, peering down at the body. “Wouldn’t a Liche use spells?”

“It might not have gotten a chance,” Thor speculated. “The Highlander may have gotten the jump on it as it ran here, and forced it to fight. That’s assuming it is a Liche we’re hunting and not some other sort of demon, werewolf, or what-have-you.”

Thor now rose to his feet and looked about at the various doors in the chamber, trying to guess what way the enemy had fled.

Raven stared down for another moment and then pulled the Highlander’s cloak about his face.

As this had been going on, the hound was sniffing about the room, trying to pick up the scent. After a few moments, it alerted on the alcove at the other side of the room.

The Mistress of Freeport looked over to the hound and returned to her feet, tightly gripping the wakizashi.

“Come on,” she ordered, moving forward.

“Do we--have to leave him here?” Doremi asked as she walked past and paused for a moment.

“We’ll come back for him if we can,” Raven answered without turning. Then she hurried over and thrust open the door. She realized they were now at the southern end of the building, and, wasting no time, she quickly led the way downstairs until the Fellowship stepped down into the hall leading east.

Coming up from behind, the hound immediately caught the scent, brushed past Raven and bounded off east, the others following. It scrambled down to the main hallway leading back north and followed it until they reached where they’d started from. The hound sniffed the air there a moment--then began moving east into unexplored territory.

At seeing that, Raven was so furious that she expunged a breath like the hiss of steam.

“Heading straight for the tower--it’s gone to warn Nostradamus!” she exclaimed to the group through gritted teeth. “Move! We need to catch it!”

Caution left by the wayside, the Fellowship now broke into a virtual run as they followed the hound, hot on the shadow’s trail.

Above, Nostradamus concluded that it was now time for the opening moves of the final Gambit.

“Selabbilus,” he spoke, “the burglars are approaching the tower. I wish to see what they are capable of against some real opposition. You are to move out and engage them using your most effective offensive and defensive spells. Teach these dogs the difference between Witchery and Sorcery, and kill some of them--other than the Bard and the Witch herself. I will enable you to use a word of Power to escape back to the upper temple at your leisure, where you will await the final attack.

“As for you,” Nostradamus now hissed to the shadow as it fled eastward, “your incompetence has rendered you useless to me. Go to your workshop and pray I find some reason to continue your existence, else you will greet the dawn by walking out into the courtyard and waiting for the sunrise!”

At his master’s command, Selabbilus vanished, transforming into a diaphanous pillar of light. Next, faster than could a mortal mage, he evoked spells of protection against what he suspected Witches would cast against an undead. Then--confidently--the light began moving down the shadowed hallways toward the approaching intruders.

The Fellowship, meanwhile, had charged after the hound as it led the way forward, twisting and turning its way down halls and corridors, following the scent of whatever they were chasing. They were, Doremi realized as she ran, close to the entrance to the tower itself now, and Raven was right--it had to be heading for Nostradamus to warn him.

Then Selabbilus appeared.

From a bend in the corridor ahead, the darkness seemed to give way to the light from someone approaching.

Raven’s first thought as she pulled up was that someone was walking their direction with a torch or lantern. It only took another moment for the others to catch up as the light, some fifty feet distant, grew in intensity--and then it was in the hallway facing them.

Possessing neither substance nor form, it was simply a soft glow that illumined the darkness around it--a glow that was slowly moving toward them.

Liiiiiiiiche!” Doremi screamed at the top of her lungs as she slid to a halt, her throat tightening.

If it was possible, there was a brief moment in which the realization of that was actually a relief. The group had been on edge all night waiting for this, and for the sake of their own morale, they needed to know whether they could, or could not, stand up against this most powerful of all undead creatures.

And so at Doremi’s cry, they didn’t hesitate, but sprang like lions upon a lamb (and hopefully not lambs upon a lion), the knot of warriors surging forward as Raven and Espidreen began casting spells.

But the Liche was already prepared.

As the men ran forward, a field of energy appeared laterally in front the group, stretching between the walls of the corridor like a great curtain. Thor ignored it, meaning to pass through and risk whatever it did, but the Scandian, shocked, bounced back like he’d rammed a wall of unbreakable glass. Romulus, managing to halt just in time, slashed at the field with his gladius, causing the field to waver slightly, but it remained in place isolating the Liche, at least for the time being, from any direct harm from the Fellowship’s warriors.

The force field was as far as Raven planned to let the monster get as she hurled an energy bolt. The streak of energy, unaffected by the field, hurtled east like a shooting star until it impacted with the exact center of the glow. As it struck, there was a bright flash and the bolt exploded, giving momentary hope that the creature could be brought down without swords.

But the energy from the spell seemed to dissipate as it outlined the figure at the heart of the glow. The Fellowship actually saw the monster clearly for a moment--a skeletal, robed visage with parchment-like drapes of mummified flesh still clinging to the limbs that had borne it in life, eyes glowing red with hatred.

Though the Liche flinched for an instant as the energy bolt struck home, the Mistress of Freeport had expected far more than that. Even something as powerful as a Liche should have nearly been blown in half by the power of her spell!

The creature had to be surrounded by some sort of protective enchantment she hadn’t counted on.

“Fighters hit that force field at the same time,” Raven shouted out as she reached for another silver pellet to hurl. “You can bring it down with enough damage!”

Espidreen fumbled for a scroll while trying to control her panic, then she had it out, reading it off and dropping it to the ground as she threw a black pearl toward the monster.

The ether ball shot past the group blocked by the Liche’s force field as it targeted the monster, ignoring the field of energy. The swirling blob of magic then struck like lightning, impacting the against the glow in the hallway--but it dispelled like the energy bolt!

“Protected from ether balls,” the Witch muttered as she reached for a different set of ingredients for the back-up strategy.

The hound, meanwhile, had scrambled behind the party as soon as it caught sight of the Liche. Once safely out of the line of direct fire, it plopped down upon the floor as it sought to transform back into an Elf. Quickly, as it could, the hound’s limbs began lengthening as its fur vanished, replaced by pink-white skin as, simultaneously, the dog’s snout began flattening out while its ears changed shape into those of an Elf.

Down the hall, the Liche, only slightly injured, had endured the best opening volley the party was capable of delivering and was still in a position of relative safety. And, like the opposing player in a chess game, it was now its move.

Recovering from the energy bolt, the creature seemed to solidify, crossing its skeletal hands before it. The hands then drew themselves into claws as the monster concentrated and spread them out to its sides as if parting a set of curtains.

At the movement, cubes of energy seemed to spread out from the Liche down the hallway to the back of its force field.

Grateful the monster had invoked some new protective spell instead of incinerating half the group with an energy blast or worse, Raven cast in record time and immediately a globe of sunlight appeared about the monster before it could go for a third spell.

She chose the right spell. This time, the monster felt it--and felt it good!

The Liche emitted a ghastly combination of a hiss and a scream as the creature shuddered and its robes began smoldering. There was no choice--it had to move, and it instinctively drew five feet closer to the Fellowship to leave the deadly sunlight at its back.

The fighters, meanwhile, were wasting no time in following Raven’s command, battering the force field with simultaneous blows from hammer and swords.

Not even the power of a Liche could withstand the strength of four of the mightiest warriors in Islay, and instantly the shimmering curtain wavered and silently shattered into pieces like a broken mirror, the shards vanishing as the field collapsed for good.

The men sought to press forward again--but now they found that trying to penetrate the other spell was like trying to walk through a vat of near-solid molasses, for they could barely move through it!

The Liche’s delay gave Espidreen the time she needed to attempt Plan B. Out came a silver bell and clapper from a belt pouch, and she concentrated for an instant, focusing her power. Then the Witch rapped the bell, lifting it up toward the Liche.

The bell pealed sharply in the hall and a glowing spiral of sound waves visibly spun their way through the energy field toward their intended victim. The Liche had no time to even react before the spiral of sound struck it in the face like a hammer, nearly driving the monster back into the globe of sunlight.

But it held its ground as the group saw the creature shudder in pain while large cracks began appearing in its skull and even a few chips of bone flew off!

It was an effective attack, but even that spell couldn’t kill such a powerful monster and the Liche withstood the pain until the bell fell silent and the effects ended.

Another energy bolt from Raven dissipated against the Liche’s chest, again causing it to flinch. Yet despite the harm it had endured, the Liche kept its composure as it now reached into the folds of its robe, withdrawing a gladius.

Was it now going to fight, Doremi wondered from the back of the party?

The answer came as the Liche held the weapon with its hands upon the blade and the handle as it cast a spell. Then the monster turned the blade over to the left, crossing its hands and releasing the sword. The blade hung in the air a moment and then duplicated into dozens of swords flying forward, stretching themselves out in a flat plane that filled the corridor, extending its way toward the party.

Wall of swords!” Espidreen screamed as she bolted for a door that to her right, pushing it open even as Raven shouted out, “Witches take cover!”

Doremi assumed she was included in the order, and even if she wasn’t--running seemed like the best thing to do for the situation! So she leapt for the door, hot on Espidreen’s heels as the Witch jumped inside to safety. The Bard’s move came none too soon, for she felt something strike her knapsack twice as she followed the Witch through the doorway. Fosmo, too, with the same idea, pushed in behind her, parrying away one of the blows as he backed inside, bumping into Doremi.

She managed to keep her feet, but the Cutpurse went down on his back, though he still managed to kick the door closed to keep out any swords that might somehow have made their way in after them.

Outside, the three could hear the swishing swords strike the door as countless blades appeared in the corridor a few feet above the ground, twisting and turning as they slashed anything within reach.

At the bend of the hall behind the group, meanwhile, Cyllindrethifl had finally regained her normal form, coming up to one knee to launch her own energy bolt as fast as she could as the wall of swords moved toward her.

The bolt of energy wound its way through the morass of swords and the field of repulsive energy. Then it struck Selabbilus solidly in the face, nearly causing the monster to lose his footing.

But still the Liche managed to remain on its feet as it prepared to cast another spell.

So far, the Liche’s choice of spells was perfect, for Cyllindrethifl was now the only effective wizard left in the hall since spell-casting was now impossible for Raven, forced to duck this way and that as she parried the razor sharp blades slashing about her. The men, too, now abandoned their attempts to move through the barrier as they likewise battled this unyielding wall of slashing blades trying to skewer them.

The men, that is, apart from Nightshadow.

Oblivious to the pain of the blows against him, the Rogue fixed his eyes upon the enemy and bent forward, using his tremendous strength to slowly, steadily, advance one hard step at a time toward the waiting Liche.

Fosmo, a gash across his brow, scrambled to his feet as the others gazed around to assure nothing even more dangerous was in the room, but the chamber revealed itself to be some old kitchen. Stoves, sinks, tables, cupboards and racks of cooking implements filled the place, and fortunately there were no enemies within.

Espidreen, breathing hard, looked over and caught sight of two doors on the east wall.

“I wonder if we can get behind it,” Doremi heard the Witch speak to herself. “This place may lead up and around to the hall behind the thing if we pick the right way.”

The Bard was a bit surprised at this sudden outbreak of courage, and for a moment she made no response.

Then Espidreen looked hard at her.

“Can you do anything to hurt that thing other than sing to it?!” she demanded.

Exhibiting no little amount of self control, the humble Bard forced herself to ignore yet another insult from the Witch, and she simply held out the lute.

“I can duplicate a necromantic bell spell like you just did, if that's good enough for you,” was her response. “Mine, however, affects every Liche that hears it, though--unlike yours which only affects one!”

With satisfaction, she caught the look of surprise on Espidreen’s face, and the Witch quickly formulated a plan, gazing back toward the eastern side of the chamber where the doorways and a set of stairs beckoned.

“Let’s see if we can find a way that can get us around back of the Liche,” she spoke, lifting her mace from the tab on her belt. “Hurry!”

Fosmo held out a hand and immediately began stammering, trying to find the words to talk the Witch out of the idea.

“Shut up and do what you’re told, Burglar!” Espidreen snapped as she hurried for a door. “If we can find a way around, it’s got a sun globe between it and us. If the Bard and I both hit the thing, we can kill it with two or three, necromantic bells. We’ll sneak up from behind and then I’ll attack. As soon as my spell goes off, you do yours,” she said to Doremi as she reached for the door ring. “Then I’ll get off another. We keep it up until it’s dead, or one of the fighters manages to get to him. The trick is to keep hurting him so he can’t cast! Burglar, you just keep your rapier between him and us if he tries to fight, so we can cast.”

The Witch paused as she began pulling open the door. “If either of you finds a way, come get me--I’ll go through here,” she told them, nodding eastward. “Don’t go far, and run, screaming, if you see anything larger than a rat!”

Doremi didn’t need to be told that twice, and nervously she drew a dagger from her left bracer, crossing toward a door at the southeast corner while Fosmo--anything but eager--ground his teeth together and very cautiously started up a narrow stairway to the northwest.

Espidreen, meanwhile, went through hers to find a narrow hall running forward until it jogged south. Seeing no signs of any enemies, she quickly moved in and turned right, making for an open doorway along the eastern wall, in hope it would emerge into a hallway or chamber that would lead to someplace behind the monster.

Without hesitating, the Witch entered into what looked likt an L-shaped chamber. Nothing harmful met her immediate gaze, and she took only a cursory look about, paying no attention to the shelves holding beakers and jars, or the tables stacked with parchments and alchemical equipment atop them.

Following the wall eastward, the Witch continued on, anxious to see if the bend would reveal some means of ingress to the hallway back of the Liche.

But the moment she could see the eastern side of the room, Espidreen realized she wasn’t alone.

The Witch saw it as she reached the turn of the wall: a cloaked figure, its back to her, standing against the far wall.

The sight stopped her dead in her tracks, but--acting on sheer instinct--she managed to keep her senses as she thrust a hand to her belt to rip off a silver stud as the figure became aware of her presence and turned toward her.

It was then, for a brief instant, that Espidreen’s eyes seemed to play a trick on her, for she imagined she caught sight of a flash of pale white skin wrapped in an almost ghost-like apparition of a cloak and robe. But that image was gone when she blinked, and the Witch’s mouth fell open in shock as she paused.

“Espidreen,” the figure called out to her in its own shocked whisper, “my old apprentice! You’ve grown up!”

Doremi’s search hadn’t taken long, for the door opened into a forgotten storage room choked with cobwebs and crates of rotted food long turned to dust. There were indeed some rats in the place, but these let her be as she made her way around wooden barrels or over scattered crates and rubbish to a door in the eastern wall. She listened at it, hearing nothing, and then--as slowly and as quietly as she could--Doremi moved the door open a crack to see what was behind it.

It was a corridor extending north. A few feet away was an open doorway and she could just hear the sounds of someone speaking from inside. The Bard now opened the door up and leaned into the hall, continuing to listen to the muffled conversation.

It was Espidreen!

The Witch could hardly believe her eyes, and had Doremi been there she would actually have seen a big smile spread across her face.

“Arcana!” she cried out in joy, for she knew her instantly. The cherry red lips, the raven-black hair that hung down in ringlets past her shoulders, the silken robe of midnight blue inlaid with sigils of power, the black cloak that absorbed spells, the piercing sapphire blue eyes--it was Arcana, all right.

And she was unchanged from the last time Espidreen had seen her twenty years earlier.

Arcana’s mouth likewise hung open in surprise. “What are you doing here?!” she spoke. “Did you come to find me?”

“I’m here with Raven TenTolliver,” Espidreen replied excitedly, lowering her hand with the stud in it. “We’re here to kill Nostradamus!”

If it was possible, Arcana seemed even more surprised.

“Just you and her?” she questioned.

For some reason, Espidreen’s face felt numb. Still grinning, though, she swallowed hard and went on.

“Uh, we have a whole group--and Raven’s far more powerful now than she was the last time you saw her; she’s a twenty-fifth-circle Witch, and we control almost the whole world now with the merchants’ guild!”

Folding her hands together before her demurely, Arcana took a step further, eyes locked on Espidreen’s.

“That’s incredible. But how is that possible?” she asked softly. “How can a mortal be a twenty-fifth-circle Witch? Only Elvyra, or a god, can have such power.”

Espidreen paused and had to wonder that for a moment herself. How was Raven so powerful? Then she remembered--the Book! That was it!

But the Book was a secret...a secret she wasn’t supposed to reveal. At least she didn’t think she was supposed to reveal it. Actually, she wasn’t sure.

“I’m not...I’m not s...s....”

The Witch looked away, trying hard to remember the right word.

Supposed!” she exclaimed, remembering. “I think I’m not supposed t-to talk about it,” she stammered, trying to remember what she wasn’t going to talk about, and why she couldn’t.

Espidreen could hardly speak now her face was so numb. In fact, she couldn’t even feel her lips move.

“Would you like to come with us?” she found herself asking. “Why are you here in this room? I thought you died.”

The Witch then relaxed, dearly wanting to get some sleep. “Or was it me who died?” she whispered. “I don’t remember.”

Ears straining to listen, Doremi crossed the hall to the doorway, trying to make out Espidreen’s words. It seemed to her that Espidreen must be talking to herself, for no one was answering and the Witch’s voice was growing softer with each spoken word.

Timidly, the Bard’s head peeped round the doorway to observe Espidreen a few yards away speaking to someone or something she couldn’t see.

What was going on, she wondered?

“N'Str'D'Ms captured me and forced me to help him,” Espidreen heard Arcana speak as the figure drew closer. “He has bound me to this chamber, and I cannot leave. Give me some spell ingredients to break his enchantment and we’ll leave together!”

Espidreen barely paid attention to her words, she was so busy trying to remember why she was there.

“I want to sleep,” she finally whispered.

Arcana smiled once again.

“Sleep on,” her liquid voice whispered back as the Witch closed her eyes .

The Liche, ignoring the others, was directing its gaze to Nightshadow, who was thirty feet away and advancing, foot by foot.

If it could have laughed, it would have. Instead, Selabbilus concentrated and invoked a spell, healing nearly all the damage he had taken. Then the Liche’s right arm extended back and up, lashing forward as a bolt of black energy struck the Rogue in the face.

Nightshadow’s body contorted with pain as he felt the Mind Sapphire expend extra energy to counter whatever harm the enchantment would have done otherwise.

No doubt about it--between the swords cutting him to ribbons and the power of the spell, this Liche packed a good punch!

At the far rear, Cyllindrethifl’s energy bolt was the most she could do before needing to retreat to the hallway south to save herself. But at least the Liche’s wall of swords ended at the bend there, leaving her free to attempt a disenchantment.

The tie that binds, the tie that breaks,” she spoke in Elvish as she waved her hands toward the swords, “be severed now, whate’re it takes!”

The spell worked, for immediately the swords halted their slashing motions, falling to the ground as they vanished.

Wasting no time, the Elf hurried back toward the group, reaching into a pocket of her cloak for another silver pellet.

As the attacking swords vanished, the other heroes turned their attention back to the repulsive wall the Liche had invoked against them. Slashing, pushing or battering, none of them--including Thor--could bring down or make headway against the field of energy protecting Selabbilus. He was isolated from their physical attacks and that was all there was to it!

But Nightshadow was still advancing. The Rogue may have felt like a turtle, but each moment, like a child taking its first small steps, he advanced closer and closer to the monster.

The Liche, casting as fast as lightning, fired off two energy bolts that hit him in the chest, but again Nightshadow forced himself ahead. He was within twenty feet of the monster now and the Liche unleashed one final attack, taking careful aim and hurling another bolt of energy directly at the Mind Sapphire.

Both the force of the bolt and power the Talisman had to expend to protect itself snapped the Rogue back in pain and nearly cast him to the ground---but Nightshadow stayed on his feet and swiveled back to his foe, cocking his scimitar back as he neared the end of the repulsive field and the Liche trapped between he and the sun globe behind.

Thirty feet away, Raven realized the Liche was finished. Quickly, she raised a hand as the Elf ran up, halting Cyllindrethifl as she readied an energy bolt.

“Let him take it,” the Mistress of Freeport spoke.

The Liche, unconcerned, gazed at his approaching enemy with one last bony look of contempt that he absolutely wanted Nightshadow to observe. Then Selabbilus relaxed and calmly spoke the word, “Return.

Nothing happened.

Shocked, the Liche--its disdain of Nightshadow suddenly gone--jerked to attention.

Return! Return!” it hissed two more times.

But it was too late, and now Nightshadow was on it! He burst out of the field’s effects like a wagon lurching free of the mud, swinging Brigit in a massive arc against the torso of the Liche--and the incredible strength of the blow threw the monster straight into the sun globe.

Screeching, Selabbilus burst into flame as he lurched backwards out of the deadly sphere of sunlight to the safety of the dark hall behind. But the Rogue stayed right with him, bringing his left scimitar across the skull of the monster.

The Liche’s lower jaw flew off from the blow.

Now forced to fight for its life, the monster held its ground, raking the inside of Nightshadow’s left arm with its claw. Blood spurted for a brief instant before the Mind Sapphire closed the wound then, whirling back and dodging as the pain left, the Rogue brought his right scimitar into the left leg of the Liche.

There was a cracking sound, and the limb severed.

Even before Selabbilus could fall over, the left scimitar struck the right side of his skull again, smashing it to powder.

Then it was over as a pile of bone and dust simply fell upon the carpet, its bothersome field of energy collapsing with the death of its creator.

Far above, Nostradamus was satisfied. He had sacrificed a rook when the only piece he had won from his opponent so far was a humble bishop, but he had eleven more rooks to use, and he had also learned what he needed to know: This group’s strategy was nothing special. Just the usual spells against undead with the Witches relying on the fighters to do most of the damage. Their skills were impressive as far as they went, but they had nothing truly unique to threaten the waiting Conclave with.

And now, with their reasonably easy defeat of Selabbilus, they would do exactly what he wished them to do...

Move deeper into the trap.

The Bard nervously took a step inside the room. Espidreen was mumbling very quietly now, then she simply went limp and froze.

Doremi, watching, didn’t know what to do next. She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. She simply looked and listened for a moment.

Leave, came the thought.

Good idea, she agreed with herself. Then--silently as any thief ever stalked down any dark alleyway--Doremi began to back up and out of the room.

But it was then that the worst thing that had happened to her all night occurred.

“Hello, Doremi,” came a pleasant feminine voice from around the corner.

The Bard froze in her tracks.

“Enter freely, and of your own will,” it added. Then it chuckled.

That was enough.

Whatever denizen from Hell it was who knew her name was no creature she wished to meet--and the Bard bolted for the hall, leaving Espidreen to her fate.

She got as far as the force field blocking the doorway, nearly breaking her nose from the collision.

“Don’t leave so soon,” the voice encouraged.

Now trapped inside the room with whatever it was, an even worse thing befell the humble Bard.

“Come here,” the voice now ordered.

Doremi’s heart skipped a beat and nearly stopped (which would have been a blessing), but it didn’t quite stop and the Bard didn’t quite die. She just stood there, shaking like a branch in the wind, eyes now locked on the turn of the wall where Espidreen was frozen, waiting for something beyond her worst nightmares to show itself.

Her legs were ready to give out, but she was too terrified to even faint, lest she awaken in the arms of whatever the voice belonged to. Thus, she just stood there, breathing heavily, like a mouse cornered by a cat, until the voice spoke again.

“If you don’t come to me-hee...I’ll come to you-hoo....”

Now it was toying with her.

Aton, if you’re there, please let me die this instant, the terrified Bard prayed, for anything had to be better than whatever fate the voice had in mind.

But Aton didn’t answer--the voice did.

“I won’t ask you again. Come here!

No false pleasantry this time.

Doremi felt the fog closing in on her. It was as if she was drunk and totally helpless to resist taking a very small step forward. Then she took another.

Visions of every possible sort of monster from Hell flooded the terrified Bard’s mind. In her fear, she began imagining the various ways the creature would torture and kill her, none of them quick enough and all of them ghastly.

When the thing saw her, what would it do? Would it charge? Laugh maniacally? Walk slowly toward her, drawing her fear out to the last possible moment before it struck?

Was it a Liche? A medusa? A four-armed naga demon that would dice her into pieces with its swords?

How horrible would it look?

A host of thoughts like these passed through her mind as she helplessly moved further from safety and closer to whatever awaited her.

The Bard was almost to the edge of the wall now and barely able to remain on her feet. Her throat was on fire and she knew it would only be one more moment and one more step....

Then, slowly, knowing it would be her last moment of life and the last thing she would ever see, Doremi forced herself to look round the edge of the wall and greet her fate.

But there was nothing there!

Shocked, the Bard almost relaxed and took one small step to the side, standing behind Espidreen as a shield. The chamber was actually laid out in a sort of Z shape, and part of it to the southeast was still hidden from her sight. Perhaps the voice was over there waiting, and she’d have to move another ten feet east and look around another wall to see what summoned her.

Returning to sanity for an instant, Doremi kept her eyes on next turn of the southern wall as she tugged on Espidreen’s robe with her left hand, praying she’d come to.

The Witch, eyes closed and softly snoring, didn’t stir.

It was then that the Bard suddenly had the worst feeling of her entire life as she sensed just where the thing was.

In the blink of an eye, she jumped sideways, whirling around to look--and there it was, mere inches behind where she was just standing.

What met her terrified eyes was no pleasing vision of Arcana as Espidreen had known her--Doremi saw the creature for what it actually was.

There are no words that any Bard could ever write to fully describe the horror of the monster standing there. It is enough to say that the creature was her own height and bore the general visage of a woman clothed in tattered, rotting garments wavering from solid to shadow in a shimmering etheric aura.

That was where any resemblance to a human being ended.

Two claw-like hands attached to swollen, corpse-like arms hung at the creature’s sides, palms turned inward, with the grotesquely long fingers spread out as if ready to rend her to pieces.

Part of the upper torso of the monster showed through its robes, revealing pasty white folds of skin varying in appearance from swollen bulbous pustules, to parchment stretched over some of the creature’s jutting ribs--one or two of which actually showed through tears in what was left of the hide that now covered her.

But worst of all--beyond any nightmare, beyond any wild imagination of horror--was her face, for it was the last vestige that showed this had once been a living woman. Yellow eyes that burned with fire stared at the Bard past pale, cadaverous skin stretched tightly over the shrunken eye sockets and a hole where once had been a nose.

What remained of her cracked, pallid lips now drew back into the malignant, fanged smile of a vampire.

A vampire that hadn’t eaten in a very very long time!

Doremi’s last chance to die of a heart attack failed, and she was now face-to-face with the monster. At that point, she let go of her last shreds of sanity, losing awareness of everything else to lock eyes with the creature.

She no longer saw Espidreen. She no longer saw the room. She didn’t even see Fosmo banging against the force field blocking the door as he screamed at the vampire, hoping to draw the creature off her.

All she saw was what was left of Arcana slowly moving toward her as, by some last feeble bit of strength from somewhere deep inside, the Bard managed to take a step back in a vain attempt to keep a distance between them.

“Here I was, thinking I was still the most powerful Witch in Islay and Espidreen tells me Raven is twenty-fifth-circle. How is that possible?” Arcana asked quietly, keeping in step with Doremi.

Somehow, the creature released some of its hold upon her, allowing the Bard to regain enough of her senses to answer.

“I don’t know--I just met her,” she panted out.

“And here I thought you two were friends,” Arcana responded quietly.

Then the eyes seemed to burn into Doremi’s soul.

“Would you like to be my friend, Doremi?” she asked.

It was going to kill her no matter what she said, so Doremi refused to give the monster the satisfaction of an answer. But the knowledge of how close she was to being bitten snapped her back to reality, and--summoning all the inner strength she had--the Bard reacted, dropping the dagger and ripping Lydia’s torc from about her neck.

She hurled it straight at the Witch, watching with renewed hope as the golden torc transformed itself into a serpent! But then, with amazing speed, the vampire simply reached out and caught it, and the serpent wrapped about Arcana’s arm, sinking its fangs into the top of her hand.

As if she didn’t even feel it, Arcana raised her arm, slowly rotating her fist to examine the irritating little snake. Satisfied after a moment, she reached over with her other hand to grasp the snake by the middle--and pulled it in half!

Two pieces of a torc clattered to the ground.

“I always liked Bards,” Arcana said teasingly as she again grinned at the retreating Avalonian.

By some miracle of self control, Doremi managed to keep from simply screaming and dropping to the ground. Instead, she kept backing eastward, unable to take her eyes off the approaching monster.

Pickety wi-hitch...pickety wi-hitch...who’d like a kiss from a pickety wi-hitch?” Arcana spoke, smiling as she moved her head back and forth with the rhyme.

In desperation, Doremi tore at her blouse for the ankh. Then, with all the faith and boldness left that she could muster, the Bard yanked it from about her neck and thrust it toward the vampire, shouting, “Begone!”

Arcana halted and looked at the symbol, apparently wondering what is was. Then she looked back to the Bard and took another step.

“Go away!”

Doremi was begging now.

Then--quick as that--the vampire’s right hand lashed out and snatched it!

Doremi didn’t wait--the moment the ankh left her hand, she ran around the corner for the southeast side of the room, the last place of retreat.

Arcana examined the ankh and then let it fall to the ground.

“Close,” she observed.

Then Arcana began following, delighted that fate had given her a chance to preserve her life, for if she could bite this Bard and make her compliant, Nostradamus would let her live--at least while he made use of his new slave.

At the back of the room, Doremi realized she was cornered. There were no doors to run through--just a wall lined with some shelves of spell ingredients.

Panicking, the Bard turned to face her approaching stalker--and then she remembered: The thunder sticks! They hurled silver pellets--and silver, she thought, hurt vampires!

In sheer panic, Doremi ripped the first one from the baldric, reaching over with her left hand to pull back the flint-holder until it clicked into place. Then--shaking so bad she was sure she’d miss--the Bard raised it toward the vampire and pulled the trigger.

A few sparks flew as the flint struck the steel appendage, but nothing more.

“I used to like poems and rhymes,” Arcana was saying as she slowly advanced upon her cornered prey. “Tell me a rhyme, Doremi.”

The thunder stick clattered to the floor as the Bard desperately grabbed for the other.

“No? Then I’ll tell you one. I have a little pickety hen...,” the Witch began as she took another step.

Who lays some eggs every now and then...

Sometimes five and oftimes ten...

Hickety pickety--my little hen!”

The final words were spat out with a tone of hatred, and Doremi knew this was her last chance. Repeating the move, she brought the flint-holder into place and raised the weapon. Then, closing her eyes and turning away, she pulled the trigger.

A tremendous explosion rang out in the room and the Bard nearly broke her hand as the thunder stick shot its pellet out and then dropped to join its mate on the floor--as the vampire screeched in pain!

Hoping beyond hope, the Bard opened her eyes to see Arcana rubbing her right shoulder with her left hand, looking over at the wound in puzzlement.

The thunder stick had hurt her--but in no way had it killed her.

Now Doremi was helplessly looking every direction for anything left that might help--and one last, desperate hope occurred to her: Someplace--she couldn’t remember where--she’d heard that vampires had some fear of, or attraction to plant seeds of all things, and there was a jar of pumpkin seeds in arm’s reach upon on a shelf with some other spell ingredients!

Furious, though confused at the wound, Arcana was now turning back to the Bard, ready to end the game once and for all as Doremi pulled the jar off the shelf, ripping the top off it and thrusting her hand in to retrieve a handful of seeds.

“Look what I’ve got!” the Bard shouted, holding them out. “Look! Look! Look!”

Arcana blinked and actually turned her head to stare at Doremi’s right hand. Then the snarl melted away and the expression on her face changed from rage to one of actual distraction.

Thinking quickly, Doremi tossed them behind Arcana and the handful of seeds scattered to the floor a few yards away.

Arcana’s gaze followed them.

“Go get ‘em!” the Bard begged.

The vampire looked back for a moment, then returned to staring at the floor, snarling and purring softly like some sort of evil feline. A swollen, maggot-filled tongue then came out and licked the cracked lips as the monster stood there, trying to decide what to do.

Doremi didn’t wait for Arcana to make the wrong choice. She raised the container over her head and hurled it against the eastern wall, scattering the contents everywhere as the glass shattered.

“Get the seeds! Get the seeds!” she cried.

It was too much for the monster. There was a flash of movement, and then the creature was on its knees, gathering the seeds up into a pile with lightning speed.

The greatest athlete in Islay would have envied the way Doremi now made a desperate combination of a jump, a leap, and a sprint to get past the beast in half a blink of an eye.

Even as she made it, the Bard was absolutely convinced that the vampire would reach around with its incredible speed and simply catch her by the foot to drag her down in a last mocking act--but it didn’t!

A moment later, Doremi was shaking Espidreen as hard as she could, trying to wake her--but the Witch seemed lost to the world. Down to desperation, the Bard then reared back and slapped her across the face as hard as she could.

Espidreen flew back, waking up enraged from the blow.

“Why, you--” she began to say, ready to strike with her mace.

“She’s a vampire--run!” Doremi screamed as she hurried past.

It took no more than for the Witch to behold the black shape across the room scraping together a pile of seeds--and she took Doremi’s word for it.

Force field!” the Bard was now shouting as she came to a halt at the exit. “Disenchant it, quick!”

Racing behind her, the Witch pulled up, dropping her mace as she tried--and nearly failed--to muster enough concentration to try a greater disenchantment, not taking any chances on breaking the spell.

But it was at that moment Doremi saw the best thing she had ever seen in her life: seven feet of battle-hungry Scandian appearing in the doorway and battering the force field with his hammer.

The field wavered and nearly collapsed, but it managed to stay up.

Both women then froze, a momentary vision of remaining trapped with Arcana racing through their heads, but suddenly Nightshadow was with Thor in the doorway adding his blows to those of the Viking’s.

The force field shattered and came down, permitting the women to flee into the hall as the Scandian forced his way inside.

At the same time, Arcana completed her task and a blood-curdling scream arose from the other side of the room as the enraged creature, its senses returning, sought revenge.

Thor wasn’t waiting for any help, charging straight around the bend in the direction the scream had come from as the creature rose up, snarling, to greet him.

It was too late for her to flee, and Arcana was now forced to fight an enemy who seemed twice her height.

Racing in for the kill as the vampire’s right hand was rearing back to strike, the Viking whipped the hammer down at Arcana with the full strength of his massive arm--but the monster, contorting its body into nearly an S shape in a split-second of time, caused the hammer to strike only air, throwing Thor off balance for a moment.

Then it was Arcana’s turn as she snapped upright with demonic speed, her two claws striking like lightning, one ripping open Thor’s unprotected throat as the other tore out an eye.

Blood showered like rain as the Viking, blinded, gurgling, and unable to breathe, realized he was in deep trouble. No longer standing his ground and fighting, he was actually backing away now, ducking behind his shield and swinging the hammer in great arcs, trying to keep the monster at bay while things started going black.

Incredibly, if it had been just those two, Arcana might actually have won the fight!

But it wasn’t.

Nightshadow, casting his blades to the ground, leapt at the beast, tackling her as his hands sought to lay hold of any part that was solid enough to grab. Thor, given a reprieve, let go of the shield and dropped to the floor, desperately grasping for an elixir before he passed out.

For a moment, the vampire managed to break free, her claws raking Nightshadow’s torso through his leather tunic. But the Rogue backhanded her as hard as he could in response, the brass studs of his glove making solid contact with what was left of her face.

The sheer force of the blow drove Arcana back into the wall, stunning her for an instant--then he was on her!

It was now a wrestling match between two supernaturally strong opponents. But despite Arcana’s possessing at least as much strength as Thor himself, the power of the Mind Sapphire was vastly superior to her own demonic power, and the two ended up in a ball as they struggled upon the cold stone floor.

For a few moments, they were locked in a death struggle, but it was Nightshadow who eventually wound up on top, pinning the vampire down as she screamed and kicked to get free.

Romulus now sought to join the fray, intending to skewer Arcana with the trident, but a kick from her sent the big Gladiator flying across the room into Raven and Cyllindrethifl as they were trying to cast energy bolts.

“Someone stake her! Someone stake her!” Nightshadow was crying out as his hands locked upon the monster’s throat and left arm.

It was Giles who responded, dropping sword and shield as he overturned a table to rip away one of its legs. In the next instant, he broke it upon his knee, splintering off a sharpened section, and rushed toward the melee.

Arcana was now biting, clawing and kicking with everything she had left, even biting a chunk of flesh off the Rogue’s arm after failing to fasten her fangs upon his neck.

Managing to keep her away from his throat despite the pain, Nightshadow leaned backward, pulling her up--then snapped forward, driving Arcana into the floor with all his strength as he shifted position, rolling to his side to expose her front.

Giles saw the opening and now brought the stake down, thrusting it into the center of the vampire’s chest.

Her previous screams were nothing compared to the keen that escaped her lips now as the stake went in. Then the Knight, with no hammer to pound with, leaned onto the table leg with all his weight, twisting and turning it, praying the beast would die.

Over and over, Arcana screamed, and the last thing she heard before she slipped into the blackness of death was the voice of Nostradamus in her head telling her to be grateful for a swifter end than she deserved.

Finally, Nightshadow felt her weaken. Then it was over as the vampire’s strength departed and she collapsed into a pile of bone and dust as an appropriately sepulchral silence descended on the chamber.

Everyone--even those not in the fight--was breathing hard, and after a few moments when it was certain there was no possible way she could still be alive, Giles patted the Rogue on the shoulder and Nightshadow finally released his grip as the Knight helped him up from one of the toughest battles of his life.

The others, save for Espidreen, now came forward, anxious to see, while Raven leant a hand to help a recovering Thor regain his feet.

The Viking took a deep breath and spat some of the blood from his mouth. “By Wotan,” he grunted, “--are vampires this powerful? That was the closest I’ve come in many a long day!”

“She was more powerful than normal vampires,” Doremi nervously answered from a few feet away.

“I’ve never fought a vampire,” Raven noted, releasing the Scandian’s arm. “But if they’re anything like that creature, I’m glad we don’t have them back home.”

Espidreen swallowed hard. “That was Arcana, Raven,” she spoke.


The Mistress of Freeport whipped her head over and looked down to the corpse. There was nothing recognizable about it, but she took the Witch’s word for it.

“I guess we know how he got all the capture essence spells,” Raven uttered after a moment.

“I thought you said forcing her to help him wouldn’t work,” Romulus spoke, limping over.

Espidreen, her eyes on the tattered clothing and the dusty bones, said, “I, uh, think what he did was sacrifice her, and You-Know-Who caused her to arise as a vampire. He’s the one who empowered her spells from that point. A vampire created by that means would, I suppose, be more powerful than most.”

There was silence a moment as they all pondered that. Then Raven spoke.

“She deserved better. At least it’s over now.”

The Bard came forward nervously. “Could he do that to us?” she wondered as she retrieved her fallen items.

Romulus particularly seemed to want an answer to that question. And not just him--most everyone there started thinking twice about being there now they were faced with one possible set of consequences.

Raven didn’t respond. Instead, she looked to Espidreen and asked, “What were you all doing here?”

The Witch focused back on the reality of the situation. “We thought if we could get around the back of the Liche, we could--”

“Whoa--what’s this ‘we’ stuff, eh?!” Fosmo broke in. “Me told ya not to do this--yer the one wanted to run off into a vampire’s lair by herself! Yer the one told ol’ Fosmo t’ hold his tongue and--”

“Knock it off!” Raven snapped, stopping the confrontation before it flowered into something really bad. “The idea was sound--you just happened to run into something. But let’s keep in mind,” she emphasized, “we do not run off alone anywhere! If we break into smaller groups, we stay together in smaller groups! Nobody--and I mean nobody--goes through a door by himself without back-up; not even Thor! The only person in this group allowed to take risks like that is Nightshadow. The rest of us stay in groups at all times! Clear?!”

A few grumbles and unenthusiastic affirmation arose in response to the point and Raven tried to get the party back into focus.

“At least our luck is still holding,” she noted, taking a quick gaze about the chamber. “Because Espidreen found where Arcana was hiding, we managed to take her out before she could warn Nostradamus. Same goes for the Liche outside.”

On hearing that, Cyllindrethifl seemed to let out an exasperated breath and immediately began gesturing to Raven with her hands. It wasn’t until later weeks, when Raven explained to Doremi what was going on, that she understood that a heated debate began as Cyllindrethifl, Raven and Espidreen started communicating in a silent hand language--one that Nostradamus could not understand.

Cyllindrethifl: Not luck. Trick!

Raven: Y U think that?

Cyllindrethifl: Did U C Liche try cast W of P? He thought would work. He thought he have way to cast spell.

Raven: So? He wrong.

Cyllindrethifl: But he thought would work!

Raven: We know that spell not work everywhere. Maybe spell not work this close to tower.

Cyllindrethifl: I saw look on face. He expect it work; not hope it work. He surprised it not work.

Raven: U complaining?

Cyllindrethifl: I think trick to fool us. N know we here. Sacrifice Liche to trick us. We moving into trap.

Raven: Disagree. Y N waste good Liche? No need. We going to him quick enough.

Cyllindrethifl: Trick! Trick! Trick!

Raven: What u think, E?

Espidreen: Not there to see, but agree R. Y waste Liche? Make no sense.

Cyllindrethifl: Make good sense to lull us into false hope.

Raven: We not leaving ‘til we done, so I see no way N gain by this.

Cyllindrethifl: We should leave.

Raven: No! Even if U right, he come at us forever in F-port if we not kill him now. We be looking behind us forever. To late to turn back. Better hope U wrong.

“Make a quick search of this place and let’s get moving,” Raven ordered, ending the discussion. “Nightshadow, please watch that hallway.”

Most of the Fellowship then split off, seeking anything useful they might take from the chamber. Apart from a stack of capture essence scrolls that Cyllindrethifl tore to pieces, nothing else of special interest seemed to be there apart from what might have lain within a large trunk stuffed away in a corner. It took only a moment for the Cutpurse to determine it was untrapped, and they opened the lid to find row after row of vials and bottles housed inside in a series of shelves stacked within.

Espidreen took one look and exclaimed, “We won the pot, Raven!”

The Mistress of Freeport rushed over, watching as Espidreen lifted a shelf of the vials out to look at the one under it.

“A potion and elixir collection!” the Witch exclaimed. “Raven, I think this is a collection of every known potion and elixir!”

Raven suddenly came alive. “Is there--”

“Yes!” Espidreen exclaimed, holding up a small vial filled with a thick, pearlescent liquid.

Raven--moving nearly as fast as Arcana--snatched the vial. “I’ll make sure it gets out of here in one piece.”

A less-than-pleased look passed across the Witch’s features, but Raven ignored it, tucking the vial away.

“What is that?” Doremi asked.

“I’d like to know that too,” Romulus added, looking down to her belt pouch.

Elixir of youth, I would guess,” Cyllindrethifl responded coldly.

“Takes years of age off you, right?” the Gladiator questioned.

“That’s right,” Raven admitted.

The Galdiator’s eyes narrowed. “Just taking it for yourself, are you? Maybe one of us would like it!”

“No,” Raven answered with a tone of irritation. “I’m just making sure it survives, Romulus. We’ll add it to the treasure we find at the end, and cast lots for it. If you want it as a pick, be my guest. ‘Til then, it’s coming with me to maximize its chances of getting out of here with us.”

The comment made sense, but something suggested to Doremi that, one way or the other, Raven was planning on ending up with it, whatever she had to do.

“It’s an evil thing--you should destroy it,” Cyllindrethifl suggested.

Raven let the comment pass as Espidreen continued rummaging through the vials and bottles.

Elixir of rejuvenation,” she announced after a few more moments.

The Gladiator gave Doremi a look as if he wished to know what that did as well.

“Restores your power to cast spells,” the Bard whispered back.

“You’ve got the least amount of spells, Espy, so hold onto it,” responded Raven.

“Some jars of Royal Jelly!” the Witch next announced.

“Outstanding!” Raven exclaimed, pleased at the horde. “Grab those and anything else we can use and let’s be off.”

The Battle

It took only a few moments for Espidreen to stuff some more vials into her pouch, and the group was ready to continue. They quickly made their way back to the large corridor--where fortunately the Liche’s remains were still waiting (half the group expected them to be gone), and after retrieving a pair of enchanted rings, a pair of daggers and four amulets off the body for later examination, they moved forward, leaving the corpse where it lay.

They had hardly moved past the creature’s body when Doremi came to a halt.

“Hey, you hear that?” she asked.

The others paused, looking to her and listening.

“Hear what?” Raven whispered.

“I hear it,” Cyllindrethifl said quietly, turning her head around until she found the best angle. “It sounds like chanting! It’s coming from someplace ahead.”

The Mistress of Freeport now stiffened and brought her finger to her lips. Then she looked over to Nightshadow and nodded. The two now took the lead, moving a good ten yards in front of the party as they crept forward.

The further they moved, the louder grew the chanting. They could hear it clearly now: choral chanting of the sort performed by Necromancers in their temples.

“Can Liches chant?” Doremi whispered to Cyllindrethifl.

“Don’t know,” she whispered back, drawing a dagger. “Not like regular people, but chants are prayers, and even Liches must pray to their gods.”

They had now come to the end of the corridor and before them arose two huge doors of bronze blocking their way. Embossed upon the surfaces of each were inverted pentagrams encircled with glowing necromantic runes pulsing with power.

The chanting was coming from beyond them.

Raven beckoned Fosmo forward and up came the Cutpurse to make a cursory examination for any traps upon the door. He found none, shook his head, then backed away, drawing both rapier and dagger.

“Cyl, Espy,” Raven whispered, looking back for the two Witches.

Quickly, the two moved up through the ranks until they stood with their mistress before the two massive portals.

“Okay, let’s get our strategy down.”

At hearing that, Thor expelled a moan, shaking his head--and, but for the gravity of the situation, it was almost humorous to note the differences in attitude between he and Raven.

“Why do you always plan so much?!” he muttered, looking down at her. “If they do this, we’ll do that--unless, of course they do this instead, in which case we’ll do this, unless doing this would cause them to do that! It’s maddening! Just kick the door in, and fight!”

He then stood there impatiently, tightening and relaxing the grip on his hammer, waiting for leave to do what he did best.

Ignoring him, Raven outlined their moves like a chess game.

“This may be it. When we open it up, if it’s Liches, you two hit them with sunbursts. If it’s Humans, cut loose with energy blasts. If it’s a combination of Liches and Humans, Espy you energy blast and Cyl, you sunburst.”

“See what I mean?” the Scandian grunted to Nightshadow.

“Fighters,” she continued, looking up, “if there are Humans in there, don’t move in until the energy blast goes off. After that, you two Witches cast to make sure any Liches are slain before you do anything else, then target any Humans.”

“Abandon ether balls?” Cyllindrethifl questioned.

“Yeah,” the Mistress of Freeport whispered back. “Espidreen’s ether ball didn’t hurt the Liche we killed, and we don’t know how complete their protection is against the spell. It may be full protection; it may be partial protection; it may depend on the caster’s power--we just don’t know. Stick to what we do know hurts them.”

Raven now addressed her cousin. “There’s always the chance this could all be an illusion. Nightshadow, we’re going to watch you. When that door opens, if you see no enemies--you hold at the doorway and tell us there’s nothing there. Witches, no matter what you think you see, don’t begin to cast until Nightshadow moves in. His charge will be the signal to cut loose, okay?”

The pair nodded their understanding.

“Now if Nostradamus is in there, Nightshadow--go straight for him,” she added. “I’ll cast one spell from the doorway and then shift to him and attack. Get to him fast as you can.”

Nightshadow nodded, tightening the grip on his swords.

“Thor,” Raven continued, “I know you want Nostradamus, but we need the others taken out. Throw your hammer at the Liche furthest from us and run for him. After you take him out, then go for Nostradamus if you won’t go for another of the Conclave.”

It was clear by the look on the Viking’s face he was less than pleased at having to delay attacking the very creature he’d come here to face, but he gritted his teeth and nodded--reluctantly.

“The rest of you fighters--pick your targets and go. If there are only Humans in there, just fan out and take them down.”

Raven shifted position to in front of the right-hand door. “Set up,” she whispered, looking back. “Witches and Doremi--stay here in the doorway. Don’t enter; let us do the fighting in there. Just cast from the doorway. Keep one eye behind you--something in there may try to shift behind you, and attack. Make sure you get your spell off at him before he gets his off at you!”

Having received their orders, the group moved into position with the men lining up before the doors and the women filing to their back. Espidreen and Cyllindrethifl readied their spell ingredients for whatever eventuality that awaited them, then nodded to Raven.

Doremi, meanwhile, planned to do a bit more than merely watch. Hands on the strings, soon as she saw Liches, she was going to unload a Bardic necromantic bell.

It wouldn’t kill them, but they’d feel it.

The Fellowship were prepared as they could be, and Raven grasped the handle of the left-hand door. To her surprise, she found it was perfectly balanced and would actually open easily. With that knowledge, she risked taking a peep by opening it up a crack.

Out swung the door and she peered in a moment, then stiffened. She now gave it a hard tug, and the door swung open, allowing the others to see.

Beyond, was revealed a vast cathedral shrouded in darkness but for the shafts of moonlight coming from a row of windows on the northern wall, and a red feral glow from the center of the room where a great altar stood adjacent to a towering statue of Asmodeus that looked down upon it.

This was clearly a temple to him, for rows of pews spread out toward the center of the room, and great pillars, carved in the form of demons and other Dark Gods, supported the arched roof.

Statues of evil figures looked down upon the floor of the temple from alcoves, niches, mezzanines and choir lofts crafted into the walls of the huge chamber.

The sense of evil was so strong that Doremi realized this ghastly room had to be the very heart of the tower.

With the door open, the chanting was clearly audible, but it came from no true worshippers: It was actually created through spells cast upon the walls, causing the stonework to form itself into mouths from which the choral invocations sang forth.

Surprised, Raven stepped inside, scanning every direction for enemies as the others followed.

“Weirdest temple I’ve ever seen,” they heard her remark as she took the place in.

“This place sickens me, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl muttered, wrapping her fur cloak about her for warmth as a draft wafted out through the open door. “Let us be quickly through it.”

“I recognize the invocations,” Espidreen noted. “They’re to You-Know-Who.”

“Why are they using spells to do it?” Raven asked, puzzled at the whole thing.

“Because he craves worship,” the Elf answered, “and likes a steady stream of praise directed to him.”

“Temples to him usually do have courses of priests chanting to him for twenty hours a day,” Espidreen added, looking about.

“Well,” Raven concluded, “I suppose this is an efficient way to do it.”

“Eh, looky here--another o’ them portal things,” Fosmo spoke, pointing to the wall next to the door.

They turned, and sure enough, there was another portal generator built into the wall next to the northern door, the numbers on it turned to 902.

“Nine hundred and two?!” Raven exclaimed. “They can’t have that many of these portal machines; we’ve only seen a handful. It must be a code. The first number may refer to a level of the School or tower, and the last two may be actual room numbers,” she speculated. “Since there are, we think, nine master levels to this place, the nine might mean the top of the tower. The zero-two must be a room on that level.”

“That’s possible, Raven,” Espidreen agreed, “especially when you consider that Liche may have come from here. He might have set the device to take him back up to the top of the tower.”

“Which also means he has the portal this one leads to, set to take him down here!”

Espidreen nodded. “Probably.”

“Everyone stand back,” Raven ordered. “Espy, see if you can read the spell off and activate the thing.”

As Raven was speaking, the Bard’s attention was directed to the south side of the room where she spied a positively gigantic pipe organ against the wall from which sprouted hundreds of brass tubes stretching nearly up to the ceiling. Attached was a massive canvas bag, studded with glowing runes, that flapped and moved like some large creature was trapped within, seeking to be let out.

“Look at that, organ,” Doremi whispered in awe. “That bag must hold an air elemental. I’ll bet it makes a sound unlike anything in all of Islay!”

Raven and the others glanced to the organ for a moment as Espidreen took up position near the portal generator. Then, squinting, Raven slowly turned to glare at the Bard, giving her a don’t you dare touch it look.

“I wasn’t going to!” Doremi responded.

Espidreen was now ready, and she began reading off the spell upon the outer ring of the generator.

Nothing happened, and the Witch looked back to Raven, shaking her head. “It may only work for them, Raven.”

“Nothing’s easy tonight,” the Mistress of Freeport muttered. Then she stepped up, trying to figure out the generator. The fact that the outer ring could spin like the other numbered rings seemed significant.

“Do you have to position this some way before you read it?” she wondered aloud.

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke as she pointed to the far end of the chamber, “according to the maps we found, the tower is beyond a set of doors across the room.”

“All right--no time for experimentation. Let’s move,” the Mistress of Freeport now spoke, abandoning the machine and heading forward between the two rows of pews.

Cautiously, the group followed as they watched for the first sound or movement that would betray a surprise attack. Still, like virtually every other part of the complex, this room, despite its importance, was empty of life--or even unlife.

The temple was built differently from other parts of the School. This close to the tower itself, almost half the room ahead was an empty space over an aperture about forty feet across, and everyone knew what that aperture had to be.

Part of the Pit.

A walkway extended out from the pews over the shaft, until it reached a great circular platform of black stone. Here, there was scribed an inverted pentagram inlaid with the leering figure of a goat’s head. At its center rose a huge altar of black marble reached by thirteen steps.

“Cyl,” Raven spoke, coming to a halt at the walkway, “give me a check for any traps--magical or otherwise. I want to make sure that bridge doesn’t open up and drop us.”

The Elf pulled up, concentrating, and scanned everything within the range of her vision. While she did so, Doremi happened to glance at a pew next to her. It was dusty, she noted.

“Nothing, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl reported.

Satisfied, Raven allowed Nightshadow to take the lead, and in a few moments they were reaching the platform, observing that the altar was intricately carved, its front embossed with a frieze of two ravens leaning forward to sip from a chalice.

Doremi, meanwhile, safely braced herself against a railing of the platform and cautiously leaned over, trying to see as far down the shaft as her vision would allow. She noted that the stonework angled downward until it vanished in the darkness beneath the platform. This wasn’t, she concluded, the actual Pit--but it probably led down to it.

Noticing her, Raven couldn’t resist reaching out and playfully giving her a fake shove.

“Don’t fall!” she joked as the Bard nearly jumped out of her skin.

The Mistress of Freeport chuckled at her own joke and then focused in on the altar. It was eerily beautiful in its design, and upon it rested a large black chalice--the one depicted in the frieze. Intrigued, Espidreen was ascending the steps for a closer look, and then the Witch picked it up, her eyes widening.

Cup of Abominations!” she exclaimed in a victorious whisper, holding it toward the group.

“That good?” Raven called up to her.

“Yes!” she answered, triumphantly descending the stairs with the trophy.

The group looked the thing over as she returned with it, beholding that the obsidian cup was scribed with a variety of necromantic runes. A rusty dried residue--blood, they assumed--was encrusted around the bottom of its golden inner cup.

Ever practical, Raven asked the Witch, “What’s it worth?”

“To a Necromancer, priceless!” Espidreen responded in a hushed tone. “It permits them to make potions and elixirs in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks!”

“Really! Will it work for us that way?”

“No,” Espidreen replied with a tone of regret.

“Well--pack it away then. We’ll find someone to trade it to.”

Doremi and some of the others, meanwhile, were peering up at the statue of Asmodeus. Looking at him, one wouldn’t have thought this portrayal to represent the personification of evil. In fact, he actually looked like a handsome, muscular man of dark countenance with a neatly trimmed goatee, whom one would greet pleasantly on the street.

But his eyes...there was something you could see behind his squinting eyes: A mind that dwarfed even the mental powers of Liches. A mind that could play chess on a scale undreamed of, using an entire universe of pieces.

Awed and frightened at the thought, Doremi nervously took a step back and turned away as she realized this being was far, far, far beyond anything they had ever imagined.

That must be what being a god is like, she thought.

As this was going on, Cyllindrethifl had been deep in thought, her eyes scanning the chamber. Now she broke her silence, and spoke.

“Raven, I think this temple is very telling.”

“Umm?” Raven asked, looking over to her. “What do you mean?”

The Elf focused her gaze upon her mistress. “Look at this place--it doesn’t give the appearance it’s been in actual use for quite some time. From the dust on the pews, to the dried blood in that evil chalice, to the sacrilege of these spells chanting for their casters--it looks like this temple hasn’t been used in years...perhaps centuries.”

“Well--don’t they have temples enough in the Lower School?”

“Yes,” the Elf admitted, “but this temple seems like it is of prime importance, and one would imagine that the Conclave--which never leaves this place--would continue its rituals of worship here. Yet look--it’s not really being used. And these--these chanting sets of lips on the walls...can you imagine how offensive they would be to a god?”

The Elf now addressed the whole group.

“The abomination of using spells to mimic true prayer is inconceivable to’s unthinkable! The temples in Talon would never dishonor our goddesses by such a thing as this!” she spoke, sweeping her hand towards the statue of the Lord of Hell. “And You-Know-Who wants real worship. He’d never settle for this! These Liches seem to have abandoned their faith for...for convenience!” she concluded, searching for the best word.

“Yer sayin’ they ain’t all that religious no more, eh?” Fosmo questioned.

“Yes!” Cyllindrethifl confirmed.

Doremi twirl. “And the implications of that are...?”

“That they have turned their backs on their Master,” the Elf concluded.

Espidreen looked back and forth between Cyllindrethifl and Raven. “I think I get what she’s saying,” the Witch spoke. “They’ve become lax in their worship--a dangerous thing to do, considering whom the god of this School is.”

“Wouldn’t that be good for us, then?” Romulus questioned.

“Bad for them, and in that way good for us, Gladiator.”

Raven shrugged. “Good--it’s their problem, then! Let’s be moving.”

Espidreen remained still, looking off into space as she tried remembering. “They may have broken the Pact,” she whispered to herself. “If so...then perhaps the legend is true.”

Raven paused, turning back.

“What legend? What pact?” she wanted to know. And not just she, but the whole group gave pause at the Witch’s words, seeking to know what she meant.

Espidreen took in a breath and then spoke.

“There is an ancient bit of Hocwrathian lore--a legend, if you will--that when Serpen built the School, he made a ten thousand-year Pact with You-Know-Who. Once that Pact was over, something was supposed to happen. No one knows exactly what, but payment of some sort was coming due.”

“Well--it has been ten thousand years since the First Age,” Nightshadow observed. “And here we are--here to bring retribution on the head of this School....”

The Knight fidgeted. “The thought of we being used in the service of the Lord of Hell sitteth not well with me,” he muttered.

“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Espidreen replied. “It would more likely mean that the protections and benefits You-Know-Who would be withheld.”

“Maybe that’s why we’ve been able to get this far,” Cyllindrethifl speculated.

“Doremi,” Raven now asked, looking over to the Bard, “you know anything about this legend of a ten thousand-year Pact?”

The humble Bard had never heard of such a thing, and thus shook her head.

“Cyl?” Raven now asked.

“I am aware of the tale, Raven. There was, as I recall, a poem or rhyme supposedly about it.”

“Let me see if I remember it,” Espidreen muttered. “It went something like...

The pact shall be ‘tween me and thee...

Throughout an epoch of time.

My throne and power here to be...

Till nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine.

“So the Pact was for one year short of ten thousand years,” Raven observed.

“I should point out, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl noted, “that the meaning of the rhyme, even if it is true, has been debated. There are some who believe the time specified was literal, but the majority view holds that four nines--nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine--represents an infinite number, meaning the Pact was an eternal one between You-Know-Who and the School.”

Raven thought for a moment. “Anyone here know the exact number of years it’s been since Serpen built this place--assuming Desmore’s wrong and Gorus didn’t build it?” she asked.

Between the muttered NO’s and shaking heads, no one had a clue.

“I don’t think there even is a way to calculate the School’s exact age, Raven,” Espidreen postulated. “The records aren’t that precise.”

“I think, but cannot prove,” Cyllindrethifl spoke, “that this School was built seven seasons before the Triad attacked us. It was, they say, built in a single night’s time with You-Know-Who’s power.”

“Okay, so how long was the war?” Raven queried.

Doremi knew this one.

“Two springs,” she answered up. “They attacked Avalon first, and then we fled into the Elflands for a year until Gorus was defeated.”

“Actually, they’d been killing off Gnomes and Dwarves for years before they attacked Avalon,” Espidreen noted.

“From the time of the Triad’s defeat then, going back nine years--how many years, exactly, has it been?” Raven asked. “Cyl--do you have any idea? Would the Elves know the exact number of years?”

“I suppose if one counted the reigns of the seven Elvenkings, up to Everence, you could find the exact number,” replied the Elf. “The battle was fought, interestingly enough, in the nine thousandth nine hundredth and ninety-ninth year of the reign of the first Elvenking.”

That number again, thought Doremi. There was something very mystical--and very creepy going on, she suspected.

“Eh, Elves don’t live that long!” Fosmo exclaimed.

Cyllindrethifl looked hard at him. “In the beginning, we did. Only after She-Who-Is-Not-Named betrayed us, did we become mortal like you.”

“Who’s that yer talkin’ about, eh?”

“Cyl, can you count them up and figure it out?” Raven broke in.

The Elf ignored Fosmo’s question to answer Raven’s.

“I don’t know the exact number of years each king reigned, Raven. I can’t give you a better figure than what we all know--that it was about ten thousand years ago that Gorus, Serpen and Baltarus were defeated.”

“You’re a priestess of Dellendryll, and you don’t know how many seasons your seven kings ruled?!” Raven asked, incredulous.

The Elf stiffened, a bit embarrassed. “Well--I had other things I needed to learn,” she responded. “Besides, we Elves don’t think in terms like that. I only consciously know my own age because you insisted I count the seasons up because you wanted to know it!”

Raven gave up on her and turned away. “Doremi, do you know?” she now asked.

The Bard shook her head. “Don’t the Krellans keep good records?” she spoke. “Wouldn’t they know?”

Raven shook her head. “They keep good records, but they’re bad at calendars, so I have no way of figuring it out from them. Torrencia didn’t even have its own calendar until two hundred seasons ago,” she noted, glancing to the Knight, “so I guess we just aren’t going to know for sure. I’ll bet the Dwarves know, though--they never forget a wrong done to them! Too bad there aren’t any Dwarves in this group.”

Thor looked over with a frustrated frown that he had so obviously not been even given the courtesy of being asked the question.

“Why don’t you just ask a Scandian?” he retorted.


“You think we’re too barbaric to count?” he asked Raven. “From what you call the First Age, I have had one hundred and sixty-seven fathers before me, and I can tell you exactly how long each one lived, and what deeds he did. We Scandians always pass our tales and traditions down to the next generation.”

“So you know exactly how many years have passed since the year they defeated Gorus?” Raven asked excitedly. “You’re sure?”

Thor nodded. “Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-two seasons.”

“And if you add seven to that...,” Doremi muttered.

“Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine,” Raven finished the sentence.

As he listened, Nostradamus suddenly became very cold and felt very alone. He hadn’t thought about the Pact since his days as a young Wizard, for as the Elf had said, the traditional view of the Sages was that the Pact was to last forever, and not much thought had been given to it beyond its being a part of ancient lore.

Now he wasn’t so sure.

But whatever the case, once tonight’s events reached their climax, time would mean nothing.

“Let’s just trust that’s a good omen for us,” Raven spoke.

“I hope so,” Romulus muttered. “The gods know if we don’t get some extra help from somewhere.”

“Meaning what?” Raven demanded, whipping her head around toward him.

Sensing that the time had come to air out some things, Romulus glared down at her.

“Meaning that one Liche back there gave us a devil of a time. We only killed him off because Nightshadow got to him, and the first thing your Witches did when he actually cast at them was to run! These Witches of yours, whose spells are supposed to be ‘devastating to undead’, couldn’t do more than give him a scratch--and when that was the best they could do, they turned tail and ran!”

Both Cyllindrethifl and Espidreen exploded at his charge, but Raven cut them off with a raise of her hand.

“Did we kill the Liche, Romulus? Did we kill the vampire, Romulus?”

“Yes--we managed to kill those two single creatures in individual fights. But what if the two of them had fought together? Or what if that Liche had brought along a second Liche to help out?”

What if? What if? There weren’t two of them; there was one!”

“So what if we run into the other eleven Liches up there? What do we do if they and Nostradamus hit at us at once? We can’t take out two of those things at once, let alone twelve! What if they’re not holed up in the Throne room waiting for Nightshadow to walk in and kill them for us, like you think? What if they all materialized inside this room right now and cut loose at us? All we’re doing is marching to our death. A coordinated attack by eleven of these things--with Nostradamus--is too powerful for us to survive, and you’re too stubborn to admit it!”

That comment finally set Raven off.

“I will not have that defeatist talk in my presence!” she hissed in a low voice. “Two more hours and Nostradamus will be dead, so instead of spending all your time worrying about his power--maybe he should spend his time worrying about mine!”

Furious, she whirled about, a ball of plasma appearing in her palm. Then--in a rage--she hurled it toward the northern wall. It impacted with a tremendous explosion so large that the group was nearly thrown off its feet by the blast--and fully a quarter of the wall was actually blown out as the blocks of stone flew out into the night, followed by the flash of the explosion!

Above, the Liche lurched as if he’d been punched, and instantly he called upon the power of his throne.

The blocks of stone and the shards of glass immediately halted in mid-flight and snapped backward, becoming whole again as if the wall had healed its own wound!

Within the temple, the entire group--instinctively hunched down from the blast--slowly returned to their feet in utter shock as they gazed upon the restored temple wall.

Even Raven, who hadn’t moved an inch, stood there agape for a moment.

It was Cyllindrethifl who finally broke the silence by saying, “We have greatly underestimated the power of this place.”

Doremi, standing behind Raven, saw the hood move slightly as if the Mistress of Freeport momentarily turned her head toward the Elf, but then she returned the wakizashi to her right hand and began striding east.

“Come on,” she ordered, making no further comment.

Nightshadow and Thor looked at each other, then began following. There was no question what they were going to do. Giles, too, didn’t hesitate, and moved eastward the last few yards to the portal leading into the tower.

The women weren’t quite as enthusiastic. The two Witches simply looked back and forth at each other, hesitating. Doremi, meanwhile just stood there, hoping the group could come to some sort of consensus that would permit at least some of them--including her--to flee this place while they could. The Gladiator, as if his point had been made, was standing there like a statue, while Fosmo remained by the ladies he was detailed to guard, waiting for them to move.

Raven sensed not everyone was following, and so she paused, turning back to the stragglers.

“You coming, or not?” she demanded, giving them an icy stare.

She didn’t say it, but something in her demeanor left the Bard with the impression that the words, “but if you go, you better pray I die in here,” would have been the right footnote to the question.

The two Witches now locked eyes, each seemingly wanting to take her cue from the other. Then the choice was made, and both apprehensively began to move toward their mistress.

Ultimately she and Cyllindrethifl may have came to the same conclusion as Doremi about Raven’s demeanor. Or, they may have decided it was simply more dangerous to go back than to press forward. Or, they may have found some courage they didn’t know they had.

Whatever the case, they were going on.

Their decision answered the question for Doremi as well, so she--with Fosmo--unenthusiastically fell in behind as well.

“Now who’s the coward?” Espidreen could be overheard muttering as she passed the Gladiator.

Romulus may have been proud. He may have been stubborn. But one thing he wasn’t, was stupid. If Nostradamus knew they were there--which he supposed was the case--he knew he’d never make it back to the ship alive by himself unless the Liche was going to let him do so, and Nostradamus wasn’t exactly known for his compassion.

And so, as he expelled a frustrated breath, the Gladiator’s body relaxed and he swallowed his pride only because he realized his best hope of survival, slim as it was, was to go on and hope that the final moves in this game would play out the way Raven had predicted.

Romulus deliberately avoided making eye contact with the Mistress of Freeport as he came forward--but she knew that she had won.

Saying nothing further, Raven pivoted about and thrust her way to the fore of the group, anxious to lead the way on.

The last barrier to Nostradamus’ tower now rose before them: a great circular portal of brass over twenty feet high made of a series of leaves that spiraled together until they locked into place, barring passage.

The portal was set into a frieze of black marble that shamed even raven’s fireplace. It took the form of a huge bat-winged female whose fanged smile leered out toward onlookers as a clawed hand stretched out as if calling the portal into existence through her sorcery. A host of bats and bat-like demons, meanwhile, swarmed about her as if she was a mother hen and they were her children.

“Gods, wha’ a horrible lookin’ thing, eh!” Fosmo whispered. “I’d hate t’ meet her on a dark an’ dreary night!”

“Lilith,” Espidreen whispered nervously. “Queen of Hell, consort of You-Know-Who, goddess of succubi, and mother of all vampires.”

Raven’s eyes flew open, and she suddenly turned to the Witch. “Could Arcana have been a Lilithian vampire, Espy?” she demanded.

Espidreen shook her head. “The sunlight from your spell hurt her, so no, Raven.”

Thank goodness, Doremi thought! She was aware of the legend that dated from the First Age, that the demoness had spawned a race of super vampires that could exist even in the sunlight, and it was from these titans that the normal vampires had come from. Fortunately they had been few in number, and all had been slain with the Triad.

What a horrifying thought if they still existed.

“They say Lilith is gone now, you know,” Espidreen continued, looking up to the figure.

“What happened to her?” Thor questioned the Witch.

“No one knows for certain, Thor,” she replied. “There’s talk she turned against and led a rebellion against You-Know-Who, and he destroyed her--or else banished she and her followers into the darkest reaches of Hell. Some say that Goth--who was devoted to her--convinced Serpen to follow her, and the Triad started to fracture at that point, allowing the Elves to eventually defeat it. But those are all just legends; no one knows for sure. We only know that she has no followers and no power any more. The Lilithian vampires that weren’t slain in the battles died when she did.”

An inscription wound its way round the rim of the portal, and Raven asked for its meaning.

“A prayer, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl responded. “An invocation to You-Know-Who--or to her--to grant entrance beyond.”

“Speak it out, Cyl,” Raven ordered.

“I will not!” the Elf replied, and that was that.

Irritated, Raven now looked to the other Witch. “Espy?”

Espidreen--less than enthusiastic--drew in a breath and then spoke.

O Eternal One, whose name I am unworthy to speak, grant your slave leave to enter the place wherein you dwell,” she spoke in an ancient Hocwrathian tongue.

If it was possible, the entire room gave a spiritual shudder as the incantation worked its magic, and a low rumbling began as the floor beneath them began to tremble followed by the sound of metal grinding against metal as the leaves began to part, folding up into the stonework. The power emanating from the other side was even more palpable than the evil they felt from the temple alone, and in moments the portal was open, beckoning them to pass beyond if they dared.

Light flooded into the temple from the open doorway, and before them lay Nostradamus’ tower in all its glory.

For a moment, no one spoke, and to say they were awed was an understatement. The Fellowship were shocked, for what met their eyes was a vast hollow cube with what looked to be a gigantic stalagmite soaring from the floor of the chamber to its very topmost level, two hundred and fifty feet above.

An eerie sort of power surged through it like electricity, for they beheld shimmering tendrils of red plasma flowing from the base, up the trunk of the stalagmite. Like the branches of some wicked tree, bridges and causeways spread forth from the trunk to structures within the cube, large and small, that seemingly floated in space through the power of whatever force gave life to this place.

“So that’s where they live,” Raven noted quietly, taking in the scene.

“Is it my imagination, or is this place bigger on the inside than it is on the outside?” the Gladiator questioned.

“I believe you’re right, Romulus,” Cyllindrethifl answered.

“What is that energy field about that rock?” Raven wondered aloud.

The Elf continued looking the place over for a few moments and then answered.

“It reminds me of a perverted copy of Talon, with that rock formation and the bridges that make branches out from it. As Talon takes its nourishment from the Realm of Faerie, where Brigit is, this abomination takes its power from Hell. That is the power that keeps this whole place alive...the power that keeps Nostradamus alive....”

“That’s why he can’t leave the Throne room!” Raven concluded.

Then she took a few steps in, craning her head up to look to the top of the tower. The stalagmite, she observed, protruded through a circular hole far above, in the floor of the uppermost level. Within its hollow shell were the stairs that would take them up to the end of their quest.

A long climb it would be.

The Mistress of Freeport now sheathed the wakizashi.

“Doremi,” she called out, “my bow, please.”

Quickly, the Bard unslung her pack and untied the bow, handing it to Raven, who drew an arrow from her belt quiver and nocked it.

“All right,” Raven next spoke as Doremi re-donned the pack, “final marching order: Nightshadow, you’re fifty feet ahead of us. You’re going to lead the way up to wherever that giant stairway goes. Once you get to the top, we’ll remain in the safety of the stairway until you check it out for enemies. Make certain it’s empty!”

Nightshadow slowly nodded and gazed up to the top of the tower. “Understood.”

“Thor,” Raven continued, “you’re next in line. The rest of us are ten feet behind you. Romulus and Giles--you’re at the back of the group. Keep on guard for enemies shifting behind us to attack!”

Thor removed the loop of his hammer from about his wrist as Nightshadow limped forward.

Mjolnir,” he spoke, addressing his hammer as he raised it to his eyes, “your time has come. Speed well!”

That said, he waited for Nightshadow to advance fifteen yards in front of him, then fell into line behind.

As the maps in the Athenaeum had shown, the entrance to the stalagmite’s stairs was visible in its base. The Fellowship wasted no time crossing to it and entered to mount the large square staircase crafted into the walls. Then they began the long ascent with Nightshadow leading the way far enough ahead of the party to keep the majority safe from any sudden attack.

They will be with you shortly, Nostradamus spoke into the minds of those gathered at the top level of the tower. Prepare yourselves. Conclave--attack when they are all in the room. Do not hurt that Bard under any circumstances; I need her alive! Only use spells targeting individuals. Hit those Witches and prevent them from casting!

Gypsies, you will attack after they all have been sufficiently weakened by the Conclave. Your task is to finish off everyone other than Nightshadow and the Bard.

His final orders given, Nostradamus anxiously held his peace, waiting for the trap to spring.

Higher and higher the Fellowship climbed, ignoring landings to other areas as they spiraled up within the hollow stalagmite. Legs straining, they ascended for nearly half an hour, and then at last they approached the very top of the tower.

As they’d seen from below, the stalagmite protruded up through the floor. It was encircled by a railing except for where a path led out from the stairwell into the chamber proper.

It was here that Nightshadow finally emerged in the center of a vast darkened area.

Shadows filled the vast chamber whose walls were pocketed with innumerable alcoves barely visible in the darkness beyond the range of the Rogue’s locket. These housed statuary dedicated to the past Schoolmasters who represented ten thousand years of Wizardry and ten thousand years of Masters who had lorded over this School, developing the science of Magic.

Their next destination was visible in the eastern wall of the chamber next to a portal generator: two mammoth double doors inlaid with silver filigree that were set into a frieze once again depicting the faceless beast Serpen.

Before the doors, standing upon a marble base as if guarding the way forward, was a statue depicting a short, pot-bellied man with thick, slicked-back hair (but with a receding hair line), dressed in the robes of a Wizard and holding onto a gnarled staff.

It was Nostradamus as he had been in life--ordinary, non-intimidating, and even unimpressive in appearance.

Not so much as the sound of a rat scurrying about came to the Rogue’s ears as he paused at the stairwell, peering left and right as he tried to see or sense any enemies lost in the shadows. The chamber’s distant walls, barely perceptible in the light from his locket, vanished into total darkness as they swept upward to the vaulted ceiling overhead.

There wasn’t so much as even a slight movement of the thick, heavy air up here, and for a moment Nightshadow had the nervous feeling they would continue on to the Throne room to find it deserted like most of the rest of this complex.

What then?

He didn’t want to even imagine what they’d do in that eventuality, and so he cautiously took a step inside, continuing to listen. There was still no sound other than his own beating heart, and the Rogue now began to investigate the room. Quickly--head constantly turning to scan every direction--Nightshadow made a circular transit of most of the chamber. Like a cat on the prowl, his senses were tuned to their highest pitch as he sought for any sign of a trap. Once, he thought he might have heard the slight sound of rustling garments, as if someone right ahead was moving about unseen. But as he paused and looked, he saw nothing, nor did he hear the sound again.

This was some sort of temple, he speculated. When he neared the chamber’s western side, he realized it must have been to Lilith, for there was a great statue of her in a niche behind a large altar. The Rogue continued his examination of the area, and eventually he was satisfied that this chamber was as empty as the temple below, so he returned to his starting point, descending the stairs until he reached the party, who were grouped together a few yards beneath the exit, regaining their strength from the long climb.

“Looks empty,” he whispered, looking down at them from a few steps above. “A big temple of some sort, over fifty feet tall. There are alcoves in the walls, some with statues in them, and some without. I thought I might have heard a noise, but I think it was nothing. There are two big doors leading east, and an altar against the western wall.”

“Do the alcoves go up to the ceiling?” Raven asked quietly.

“Far as I can tell, yes.”

The Mistress of Freeport nodded. Then she began making a fist and then opening her left hand three times, ending by sticking out two fingers. It was clearly some sort of code Doremi didn’t know, and she wanted to ask what it meant--but Raven immediately spoke up before she could.

“Nightshadow, lead on--we’ll keep the same marching order until we reach the next area.”

The Rogue made a nod and started climbing back up to the Gallery. Again he paused at the exit, listening one last time, then he began trudging eastward toward the two great doors.

Nostradamus was now looking down on the temple from overhead, watching with delight as the first of his victims, thinking the real danger was still someplace ahead, began moving into the maw of the waiting lion.

Thor was next to emerge from the stairway, carefully following Nightshadow from a distance as Raven and Cyllindrethifl made their way out behind him.

All the Gypsies, and all the hidden Conclave, saw them clearly--and readied themselves.

But Nostradamus saw only Nightshadow.

Doremi and Espidreen next exited, and then the remaining three men filed in behind, all following Nightshadow as he led the way toward the eastern portals.

Slowly, but confidently, the group advanced until the last of them was a good twenty feet from the stalagmite...

And then the battle was on!

Energy bolts, ether balls, shadow darts, and lightning bolts suddenly began raining down on the Fellowship from both sides of the room as the enemy sprang into action.

It was an ambush!

The Conclave, waiting all night, had secreted themselves in some of the alcoves along both the northern and southern walls of the chamber, high above the ground, safely isolating themselves from any attackers without a way to fly up to them. Now, with the enemy in sight below, they were loosing the most powerful spells they had that could kill selected targets--starting with the Witches, who alone posed a threat with their accursed sunlight spells.

Four energy bolts streaked down, exploding about Raven’s face and chest, and their effect was immediate: the Mistress of Freeport dropped like a rock, the bow flying from her hands as another Liche’s ether ball sucked Espidreen to her death. Meanwhile, a shadow dart, together with three energy bolts, hit Cyllindrethifl, throwing the Elf to the floor atop her mistress--and the helpless duo lay there, either unconscious or dead. Finally, a lightning bolt from another of the Conclave fried Thor in his tracks, and the Viking spun around, collapsing to his knees as his limbs gave way from the sheer power of the electricity surging through them.

Victory was theirs! The enemy spell-casters had been vanquished and now no one was left who could threaten any of them with spells!

Nostradamus, however, thought they had gone mad--for they were firing at an empty floor!

Then he realized the truth.

“It’s an illusion, you fools!” his voice rang out through the chamber.

But the warning came too late as the fake intruders, reacting to the spells thrown down at them, vanished with the Conclave’s wasted opening volley.

A sunburst now shot out from the darkened entry of the stalagmite, exploding at the upper level of the far wall. Then Cyllindrethifl jumped out stairwell to hurl a second sunburst at the Liches hidden along the southern wall.

A moment after the Elf’s sunburst faded out, Faire-chlaidh-ceol rang out through the chamber, wracking every Liche in the room with a necromantic bell!

Doremi hadn’t specifically been in on the plan, but as they neared the top of the stalagmite, Espidreen had reached over to grab the Bard by the arm as she put a finger to her lips to warn everyone to keep silent. Raven, in front of them, then began concentrating, bringing the illusion into being, and out stepped the false party to draw any enemies that might have been there into wasting their attacks on a mere phantasm.

The strategy had succeeded brilliantly: The Liches had fallen for the ploy and their error had now given the advantage and momentum to the wrong side at the worst possible time.

Out had come the party’s first two attack spells from the Witches. And being smart enough to know that continuous damage would prevent any Wizard from casting, Doremi rushed to play her own necromantic bell, timing the strike of the lute to occur just after Cyllindrethifl’s sunburst was spent.

Back in the Throne room, Nostradamus realized the peril that his unbeatable Conclave was now in: they had totally wasted their opening attack, and now the enemy had the advantage of the first effective strike. If some strategy wasn’t found immediately, there was a very real possibility the entire Conclave would be defeated by sunbursts before they could recover and retaliate with their own spells!

“They’ve tricked you!” Nostradamus shouted out in the chamber. “Defend yourselves however you must!”

The real Thor, teeth gnashed together in rage, now charged out the stalagmite toward the opposite wall, hurling his hammer up at a darkened alcove from where he’d seen the shaft of lightning come down at his imaginary counterpart. Crackling with electricity, the hammer struck with a lightning bolt of its own, a clap of thunder ringing out in the hollow as the area was bathed in a blue glow from the electricity delivered to the hidden Liche. The glow lasted only a moment and then vanished as Mjolnir came flying back toward its owner.

As the hammer left the alcove, it was followed by the desiccated body of a Liche that tumbled out onto the floor of the chamber below.

The second member of the Conclave had now fallen.

“Spirits, attack!” Nostradamus’ voice now echoed throughout the chamber again.

At his command, the next wave now made its appearance from the very top of the chamber where they had waited months for this one task: a host of undead spirits--too many to count--swept down into the chamber beneath, heedless of everything else but for the one single victim they’d been reserved for...


Before he could even realize what was befalling him, the Rogue was surrounded by a host of spectres, wraiths, shadows, fetches, shades--every possible life-draining spirit that Nostradamus could conjure up, create, or spare from duty down in the catacombs. Literally hundreds of the undead beasts swarmed in on their lone target, each trying to claw at him, each trying to drain the life from him--and each spirit getting stronger with every touch they made against his person!

Nightshadow began swinging for all he was worth, slaying one of the transparent figures with each strike--but there were simply too many. For each spirit he killed, ten tried to take its place! The Mind Sapphire was glowing nearly as brightly as his locket from the energy it expended as the spirits drained the life from their victim. But not even Nightshadow could withstand so many attackers, and in a few moments he was helplessly cocooned in a translucent shroud of spirits sucking the life from him.

Back at the landing, Raven saw Nightshadow’s predicament. Just as quickly, she realized that the attack could be broken in a single moment with one well-placed sun globe targeting the Rogue. Even so, her defense strategy required her to place a sun globe about the group for protection before doing anything further, and thus she began to cast, trusting that Nightshadow could hold on.

Espidreen, moving up to her side, kept up her own pre-determined strategy, invoking a second sunburst at the far wall as soon as she ended the first, in a desperate race to keep the Liches on the northern wall out of the fight.

This whole battle plan, in fact, was no spur-of-the-moment strategy worked out spontaneously on the climb up here; it was one of many strategies the key members of the group had developed months earlier, testing it in the underground training areas beneath Freeport usually reserved for Raven’s Assassins. Now that strategy and the training for it had paid off, for the Liches had taken two full sunbursts, with the bonus of some necromantic bells, without being able to respond. The Hisses of pain from the tormented creatures trapped in their positions of supposed safety told the story: the throat of the Conclave, stuck in a consecution of attacks they could not break, was at the point of a dagger--and the three Witches and one Bard were about to make the final draw without some miracle happening to stop them.

Then the miracle came.

From one of the alcoves, a ball of plasma shot downward, exploding into an energy blast on the landing before the stairwell.

It was the Gypsy, Nostradamus realized, and she had actually done something useful!

Her attack suddenly reminded the Lord of the First School that he still had a hidden force available no matter how much disdain he may have had for them--and, like the pawns in a chess game, they could now be sacrificed to protect the power pieces for the one precious moment they needed.

“Gypsies, attack--kill those Witches!” the Liche ordered.

As Sonja’s spell went off, the three Witches lost their concentration as the spell erupted around them--but fortunately the weak energy blast hadn’t killed anyone outright.

But one thing was certain: no one had time to try and figure out how one of the Liches had managed to get a spell off, for now the pendulum had swung the other way and the Conclave would seek vengeance. The Fellowship needed to recover, and recover fast!

The group’s advantage gone, the females were now faced with a tough choice: ignore their wounds and try to cast, risking death if the enemy got off one more good attack, or go for a healing elixir and perhaps lose all momentum in the fight while the Liches gained and kept the upper hand.

But then Nostradamus’ command to the Gypsies made all that moot.

Out of nowhere, from all parts of the room, invisible human attackers began appearing and running toward them, blades at the ready.

Now it was the Fellowship that was at the point of destruction if something wasn’t done.

The warriors answered the call: Romulus, Giles, and even Fosmo grouped together as a human shield before the landing, placing themselves between Cyllindrethifl, Espidreen and the onrushing attackers while Raven--who had ventured a few feet inside the chamber--stood her ground as she herself was attacked, maneuvering her body in a move reminiscent of Arcana’s, forcing a Gypsy’s scimitar to strike only air.

Then she locked her hands about his arm and fell back to the ground, pulling her enemy forward as her legs pushed to leverage him up.

With a scream, the Gypsy tumbled over the railing toward the ground hundreds of feet below.

Continuing the move, Raven kicked her legs out and was suddenly on her feet again, wrenching the wakizashi out of its sheath and over her right shoulder as she twisted its handle and exhaled.

Instantly, a stream of glowing red dust spewed forth toward a big, bald-headed Gypsy rushing in for his own swing.

Shrieking in pain, the Gypsy dropped his blade and stopped in mid-charge as his hands went to his face--which had melted away like it had been dipped in acid!

A dagger followed after the dust, embedding itself in the man’s chest, and the Gypsy dropped as Raven let go the wakizashi to draw the katana.

Across the room, meanwhile, two Gypsies came at Thor as the hammer returned to his hand.

Eager to greet them, the Scandian charged forward, whipping his shield into one of the garishly-dressed enemies, throwing him back from the force of the blow as he swung Mjolnir into the face of the second.

That Gypsy’s head exploded into a bloody pulp.

The other enemy, recovering and moving back with the speed of a striking serpent, managed to duck under the shield and strike with an envenomed dagger, drawing it across the Scandian’s side.

That was his one successful blow as the Viking reacted and drove him back into a wall, pinning him there with the shield as the hammer struck the Gypsy’s face.

The breath knocked out of him, the Gypsy went down for good as the hammer hit his head a second time, drenching his white linen shirt red with his own blood.

A normal man would now be dead from the venom used against him, but Thor’s massive body and iron constitution kept him up long enough to go for an elixir even as his extremities turned numb. Still holding onto the shield, he fumbled with his belt pouch as he twisted and turned, assuring that no other attackers were coming his way.

Back in the stairwell, Doremi realized the peril they were all in and turned to strumming necromantic bells as fast as she could, trying to take up the slack as the two Witches in front of her were forced to abandon casting and re-position themselves to avoid the sudden onrush of Gypsies trying to overbear the swordsmen and get at them. Unfortunately, the power of her spell, muffled as it was from playing it inside the stairwell, wasn’t working with full efficiency, and two of the Conclave managed to endure its affects and still act.

Energy bolts--the quickest thing Liches could cast--shot down toward the now-exposed Witches. One struck Cyllindrethifl in the left arm like the blow from a mace, but she remained on her feet despite a second that struck her in the chest. The other attacker hit Espidreen in the leg with an energy bolt and his next exploded in her face, causing the Witch to see stars as she nearly went over the railing while urgently trying to retrieve an elixir from her belt.

Heeding the Liche’s call, one of the Gypsies ducked under Giles’ shield and lunged past, trying to kiss the Elf with his envenomed dagger. Already injured from two spells, there was no time to cast and instinctively Cyllindrethifl whipped off her cloak, hurling it in his face as she backed up to put distance between them.

In mid-flight, the cloak transformed itself into a host of angry kittens that stopped the Gypsy in his tracks as they latched onto him, clawing and biting at every part they could reach! A moment later, after she’d re-focused her concentration, an energy bolt in the face finished him off and the cats vanished, the cloak returning to its normal form. Quickly, the Druid-Witch reached down to retrieve it, swinging it back upon her shoulders as she likewise went for an elixir.

Of the warriors battling the Gypsies who charged them, Fosmo was actually the most impressive as his long rapier, moving like lightning, impaled the first Gypsy to come within five feet, then the Cutpurse pulled it free and spun around to parry a second attacker’s dagger thrust. That done, he lunged forward, his dagger laying the Gypsy’s throat in a blur of speed. Fosmo then backed away, finishing him off with the rapier as he looked back for a moment to verify the women were all right.

A third attacker, materializing from the side, went for a surprise attack, but Fosmo caught the movement from the corner of his eye and made an underhanded toss of the dagger, impaling it in the man’s throat as he twisted to duck a fourth attacker’s scimitar. Then he pivoted back, ducking, to drive the rapier into the attacker’s side, skewering the Gypsy. Both men froze there a moment as the Gypsy choked on his own blood, then Fosmo pulled free the blade and his enemy collapsed to the ground.

Romulus, half naked in his Gladiatorial armor, might have seemed to be the most vulnerable of the heroes, but the big Gladiator moved his small shield like lightning, parrying two or three attacks at once while his gladius thrust toward his enemies with the speed of a dagger and the strength of a bull. No Gypsy’s blade even came close to scratching him before his enemies lay dead with their fellows!

It was indeed a pretty intense fight down at the landing, but determined as some of the Gypsies were to get to the two Witches, Raven seemed to be the preferred target of others.

Four new attackers rushed her from three different directions, the first making a wild roundhouse slash with a scimitar as he reached her. Ducking easily, the blow missed and the Mistress of Freeport then sprang into the air behind him, whipping the katana toward the enemy as she came down, adding her body weight to the swing for extra power.

The Gypsy screamed and dropped as the blade ripped across his back, severing the tendons in his neck. Then he was down.

The second was right there to pick up where his fallen mate had left off, thrusting a poisoned gladius at her from the side, but she spun around, again forcing the blow to fail, and a leaded heel shot out and broke one of the attacker’s kneecaps as the katana nearly severed an arm.

By the time he hit the ground, he was already dead from two more slashes.

The third attacker halted, hunching down and waiting for a double-team, but Raven wasn’t waiting, and charged straight at him.

The Gypsy, realizing he was hopelessly outclassed, desperately went on the defensive, backing up while trying to parry, but his blade snapped as she struck it. Another lightning-fast attack then opened him up from his waist to his right shoulder as he spun around, vainly trying to dodge.

The katana ended the fight by thrusting into a kidney as he went down.

The fourth attacker, a swarthy, dark-eyed Gypsy named Illya, came in slowly behind his fallen comrade, two daggers ready, as Raven spotted him and drew the katana around and up to the right side of her head in a defensive stance. Illya was the highest ranking male in the band, the smartest, and the most skilled with a blade. He knew how dangerous his opponent was, and he was determined to battle on his terms, not hers.

Slowly, the Mistress of Freeport backed toward the railing as the Gypsy followed like a cat waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Illya wasn’t going to make the mistake of the others, and his body was both tense and loose at the same time as he and Raven did a dance in unison, each keeping their weight on their back feet and adjusting their weapons to the other’s movements as their eyes stayed locked, unblinking, upon one another.

The Gypsy made the first strike, lashing out with his poisoned blades while twisting his body in a dodge. With luck, he would break her choreographed movements and force her into some defensive motion allowing him to close for the kill and still avoid the deadly katana when she struck back. The Nostradamus-made poison was all he needed--even a scratch would spell her doom.

It was a stalemate for several moments as his quarry constantly jerked and twisted, forcing the daggers to kiss nothing but air as they moved in arcs and slashes at her. Illya then picked up the pace, lurching forward as his hands became a blur, slashing and striking every direction at the hated enemy who twisted and contorted her upper body like no human he’d ever seen.

But still he missed, and then Illya made his final move, hurling one of the daggers in a gamble it would force her to lose concentration or else reflexively make a block as he lunged in to slash with the other.

Instinctively, the Mistress of Freeport spun to dodge as the blade flew past--then continued, whipping her right leg about in a great circle as she leaned back and did a pirouette, the toe of her boot connecting with the left side of Illya’s face, leaving behind a deep gash in his tan flesh.

The move took the big Gypsy completely by surprise and nearly stunned him as she repeated the move, kicking his face a second time with the flat of her foot.

The force of that attack caused the dagger to fly from his hands as he flew back and fell over the side of the railing.

By sheer luck, a flailing arm managed to grasp hold of the railing, and Illya spun about to lock another hand upon it, saving him from falling as he hung there trying to find a foothold for balance, hundreds of feet above the floor of the tower.

There weren’t any, and though the Gypsy may have been big, Illya could still move like an acrobat, and was about to swing his body up and over the railing, hoping he could avoid the enemy’s katana until he could continue the fight.

Then he froze, meeting Raven’s cold gaze as she stared down from above the railing.

Her eyes would be the last thing he would ever see before she brought the razor-sharp katana down upon his hands.

During all this, Doremi had been playing unopposed, but from one of the alcoves came more help for the Conclave: a will O’ the wisp suddenly flew down into the stairwell and hit the Bard with a bolt of lightning, interrupting her playing.

That was what the Liches had been waiting for, and those who didn’t heal themselves immediately began launching energy bolts.

Some struck the two Witches even as the fighters dispatched the last Gypsy attackers--but most of the Conclave couldn’t resist the tempting target of the Mistress of Freeport herself.

As she turned from Illya, five bolts of energy struck Raven solidly in the chest, arm and shoulders, driving her backward into the railing and nearly knocking her senseless as she instinctively reached down for an elixir. Then a sixth, from the same alcove the energy blast and will O’ the wisp had come, hit her square in the face and down she went, falling limply to the floor, face first.

When she hit the ground, she didn’t move.

Sensing victory, one of the Conclave acted to finish the enemy leader off once and for all, and an ether ball streaked out of an alcove straight toward Raven’s body for the final blow.

Only Cyllindrethifl could stop it.

Ignoring her own pain, the Elf leapt past Giles, pulling out the right side of her cloak as she took position before the body of her fallen mistress.

In shot the ether ball, vanishing, and the Witch pivoted back toward the direction the attack had come from.

The ether ball then shot back out from the folds of the cloak straight for its caster!

Trapped in the narrow alcove, the Liche who cast the spell brought its bony hands up to its face as it vainly tried to duck.

Their sorcery may have protected them against the Fellowship’s ether balls--but they had no protection against their own! There was a ghastly sucking sound as the Liche bent in half and was sucked through to his death from the very spell he had meant for Raven.

More from instinct than intent, meanwhile, Espidreen managed to get a sunburst off at the northern wall before stumbling back into the partial safety of the stairwell where she grasped for yet another elixir.

From inside that stairwell, meanwhile, a blistered Doremi plucked Faire-chlaidh-ceol, enacting her last necromantic bell.

Again came the sound of the lute’s strumming, but not before another ether ball hurtled down from an alcove in the southern wall, this time targeting Cyllindrethifl.

Glimpsing it from the side of her eye, the Elf made a spectacular pirouette, catching it in the folds of her cloak as she whirled round, then she released it toward another attacker’s alcove as she completed the spin.

A second Liche was sucked into the Ethers.

Doremi’s spell may have held off some off the Conclave for one last moment, but then the note faded away and they all began to cast in unison, momentum now solidly on their side.

After downing the elixir, Thor, his Gypsies lying dead, turned and cocked his hand back for a second throw at one of the alcoves--but suddenly the ground beneath his feet became like the claws of some beast, raking his legs like razors as it forced the Scandian to delay his attack as he jumped to exit the affected area.

One of the other Liches, meanwhile, gambled on an all-or-nothing attack, and sent a third ether ball straight down at the Elf.

Once more, the agile Cyllindrethifl caught it in her cloak and sent it flying back into its owner.

With the fall of now a third member of his Conclave, Nostradamus decided he’d had enough of her.

“All of you strike that Elf with energy bolts and kill her now!” he screamed into the chamber.

Had it not been for the heat of battle, who can know what might have happened if Nostradamus had kept silent and allowed the fight to run of its own accord until his side had won? But the order had been given, and even though the Liches had regained the advantage, the Conclave immediately obeyed, half of them interrupting spells they were already in the midst of to resort to energy bolts.

At the same moment, Cyllindrethifl froze, knowing there was absolutely nothing she could do against a host of simultaneous attacks.

Indeed, it did look like the end of the courageous Elf, but neither she nor anyone else realized something important:

Raven wasn’t quite dead.

Knowing how badly she was hurt as she went down, the Mistress of Freeport had forced herself to stay conscious but unmoving on the floor until, despite her wounds, she could muster up enough strength to unleash upon the Conclave the one surprise she’d been holding back for the final conflict with Nostradamus himself.

And so, as she heard the Liche’s command to slay Cyllindrethifl, Raven’s head jerked up as a hand simultaneously flipped off the top of an elixir.

Brigit!” she feebly shouted while simultaneously bringing the elixir to her lips.

At that word, the entire chamber heard Nostradamus scream out at the top of his lungs...

And then the world seemed to end!

Time halted as an explosion unlike any they’d ever seen went off, and every mortal being was blinded by a light so intense it was as if the sun itself had been brought into the room.

It originated from where Raven lay, a globe of effulgent white sunlight that burst forth with an unearthly shriek of Ethereal wind as it pulsed, sending billows of energy rippling in every direction.

In a single instant, the host of spirits engulfing Nightshadow were blasted into nothingness as the first wave of energy engulfed them.

The Liches weren’t as lucky.

Despite the wounds they’d already suffered, they could endure far more damage than spirits, and the Conclave now found themselves battered with wave after wave of sunlight wracking them with hellish torment.

Some threw up their skeletal hands to block their eyes. Others cringed. A few called on their gods. But all of them--with no way of escape--stood trapped in their alcoves, enduring a torment they’d never faced the likes of before.

With the first wave of energy, their robes started to smolder and their parchment-like skin began to flake away. By the time the second wave hit, their skin was gone, leaving behind only the polished white bones that had once borne it.

Yet the spell wore on, wracking the Conclave with one lethal sunburst after another. Long before the enchantment even ended, their hisses of torment vanished as what was left of their skeletons turned to powder and collapsed into heaps within the alcoves that had become their tombs. And as the globe of sunlight finally faded away, allowing the darkness to return, only silence was left inside the Gallery which had now become the Conclave’s crypt.

The Fellowship were so shocked, none of them dared move for several moments as Raven, healed from her elixir, rolled to her feet and scanned the area with blade in hand, listening.

Espidreen, having downed her own elixir, timidly peeped out of the stalagmite, her jaw wide open in shock.

“What was that?” she panted.

Cyllindrethifl, astonished that she was still alive, turned back to her.

“The Twelfth word of Power,” she answered in awe. “Spoken only by the Three!”

“And now we know it!” the Witch exclaimed. “That makes nine of them.”

Cyllindrethifl had no further opportunity to comment, for at that moment came the sound of bones rattling from across the room, and a skeleton tumbled out of an alcove along the northern wall, falling to the flagstone floor.

They were prepared to ignore it, thinking it was dead--but then the pile of bones moved!

Raven and most of the rest immediately bolted for it before the creature could try to cast or escape.

But there was no need.

Thor was first to reach it, hammer ready to finish the Liche off. But as he came upon the creature, he paused, realizing this monster was finished.

What lay there had once been a twentieth-circle Necromancer-Sorcerer like Nostradamus himself.

Now it was nothing more than a quivering pile of bones, garbed in the bedraggled remnants of once-fine robes, at the point of death and unable to defend itself.

The Viking stood over it, staring down at the frail, pathetic monster in its last moments of life.

The others were now joining him and Raven bent down on one knee to the Liche, hand tightly wrapped around the katana’s handle, prepared to end the monster’s misery.

“Where’s Nostradamus?” she asked coldly.

In a last appeal for mercy, the Liche tried to lift its left hand toward the two doors leading east. Then it was over. The hand collapsed to dust, the glowing red orbs of its eyes darkened and faded away, and the bones ceased moving as the Liche died for good.

For a moment, no one spoke. Then Doremi realized something.

“Raven,” the Bard spoke quietly, “this Liche...I think it was Precopius--Nostradamus’ second-in-command. The Conclave--it’s all dead now! He has no Liches left!”

The Mistress of Freeport said nothing in response, but nodded at Doremi’s words as she stood up. That was probably how he had almost survived: Precopius’ power--and the protective items he wore--almost saved him.

Almost, but not quite.

“And these people,” the Bard continued as she looked back to the fallen Gypsy bodies, “--they were the Gypsies who kidnapped me a few months ago.”

She nervously grasped Raven’s arm. “There were two women with them, though--” Doremi went on.

A few yards above the floor, where she was still alive and hiding in the recess of an alcove, Sonja realized this accursed Bard, whom Olga had stubbornly refused to kill when she had the chance, was now going set the victorious enemies on a search for her. It would be only moments before they either found her or cast spells to kill anything left hiding in these alcoves.

Would that she had the power to kill both of them, but fate could only deliver one enemy into her hands--and if that was the case, she knew what she had to do.

And so it was, that Sonja made her decision: Spitting out the cork from a vial she brought to her lips, she turned the container over, pouring its contents upon the blade of the dagger she had drawn from its sheath. Then she concentrated, invoking a shift spell from one of several enchanted amulets about her neck.

“For the Gypsies!” she screamed out the moment before she vanished.

Instinctively, the entire party turned toward the sound of the cry as, in the next instant, Sonja appeared behind Raven and plunged the dagger between her shoulders with both hands!

But the non-magical blade snapped as it cut through her cloak and struck her enchanted leather armor beneath.

The response was immediate: Though the force of the blow drove her forward in pain, instinctively Raven spun to her left, the katana raking across Sonja’s belly as the Mistress of Freeport stepped back and steadied herself, ready for another strike at whomever had attacked her.

It wasn’t necessary.

Sonja, a broken dagger in her hands, stood there looking down at a scarlet band across her middle that spewed blood. Then the Halakah, her mouth open, looked up, gurgling, and, knowing death was a moment away, summoned what strength she had left to expunge a bloody spittle toward the Mistress of Freeport in a last act of contempt.

At that, Raven went berserk.

In sheer rage, the Mistress of Freeport hurled the katana to the ground as she leapt at the Gypsy, hands punching like lightning.

Helpless, Sonja was thrown back against a wall as Raven unleashed a rage Doremi had never seen before, striking the Gypsy again and again in the face with all the strength she had.

Who can say just when she died? But long before the blows ever ended, it was over for her.

Again and again, Raven pummeled the Gypsy, using the force of her own blows to keep the body pinned against the wall.

Sonja’s face was now nothing more than a bloody mess yet still Raven wouldn’t stop. Hurling curses as she screamed her hatred for Gypsies, she kept beating the corpse as if Sonja was still a threat.

Finally Cyllindrethifl tentatively approached.

“Raven, the woman is dead,” she spoke softly as she leaned toward her mistress. “Stop striking her.”

But she didn’t hear or didn’t care, and continued battering the corpse until the Elf reached out with both hands to grab her arm.

“Raven, she’s dead!” Cyllindrethifl exclaimed, trying to break the sequence of attacks. “Stop!”

That brought the Mistress of Freeport out of it, and she looked--wide-eyed--at her as Sonja’s lifeless body collapsed to the ground. For several moments, the Mistress of Freeport just stood there panting, as if she didn’t know who she was or where they were as she gazed, in an almost somnambulistic manner, at the Elf.

The sanity seemed to return as she relaxed and looked down to the corpse lying on the floor, staring at it a moment or two.

Then she made a final kick of the dead Gypsy’s face and was in total control again.

“Doremi, did you say there were two of them?” Raven asked unemotionally as she extended her hand and the katana flew into it from a cantrip.

More frightened by Raven’s outburst than by most of what she’d seen this night, the Bard managed a nod.

“This one--her name was Sonja. There was an old woman who headed the clan. I--don’t see her anywhere.”

“Cyl,” the Mistress of Freeport spoke quietly, “find her if she’s in this room. Find and kill her before I do.”

Unwilling to let Raven face any more Gypsies, the Elf obligingly withdrew a Y-shaped willow twig from a fold of her cloak and concentrated, moving about in a circle as she directed it toward every direction in the room.

“She’s not here, Raven,” came her report after a few moments. “She’s dead in one of those alcoves, escaped, or simply elsewhere.”

“Then prepare to move on,” Raven now ordered as she began walking back to the stairwell to retrieve her dropped weapons.

In what was left of Precopius lay a variety of rings, amulets, and other enchanted items. Fosmo was first to start the process of recovery, and it didn’t take long for most of the rest to join in.

The Liche was quickly on its way to being stripped of everything it treasured.

Cyllindrethifl claimed as her prize a small blue ball of crystal that fit comfortably in the palm of her hand. Suspecting it was an enchanted device for seeing hidden things rather than for use in crystallomancy, she pocketed it for later experimentation.

As Raven began walking, she halted in mid-stride before Romulus, who stood silent a few yards away from the main group.

“You understand now?” Doremi heard her ask in a cold voice as she locked eyes with the Gladiator. “I wanted the Liche to think we were inept!” she exclaimed in a loud voice for Nostradamus’ benefit. “I wanted him to think we weren’t a threat! I wanted him to think we had nothing but Nightshadow to threaten him with--and he fell for it. I suspected--as you did--that he might well realize we were here and set a trap for us, and I used that to our benefit by letting him think we’d be an easy kill. Like all my enemies, he underestimated me.”

She whipped her head back toward the body of Precopius.

“Now look! There’s what’s left of his twelve Liches you were so worried about, Romulus! Now there’s nothing between him and us but those doors over there. Understand now?”

Whether or not the Gladiator was going to respond will never be known, for at that moment the tower seemed to vibrate as the ground below their feet shook.

Everyone--even Raven--gave pause at that point, wondering what this meant. The tower shouldn’t be moving, but they felt it give a shudder.

Nostradamus felt it too.

For hours now, the water and the lava had been flowing through the group’s teleportals down into the Upper School’s front complex, and finally they had met in the halls somewhere far below. But rather than the water solidifying the lava and sealing off the passages between the Upper and lower Schools as they’d planned, an explosion happened! The damage--at least at this point--wasn’t overly significant, but now the Liche’s attention was drawn to what was going on beyond his tower.

Just as startled by the trembling floor as the others, the Lord of the First School instantly let go his focus upon Raven and her group and became one with his School, seeking to discover what the source of the shudder was that he just felt. As he directed his consciousness to the passages leading down to the Lower School, he realized the corridors were filling with water--and molten rock!

Lava and water, he thought! What is this? Where is it coming from?!

He followed the path back to the source of the flows. Then he became aware of the enemies apparently holding the two passages to the Lower School.

Dwarves! And Barbarians! And two Witches! Where did they come from?! They weren’t on that ship. What is it they have there? Some sort of portable teleportals?! We can’t do that--how can they? They’ve somehow infiltrated the School with teleportals and are portalling in water and lava to seal off the Tower!

The Liche now sent his consciousness to check the Black Widow. Still she floated inside the Aerie, with the same two dozen deck hands unmoved from the positions they’d been in the last time he’d looked.

They must all have come from that ship. They must have hidden the teleportals in the hold and carried them into the tower as I spent all my time watching the Witch’s progress! Fool that I am--I’ve let a large force walk unhindered into the very heart of my School!

This game has become too costly. They are too far from the Throne room for me to stop; I must direct my forces to counter-attack now before they do any more damage to the School, and it would be good to summon a few reinforcements.


Even now, with his Conclave lying dead, the Liche had only a passing concern of being slain by the intruders. He was more bothered over the mess being made by them!

First, let us be sure that Throckmorton is still no threat, and we will redirect our forces as needed.

Nostradamus began invoking more power from the throne, sending his consciousness flying past the School, toward Serpenalik in the valley below. It flew as fast as lightning, halting over the Second School as the Liche looked down upon the counterpart to his own complex.

All seemed normal, with no unusual activity.

Good. He still waits to see what will happen. His forces are not prepared for action against me. Now to verify there are no other threats coming in from the mountains, and then we deal with the problem at hand.

The Liche’s consciousness now shot high above the city as he looked down upon the entire region, assuring himself no other forces of Throckmorton’s were attempting to approach the School from another direction.

He saw nothing over land, but then the Liche caught sight of something out to sea, and instantly his view shifted past the coast of Serpenalik.

What are these?! Galleys! Dozens of war galleys headed here!

He flew toward them, stretching the limits of the throne’s power to propel him there, until he was directly over one of the ships, staring down upon a deck covered with armed, enthusiastic-looking Legionnaires.

Legionnaires! Krellan Legionnaires! There must be thousands of them. A whole legion, perhaps.

The Witch tricked me! She isn’t attacking me with a small force--she’s assaulting me with everything she has, including a legion of Krellans! But how? Those Plutocratic swine in the Senate have no stomach to challenge Hocwrath. She must have convinced them--but how?

She must be mad. Even Throckmorton would join forces with me if they attempt to land Krellans in Serpenalik. She must know that. Why is she sacrificing them? They can’t land anywhere except near his School. Once he sees them, he’ll destroy them. Not even to defeat me would he allow an enemy army a foothold in the city. He’s not that stu--

The Liche suddenly broke his concentration and sat up and, for the first time in centuries, terror gripped him as he realized the true scope of the forces that were arrayed against him.

He has joined forces with her, Nostradamus realized! He must have! That’s why they’re risking landing here. He’s offered to join them! Once they defeat me, he’ll turn on what’s left of the Witch and her army and destroy them--but only after they’ve destroyed the School!

His mind now began grasping the significance of the force he faced as every possible defensive strategy went through his head--all with the same unacceptable results.

My mercenaries are no match for Legionnaires--the heart will leave them at the first sight of an entire legion ascending toward them! And my School cannot possibly defeat Nightshadow, Throckmorton and his School, and a legion of Krellans! They have out-maneuvered me! I cannot win this!

Just as quickly, the Liche’s mind formulated a new plan, and he regained control. is still time. It will take them at least two or three hours to land and get up here. If I can slay Nightshadow and retrieve the Mind Sapphire, I can still defeat them. Then the souls of that very army will power the Sapphire. Yes, there is still time. But I must end this siege, and end it now! I must dispel the enchantments around the Upper School so my Masters can portal in reinforcements.

No sooner had Nostradamus thought that, then his mind interrupted that plan by speculating on how his enemy could possibly make use of it, and immediately the Liche paused, clenching its fists in rage.

No--that’s what they want, he decided! The moment I break the enchantments, Throckmorton will portal in his own reinforcements to supplement the Dwarves and Barbarians against my own forces. That, or portal his own Masters directly into my Throne room! That's why there is no activity in the School--his Masters are with him, preparing to attack me! With my Conclave gone, they’ll join with the Witch and assault me while my own forces are still fighting to get up here. It’s precisely the sort of strategy he’d use: let someone else risk their lives and clear the way for him, then send his own forces in, to minimize their losses.

Almost, Throckmorton, almost you tricked me. But not quite, and--wait! The Gypsy!

The Liche began to laugh.

As that accursed Gypsy showed, your School--not mine--shall be the one to fall tonight. I am assured of that. Therefore, I am assured of victory no matter what I do. It is now a question of the most effective Gambit to employ...unless the Gypsy was wrong like her mother was.

The thought that Sonja’s skills may not be potent enough to guarantee the accuracy of her fortune-telling again gave the creature pause. Even so, it was a point in his favor. And so, choosing to place his faith--and his fate--in her word, the Liche’s mind ran through a whole different array of strategies, debating which would be the most effective.

I will not disrupt my Potencies, he concluded. But I must have aid. I should have saved one or two of the Conclave. I should at least have preserved that fool Precopius. No matter.

Nostradamus now spoke, his voice carrying to every corner of the School.

“A team of mercenaries has infiltrated the Upper School and is holding both passages to the Lower School. A group of Dwarves hold the main Northern ascent, while a group of Barbarians holds the South. Attack both groups now with summoned creatures. The army, meanwhile, is to scale the palisades separating the Lower and Upper Schools, and finish the intruders off. I otherwise want all Masters and students to make their way to the Upper School from beneath, using alternative ascent routes. The first two Masters whose forces reach the Throne room preserve their lives; the rest die! Move, all of you!”

Down below, the First School sprang to life as thousands began rushing to aid their lord, spurred on by Masters whose lives now depended on how quickly they reached him. They wasted no time, for they had been awaiting the order for battle all night--it was only a question of how long it would take them to reach the Upper School by routes not normally used, and which two Masters would escape Nostradamus’ wrath.

“We have him,” Raven spoke in elation after his words faded away.

“Checkmate, Nostradamus!” she shouted into the air, turning round as if that would help carry her words to the Liche. “They’ll never reach you in time--I’ve sealed your tower off from your own forces! Revenge is ours, Liche! We've waited years for this day. Oh, and don't worry about coming to us--we'll find you!”

Will you now, the Liche thought?

Nostradamus concentrated, sending a telepathic message to his Captain of the Host.

Nabonidas, bring a force of your best warriors into the catacombs and use the portal generator to reach the Throne room. Supplement it with some Priests and Wizards. Hurry, you fool!

Now the intruders would be facing human warriors and wizards backed with the full power of the Lord of the First School, and this fight would go much differently than the last.

But the Liche concluded he needed to buy just a little bit of time.

Nostradamus leaned back in his throne and began to concentrate. Then, from behind the throne, the sound of grating stone flooded the chamber as the floor started to shake. The rumbling lasted almost a full minute until it finally ceased, along with the vibration.

“Come out!” the Liche commanded.

At the other end of the Upper School, the Vikings realized their hour was at hand.

Rolf gazed east, toward the tower from which the voice had come. Thor, he was certain, was at the point of slaying the Liche, and the monster was now desperate for aid.

He and his men would assure that aid would never come.

Out into the court!” he shouted, sweeping his sword upward.

Shouting exuberantly, the Vikings now poured out of the stairwell as Rolf halted at the head of the stairs, seeking for the smallest member of the band. When he emerged from the shadows, the big Viking strode toward him.

The red-bearded Scandian, no more than five feet-four inches tall, but with muscles like iron bands, caught sight of him and stiffened as their eyes, unblinking, met each other’s gaze. Oblivious to anything else happening, neither spoke for a moment, and then Rolf reached forward to grasp the man by the neck with his right hand, pulling him to within inches of his face.

Jon, you are the smallest of us,” he spoke loudly enough for all of them to hear, “but you are the swiftest, and always first to reach battle. Lead us now, and we will follow!”

A cheer erupted as Rolf released Jon, his eyes seeking for another of his men. Ronessa, who had joined them earlier, found this a strange way to prepare for battle as she tried to make her way to a good position against the wall of the Aerie through a forest of Vikings.

Olaf,” Rolf now shouted to another, “I grew up hearing tales of your father’s battles. Show me now that his blood runs through your veins and I will sing songs of you to my own sons!

Before the cheer died down, Rolf was speaking again.

Sten--twice you have saved my life in battle. Stand with me now, and let our blades strike as one!

Arn--you are the greatest warrior of Narwhal Clan, and there are none in Fire Clan who can stand up to you! Show the honor of your Clan now!

Bjorn--just strike the right back!”

The cheer turned to laughter in the same breath with that word, but Rolf’s exhortations had done their job: the Scandians were fanning themselves into a fire that could only be quenched by blood.

They didn’t have long to wait, for half the monsters conjured up below could fly and, like a cloud of locusts, every one that could make their way from up below was now soaring up for the attack as they began appearing over the ramparts of the Upper School.

But the Vikings had already formed themselves into a great wedge shape with Ronessa at the very back as the demons swept down to begin their horrid attacks.

Some clawed. Some bit. Some used weapons. A few cast spells--but all fought wildly, seeking to slay their mortal enemies.

Yet the Scandians held their ground.

The floor of the Throne room began to shake again, but this time more strongly, and now rhythmically as a thumping sound in unison with the vibration of the floor grew louder as an enormous beast ascended up the stairway and out of the chamber it was normally forced to call home.

The hiss of its breath was as the roar of a lion, and the brute towered above the Liche’s throne, looking down with undisguised contempt upon the skeletal figure twenty feet beneath who dared command it.

“Must you interrupt the pleasure I derive from guarding your spoils?” its baritone voice sarcastically thundered through the chamber.

“Be still!” the Liche hissed back. “A fellowship of mercenaries have infiltrated the tower. They are about to enter the room you were conjured in. Go slay them, then return.”

The Liche had given his orders, but the beast remained unmoving, breath hissing from its nostrils.

Eye slits of yellow fire as long as the Liche’s arm stared downward as the beast’s horned head pivoted back and forth as it pondered the Liche’s command. It too had heard Nostradamus' worried call for assistance.

“What are you waiting for? Go!”

Now monster slowly started to laugh.

“If you need me to destroy these mercenaries, they must be powerful,” it spoke. “And if they are that close, they have overcome your other forces. I sense the fear in you, Liche. Might it be your own army cannot save you in time? Where is your coven of dead wizards to come to your aid--lying dead on the ground someplace?”

Nostradamus glowered at the gigantic beast. “I have no time to waste with you. I wear the Crown--do as I command!”

The beast shuddered for a moment as it felt the power of the crown nearly seize control of its limbs. But instead of obeying, it keaned forward, focusing its eyes back on the Liche.

“I sense fear in you,” it repeated. “You fear these people have the power to end your pitiful existence. If they’ve destroyed your coven--which we both know must be the case--you are next.

“Long have I awaited this day,” the beast went on, “for I cannot be commanded to sacrifice my own existence to save yours; to do such breaks the Binding upon me. If they are this close--and if you fear them--they may be able to destroy me, and I therefore legally interpret your command as an order to lay my life down for you. You cannot use the crown to force me to obey it without freeing me!”

The Liche’s eyes burned with rage as it locked eyes with the creature. “Leviathan--you will obey it or I will place you in torment you’ve not known since Serpen himself bound you!” Nostradamus threatened. “And you will endure that torment until you beg me to release you to your task! I won’t need to force you to comply--you’ll willingly go!”

Instead of being intimidated, the Leviathan took in a breath and spoke again.

“If they are that close, they will be here in moments. I can endure any torment you place me under in the time it will take your enemies to reach you. Then, once your concentration over me is broken, I vow that though the greatest champions of Good in all Islay stand before me, I will battle side-by-side with them to crush your bones to powder. Then I will take your crown for myself and leave your enemies alive to gloat over your end, and to loot all you have that I don’t want!”

Nostradamus squirmed in frustration. This was precisely why the Lord of the First School had this monster assigned to do nothing more important than guard his treasure room: it back-talked, threatened, and balked at every opportunity. The creature only served because the throne and crown held power over it, and typically it took at least two threats and at least one kiss of pain to get the accursed beast to comply with even the simplest orders.

Furious, the Liche realized the Leviathan momentarily had the advantage, and the monster began to laugh again.

“I will slay one of them, Liche, in return for my freedom, and in return for your giving me leave to enter Hell from your Pit. Choose the one, and choose quickly before I decide the pleasure of crushing your bones beneath my feet is worth more to me than fighting for you to earn my freedom.”

Fine, the Liche thought as he glared back into the face of the monster, earn it you will! I will make you pay later.

“Very well, Leviathan--earn your freedom, you shall. The one you are to kill is called Nightshadow--one you should have slain thirty seasons ago! You will recognize him--he wears Serpen’s Mind Sapphire.”

The Leviathan jumped back in surprise, his eyes widening. “I cannot attack him--if he wears the Mind Sapphire, he can command me!”

“He does not know that Talisman gives him authority over you. The crown has superior authority of command over the Sapphire anyway. So do as I bid you--slay Nightshadow and return the Sapphire to me, then I shall have no further need of your services.”

The giant paused a moment and then leaned down until its huge face was only a few feet away from the Liche.

“Proclaim it!” the monster roared, its voice shaking the entire chamber.

Still furious, Nostradamus looked away as the words tortuously came forth from his mouth.

“I Proclaim that, if you slay Nightshadow and return the Mind Sapphire safely to my possession, I relinquish my authority over you, provided you thereafter leave in peace, taking no revenge. If you want to go down to Hell where you belong, by using the Pit--be my guest!”

“And if he should somehow flee, and I be unable to prevent him, my obligation is still fulfilled,” added the monster.

Pushed beyond all limits of patience, the Liche now let fly a stream of oaths and profanity, using every vile word it had leaned in eight centuries of existence--but in the end, it acceded to the Leviathan’s demand.

The beast stood up, laughing in delight. “Know that I will return in seven years for you, Liche--if there is anything left of you to return to!”

“And I will prepare a welcome for you, Boraz!” Nostradamus hissed in response. “But as for this fight, don’t let him strike you,” he warned--not because he cared, but in order that the monster would win this crucial battle. “Your life energy will be absorbed into the Talisman and strengthen him. You’ll also not be able to heal it magically.”

“Keep your useless advice,” the Leviathan responded with contempt.

Then the beast’s colossal head moved slightly as it took one last gaze up and down at Nostradamus, who sat beneath him.

“Poor, pathetic bag of moldering bones,” it spoke slowly. “Look upon me and see true immortality. Look upon me and see true power. Last of all, look upon me and see the real master. You, and those before you, thought me your slave, and slave I was. But know this: I was given to be your slave for our own purposes. You thought to use me, but the truth is, we used you, and now our plan is accomplished.”

As it spoke, the monster saw the look of confusion pass across the features of its enemy as it tried to figure out what the monster meant. It was impossible, of course--something that gave pleasure to the Leviathan.

“One last thing,” Boraz continued, “--whom do you think crafted the Talisman you so covet? We made it! Yes, us. For our own purposes. And now the time of the Leviathans is at hand, brought about by your own greed, which we took advantage of for ourselves. Go with that knowledge, Liche.”

With that, the monster turned away and began striding toward the doors leading out of the Throne room, the floor shaking in unison with each step.

Back inside the temple, the Fellowship were preparing to finish the quest. Thor and Nightshadow set themselves before the enormous silver doors eastward. Balanced perfectly despite their mass, they swung in easily and unveiled a great circular chamber looming beyond the entry. It was a vast columned rotunda of polished marble that literally surged with the power of magic.

Floor tiles of gold-laced quartz led to the center of the chamber where a huge golden ring was crafted upon the floor. The ring encircled an enormous glowing pentagram whose cardinal points stretched to the inner circumference of the rune-studded circle. A field of energy, shaped like the pentagram it sprang from, rose from floor to ceiling within the ring, and it was obvious, just by looking at it, that whatever this thing did, it was through power on a scale none of them had seen before.

As was the case in the portal downstairs, an ornate stairway led part way over the pit, extending up to a large platform where a whole group of wizards could stand and invoke the portal’s magic. Here, a silver lectern was placed, and upon it rested a positively enormous black spell book that was actually chained down so that it could not be removed.

Slowly, the group filed in, and--as if on cue--the two Witches immediately began to ascend the stairs to the platform, the book too great a temptation to leave until later.

“Make it fast!” the Mistress of Freeport ordered as she gazed across the room to yet another set of gigantic doors.

“This here pit could conjure up quite a monster, eh!” Fosmo observed as he stepped to the edge of the circle--but not one inch beyond.

No one answered the obvious.

“The bridge leading to the Throne room is past those doors, Raven,” Doremi spoke, following Raven’s gaze.

She nodded in response. “Nightshadow,” Raven then spoke as she brought an arrow out of her quiver and nocked it, “you’re going to lead the way across the bridge. We’ll wait and cross one at a time--I don’t want to take any chances the Liche can collapse the bridge and cast us down the Pit. It may waste some time, but we may tie off with lines just to be double sure.”

They continued briefly in conversation with Thor and the other warriors, and finally Raven directed her attention back to her Witches.

“Let’s go, you two,” she called out.

“Raven, this book’s pages are crafted from Elven silver!” Cyllindrethifl spoke in a hushed tone from the platform.

Raven’s eyes flew open. Such a thing was priceless!

“There is a strange spell we can’t understand,” Espidreen added. “Could you send the Bard up here if she can read ancient Hocwrathian?”

Raven looked back to Doremi. “You read old Hocwrathian?”

“I can some,” Doremi responded.

Raven nodded to the stairway, and up climbed the Bard as the two Witches moved aside to let her examine the page the book was turned to.

“We need to take this with us, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke, leaning over the rail to her mistress. “But I see no way to remove the chain without breaking the lectern apart.”

“We’ll get the thing on the way out,” her mistress promised. “Hurry up, though!”

The book, Doremi noted, was a very thick tome--almost half her size--whose cover was made of some thick pebbled leather through which a silver chain passed, securing it to the lectern which was a part of the platform’s base. The cover, it turned out, was not actually black, but some red leather darkened from extreme age. Even so, the pages of bluish silver inside still glistened and literally glowed from the power of the mixture of sigils and letters that were engraved upon them.

“Wow!” Doremi spoke as her eyes looked over the page. “That’s a long spell.”

“I’ve never seen one so complicated. Does it look like anything you’ve ever seen?” Espidreen asked.

Doremi shook her head. “It’s a real ancient form of Hocwrathian like you said. I recognize some of it, but it’s hard to make out. You can tell they were stealing some of their letters from the Elves--their L from back then looks just like the L on one of my pouches, which is Elven.”

“The sigils upon Throckmorton’s throne also look like a corrupted form of Elven,” Cyllindrethifl added. “It is no shock that Humans would steal Magic from the Elves and turn that which is good into something evil.”

Ignoring the comment, Doremi paused and turned back a page. “This spell is right after a word of Power, a whole bunch of which he seems to have listed, by the way.”

The two Witches came to attention as they heard that.

“What words?! What words?!” Espidreen queried, leaning in toward her.

“Doremi, don’t answer!” Raven ordered from below. “I’ll decide what words of Power I want those two knowing!”

If looks could kill, Raven would have been twice dead.

Staying out of the argument, Doremi returned to examining the lengthy spell.

“So, is it a Sorcerer or Necromancer spell?” Cyllindrethifl inquired with a tone that still showed some irritation.

“I can’t’s strange,” the Bard responded.

Then Doremi suddenly looked up.

“I think this could be an eighth rank spell!” she exclaimed.

Fosmo, who by now had moved to the eastern edge of the portal near the doors leading east, turned back and shook his head.

“Impossible--ain’t no such thing!”

Raven glanced over to him. “No, there once were,” she said.

“I don’t know much about magic,” Nightshadow now spoke looking back to the Witches, “but I thought wizards can only cast seventh rank spells, at best. My cousin Cassandra casts spells of that rank, but no greater.”

“The gods can cast eighth rank spells,” Cyllindrethifl answered. “Some say the Arch-Masters of the First Age, like Gorus and Serpen, could as well. The Elven Masters of the First Age also, it is said, knew spells of the eighth rank of power. This may have been Serpen’s own spell book, and that spell may be an eighth rank spell he could cast.”

“Does the spell have a name, Doremi?” Raven called up.

“Two words,” Doremi replied. “K’tok--I can make that out. It means to call up...bring forth...summon--that means this summons something. The second word I don’t’s L-V-TH-N. Levthin? Anyone know what a Levthin is? Or is there a word similar to that in Hocwrathian with other vowels?”

“Well--a livthyona is a pregnant mare,” Espidreen muttered.

“I’m sure this spell does more than conjure up a horse, Espidreen,” Cyllindrethifl opined.

“Obviously!” the Witch glared back. “I was just throwing that out!”

“Well--if we play with vowels, what sort of words can we create?” Doremi now wondered. “Livthon? Lovthon?” she speculated.

Liveethin? Liveeathon?” Espidreen tried.

The color now drained from Cyllindrethifl‘s face, which became as white as her hair.

“Not Leveeathon,” she muttered in horror, “--Leviathan!”

Raven’s brow furrowed in surprise. “You mean it summons a sea monster?!” she asked, looking up to her Witches. “We fought a Leviathan on my first ship. Nasty thing it was! Way bigger than this circle, though.”

“The word didn’t originally mean that, Raven,” the Elf answered quietly. “It meant something quite different when this spell was created.”

Raven’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “What did it mean, then?”

It was Espidreen who nervously looked away from the book and answered.

“The Leviathans were a group of ultra-powerful demons from the First Age who challenged You-Know-Who for Lordship of the Hells. They were driven from Hell because they were so powerful he couldn’t destroy them--he could only banish them.”

“That is incorrect, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl interjected. “They were a race of beings some called Titans--who challenged the gods with You-Know-Who, and were also cast down to perdition with him.”

“That’s not what the Hocwrathians say,” Espidreen spoke, turning back toward the Druid. “They say the Leviathans were a race of demons who joined Lilith in the rebellion, and were banished to the sea.”

The Elf stood erect and clasped her hands behind her back. “The Hocwrathians are wrong--our knowledge is older,” she said confidently.

“I also thought the word meant ‘sea demon’, Cyl,” Raven insisted, looking to the Elf.

“It does now, Raven--in the tongue of Humans, as does even the word orc,” the Elf replied as she glanced back down. “But it is the meaning behind the words that you Humans have lost. This is one of your many problems--you live for only a few decades, passing down your traditions and corrupting them just a little with each new generation that repeats the story. We, on the other hand, live far longer and thus retain the memory of our traditions much better than you. I know of the events from the First Age because I was told them by my great-great-grandmother, who was told them by her great-great-great-grandmother, who was the first High Priestess of Dellendryll, and actually there when they happened! I am less than ten generations removed from the First Age, while you are over a hundred. Whom then, do you think retains a more correct knowledge of those days? The Hocwrathians, or the Elves?

“That is why the word Leviathan has come to mean a beast from the sea, Raven. But we Elves still know that the sea they came from was not the ocean--it was the sea above us,” she asserted, pointing upward. “The Leviathans came here from the sky, for once they were a host of stars in the firmament of the heavens. But they left their Place and sought to climb even higher, and their radiance was stripped from them, leaving them grotesque, twisted shadows of what they once were, banished to the darkest regions of the night sky and left to themselves.

“It was actually You-Know-Who himself who led the hosts of Goodness that overthrew them in that ancient time. But then he, in turn, sought to do as they and climb above his own allotted Place; and to aid his doing so, he sought out the help of the fallen of the Leviathans, promising them glory and station if they joined their remaining powers to his own.

“And so, for the second time and last time, the Leviathans came against the gods, but now with You-Know-Who and the hosts who also followed him. Again they failed, and this time they were expelled from the heavens altogether.

“Most were cast down to the lowest reaches of Hell, but some of the Leviathans escaped to Jewel, and once here, they consummated their evil in ways even more unspeakable. Some even caused men to worship them as gods. In fact, you spoke some of their names,” the Elf mentioned, looking over to Doremi.

The bard, who likewise thought Leviathans were sea monsters, looked puzzled at the comment.

“Seth, Anubis--both Leviathans whom the Karnakis worshipped as gods,” she continued. “One of the last Pharaohs realized their evil, and what they truly were, and tried to end their worship. But the Leviathans raised up a champion who slew he and the new religion he was starting, and they retained their hold over Karnak for one last generation. Then Gorus, who followed You-Know-Who, wiped out Karnak at his behest, and the worship of the Leviathans ended forever.

“Those statues we saw, the Elf continued, looking at Doremi, “--the half-human/half-animal forms? Those came about because some of the Leviathans committed the ultimate abhorrence, and actually bred with Humans. It was from this abomination that all the monster races--the orcs, the trolls, the ogres, and so on--were created. We Elves call them N’fls--Sons of the Fallen-Down Ones.

“Thus,” the Druid concluded, clasping her hands behind her back, “you may now see one reason why you might have encountered Elves who left you with the impression that they think themselves superior to Humans. It is because our blood remains pure while your blood--the blood of humankind--is tainted with that of the Leviathans. This is why you are capable of such evil--because the blood of the Leviathans runs through your veins since they bred with your ancestors long ago.”

There was silence for several moments as everyone took in the Elf’s comments.

“That’s...odious,” Doremi finally said, using the worst word she could think of.

“But the wizards all believe You-Know-Who drove some them out of Hell, into the sea, while he chained the others up deep in Hell,” Espidreen insisted. “That’s what they say happened to Lilith--that she and some of her minions were chained at the bottom of Hell for their rebellion against him. Do you deny that?”

“It was not he who punished them, Espidreen,” Cyllindrethifl answered; “it was the gods, who were angered at what they did. The weaker ones--if the word weak can be used about a Leviathan--they cast into a pocket of Eternity called the Abyss, where they still wait, bound in chains of darkness, yearning to be released to take vengeance on everyone: You-Know-Who, Elves, Humans, and even the gods themselves. The princes, though, were too powerful and escaped the fate of their fellows by fleeing into the deep parts of Jewel to hide. Some hid in the bowels of the planet, and some did hide in the sea. To keep them there, the gods created the dragons as rulers of the air. The dragons were the guardians of Jewel, and the implacable enemies of the Leviathans, for if a dragon discovered a Leviathan, it would slay it, and the Leviathan’s essence would be drawn down to its eternal captivity in the Abyss. As to what happened to Lilith specifically--whether she was cast into the Abyss or slain at some point by a dragon--I do not know.”

A sad look passed across the Elf’s features.

“But as the millennia passed, and the Leviathans faded from memory, the dragons themselves, like the Leviathans before them, became proud and evil. Yet still they were bound to their original task, for if they found a Leviathan, they could not do other than slay it. Goth and Serpen realized this and attempted to breed a race of dragons, not bound to Leviathans, to serve them. How successful they were, I cannot say. But some believe this is where lesser dragons--such as drakes and snap dragons--came from. Thus, the spell within that book conjures no sea monster, but may possibly summon up a lesser Leviathan from the Abyss, or--depending on the power of the Summoner--it might conceivably conjure up a Leviathan prince from the bowels of Jewel...if any remain.”

For a moment, no one spoke.

“Elven myth,” Espidreen finally muttered in disgust.

“I don’t know how much of this I believe either,” Doremi said quietly.

The Elf glanced to the humble Bard with a puzzled expression.

“Whether you believe or not, has no bearing on truth.”

“Well...worry about it later,” Raven exclaimed. “Let’s just be glad Nostradamus can’t cast eighth rank spells.”

“At least so far as we know,” Espidreen added.

Fosmo suddenly spoke up. “Eh, Raven,” he said, “the floor is something is...coming this way.”

Immediately, Nightshadow elbowed the Cutpurse out of the way, and with a grunt pushed one of the huge doors open a crack. He looked up and then pulled it shut, turning back to the others.

The Rogue spoke quickly, his voice echoing throughout the chamber.

“There’s a bridge through some kind of cavern on the other side. I don’t know what a Leviathan is, but I have a bad feeling it looks like the giant coming across the bridge toward us!”

“Giants and bridges,” muttered Thor, “--somehow feels right.”

Raven grimaced and let out a frustrated breath. “Quick--take positions!” she ordered. “We’ll kill the thing and move on.”

Hurriedly, the fighters formed a rank twenty feet back from the doors, their weapons at the ready as the women scrambled down the stairs to the floor of the chamber.

By now, everyone could clearly feel the ground shake as something huge and heavy walked toward them.

“Cyl--how tough is a Leviathan?” Raven demanded, readying her bow and taking a quick glance over her shoulder.

Cyllindrethifl, eyes wide open in fear, shook her head.

“How tough?!” Raven demanded, now looking to Doremi for an answer.

Doremi shrugged, the fear obvious in her own eyes. “Like a dragon, maybe? I don’t know!”

The Mistress of Freeport shook her head. “Okay--swords or spells? What hurts it?”

“Spells, probably not...swords, maybe,” Doremi speculated.

“‘Maybe’?!” Fosmo exclaimed as he backed up toward them. “Yer sayin’ we might not be able to kill this thing?!”

“Just when it looks like we’ve won,” Raven muttered.

“I just mean--if, as Cyllindrethifl says, it took an Arch-Master from the First Age to cast the spell to bring it, maybe only weapons made by an Arch-Master--or a god--can hurt it! I’m sure we have good weapons, but has anyone got something made by a better-than-twentieth-circle from the First Age? I’m not certain that it takes arms that powerful to strike them, but if the gods couldn’t even kill these things, but only bind them....”

“I think my scimitars are powerful enough,” Nightshadow answered. “They’re from the First Age. Ellendyryl herself enchanted them--and she was daughter to the first Elvenking.”

“My hammer was crafted by Wotan--he’ll feel it!” Thor vowed.

“And Priscilla’s blade,” Giles added, his eyes fixed on the doorway.

The floor was noticeably vibrating now, accompanied by a loud thud with each step of the monster. Whatever was approaching would reach the door in a few more moments, and everyone now fell silent, waiting for the portals to open.

It took Nabonidas and his squad little time to reach the eastern end of the Lower School, for he and his men had been waiting all night with their mounts, prepared for whatever attack the Second School might have launched, and at Nostradamus’ command, they spurred their horses to the back of the School.

Impressing some of the spell-casters amongst the chaos back there, the group lost no time in rushing down into the bowels of the School, making their way to the catacombs and the single portal generator at its lowest level that could take them directly to the Throne room, as other wizards passed thorugh the upper levels of the catacombs seeking to reach the tower by slower means.

They flew with all haste, showing no caution as they made their way through corridors and down narrow steep stairways until they were at last in the darkest and eeriest catacombs lying beneath the School. The group had made the trip in record time (their lives, as much as anyone’s, depended on that), and within a quarter-hour they were descending the last stairway to where the portal generator would be found, in one of the bottom chambers of the catacombs.

Nobonidas was leading the way, his sword sheathed and a torch in his hand, when his foot touched upon a step a few yards up from the bottom, and runes beneath his boot glowed for an instant.

It happened so quickly that he stepped on another before he could even stop himself.

Magical traps, he realized too late--but traps that shouldn’t have been there!

Then the energy blasts went off.

They were huge bursts of energy from an obvious Master who had apparently placed them here without telling the Host Captain! The narrow stairway literally exploded with flame, incinerating half the force, including the Sorcerers with them--but a good number of men still survived after the flames died away.

“That was for Arcana,” they heard a gruff voice speak from the catacomb chamber ahead.

There was no time to ponder what enemy had attacked them--instinctively, Nabonidas drew his blade and charged forward, calling for the others to follow as he leapt down into the camber.

Nearly losing his footing as he landed at the bottom, the veteran warrior emerged into the chamber, his eyes searching for whomever had spoken.

He and those who piled in behind him saw no one to fight, but even worse than that was what did meet their eyes a few yards away, nestled amongst the crumbling masonry of ancient sarcophagi: the portal generator’s golden rings wrenched out of shape by some prying instrument, making it inoperable.

Then, next to what was left of the device, a set of lips appeared in the stonework and began to speak.

“This is for Jen and the others.”

For a brief instant, they paused in confusion. Then Nabonidas screamed out, “Run!”

But it was too late. The Host Captain barely had time to turn his head and catch sight of the tall, black-robed wizard--his invisibility spell broken--casting down a ball of orange plasma from the head of the stairs.

The thuds ceased as they reached the doorway, and for a moment there was no sound other than the pounding hearts of the Fellowship. Then both portals began to swing outward as something on the other side pulled them open.

Most everyone had seen demons in their time--but nothing on the scale of this! What seemed like a mountain of blackened brass formed into the shape of a beast from the deepest reaches of Hell stared down with amusement at the grasshoppers below it. From a pair of six-toed feet, two great legs, more like tree trunks than limbs, supported a torso thrice the height a man that was capped by a scaly head sprouting between a set of shoulders so wide they could barely fit in the doorway. Two mammoth horns curved out from the head, stretching up along the sides of a colossal diadem of brilliant brass encircling the bony ridged cranium of the beast in stark contrast to the huge iron collar, pulsing with runes of power, that was bound to its neck.

It bore no weapon, but the hands of the giant looked easily able to pick a man up and crush the life out of him. Behind the beast could vaguely be seen the shape of its enfolded wings. Once graceful in their beauty, they were now grotesque and tattered, bent and twisted into a form more like the wings of a reptile than that of a bird. The creature itself had once possessed a visage not too unlike that of Mankind, but now its own flesh had been corrupted into a mocking conglomeration of scales, fur and sinew providing little more than form without beauty, power without grace.

The monster spoke not a word, yet everyone before it, as if the beast had whispered into their thoughts, comprehended its message:

Before life began, I was ancient. Before the first Elf took its first breath, I ruled all that my eyes looked down upon. The mightiest of you is as far below me as you are above the insects you tread upon. Your puny weapons and spells cannot harm me. Do obeisance then, and live at my whim. Or, oppose me and die without mercy.

None dared move or speak as the Leviathan’s shoulders pivoted slightly so that it could direct its gaze to study those who dared stand before it. Not even Thor seemed anxious to attack, but stood, his hammer held out to his right side, ready to hurl or swing if it came to it.

“A Prince,” Cyllindrethifl muttered under her breath next to Raven.

The monster somehow heard, and everyone felt a slight breeze as it took in a breath through its cavernous mouth.

“A Prince and more than a Prince,” its voice boomed out as it looked over the Fellowship “--for I am a Archon.”

There was silence for a moment as the monster satisfied itself that no one--including the burglar hiding in the shadows behind a large column--posed a threat.

Raven shot Cyllindrethifl a what’s an Archon? look.

“Tell them what it means!” its voice thundered through the chamber as it whipped its gaze back to the Elf, who shook like a branch in the wind.

“The Archons were the mightiest of the two hundred Leviathan princes...the brightest and most radiant of all stars and heavenly bodies,” Cyllindrethifl answered in a hushed tone. “There were, I believe, seven of them, some of whom were worshipped as gods: the Prince of Iron, the Prince of Fire, the Prince of Water, the Prince of Air, the Prince of Shadows--”

“Princess!” the beast corrected. “The one you mortals call Lillith is Princess of Shadow.”

“--the Prince of Bronze,” she continued, “and this one, which I believe to be the Prince of Brass.”

“Yes, Brass,” it whispered, even though its whisper was louder than a man’s shout.

Then the creature almost seemed to turn solemn as it continued.

“Look upon me, for I am all of my kind who remain on this world. Semihazah, Ramtel, Igrat--the ones you called Osiris, Seth, Ptah--all gone now. Only three there are, who are left of our company, and all of us bound in some means like the Others. But the day of our freedom now dawns. Our first powers were taken from us, but we have learned new ones through you. Our Place shall be restored!”

Then, surprisingly, a look of puzzlement passed upon its features as the Leviathan stopped speaking and seemed to sniff the air as it focused in on Raven, who wisely had her bow nocked but lowered in a non-aggressive stance. It said nothing for a moment as its eyes narrowed.

“You smell,” it then remarked to the Mistress of Freeport.

If there was anything the Leviathan could have said that would elevate the party’s confusion over their fear, that was it.

Raven was totally flustered and was silent for a moment herself.

“ I’ll take a bath when I get home?” she squeaked out.

“You smell like one of us,” it continued. “But I do not smell our blood in you. Yet you smell like one of us, though you’re not one of us, nor are you possessed. Explain this, and if the answer amuses me, I may show mercy to you.”

Raven’s face said it all--she had no idea what the beast meant.

“I, uh, would gladly do so, Sir,” she finally answered politely, “but I have to be honest to say I don’t know precisely what you mean. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or trick you, but I don’t understand.”

A mouthy female, the Leviathan thought. I hate mouthy females. I think I’ll silence that wagging tongue of hers right now!

Although it perceived she spoke the truth, the monster was only a moment away from turning Raven into a smoldering pile of ash, but even as it stiffened slightly before letting fly with a demonstration of its power, it was interrupted by the Knight who spoke out: “We have no quarrel with thee, O Prince of Leviathans--let us pass onward!”

Distracted, the beast now turned to glare at Giles, whose upraised sword was glowing like the sun.

“And let you go slay the Liche, who is like a brother to me?” it spoke sarcastically.

“Art thou friend and comrade to yonder Liche, that thou standest ‘tween us and he as his champion?” Giles continued, shouting up to the beast. “Or doeth he to thou as he doth others--bribe or force thee into service because he be too cowardly to come fight for himself?”

Shut up, Giles,” Raven was hissing under her breath to her champion.

But the Leviathan found Giles’ opinion of Nostradamus to be amusing, and half a smile passed over its features, revealing a few of its fang-like teeth as it chuckled.

“Coward,” its baritone rang out through the chamber. “Yes, a coward. Even now, that dog of a Liche cowers and trembles upon his throne. In his heart, he fears you will destroy him--something which pleases me.”

Raven now found some hope in the monster’s words, and she wasted no time in trying to work her charms upon it.

“Since it seems we have the same enemy,” she spoke, lowering her bow and extending a hand up toward the beast, “give us the honor of joining you against the Liche. Let us fight with you to see him lying dead at your feet!”

“As the puny little man hiding in that suit of steel has said, the Liche has bribed me to fight for him,” came the reply.

“We’ll give you more!” Espidreen suddenly exclaimed without even thinking.

Raven scowled at her for joining the conversation, and the Witch fell silent. Then the Mistress of Freeport turned back to the Leviathan.

“Yes we will!” she continued.

“The Liche has Proclaimed my freedom if I battle for him,” the monster answered, with disinterest.

“Well, wait!” Raven exclaimed. “Certainly a creature so mighty as yourself can choose which bargain he wishes to keep!”

True, thought Boraz.

“We’ll help you kill the Liche, and when he’s dead, not only will freedom--and revenge--be yours, we’ll see to it you leave here with so much treasure--”

“The agreement has been Proclaimed, you mouthy, serpent-tongued flatterer,” spat the Leviathan as it leaned in through the doorway to emphasize its point, “and I have no time to waste. Today is the day I not only gain my freedom--it is the day my brothers gain theirs as well! Only I and--one other, who is bound elsewhere--have the strength left to force open the Abyss and release those who are chained there, for we are Beings, not spirits! When I am free, I will fly there and free the others--then we will take our vengeance!”

The last half of the sentence was said with a rage so great that the room shook violently, nearly throwing everyone off their balance.

When the shaking subsided, the beast lowered its voice once again. “Slay the Liche with my blessing. I have bargained, and only one of you must die. The others I shall not restrain. But the one must die, and then I am free.”

She was afraid to ask, but Raven had to know.

“Who is the one?” she asked quietly.

A finger long as a staff with a fingernail sharp as a sword pointed down to Nightshadow.

“Him,” was the reply.

The answer surprised the Mistress of Freeport.

“I, uh, I’m sorry,” Raven said after a moment, “but he’s a member of this Fellowship. We can’t just hand him over to his death.”

Nightshadow wasn’t as polite.

“I don’t fear you, demon,” he spat, raising Brigit. “I’ve slain a dragon, and I’ll slay you as well!”

The beast’s eyes opened wide as it came erect, a look of shock passing across its face.

Dragon-slayer!” it spoke in a whispered tone almost conveying respect as it looked up and down at Nightshadow. “A pity, for otherwise I would bid you pass with my good will. But this day, you must die, dragon-slayer or no. Take heart in knowing I will slay the Liche in turn, so you do not die without his following you--eventually.”

The Rogue stepped forward, raising his right scimitar. “If it’s a fight you want--”

“It is, so come forth, little man-Elf,” the Leviathan roared. “I will await you!”

Having spoken that, the monster stepped back, slamming shut the doors of the chamber with a loud crash, leaving the Fellowship by themselves.

“The rest can come out with you and die with you, or they can stay here and let you sacrifice yourself for them. difference,” they heard the beast say as its voice faded away, leaving only the sound of its footfalls as the monster moved out to take position.

There was silence now for several moments as the Fellowship tried to come to grips with what they faced.

“There’s not much time,” Raven finally whispered. “We need a fast plan.”

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke, the terror obvious in her eyes, “we cannot defeat that monster. The best plan is to run, and run now! We’ve crippled Nostradamus. Let us be satisfied with that, and go!”

Espidreen glanced over to the Elf, then blinked and looked back to Raven. “Cyllindrethifl is right, Raven,” she reluctantly spoke in agreement. “That thing is one step under a god. It’s beyond us.”

Angrily, Nightshadow took a step toward them. “I didn’t come this far to run from a demon--even if he’s a tall one!” he spoke, raising Brigit. “Like I said, I’ve killed a dragon and, with Brigit’s help, I’ll kill him too!”

“Would you people please stop calling this thing a demon?!” an exasperated Cyllindrethifl spoke, waving her arms. “It’s not a demon! This thing is as far above a demon as Nightshadow is above a squire!”

No one spoke, and the Elf continued.

“Demons are spirits; they have no true bodies. When demons are summoned onto the Nexus, some can take on a physical form through the conjuration ceremony, and they actually gain strength over what they normally possess in the realm of spirits. When you kill them, what you do is dispel the physical form they took on and send them back to Hell, where they return to their true form and power, with a loss of prestige in the eyes of their fellows. The Leviathans are different--they were originally stars and comets! They were immortal, but they had bodies! Because of this, they can exist in either realm! What you see is its actual body--or rather, the body it now has after falling from its first state of glory!

“Understand that when it enters the realm of spirit, a Leviathan becomes infinitely more powerful than its remaining physical body permits on the Nexus. Here, demons are weaker than they are in Hell, but Leviathans work in the opposite manner: in Hell, they are vastly more powerful because they bring all their power from this realm into that realm, adding the power of the Realm of Faerie to what they already have. The only reason dragons could kill these creatures was because they do have physical bodies, and that body can be slain. The one difference between Leviathans and demons is that, if destroyed on the Nexus, the Leviathan’s remaining spirit essence will be drawn down not just into Hell itself, but past that into the Abyss, where the others are bound, there to remain a mindless, shapeless, chaotic force of raging evil, ever in torment because it cannot take physical shape again. So please stop calling the thing a demon--it’s not!”

“What does it mean, that it can free the others because it’s not a spirit?” the Bard nervously asked.

The Elf shook her head. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Some people think the Abyss is an actual physical realm within the sphere of Eternity, where the Leviathans are entrapped. The beast may be saying that--as a physical being--it can sunder the physical gates holding its fellows and release them, something a demon from Hell may not be able to do--not that it would want to.”

“I wonder what would happen then,” the Bard muttered.

“Who can know?” Cyllindrethifl whispered back. “The Leviathans may hope to return and take new forms if they can reach the Nexus again. Or, they may have some other plan--some last great scheme they cooked up before they fled from the face of Jewel. Maybe they plan to conquer Hell and live there!”

Raven had only been half listening, and suddenly she looked up.

“Dragons!” she exclaimed, her face looking as if she had solved a puzzle. “Cyl said the dragons were made to kill these things, and Nightshadow and Dorrik killed one! Everyone be still. I want yes-or-no answers to the following questions: Nightshadow--yes or no--could this group kill a dragon?”

The masked face nodded. “Yes--but it would kill several of us before it went down.”

“Cyl, best guess: can my magic affect it? Can your magic affect it?”

“Yes. No,” came the Elf’s hurried answer.

“Espy--how many of us have weapons that can hit it?”

“Uh...everyone but Cyllindrethifl, the Bard, and the Burglar. The rest of us have arms either made by you, a Deity, or someone in the First Age.”

Raven looked back to the doors leading forward. “Then we’re still a viable fighting force against that thing. And we know dragons could kill Leviathans, and since we can kill a dragon--we must be able to kill a Leviathan! Doesn’t that make sense?”

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up, “this is no ordinary Leviathan. As Nightshadow says, he’s sure to take several of us with him even if we can kill him!”

Raven considered her words for a moment.

“Not if we’re smart and a little bit lucky,” she concluded.

Giles took a step forward. “I will fight with thee,” he said to Nightshadow.

“And I,” Thor said, emphasizing the point by raising the hammer.

Nightshadow shook his head. “No,” he spoke, turning to the men. “The Witches are right--it’ll kill any of you who get close to it. The Sapphire will keep me alive. I’ll kill him myself. He can’t possibly take so many blows to kill that he can drain the Sapphire before I cut him to pieces.”

“That’s what worries me, Brother,” Cyllindrethifl spoke up. “He knows what you possess, yet he challenged you without even considering turning on Nostradamus with our help. He has some plan...some strategy to negate the Sapphire--he must have! Remember, his magic predates even Serpen’s. The Mind Sapphire may not draw his life energy from him. He may know some weakness you aren’t aware of....”

“It makes no difference,” Nightshadow said quietly. “I’ll slay him. But if it so be I die, then avenge me.”

The Mistress of Freeport was thinking fast.

“No, no--the Liche is obviously controlling him, so that means the Leviathan’s power can’t be greater than Serpen’s,” she surmised.

“But he’s not afraid, Raven,” Cyllindrethifl maintained. “He believes he can win. There must be a reason for that.”

Raven’s face furrowed in irritation.

“Cyl, you know how demons are--they’re all arrogant, and they always think they’re going to win, up until they get dispatched back to Hell by your sword!”

The Mistress of Freeport moved forward, the bow in her right hand, and put her left on Nightshadow’s shoulder. “Nightshadow, head out there and engage him. We’ll watch from here. If it looks like you need help, we’ll come in.”

At hearing that, the Knight fidgeted. “Lady, we should all go out at once. It may not be chivalrous to join combat once it beginneth, if the beast fighteth fairly.”

From beyond the portals there now came a muffled shout: “Come out now!

“Giles--this is not the time!” Raven snapped back to her Champion. Then she looked over to the three women.

“Witches--no matter what, stay back! Cast from the doorway only if the situation warrants--remember, you probably can’t affect him, but give it a try if the opportunity presents itself. If you find you can’t do anything to him, try to cast something on the fighters to help them.”

“What about your magic?” Espidreen asked. “Your magic might get through, Raven.”

“I won’t cast unless I think I can take him out in one shot. If my spells can affect him, I don’t want him knowing that until it’s too late to guard against it--because he’ll go for me the second he realizes I can hurt him. If we have to fight, I’ll first try for an assassination shot on him. Failing that, I’ll switch to magic at the opportune time.”

“What if he kills Nightshadow and takes the Mind Sapphire to Nostradamus?” Doremi now asked.

“It won’t do him any good,” Nightshadow answered as he moved toward the doors. “It will be drained of energy.”

Swords in hand, the Rogue now pushed his two fists against the doors and thrust them open to reveal the chamber beyond.

Before him lay a landing thirty feet square, and from it extended a causeway leading through a great hollow that extended from the eastern area of the tower to its back.

At last, here was the Pit.

Beneath the causeway, a great black shaft plunged down into the very heart of Jewel. A feral light illumined the chamber, which reached up to the very top of the tower’s roof. Rough walls of brown basalt formed their way around the causeway until they merged into another landing fronting a second set of doors Nightshadow assumed gave ingress to the Liche’s Throne room. The beast stood before these hunched down like a wrestler, its fists opening and closing in anticipation of the fight, a final unmoving sentinel between the Fellowship and its ultimate enemy.

Both challengers said nothing, but eyed each other for a moment, waiting.

Nightshadow was first to move, walking forward at a fast stride toward his waiting foe. He looked so small, thought Doremi, as he made his way toward a beast several times his own height. Yet he showed no fear as he advanced toward the Leviathan.

Halfway there, he called for Brigit to become enflamed, and a yellow glow spread down the curved blade as he approached the demon. Then, as he broke into a run to cover the last few yards, the monster enacted its own strategy for battle: the beast’s great wings spread out and the creature lifted up above the causeway, swinging around between the earthbound warrior and the rest of the Fellowship, out of sword reach.

Stymied, Nightshadow made a futile attempt to jump up, swinging his blades against his opponent, but the Leviathan was now hovering twenty feet above where he stood.

Then it attacked.

The beast’s palms spread out in a fan as it brought its gigantic arms together, aiming toward the figure below. Then two streams of white hot flame roared out from the monster, engulfing its hapless enemy in an aura of flame.

Hellfire,” muttered Espidreen as she watched through the open doorway. “It’s attacking him with Hellfire!”

Nightshadow began screaming as he was plunged into the flames of a blast furnace, and he lurched and dodged about the bridge, trying to escape the heat.

“Come down and fight me, you coward!” he managed to shout up to his foe as he sought to stay clear.

The Leviathan emitted a fiendish laughter as its arms moved with its foe, keeping him shrouded in fire.

“No, you come up here!” it answered.

Several of the group had by now moved out onto the landing to watch the battle, and a frown spread across Giles’ face as he shook his sword in anger.

“He cheateth!”

It was enough for Thor. Ignoring everything else, the Viking rushed onto the bridge. Eyes focused on the Leviathan, he paused, leaned back, and with a grunt hurled his hammer up toward the back of the beast.

Mjolnir sailed upward, gaining speed each moment as it trailed a blue lightning bolt. Then the hammer ended its flight with a tremendous clap of thunder as it struck the Leviathan in the right shoulder.

Boraz instantly let out a bellow as blue tendrils of electricity surged through his body, momentarily causing him to lose control of his muscles. Unable to remain in the air, the beast dropped onto the bridge in a crouch and the entire structure shuddered with the colossal impact.

Relieved from the Hellfire, Nightshadow sprang forward, reaching the monster in only a moment despite his limp.

Backed with all his strength, Brigit came down in a huge arc, striking the Leviathan’s left leg. Nearly half the blade sunk in as the rogue simultaneously brought Dellendryll in for two quick slashes, neither of which penetrated the brass limb, though sparks flew from the strike.

Nightshadow then wrenched Brigit free and reared back to deliver another blow.

Romulus, knowing the time had come to fight, leaned in toward Doremi as he readied the trident.

“Remember what I said,” he spoke as he turned to charge.

The other warriors were now running toward the giant, trying to engage. Romulus went with them, covering half the distance to the beast in a sprint. Then he halted and pivoted his hips before he whipped back, launching the trident toward its target.

Up it sailed, striking the Leviathan in the lower back and transforming itself into a shaft of lightning that surged through the giant body once again. Then it vanished, reappearing at the Gladiator’s feet.

All thoughts of alliance with the creature now gone, Raven pulled back the bowstring and let fly a shot into the back of the Leviathan where its kidney would be if it had one.

The arrow bounced off.

Giles continued past the Gladiator, slinging the shield around his shoulder as he brought both hands onto the hilt of the sword, raising it over his right shoulder to deliver one massive blow as Thor paused, his mighty right arm catching the returning hammer.

The Leviathan now knew it had grossly underestimated the power of the force arrayed against it. The creature supposed itself to be safe from attack by anything other than useless spells and a few puny missile weapons, but the Scandian’s hammer was like a blow from a titan. The force of the lightning it generated caused the beast to shudder and momentarily lose its ability to hover as it reacted to the pain and dropped onto the bridge, simultaneously interrupting its attack on Nightshadow.

It took only a moment for the Leviathan’s quarry to take advantage of his foe’s vulnerability, and one of the swords cut deep into the monster’s leg as another surge of lightning--this one not nearly as bad--struck from some other weapon.

The beast didn’t even feel the arrow that bounced off it and fell over the side of the bridge.

The Knight had now reached the battle and swung his own glowing blade into the monster’s right flank. It was the first time Boraz had ever felt heat--for flame was his element--but this blade was like a hot poker thrust into the flesh of a mortal man, and the Leviathan instinctively kicked out a leg as long as a tree, sending its enemy with its accursed sword flying backwards in a painful somersault.

Then the brass colossus rose up to full height, concentrated, and in one horrid instant, transformed itself into a gigantic pillar of white hot flame, a last remnant of the power the creature once had as a star in the heavens!

It was like opening the door to a furnace hotter than any found in Naz-Al: Everyone on the bridge but Nightshadow and Thor instinctively backed away from the intense heat into the sanctuary of the Conjuration room. Even Giles, one leg broken, was on his knees trying to scramble to safety, his armor starting to glow from the heat, as Romulus wrapped his protected arm around the Knight’s to help drag him back despite his exposed body’s own painful burns.

Behind, the two main warriors battled on despite the flames. Nightshadow, ignoring the pain, moved in and made another slash into the beast’s leg with Brigit. Thor, despite nearly being roasted, stopped and hurled the hammer once again toward the head of the monster, only then retreating as he ducked behind the shield and reached down to his pouch for an elixir.

The hammer vanished into the mass of flames, but everyone heard the resounding crash of its thunderclap and the Leviathan’s cry as flame became immersed in a cage of electricity.

Then the beast was gone, simply jumping over the side of the bridge.

The heat gone with him, Raven rushed to the side of the landing and peered down as the Knight and Gladiator took the opportunity to drink elixirs. Meanwhile, the others from the Conjuration room, including Doremi, cautiously followed their leader out.

The Bard stared over the side of the landing with the rest. Far below, penetrating the blackness of the Pit, was a pinpoint of light. Apparently, the Leviathan had flown a couple hundred feet down, safe from the attacks of its enemies, while it recouped its senses.

“The hammer hurt him, and he ran away--that’s good, right?” she nervously asked Raven.

The Mistress of Freeport was only half listening to her.

“If he can be hurt, he can be killed,” she muttered back, her eyes fixed on the light far below.

Doremi now glanced up to the other end of the bridge where the last set of doors awaited them. “Raven, we could make a run for the Throne room--maybe he’ll leave us alone if he sees we’ve gone for the Liche!”

Now Raven was paying full attention to Doremi as she whipped her head around.

“And fight Nostradamus in front of us while that thing comes up from behind?!” she exclaimed. “You never leave a dangerous enemy alive at your back, Doremi--never!”

“Amen,” Thor grunted as he stepped up to the knot of people gathered on the landing.

Doremi looked over the edge again. The light was still unmoving, hovering far below.

“What’s he doing?” she wondered aloud.

“What do you think he’s doing?” Raven grunted, glancing back over the side. “He’s healing himself! Fosmo--come watch, and let us know if he starts coming back up!”

Less than enthusiastically, the Cutpurse came forward to keep lookout as Raven glanced around for the two Witches.

“Cyl, Espy,” she spoke, “We need two things: we need some protection from the thing’s Hellfire, and we need to get it onto the bridge where the fighters can hit it. Cyl--can you cast a control fire spell and give some protection to them?”

The Druid shrugged. “I can, but the amount of protection I can give to them may be negligible compared to the power of its flames, Raven.”

As she was answering, Nightshadow was hurrying up to rejoin the group.

“He’ll be back soon--any ideas?” he called out, knowing what would soon befall him once again.

Raven glanced back to him. “We’re working on it now.”

Then she turned to the Gladiator.

“Romulus--here’s what we’ll do: You’re going to get ready with your net on the right side of the bridge. Cyl is going to turn you invisible, and--”

“He may be able to see invisible creatures, Raven,” advised the Elf.

Raven sighed and hung her head in frustration. “Just one time tonight, I wish you two Witches would do what I say without giving me an argument!” she snapped without turning. “He may be able to see invisible creatures, and he may not! We have to gamble that he can’t!”

Cyllindrethifl clasped her hands in front of her and took in a breath. “My point was that a chameleon spell might be better, as it will allow Romulus to blend in with the terrain. The Leviathan may not see through that spell as easily as a spell granting invisibility,” she patiently explained.

Raven sighed again. “Cyl’s going to cast a chameleon spell on you, Romulus,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “If the Leviathan drifts over the bridge and gives you a shot, hurl your net at his wings and try to bring him down. Then everyone swarm on him. That means, Giles--stay back on the landing and wait for an opportunity to charge in; don’t run out to expose yourself before he’s vulnerable. He’ll attack Thor first thing, so Thor--stay forward with Nightshadow. Not next to him, but near him so he puts his back to Romulus and the rest of us.”

Thor gave her a stern look.

“We can’t take him out by ourselves before he flies off! We need you casting at it, not shooting a bow!”

Slowly, Raven turned to glare up at the Viking, who stood two feet taller than her, returning a stare just as cold.

Oh-oh, thought Doremi, party discord. I’ve seen this before.

“That’s my intention,” Raven answered in a low voice that betrayed no sign of intimidation. “You just keep him off my two Witches, and we’ll see if our magic, added to your attacks, can bring him down!”

Far below, Boraz was hovering safe from attack while his wounds healed of their own accord--his wounds, that is, other than those on his right leg which still oozed ichor from where Nightshadow’s blade had cut deeply into it. The gashes would remain for days--the price of being struck by someone wearing the Mind Sapphire.

The Leviathan was furious at himself. He should have slain every one of the intruders the moment he had laid eyes on them, and in a moments he would correct his mistake and leave the bodies of every last one of them smoldering on the bridge. No wonder the Liche feared these people--they were no ordinary group of mercenaries. Who they were, and how they entered the tower without the Liche realizing it until they were at his door, was a mystery--but one thing was certain: this group of warriors could easily slay Nostradamus. But they would find in Boraz an enemy beyond them. The Prince of Brass would devastate these mortals. Then it would be over, and he would be free. He and--

The beast paused, suddenly realizing where he was, and peered down into the blackness below.

Brothers!” he suddenly shouted, his voice thundering and echoing down the Pit.

And far, far below, beyond the deepest bowels and the blackest darkness of the furthest reaches of Hell--his voice was heard.

This is the day we have awaited! Today we will ascend back to where we were and change what happened to us! This--is the day of our freedom! This--is the day of our vengeance!

Over and over again, his voice pealed downward. And finally, in a place where eternity and a moment were one in the same, where hope did not exist, where there could be no respite from the torment of their imprisonment with each other, a cacophony of ten thousand times ten thousand shrieks, hisses and groans welled up in response from a writhing mass of beasts, horrible beyond all imagination. The sound would have driven any mortal mad, but here, in the depths of the Abyss, it was a shout of victory...a last shout of hope that freedom was at hand.

Boraz sensed the hails of his fellow Leviathans, and, emboldened by his own words, he expunged a shout and looked up to the bridge above. Then he began rising.

This time, he would play no games.

The entire tower shuddered with the sound of the beast’s cry, and Fosmo watched as the dot of light began to streak toward him. He was bolting for the Conjuration room even before he opened his mouth to shout, “Here he comes!”

Doremi and the two Witches were hot on his heels, and Raven ran for the shadows in the doorway, trying to hide as the Knight stood guard in the doorway itself between those inside and any potential attack by the Leviathan.

Ahead, the others were now set: Nightshadow and Thor were most of the way across the bridge, standing about fifteen feet apart, prepared for the Leviathan’s next attack. Thirty feet behind them, a few yards in front of Raven, Romulus lay hidden by Cyllindrethifl’s spell. Blending near perfectly with the stonework, he remained motionless, ready to hurl his net. Finally the Witches, having retreated beyond the doorway, prepared to cast whatever they had that might help against this nearly unbeatable foe.

Then their enemy appeared, soaring up above the bridge against the northern wall of the tower, bringing its hands in position for another attack of Hellfire.

At the same moment, Thor threw the hammer. Unafraid, the Leviathan brought its huge left arm up to its face as a shield, and the hammer once again impacted with a tremendous clap of thunder.

But he was prepared: Boraz stiffened, enduring the force of the blow and the lightning surge that came with it. This time, the monster remained in the air, off the side of the bridge, until the lightning ended and the hammer began to fly back to its wielder.

Now it was Boraz’ turn.

Out came his hands once more--now ignoring Nightshadow to target the Scandian with a blast of white hot fire surging out onto the bridge.

Reacting, the Viking threw up his shield, disappearing into an umbra of flame.

Raven now concentrated, calling upon the power of the Book, and a 5th rank spell Islay had rarely seen since the First Age began to take shape around the head of the Leviathan as she extended and twisted her hand round in a circle. The spell began as a translucent globe of purple energy thirty feet wide. It was there for only a moment, then Raven brought her fingers into a fist. The outer surface of the globe flashed brightly and the globe transformed into a flat plane of energy that contracted inward with a muffled thud as the beast’s head took the full impact of energy, shaking the Leviathan to its core.

The force of the blast threw the Leviathan against the wall of the tower, disrupting its attack on Thor. But the attack had done its job: as the flames lifted, the body of the Scandian lay quivering on the bridge as Nightshadow, alive yet equally helpless, could do nothing but wave his blades at the beast.

“He dropped Thor in one attack,” Espidreen muttered in shock. Then she recovered and let fly an energy blast.

The ball of plasma shot out the doorway up to the beast, but--as they had feared--it fizzled out as it struck the monster.

As the flames had swept down toward Thor, Doremi could see a small percentage of them being held back by a spell from Cyllindrethifl, but the vast majority swept through to engulf the warrior. Just then, Raven’s implosion went off, breaking the Leviathan’s concentration.

Even so, the Scandian lay moaning on the ground, barely alive.

Thinking fast, the Bard fumbled for her scroll book. One of the spells inside was a Necromancer spell that could heal wounded people from a safe distance. It was a 6th rank spell, thus there was no guarantee she could read it safely, and a failure would probably finish him off--but the Scandian was a goner if someone didn’t do something quick!

Boraz, meanwhile, was thrown against the wall by the force of the spell, but it took only a moment for the beast to recover and fix its enraged gaze toward the back of the bridge as one of the other Witches’ energy blasts proved futile.

At the same moment, Raven looked backward toward the Conjuration room--trying to mislead the Leviathan--and vanished, shifting across the bridge to the safety of the dark entryway on the other side.

Deprived of a target it wanted revenge on, the colossus now swept laterally over the bridge, trying to see if its prey had somehow retreated back into the Conjuration room through a spell, as those left inside made for the back of the chamber, surmising its intentions.

Boraz’ move was what Romulus had been waiting for. The Gladiator began whipping his net around in circles, its enchanted strands expanding in size until it was large enough for the task, then he let fly.

The net spun upward, becoming visible as it left the Gladiator’s hands, and the Leviathan reacted almost immediately, lurching back and trying to bring its hands up to bat it away--but the beast was a moment too late and the net caught between its head and left wing, contracting and entangling the wing with its horn like a net of constrictor snakes.

For a moment, Boraz was forced to land on the bridge, but as quickly as he could grasp the net, he was ripping it apart!

As soon as the net left his hands, Romulus--now visible--reached over to grasp the trident and took aim, leaning back to throw with his right hand. Even as Boraz was tearing his net in two, the Gladiator let fly, and the trident hurtled up to the beast’s midriff, exploding in another burst of electricity.

Ignoring it, the Leviathan reacted immediately, taking a huge step forward and lashing out with its left foot at the Gladiator as it roared in anger.

If there had been time to think, Romulus would have tried to dodge, but instinctively he made the mistake of trying to bring his shield up to parry away a foot the size of a barn door. The move spelt his doom, for the blow struck home, driving the warrior, shield and all, into the side of the bridge, breaking his spine with a horrid crunching sound.

Back in the Conjuration room, Doremi screamed, bringing her hands up to her mouth.

Mercifully, Romulus was dead before Boraz leaned down to backhand his foe over the side of the bridge and into the abyss below.

Now they had lost two of their Fellowship.

Giles reached the monster a moment too late to prevent its last attack on the Gladiator, but he answered the beast’s victory by swinging the blade with all the power he had into the exposed left arm of the Leviathan, opening up a wide gash.

Yellow ichor, more like molten metal than blood, sprayed out with the blow as the Knight brought the sword round for another slash into the beast’s leg.

Nightshadow now joined the battle, swinging both scimitars against Boraz’ legs. Brigit was no longer enflamed, and thus its damage could not compare with his earlier attack--but still the beast shuddered with the blows as sparks flew from its body where the blades struck.

Another implosion from Raven then wracked the Leviathan’s head.

Boraz reeled with a shout and instinctively turned back toward the source of the spell, bringing up his arms to rake the area with flame as he kicked at Nightshadow with a foot.

Raven reacted immediately, pulling her cloak about her before she vanished into the same aura of fire that had nearly finished off Thor.

Doremi’s spell, meanwhile, was slowly imbuing Thor with strength, and in a few moments the Northman came to his senses, lifting his head to see the fight raging only a few yards away. He didn’t even think to go for an elixir, but spying the hammer lying next to him, reached out to grasp its handle. Then, in one fast move, he rolled to his knees, making an underhanded throw of Mjolnir up at the Leviathan.

The hammer flew out, striking the monster in the belly and unleashing yet another barrage of lightning, and the creature’s attack on Raven was disrupted as it backed away. But as the flames withdrew from her, they revealed a smoldering black mass huddled on the ground in a ball.

“He’s killed Raven!” Espidreen screamed in horror.

Oh, I hope she’s only faking it again, thought Doremi.

Boraz had endured enough this round, and with the blow from the hammer combined with everything else, the beast backed against the side of the bridge and again allowed itself to fall over, seeking the safety of the void.

Giles flew to the side of the bridge, helplessly looking after the beast as it fell away to safety, his frustration evident as he shook his sword at fleeing the monster.

Even as the Knight moved for the side of the bridge, the two Witches bolted out of the Conjuration room, running for their mistress, certain she was dead if not gravely wounded. But they had hardly taken three steps when the black shape rolled up and reached for her bow, apparently still alive.

Relieved, Doremi pulled up in mid-stride behind them and changed direction as she reached into a pouch for an elixir to give Thor, who was being helped to his feet by Nightshadow.

Raven was downing an elixir of her own as Cyllindrethifl and Espidreen reached her.

“Thank goodness--we thought you were dead!” Espidreen exclaimed.

“Not far from it,” Raven murmured back as she threw the empty vial of her last elixir to the ground in anger. “Come on.”

Back she hurried to the group, Witches following, gaining speed as the strength returned to her body.

“We almost had him that time,” she exclaimed.

“And he almost had us,” Thor spoke in response as Doremi’s elixir began to show effects.

The Viking rubbed his right arm, trying to rush the feeling back into it as the burn faded away. “As it is, looks like we lost the Gladiator,” he added, nodding back.

Raven ignored the comment. “Getting him on the bridge is the key,” she continued. “Every time he gets on the bridge, we hurt him. “Cyl--”

The Witch pulled up and came to attention.

“--We need the Leviathan on the bridge again. When he comes up the side and starts to hover, can you unleash a load of hailstones on him?”

She thought for a moment.

“Yes--and he won’t be able to resist them!” the Elf exclaimed excitedly. “I’ll follow it up with a second load on the right side and we’ll keep him trapped on the bridge--unless he simply dispels my magic. He can easily do that, Raven.”

“Not while fifty-pound hailstones are hitting him in the head--he can’t concentrate through that! Nor will he do it while our fighters are attacking him on the bridge. We’ll have him!”

“Whatever spells you’re casting is making the difference,” Nightshadow continued. “Can you keep them up?”

Raven nodded. “It’s an expensive spell, but I’ll keep up the attacks on him. Right now, though, I’m concerned about Thor. Do we have anything that will help him against that thing’s flames? Anything at all?”

The two Witches looked at each other and shook their heads.

“Isn’t there a Druid spell that enchants a cloak to help protect you against heat?” Doremi remembered, drawing upon her own years of adventuring experience.

Raven expectantly looked up.

Cyllindrethifl shrugged. “Cloak of chills. I don’t have it memorized, nor do I have the essence of a winter’s day to enact it.”

Raven sighed and her head dropped in frustration.

“I can--although I am loathe to do it--enact that third rank spell by casting the Song, Raven....” Cyllindrethifl continued.

Doremi knew what Cyllindrethifl referred to: “the Song” had to be speaking of the most powerful of all Druid spells: the song of Rhiannon, as the Avalonian Druids called it. The Bard had never heard it, for it was a thing sacred to Druids, who would never use it lightly. But she’d always longed to hear it performed.

“Go to it, Cyl--we need it.”

“He needs a cloak, Raven,” Espidreen pointed out.

As quick as that, Giles threw off his pack, laid his sword down and reached for the clasp of his own cloak.

“Take mine,” he spoke as he ripped the cloak off his back.

Just as fast, Thor shucked his own pack and dropped the rune bow next to it as he reached out to swing the Knight’s cloak about his own broad shoulders. Meanwhile, the Elf cleared her throat and concentrated. Then she opened her mouth and sang out a melody unlike anything Doremi had ever heard: a delicate, lilting series of tones that seemed to come alive in her mind in the same way her own voice might affect someone. To her great disappointment, she would never recall so much as one note of the song, but she would ever after remember its beauty.

A film of dew appeared, spreading over the surface of the blue cloak as the Elf sang, and in a few moments, the surface of the cloak was covered with a sheen of glimmering ice.

Thor grunted, shrugging his shoulders so the cloak would wrap around him as much as possible. “First time in months I almost feel comfortable.”

“He’ll do better now,” Cyllindrethifl assured the group.

“Well, let’s not stop at that,” Raven spoke as she reached into her enchanted belt pouch, retrieving a ball of white wax.

“Open up,” the Mistress of Freeport then spoke to the Viking.

“There’s an elixir in there,” she explained as she slipped into his mouth. “When the cloak starts to wear off, bite down and swallow. It’ll give you and extra boost of healing to keep you in the battle. Between Cyl’s spell and the elixir, you’ll be good for at least two throws of that hammer before its flames start to get to you.”

The Viking nodded. “If Wotan wills it, we’ll finish him!” he mumbled.

“The two of you need to stay toward the eastern end of the bridge,” Raven warned. “If he targets you there, we’ll be out of range of its flames and can keep casting without interruption.”

“We’ll take him this time!” Nightshadow vowed.

Down below, Boraz’ own rage was building. He’d had enough of that accursed hammer, and the first thing he was going to do was to kill the Scandian. That loud-mouthed Witch was dead, but as long as that Scandian lived, he was a threat--and it was time he became a threat no more!

His anger at a fever pitch, the Leviathan didn’t even wait for all his wounds to heal of their own accord; he simply spoke a word of Power he’d learned in the past, healing all but the wounds caused by Nightshadow’s scimitars. As he felt the pain leave and strength return to his limbs, the beast was ready to fight once more, and up it began to move, determined to have vengeance.

Again, Boraz rose up over the side of the bridge. And, as it knew Thor would, the Viking hurled the hammer as soon as he spied the Leviathan.

But Boraz was ready: The moment the Viking was bringing his arm around to let fly the hammer, the beast shifted over the center of the bridge. It was too late to stop the throw and Mjolnir struck nothing but the basalt wall of the cavern as the Leviathan vanished even as a row of huge hailstones appeared out of nowhere and began raining down along the left side of the bridge where the creature had been a moment earlier.

Having avoided both attacks, Boraz now unleashed another torrent of Hellfire upon Thor. But this time, the Viking was holding his ground, standing behind his shield, waiting for the hammer to return for another throw.

Now another purple globe of energy surrounded the beast and hammered it by the force of its implosion.

The mouthy Witch still lived!

Ignore it, Boraz forced himself to think. Kill her next. Whatever it takes, finish the Northman first!

Thor now had the hammer back and, despite the flames, reared back and took careful aim, hurling Mjolnir at the chest of the beast. It struck home, unleashing yet another storm of lightning into its foe, but the Leviathan withstood the blow, determined to bring down the Viking.

Another implosion struck the Leviathan, causing the beast to nearly fall onto the bridge, but through sheer force of will Boraz stayed aloft, following Thor’s movements and keeping the flames up in hope of finishing the Viking off once and for all.

The Witch would pay soon enough.

Raven read the strategy, realizing the Leviathan was determined to kill Thor, and she urgently beckoned for the Witches to come out and cast. Then she began invoking yet another implosion.

A pyrotechnic display of magic now went off about the Leviathan as the two Witches joined in from the doorway, hurling the best spells they had, as quickly as they could, at the beast. But nearly all of them proved futile as the monster’s innate ability to resist magic rendered them ineffective. Only Cyllindrethifl’s spells, every so often, seemed to actually bring some measure of harm to the Prince of Brass.

The flames were starting to consume the cloak of the Viking as the hammer returned to his hand for what might be his last attack. He made it count, shouting a Scandian curse and hurling it with all the strength he had left into the face of the beast, then he swallowed the elixir and began to move back.

Despite the pain from yet another blow of the hammer, Boraz realized victory was at hand--the Viking was at last retreating and cowering behind his huge shield. Now he would finish him and crush that hammer if it was the last thing he ever did!

The Leviathan’s feet touched down upon the bridge as it landed, its rage so great the beast didn’t even feel Cyllindrethifl’s bolt of lightning that overcame its spell immunity. Thor, smoking like a rack of meat upon a spit, tried to hurl the hammer one final time, but the Leviathan was too fast! In fury, a fist of brass came hurtling down, breaking the Viking’s shoulder and throwing him unconscious to the ground where he lay unmoving.

Nightshadow and Giles now leapt forward before the monster could finish the Viking off, their blades striking desperately against the giant. But the beast sensed the battle’s end was at hand, and its massive fist flew back and caught the Knight square in the face, flinging him backwards to the ground where he lay unconscious if not dead.

Nightshadow’s blades were hitting the colossus one right after another, but Boraz had determined Thor would die before anything else. Yet even as another implosion struck him in the head as he prepared to crush the last bit of life out of the Viking, Boraz saw an opportunity to finish off Nightshadow: Trying to protect his comrade, the Rogue had made a swing as hard as he could into the beast’s leg with his left scimitar, but the blow struck so violently the Rogue nearly broke his wrist and the scimitar had flown out of his grasp.

Instantly, he jumped away, intent on retrieving the weapon and re-entering combat, but in doing so he momentarily turned his back on the Leviathan. Forgetting Thor, the beast took advantage of the fumble and made its final move: Quicker than it would have seemed possible for its size, the Leviathan raised its leg and brought it down upon its foe, pinning him, face down, against the side of the bridge.

Nightshadow cried out, trying to awkwardly slash at the monster’s foot with Brigit, now that Dellendryll was trapped somewhere underneath him. But now Boraz had him pinned from above and was trying to crush the life from the fallen hero. What’s more, in the position he was in, the monster wasn’t making actual contact with the Mind Sapphire, and thus the Talisman couldn’t draw his life energy from him as it would have had the beast been touching it with his massive foot.

Another implosion wracked his head and Boraz looked back to the landing where the three Witches were unloading all they had left. Furious, his right hand reached back towards them, emitting a stream of flame--but, as Raven had planned, it reached no closer than some fifteen feet from its intended targets.

In came another implosion, but again Boraz ignored it, determined to finish the fight now. This could be has final victory if he could only hold out against the Witches’ spells. He knew he was close to half dead--but half dead to this monster was still beyond the most powerful demons at full strength.

The only question was how much energy was stored in the Mind Sapphire to protect its wearer?

Stunned for a few moments, Giles regained enough of his senses to fumble for an elixir. His gauntlets making it impossible to remove the cap, the Knight simply broke the vial, letting its contents drip down into his throat, then he was struggling to his feet, moving forward again after retrieving his sword.

Leaving his shield on the ground, Giles courageously stumbled to the back of the monster, raising both hands upon the hilt of the sword above his right shoulder--and then drove the blade into the heel of the beast as deeply as he could.

The enchanted blade sank nearly two feet into the body of its target, and instantly Giles withdrew it for another strike. But Boraz’ right leg caught him again in a backwards kick, sending the Knight flying once more. Then the monster swiveled around, sweeping its hand after its foe and sending out a jet of flame.

Giles became immersed in fire, and when the beast ended its attack, the fallen champion lay still and this time did not get up.

Nightshadow, meanwhile, was drawing on the full power of the Mind Sapphire in hope of raising the colossus from off his body as Doremi nervously watched from the landing.

“Come on, Nightshadow--you can do it,” she whispered.

For a moment, the Rogue seemed to. Boraz was leaning over with all his weight as the Talisman literally hummed with power, imparting all its strength to its bearer. As he pushed, the giant’s foot slowly began to be forced up as Nightshadow sought to get to his knees. Then they paused, both locked in a stalemate...

Until Nightshadow finally collapsed, trapped underfoot of the giant.

Yet another implosion struck the beast, and the moment it faded away, Boraz cried out, “Heal!

Everyone heard him, and everyone knew what it meant: a wave of power now surged through the beast, and in moments most of its wounds were gone. When the next implosion hit a moment later, it was like starting all over again.

Then Boraz immolated.

Nightshadow shrieked like a soul trapped in Hell, for now he endured the additional anguish of the searing flame with the crushing weight of the giant, yet the Mind Sapphire healed the damage even as it came, keeping him alive and in torment each passing moment as he lay trapped beneath the monster’s foot.

“Someone come up with an idea!”

Now even Raven was panicking as she began running low on spells.

He’s done it, thought Nostradamus as his consciousness viewed the fight from overhead! That worthless Leviathan has finally done something useful! But where did he get the ability to cast all these spells?!

Now the Liche turned its attention to trying to find some legal means of subverting its agreement with Boraz and destroying him the moment the Talisman was handed over.

He also wondered what was keeping Nabonidas.

As fast as she could cast, Raven was hitting the Leviathan with implosions, but those left alive could see it was a losing battle, and they all knew that whatever her powers were, she had to be nearly drained of her higher-rank spells. Yet still she was casting one massive implosion after another.

But Boraz had had put up with her long enough, and he was going to outwit and defeat that accursed Witch once and for all! As the globe began to appear once again, the monster concentrated, canceling its flames and invoking an ability to reflect magic back at its caster as Raven started to make her fist and strike him with the spell’s energy.

There was no time to halt it: instead of activating around the Leviathan’s head, the purple sphere of energy suddenly appeared around Raven, and its blow caught her full force, stunning its caster who dropped to the ground like she’d been sapped.

Espidreen, taking a bit less damage, was thrown down to the floor of the Conjuration room, but Cyllindrethifl hurtled into one of the silver doors, knocking her unconscious, and the Elf crumpled to the ground in a heap.

Only Doremi and Fosmo, inches from the affected area, escaped the blast, instinctively ducking as the implosion went off in front of them.

This is it, Doremi thought, grimacing.

Now the Leviathan was unopposed and grinding its prey into the ground as it put its full weight down upon its left leg, trying to finish off Nightshadow.

“Let’s make a run for it,” Fosmo urged, reaching out and grasping Doremi’s shoulder. “I’ll get us out of here!”

Doremi didn’t even have time to consider the suggestion, for at that very moment, just when things couldn’t get any worse, the doors from the temple burst open and the startled pair looked over, fearing they now had to contend with yet a new enemy.

They were both frozen in shock for a moment, and then Doremi exclaimed, “Who’re you?!”

Overwhelmingly pleased with his demonstration of superiority as he watched the three Witches taken out with their own magic, the Prince of Brass again immolated and turned back to his entrapped foe, leaning forward, twisting and grinding his foot into Nightshadow.

It was only a matter of time now.

The Talisman had reached its limits, and the Rogue stayed trapped as the life was slowly crushed and burned out of him.

For what seemed an eternity of moments, the two were undisturbed in their struggle, but then there came a gruff voice from behind.

“Leviathan!” it shouted from the landing. “Thy moment of judgment is at hand. Leave that dog and come fight me, for I challenge you for the glory of my master whom you have affronted!”

The giant head swung round to see what fool dared issue such a challenge...

Then the beast roared with laughter.

Standing on the landing, before the closed doors of the Conjuration room, was a Dwarf.

Unafraid, he was shaking an axe-hammer up at a monster that was nearly ten times his own height. The Dwarf was stodgy and solidly built, and for his attire he wore an ornate suit of engraved plate mail capped by a great helm encircled by a ridge of gold much like the Leviathan’s own crown.

Boraz was amused.

“I will be but a few more moments, little Dwarf,” the Leviathan laughed. “Be patient, and I shall entertain thy challenge!”

It took only as long as it took the Leviathan to deliver his mocking answer for the Dwarf to hurl the axe-hammer--and it shot forward, twirling end over end until it drove itself into the back of the beast and exploded into a great ball of fire.

The blow was as bad or worse as that of the Northman’s hammer, although the creature didn’t feel the flames of its fire. Still, Boraz howled and shifted position, turning to face his challenger as he kept his foot on Nightshadow.

The weapon, meanwhile, flew back to its master and a gauntleted hand reached out to grab it.

Then the Dwarf spoke his challenge again.

“Come fight, coward! Yield and do obeisance to the master whose honor I battle for!”

The monster’s eyes narrowed in fury.

“Who is thy master, that I may know who will eat the fruit of my wrath after I finish with you, footstool of the Prince of Brass?!” the Leviathan hissed back.

“I fight for the honor of my master and thine, who ruleth over all Devil and Leviathankind--the Lord Asmodeus!” the Dwarf announced.

It was the worst thing anyone could possibly say to a Leviathan. A roar, terrible beyond description, now issued from the beast, shaking the entire complex of the Upper School to its foundations as the colossus clenched its fists in rage.

Across the courtyard, the battle, which had now grown to include the first Humans who’d managed to reach the Upper School’s courts, actually halted at the sound of the beast’s cry--which was heard even that far from the tower! Sword and axe stopped in mid-swing while claws raking flesh halted in mid-strike as Viking and demon, Dwarf and Hocwrathian paused in their life-or-death struggle at the sound of the horrid bellow. The shout then died away, leaving behind a surreal silence in its place.

The pause lasted but a moment, and then the battle resumed.

Immediately the Leviathan’s flames snuffed out as the creature rose to full height and fixed a gaze of utter hatred at the Dwarf.

“How dare you speak that name in my presence?!” the monster bellowed at the top of its lungs. “Do you know what he did to us? Do you know what we lost because of him?!

His wrath beyond his control, Boraz screamed once again and raised his foot, beginning to stalk, one step at a time, towards the Dwarf, eyes burning with rage and its former prey forgotten. Behind him Nightshadow, blessing Brigit, rolled the opposite direction and came up, looking for the sword that had flown from his grasp.

Then his eyes fell upon it.

“You look like his champion!” the colossus spat as it advanced upon the Dwarf, who steadied himself and raised his shield while rearing back with the axe-hammer. “I will crush the life from you and throw you down to your master. Tell him I’ll be right behind!”

No, you idiot--stay on Nightshadow!” screamed the voice of the Liche.

Ignoring the voice, the Leviathan continued forward. It was almost upon the Dwarf now, shaking the bridge with every powerful step and cursing him at the top of his lungs.

Then, suddenly, the Dwarf shouted, “Now!

Boraz halted at the word and looked up as the doors to the Conjuration room were shoved open by the Burglar and the female in the ruffled cap. With amusement, it saw the pathetic trap they sought to use against him, for behind them was arrayed a force of some two dozen Dwarves, positioned for battle.

The creature knew it had been tricked, but it had no fear of even an army of Dwarves. Nothing short of a weapon made by a god, or a fellow Leviathan, could penetrate its hide of brass, so Dwarves could no more bring him down than ants could bring down an elephant.

Their pathetic ambush was amusing to the Leviathan Prince, yet for an instant Boraz was puzzled, for the Dwarves did not advance. Instead, they stood in four ranks, raising something at him that vaguely resembled crossbows, though the Leviathan saw neither limb, nor string, nor quarrel, but only a round casement of wood set upon a crossbow’s stock which showed a faint glow of magic--a magic undoubtedly too weak to affect him.

The Leviathan may not have known what the devices were, but the Liche did.

Run, you fool--those are weapons!” its voice rolled through the chamber.

Boraz nearly laughed in scorn at the Liche’s warning. But then the clicking began, and over a hundred crossbow bolts rained up at him in only a moment’s time. They had no chance of actually hurting a being so powerful, but the monster naturally brought its hands up to block them.

As one might have guessed, none of the bolts penetrated. But every one that bounced off its brass hide broke the vial of holy water encased in the tip, showering the Leviathan, as it were, in acid as the beast let out a roar, instinctively backing off and turning away in the moment before he would move back and stamp the Dwarves like ants.

Then his eyes fell upon Nightshadow, and his hands dropped away from his face.

“No!” Boraz screamed.

Before him, Nightshadow was laying on the bridge, his legs raised with Thor’s rune bow wedged between the top of the toes of his left foot and the underside of his right. Through the strength imparted by the Mind Sapphire, both hands had grasped the bowstring of frost giant sinew and pulled it back against his chest, bringing the two limbs of the bow so close that they nearly touched each other.

The result was a shimmering bolt of energy the size of a spear that was now pointing directly up at the Leviathan.

There was no thought of taking a true aim in such a clumsy position--it was simply a matter of firing at a target so huge it couldn’t be missed.

Nightshadow released the string and the bow snapped forward, launching its bolt of energy at the Leviathan like a thunderbolt.

Too late, Boraz tried to dodge but half his left shoulder was blown away as the bolt exploded into him with a tremendous crash and a shower of sparks.

The creature nearly spun around in a circle from the force of the blow as Nightshadow scrambled to his feet, ready for another shot. But his form was still not that of a normal archer: he thrust the bow as far away from his body as he could with his long left arm and, with his right, he drew the string back past his head as far as he could stretch.

A second blast from the bow now shot into the belly of the beast with a force so great it exploded out through its back!

No sooner had he released the second bolt, then Nightshadow was pulling back the string for another. It took only a moment for another deadly shot to collide with the monster’s chest as the bow which had been used in the First Age to bring down dragons now sought to bring down a Leviathan.

Staggering, Boraz turned away from Nightshadow--into a new volley of fire from the Dwarves, who had been reloading.

Then an implosion wracked its head from a healed Raven.

“This is our last chance!” she screamed from the doorway, reaching for a shuriken from her belt. “Finish him!”

Now the Dwarf hurled his axe-hammer at the monster again, striking him in the chest as two more shots from Nightshadow blew through the beast’s waist and thigh. Then the Leviathan, reeling from the attacks, looked over to the side of the bridge, where safety beckoned.

But it had taken too much damage.

The monster tried to stagger to the railing of the bridge, but its legs gave out from under it and the beast fell to its knees with a massive crash that nearly knocked everyone off their feet as the floor nearly gave way beneath it.

Too entranced by the battle to leave the door for the safety of the Conjuration room, Doremi could see the look in the monster’s face and realized it didn’t know where it was.

They did it, she thought! He’s gonna die! He’s really gonna die!

Like any creature in its death throes, the beast was now acting on sheer instinct, trying to roll to its right and fall off the side of the bridge.

But now it was Raven’s parting shot.

“Give my regards to Asmodeus,” she muttered as she cast the shuriken up at the monster.

The golden star streaked toward the Leviathan, but before it reached the monster it split apart into so many flaming shurikens that Doremi couldn’t count them all. There were twenty if there were one, and shuriken after shuriken struck the monster like energy bolts while Nightshadow fired off one last bolt from the bow.

Boraz pivoted to his right and fell forward as his momentum carried him into the side of the bridge, breaking through the stonework. Then the Leviathan was gone, rolling over the side like a giant diving into a pond.

Raven bolted to the side of the landing to look down. Cyllindrethifl’s hailstones spell had long expired, and the Mistress of Freeport had an unobstructed view of the monster’s descent.

It fell as it had done before, but this time limply, striking the sides of the tower as it tumbled down into the Pit. In a moment, he was a pinpoint of light, then the light winked out as Boraz continued falling and falling and falling until he was never seen again.

After the third energy blast, only Nabonidas still drew breath, his skin blistered and red, and his limbs nearly stiff from the shock his body underwent. Despite the agony, the grizzled old warrior sought to rise to his knees as the figure above descended, step by step, toward him.

Several shadow darts followed the enemy down, floating to the right of his head as the man, one of the darts in his hand for use if necessary, finally emerged from the darkness of the stairway and his features became visible.

With satisfaction, the enemy mage, thin, yet muscular, and dressed in a familiar robe of black silk, stood there observing the look on Nabonidas’ face as his parched lips opened in utter shock of recognition while the blue eyes stared out past the spittle-streaked beard, grayed with the age of decades.

“Nebonidas!” the old warrior stuttered. “But you’re dead!”

Pitilessly, the gaunt figure standing there returned Nabonidas’ gaze. “You have that backwards, my brother,” he corrected.

Simultaneously, the mage’s hand then snapped forward to launch the dart as Nabonidas used his last strength to wrench a dagger from a boot scabbard and hurl it forward.

Neither would have the satisfaction of the kill, for in that selfsame instant, both were consumed in a maelstrom of flame and smoke.

For hours now, a portion of the lava flow had been cascading down the side of one of the stairways and pooling far below in an isolated cellar of the Upper School reserved for storage. No one was there to see it or stop it, and little by little, the lava had flowed down the empty halls until it was finally stopped by a thick oaken door.

Behind that door, they lay stacked in a pile against a wall: close to a hundred barrels of black granules representing twenty seasons’ worth of toil by Og Face-Cutter and his ogres.

Guarded by three juggernauts (huge golems only a few feet smaller than the Leviathan) with orders to slay any living creature that entered the chamber, the barrels had been kept here for decades with the intent of someday using them against the Second School.

It wasn’t long before the door isolating them from the hallway caught fire and collapsed from the great heat, allowing the lava to flow forward until it reached the lowest stack of barrels...

And then the room exploded with a force never seen before in Islay!

A few outside the School who observed the blast say that for a moment every window of the fortress above the Lower School lit up bright as the sun. Then came the ear-shattering sound of the explosion as the entire western slope of the mountainside blew out!

The blast was so powerful that a good portion of the Upper School collapsed off its foundations and slid forward, burying alive scores of Hocwrathians trying to make their way to the Upper School as its collapsing towers and battlements rained down upon the eastern end of the complex below.

Worse than that, many wizards who had conjured up the demons battling the Scandians and Dwarves were slain in the event--and now those demons were free from their control! And so, acting as demons do, the creatures’ first thought was to turn on those they had been fighting for. The moment they felt themselves freed from their Bindings, many were flying, running or leaping from the melee in the Upper School to slay every victim they could reach in the Lower School. They didn’t last long, of course, against the warriors and Necromancers below who still outnumbered them, but they fought them anyway, just to show their contempt.

That’s just the way demons are.

And if this wasn’t enough for the Hocwrathians left alive to contend with, the blast shook the mountain so badly that the entire foundation of the Lower School shifted and would have given way but for the power of the throne which managed to keep it intact. And so, while much of the School was in pieces, most of it still survived because the throne’s power kept it alive.

But that power wouldn’t last much longer.

Aboard the Black Widow, they’d managed to avoid most of the fighting as the demons focused on the defenders at the stairways, leaving the Scandians and Dwarves to take the brunt of the attacks. But the ship’s luck couldn’t hold out forever, and one of the demons bounding up the mountainside discovered the vessel when it entered the Upper School through the Aerie.

It attacked immediately, leaping up to the weather deck and landing with a solid THUNK as it came to rest upon the timbers. The crew may have been used to sea monsters, but this was nothing like they’d encountered before: The demon was a good head and shoulders above the tallest of them, and it stood there hunched over like some huge praying mantis, its bulbous eyes assessing its enemies for a moment as its elongated head swiveled about on a spindly, muscular neck.

The Mate was first to react, raising his crossbow to fire, but a razor-sharp claw sent him pitching to the deck, practically tearing an arm off in the process, while a second crewman was nearly eviscerated by the creature’s next blow.

Nazier didn’t risk the crossbow and dropped it to the deck as he drew his two cutlasses and charged straight at the beast, his blades moving in a blur, slashing at the monster and driving it back toward the transom.

Hissing in rage, the demon was only there for a moment before it regained the initiative and moved forward in reply, relying on its thick, scaly carapace to withstand the blows. Two claws kissed only air as the master of the Black Widow parried them away, but then the demon lashed out with a claw, catching one of the blades in mid-swing and actually wrenching the cutlass from his grasp!

Two other crewmen had reached the aft deck by now and were rushing to their Captain’s aid, but a scaly backhand sent one over the side of the ship as the second went down to a claw that nearly took his head off.

Then the demon was back on Nazier again.

Though down to one sword, Nazier ground his teeth together and pressed the attack, drawing the blade across the exposed chest of the monster as he jerked and twisted, dancing on the deck while dodging its attacks. The blade failed to draw blood, and in response another claw raked across its enemy’s left shoulder, throwing Nazier to the deck by the force of the blow.

Drooling in fiendish delight as its prey went down, the beast leapt in for the kill as Nazier began kicking his legs in its face while swinging his remaining cutlass, trying to keep the monster from getting close enough to finish the job.

They wrestled like this for several moments until Nazier managed to pin the demon against the helm with the bottom of his boots--yet no sooner had he done that then the beast was shredding both unprotected legs with its dagger-like claws. It was only the sound of his own scream that kept the old mariner from passing out from the pain as he instinctively thrust the cutlass back at the beast, and missed.

Then he felt the crossbow lying next to him on the deck.

In what he knew would be a do-or-die move, Nazier released his grip on the cutlass, allowing the demon to wrench it free from his grasp as his right hand reached for the crossbow and swung it into firing position.

The crossbow started clicking over and over again, all eight shots going off in the demon’s face as it turned back to its prey, the beast not even having time to cry out as it vanished in a puff of green mist.

It was indeed a night of miracles!

Back at the Conjuration room, a cheer of elation arose as the Leviathan fell to his death. Then the Dwarves were rushing onto the causeway, triumphant, to catch a glimpse of their foe as the Witches, along with two Dwarven priests, rushed to attend the wounded.

Raven, along with the Bard, was peering over the landing, watching as the glow of the beast faded from sight until it finally vanished completely. Only then did she relax.

“How far down do you think Hell is?” Doremi asked her over the whistle of the wind blowing through the cavern.

“However far it is,” Raven answered, “it’s too close for me.”

The Mistress of Freeport then turned away from the Pit and locked eyes with the Bard. “And by the way--good job!” she added.

The Dwarf leading them had worked the plan to draw the beast off Nightshadow in only moments after Doremi had explained what was going on. They hadn’t hoped for much more that that, but Thor’s bow in Nightshadow’s hands had made the difference: The Leviathan was dead, and now the way forward was clear to finish the quest.

Raven’s eyes now sought for the Dwarven leader. “I don’t know why you came up here, but thank the gods you did!” she exclaimed as she turned away from Doremi to him.

Almost surprised, he looked up to her. “We got the map you sent us, and we thought you wanted us!” he explained. “Since nothing was happening on the stairs, I led some of my Guard up here.”

“No--we were just sending that in case we did need you...and it turns out we did! Thank the gods you came!” Raven repeated. “Hey, your crossbows, though--those aren’t the ones I gave you! Where’d you get those?”

At that question, the warrior looked a bit embarrassed.

“Please don’t take offense,” he replied politely, “but the ones you gave us weren’t very well made--they kept jamming. So we made some with better springs that were a bit more reliable.”

Doremi stifled a laugh at those words as Raven scowled slightly, then the Mistress of Freeport wrapped her arm about the Bard’s shoulder and thrust her forward. “Oh, and if you haven’t met formally,” she spoke, “--Dorrik, this is Doremi Bender, a Bard from Avalon whose help has been invaluable to us. Doremi, this is Dorrik, King of all Dwarves.”

The Bard curtsied. “We met for an instant only!” she replied. “An honor to make your acquaintance, Your Majesty!”

“And that’s Fosmo Figgins, chief Burglar of Torrence,” the Mistress of Freeport added as an afterthought.

“Hey there, Mate!” the Cutpurse nodded with a toothy grin.

“Just watch your sceptre around him,” Espidreen mumbled, overhearing as she helped a recovering Giles back to the landing.

The Dwarf nodded politely to Fosmo. “So our enemy still lives, then?” he asked, pleased at the thought, as he turned back to Raven.

“For a few more moments, Dorrik. Looks like you’ll have a chance, after all, to--”

That was as far as she got, for at that very moment came the sound of a tremendous explosion and then a horrid rumbling as the entire tower gave a shudder, this one far worse than the earlier one. As everyone was forced to reach for railings or drop to their all fours to steady themselves, the ground gyrated for several terrifying moments.

Then it was over as the tower, swaying like a pendulum, seemed to settle down.

But Dorrik and the Dwarves were still agitated.

“We’re out of plum three degrees!” the King of Dwarves announced, facing the Conjuration room as he let go of a railing he’d been holding onto. “We’re pitching downward toward the west! What was that?!”

“Throckmorton’s finally attacking!” Raven exclaimed with delight. “It must be that!”

“Things are coming to a head now,” Espidreen spoke up, stepping away from the railing.

“Exactly as I planned it!” the Mistress of Freeport beamed. Then her eyes sought for Cyllindrethifl, who was returning with a healed Thor.

“Cyl, pen, paper, and message box!”

The Elf simply lifted the belt pouch off of her belt and handed it to Raven, who dropped to her knees as she rummaged around in search of what she needed. Scrawling fast messages, she shoved them into the message box and they vanished off to their recipients.

“Dorrik,” Raven spoke as she penned another letter, “send your men back to the Music Library on the third level of this place. I’m telling Nazier to pick us up there.”

“You don’t want them with us against the Liche?” he asked.

The Mistress of Freeport shook her head. “If you want to keep a couple to replace the men we lost, that’s fine,” she responded. “Otherwise, they’ve done their part--better for them to clear the way back out if anything’s coming up to stop us.”

When the blast hit, Nostradamus was nearly catapulted to the floor. Bound as he was to the School by his Artifacts of Power, he felt the death throes of his own forces even as he realized his plans were unraveling by the moment. It was now only a matter of time, and if he, himself, did not stop these people--and stop them now--his end would be assured.

Trying to sense the fate of Nabonidas, Nostradamus perceived even he was dead along with scores of others.

Now the Liche was truly all alone.

A few hours ago, he thought to himself as he righted himself upon the throne, my School was the most formidable force in Islay. Now--the Witch has slain my Conclave with a word of Power few have uttered since the First age...they have felled my Leviathan...half my School is in army approaches from the sea--and all my forces have been able to slay are a few miserable Dwarves and Barbarians!

I underestimated you, Witch. I expected Nightshadow, but not that Barbarian, let alone the King of Dwarves and his personal Guards! So be it. I should have dealt with you directly from the start; I have erred in wasting my minions against you. Even so, no one defeats N'Str'D'Ms in his own Tower! Now I will show you the difference between a clever pirate who learns to cast spells only because she finds some item that permits her to learn, and a true wizard who has seen twenty times the number of seasons she has!

Confidently, Nostradamus removed a black crystal shard from a pocket of his robe and peered down at it.

The essence of Midnight to protect me against the word of Power you’ll cast when you see me.

He crushed the shard in his skeletal hand and intoned a spell.

Next, he removed a second shard of crystal.

The essence of Time itself to protect me--and to aid in your destruction.

He crushed it and invoked another spell.

And, of course, these. So simple, they will be your final undoing. You will over-analyze and miss the simple answer while you search for the difficult.

Carefully, he tied the sack of scrolls Sonja had left for him to a sash about his waist, the lowest part of him that was still solid.

And, finally, you.

The Liche reached over and picked up a two-handed mace, running his hand along its smooth iron shaft until the shaft formed itself into a golden claw holding a huge black diamond cut into the shape of a spiked mace head.

You served Serpen well--now serve me.

Watch and learn, Witch, was his final thought as he prepared for battle.

Raven finished and folded her last letter, stuffing it into the box and handing both up to Cyllindrethifl, who waited for instructions.

“Draconerius,” Raven ordered as she regained her feet.

Cyllindrethifl was startled. “Raven, I don’t know Draconerius!”

Now it was Raven’s turn to look surprised.

“You’ve lived here for a year! You never ran into Draconerius? Never even seen him from a distance?”

Cyllindrethifl shook her head. “Our paths never crossed.”

Raven’s head fell in frustration. She couldn’t believe it.

Doremi now spoke up. “I met him once, but it’s not like we’re friends or anything.”

Raven pulled the box from Cyllindrethifl, shoved it into Doremi’s gut, and the Bard reached out and grasped the box.

“Concentrate on Draconerius,” Raven told her.

Doremi complied, closing her eyes and concentrating.

A puff of smoke rose from the box and she knew the letter was gone.

Raven retrieved the box, placed a letter to Morgaine in it, and concentrated. After the letter vanished, she stuffed the box back into Cyllindrethifl’s pouch and returned it to the Elf’s possession.

“Espy,” Raven now called out, “give that elixir of rejuvenation to Cyl. Once we’re done here, your part will be over for the night, but I’ll need Cyl at full strength.”

It seemed to Doremi that Raven’s words almost brought as much relief to Espidreen’s face as it did puzzlement to Cyllindrethifl’s. But the Druid accepted this as in keeping with the way things worked around Raven, and she gestured up ahead to the two great doors nestled in the alcove eastward as she imbibed the elixir.

“Raven--his throne room should be beyond those doors,” she spoke after downing it. “It’s the same layout as Throckmorton’s School. We’ve done it! Unless he has a dragon with him, nothing could be more powerful than the creature we just slew. It’s down to him and us now!”

“You don't think he could have a dragon, do you?” Espidreen muttered nervously.

“There are no more dragons in Islay,” Nightshadow answered her with confidence.

“Trust us on that,” Dorrik added.

“Okay,” Raven spoke, “everyone make sure they’re healed up, and activate whatever protective spells or devices they have left. Don’t hold back--when you see him, give him the best you’ve got, because he’s giving you the best he has left! If we hit him hard and fast, we may all survive. If not, depending on what he does, he may drop some of us before he goes down. He can’t leave that room, though, so he’s got nowhere to run. He has to make his last stand there!”

Cyllindrethifl pulled a crystal from her pouch and began casting, causing the bridge around them to light up brightly as a globe of sunlight surrounded her. She continued casting, invoking two other protective spells.

“Raven--do you have any more words of Power left?” Espidreen asked as she began invoking a ward of protection, that guaranteed she’d resist at least two or three of any spells the Liche cast at her.

“I’ve got two seventh ranks left,” Raven answered. “And he’s getting a word of Power off them the moment I see his rotting face. I’ll hold back my last seventh unless we need it. How about you? How you doing?”

“I’ve got a sixth rank left I’m going to use to activate a fifth rank star gems spell since I don’t think of my sixths will affect him,” she replied, now tossing a handful of gems into the air.

Dazzling rubies, garnets, pearls, diamonds and other gemstones now began whirling around her head. Each would now provide a variety of enchanted protections against the Liche's coming attacks.

The fighters were clearly edgy and anxious to be moving. Dorrik’s two remaining Guardsmen had slung their crossbows to re-arm with swords, ready for one-on-one battle. Giles, now healed from the flames, hefted his Holy Sword in two hands, slinging his shield for now, ready for this last fight. The three titans now reunited, Nightshadow, Thor and Dorrik huddled together a few feet onto the bridge, encouraging each other, certain that final victory was now at hand.

“Keep in mind, you must lure him off his throne,” Cyllindrethifl announced to everyone. “If he stays on his throne, he can cast spells all day without using up any of his own power.”

“We’ll just charge the throne then,” Giles spoke. “My Sword be ready to skewer yonder Liche!”

Cyllindrethifl now summoned a greater will O’ the wisp, following it up with her own ward of protection, and then she was ready.

Raven herself now invoked a ward of protection and when she had done that, she spoke again.

“Okay, we’re going to bust the doors and I’ll hit him with a word of Power--assuming he’s visible. If he’s not, the fighters need to charge in and draw his fire. The second I see him, I’ll set it off. If we’re lucky, it’ll finish him just as it did the Conclave. If not and he still lives--the fighters rush him, and the Witches hit him with whatever they have. If there’s anything else in the room with him that’s significant, I want Dorrik’s two guards to go for it or them; if not, they can do what they think best.

“Nightshadow--you, Thor, Giles and Dorrik take Nostradamus unless circumstances warrant backing up the Dwarves or doing something else. But Giles and Nightshadow, no matter what--go for the Liche if you see him. Espidreen, cover the Dwarves if they engage anything. Cyl, you and I will concentrate on the fight with Nostradamus. Doremi--just stay back and out of trouble. Fosmo--stay back to cover Cyl and Espy. Do not leave them. Everyone clear?”

The Fellowship nodded amongst each other.

“Raven,” Cyllindrethifl said, patting a pocket of her blouse, “if we don’t see anything, I’ll scan the area with the ball of crystal we got off that Liche in the Gallery. If he’s invisible, I should be able to see him.”

Oh, but I want you to see me, thought Nostradamus as he listened in on every word they said. In fact....

He concentrated, and the darkness of the room fled as a spell lit up the entire chamber.

“Enough planning--let’s finish this!” Thor shouted with a scowl.

Anxious to fight, the Viking turned and began hurrying across the bridge, Nightshadow at his side and the others falling in behind. Before them now stood two massive doors at least thirty feet tall fashioned of solid gold inlaid with various symbols of Necromancy and Sorcery. Both men put their shoulders into the doors at once and they swung open with surprising ease to reveal the final chamber inside.

The Throne room was a cavernous vaulted room of basalt a hundred feet long and almost fifty feet tall. Hundreds of people could have fit within it, but only a lone figure met their eyes as the doors exposed what lay behind them: At the other end of the room stood a single massive piece of onyx carved into a dais and throne covered with glowing runes of power. Seated in a recess of the throne, but still clearly visible in the brightly lit room, sat the Liche, its burning red eyes staring back at them past its iron crown of coiled cobras which mounted a glowing sapphire much like Nightshadow’s own Talisman.

No longer fully solid, a skeletal face and upper body clothed in a formless black robe passed from bone to spirit below the monster’s waist.

Here then, was Nostradamus, 137th Master of the First School of Sorcery. And it took but a moment of time for everyone to realize that, despite their confidence, they were now face-to-face with the most powerful being Islay had known since the First Age--a being all now sensed would not fall as easily as its minions had.

“Our little Bard has returned to us,” the Liche spoke almost wistfully to Doremi, looking past the bodies between he and her. “And she brought some friends--how nice! All night long I have awaited you, and now comes the end of our little game.”

“You got that right--Brigit!” Raven shouted.

The room exploded with a globe of energy as bright as the noon sun, and Ethereal wind roared through the chamber like a hurricane, blinding the Fellowship as the Liche vanished into a maelstrom of energy.

As before, wave after wave of sunlight pulsed through the chamber, and as the light finally began to subside, everyone could see once again--and see that, unlike his Conclave, the Liche was unharmed!

“No,” it whispered, the acoustics of the chamber bringing its voice all the way to the other end of the chamber where the startled heroes now paused to decide what to do next. “Your pathetic Witch spells have no effect on me. In fact, you can no more harm me than you can stop me from leaving this chamber whenever I wish.”

The Liche caught the look of surprise on the faces of its enemies at hearing its words, and half a smile seemed to pass upon the monster’s features.

“Oh, yes,” Nostradamus continued, “I can indeed leave this chamber. I have merely fostered the myth that I cannot. So why then, am I here? Why did I not simply leave you an empty room as I fled to safety? Because it is here that my powers are at their greatest. It is here--not outside--that I cannot be harmed. Best fall to your knees and beg mercy. That, or learn there are fates worse than death. Come--I await you.”

Having finished his challenge, the Liche leaned back and waited.

Fearlessly, Sir Giles stepped inside the chamber, first to challenge Nostradamus.

“How doth it feel to know thou art about to die, Liche?!” he shouted, pointing his Holy Sword at the monster before him.

The Liche again sat upright and twisted its head toward the Knight.

“You tell me, Torrencian,” it whispered back. Then, with a swiftness no one expected from a skeleton, the Liche threw two daggers, enacting a pair of seventh-rank spells. As did Raven’s shuriken, both daggers as they left his hand burst into flame and spread apart into many others, shrieking toward the old Knight.

Forty dagger-shaped bolts of energy slammed into their victim who flew back into the wall near the door, collapsing to the ground, where he lay still.

Thor looked down at the body of the Knight, then let out a Scandian war cry as he hurled the hammer and charged forward, followed by the other warriors and the greater will O’ the wisp which Cyllindrethifl had mentally ordered to attack.

Instantly, the Liche held up a hand, and Mjolnir reversed its course in mid-flight, hurling itself back into its own master with a clap of thunder, driving Thor to the ground by the force of its strike and the power of its lightning!

Laughing, the monster then fixed its gaze on Raven, who was casting a witchfire spell.

“Did you think you were the only one who could cast spells from the First Age?” it asked calmly. “But, as a Witch, you can only cast one spell at a time while I, as a Sorcerer, can cast two. Like this....”

Two more daggers flew out from the Liche and split into dozens more to impact against the chest of Nightshadow, stopping him in his tracks and nearly blowing him backwards by the force of their impact, but the Rogue’s Talisman instantly healed him, and he did nothing more but bend over for a moment in pain before rising up and continuing his charge.

“We need him off the throne,” Cyllindrethifl muttered to Raven.

The Liche seemed to hear, and gave a shrug. “If it will please you,” the monster spoke in response.

Nostradamus now rose and began floating down the dais toward the floor, a huge black mace in his left hand. Nightshadow, despite the spell he’d just been hit with, was nearly to him now, and he took a final step forward, swinging his right scimitar against the head of the monster as his left cut through its waist.

But as a harbinger of what was to come, both blades passed harmlessly through Nostradamus as if he were some sort of illusion!

In the next moment, the will O’ the wisp transformed itself into a bolt of lightning and struck in turn, but if he felt it, Nostradamus gave no sign, simply vanishing from their sight.

The witchfire launched forward in a stream of red plasma from Raven’s gloved right hand--but now Nostradamus was gone. Harmlessly, the plasma passed through the spot where the Liche had stood, striking nothing as Nightshadow backed away, taking a quick look back to Thor who, though nearly slain by his own hammer, was feebly trying to get to his knees.

Doremi had entered the chamber as the rest of the group came in, searching for the Liche. Spotting the body of Giles, she knelt down and placed her hands beneath the shoulders of the fallen champion, hoping to drag him back out into the alcove.

Dorrik and his two Dwarves halted at the center of the room, looking for their enemy and scanning the many alcoves and recesses in the chamber expecting a sudden attack from the safety of their darkness, but there was no sign of their quarry.

Raven, wakizashi drawn, had entered the chamber and was looking up, anticipating an attack from above as Cyllindrethifl urgently peered through the crystal ball, trying to find Nostradamus in case he was invisible.

But then the Liche casually floated out from behind the throne followed by two disembodied hands holding the massive black mace.

The skeletal head turned toward Nightshadow and a bony finger pointed to him.

In response, the hands, with their mace, obediently sped toward him.

In thirty years of battle, the Rogue had never encountered anything like this, and his advance toward the Liche was halted as he now sought to parry the phantom attacker as it unleashed a blistering attack on him.

Brigit!” Cyllindrethifl now shouted, using her own word of Power now that Nostradamus was off the throne.

Once again, the room exploded into sunlight as an Ethereal hurricane roared through the chamber. Moments passed as the eastern end of the room vanished, but--as before--the Liche was untouched when he returned to their view!

Aroused by the presumption of the attack, the living skeleton directed its hate-filled gaze back to the Elf.

“Impotent, pathetic Witch,” he slowly muttered in contempt. “Now witness the triumph of human Sorcery over Elven Witchery!”

A ball of plasma then appeared in the Liche’s hand as it raised its right arm.

The three Dwarves now rushed to engage the monster in combat, trying to disrupt the spell it was casting. Two swords and Dorrik’s axe-hammer whipped through Nostradamus, followed by an ineffective energy bolt from Espidreen. Behind them, meanwhile, Thor was shaking his head to clear the grogginess as he downed an elixir. He then reached for the hammer that lay next to him. Weakened but still alive, the huge Viking then forced his himself to his feet and stumbled forward.

The elixir quickly did its work, and with each step the Viking gained strength until he was reinvigorated, his rage still at fever pitch.

The Knight, meanwhile, encased as he was in plate armour, was heavy, but Doremi was able to drag him out to safety. Though he was unconscious, fortunately he still breathed. But as the Bard set him against the side of the landing, an explosion went off behind her, its concussion driving her to the ground.

Energy blast--a big one, she realized.

Inside the room, Raven and the two Witches, injured but alive because of their protective magic, were trading spells with the Liche, who kept moving and casting as Thor and the three Dwarves flailed away at him.

Whatever the warriors tried had no effect on the monster, for their attacks proved useless as sword and axe seemed to pass through it with no more effect than the best spells the Witches could muster. Even Raven, certain Nostradamus could not possibly resist the magic from the Book, found her own powers ineffective against him. The one positive aspect of the battle was that the Liche was reduced to casting only one spell at a time as it maintained concentration on the mace pounding Nightshadow.

“Projected image of some sort? Is he invisible?” Espidreen called out to Cyllindrethifl in frustration.

The Elf intently peered through the crystal ball at the Liche, and then quickly scanned the chamber.

“No, it’s him!” she shouted back.

Grabbing her flute, meanwhile, Doremi hurried back to the doorway and stepped in to the right of the entry, mentally going over her list of songs in hope one of them might help.

This is probably a waste of time, but I’m going to try and lay him to rest, she thought. Then, bringing the flute to her lips, she began playing a powerful Bardic spell-song.

Unbelievably, Nightshadow was screaming for help as the mace struck him repeatedly as easily as if it was being wielded by a master warrior. Each time the huge studded head struck his leather armor, the Mind Sapphire flashed brightly, apparently healing an enormous amount of damage.

The masked warrior was attempting to parry, but--as was happening with the Liche--his weapons passed harmlessly through the mace while it could still hit him solidly.

Answering his call, Thor turned away and leapt back, swinging the hammer at the mace with no better results than the three Dwarves who remained on Nostradamus.

Then the sound of Doremi’s flute arose in the room, and the power of its lilting melody momentarily seemed to affect the Liche. Nostradamus actually gave a shudder, a vacant look momentarily passing across his face.

But he managed to recover, and in fury the burning red eyes fixed themselves on the Bard.

Oh-oh, Doremi thought.

A skeletal hand arched backwards and then snapped forward, launching a shadowy black dart at her. The song now a memory, Doremi tried to duck, but the dart struck her shoulder and exploded, painfully numbing it and causing her to momentarily lose control over her right arm.

Satisfied, Nostradamus shifted back to the throne, sat down and crushed a crystal of some sort. He then emitted an evil-sounding sibbilation directed at the mace.

He’s speaking Karnaki Doremi suddenly realized in shock as she rubbed her arm! ‘O Isis, who sees the past and future, open now the gate’. It’s that same spell again!

She continued listening.

Okay, now he’s changed in the middle of the spell to Sorcerer-Tongue.

Dorrik and the two Dwarves rushed forward to re-engage the Liche as Raven, meanwhile, came to the center of the chamber trying to analyze the situation, apparently stymied.

Nostradamus was off the throne and moving again--this time, literally passing through the group of Dwarves like a spirit, heading straight for Raven who readied herself, raising her wakizashi to make a massive downward swing at the Liche in final hope her blade would do the job. But then it paused and removed a scroll from a bag at its side. Apparently, unafraid of its attackers, the Liche calmly read the scroll off as the Dwarves again struck nothing.

Ineffective magic and elemental ice darts from Espidreen and Cyllindrethifl shot through Nostradamus as Raven shifted the wakizashi to her left hand and with her right pulled a black pearl from her pouch.

She took aim, throwing it straight at the Liche, but the ether ball flew harmlessly through the monster, dispelling in a soundless explosion as it struck a wall beyond it.

“No, Witch,” Nostradamus spoke as he looked straight at her. “Your spells and arms cannot hurt me. I move back and forth, outside your normal time. I exist simultaneously in the present and the future! I can strike you, but you can’t strike me before I move out of your time once again. Fools! You can’t even see where I am--you can only see where I’ve been!”

The Liche now issued a hissing, sarcastic laughter, then it began moving again.

Raven thought for a moment, closed her eyes and cast forward a shuriken. Twenty-five shuriken-shaped bolts of energy spread out in all directions, seeking targets, striking the walls of the chamber apparently failing to connect as the Mistress of Freeport opened her eyes, trying to follow most of them to see if there was any effect.

One struck the floor by Doremi, but her attention was drawn more to Nostradamus who had ignored Raven and was moving toward she and the other two women. The trio eagerly rushed north, past the doorway, allowing the Liche position itself in the southwest corner of the chamber, followed by the Dwarves. For a moment, it winced--precisely, Doremi realized, where the shuriken bolt had struck the floor.

“Raven,” she exclaimed, “I think he’s moving about a quarter-minute in the future compared to us! He’s using that Karnaki spell we found to do it!”

“Cyl,” Raven shouted, “--seven-twenty-five!”

Whatever code that was, Cyllindrethifl understood and withdrew a small hourglass from a pocket of her cloak, as she began casting a spell.

Yes, thought the Liche, recognizing it. You have done exactly as I intended. Farewell!

Doremi saw the hourglass and realized Cyllindrethifl was going to cast a time distortion spell, one of the most powerful of all seventh-rank spells known to Witches. They were planning to either slow Nostradamus down or else speed themselves up to his level of movement through time.

It won’t work--he’s still moving twice as fast through time as that spell will slow him down, she thought.

Then her eyes suddenly widened as she realized the risk of hitting the Liche with that spell.

“No, Cyl!” Doremi screamed.

But it was too late--the Elf finished, and the spell was going to take effect.

Without pause, the Bard dove back through the doorway to the safety of the landing as, where the Liche stood, a portal of swirling light in the shape of a cone appeared and the roar of Ethereal wind filled the chamber.

Tricked by Nostradamus, Raven’s order had caused a time vortex to open up as two time-affecting spells collided. But instead of killing Nostradamus as she’d gambled, the Liche merely stood there, racing ahead of the vortex in time, allowing the party to endure its effects!

One of the Dwarves was immediately sucked through the portal, his screams fading away as he vanished to only the gods knew where in space and time.

Feeling it start to draw her in, Raven dropped to the ground but was too close, and she began sliding back toward the vortex while desperately trying to crawl the opposite direction on the slippery floor.

Dorrik--right next to the vortex--let go his shield and caught hold of a column in one of the alcoves lining the walls, pulling himself away by his own great strength. The last remaining Dwarf from his Guard had dropped both sword and shield and was hanging on for dear life to a column, only feet from the vortex.

Cyllindrethifl and Espidreen were further away, inching toward the opposite side of the chamber when Nostradamus, clearly able to withstand the vortex and still act, hurled an energy bolt into Cyllindrethifl’s leg. The hit caused the Elf to lose her footing, and with nothing to grab onto, she was sucked backwards through the vortex, her screams echoing until they finally faded into nothingness.

Now the third member of the Fellowship had fallen.

Fosmo managed to reach out and pull Espidreen with him, and both fell to the ground, safe for the moment.

Thankfully, the vortex vanished after only a few seconds as the Liche again shifted to its throne and sat down.

Removing yet another crystal from a fold of his robe, Nostradamus cast the same half-Karnaki/half-Hocwrathian spell at the mace which was still battling Nightshadow. Then his bony hand reached into the sack at his side to retrieve another scroll.

At the other end of the room, those left alive were beginning to recover. Raven quickly rolled to one knee, casting a greater disenchantment spell at the mace.

But there was no effect.

Impossible, she thought! That spell was cast at twenty-fifth-circle; it has to break twentieth-circle magic--it has to!

Screaming a Dwarven battle cry, Dorrik charged toward the throne as his comrade pulled a hand axe from his belt and hurried behind. On hands and knees, meanwhile, Doremi crawled back into the room and struggled to her feet, feeling absolutely impotent.

And now to end this, Nostradamus thought to himself.

Casting away the used scroll, the Liche threw a dagger, and twenty dagger-shaped bolts of energy struck Nightshadow, throwing him into the southern wall.

The Mind Sapphire healed him and he recovered to again swing his scimitars at the mace. But now the glow of the Sapphire was noticeably dimmer than it had been at any time since they’d entered the School.

“I can feel it hit me before I can see it hit me!” Nightshadow shouted in pain.

“It must be moving too fast through time for us to parry it!” Thor exclaimed back as he made yet another useless swing.

Suddenly, several images of Nostradamus appeared on the throne as if he were somehow out of phase, and they merged into one as the Liche was actually stunned for a moment.

“His time spell’s ended!” Raven screamed, rising and sprinting forward. “Hit him! Don’t let him get another off!”

It looked to Doremi like the tide of battle might finally turn, for the Dwarves had mounted the throne by now and began swinging wildly at the Liche.

Yet still their weapons struck nothing solid!

The evil, leering face of the Lord of Hocwrath then turned to the King of Dwarves and emitted a stream of laughter as the axe-hammer passed harmlessly through it. Then Nostradamus casually floated down the throne and toward the melee with Nightshadow, completely unconcerned with the two Dwarves’ attacks.

Espidreen’s sunburst now hit the Liche dead center in the chest--but the monster showed no harm as it continued on toward Nightshadow.

Thor turned and made a massive swing directed at the Liche’s head and the iron crown it wore, but again the Viking’s mighty hammer passed harmlessly through. Raven, meanwhile, had now reached the battle and began her own series of slashes with the wakizashi. She didn’t know about anyone else’s weapons, but hers had to affect him--not even a god’s weapon could hold much higher of an enchantment than the ones she’d fashioned herself through the power of the Book!

Yet the wakizashi sliced through empty air, doing absolutely no harm to the Liche.

“Espy, why can’t we hit him?!” Raven screamed out in frustration.

“I don’t know!” the Witch shouted back from across the room. “It’s not the time spell; it’s something else! He might be under some other seventh or eighth rank spell from the First Age we never heard of!”

“Come up with something, you two!” Raven answered back as she continued swinging.

Now all the main fighters were on the Liche: Nightshadow, abandoning attacking the mace, Thor, Dorrik, his Guardsman, and Raven were all attacking it with everything they had. The Liche was being bludgeoned, hacked and slashed by hammers, axes, scimitars, and wakizashis--but nothing could touch him!

Espidreen--nearly out of spells--hurled a disenchantment at the Liche, again with no effect.

Still unconcerned, Nostradamus halted and began hitting Nightshadow with energy bolts, ignoring his many attackers. The Necromancer-Sorcerer had a nearly unlimited supply of power for 1st rank spells, and he was now launching them at Nightshadow whose Mind Sapphire healed the damage from each one.

The frustration on her face evident, Espidreen ceased casting, realizing it was futile.

“Why is he wasting spells on Nightshadow?” she whispered to Doremi. “Magic doesn’t affect him; he must know that.”

Doremi had realized that as well, and it made no sense to her either. Then with nothing else to do, she, Espidreen and Fosmo began inching toward the melee at the opposite end of the room, trying to think of some strategy they hadn’t tried.

Nostradamus now interrupted his attacks on Nightshadow to retrieve another scroll from his sack. This reinvigorated the group, which pressed their attacks, but still nothing seemed to harm the monster.

Dorrik’s Guardsman, frustrated at his inability to strike the Liche, interposed between the mace and Nightshadow, trying to grab the handle of the weapon. Irritated, Nostradamus reacted and willed the hands wielding the mace to attack the Dwarf.

The mace swept downward and the Guardsman gave a cry as his flesh instantly withered, shrunk and turned to dust, dropping his now-empty plate armour to the ground.

Raven jumped back in shock.

“That thing’s enchanted with a transmute creature to dust spell! One hit, and you’re dead!”

“Worry not, Witch,” the Liche spoke. “This weapon is only for him; the rest of you die by other means.”

Comforting thought, Raven said to herself.

Then Espidreen suddenly realized something.

“That mace looks like the one on Serpen's statue outside! It could be his mace! gods--that means it's an Artifact of Power, Raven!”

The mace now returned to attacking Nightshadow, striking the leather-armored Rogue in the back again and again with ease, and Nostradamus launched another energy bolt at him from the front.

Still healing the damage, the Mind Sapphire was finally beginning to darken.

Suddenly it all made sense to Doremi: Nostradamus’ spells couldn’t get past the Mind Sapphire--but it drained the Talisman each time it neutralized them!

Now she understood what was happening.

“Raven,” she shouted, “he tricked you! Nostradamus wanted you to attack him! He knew you’d bring Nightshadow--his plan all along was to get Nightshadow here so he could kill him and take the Mind Sapphire! He’s trying to drain the Sapphire--that’s why we’ve been fighting things without life energy for it to absorb, and why everything has been attacking him! You did exactly what the Liche wanted, and brought it right to him!”

True or not, the knowledge was useless at this point.

“Change strategy!” Raven screamed in panic. “Try anything! Try silver...try non-magic weapons...try cursed weapons--try anything! Nothing is working! What spell is this?!”

“Yes Bard,” the Liche calmly acknowledged. “All that you say is true: I manipulated this simpleton Witch into bringing my Mind Sapphire within reach. And why not? It and the crown are a matched set. But, lest you think too much of yourself--know that I manipulated you most of all!”

Satisfied that the mace would be enough to finish Nightshadow, and unconcerned with the attacks being made upon him, Nostradamus turned toward Doremi whose eyes had widened in surprise.

“Yes-you were the gullible little pawn I used to lure these all here. Why do you think the Schools permitted you to visit their Libraries after I let you leave? Do you think it was because they needed either the paltry sums you offered them for the privilege, or your services? I let every Schoolmaster in Hocwrath know I would consider it a personal affront if they refused to let you do research at their Schools if you called on them. I wanted your skills to mature, and I have enabled you to become the most learned scholar on ancient Karnak in Islay--far beyond me. I confess we at the School never thought those picture-writings would ever be useful to us, and we lost the knowledge of them. I even had to bargain with my Leviathan to translate one simple sentence for me.”

Nostradamus now paused and read off yet another scroll.

“You may wonder why I took such an interest in you,” the Liche continued after finishing. “Quite simple: I knew the Witch would need one such as you once she set her mind to come fetch what I allowed her to realize I possessed. Since you were the world’s only female scholar on Karnak, whom else would this predictable Witch--whose vanity would never allow her to grow old without a fight--seek after? I knew that when she contacted you, she would soon come here and Nightshadow would be with her. And how did I know she contacted you? A little bird told me.”

The Liche grinned.

“You were too simple to notice it--my little raven who followed you everywhere. She followed you through Hocwrath, Sarvia, Avalon--and finally to Freeport, and she told me everything you did. Then I knew the time was close, and I prepared.”

Nostradamus now turned back to Raven as his smile turned to a look of utter hatred.

“I have been outwitting and defeating better than you for eight centuries! Did you think the most powerful wizard since the Triad could be tricked and defeated by a flying pirate ship manned by an outcast band of Elves, Barbarians, and this dog of a Dwarf? Did you really have the unmitigated gall to think--even with an army--you could come to my Tower, take me by surprise, and gain for yourself immortality, and through that, the rulership of all Islay with me helpless to stop you?! Pathetic little Pirate--I tricked you into coming here and giving me what you sought for yourself! You never should have sought to play chess with one such as me, Witch! Now all Islay shall fall because you came here and gifted it to me in your own foolishness.”

Abandoning use of the wakizashi, Raven was now chopping and kicking the Liche in case its immunity was actually to metal.

She spit through him.

“I’d have come long before now if you’d let me know you murdered my father--you didn’t need this game!”

“Witch, I have no idea whose whelp you even are,” Nostradamus answered. “But if I did kill your father, a pity I didn’t kill him years earlier to spare the world the birth of you!”

“His name was Shibato. He died with Nightshadow’s uncle!”

The Liche thought for a moment.

“Ah! The little bald fellow--yes, I slew him. Or rather Boraz did, useless Leviathan that he proved to be. Your father was such a worthless dog I never even took the time to learn his name.”

“You’ll remember that name in Hell, Liche!”

“I think not.”

The Lord of the First School turned back to Nightshadow and fired off yet another energy bolt.

“If he drains the Mind Sapphire, I’ll die and he’ll be able to remove it from me!” Nightshadow shouted as he desperately tried running toward the center of the chamber, trying to buy time.

Liche and mace followed as Doremi assessed the situation, concluding this was all hopeless.

“Raven--we can’t beat him! We have to make a run for it--if he gets Nightshadow’s Mind Sapphire, it will keep him alive forever and nothing will be able to stop him! He’ll be able to leave the School!”

The Liche turned his head toward Doremi and the two giant doors of the Throne room slammed shut.

“None of you is going anywhere,” it hissed. “And just so you know, Witch,” it taunted Raven, “as soon as I get my Mind Sapphire and can leave this accursed tower, you will live to see what I do to your island and every living soul on it--even if I have to bring you back from the dead in order to do it! Then I’m going to find the best torturer on Jewel and give him his weight in gold for every day he can keep you alive! As for you, Bard,” it vowed to Doremi, “when I’m done with you, I’m going to trade you to some demon as a concubine in return for a service! The rest of you die to re-energize the Mind Sapphire once I take it from this thieving Elf. Your life energy should be just enough for me to reach and kill your mercenaries at the other end of the School.”

The monster turned away, removed another scroll from its sack, and started reading.

“Doremi,” Raven cried out, “try a Bardic disenchantment--maybe music can affect him!”

That sounded like an idea! In fact, she would go one better and try for a greater disenchantment, which would be based on her own level of skill instead of trying to overcome the Liche’s.

Her arm sore but functional again, Doremi dropped the flute and went for Faire-chlaidh-ceol’s strings, strumming a chord that nearly blew everyone’s eardrums--but again, the Liche was unharmed.

Then the Bard had an idea.

The Holy Sword, she thought! Giles’ Holy Sword! The Liche attacked him first, and no one’s tried using it!

She looked around to where Giles had originally fallen. The silver-bladed sword, fortunately, hadn’t been sucked into the time vortex and still lay on the floor where the Knight had dropped it.

Doremi hurried over and picked it up. Then, rushing back toward the melee, she approached Raven from behind.

The huge sword, she could see, began glowing as she approached the Liche.

“Raven--here’s Giles’ Holy Sword--try using it!”

Raven dodged to the side. “Get that thing away from me!” she said sharply.

Doremi sighed and turned back to Fosmo. “Fosmo!” she called.

The Cutpurse froze. “Uh--I’m a rapier and dagger man, sorry,” he mumbled.

“Oh, you bunch of evil--”

That was as far as she got before the sword was snatched from her hand by Thor, who spun back toward the melee. The sword was now white hot, and Raven gave him plenty of space as the Viking whipped the blade down on the Liche, trying to split him in two.

As had everything else, it passed harmlessly though the monster.

With a Scandian curse, the Viking threw down the sword in disgust and shifted his hammer back into his right hand to continue attacking.

Yet as the sword fell, Nostradamus quickly floated to the side of Nightshadow, and Doremi caught the movement.

I think he's afraid of the sword, she thought. But why? Thor just hit him with it, and it did nothing, yet he moved away from it when he threw it down. That means something--but what?

“Raven,” Espidreen shouted, “he’s been using scrolls to do it! They must be scrolls of some eighth rank spell survived from the First Age that he can’t cast but can read off!”

It sure seems like it, Doremi thought. But he can’t have that many scrolls from the First Age. That sack he’s got is bulging with them!

Everyone could see the Mind Sapphire was now only dimly lit--and Nightshadow was almost out of time.

The Liche now shifted back to its throne and once again began to cast the frustrating time spell on the mace. Only Dorrik and Thor followed, for Raven figured he’d be back in a second. And, just as she presumed, after casting the spel,l Nostradamus floated through the two warriors back toward Nightshadow.

“I don’t know what spell he’s under,” Dorrik grunted as he followed the Liche, swinging in futility, “but whoever invented it should be gutted!”

No spell should be this powerful--there’s no way to hurt him, Doremi exclaimed to herself.

Then, out of nowhere, to her mind came Cyllindrethifl’s words from when they had examined Nostradamus’ non-functioning time machine: “The task of moving a machine and rider through time is so staggering that in determining to solve that problem, the Liche has failed to see the obvious simple alternative--have the machine remain while only the rider travels through time.”

Was it possible, she wondered, that there was actually a simple way to thwart him that they were missing because they were determined to use weapons and spells? But what could it be?

Every spell had some sort of flaw--but this one had none, except, perhaps, a short running time.

Wait a minute, the Bard then thought. If it is that powerful, why did he wait so long to use it? Why throw all his minions at us if all he had to do was just attack us with it? There must be something about this spell...something we’re missing...something he’s afraid we’ll figure out. There is a simple answer--there has to be! But what is it?! One of Raven’s shurikens hit the floor and the Liche reacted when he got to that point in the room. He moved away from the Holy Sword when Thor dropped it. That must mean something, too--but what? Maybe that's the Achilles' heel of the spell--if you hit his heel he takes damage. But he hasn't got a heel--he's a spirit below the waist. Is the floor somehow enchanted? The clues are there, but what do they mean?

Gloating, the Liche reached for another scroll, sensing victory was only moments away.

Those scrolls, Doremi realized. They’re our last chance to try and figure out what’s happening. I’ve got to listen and see if I can learn anything.

As a Bard, Doremi’s ears were trained to dissect and analyze sound, and she closed her eyes, blocking out the curses, grunts and sound of the melee as she focused upon the Liche as it began to read.

It’s not Sorcerer-Tongue or Karnaki, she realized. That language is....

She continued listening.

It sounds Sarvian! A Sarvian wizard must have invented it. But why use scrolls? Why not just cast it? At his circle of power, it would last forever!

The Mind Sapphire had now grown dark and Nightshadow was weakening. Still the mace kept striking, driving the Rogue back into the wall. He was now too weak to even dodge--and then the mace seemed to take aim and smack him right in the face!

Nightshadow now collapsed to the floor, helpless and near death as the mace, unopposed, began to strike him again and again as he lay helpless, draining the last bit of energy from the Talisman.

“I’ve done it!” the Liche hissed with glee. “The thief has fallen! After eight centuries, it’s mine! Your doom is at hand, Throckmorton!”

Then the monster paused and looked into the air as its lips uttered the supreme blasphemy.

“As Lord of the First School, I now renounce the Pact!” the Liche shouted out. “I renounce your power. I renounce your anointing. I renounce your protection. Most of all, I renounce you, Yourself! I am now the god this world will bend its knee to!”

On the verge of delirium, the Liche filled the chamber with his evil laughter as it leaned over toward Nightshadow, waiting the last few moments for the mace to finish its victim.

Fosmo’s face fell. “It’s over,” he said to Doremi. “We’re dead.”

Back at the battle, Thor realized the same thing and now he took a step back. Keeping his eyes on Nightshadow lying helpless on the floor, the Scandian brought the hammer up, tightly grasping its shaft with both huge hands.

Then, straining, he started to bend it.

Raven realized what he was going to do: the moment the Mind Sapphire was drained of energy, he was going to snap the hammer in hope the Talisman would be destroyed by the accompanying explosion!

That they would die too was obvious. It was only a question whether the Liche would somehow perish in the explosion with them.

The end of her life in sight, the Mistress of Freeport called on all the energy she had left, doubling her attacks on the Liche, hoping for one last miracle. Failing that, the moment Nightshadow ceased moving, she was going to try and shift out of the chamber into the Conjuration room as Thor snapped the hammer.

With luck, she might survive--if the hammer didn’t take the entire level out!

The humble Bard, meanwhile, was deep in thought.

There aren’t many Sarvian wizards, she was thinking. In fact, I’ve never heard of one. Plenty of Gypsies, but no Wiz--wait! Gypsies! We were attacked by Gypsies! And that Bujo woman Sonja was with them! That could be a Gypsy clan tongue, not Sarvian! And he can’t cast Gypsy spells--but he could read a Gypsy scroll!

Doremi’s hopes collapsed again.

But no Gypsy spell is that powerful. They only have fifth rank spells. Half their spells are songs I can play. But maybe he’s altered it. Maybe he’s using a Gypsy spell in combination with some Sorcerer spell.

The Bard’s head was beginning to swim in confusion.

No--too complicated...look for the simple answer.

Doremi thought for a moment.

The only simple answer is that he’s casting a Gypsy spell. That means it may not be what it seems to be. It could be some kind of trick we're mistaking for something real--and that’s what he could be afraid of! But I've never heard of anything like this. Even if it’s a trick, what kind of Gypsy spell makes you immune to everything?!

At times like this, Doremi was glad she was blessed with a memory that allowed her to recall almost everything she’d ever been told, read, or seen, for it was at that moment that something from a night long ago suddenly flashed across her mind: It was the incident in which she’d finally escaped from the Gypsies’ clutches when the Cossacks had attacked their caravan one night.

Wait a minute! I remember when one of the Cossacks came at Sonja. She started to run when the Gypsies all scattered and I thought his sword cut her head off--but then she caught up to me again and she was alive. The Cossack's sword didn't hurt her any more than ours are hurting the Liche! Maybe that’s the answer. I remember she said something weird. What was it?

The voice of the dead Gypsy seemed to echo in her mind.

“It was an old Gypsy trick--I merely hid in shadows and he could not see me.”

No no--it wasn’t that. It was something else. It wasn’t ‘he could not see me’ was ‘he could not find me....

Sonja’s words kept running through her head, rearranging themselves like someone trying to put a puzzle together in the right order.

“It was an old Gypsy trick....”

“...He could not find me...”

“...I hid...”

“...In the shadows”?

“...Inside of shadows”?

“...Inside of my shadow!”

Then she remembered.

“It was an old Gypsy trick--I hid inside of my shadow and he could not find me.”

The Bard’s eyes flew open.

A shadow shift spell! You exchange places with your shadow! Your body becomes your shadow and your shadow becomes your body so you can escape from your enemies without being hurt! You can’t use melee weapons--but you can cast spells and use scrolls! That’s why the shuriken hit the floor! That’s it!

“I know what he’s doing!” Doremi suddenly screamed at the top of her lungs. “Hit his shadow! Hit his shadow!”

What happened next was surreal: The entire melee ceased for a moment, and all eyes turned to Doremi.

In the instant of time it took the Liche himself to look back at her, a dozen different scenarios about how to continue the fight and win ran through its mind.

But all of them ended up with the same unacceptable result, and Nostradamus, eyes burning in rage, was still first to react.


Raven, with nothing to lose, simultaneously slashed at the Liche’s shadow on the floor with her wakizashi.


The spell failed as the Liche took her slash!

The Mistress of Freeport nearly dropped the wakizashi in shock, then recovered and cried out, “She’s right--hit his shadow!” as she made another downward slash.

Return!” Nostradamus tried once more.

Again, the spell failed as the wakizashi and now an axe-hammer struck his shadow.

“He’s trying to use a word of Power to escape,” screamed Espidreen. “Hit him as fast as you can--don’t let him get the spell off!”

The Witch then began casting energy bolts as fast as she could at the shadow of the Liche upon the floor. Even Fosmo now leapt into the fray, trying to find room to jab the shadow with his rapier as Thor--a hair’s breadth away from snapping the hammer before Doremi’s cry--bent over and brought Mjolnir down onto the Liche’s shadow with all his strength.

The plan had been brilliant, and the chess game played with unparalleled skill to maneuver his opponents into doing precisely what he wanted. But the Liche, having sacrificed nearly every piece on the board, had staked all on this one last Gambit--and now that Gambit had failed. There were now no options left, no strategy that could save him. Hammers, wakizashis and rapiers now battered the monster, and the Lord of Hocwrath was now helpless as the hunter became the hunted, its quarry unleashing the fury of a pack of ravening wolves against their lone enemy.

Nostradamus was now incapable of even minimal continued concentration on the hands wielding the mace, and it dropped to the floor, the Liche’s plans collapsing with it--for Nightshadow, barely alive, shakily rolled to his side, tentatively reached out to grab one of his scimitars, and began to struggle to his feet.

Suddenly there was a flash of light from the Liche’s right hand.

Return!” Nostradamus attempted again.

Again the spell failed.


Another failure.

Return!” the Liche desperately cried.

There was another flash of light from the Liche’s hand.

“What’s that flash?!” Dorrik shouted as he kept bringing the axe-hammer down upon the enemy’s shadow.

“I think he’s got a ring of nine lives,” Doremi shouted back. “It’s protecting him from dying but it won’t last long--no more than nine times!”

Three times more, the Liche attempted to use a Word of Power, but it was simply impossible for him to focus long enough to activate the spell since he was being hit every second by something, and the ring flashed with each attempt as a storm of weapons came down upon the defenseless creature.

Finally there was a bright flash of light from the Liche’s hand as the ring vanished.

“It’s gone--we’ve got him!” Thor shouted.

Return!” the Liche tried once again.

Now a flash appeared in its left hand as the spell failed once again!

“Curse the swine--he’s got another ring!” Fosmo swore as he thrust the rapier into the heart of the shadow.

Nightshadow by now had regained his feet and joined the battle, the Liche now taking the blows from his scimitar in addition to the other attacks it endured each tormenting moment.

Desperate for any avenue of escape, Nostradamus began trying to move eastward as the group followed, showing no quarter as a rain of steel continuing falling upon the monster.

Doremi stepped forward.

“He’s trying to reach the throne! Don’t let him!”

At her cry, Thor stepped away from the battle, reared back, and with a grunt launched his hammer at the onyx throne. Trailing lightning, it collided near the top with a tremendous clap of thunder and huge blue bolts of electricity spread out in tendrils from the top to the bottom of the great black throne, immersing it in electric flame. Half the throne exploded as large chunks broke away, but more importantly the glowing sigils upon it flickered and went out as the hammer wheeled about and came flying back toward its master.

The effect was instantaneous: the entire tower--in fact, the entire School--now gave a mighty shudder as the magic that had kept it intact for ten thousand years gave way.

But everyone remained on their feet, smiting the enemy.

With the power of his throne now broken, Nostradamus halted and, having ceased casting, twisted and covered up, trying vainly to protect himself. Hissing and screaming, the Liche could do nothing but withstand blow after blow with no hope of deliverance, knowing all that lay between it and the welcome of Asmodeus for a traitor were the last few charges of its remaining ring.

The scene reminded Doremi of an encounter a group of hers once had with a vampire in Avalon. Having trapped the monster in the tower of an old keep, four of her party held it at bay with crosses as the monster was forced to await its demise at dawn, only minutes away. The vampire had also hissed and writhed like a caged animal in its last desperate moments of life, helpless to escape the heroes who had cornered it. Nostradamus, likewise trapped, awaited his own dawn, not minutes, but mere seconds away now. Again and again, his last remaining ring flashed as the attackers kept striking the monster with all the vigor remaining in them.

“Raven,” Espidreen shouted, nearly jumping with excitement, “he’s out of spells! We have him! We have him!”

A few feet away, Doremi was holding up nine fingers.

No, he’s not, she thought. He has one left. And I betcha I know what he’s gonna try to do--if he doesn’t get killed first.

She grasped for faire-chlaidh-ceol and carefully positioned her fingers on its strings. Then, forcing herself to ignore the visible body of the Liche, she focused only on the floor where the weapons were raining down on the monster.

I have to time this perfectly, she thought. It will only take him a second to cast it, and if I miss, he’ll escape. One breath after it happens, I play. No--one-half breath after it happens!

Strings, if there was ever a time you didn't need to break, this is it!

The ring now flashed its final time and vanished from the Liche’s finger.

“That’s it--he’s finished!” Raven shouted, flipping her wakizashi into position for a final strike. “Die, Liche!”

With that, she plunged the weapon into the floor.

At the same moment, sparks and shards of stone flew up from the floor of the Throne room while the weapons of the Fellowship struck stone as the Liche’s Gypsy spell ended simultaneously with the ivory ring’s destruction.

Confused, the attackers halted for a moment, which was all Nostradamus needed.

The Liche now bolted upright, the twists of fate having given it one last chance to survive.

Doremi took half a breath and plucked the strings of the mandolin as hard as she could, running her left index finger along the A strings as fast as possible, cutting herself in the process as she sent out a series of sound waves from the instrument.

Return!” Nostradamus shouted with all the strength he had left, intending to reach one of the Libraries and hide until his forces reached the tower.

The Liche’s voice echoed through the chamber and his attackers remained frozen, realizing he’d gotten the spell off and escape was his!

Instantly, the familiar aura of light appeared atop his head and began spreading down his body in the second before he’d vanish.

Break it! Break it! Break it, Doremi was thinking!

Doremi’s fifth rank spell-song paled in comparison to the power of the Liche’s seventh rank word of Power. But dissonance was a song specifically invented to counter the musical attacks of other Bards, and thus it disrupted the power of sound. Yet it also had the side-effect of neutralizing spells with only vocal components--and this was the very foundation of the word of Power.

As the echoes of Nostradamus’ voice faded away in the chamber, the aura from the spell hovered about the monster’s waist for a moment, then retreated back up until it disappeared--and in its last moments of life, the Liche realized the spell had somehow failed and a look of utter bewilderment spread across its features.

“But I got the spell off,” they heard him mutter.


Mouth still open in shock, Nostradamus turned to look at Doremi, who was waving to get his attention.

“And that was from a Bard!” she called out.

Trapped and helpless, the Liche’s head now pivoted about, seeing nothing but the hate-filled eyes of its enemies who surrounded the monster staring back, their weapons ready for the final blows.

“Mercy!” it begged. “Mercy!”

“This,” Raven said, slowly, “is for my father, you filthy...putrid...Liche.”

With that, she thrust the wakizashi through the center of the monster’s back and through its black heart, skewering the monster.

“And this is for my brothers!” shouted Dorrik, who swung his axe-hammer into the belly of the monster.

“And for my uncle,” grunted Nightshadow, who found the strength to slash the creature.

“And for my brother!” roared Thor, who had retrieved the hammer and now swung it with all the strength he had at the Liche’s head.

Nostradamus’ head exploded into powder and the iron crown was crushed by the force of the blow, pulverizing the large sapphire set into it.

With a final scream, what was left of the Liche turned to dust and simply fell to the ground.

In the selfsame moment, they all sensed the change: it was almost as if a darkness of sorts had vanished with him, for the entire chamber seemed just a little bit brighter.

Thus, with Thor’s strike, the battle was done and the heroes stood there for a moment in silence. Then Espidreen began jumping and clapping in delight.

“I knew we could do it! I knew we could do it!” she squealed with delight.

Panting heavily for the first time that night, Raven squinted, slowly turning toward the Witch to give her a positively withering stare.

“Espidreen,” she then spoke coldly, “get a sack out and gather up what’s left of him. We’re going to take him to Freeport, dig a hole in the doorway of the Inn, drop him in, and glass it over. Everyone who walks inside will walk on his grave.”

“Excellent idea, Raven!” Espidreen exclaimed as she eagerly came forward and dropped to her knees, pulling out a sack from her pack.

Raven then looked about. “Where’s Cyl?” she asked.

“Giles!” Doremi suddenly remembered. Then she was running for the doors.

“Where’s Cyl?!” Raven asked again, suddenly concerned.

Espidreen looked up as she scraped the Liche’s remains into the sack. “Raven, she’s dead,” the Witch spoke.

“What do you mean, she’s dead?!”

“She was sucked into the time vortex. Didn’t you see?”


Raven hadn’t seen it happen, and at those words the Mistress of Freeport angrily hurled her sword at the nearest wall.

“That means we lost both her and the message box! How’d that happen?!” she demanded, turning back to Espidreen.

Then her eyes sought out Fosmo. “You were supposed to protect the Witches!” Raven barked at him.

The Cutpurse threw up a hand. “Whoa--me was savin’ Espidreen at the time!”

“It’s true, Raven,” the Witch confirmed, regaining her feet. “He dragged me to safety. There was no way for him to save Cyllindrethifl as well. Nostradamus bolted her, and she was sucked in.”

Raven suddenly grew solemn. “Is there any way she could survive?” she asked quietly, through gritted teeth.

“I don’t know, Raven. If she did survive, the only way she could return would be by opening a greater teleportal. And even if she did that, she’d experience a time warp. She could return--hours, months...even years from now. We certainly can’t wait for her.”

Reluctantly the Mistress of Freeport resigned herself to the truth: the Elf was lost.

“Well...if anyone could survive, it would be her,” she mused. “Go attend to Giles, Espy--see if he’s still alive.”

Raven then looked to Nightshadow, whose strength seemed to be returning.

“You all right?” she asked.

The mask nodded. “That was very close, Raven. But I’ll be all right. I, uh, really need to get this thing charged back up, though,” he added, patting the Mind Sapphire.

“I--think we can take care of that soon enough,” she answered.

Fosmo, meanwhile, was eyeing the Liche’s fallen mace, and he started to reach down for it.

“I wouldn’t, Fosmo!” he then heard Raven say as if she had eyes in the back of her head.

The Cutpurse froze, his hand a few inches from the mace’s handle. “Eh?” he asked, looking back to her.

“One touch of that thing will turn you to dust.”

“Not if me grabs it by the handle.”

“How do you plan to carry the thing, Fosmo? The tip of its head killed Dorrik’s Dwarf just by touching the outside of his armor. The first time that head brushes against your leg....”

Raven left the comment hanging.

“How ‘bout if me wraps the head up nice and safe in a bag, eh?”

“Since it worked through the Dwarf’s armor, what makes you think a sack would insulate you from its affects, Fosmo?! Take it if you want, but you’re a fool to risk it.”

“Can we destroy it?” Thor asked.

“Doubtful--it’s an Artifact of Power. We could throw it down the Pit.”

Salivating at the thought of its value, the Burglar stood there a moment, pondering. Then he put his plans on hold until they could scope out the treasure room.

“Me still wants dibs on it, eh--just in case!” he exclaimed.

Raven dismissed his comment with a wave of her hand as she went to retrieve her blade.

The other two women were now returning with a healed Giles, and Raven quickly moved over to him. “Nearly getting killed is becoming a bad habit of yours, Giles!” she exclaimed.

But it was obvious she was glad the Knight was still alive.

“Priscilla spared me to fight another day,” Giles answered. Then he looked about.

“Where be our Elf?”

“I suppose with Dellendryll,” came Raven’s solemn answer as she turned away.

The Mistress of Freeport then spoke up. “All right, people--no time to relax! Let’s loot the treasure vault and get out of here! The Second School must be laying waste to this place while I speak.”

At her words, Fosmo eagerly started to race east, past the crumbled throne, as the others began to follow.

“Here!” they heard him shout in delight. And sure enough. behind the throne was a large aperture where a wide stairway led down a into the final chamber.

“Hold up! Hold up!” Raven was saying as she rushed up from behind. “I want you to check for traps like you’ve never checked before!” she ordered. “Every square inch, Fosmo!”

This the Cutpurse quickly did, taking the lead and tapping the steps with his rapier while keeping a wary eye out for any tripwires or deadfalls. Apparently, Nostradamus figured nothing would be capable of getting past him, so there was no need of trapping the way down. But the Fellowship still waited at the head of the stairs until the Cutpurse was certain the path was absolutely safe. He then called for them, and they followed after to emerge in the Liche’s treasure room!

When they actually saw what was in it, everyone was a bit surprised. There was gold, all right, but not great piles of it as they’d imagined: there were only two small chests’ worth, along with three chests of silver. They were all too heavy to lift, yes--but the amount of gold still seemed way out of proportion to what they had presumed a School of Sorcery that had existed for ten thousand years would possess in its main treasure vault. Truth be known, a small wooden chest nearby that held jewelry along with several big handfuls of red, yellow, blue and black diamonds was probably worth more than the other five combined.

Despite the paucity of the gold and jewels, what did meet their expectations--and may have exceeded them--were the magic items! On wooden shelves, in crates, or stacked upon the floor were hosts of items.

Delicate Elven blades and finery, mighty Dwarven axes and hammers, ancient Hocwrathian swords in ivory scabbards, slender wands of ivory and gold, gnarled staves, sigil-embossed robes, jewel-encrusted spell books, gem-studded enchanted rings, rune-covered amulets glowing with power--there were enough items to make even a seasoned Burglar like Fosmo drool!

“Not much gold, is there?” Nightshadow observed as he looked about.

“I suppose running a School of Sorcery takes more money than we thought,” Raven concluded as her eyes scanned about. “Plus, it looks like they wasted most of what they had on the doors to the Throne room.”

The Rogue reached down to examine a gold-handled gladius whose engraved silver blade glistened in the light from their lockets.

“But I will say this,” he continued, “--I’ve seen a lot of treasure piles before, but nothing even close to this one!”

On this, they all agreed.

A golden flute lying atop a pile of assorted goods just seemed to be calling out to Doremi, and the Bard quickly tucked it in her belt.

“Okay, people,” Raven spoke up, “let’s get it done. Fosmo--”

“Aye!” grinned the Cutpurse.

“--Check this room, top to bottom, for secret panels. When you find one, it’ll have the trap from Hell, so be careful! Giles, gather up those jewels--they’ll be worth the most; forget the gold and silver. Everyone else, pick some choice items for yourselves, and a few things for our other people. Hurry now! We need to clear out! Oh, and one last thing: If anyone spots a golden ring inscribed with the hieroglyphs we’ve been seeing in this place, sing out--I want it! It’ll be a few inches wide.”

The group scattered and fell to looting with appropriate zeal, stuffing articles of interest into their sacks. Even Doremi, saddened at the loss of three of the Fellowship, managed to forget her grief and pick up a few things, for it must be said that there are few feelings to compare with the excitement of spoiling a treasure vault! Imagine the joy of finding a pot of gold in a field, then multiply that many times, and one may begin to understand the exhilaration of the act. The Liche had secreted so much here that no one had to give thought to wondering who got first pick of what. There simply were so many items that if you wanted something that someone else grabbed first--another, just as good if not better, could quickly be found to replace it.

Espidreen eagerly dropped an ivory box filled with enchanted rings into her pack as Fosmo--interrupting his search for secret panels--took the time to slip on a fancy set of silver bracers which, despite his delight at finding them, didn’t elicit half so much the shout of excitement that came from him as when he discovered a master key hanging from a nail on the wall.

So much for his ever having to pick a lock again!

“Lady,” Giles suddenly spoke as he held up a chessboard and its pieces that were housed in a pouch, “Methinks here be an enchanted chess board.”

“What?!” Raven exclaimed, looking over. “Grab it for me!”

“Aye, Lady!” replied the Knight as he thrust them into his pack.

Thor now cried out as he pulled forth a long, rune-encrusted Viking blade from a pile of swords.

“My brother’s sword!” he exclaimed in triumph as he held it up.

Raven looked over, then her eyes widened as her gaze left the Scandian to look down next to him. Then she rushed to the same pile to retrieve a dented, black Yamatan helmet from the pile of armor it nestled in.

“My sister’s helmet!” she hissed, holding it up. “That’s how he knew!”

“And my Uncle’s sword--and Stevn’s ax!” Nightshadow exclaimed, waving Dorrik over.

The Mistress of Freeport held the helmet before her, letting the memories flood her mind. Then she carefully laid it down and turned her back to it.

“Secret compartment!” Fosmo announced, prying a piece of masonry loose from the wall, revealing a dark hole behind it. That done, he reached over for a handy lance--which was probably some highly enchanted Torrencian treasure Giles would have killed for--stepped back, and thrust it into the aperture.

Instantly, a razor-sharp blade sliced down, severing the silver head of the lance as a pentagram appeared upon the floor where a thief would have normally stood to reach into the hole.

In a split-second, the pentagram transformed itself into a roaring pillar of flame, turning half the lance into a pile of ash. Then the trap was spent and Fosmo cast the ruined weapon aside as he leapt forward to search the hole.

Out came a dagger with a blade dark as midnight in a scabbard of black dragon skin, and secondly a blue leather-bound book with a silver spiral upon its cove. Finally, he removed an amber box filled with Karnaki scarabs and jewelry!

“That’s all,” the Cutpurse announced.

Espidreen snatched the book from his grasp as he delivered the box of Karnaki jewelry to Doremi and started to choose a floor pile for exploration.

“Check the secret compartment for a secret compartment,” Raven now ordered.

Fosmo thought for a moment--then turned back to the compartment, tapping with his dagger.

“Yer right!” he announced a moment later. Then, after a quick check for a trap, the Cutpurse pried loose a piece of stone within the compartment, reached in as far as he could, and withdrew a sack.

Raven quickly moved up to see what lay within as the Cutpurse pulled out a golden ring about ten inches across and two inches wide that was scribed with hieroglyphs and what seemed like part of a map inscribed upon it.

“That’s it!” the Mistress of Freeport announced in triumph, snatching it away.

Doremi, of course, wanted a closer look despite her excitement over the jewelry, and she craned her head over Raven’s shoulder to examine the object. Raven, however, quickly tied the ring onto her belt with a thong and let her cloak fall over it, hiding the item from the Bard’s sight.

But Doremi had seen enough.

“What do you plan on doing with that?” the Bard whispered.

Raven pretended not to hear by stepping toward Espidreen.

“What’s that book there, Espy?”

The Witch, nearly shaking in excitement as she leafed through the tome, paused at the question and didn’t speak for a moment.

Her eyes betrayed her: she was debating whether or not to lie to her mistress.

Fortunately she avoided that mistake and reluctantly admitted, “Book of Destinies, Raven.”

It was no wonder she hesitated, afraid that such a treasure would be taken from her, for to those who do not know, the Book of Destinies is the most powerful of all enchanted items known to Witches!

No one knows its true origin. Some say Brigit herself crafted it. Others think it traces itself to She-Who-is-not-Named, as Cyllindrethifl called her. Whatever its origin, this incredible item actually has the power to change history!

When the Book is found, the first Witch who opens it up finds that it is a journal of her life, up to the point she discovers it. In some wondrous way, the journal continuously updates itself as her life progresses, but its greatest power is that the owner may rewrite the text in such a way as to alter a baneful event in her past!

This only works for recent events, and it supposedly can only be done a time or two before the Book vanishes. Where it goes from there, no one knows.

Now Espidreen was the Book’s proud owner.

Raven’s mouth opened in shock. “Could it bring back Cyl?” she whispered.

“Well...maybe, Raven. But--”

“Rewrite it so Cyl survives the fight!” the Mistress of Freeport ordered.

“No--we can’t!”

Raven’s eyes narrowed in disgust.

“I don’t believe you, Espy!” she spat. “If you’d been the one to die in that fight, Cyl would be the first to suggest we use that to bring you back! And here you are--”

“You don’t understand!” the Witch snapped back, waving the book in her mistress’ face. “We need to be very careful how we use this! We don’t dare alter the fight to save Cyllindrethifl. The fight with Nostradamus has to run its course without change. Even a slight change in the fight might have caused the Bard not to figure out how to stop him. We could bring Cyllindrethifl back and Nostradamus could win the fight! We don’t dare risk altering it, Raven!”

Raven’s hands went to her hips. “Fine--so write the thing in such a way that we win the fight and she still survives!”

“We can’t risk that either,” Espidreen insisted. “The more you ask of a Wish, the greater the chance it will be fulfilled in a perverted manner. That, or it could fail altogether. What we need to do is get home to Freeport, put our heads together and think of the best way to use this book, not just use it in a convenient, haphazard manner. Besides,” Espidreen concluded, lowering her voice, “we aren’t out of here yet. Who can say whether we might need to use this for something even more important before the night is over?”

The Mistress of Freeport immediately accepted the Witch’s logic with a nod. “You’re right. My apologies, Espy. Keep it safe until--”

She never finished the sentence, for at that moment the tower again seemed to shudder with a terrific moan as the entire complex trembled as if a great earthquake had hit the region.

The Fellowship halted in the midst of their looting, reaching out to brace themselves against whatever was handy, for they were nearly thrown off their feet as the tower began to sway precipitously as cracks appeared in the walls about them dust rained down from the roof.

What’s happening?!” Doremi screamed as she leaned against a wall for support, fearing that the roof might collapse upon them.

To those in the tower, the earlier blast from the exploding powder was but a noise, a rumble and a shudder. Across the courtyard, however, the explosion was horrifying and its force so terrible that many of the Dwarves and Vikings were badly injured from it, and a few even died. Yet out of tragedy came blessing, for the battle in the Upper School largely ended at that point as many of the demons turned their wrath upon the Lower School and Nostradamus’ forces still alive down there. What few Hocwrathians remained behind to fight quickly fell to the swords and axes of the defenders, and thus the battle had ended long before the Liche had even died.

Then Raven’s letters started arriving, instructing the Witches to get their men out if Throckmorton was attacking.

He wasn’t, of course, but Varinia concluded they’d done their part anyway and escape now--before the whole place blew up around them--was a good idea.

But there was one problem: The heat from the lava coming out of the stone panel on the stairs below was so intense that no one could come near it without being roasted! That left only the Vikings’ teleportal, and so the Witch, with Dorrik gone, ordered the Dwarves to make for the southern side of the courtyard.

The distance was short, and Varinia made it there quickly only to wind up arguing with Ronessa, who--though equally eager to leave--feared to go without Raven’s express command.

They wound up waiting and arguing a few more minutes until Thor finally destroyed the Liche’s throne.

It was then that the real terror began, for the power of the throne was all that was keeping the entire School from collapsing into the Pit which lay beneath it. Now, with the throne broken, portions of the Lower School began to give way as whole blocks of buildings and towers began falling backward, plummeting down into the blackness of the Pit. Many of the School-members died in the cataclysm, but many still survived, retreating like ants to the western side of the Lower School.

But they would be denied safety, for as the School started to fall down the Pit--Things started to fly up it.

They were demons.

Demons of every shape and size: Small demons. Medium-sized demons. Large demons.

Demons that had waited for nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine years to claim what they’d been promised...

The harvest of souls bound to the School.

Inside the Aerie, meanwhile, Nazier decided they’d had enough even without Raven’s letters. Before the place could collapse upon them altogether, the Black Widow began inching forward into the courtyard.

The argument had also ended amongst the two Witches. With the quaking of the entire mountain now, escape was foremost on the minds of both, and they rushed to open a portal through the back of the water portal to allow the valiant defenders to escape back to Freeport while they could.

The Black Widow quickly flew outside to the courtyard and held position there briefly as Nazier watched their forces begin to leave. A few of the Scandians, and a Dwarf or two who were close to the ship, did make for her and were taken aboard. But seeing that the Witches had everything under control, Nazier quickly ported the ship toward the tower, leaving the evacuation behind.

For several moments, the tower swayed and groaned, filling those in the treasure room with a dread that the whole place might collapse. Then the rumbling and groans began to fade away as again the structure seemed to settle back down to only a slight vibration until it ceased moving altogether.

But everyone could now feel it--the tower was tilting somewhat to the west.

Yet that wasn’t even the strangest thing: No sooner had the tower seemed to settle back, then a set of wooden shelving built into the walls seemed to turn to dust and collapse, dropping the items upon them to the floor.

The Mistress of Freeport suddenly had a very empty feeling in the pit of her stomach as she watched it happen.

“Why’d it do that Espy?” she asked in a very low voice, not taking her eyes from the fallen pile of items.

The Witch’s eyes were wide open in fear. “I don’t know,” she whispered back.

Then, a few yards away, a wooden bookcase likewise collapsed, its contents tumbling down in a pile.

The humble Bard didn’t like this turn of events one bit.

“Raven, we should leave!” Doremi urged.

“The crown and throne,” Espidreen was now heard muttering, “--Thor destroyed them both. Raven--the Potencies on this place must be broken! That’s what it is!” she exclaimed, her voice on the verge of panic.

“Meaning?” Thor now spoke as he stepped up.

“The throne kept this School alive as it did Nostradamus. With it gone, the School is now aging! In a few moments, ten thousand years of age will hit this place! All the wood--all the stone--will truly be ten thousand years old!”

“But that shouldn’t hurt anything,” Dorrik spoke as he moved up to them. “Our cites are all that old and made of stone like this place. It shouldn’t be causing the place to shift so. It must be something else! This is more like an eruption.”

As far as Raven was concerned, it didn’t matter.

“Well, let’s not wait for things to get worse--let’s get out of here! Everyone grab a few last handfuls of stuff and let’s go. Thor, Nightshadow--with me!”

The two men scurried over to Raven, and they huddled for a quick, heated conference in a corner. The others--save for Doremi, whose only thought was to leave--took a last look around in search of things that might appeal to them, thrusting a few more goods into their sacks while they could. Fosmo, however, wasn’t quite so discriminating: the Cutpurse had two large sacks out and simply shoveled in as much as he could stuff inside them, figuring anything here, whatever it was, was the cream of the cow, and could be counted on to be worth a king’s ransom.

He’d worry about the inventory later.

“Espy!” Raven now called out, and the Witch, after tucking an enchanted quill into her own pack, made her way over to them, stepping over the jumble of items now covering the floor.

“We have a tough choice to make,” Doremi heard Raven speak quietly to her. Her voice lowered in volume as the Mistress of Freeport spoke to the Witch, and then--with a look of trepidation of her face--Espidreen removed a scroll from her scroll pouch and began to read it off.

Instantly, a greater teleportal opened up.

With the Potencies broken, apparently teleportals and such could now be cast in the Upper School!

Nightshadow--reluctantly--stepped in, followed by an equally apprehensive Thor, who took a last look at Doremi and the others as if he was concerned. Then he was gone.

Across the chamber, Doremi felt relieved that they could portal out to safety, and she left the stairway, hurrying forward to enter the portal...

Then Espidreen closed it!

“Hey!” the Bard exclaimed, halting.

Most everyone, in fact, gave pause as the portal vanished.

“Lady, be not we departing thence as well?” the Knight questioned, the surprise evident on his own face.

“No--we’re taking the long way home,” Raven answered back, picking up a sack of goods. “They have other things they need to do--come on!”

She gave no further explanation, but grabbed a sack of treasure and began moving up the stairs as the others fell in behind.

Doremi wasn’t sure what was happening, but at least they were finally retreating out of this accursed place. But where had Raven sent the two most powerful warriors in the group, and why?

The answer had to wait, for they were now in the Throne room heading for the doors out. The portals were heavy, and all six had to use their combined strength to pull one upward and open now that the tower was leaning west.

Then they saw the change.

It was the Pit. No longer a great black shaft vanishing into the earth, it was now brightly lit, filling the entire cavern with a fiery glow.

Raven rushed out to the side of the landing to see that the heart of the orange glow was coming from deep inside the Pit. For a moment, everyone thought it might be lava as they watched it pulse and undulate, growing in intensity.

Then--out of the glow--a shapes began to appear, swirling about the sides of the shaft. Too small to see clearly, they darted this way and that, almost like bats moths darting about the flame of a candle.

What is this?!” Raven wondered aloud.

No one could hazard a guess, and so none of them answered. Then one of the shapes, coalescing into something more solid than an amorphous blob, seemed to leave the others, soaring up towards them like a burst of lava hurled out of a volcano.

It flew up like lightning, Raven barely having time to drop her sack and pull the wakizashi before the shape reached them.

It was a demon!

A black, loping, bat-like demon with a hunchback and two spindly legs that hovered a few yards off the side of the landing, assessing the group before it as a thick, syrupy drool oozed outs the sides of its mouth.

Then it attacked, swooping in and slashing out at Raven with the claws of its feet!

The Mistress of Freeport brought the wakizashi up, parrying away the claws as Giles drew his blade and charged in, thrusting the Holy Sword into its side.

With a screech, the beast vanished in a puff of red smoke as the building again shuddered.

“Raven,” Espidreen screamed as she realized what was happening, “Hell is taking this place back--that was the price for Nostradamus breaking the Pact! If we don’t get out of here now, we’re going down to Hell with the School!”

Whether or not the Witch’s assessment was true, the Mistress of Freeport wasn’t waiting for any more demons to make an appearance. She grabbed her sack with one hand while keeping the wakizashi in the other.

“Move!” she shouted, bolting toward the causeway.

The others hurried behind her--and they all saw the next problem as they moved west: The causeway around where the Leviathan had fallen had broken away leaving a hole nearly twenty feet long!

Raven came to a stop at the edge, trying to think fast: It was too far for her to jump even with a running start.

Doremi saved her the trouble.

“I got it!” the Bard panted, reaching into her enchanted pouch.

Out came her hand, casting forth a handful of spider webs. They flew out, shimmering and expanding in size as Romulus’ net had done, until they floated down and fastened themselves between both edges of the broken bridge.

Doremi immediately threw her small sack of treasure over to the other side and jumped onto the web, shakily starting to make her way across to the other side, followed by Raven who imitated her move after heaving her own sack across and sheathing her blade.

Fosmo now raced up, toting a heavy bag across each shoulder. Both were so crammed with treasure he had to drop one and spin around in a circle to allow him enough momentum to hurl the sack all the way across the void. He followed it up with the second, then leapt out onto the web, clambering toward safety after Dorrik, Espidreen and Giles.

Raven, moving like a cat, was the first to scramble upon the other side of the causeway as the tower lurched again, and immediately she reached back a hand to help Doremi up to safety.

The others, still a few yards away, held on for dear life, praying the web would hold and no more of the bridge collapse as the tower shook for what seemed like forever. Then they could feel it relax as it began to settle upright again.

Their prayers had been answered, for the causeway remained intact and the Fellowship all made it across to safety, scrambling off the net and re-gathering their bundles quickly as they could.

Dorrik had the hardest time, being a Dwarf weighed down with an assortment of Dwarven arms from the First Age he’d scavenged, but finally he made his way after the others, climbing onto the other side of the bridge.

Raven now took the lead again, racing for the Conjuration room with the Bard right on her heels.

There was no hope of retrieving the huge spell book upon the lectern. It was left behind and not even Espidreen gave it a second thought.

They were actually relieved when they passed into the darkness of the temple to Lilith. Now at the rear of the tower, away from bridge and the Pit, they somehow felt safer.

But they weren’t, for again the tower rumbled and lurched violently, shaking for several moments until it quieted down.

It was like a woman in labor: the tower would shake in torment and then the shaking would subside as if all was safe, only to start up once again. Now the pains were now almost coming one right after another--and getting stronger each time!

“Raven we can’t make it back to the ship before this place collapses!” Espidreen shouted in panic. “We shouldn’t have used the scroll up!”

The Mistress of Freeport had the same thought and gazed at the portal generator next to the doors. If they could only make it work they’d have a decent shot of escape. Otherwise....

“Espy--figure out how to work this thing! We don’t have time to take the stairs; they may give way before we can get down them!” Raven urged.

“Raven--I don’t know how the thing works!”

“Well, figure it out, blast you!” the Mistress of Freeport snapped back, grabbing the Witch by the arm and angrily thrusting her toward the golden discs.

“Has anyone got a portal spell we can use instead?” the Bard cried out.

“No!” Raven replied, glancing back. “We’re out of everything.”

Espidreen was desperately reading the spell off the outer ring, but nothing was happening and she pounded the generator in frustration.

“Raven, it’s not working!” the Witch cried out. “It’s a Sorcerer spell!”

As if to taunt them, the tower now gave another lurch, moaning in protest as it pitched dangerously westward and then violently righted itself, vibrating to a stop.

Now the damage was starting to get serious: some of the blocks from the arches supporting the roof began to give way, actually plunging through the bottom of the Gallery with horrid crashes!

“Doremi--you can read scrolls! Read that spell off--hurry!”

The Bard instantly complied with Raven’s order, stepping up as Espidreen moved away and reading off the Sorcerer-tongue inscribed upon the outer ring.

Again, nothing happened.

Then the ground seemed to nearly give way beneath their feet, and the entire tower dropped slightly.

“Ain’t fair,” Fosmo was muttering. “Me shouldn’t have to die with the greatest load o’ stuff me ever had at once without gettin’ t’ enjoy it! Ain’t fair!”

Raven had gambled that they could make it back to the ship, but now it was looking like she’d bet on the wrong horse, for this place was shaking itself apart. They were all on the verge of panic now--except for Raven, who blocked out everything else as she studied the generator.

If no one else could figure out how it worked, then she would!

“The ring turns,” she was saying calmly to herself. “That means we have to set it in the right place before reading the spell off.”

The Mistress of Freeport now turned the ring so that the beginning of the spell was at the very top position.

“Read it, Doremi!”

This, the Bard did again--but once more, there was no effect. They tried it a couple more times as Raven positioned the wheel in different ways, but still nothing happened.

“Raven, I don’t even feel any magic from the spell,” the Bard reported.

Espidreen, meanwhile, was jumping up and down like she couldn’t hold her water. “Raven, it’s not working--the magic may have died with Nostradamus! We better run for it and hope for the best.”

The Mistress of Freeport ignored her, focused on the device.

“That thing turns,” she spoke once again. “We know why the inner rings have to turn, but why would they make a device with a moveable outer ring? Either because they wanted to, or because they had to. Is there any reason they would want to?”

Oblivious to the terror around them, the Mistress of Freeport considered the question.

“Only if it was some sort of defensive measure to hinder people like us from using the thing,” she concluded. “But they weren’t worried about intruders, and so that would make it unnecessary. That means they might have had to make it moveable! So if it’s not meant to turn so the ring can be set in a specific position to enact the spell...what else could you do with a ring that can be moved in a circle?”

Ignoring Espidreen’s urgent pleas to run while they could, she reached out, placing her fingers upon the surface of the outer ring and slowly began to move it in a circle as she pondered her own question. Then she began to increase her speed. Faster and faster she spun the ring--and then it activated!

The ring jumped on its own, spinning like lightning as the runes upon it glowed with magic fire. Then there came a WHOOSHING sound and a glowing pentagram appeared on the ground before it.

“That’s it!” Raven exclaimed in triumph, looking down. “Come on!”

Wasting no time, she jumped upon the pentagram and both vanished.

Espidreen was next, and then Doremi took her turn without hesitating, for at this point it didn’t matter where the portal generator led to--anyplace had to be closer to safety than the very top of the tower!

One by one, the Fellowship emerged at the back of Asmodeus’ temple below, and as soon as the last of them appeared, they were running as fast as Dorrik’s short legs would allow, retracing their path to the museum’s stairway.

Behind them, the great statue of Asmodeus lay broken and toppled over upon the altar.

The tower was shaking and swaying badly now, and this time didn’t stop, but varied between light and severe shaking as horrid snapping sounds came from all directions.

The stonework was finally giving way.

From above came the sound of tremendous crashes as whole floors of the tower now began to collapse upon each other. More than once, the roof ahead of the Fellowship bulged precariously downward as if ready to give way and crush them from the tremendous weight pressing upon it.

But they paid it no heed and pressed forward with all their vigor.

Elsewhere, the floor rose up in spots, forcing them at times to climb over small mounds of stone to press onward. But, moment by moment, they were nearing the western side of the building where safety awaited.

Bad as all this was, an unnerving sound now arose, and to describe it would be impossible. The closest one might come would be to imagine a great hall filled with a myriad of people desperately trying to escape a fire through one small door.

That was what it sounded like.

It started out as only a background noise muffled by the groans and rumbles of the building itself, but it began growing louder. What it was, and where it came from, no one knew or even cared. All they knew was that they had to run without stopping or their end was at hand.

“Think Nazier is out there?” Doremi panted out as she ran.

“Yes!” Raven responded. “We just need to reach him!”

“ you know?” an exhausted Dorrik called out from behind.

“Because he knows what I’ll do to him if he’s not, and I survive! Trust me, he’s there!”

They continued their desperate run, and then finally a great sight now rose up ahead them: the eastern set of stairs down to the museum!

Raven paused there as the others caught up, most all breathing heavily from exhaustion.

“Keep going,” she ordered. “Have Nazier wait--I’ll be along.”

“Yer not leavin’ us!” Fosmo spoke.

“I’ll be back!” she replied glancing over her shoulder. “Get to the ship!”

Then she was running west, leaving them to go on.

No, Raven, don’t!” Doremi screamed after her as Espidreen led the way down the stairs.

But the Mistress of Freeport was vanishing into the workshop, apparently planning to loot some of the materials and sketches of the time travel device, gambling another minute or two wouldn’t make a difference.

Fosmo, sucking wind, and his muscles and shoulders aching like the devil from the weight of his two sacks, followed Espidreen, making his way downstairs, determined that both he and his booty would escape this accursed tower, or die trying.

The place was coming down around them as masonry showered upon the corridors. In the museum below, the great pillars supporting the roof now began to tip over and fall like trees to the axe as the Bard hurried after the Cutpurse, feeling the stairs tremble beneath her feet. She was nearly to the bottom when her side of the stairs started to give way, and she leapt out, landing on the floor of the museum as the stairs she’d just been moving down collapsed down into the zoo.

It was a painful landing, but she was only bruised and Giles immediately wrenched her to her feet and dragged her toward the southern side of the stairway which was still--at least for now--in one piece.

Then she saw it: A guitar--and a very nice one, placed upon its own stand next to the stairs leading down, and obviously in need of rescue.

It was just within reach and--quick as that--she grabbed it by the neck and started down the stairs in one single move.

At the bottom, Espidreen had come to a halt, gasping for breath as she doubled over. Despite her terror, the Witch had reached the limits of her strength and simply could not go on. Rescue came in the form of Giles, following right behind, who simply picked her up and carried her forward, staggering toward the other end of the room.

The sound of the death throes of the First School now came from every direction: Rumbles, crashes, snapping, sliding, coupled with the screams and wails of the gods knew what, nearly deafened them.

Doremi, leading the pack, was at the other end of the zoo now, and a horrid thought came to her: What if the Grand Stairway or the stairs across to the western side of the tower had collapsed?

She pressed on and found they hadn’t. At least, the one that counted hadn’t!

Down she stumbled, to the landing at the western side, and on she went, retracing the way back to the Music room.

Then the tower shook like it had never shaken before, in one moment seeming to drop, pitch westward and twist itself. From every direction came the sounds of walls and ceilings giving way and collapsing as the humble Bard was nearly buried by part of the collapsing ceiling, barely managing to dive to the safety of an alcove leading into one of the Libraries as great blocks fell behind her, covering the hallway.

Finally the collapse ceased, and Doremi came out from beneath her arms shielding her head. Then she looked up--only to see something looking back at her.

It was an imp!

Almost a foot tall and wearing a small straw hat with a wide brim, the warty little green demon with a large hooked nose was toting, of all things, a bag nearly equal to its own size, bulging with who knew what! It had scrambled atop the pile of debris as it too sought escape, then caught sight of her the same time she caught sight of it.

Doremi froze, unsure what to do.

“Hey--you still here?!” it exclaimed with a funny accent and a look of surprise.

The rumbling started up again as the tower gave yet another shudder.

At that, the imp’s face furrowed in fear as it looked about, and then it spoke again.

“I don’t know about you--but I’m gettin’ while the gettin’s good!”

Then it was gone, scrambling down the hall into the darkness with its bag of booty.

There was no time to wonder about it, and the Bard forced herself up and down the last few yards to the Music room where a wonderful sight greeted her eyes: a gangplank stretching out into the sill of the open window.

The ship was there!

Filled with a new reserve of energy, Doremi rushed for the window.

The sight that greeted her as she looked out was beyond imagination, and the source of the shrieking became apparent: the Black Widow stood by waiting, floating outside. But the land around the School had become a living nightmare. The First School of Sorcery--as large as a city--was surrounded on three sides by an enormous field of red and orange flame swirling around like a tornado, above which sat the eastern portions of the Upper School, a last island of safety from the flames of destruction. A cacophony of shrieks and noise no human words could describe drowned out the sounds of massive basalt towers that had stood for nearly a hundred centuries collapsing and falling into the abyss awaiting them below.

The crew were waving for her to cross before the tower gave another shudder, and the Bard quickly dragged a chair to the window and scurried up into the sill. She nearly jumped to the other side of the plank and then she was safe, for the first time allowing herself to breathe easily.

The others had now found their way to the Music room and were starting to make their own way out of the tower. Fosmo, first to reach the window, took a quick glance outside.

“Espidreen was right--Hell is reclaiming its own!” he muttered in shock.

That realization was enough to propel him into the chair, then he was trying to make his way across the plank with his two heavy sacks.

Again the tower shuddered, and the Cutpurse nearly pitched over the side of the plank, dancing like a marionette to keep his balance with the two sacks. Then he was across, hurling the sacks with relief down into the hold along with his pack.

The tower had settled down for a moment and now the other three came across to safety, likewise dumping their sacks and packs down into the hold from the deck above.

“Where’s that blasted Raven?” Nazier called out from the weather deck.

“She said to wait for her,” Doremi shouted back up.

Nazier gritted his teeth in frustration and let out a hiss as he shook his head.

He wanted out as much as anyone else!

It was then that something suddenly occurred to Doremi.

“Nazier!” she called up from the main deck. “While we’re waiting--there are some priceless books in that room there,” she shouted, pointing back to the Music room. “Could someone please help me to save a few of them?”

The master of the ship considered the request a moment and then ordered two of the hands to assist the humble Bard.

Showing no small degree of courage in the face of extraordinary danger, back Doremi went across the gang plank, re-entering the Music room as the deck hands followed after.

She flew to the bookshelves, grabbing for the first volume to see what it was.

“Okay, take this one,” she spoke, dropping it to the floor as she reached for the next.

“This one, too,” she decided, likewise dropping it. Then she pulled out the third.

“And this--oh, just take them all!” she decided, tearing at the bookcases and throwing whole stacks of tomes to the ground.

It took two trips, with Giles and Fosmo assisting on the last run, to transport all the books to the Black Widow, where they were conveniently slipped beneath the canvas top of a ship’s launch for the time being.

All this time, more and more of the School had vanished into the maelstrom of fire. Now, little more than the tower itself, still resting upon the ledge it was built atop, was left of the place--and Raven still had yet to appear!

Then they heard the sound of glass breaking from somewhere above and a chair came hurtling down to the foredeck along with the shards of glass from the broken window.

It was Raven, breaking out a window on the fourth level to escape!

The Mistress of Freeport now tossed out a sack of booty down to the ship and climbed into the window sill. Once there, she simply stepped out onto one of the spars of the ship, which was nearly touching the side of the tower. Then she grabbed hold of a line and slid down to the deck as the others ran up to her.

“Okay,” she muttered, releasing the line. “All done--time to go!”

Wasting no more time, the Mistress of Freeport headed for starboard stairs up to the weather deck, Doremi right with her.

They had not ascended more than a few steps when a cry went up from behind, and the pair stopped in their tracks, wheeling back.

A Thing--there was no other word for it--had appeared, floating in the air portside, towering over the deck. Ghastly beyond description, it resembled an ogre-sized black-robed humanoid holding a scythe etched with burning red runes. Two glowing eyes of greenish yellow fire stared out at them from what would have been a cowl were the creature not one solid black mass that ebbed and flowed in an invisible Ethereal wind.

Giles drew the Holy Sword and took several steps toward the monstrosity. Fosmo, too, had his rapier out in an instant--although he made no attempt to get close--and Raven shoved Doremi down to the deck, following after and putting herself between the Thing and the Bard as she pulled the wakizashi.

“We’re not a part of the School!” she shouted up to the Thing. “You have no rights to us! In fact, we’re the ones who broke the throne and crown and helped you reclaim this place!”

Whatever it was, seemed unimpressed and slowly looked up and down the deck at the mortals gathered upon it.

Some never,” it spoke with an evil, windy voice. “Others,” it said, fixing its gaze on Raven, “just not now.”

Then it was gone, flying down into the chaos beneath the vessel.

Doremi grasped Raven’s trembling arm.

“Raven, can we, like, leave--now?!”

“Nazier...get us out of here!” Raven shouted in response.

Nazier needed no urging and pushed the helmsman away as he grasped the wheel and concentrated on ordering the ship to rise and depart this doomed place.

Raven and Doremi, meanwhile, took a quick glance over the side into the nightmare below.

“I never knew Hell was this real,” Doremi muttered.

“Me neither,” Raven muttered back. “What was that thing?!”

“I think it’s called a kemp. They’re demonic familiars of the Hell Lords. I think that was the kemp of You-Know-Who himself!”

Raven now turned away and led the entire group up the stairs to the weather deck. At the same time, Nazier caused their hearts to stop by shouting out, “Something’s wrong--we’re not rising!”

“You weak-minded--get out of there!”

Angrily, Raven rushed to the helm and pushed Nazier away from the wheel, grasping for the spokes. Her mind was far stronger than Nazier’s, and she exerted her full will on the wheel, commanding it to take them up.

In response, the Black Widow started shaking and her bow began tilting upward toward the night sky.

Hearts started to beat again, but the relief lasted only a few seconds, for while the bow lifted, the ship began sliding down, stern first, toward the maelstrom of flames beneath them!

The tilt of the deck threw the Fellowship, along with some of the crew, against the stern bulwark. Still Raven held on, beads of sweat forming on her brow as she exerted all her mental strength to get the ship to rise. Higher and higher rose the bow, but lower and lower sank the stern as the Widow seemed bent on following the Lower School into the abyss.

It seemed this would be a battle of wills between the most brilliant mind on Islay and the will of Hell itself, and Doremi feared Hell would win this fight.

Raven cursed and kicked the wheel, shouting for it to rise. But second by second, the Widow, unable to hold her own, was being pulled down even as what was left of the School--already mostly submerged--was itself quickly collapsing and returning to the Hell that it had come from.

The lip of the maelstrom was soon above them as they came ever nearer the bottom of the vortex now about a hundred feet below.

“Espy, quick,” Raven could be heard shouting, “--use that Book of Destinies and get us out of here!”

“Raven, it’s somewhere in the hold--I don’t have it!” the Witch cried back from the stern.

Raven let out a groan of utter frustration. “If anyone’s holding back a Wish--use it now!” she then screamed in desperation.

Doremi let out her own groan and shook her head. This really was the end--even Raven was reduced to grasping at straws.

I guess this is it, the Bard thought. I’m going to die now. And this is how it ends--sucked down to Hell on a flying pirate ship because some people wanted to take vengeance on a Liche. Well, I guess death never comes at a good time, but I never thought it would end like this. At least I helped a few people in my time. I’m sorry I didn’t get to help more.

I suppose someone might write a song about me, and they can call it ‘The death of the Bard who was too stupid to listen to the painting that told her to run while she could, but went ahead and joined this group of nuts who decided to attack the most powerful Liche in Islay and his entire school, and got dragged down to Hell for their trouble’.

When am I gonna learn?

Espidreen, too, realized Raven was out of answers. Pressed against the stern bulwark by Nazier and two deck hands, as the flames drew nearer, she fumbled in her pouch for the last scroll she had left and started reading. Finishing, she let out a “Good luck!” to the rest as she crushed a black pearl to her breast.

A portal opened and she gave a scream as she was sucked into the Ethers!

Doremi was aghast.

Suicide, she thought! Sheer suicide!

Above, Raven didn’t blame her. Normally she’d plot revenge for anyone daring to abandon the party--death not withstanding. But in this case, it was 100% death to remain and 99% death to cast oneself into the Ethers, so she couldn’t feel anger at Espidreen.

Anything had to be better than dying in the flames of Hell itself. Truth be known, she might have ether balled herself if only she had the spell left!

The Black Widow was completely perpendicular now. Those of the crew not gathered at the stern held on for dear life to whatever they could, or scrambled to the front of the forecastle to brace against it. The shrieks of Hell around them were so loud now they even drowned out Raven’s frantic screams at the wheel--in Yamatan--so no one at the stern heard, let alone saw, the two anchors at the bow swing free and whip their capstans around like children’s tops as they fell downward, dragging their chains with them.

The port anchor fell harmlessly past the stern, reached the flames, and was momentarily surrounded by an aura of light as it left the Nexus and entered the Hells, where it was consumed in an instant. But then the starboard anchor ripped off its capstan and the whole mass of anchor, chain and capstan hurtled past the weather deck, catching one of the crew at the stern and knocking him over the side. The hapless seaman, already dead, fell into the flames and Doremi shut her eyes, unable to watch.

Raven had now stepped into the rim of the wheel to anchor her feet and had wrapped her arms around two of the top spokes in a death grip, determined to concentrate to the very end on willing the ship to rise, even as it was inexorably pulled toward the flames now only yards away.

To either side, a liquescent nightmare of swirling Hellfire spun around them as the Widow settled ever deeper into the maelstrom. While the flames were bright, they were still in another dimension so they gave off no heat nor did they cast light, and the ship herself was dark. Beyond the bow, the stars in the sky twinkled above, and Doremi thought, as she took a last look up, that perhaps it was a good vision to die with.

All at once, she became angry at herself.

I’m sorry--I will not take that attitude. If I’m going to die, then I’m going to die, but I refuse to lay here and wait for it. I’m going to fight to my last breath to live, and I may not be able to do anything, but at least I’ll try!

The weather deck of the Widow was now against her back like a wall, and Doremi turned to face it. She found a line hanging down from somewhere above, just to Raven’s right side and grabbed hold, pulling herself up the few feet to the helm. The flames were now almost upon the stern and only seconds were left to the end.

Doremi’s last act was to grasp one the rim of the ivory wheel, anchor herself, then let go of the rope and wrap her other arm around the wheel and hang on.

Up, wheel, she thought. Please make us go up!

No one was more surprised than Doremi herself when the Black Widow suddenly gave a lurch and she could actually feel it reverse course.

“We’re moving!” Nazier shouted.

“Doremi,” Raven screamed, whipping her head around, “whatever you do, don’t stop! Don’t stop!”

Below, bracing his own legs against the stern bulwark, Fosmo lay back against the deck and wrapped his hands about Doremi’s legs, bracing her in turn.

Up! Up! Up!

Over and over again in her mind she concentrated on that one word. Obediently, the ship complied, torturously putting distance between it and the maw of fire waiting to engulf the vessel.

But Hell would not be cheated so easily. As if some cruel game were being played, the strain on the Widow began horribly shaking the vessel, and Doremi could feel the deck begin to warp. Splintering wood, snapping rigging and loose equipment began to drown out the shrieks of Hell itself now.

“We’re not gonna make it;” Fosmo shouted, “--the ship can’t take this!”

“I designed this ship--she can take anything!” Raven shouted back, adding a silent I hope to herself.

The ship certainly sounded like she was done for, but still the Black Widow rose skyward, shaking, twisting and groaning as she went. Then at last her bowsprit slowly emerged from the maelstrom, followed by the rest of vessel.

Still rising perpendicularly, the Widow sailed up into the night sky.

“The tower’s going!” Fosmo now shouted.

Raven turned her head to take one final look behind. Everything but the tower had completely vanished, drowned in the flames. The tower complex itself, still perched atop its plateau, was now in its last moments as the ledge it sat upon gave way and the entire structure began sliding down into the maelstrom, making a great rumble as it went. The base slid into the flames and the whole complex slowly tipped back upright as if it were a cork cast upon the surface of a lake. For several moments it floated in the sea of fire, then the building tipped forward as spouts of flame shot up its sides, and it was drawn down to its final destruction. In its last second of life, a gigantic glowing pentagram inscribed onto the roof of the highest tower--Nostradamus’ tower--sank into the flames and vanished forever as the Hells reclaimed what they had given millennia ago.

Just as quickly, the maelstrom collapsed and vanished with it and the Widow’s bow fell forward, throwing everyone to the deck.

Raven lost her grip and tumbled over the wheel, landing hard on the helm fairing and losing her wind before rolling off to the deck. Doremi, determined to hang on no matter what, had her arms locked in a death grip, concentrating over and over again in her mind, to will the ship to rise.

Up and up went the Widow, vanishing into the darkness, but now on an even keel.

The blue glow from the huge ball of crystal faded out and the room was enveloped once again in total darkness.

Entertaining, thought the Liche. I could portal something onto your ship to kill you now. But you have entertained me. And I haven’t been entertained in two centuries. In a way, it is good you survived, for you may yet prove amusing to me for a while longer. But remember this, my arrogant little Pirate puppet: We were forging empires centuries before you were born. And you have the gall to think you rule Islay because of your impotent little guild? Your Guild exists because we--because I--let it exist. And very soon--when it pleases me--I will come claim it.

So take good care of my guild, Raven TenTolliver. Sleep well tonight, confident in your own arrogance. You have done me a service--exactly as I planned for you to. You have destroyed my enemy at a cost to me of nothing. You took my morsel of bait, and did exactly as I willed you to, every step of the way. And I will for you to continue on your quest, for I shall steal that from you as well if you approach success. I already walk side-by-side with you, without your even knowing it.

Yes, continue a while longer--and entertain me, little Pirate.

With that, Throckmorton, the new Lord of Hocwrath, settled back in his ebony throne and pondered the changes he would enact come morning.

Nazier flew to the wheel, trying to take control over the ship which was soaring into the sky under Doremi’s mental command. It took several moments to bring the Bard out of her fog, but then she released her grip and took in a breath, at last relaxing face down on the deck, thankful that at last this night of Hell was finally over.

But it wasn’t.

As if the gods themselves were in conspiracy to slay the lot of them, a ball of plasma suddenly fell down from overhead, hurtling down into the hold and exploding with an enormous blast.

The Widow had been struck in her heart and now shook as the School had in its death throes, as she started to plunge downward out of the sky!

Startled by this new turn of events, Nazier fought to keep her in the air and under some semblance of control, but the damage was done: The ship was increasing in speed as she pointed steeply downward, headed for the hills below.

Raven, her breath recovered, scrambled to her feet and stumbled back to the wheel, jostling Nazier out of the way and taking grip of it yet again.

But the wheel was barely replying to commands now.

“Raven, she’s broken her back!” Nazier shouted out, looking foreword. “Look--she’s hogging! The wheel no longer recognizes her as a ship!”

Raven gazed out and realized he was right--the ship was bulging in the middle and her ends were sagging!

“It must be Throckmorton’s parting shot,” she muttered. “I refuse to die now! Hear me? I refuse!” she then shouted into the air.

Their one blessing was that the School was near the coast and there was just enough control left in the wheel that the Widow avoided dropping like a rock and crashing into a mountainside; instead, she was plummeting down at an angle that found her shortly out over the sea.

The fog was gone now, replaced by a frosty chill in the air, and they could see for miles. Raven was now concentrating with all she had to bring the bow of the ship up or slow her descent, but still she headed downward at a breakneck pace. Closer and closer came the waves, silver in the gleaming moonlight, then the ship struck the water, her bow plowing a furrow into the waves as the sea rushed back over the deck and the ship slipped to a final stop.

They had survived!

But the danger was far from over, for now the ship was yawing to starboard and pitching down by the head as the water submerged her bow.

She was going to sink, and that was all there was to it!

Raven released the wheel and rushed down to the main deck, screaming orders. But the men didn’t need to be told--they all knew what a wreck at sea meant. The Widow’s crew moved like madmen, chopping down the already damaged masts and spars to hurl them into the water as flotsam while others made ready to launch the ship’s boats--one of which was filled with books and hadn’t enough room for more than a handful of men in any case!

“What’re those books doing there?!” Raven cried out as the crew pulled the canvas cover off the boat.

“They’re from the Music Library!” Doremi shouted back.

“Dump them!” the Mistress of Freeport ordered.

“No!” Doremi screamed. “They’re priceless!”

“I said dump them!” Raven repeated.

The Bard broke into tears. “Please--they can never be replaced! They’re priceless--you can’t just throw them away!”

At seeing her cry, Raven immediately began to tense up and was about to shout again, but then Nazier cried out from a few feet away.

“Raven, the wheel!” he shouted, looking back to the weather deck.

“The wheel!” she repeated, her eyes opening wide in concern.

Suddenly the boat and the books meant nothing to the Mistress of Freeport as she tore back up the stairs, screaming for the hands to unbolt the wheel from the helm.

“Get those boats in the water now!” Nazier then ordered.

Doremi didn’t even have time to thank him before he was off shouting orders to other seamen who were desperately trying to get the boats in the water.

The first launch was now over the side, and then one of the hands roughly picked the up Bard, guitar in hand, and simply pitched her over the side into it.

The last thing she remembered was her head striking something and then all went black.

There was a quiet knock on the door.

Doremi had already been awake for a few minutes, but she still lay in the plush, soft bed as the soft morning sun streamed through the windows.

“Come in,” she answered, sitting up and drawing the covers up to her.

The door swung open and Raven peeped inside. No longer in her Adventuring gear, she was back to her normal outfit.

She stepped in, smiling.

“Good morning; I hope you slept well,” she spoke, closing the door as she approached the bed.

“I suppose I did,” Doremi responded unemotionally. “Where’ve you been the past few days? And how come we haven’t been allowed to leave the villa?”

Raven eased herself down by the side of the bed.

“I had business in Draconium I had to take care of,” she answered. “I needed you all here until everything was straightened out. Now it mostly is.”

“Mind telling me what’s been going on?” Doremi asked, crossing her arms. “I thought once Nostradamus was dead, that would be it. But you send off Nightshadow and Thor, and we need to walk back to the ship, then after it sinks, you and Dorrik leave us alone on the beach the next day, and Ronessa comes back for us on a Krellan galley and portals us here. Then everyone is forced to stay in the villa for days, wondering where--”

Raven held up a gloved hand, silencing the Bard.

“It’s complicated,” she answered with a sigh. “I sent Nightshadow and Thor back to Freeport in the event Throckmorton had somehow engineered an attack on us. Turns out, he didn’t. But I had no way to know for sure, and as soon as I had some spells back, I took Dorrik and came straight home to make sure everything was all right. He’s back in Orlon now.

“Then, of course, I also needed to hurry and report to the Senate, since I did, after all, attack the Lord of Hocwrath, which could have meant a war between Krella and Hocwrath. But it’s all straightened out now, and the Senators...are satisfied, let’s say. Enough of that, though. Let’s talk about you. You performed brilliantly! You saved all our lives. I want you to know I won’t forget it. I’ll make it up to you.”

Doremi lay back in the bed.

“You don’t owe me anything.,” she answered. “If you want to be my friend, I suppose that’s reward enough.”

“Just the same....”

Raven arose. “I’ll let you rest up.”

“Did you get what you wanted out of it?” Doremi asked as Raven moved to leave.

Raven recognized the tone as critical, so she paused and turned to look back at the Bard.

“Is there something wrong with avenging one’s murdered father?” she asked in response. “Or is it that you think Nostradamus deserved to go on living?”

“No,” Doremi answered. “I think you’ve done the world a favor. If anyone deserved to die, it was Nostradamus. I just wonder why it is, that after they have power, evil people always seek after two things, one of them being revenge.”

“What’s the other?” Raven asked.

“Immortality,” Doremi answered.

Raven turned away.

“What’s your point?” she asked.

“So how many circles do you have now?”


“Congratulations. I suppose getting the third won’t be that hard for you. You’ll just march in and take it from Arwinium, I suppose.”

Raven ignored the comment. “Will you be leaving?” she asked.

Doremi rolled over and looked out the window. “I thought about it,” the Bard admitted. “But I’ve decided I’ll stay--at least for now. If I do help you, maybe--between now and then--I can help talk some sense into you over this. Why do you think you have the right to become immortal, anyway?”

“Because I can.”

Raven opened the door.

“One more thing,” Doremi added. “I’m going to do exactly what we agreed upon--I’ll run your Institute and make it the finest Institute of Music Islay has ever seen.”


“But just so you know--I’ll use it to help other people as I told you I would. But I won’t use it to help you and your plans.”

“Then why are you staying?” Raven had to ask.

“Because I choose to.”

“Not that I mind the answer,” the Mistress of Freeport observed, “but I get the impression you have an ulterior motive behind it.”

“Well--don’t you have ulterior motives in everything you do?”

“Yes,” Raven admitted, “but that’s fine for me. It can be dangerous for others. If you’re thinking about somehow getting in my way, Doremi....”

“Why would I do that? You’d just kill me--that’s the way of evil, isn’t it?”

Raven made no response to the comment, but instead the Mistress of Freeport moved to leave the room.

“You’re a magnificent woman, Raven,” Doremi continued. “You don’t know how much it hurts that you’re not what you pretended to be.”

“I never told you anything that wasn’t true, Doremi.”

“I know--you’re too smart for that. You’re one of those people who know how lie by using truth.”

Raven hesitated, her back to the Bard. And then she spoke once more.

“That boatload of manuscripts and song books you managed to have Nazier drag out of Nostradamus’ Music Library for you is safe and sound at the inn. I trust your conscience will still permit you to make use of it.”

Doremi laid back into the pillows.

“I don’t claim to be perfect, Raven,” she replied. “But the difference between us is, those manuscripts are something I think should belong to everyone, and I plan on letting everyone who loves music have access to them once the Institute is up. Everything you took out, you took only for yourself and your plans. You really don’t care about anyone else.”

Part of Raven was angry and made her want to rush back in and smite Doremi for her insulting comments.

But another part knew she was right.

“Selfish as I am, I’m glad to have been able to place you in a position where you could obtain something of such importance to you,” Raven finally responded. “And I’m pleased to grant yet another dream of yours--we’ll be leaving for Arwin tomorrow morning. You’ll get to see for yourself what treasure hunting is like there.”

With that, she shut the door behind her.

That afternoon, they held one last great banquet for Thor and the Scandians, but not before Raven and Morgaine got in a terrific rowe. Doremi had been walking down a hall when Morgaine had angrily stalked out of a Library, pausing only long enough to glare at her and ask what she was looking at.

The humble Bard replied, “Nothing”, and off she continued, cursing Raven under her breath as the Mistress of Freeport stormed out to watch her leave, the veins of her neck nearly popping she was so mad.

Then she caught sight of Doremi and growled, “Well, what are you looking at?!”

“Nothing--I was just going to the water closet!” the poor, belittled Bard replied.

Raven then retreated back into the Library and slammed shut the door.

Bad as this event was, no one would let it detract from honoring the Scandians, whose courage and tenacity had withstood everything from a storm of Hocwrathians, to the wrath of Hell itself. They had done what they had come for, and now they would be returning home. The Bard also said her last farewell to Nightshadow. There was something on his mind, she perceived, but he didn’t go into it, and one thing was clear--he genuinely liked her, and in him she had found a new friend.

The same held true for Thor.

It was the middle of the night when the Scandians had finally drunk themselves full, and then the time came for them to depart.

The windows of her room looked down upon the dock, and Doremi watched as Raven and Nightshadow slowly--almost with deliberate intent to forestall the inevitable--walked in the moonlight toward the end of the dock where Thor’s longship awaited.

Those two make an interesting couple, she thought to herself as the pair, looking like two twins in their hooded cloaks, with their two swords tucked in their sashes, walked side by side.

The Bard was truly sorry to see Nightshadow and Thor depart. She hadn’t known them long, but she’d become fond of both. And Raven had been right: Nightshadow did indeed possess an evil Talisman, but an evil man he was not. A troubled man, yes, but at heart Doremi felt he was actually a good man. And she was much the richer for having made his acquaintance.

“Good luck, Nightshadow,” she whispered. “I hope you find the peace you want.”

“I take my leave of you now, Cousin,” Nightshadow spoke, turning his head to look at Raven. “I am glad to have met you.”

Her hands clasped behind her back as she walked, Raven stared down at the planks of the dock.

“Nightshadow, I’ve come to respect you,” she said quietly. “I--I have something I need to be honest with you about before you go.”

“You mean that you’re not really my cousin?” he asked.

Surprised, Raven turned to him.

“How did you know?”

“I suspected when Doremi told me you had a sister named Aradawn, who died,” came the reply. “Aradawn was my grandmother’s name. Uncle Orrin said nothing about having two daughters, and so I suspected you must be Shibato’s daughter. As soon as I saw you fight, I knew you were truly his daughter, and not my Uncle’s. But that is good because Shibato was my friend.”

They were near the end of the dock now, and they both halted.

“Please know that I did not take the name either to bring disrepute upon your family, or to deceive you,” Raven told him. “I’ve actually been Raven TenTolliver since I was nineteen. It started out when your letter came for us, and Aradawn took her family name. We were as close as two people could be, and she wanted me to take the name too. I didn’t for a long time, until she died. A big part of the reason I took it was, I think, so a part of her would always be with me. I miss her so much.”

“I wish I could have known her.”

“I wish you could have too.”

“In any case,” Nightshadow spoke, “I take no offense. I have adopted you as my cousin, and as far as I’m concerned, my cousin you are. At least that way I can pretend I have some family to come home to other than Cassandra, who doesn’t want me.”

Raven reached over and grasped his arm, and Nightshadow looked into her face.

“There will always be a place for you here,” she spoke. “And a place with me. I don’t think you’ll be happy living in the halls of the Dwarves or the ice lands of Scandia. When you tire of them, come back here to Freeport. Better yet--stay now. I’m off to an even greater adventure than the one with Nostradamus--that was only the first part of it. Nightshadow, with you and I together, nothing can stop us. Join me, and a year’s time will see us sit as the Emperor and Empress of Islay.”

Nightshadow shook his head.

“I don’t want to rule anyone, Raven,” he spoke, a tone of sadness in his voice. “And I’ve done with my share of adventures. For thirty seasons, I have trod this continent, an object of revulsion, cursed to wear this mask to hide the hideous visage beneath it. People either hate me or they fear me, but none want me. My cousin Dierdre, who I refused to love though I was betrothed to her, was more noble than I, and is now dead because of me. Where I go, death follows.

“I am weary of it all, and I will not go on any more. I go now to Orlon, and if Brigit be merciful, my own death will not be so many seasons from now. Then Dorrik’s people will destroy the Sapphire so no one like Nostradamus ever gets a hold of it. I have avenged my Uncle, and my life here in Islay is over. I shall not come back. But if Islay should some day need me--then return I shall. For now, farewell! May Brigit light your path, Cousin!”

Nightshadow placed his hand atop Raven’s, then let go and strode across the gangplank to the deck of the Windhawk. Two Vikings hauled the plank aboard behind him and Thor, at the stern tiller, looked down on Raven.

“Lady Raven,” he spoke, “it has been an honor to have fought at your side. You are the first Islayan woman I have met worthy to be the mate of a Scandian!”

Raven smiled up at him.

“And you are one of very few men I’ve known deserving to be called a man,” she answered with a nod. “Fare thee well, Thor. And thank you for permission for some of my ships to sail through your waters."

“So long as they fly my banner, my people will let them be,” the Viking answered. “Not all the Norse will honor my banner, but the ones that count will.”

“And each Summer I'll send a ship of goods for your people,” Raven added.

Thor barked a Norse command to his men, and they began to row the ship away from the dock as Raven stood at the end of the dock watching for several minutes as the Windhawk began fading into the darkness.

Just before it vanished, Nightshadow and Thor raised their hands toward her in a final farewell. Back on the dock, Raven, too, raised up the palm of her hand and held it until the ship was lost to her view.

A feeling came upon her, one she hadn’t known in decades--the sadness one might feel if one’s friends were departing, perhaps never to be seen again.

No, she thought to herself as she lowered her arm, I have no friends. Friends betray you. Or they’ll leave you. And at best, they’ll hurt you. “That’s why only fools have friends,” she spoke.

Alone, Raven walked back up the dock and ascended the tiled stairs to the security of her villa.

And so it was, on a brisk night in April, before the twilight of a new dawn, that Nightshadow left Islay for the last time and sailed into the mists of legend.

Here ends what I'll be putting online. Therer are 3 or 4 more chapters to do and then I'll polish the whole and the book will be done.