Table Of Contents
Guild Houses of Blood
One Small Detail
T. R. O. K. Awards
T&T Handler II Update
Graphical Dungeon
Poetic War
Trollhalla Coinage




Katharine Kerr


In the northern dragon continent rise mountains too rough, too icy--too dangerous--to be home to either men or elves. The foothills, however, roll gently; rivers of sweet water foam down from the peaks; the grass grows thick and high. In the golden years before Leotra'hh broke her pact, the best horses in the entire empire came from the Dragonfire Hills, or so the wise say, and the best horses of the Hills came from the little town of Cinders. While the wise have nothing to say about this, any adventurer would have told you that the best ale in Cinders came from the Wyvern Wing Inn. Its tavern room was a grand place in the summer, when the window shutters hung open, and the scent of growing grass mingled with the smell of roasting meat. You could see the white-haired mountains rising in the distance, while closer to hand stretched meadows where the famous silver-grey horses of the Hills grazed by the crystal-clear river. 

Many an adventurer spent many hour more than he ever intended in that tavern room, just sitting by the windows, watching the horses, and putting away a pint or two of the landlord's sweet brown ale while the sun lay golden on the grass. 

The delver, who tarried the longest, though, happened to be a wizard, Eladana by name, who stopped by late one afternoon in early spring, when the river flowed brown from snow-melt and the shutters were closed tight to keep out the rain. With her green cape dripping around her, she slipped into the tavern room so quietly that it took the landlord a moment to notice her. He had troubles to brood about, among them a daughter, two years old that spring, with no mother to watch over her. Gray--that was his name, you see, because his father was a man of no imagination--Gray the tavernman was thinking about his wife, in fact, when he heard someone sneeze behind him. He turned round fast.

"Well, good morrow, traveler! Can I offer you ale? Lodging, maybe?"

"Ale, certainly. As for the lodging, I don't know yet about that."

The customer threw off the cloak in a scatter of big drops and dumped it onto the nearest plank table, then tossed her head and shook her hair free in long damp tendrils that clung to her cheeks and framed her face. Raven-black was her hair, and raven-black her eyes, but her skin was as pale as mother-of-pearl, and just touched with color like that sea-treasure, too, a blush of delicate pink.

"The ale, tavernman."

"My humble apologies. Uh, you know, well, uh, sorry."

As he rushed off to fetch her a tankard, he was telling himself that he was a fool, that no woman so beautiful would ever have an eye for a lowly tavernman like him. In that, though, he slighted himself, because Gray was a good-looking man, tall and as muscled as warrior from all the hauling and lifting he did in the course of his day: barrels of ale and loads of firewood, sides of beef and sacks of turnips and suchlike. Eladana liked the look of him straightaway, and once the ale was brought and bought, and he'd fetched himself another to keep her company, they fell to talking.

Thanks to the rain and the cold, no one in Cinders ventured out to the tavern that evening. Eladana sat by the fire and played with the little daughter--Redbird, Gray called her, for her coppery hair--while the tavernman fixed a hot meal for the three of them and the rain drummed and blustered outside. Since Eladana had been on the road for many a long year, studying her wizardry and keeping an eye on strange and evil things tucked inside the mountains of the empire, the tavern room with the beautiful child and the handsome tavernman seemed like paradise to her. Once Redbird was asleep for the night, Gray poured little glasses of the best brandy, brought all the way from Khazan itself, for himself and his guest.

"I'm sorry about your wife," Eladana remarked. "Did she die of an illness?"

"Die? Naught of the sorts. She left me."


"For a swordsman from down Khost way."


He said nothing for so long that she began to search around for some interesting tale from her travels, just to lighten the mood.

"I hope an Orc eats his guts," Gray said abruptly. "For Frogday brunch."

"I can understand how it would take you that way."

He nodded, looked like he was going to smile, then burst into tears. Eladana put an arm around his shoulders, just to comfort him, really, wiped his face for him, too, and then found one thing leading to another, first a kiss, then an embrace, and then, well, I'm sure all of you know perfectly well where this sort of thing leads when two people are alone and lonely by a good fire in a comfortable tavern.

At any rate, Eladana told herself the next morning that she was going to get right back on the road as soon as it stopped raining, but when the weather cleared, the sunny view out the long windows was so pleasant, along with other things, that she stayed a fortnight, and that fortnight led to another, and another, until just before Midsummer's Eve she realized that she was going to have a child. There was no leaving, of course, until her son was born, two months after Midwinter.

By then, Eladana was beginning to have a profound sympathy for Gray's wife and her taste for fascinating adventurers. Gray was an honest man, a fine father, a hard worker—and as dull as a dragon's tail is long. He lived for his brewing and cooking, fussed over his ales, thought of little else, really, but ale and roasts, unless it was beer and bread-baking. By the time the boy, Cadvarn, was weaned, Eladana had reached the point where one more evening listening to Gray talk about malting and yeast was going to drive her mad. Rather than turn him into a frog or perform some other wizardly horror on a man whose only crime was lack of imagination, Eladana gathered up her old adventuring gear and left. One fine autumn morning she kissed both children goodbye, promised her man that she'd return every now and then, and took the west-running road for Khazan. She wept, on and off, for two entire days, just from missing the children, but once she was catching up on the news at the Wizards' Guildhall, she realized that she'd made the right decision.

It was right for the empire as well as for her, because, of course, trouble was already beginning to brew as Leotra'hh got her claws deeper and deeper into Khara Kang's very soul. Eladana found that the land needed wizards like her, who used their magicks for the good of all and who cared for the common people and their sufferings as much as they did for raw power. Up in the high mountains many a strange thing needed attending to, and many a dark trail needed walking and cleansing. Yet at the end of every winter Eladana came back to Cinders, to visit her son and the girl she thought of as her adopted daughter, and to leave Gray a pouch of gold in case they lacked for anything. Every spring they begged her to stay; every time she was tempted; yet always she thought of the horrors that monster kin might unleash upon human kin and returned to her lonely patrols of the dark that lived under the world.

Finally, though, the dark found Cinders and touched it. The year that her son turned seven, Eladana returned to town and tavern to find Gray near-hysterical with rage and Redbird sobbing in a corner by the hearth. There was no sign of Cadvarn.

"Gray!" she snapped. "Look at me! What's happened that's so wrong?"

It seemed that her man came out from under a spell at the sound of her voice. For a moment he stared at her, and then shook himself like a wet dog.

"Thanks are to every god and goddess too! My love, he's taken our boy. The old man, I mean, from the old tower. Ye gods, my wits! You don't even know what's happened, do you?"

"I most certainly don't." She felt every drop of blood in her body turn to ice. "Suppose you tell me?"

Gray gathered Redbird into his lap and proceeded to do just that. All during her father's recital, the child sat stone-still, staring at Eladana's face in a numb and wordless hope that somehow her powerful step-mother would put everything to rights.

Some miles north, twixt the town and the mountains, stood an old stone tower, built many long years before by the horse herders to keep watch against Orcs from the hills. As the region grew more settled, and raids rarer, the tower had been abandoned, until the last summer, that is, when an old man and his retinue suddenly appeared in Cinders. This Malthorn, as he called himself, stayed in the Wyvern's Wing for a few days until he could find and bargain with the original owners of the tower. He seemed wealthy, this wizard--because there was no doubt that he knew mighty magicks indeed--and he spread his gold around with a generous hand, too. Once the tower was bought, he took himself and his servants off to it, though every now and then one his bodyguards would come into town to buy ale and little luxuries.

"And then last week old Malthorn himself shows up," Gray said. "Sat himself down as nice as you please in my tavern room and nice as you please pulled out some dice and suggested we have a game. But I knew he was a wizard, and only a fool gambles with wizards, so I said no. And he got furious and swore at me, and said if I wouldn't let him win what he wanted, then he'd take it anyway. He stormed out of here in a rage, and I was sick over it, I was. But he never came back, and I thought he'd forgotten or suchlike, until this morning." His face turned color to match his name. "Not an hour ago Malthorn and his men came raging in here. They grabbed our lad, and when I tried to stop them, it was like I was turned to stone. I couldn't move, not a step from where I stood, and Redbird fell down on the floor just from the way the old man looked at her, and she didn't move till ever so long after he left. And I stood there like a statue until I heard you at the door, my love, and then at last I could speak and move again."

Eladana's first reaction was surprise that she felt no anger at all; then she realized that her rage burned so hot and fine that it had consumed all petty things like cursing and the shaking of fists.

"If we call out the town," Gray went on. "There's the militia."

"And they'd be no good at all against a man like this, and in considerable danger besides." Eladana stood up, laying her hands flat on the table. "No, I'm going alone. This isn't some squalid kidnapping. There's something this man wants from me, I'll wager, and our Cadvarn's only his bait."

"I'll come, at least. By every god, he's my son!"

"And you've got a daughter to care for, too, don't you?"

Gray started to argue, but the child in his lap looked up at him with eyes brimming tears, and he relented. He did insist, though, that Eladana take the finest horse in his stable for her ride north.

The old tower and it had no name but that, stood on the edge of the foothills. Just where a long mountain valley, slashed by a rocky stream, spread into a meadow, the narrow stone needle rose in the midst of a circling wall.   When Eladana rode up, the meadows all round lay strangely silent. Not a bird sang; not a rabbit rustled in the shrubby bushes lining the road. Her horse turned nervous, snorting, tossing his head and rolling his eyes until she took pity on him. Forcing another living thing into that keep seemed like a crime. She dismounted, tied the reins to the saddle-peak, and sent him back home with a slap on his rump.

She strode alone to the iron-bound gates in the ring of walls and found them wide open. Just inside stood two men, wearing mail over tattered clothes and holding swords at the ready. From the way they slowly swung their heads round and stared at her without really seeing her, she could tell that they were ensorcelled.

"My lady Eladana, is it? Come for your lad, have you?"

As harsh as steel rasping on a shield, the voice came from the doorway to the tower proper. While she walked over, picking her way through the puddles of mud and muck, the figure merely stood in the shadows and watched, a burly sort, tall, leaning on a double-headed axe. It wasn't until she drew close that she realized he wasn't truly human. His skin was an oily dead-white, his hair white as well, and his eyes a bright pink. His brutish face betrayed the Orcish blood in his veins. When he laughed at her, his lips drew back from proper fangs.

"My master's waiting for you. No tricks, now, or me and my men there will shred you on the spot."

With the Orcish half-breed at the head and the two swordsmen behind, they entered the tower and a round room that stank of dead meat and befouled hay. Huddled at a smoking fire three true Orcs snarled and fought over a game of dice while, tied to a ring in the wall, a brown and white goat bleated desperately. Later, no doubt, they would eat her raw. Right in the middle of this stinking mire stood an iron staircase, spiraling up.

"Val, Richard, come with me," the half-breed snarled at the two ensorcelled warriors. "We'll take our honored visitor up to the master's chambers."

After the stench below Malthorn's chamber came as a relief, though at any other time she would have felt sick at heart from its emanation of sheer malice. The feeling was too petty to be called evil, more spite than horror, but dangerous all the same. The image that this aura brought to her mind was that of a nasty child who strangles its sister's little singing bird just to make her cry: petty, yes, but deadly.   Malthorn's servants had hung the graceless round room with black cloth, fading rusty near the windows, and laid the wooden floors with red and yellow carpets, all worn in the middle. The old man himself sat in a huge oak chair by the hearth with his feet up on a padded stool. He was a lean creature, his arms like sticks, his face a bit of skin stretched like old parchment over his skull, his lips bloodless as he drew them back from his toothless mouth to smile at her.

"So, you have come." His voice was a rasp like dead sticks rubbed together. "I knew you would. The love of a mother for her child! Touching, is it not?"

"What have you done with my boy?"

“Turned him to stone, actually, but you'll be able to turn him back again. I have the greatest respect for you, Eladana, the greatest of all possible respects."

"Is that why you've set wards all through this tower?"

"Ah, you felt my little traps, did you? Yes, as long as you stay here, you shan't be able to cast a single spell, not one. I made quite sure of that. But you came in anyway, wards and all? Touching, truly, this maternal devotion. Mark it well, Golo, mark it well. Your kind has no such nobility."

The slug-white half-breed spat into the flames. For a brief moment Eladana considered drawing her throwing dagger and pinning Malthorn dead to his chair back, but no doubt Golo and the swordsmen would indeed cut her to shreds, and Cadvarn would stay here forever, a statue worn down by winds and damp till at last he crumbled away.

"What do you want of me, old man?"

"Your help. Pledge me your aid on a magical working that I have in hand, and I'll give you back your son." He leaned back and placed the fingertips of both hands together like a cage. "You see, I've been working out this plan for months. I made inquiries of all the guilds about the wizards who grace the dragon continent. Everyone agreed you are absolutely the most trustworthy. Once Eladana gives you her word, they told me, you may consider the thing done. I'll wager that this absolute honesty is your fate, your geas, the very heart and soul of your magical power. It's a common one, after all."

Eladana said nothing, but she was wishing him dead for his guess. If she should ever lie, her magical power would weaken, and if she persisted, it would in time fade away.

"Oooh, my dear, you've gone all pale about the lips." He laughed a sort of gurgle deep in his throat. "Now, since you cannot lie, I have no need of lying, and so we can bargain. You promise me that you'll help me achieve what I seek, merely promise me at first, and I shall release your lad. You can take him back to the town, cure him, fuss over him, see him all settled and safe, and then you'll come back to me, and we'll start our work."      For a moment Eladana saw the room lurch and swim, felt her body turn icy cold, and heard a hissy rush in her ears. Dimly she was aware of Malthorn crying out, and of a chair, pushed close at hand. She sat down heavily and caught her breath. This was no moment for weakness.

"What's wrong?" Malthorn was leaning close. "Come now, my dear, you can't come over ill on me. I need you."

"If you want me to help you harm so much as one innocent being, then you might as well kill me and my son now, because I'd rather we both died than help you work evil."

"What? Oh little frogs and fishes, nothing of the sort! Look at me, Eladana of the Pure Heart. I am so old, old beyond even my appearing old. If I told you how old I am, you'd be shocked, I assure you.   Soon, in the normal course of things, I will die. My magic weakens, there's no more I can do to stave off this nasty and inevitable nuisance. Not, that is, by myself." He leaned closer still, and he smelled dry, like dead grass in autumn, half-frozen, half-parched. "You are young, your magicks are still strong. You will help me live, my dear. You will help me become immortal."

"How can I promise you a thing like that? No wizard's ever done such a thing, except for Khazan himself. And who knows if he's truly immortal, or if he lives only because he sleeps?"

"Ah, but no wizard's ever worked at the problem as hard as I. The secret's within my grasp. Another two years, another three--I'll find it, I'm sure of it!"

The thought of that creature living for all eternity filled her with such loathing that she nearly refused the bargain. If it had been only her own life at stake, she would have let the slug Golo slit her throat before she helped Malthorn inflict himself upon the universe for one day longer, much less forever, but of course, her son's life was at stake, too. Malthorn had judged her well.

"It would seem, old man, that I don't have much choice in the matter."

"None, no." He sounded positively cheerful about it. "Oh come now! Think of it as an honor. It's a rare practioner of our art who's had the chance to work with Malthorn the Mighty. Why, no doubt you'll learn all sorts of things by working with me."

Eladana did her best to stay calm and think. After all, he'd made many a quest in dark and stinking places and found many a thing more horrid than this conceited little toad of a man. All at once the idea came to her. Yes, she certainly had seen some strange things deep under the earth, hadn't she now? If only he were as greedy for his prize as he seemed to be, and if only she could get her words exactly right. . .

"But you say there's years of work left. What if you die before we're done?"

"That thought haunts me." Malthorn shuddered and clasped his claws of hands together hard. "That I might be so close and still die! It would be wretchedly unfair of the universe, wouldn’t it?"

"And just the sort of evil trick the gods like to play on those of us who study sorcery."

"Exactly. They're jealous, the gods, of human power and what the human mind can accomplish, if only there were time enough." Malthorn leaned forward, his face all earnest indignation. "And I'm sure that they're particularly jealous of me. With my fine mind, and with all the secret knowledge I've gathered over the years, why, I could be the greatest wizard who ever lived if only I had time enough to finish my studies."

“Um, I see. Well, what if I told you that there's a way to get your wish right close at hand? What if I told you that not more than fifty miles away, deep in the heart of the mountains, lies a means for you to achieve immortality?"

His eyes glittered and shot greed like sparks of light.

"Are you strong enough for a quest?" she went on. "We'll have to ride all the way into the mountains. There's a ruined silver mine, you see, up in the Dragonfire Range, and deep within it is a secret chamber that only I know. Now, once we reach the mine, you'll have to walk for some miles. Can you do that?"

"I can, indeed, if you promise me. . ."

"Malthorn." She held up one hand flat. "Believe me, if we reach the chamber I'm talking about, I can promise you that every bone in your body will become immortal. Every hair on your head will become immortal. Every drop of blood in your veins, your veins themselves, your heart itself, your brain and your eyes and your ears and your lips and your tongue will become immortal. Every fleck of your skin, every fiber of muscle, every grain of toe-nail and fingernail, every--"

"Enough!" His voice rang with a brief strength. "Do you swear all this?"

"So do I swear."

"And do you swear that you will use all your magicks and all your strength to bring me safely to this chamber of which you spoke?"

Eladana cursed him in her heart for his caution. It would have been so convenient to tip him into a fissure along the way.

"So do I swear."

Malthorn laughed, tossing his head back, and then clapped his hands together.

"Golo, bring out the boy." He waited until the half-breed had slunk out through a door hidden behind draped cloth. "You know, my dear, you should be proud of your little son. He knew what I was going to do, but he stood his ground, glaring at me all the while, never a whimper or a whine. Someday he'll make a fine wizard, he will."

"Think so? He's always told me he wants to own a brewery when he grows up."

Malthorn was as good as his word. Once Eladana had her son home safe at the tavern, her workings went so smoothly that it seemed the enchantment lifted itself. As she finished the last chant of the ceremony, the hard gray stone throbbed and glimmered, then dissolved into Cadvarn, who stared at her open-mouthed. When she touched his face, he began to laugh and cry at the same time. She folded him into her arms and wept with him.

"Mama, Mama, I knew you'd save me! I just knew it. Is that awful old man dead yet?"

"No, my sweet, I'm afraid he's not. I had to promise not to hurt him, you see, so he'd let you go."

"You shouldn't have. I wouldn't have minded dying to get rid of him. Well, I wouldn't have minded a whole lot, anyway."

"I would have minded a great big whole lot. And I'm the mother in this family. Remember?"

He clung to her so tightly that she could feel his terror, seeping from his bones like frost.


On a bright day that smelled of summer coming, Eladana met her unwanted associate on the road some miles out of town. He traveled in style, did Malthorn, on a beautiful bay horse with silver-trimmed gear. Right behind him rode his bodyguard of Golo, the three Orcs, and his two ensorcled swordsmen, plus two pack horses and peasants to lead them.

"Give that pack to a servant to carry, Eladana." Malthorn smiled his bloodless grin. You have no horse?"

"Oh, I'd rather walk."

With her walking and him riding, conversation would be difficult, you see, especially since it took all his strength and attention just to cling to the saddle as they made their way over the rough and winding roads. Yet that night, once the servants had a good fire going and food handed out all round, Malthorn insisted she come sit next to him for a "chat," as he called it.

"Now, I've been very forbearing so far," he said.

"When your son was still ensorcled, I knew you'd have no mind for a long talk. That's the kind of man I am, deep down, always thinking of others. But now I want to know just what this marvelous chamber is that you've promised me."

Eladana felt herself grow very calm. The greatest battle of her life had begun. She glanced round to find Golo sitting nearby, all ears, then turned back to Malthorn. "Very well," she said. "The silver mine I told you about? It prospered for many a year, until one day the miners broke through a wall and found a natural cavern where an underground river ran through. And on the other side of that, they found these artificial tunnels so old they must have been built during the Wizard Wars."

"By great magicks, indeed." Malthorn's eyes gleamed, fevered in the firelight. "Did they explore them?"

"A little ways, till three of them got eaten by a creature living in the river. At that point they closed down the mine. Some years later, I heard the story and went to investigate. It was obvious that some mighty personage from the days of the Wizard Wars had carved himself out a refuge under the mountain. I won't go into detail now. Doubtless you'll spend much time there once you've achieved your goal, but the remnants of powerful magic lay everywhere."

"And soon they will be mine, yes. Go on."

"Not far from the river I found a huge chamber with wards of enormous power guarding the door. It took all my strength to blast them aside. Inside I found a being." Here was the crux, and she hesitated, looking away, thinking hard. "I never got a good look at him or her or it. It appeared as a blazing pillar of light, blinding me. And it spoke in a tongue so old and archaic that it was hard to understand. It had been trapped there, you see, during the wars, by one of its enemies." So far all this was the literal truth. "But as far as I could understand, and I spent many hours there, deciphering what it said, it promised, it swore, that the first person through the chamber door would achieve the immortality of which I told you on the day we first met, the one to which I've promised to deliver you."

"I see." Malthorn laughed, a dry rusty mutter. "And no doubt in return it will demand to be set free. Hum, well, we'll see about that! But why didn't you go through the door?"

"I had my children to think about." She could only hope that conditional sentences might be counted as, if not truths, then at least as a category beyond truth and lies by whomever or whatever it was that held wizards to their geas. "I ask you, Malthorn, if I were immortal, would I be able to be a good mother to my children? An immortal being couldn't even begin to understand the needs and fears of a child, or so I'd think. Later, once they were grown, I might have gone back and taken up the being's challenge, but now, of course, you shall have the first walk through that door."

"A touching sacrifice for the little ones, my dear, postively touching. Well, once I'm immortal, perhaps I'll set about making you immortal, too, if you choose to serve me, of course." All at once he yawned. "Ah, how weary I am tonight. I haven't ridden so far in a single day for a very long time. I'd best get some sleep and save my strength for the mines."

For the rest of the journey, as Malthorn grew more and more exhausted, Eladana managed to avoid any more of these intimate talks. As they climbed higher and higher into the dark peaks of the Dragonfire range, the horses could go at no more than a slow and measured walk. When Golo threatened to lay whip and spur upon them to speed them along, Eladana pointed out to the half-breed's master that draining the horses' strength now would mean a slow walk downhill at the end of their quest.

"Provided, of course, we live to see the sun again, anyway, which is doubtful."

"Come now, my dear, with my might joined to yours. . ."

"It's a dangerous road we'll walk in there. Overconfidence will kill us."

He considered, nodding his head a little.

"Well, right you are. We might need those horses to ride out in a hurry, like, if something's chasing us out."

Once they reached the mines, everyone agreed that the horses would have to stay behind. Twisted switchbacks, hacked from the living rock of a sheer cliff, led up to the entrance into the tunnels. Like a sneering mouth it gaped, its huge timbers cracked, canted, threatening collapse at any moment. Down below, at the foot of the cliff, they found a roughly-cleared meadow with the remains of a fence and a water-trough.

"This must have been a paddock for the mine's mules," Eladana said. "I suggest we leave the horses here with the servants to watch them. If we just turn them loose, they'll wander off, or some creature might eat them, for that matter."

Malthorn considered, looking up at the sharp peaks, black with pines, streaked with the dark gray of rock cropping out from the thin soil. Even in the sunny afternoon the wind was cold as it whistled down from the crystal-blue sky.

"Very well," he said at last. "I shall bind them to stay with curses upon the names of three different demons, the servants, that is. I suppose they have more wit than the horses, anyway." He laughed at his own joke, and Golo, of course, echoed him.

That evening, though, once Malthorn and Golo were sound asleep, Eladana slipped away from camp and joined the servants at their tiny fire.

"As soon as we're well down in the mines," she said. "Run for your lives. I'll stand as surrogate for the demons myself, but to tell you the truth, I'm not much worried about them."

White-faced and stammering, the three men thanked her and blessed her name for good measure.

Since the silver mines had only been abandoned some twenty years earlier, the tunnels were still in good condition, and their trip through them uneventful at first. Being so near to his goal seemed to give Malthorn a brief return of youth; he strode along, humming under his breath snatches of a drinking song that Eladana had often heard in the various taverns where adventurers gathered of an evening. From his throat it sounded repulsive. Golo and the orcs scurried after him, and at the very rear the two ensorceled swordsmen plodded, heads down like mules.   After a long morning's trek, they reached a pit, some twenty feet across, where at one time a ramp sloped down to the lowest level of the mine itself. Now the entire side of the shaft lay collapsed and strewn on the floor far below, a spread of rocks and rubble.

"There's a narrow strip left, off there to the side," Malthorn said. "Not very safe looking, though."

"We might be able to get down this way." Golo stepped forward and peered, holding up his lantern. "If we went one at a time."

"It'd be fairly safe, coming up." Eladana said this loudly enough for the orcs and the swordsmen to hear. "Safer than going down. I blasted this out, you see, so I know the damage pretty well. Something was chasing me as I was trying to leave, and all this sudden rubble slow them down good and proper."

"We'll have to use magicks," Malthorn snapped. "We can fly our men down one at a time, then follow. I'm not risking an accident now, when we're so close."

"Er, yes," Golo said. "Uh, what was chasing you?"

"Well, to tell you the truth, I really don't think you want to know."

By the time they had the men, orcs, and all their gear down safely to the foul-smelling mine tunnel below, the two wizards were exhausted, but Malthorn insisted that they push on. As they picked their way between brackish pools of water and stones slick with blue and phosphorescent slime, he needed to lean heavily on Golo and measure every step he took. If the maze of rough corridors and branching tunnels hadn't all sloped steadily down, doubtless he couldn't have managed more than a couple of hundred yards, but as it was, the party was a good mile from the shaft before he gasped out the order to halt. Eladana found them a place to camp, a big half-circular hollow of a room, which once had stored wheelbarrows and the tiny, two-wheeled ore-carts common in that part of the country.

"Look at the floor," she remarked to the orcs. "You can see the ruts worn right into the stone. They say that thousands of orcish slaves lived and died their whole life here until the mine was forced to close. The locals tells stories about their ghosts, wandering and wailing through the tunnels, crying out for revenge on every living thing they meet." She paused for effect. "Now, I don't believe those stories, myself, but you certainly hear a lot of them."

"Not afraid of ghosts, none of us!" one Orc spat out, and his fellows all chimed in to agree. None of them sounded convincing.

After a scant meal, Malthorn ordered the orcs to take turns standing guard, then rolled himself up in his blankets and fell asleep, a deep, bone-weary slumber that, it seemed, nothing could break. Golo made himself a bed out of cloaks and so on, but he announced that he was going to sleep with more than half an ear open. Either he was more tired than he thought, or the orcs were better at moving quietly than they looked, because in the morning the guards were gone and half the food with them. Malthorn and Golo swore and raged and promised to invoke every demon in hell to seek the defectors out even unto the ends of the earth while Eladana did her best to look stricken.

"It matters not," Malthorn said at last. "Once I'm immortal, there'll be all the time in the world to deal with the likes of them. Eladana, how far are we?"

"Not far, but the worst part lies ahead. We've got to cross the river."

Eeriely silent, the river flowed as smooth as glass at the bottom of a gorge. Some forty feet wide, it exhaled an icy cold, not easy swimming, especially for burdened men and an ancient wizard. Not a knob or spire or jag protuded on which to fasten a rope, either.

"Some rather ghastly creatures live in there," Eladana remarked. "Or, to be perfectly honest, they did the last time I was here, anyway. I think they must be some of those hybrid horrors you hear about from the Wizard Wars. When I was flying over it, tentacles came snaking out of the water and nearly got me. As thick as a man's leg, they were, and covered with blood- red suckers like little mouths."

Everyone shuddered, especially Golo.

"Well, we'll have to take to the air again," Malthorn said. "I hate to do it. Yesterday, getting everyone down that shaft seemed to sap every bit of life out of me, but I don't see any way around it. Once we're across, how much farther is it to the chamber?"

"Some miles. If you're exhausted, we really should rest for a good long time before--"

"No! I've worked and hoped and studied and sweated for this day, and cursed if I want to wait! It's close, so close. I can feel Destiny like a wind, my dear, blowing me onward."

"Indeed? Well, you know, once I crossed this river I didn't meet any more evil creatures. On the other side everything was dead, all scoured away, like, and there wasn't a scrap of moss or drop of water for any beast to eat or drink. The ancient magic must have made the caverns unfit to bear life for ever. Why not leave those two ensorcled warriors behind? Bind them with demon- fear like you did the servants. If we only take ourselves, Golo, and a little food and water across, you'll have the strength left to push on."

Malthorn turned and studied the pair, standing half-sprawled against the tunnel wall, eyes glazed, mouths slack. She could guess the spells he'd used to chain their very souls, a working that would make them less than beasts until something should attack, when they would go berserk and fight till the danger passed.

"There's no need even for the demon-binding," Malthorn said at last. "How long till we return?"

"Well, I could walk there and back in six hours, say."

"I'll be a bit slower going, but I should be speedier coming back. Very well, then. The spell won't need renewing for at least a day." Malthorn waved his hand at the pair. "Sit. Stay."

Obediently they slumped and squatted down like half-filled sacks of grain. While Malthorn stood at the river bank--though a safe way back from the water--and contemplated his destiny lying on the other side, Golo went through the packs, making up small bundles of food and waterskins for him and Eladana to carry. She made a great pretence of going through her own pack, taking out extra food, fussing over various things, until Golo finished and walked away to join his master. She carelessly let a tin cup fall and roll, rattling, over to the two swordsmen. Neither looked up as she bustled over to fetch it.

"You will neither move nor speak till we're across the river," she whispered. "Not one word till we're across."

In their soul-bound state, her orders cut into their minds like a dagger thrust. When, with a few quick murmurs and a gesture of cramped fingers, she lifted the ensorcelment, they stayed completly inert, without so much as a twitch of their lips, but in their eyes she saw life and thought dawn. Slipping the cup into a pocket, she hurried over to the waiting Malthorn.

"Shall I send Golo across with my magic?" she said.

"No!" Golo squeaked. "I'm not going first. I'm not I'm not. I don't want tentacles grabbing at me!"

"Shut up, you stupid idiot!" Malthorn made a weak slap in his direction. "If something happened to Eladana, I'd never find the chamber, would I now? Think, you fool!" He turned to Eladana. "My dear, I see you're mindful of your promises indeed. By all means, if you'd sail him over?"

With a thrust of her mind she summoned force and grabbed the squalling Golo as if she were wielding invisible tongs. Up and up and she lifted him, so high above the river he nearly scraped his head on the cavern roof above, then slung himself across. For a moment he dangled at a canted angle over the rocky bank on the far side. Malthorn laughed; Golo screamed; Eladana dumped him unceremoniously down among his bags and sacks.

"Shall we, my dear?" Malthorn raised himelf into the air.

Together they floated up, then glided over the river. About halfway across Eladana looked down and saw a sleek dark shape, twice as large as a horse, gliding fast beneath them.

"Hurry!" she screamed.

They swooped down to the safety of the bank just as the creature struck, breaking water like a trout--but no natural fish was this. She had only an impression of a black mouth, bladed with fangs, before the creature dived back into a churn of white water. The spray arched up some twenty feet into the air and splashed over them with a sulphurous smell. Golo was shrieking, Malthorn was gibbering and clutching his chest. Simply because she'd promised to keep him safe, Eladana grabbed him and dragged him back from the edge of the gorge. Golo followed, still whimpering.

"I must rest," Malthorn gasped. "Must."

They helped him sit, then made him a little bed of their cloaks. While Golo scrabbled through his bags and sacks to find a restoring potion, Eladana wandered back to the river bank. Across on the far side, the swordsmen were gone. After a vial of some sweet-smelling herbal brew and a few minutes rest, Malthorn insisted that he could walk with Golo's support. Just as Eladana had hoped, he was so exhausted that he could barely think, much less ask any awkward questions about their destination. She led the way while the pair of them limped after, down long corridors graved with strange symbols and words in a long-forgotten tongue, past rotting wooden doors or stone statues that seemed to look at them with living eyes. Golo began to whine, saying that his shoulders were aching, that his feet hurt and his back was cramping under his master's weight; Malthorn muttered and swore at him under his breath. Just as they reached the final turning, Eladana had one last stab of doubt. Whether or not she had ever outright lied to them, she was playing a vast and malicious trick on the pair, suffering and sentient beings like all humankin and monsterkin, driven by nothing more than the fear of death that drives most souls. She hesitated, letting them catch up, and wavered on the edge of revealing herself.

"Once I'm immortal," Malthorn was saying to the half-breed. "You'll have your reward. Remember what I promised you? In a few years nothing will be able stop the power of my magic, not Leotra'hh herself, not Khazan, even if the stupid fool managed to wake up before we destroy him. Ah, there you are, my dear. You too will be rewarded for this, you know. Why, your son shall have every brewery in the northlands if you'd like."

"One will no doubt be plenty, thank you.   Are you ready, Malthorn? The door lies there." And with a sweep of her arm, she steered him down the corridor.

Rough stone walls, a dusty stone floor, all carved from the living rock unimaginably long before—an unprepossessing little tunnel, leading up to a jagged opening into darkness. Malthorn peered down and frowned

"You said the being was a pillar of light. Has it fled?"

"The dark's an illusion. That's what serves as a door."

Malthorn laughed and shook his head.

"Sorry, my dear. I am just so tired. Very well, let us dispel it."

As she gathered her strength for the working, Eladana said in her mind a silent farewell to the two children and the tavernman who would wait in vain for her to come home. Not once in this journey had she ever considered that she would survive reaching its goal. Beside her Malthorn raised his arms in the air.

"Now!" he snapped.

When they flung their hands forward, the magical energy swept out, flew toward the door, and hit with a roar of sound, a flood of silver-blue light made as palpable as a spear. Half-blinded by the glare, Eladana fell to her knees, but Malthorn rushed forward where the last pieces of magical darkness fluttered away like torn cloth. Shrieking Golo shoved her aside and rushed after him just as a spray of light burst from the chamber.

"Me first!" Golo screamed. "Out of my way, old man!"

"Never!" Malthorn grabbed, caught, clutched him and fell with him to the ground.

They writhed, rolled, flopping like landed fish, wrestling ever closer to the yawning door where golden light poured out. The air screamed with them as the very stone trembled and pitched. Eladana staggered to her knees, fell again, hauled herself up and began struggling backwards, away from the hungry howl that filled the tunnel. Locked together Malthorn and Golo rolled the last few feet. Streamers of light like hands grabbed and dragged them while their shrieks of fear and agony mingled with the roaring of the ravenous being that drew them within. Eladana had spoken nothing but the truth when she'd said that she knew not what it might be. What she did know was this: although it was immortal, it hungered. On the day that she'd discovered it, trapped in its cavern, it had cried and threatened and begged for food, for flesh to suck dry, for living beings to absorb into its own immortal substance, for blood to drink and bones to crush and swallow until every drop of blood, every vein, the heart itself, every bone, every fiber of muscle, every tiny scrap of the prey became itself for ever, as immortal indeed as the beast that had devoured it was immortal.

Under her the ground pitched and rocked. Fed, the creature grew strong and threw itself against its prison. Praying to every god, Eladana ran down the corridor. She had no choice but run; she would have to save the last pitiful remnant of her magic for the river. She fell, dragged herself up, ran out into the main tunnel, fell again, managed to regain her feet just as the ceiling of the side tunnel behind her collapsed. The creature's maddened howl threw her onward in a spray of rock chips and dust. Still trapped, it raged and destroyed the more.

Half staggering, half running Eladana drove herself onward. Behind her walls burst, stone ceilings fell, tons of dirt and earth plunged like water to fill the voids of wizards' work. She could feel herself gasping for breath in air turned thick, feel her back and legs bleeding, too, from the constant waves of shattered rock that nipped her. All at once the ground bucked up beneath her feet. She fell, slid, rolling over and over down, always down as the long approach to the riverbank crumbled under her with a groan and spew of dying earth. Magic was her only hope. With a spasm of mind, she forced herself to concentrate as she began to tumble in that avalanche of rock. She flung herself into the air, hovered rather than flew as tons of debris poured down below her and blocked the gorge. How long she hung there above certain death she would never know. As the roaring stopped and dust began to rise in smoking plumes, she found herself falling beyond her power to save herself. She hit the spread of rubble hard, breathless, bleeding, stabbed with pain in every rib and sinew, and lay helpless as the river roared an answer to the earth and began to rise behind this sudden dam.

Drowning, she supposed, would be a kinder fate, less painful than being crushed under rock, and she had the last muddled hope that her body would wash up where it could be found, so that Gray and the children would know that she was dead and could put her memory behind her. It seemed, in fact, that she heard Gray calling her name, screaming her name, then realized that the voices--there were two of them, suddenly--belonged to strangers. As the voices mingled with the gurgle and churn of the rising water, through the drifting dust shapes appeared, hands, faces leaning over, hands grabbing her: Val and Rikard, the swordsmen she'd set free. She could barely gibber out their names.

"Do you think we'd desert you? Did you think we'd run away when there was the least chance you lived?"

When they grabbed her to lift her up, the pain seared through her body. She fainted in their arms.

Eladana woke to pain, but to sunlight as well, and the feel of someone wiping her face with a wet rag, and the taste of fresh water being trickled into her lips.   When at length it occurred to her to open her eyes, she saw, hovering close about hers, the face of one of Malthorn's erstwhile servants

"You didn't go." Her voice was a cracked and aching whisper.

"Not while there was a chance you'd come out and need us," the man said, grinning. "Figured you'd get the best of that slime. Now just rest. Val's gone galloping for a healer."

It was a long time before Eladana could talk about what had happened inside the mountain, not until she was well and truly healed, and sitting in Gray's warm tavern room with friends around her, a fire glowing in the hearth, the children at either side of her, and a tankard of good brown ale at hand. As well as the men she'd rescued, half of Cinders, it seemed, crowded in to hear her tale. When she finished, no one spoke for a long time, merely sat thinking, or looking out into space with a shudder for the horror of it all. Finally Cadvarn tugged on her sleeve.

"But Mama, you did lie, didn't you? I mean, all those bits of him are immortal, but he's not."

"The only thing he made me take an oath about were the bits, my sweet. And so it wasn't as if I lied. When I was making him that list of bits, I just left out one small detail."

"What? What didn't you put on the list?"

Eladana smiled in a gentle sort of way. "His soul."


January 2004
May 2004


Graham Buckingham