Aphelion Issue 263, Volume 25
July 2021
 
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Magic and the Heart

by McCamy Taylor

Part Four of Four


When Sammual returned to the oasis, he found the prince sitting beside the dying

fire, waiting for him. The others had already gone to bed.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Marc had the muriseal bottle ready.

Sammual sat down beside him. It would have been easy to take a drink or two, but he owed it to Perrin to tell this story sober. Haltingly, he began.

***

After a century, the earth’s wounds were still fresh in Shiraz. So were Sammual’s memories. Perrin was nineteen when he died. The elde-mage recalled the boy clearly. In most respects, he was a typical Shirazian, beardless, with deep brown skin and straight hair as black as night. However, a Suunian ancestor had given him eyes of gray which seemed to change colors, depending upon the weather. He also had a gift for water magic.

Back then, water mages were common in northern Shiraz. Rivers from the Shantuun Mountains kept the fields fertile. Much of the land was covered with marsh, which bred mosquitoes that transmitted diseases, including the swamp fever which infected Perrin shortly after his birth. Though his natural magic ability kept him from dying as a child, the infection stunted his growth and weakened his lungs. The village healer predicted he would die before reaching the age of thirty.

In retrospect, it was all so clear. Perrin had manipulated him. Or rather, her. For Sammual was Sammuelle at the time. The worst part was that she knew that something was going on. The boy spent too much time alone in the library, reading arcane books on death and the Darkhall. She assumed--rightly, it turned out---that he was looking for a spell which would increase his life span. However, she never dreamed that he would go to such lengths.

Had Perrin used a safer kind of magic, he might have achieved a normal human life span. Perhaps, he would have lived as long as one hundred years. He wanted more, and so he got less.

Somewhere in Sammuelle’s library, the young apprentice found the formula for eternal life, the one which sealed the door to his own death. With the recklessness of youth, he cast the spell without giving thought to its consequences. And consequences there were. Within a few weeks, other doors began to open, and strange things began to happen around him. The spirits of the dead returned to walk the earth. Animals went mad and attacked their own young. A cold wind blew across Shiraz in the height of summer, killing forests and crops. Streams and lakes first froze then dried up. Farmland became desert. One day, the sun failed to rise.

When Sammuelle finally understood the truth, she confronted her pupil. As she stared into his wide, storm grey eyes, she tried to feel anger or revulsion, but all she could find within herself was pity.

“Sam. Please. Help me.” Perrin glanced over his shoulder at the maelstrom that was swirling behind him in the sand. “I don’t want to go into the Darkhall. I’m too young to die. Please. There must be something you can do.”

There was something she could do. She did not want to do it, but the time for doing what she wanted was long passed. She raised her hands. Hope appeared on Perrin’s face and vanished again when she moved, not to embrace him, but to push him away. Softly, she began to work the spell of sending.

“No!” her apprentice cried. His grey eyes brimmed with tears, which the howling wind tore away and hurled into the abyss. “Don’t let me die! Don’t let me die!”

When it was over, Sammuelle had changed from woman to man. Why, he had never understood. The shock of what he had seen that day temporarily sealed his third eye shut. He did not use high magic again for over a year.

The Shirazians who survived the storm called it a miracle, and they dubbed their savior Ser Shiraz---the saint of Shiraz. They called the spring which flowed from the site of the rift between the world of the living and the world of the dead a miracle, too, and attributed it to Ser Shiraz, not realizing that it was Perrin who created it. In one final, desperate act, the apprentice had unleashed every bit of his water magic in a futile attempt to defeat the forces of the Darkhall which hungered for his soul.

The city of Al Shiraz was built around the sacred spring, according to Ser Shiraz’s orders. The Saint also prescribed prayers and purification rites. Over a century after Perrin’s death, these rituals were still being followed. Few understood their purpose. The sacred spring that was a source of life giving water for so many people in the desert was also a doorway to another world. When Sammuelle hurled her apprentice through that door to his death, she sealed it, but the rift would never be completely healed. There would always be a weakness there, a point of intersection between the World of Decay and the Darkhall, a place where forbidden magic could be cast and where things not of this earth could find entrance.

Now, an unknown mage was attempting to exploit that rift. Using the soul of a Darkhall princess and the blood of innocents, he---or she if the one eyed bandit’s remark about an “old witch” was accurate---was attempting one of the most ambitious and dangerous acts of sorcery. A warded fortress could give a mortal eternal life or resurrect the dead. A warded fortress could make an entire nation embrace a new leader---or cause every man, woman and child in a country to kill themselves in despair. Theoretically, it could turn back time---and if such an attempt were successful, it would erase the evidence of its own construction---

Marc interrupted. “Hold on. This is the part that takes twenty years to understand, right? I’ll just take your word for it that it would be bad if the warded fortress gets built. Sam, you have to stop blaming yourself for what your apprentice did. If he knew enough to cast the spell, then he must have known the risks.”

“He was only a boy.”

“He was older than me. I may be young, but I know better than to play with fire in a gunpowder factory.”

“He was desperate.”

“We’re all desperate sometimes. Sooner or later, people have to learn to accept that everyone dies. Otherwise, we waste our lives running from death.”

“You sound like an old wise man.”

Marc grimaced. “Old maybe. I’m not so sure about the wise part. If I was wise, I would be in bed, getting some sleep for the journey tomorrow. I hate this desert. When this journey is done, promise me that we can go somewhere with lots and lots of water.”

***

Marc woke the next morning to the sound of wings, large, powerful wings which made a deep, thrumming sound as they cut through the air. He rolled over and sat up. There was no sign of Darli or Sammual. The princess’s pillow was still warm and bore the impression of her head and the scent of her skin. The elde-mage’s pillow looked as if it had not been used.

Grabbing his trousers, he hurried to the door of the hut. Cautiously, he peered outside. A dozen or so feet away, he saw a confusing jumble of wings, limbs and heads that resembled some kind of hideous mythological beast.

He blinked, and the monster became two separate creatures, dracon-kyn, commonly known as dragon-men. Each was roughly the height of a tall man, with wide, shimmering reptilian wings emerging from the scapular area of the back. They had human heads with thick, black hair worn loose around their shoulders. Their faces were almost identical, except one had bronze skin and the other was as white as snow. They were dressed in short tunics sewn from animal skins. Their arms, shoulders, and chests seemed normal, but below the waist was a different story. The pale dragon-man had clawed feet, and his legs below the knees were covered with fine, copper colored scales. The bronze dragon-man had normal legs and feet but a powerful tail, four feet long, tipped with a sharp barb.

The claws and the tail would be deadly weapons, if the dragon men were in an unfriendly mood. Luckily, they were smiling. The pale one was hugging Sammual. The bronze one was on his knees, kissing Darli’s hand in a courtly manner that made her giggle.

The bronze dragon-man spotted Marc. His eyes were bright and mischievous. “Come closer. I won’t bite. Unless you want me to.”

The pale one glanced up sharply. “Flayme! Behave yourself!”

Flayme gave his companion a dark look. “’Flayme, behave yourself’,” he mimicked. “I’m tired of behaving myself. Behaving myself hasn’t found me a wife.”

“Meara is wed to both of us.”

“But it’s you she loves. I want a woman of my own, someone with fire. ” His eyes sought out Darli’s. Almost purring, he murmured. “Someone like this lovely princess. You could give birth to a nest of dragonlings without batting an eye, couldn’t you , my love? What do you say we try?” He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, making her shiver and blush.

This was going too far. Though Sammual claimed that she was an ancient, in her current state, Darli had the mind of a child. Marc hurried forward.

The corner’s of Flayme’s lips curled upward in an expression that was part smile, part sneer and part snarl. His barbed tail twitched. “It appears the lovely lady has a protector. What do you think, Fyre? Should I challenge him?”

Fyre shook his head impatiently. “I think you should grow up. You’re one hundred years old--”

“Ninety-nine,” Flayme corrected.

“Ninety-nine, one hundred. Either way, you’re too old to act like an adolescent in heat.”

Marc looked from Fyre’s face to Sammual’s. They had the same delicate features, the same dark hair and pale skin, the same green eyes, though Fyre had only two to Sammual’s three. Except for the difference in coloring, Flayme’s face was identical to Fyre’s. The ages were right. He recalled something Sammual had told him about the relationship between dragons and elde-mages , and he made a wild guess.

“You must be the twins,” he blurted out. No wonder their mortal mother died giving birth to them. Those claws and that barbed tail would have torn her like knives.

Suddenly all smiles, Flayme bowed. ”At your service. Who, may I ask, are you? No, don’t tell me. You must be my new stepfather. Mom likes the rugged, rustic type.”

“Behave,” Sammual said. “Fyre, Flayme, this is Marcellus. He’s the eldest son of King Kel of Suunland. For political reasons, he is traveling incognito, so call him Marc.”

Flayme pouted. “I wanted to call him Dad.”

“Call him anything you want, except Prince Marcellus.”

“And what about you?” Flayme gazed down at the elde-mage fondly. “I suppose this means you’ve become Mom again. When are we going to have a little brother or---” His jaw dropped. “Did you say Prince Marcellus of Suunland? But that means he’s----”

“Morgany’s son, yes.”

“And you used to lecture me about playing with fire.” The dragon-man gave Marc a dark look. “If you trifle with my mother’s affections, I will hunt you to the ends of the earth, and----”

“Father,” Fyre interrupted. “Sammual is still our father.”

Flayme’s frown was comical “This is....unexpected. But don’t think this let’s you off the hook, Prince Marcellus of Suunland. Love is love, whether or not it leads to the patter of little feet.”

“Give it a rest,” Fyre told his brother. “And Dad asked you not to call him that. Why must you always do what you’re told not to do?”

“Because unlike some people I know, I’m not an insufferable goody-two shoes,”

“No, you’re a brat!”

“Am not!” Flayme crossed his arms and settled into a sulk.

Fyre let out a long suffering sigh. “Marc, pay no attention to my brother. If he gives you any trouble tell me, and I’ll see that he behaves. “He turned to his father. “We’ve been searching all over for you. Did you know your mountain in Suunland is crawling with soldiers? There’s a price on your head. What kind of trouble have you gotten into this time?”

Sammual gave his sons a brief account of their adventures, starting with the abduction of the infant prince. Fyre listened attentively. Even Flayme stopped pouting.

“How exciting!” he exclaimed when his father was done. “Royal intrigue, missing heirs, succession in limbo. Not to mention the poetic justice. The man who stole Dad’s lover has lost his son to him. No wonder King Kel wants your head on a platter. Does he know that if he cuts it off, it will only grow back again? Assuming you don’t turn the axe into dust or change the headsman into a statue.”

“Shut up!” Fyre growled.

Flayme glowered.

“Sam?” Marc touched Sammual’s arm. “Where are the priests?”

Green eyes swept the oasis. “That’s a good question. Go see if you can find them.”

By the time Marc located the priests and their servants and convinced them that they were in no danger from the “dragons” which had invaded their shrine, Sammual had learned another piece of important news from his sons.

A caravan was heading towards the oasis.

“I was so surprised to see you, that I almost forgot why we stopped here in the first place,” Fyre explained to his parent. “There was something very odd about that caravan. For a single wagon and two desert horses, it kicked up quite a sand cloud. And it was easier to see it from the corner of my eye. When I looked at it straight on, the horses were almost transparent and the edges of the wagon wiggled, like the lines of a sand dune.” He made a wave like motion with his hand. “I think if I had been looking at the wagon from the ground and not from the sky, I might not have been able to detect it at all.”

“You believe magic was being used to disguise it?”

The dragon-man shrugged one broad shoulder. His wing stirred up a small cloud of sand around his scaled feet. “Magic is your specialty, not mine. Flayme and I decided to stop here to warn the keepers of the oasis to be on the lookout for suspicious travelers. “

Sammual considered his son’s words for a moment. “Marc, Darli, Fyre, you three stay here. If there is any sign of trouble, Fyre can have you airborne and out of here in seconds. Flayme and I are going to investigate the caravan which does not want to be seen. Marc, give me your ring.”

The prince’s hands were much broader than the earth mage’s, but as Sammual slid the gold and ruby ring on his index finger, it reshaped itself to a perfect fit. As the metal made contact with his flesh, he caught his breath. His third eye opened. “This use to belong to Morgany.”

It took Marc a moment to identify the unfamiliar pain in his chest. It was a stab of jealousy, an emotion he did not usually associate with his departed mother. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“No, it won’t interfere with the energies. As long as I have this ring, if anything happens to you while we’re gone, I’ll know it. But stay close to Fyre, just in case.” His hand brushed a stray tangle of hair from Marc’s brow. “Does that scar still bother you?”

“From the arrow? No. Why?”

“When I look at it with my third eye, it glows so brightly, as if there is a fire inside of you trying to burn its way out. The light should be getting dimmer as the wound heals, but it has gotten brighter since last night. I wonder why.”

***

The elde-mage had no fear of falling, since the force of impact with the ground was a function of gravity over which he had perfect control. In any case, he could command the earth below him to become as soft as down or as hard as diamond at his whim. However, he detested flying. It threw off his sense of inner harmony. Sometimes, it made him physically ill. Only the need to approach the enchanted caravan as quickly and stealthily as possible persuaded him to use an aerial approach.

In general, he avoided flying with his younger and more reckless son. However, if he had to leave Darli and Marc, he wanted them with someone he could trust, and that meant Fyre had to stay behind. So, he found himself clinging to Flayme’s broad back, as his son performed feats of aerial acrobatics that were, in the earth mage’s opinion, unnecessary.

“I’ll leave the magic to you, and you leave the flying to me,” the dragon man said tartly. “I’m riding the air currents to save energy. It isn’t easy carrying you.”

“I weigh almost nothing!” Sammual protested. It was true. He had severed all contact with the earth when they left the ground. It was one of the reasons he felt so disoriented. Were he to let go of Flayme right now, he would float rather than fall.

“You can make yourself lighter with magic, but you can’t do anything about wind resistance.”

Since Sammual did not know how to fly, he could not dispute his son’s claim. “Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?”

“You should have brought Fyre. You wouldn’t be asking him every two minutes ‘Are you sure this is the right way? Are you sure this is the right way?’”

“I’m not---“

Flayme swooped down and to the right so suddenly that Sammual almost lost his grip on his back. “There!” He pointed. “See that wavy line in the sand? One moment it looks like a wagon and two desert horses and the next it looks like—like sand. Whoever cast the invisibility spell on it did a half assed job. There’s a trail behind it. And that smudgy blur, like a tiny sandstorm leading the wagon, nothing natural would cause that. ”

The elde-mage peered at the ground. Dracon-kyn had sharp eyes for spotting prey from great heights. All Sammual saw was sand. However, he sensed magic. Necromancy and earth magic. “Bring us closer.”

“Where? Straight down from above?”

“Take us down over the next dune. Let me talk to the earth before we confront the travelers.”

It was a relief to the ground beneath his feet again. For a moment, he allowed himself to bask in the comfortable sensation of having a center with mass and weight. He ank to his knees and scooped up a handful of sand and held it to his ear to listen to what the desert had to say about the caravan on the other side of the dune. All three eyes widened in surprise.

“The blurry spot that’s leading the wagon, it’s a sand sprite!”

Flayme was equally amazed. “For real? I thought those were fairy tale creatures. Aren’t they supposed to be impossible to capture, but if you do catch one, they have to grant you three wishes?”

“Wrong about the three wishes, correct about being almost impossible to capture. Except by an earth mage or a fire mage.”

“Lucky for us that you’re both. Do you need my help?”

“No, thank you.”

“I knew you would say that. I suppose you want me to stay out of the way, as usual.”

“Please. And out of sight.”

“That’s going to be hard to do, unless you plan to bury me in the sand.”

With a flick of the wrist, the earth mage constructed a sandstone wall. “Hide behind that. Don’t come out, no matter what you see or hear, unless I call for you.” For himself, he summoned a sandy veil so that he could keep watch without being seen. Dressed in pale linen, with a white scarf wrapped around his head, he blended almost perfectly with the desert.

“One day, you are going to need me for something besides taxi service,” his younger son said sourly.

“You’ve been a great help,” his parent assured him. “I could never have found the wagon or the sand sprite without you.”

“Fyre could do the same thing, and he would do it without making you sick to your stomach.”

“Don’t compare yourself to your brother. You both have your strengths.”

Flayme’s teeth flashed with against his bronze skin. “I guess mine is my magnetic personality. Speaking of personalities, what about Prince Marcellus from Suunland? Fyre hasn’t said anything yet, but you know that he’s going to complain. I can just hear him now. ‘Cradle robbing’, that’s what he’ll call it.”

“Your brother does like to nag,” Sammual said glumly.

“If he gives you a hard time, tell me, and I’ll do something outrageous to distract him.”

“Thanks. Now, hush. I have work to do.”

As Fyre had predicted, the wagon was difficult to detect when viewed from the ground. Its supernatural companion did not even register to the eye. The sand sprite was sand in a sea of sand. However, it had a life energy that was unmistakable, a heart, a pulse---- though sand flowed through its veins rather than blood. It also generated heat and made subtle sounds that told Sammual exactly where it was.

Being master of the element which surrounded them both, he did not have to approach the sprite directly. The desert was an extension of the earth mage’s body, much like an extra limb. He need only will the ground to form a claw with which to grab at the creature’s leg, and it did so. Desert sand rapidly encased the sprite in a thin, flexible shell, strong enough to keep the creature from dispersing into a cloud of dust.

A human form appeared seemingly out of thin air in mid stride. Of medium height, it appeared tall on account of its extremely thin build. Its face was smooth and ageless. Its head was bald. Its limbs were long and slender. Though it was naked, its gender could not be determined, since it lacked breasts or any other sexual organs.

At first the sand sprite’s expression was one of annoyance. “Mistress,” it said. “I asked you not--“ Then its two eyes met Sammual’s three eyes and panic set in. The creature became semi-solid as it attempted to revert back to its cloud form with a ferocity that took the earth mage by surprise.

“Stop that!” Sammual ordered. He thickened the sand casing on the sprite by a fraction of an inch, enough to cause the creature suddenly to go rigid, its arms thrown out from its sides, its head arched back as if in pain. “You know what I am. My specialty is earth, but my grandfather was daema. There is no way that you can escape from me, and if you make this difficult, I’ll use fire. Daema fire. You know what demon fire does to a sand sprite, don’t you? You’ll turn to glass. I won’t transform your whole body. Just bits and pieces. The parts that change will never change back to sand or flesh. You’ll be a freak, a sand cloud dragging your solid pieces through the desert like skeleton bones wherever you go for the rest of your life. “

Unlike spark gnomes, sand sprites were not by nature belligerent creatures. On the other hand, they were vain. They delighted in dancing across the desert with the speed and grace of the wind. And they valued the ability to shape shift above all things. The phrase for “death” among sand sprites was “final form”.

The sprite ceased struggling immediately. From the twitching of its lips, Sammual knew that it was trying to speak. He thinned the shell casing around the sprite’s head, neck and chest so that it could draw air and talk. “You will protect me?” it demanded. “Mistress won’t tolerate betrayal. “

From this, the earth mage guessed that the sprite was cursed. The memory of the spark gnome was fresh in Sammual’s memory. Fortunately, the sprite’s mistress only seemed to know one way to booby-trap her henchmen. Finding the trap spell was easy. Disabling it was a bit trickier. He had to pause in the middle of his work to bring back the wagon, which had slowly continued on its journey, as if the driver was oblivious to the plight of its supernatural companion. When Sammual saw the driver, he understood why. It was an automaton constructed from wood and metal, the reins sewn to its hands, its sightless eyes fixed upon the horizon.

The earth mage disabled the automaton, then he freed the desert horses and gave them commands to wait. He briefly examined the wagon’s exterior. The door to the interior was padlocked. Opening it would be a simple task, however to do so safely, he would have to probe for trap spells first, which would take considerably longer. A cursory magic examination revealed that someone had cast a spell upon the wagon, puppet driver and the two desert horses to render them close to invisible. However, no effort had been made to disguise the contents of the wagon. He could detect nothing living inside. On the contrary, from the space within, he detected the psychic stench of recent violent death.

Deeply disturbed, he returned to the task of freeing the sand sprite from its mistress’s curse. He worked as quickly as he could. He was all too aware of Marc’s vulnerability. The ruby and gold ring showed that the prince was well, but that could change at any moment, and Sammual was an hour away from the oasis by air.

Sammual started the interrogation with an easy question, in case there were any hidden traps he had not disarmed. “Why go to all the trouble of using a puppet to drive the wagon? They are costly to build, difficult to maintain, even for a mage.”

“The human drivers kept asking questions. About what was happening to the children they were delivering to the four corners of the desert and why the wagons were always empty on the journey back to al-Shiraz. They spread rumors. Sometimes we had to kill them to silence them. It was simpler to use the puppet.”

Sammual had wanted honesty, but this cool recital made his skin crawl. “What was happening to the children they were delivering to the four corners of the desert?”

“Mistress has been slitting their throats,” the sprite replied amiably. “You’ve got to have fresh blood for the kind of magic spell she’s been casting.”

Flayme, who had been listening and watching from behind his stone wall, growled. His tail began to lash back and forth, kicking up a cloud of sand.

The sprite attempted without success to crane its neck around so that it could look at the dragon man. “How long has he been here?”

“The dracon-kyn isn’t your concern,” Sammual snapped. “What kind of spell is your mistress casting?”

The sand sprite rolled its eyes. “Dark magic, what else? I’ve lost count of how many screaming brats she’s butchered---“

“What kind of spell is she casting?”

Spasms wracked the sprite’s body as the sand shell constricted and then relaxed. “Don’t do that! It’s a resurrection spell! She’s bringing her dead dad back to life. It’s no big deal, right? Some dead guy comes back to life, a few orphans that no one wanted anyway die so that he can live again.”

“Your mistress, is she mortal?”

“Yeah, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you. I know she doesn’t stand a chance against an elde-mage. “

Maybe the elden had made a mistake teaching mortals magic. When would the fools learn that they could not cheat death?

“What’s inside the wagon?”

“Just knives and some bloody rags. Last night’s slaughter was the nastiest yet. Mistress promised it was the last. Said we could do whatever we wanted with the leftovers.”

Sammual had to remind himself that he had promised to protect the sand sprite in exchange for information. That he needed information. “Leftovers?”

“The extra kids that Mistress doesn’t need. Some of them are quite pretty. She wouldn’t let us touch any of them before, since they have to be virgin. Now that she’s finished with the blood letting, she’s moving on to the hard part. Or so she says. I don’t know anything about water magic. Though I guess it’s pretty hard to do in a desert. Must be why she told us to meet her at the oasis. She ought to be there soon---“

“Flayme!” Sammual barked. “Get over here! We’re leaving! Now!”

“What about that?” The dragon man pointed at the sand sprite.

Sammual’s third eye glowed brighter than desert sun. “What about what?” he asked through clenched teeth.

Flayme blinked. Just a moment before, the sand sprite had looked like a living human being, more or less. Now, it appeared to be a statue made out of solid sandstone.

“Did you do that?” he asked his parent.

“It’s lucky I didn’t turn it to glass and then blast it to hell. Leftovers!” Sammual locked his arms around his son’s back.

As Flayme’s powerful wings cut the air, lifting them high above the ground, the dragon man gazed down at the immobile figure of the sand sprite, caught forever in the act of betraying its mistress and itself. “I don’t understand. Don’t you need it alive to tell you where the surviving children are?”

“It isn’t dead. Though before I’m done, it may wish that it were dead. It will do it good to stand there and wait and wonder if I will return or if it will slowly erode in the desert wind until there’s nothing left of it but regret.”

Flayme glanced nervously over his shoulder. “You’re scary sometimes, Dad.”

Chapter 11

An important festival was approaching in Shiraz, and it was a busy day for travelers heading towards the capita city. Twice, Fyre spotted parties approaching from the west. When the first set of strangers appeared, he flew out to inspect them. The group consisted of a dozen pilgrims who were so terrified by his wings and scaled feet that they fled into the desert before he could he could speak.

Fyre apologized to the shrine guardians. “In the mountains of Strailyte, people are used to the dragon-kyn. I forget that we’re rarely seen in the other kingdoms. The pilgrims are on foot. If you borrow Dad’s horses, I think you can catch them. We can watch the shrine for you.”

The three temple priests and their two servants left in search of the pilgrims. A contrite Fyre joined Marc and Darli beside the lake.

The prince sat beneath the shade of a desert apple palm, his bare feet dangling in the water, a fishing line loosely knotted between his fingers. His nose had begun to peel. His hair was several shades lighter than it was a week ago thanks to all the time he had spent in the sun. He looked younger than his twenty years.

The princess stayed as close to Marc as possible while keeping far away from the water. She had cast off most of her clothes and was bathing in the sun. The heat on her skin brought our her natural musk. She seemed unaware of the effect which she had on men. She flashed Fyre a pleasant, innocent grin.

“Marc is working on magic,” she said in her odd, sing song voice.

Fyre looked closer. She was correct. Marc was making a small pebble roll across a water slick rock with the power of suggestion, a feat that required his full concentration.

“Darli do magic, too,” the princess boasted. She plucked a tall blade of marsh grass and hurled it like a spear across the lake, where it burst into flames. “Magic is pretty,” she giggled. “And fun!”

“It’s a hell of a lot of hard work!” Marc complained. He rubbed his forehead. “Fyre, what kind of magic do you and Flayme use?”

“We don’t. Dragon magic is an arcane art. In order to understand it, I would first have to learn the old dracon tongue, something that’s nearly impossible to master for a half blood like me. Our sister, Catria is an elden mage, like Dad. She does earth and wind.”

“You said you’re married. Is your wife also dracon-kyn?”

Fyre’s expression clouded. “Meara is a mortal woman. Her family owns a spa in Strailyte where people come to take the waters and soak in the hot springs. She used to manage the family business, until her arthritis made it impossible for her. Luckily, there’s a nephew who is running things now.”

Marc sensed that there was more that was not being said. He let the pebble lie where it was and folded his arms around his knees, waiting for Fyre to continue.

Fyre sat down at the edge of the lake beside the prince. His wings folded behind him. “Meara is sixty-three years old. We’ve had three children, but none of them survived childbirth. The last delivery almost killed her, and it left her sterile. A blessing really, though I know that she regrets not being able to raise a child of her own.”

Sixty-three. Fyre looked like a young man of twenty-five, though his real age was closer to one hundred. What was it like for him having a wife who looked old enough to be his grandmother and who had one foot in the grave?

As if he could read Marc’s mind, Fyre continued, “As a dragon man, I won’t live as long as Dad or Sis, but I should survive another four or five hundred years, if I don’t fall to my death or get killed by hunters who mistake me for a dragon.

“Meara never used to mind, but now that the years are weighing upon her, I can sense her envy. She envies me my health, my youth. She envies me my wealth of time. She doesn’t understand that I would give up all those extra centuries of life to buy a few more years of life with her.” His eyes searched Marc’s face. He looked a lot like his father, though there were subtle differences that made him merely handsome rather than beautiful. “It’s hard to watch someone you love die of old age while you stay young. I watched Mom go through it with Catria’s father, but I never understood how hard it was on her until now. I had hoped to see her---him settle down with another elden mage this time.”

Marc had been expecting something like this from Sammual’s eldest son. Though Flayme had tried to pick a fight, it was clear from the first moment he met the twins which of the two was the overprotective one. “There are things more heartbreaking than watching your lover die.” Marc held up his hand as Fyre tried to object. “Don’t interrupt. I know what I’m talking about. My lover, Simon died in my arms, but that wasn’t as hard as what my parents went through for close to twenty years.

“Anyway, you’re making a false assumption. People don’t choose whom they love. If they did, no woman would ever marry a man who beat her and no man would ever remain married to a woman who was unfaithful. We don’t go looking for comfort or happiness from those we love. We seek---“ He searched for the word he wanted.

“Something we lack?”

“Connection.”

Fyre sighed. He leaned back until his head was half lost in the tall marsh grass that surrounded the lake. “You look so young. I was going to lecture Dad about cradle robbing. But you’re much more mature than you seem.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“It’s meant as a compliment. If you’re serious about your magic studies, you can extend your life by several hundred years.”

“I know.”

“But on the other hand, you’ll have to give up your chance to be king of Suunland.”

Marc snorted. “You don’t have to tell me that.”

Fyre rolled over onto his stomach. He plucked a blade of grass and fashioned it into a reed harp. “You would give up your throne for Sammual?”

“My father has made me an outlaw. I think we can assume that means I’m also disinherited.”

“Sammual can take care of that misunderstanding. He can fix anything. Except matters of the heart. You won’t break his heart like your mother did, will you?”

“I’m not my mother!”

They had become so engrossed in their conversation, that they did not notice that noble travelers from Sarahajuun had arrived at the oasis until Darli pointed out that a dust cloud kicked up by the caravan had floated over the lake.

Fyre, mindful of his parent’s instructions, wanted to carry his charges a safe distance away. “Darl, put your arms around my neck. Marc, grab hold of my back.” However, before he could launch the three of them into the air, Marc recognized the crest on the lead wagon.

“That belongs to my grandmother!” he exclaimed. He loosened his grip on Fyre’s waist just as the dragon man was beginning to flap his wings. It was a short drop to the ground. “She must be looking for me.”

“Marc!” Fyre exclaimed. “Dad said----“

The prince was not listening. He headed towards the familiar crest. Would Aunt Joland have news from Suunweiss? What was she doing out here in the desert? Had the web of intrigue made the capital of Suunland too dangerous a place even for her? Maybe she carried a message from his father, the King.

The party was a small one, by the standards of Sarahajuun, a country whose nobles often traveled with entire villages in their wake. In addition to a single noblewoman, who was easily distinguishable from the rest of her party by the width of her skirt, the height of her coif and the king’s ransom in diamonds which she wore around her neck, there were two ladies in waiting who appeared to be close to a hundred years old. The attendants were skeletal creatures with sagging grey skin, cloudy eyes and expressional faces. Had Marc encountered them in a graveyard at night, he could have easily convinced himself that they were ghosts.

The bodyguard was a giant of a man who stood at least seven feet tall. His head was shaved bald. He carried a scimitar in each hand and had a third stuck in his belt. Marc wondered how he wielded three weapons at once. Did he juggle them? Or maybe he used his feet?

A handful of other servants, including two drivers, a cook and a pot boy went to work making camp, while their lady came forward to look for the keepers of the shrine.

“Hello!” she called. “Is anyone there?”

“They’re all gone for the moment,” Marc called back. “There was an emergency in the desert. A misunderstanding. Some pilgrims got lost.

The dark, diminutive noblewoman threw back her lace veil. She was dressed from head to toe in black silk taffeta. Her bodice was low cut and tight, revealing firm, white breasts. The skin of her throat, which usually belied a woman’s age, was smooth and supple. The diamond choker which she wore was not meant to hide anything. Instead, it spoke to the world of fabulous wealth. Her skirt was ridiculously wide in the fashion favored by noblewomen from the westernmost kingdom of the Shavrian continent.

Her black hair, dark eyes and sharp features resembled the Lady Joland. However, she had crinkles at the corners of her eyes from laughing and a perpetual smile upon her lips. Though it had been close to eight years since Marc had seen her last, she did not appear to have aged a day.

“Aunt Roland?”

“Marcellus!” she exclaimed. She threw open her arms and hugged him to her ample breast. She smelled of tobacco and wine. Aunt Roland smoked a pipe, and she drank. The latter vice was said to be the reason why she had never married. She appeared to be sober at the moment. “I had a letter from Joland. She told me what happened. Your father is a beast!” She held him at arm’s length. “Is that really you, Marcellus? You’re so big! The last time I saw you, you were barely up to my knee!”

“I was already taller than you, the last time you visited Suunweiss, Auntie. You must be thinking of the time before that.”

She tittered. “Maybe so. When you get to be as old as I am, you forget things. I’m almost as old as my sister, Joland, and she is older than she lets anyone know.” She touched the scar above his eye. “What happened here?”

“This? It’s nothing. An accident. What are you doing in Shiraz, Auntie?”

“Looking for you, of course.” She took a small gold vial out of her breast pocket and poured a single drop of foul smelling, black oil onto her fingertip. Like her sister, Roland dabbled in the magic arts. It was how both of them were able to keep their youth and beauty. “Hold still.” Carefully, she daubed the oil onto the scar above his eye. “This should help erase the mark. No, don’t touch it. Let the potion do its work. You’re too handsome to carry a scar.” She peered over his shoulder. In a low voice, she reminded him “It’s polite to introduce your companions.”

Marc flushed. “Sorry. Aunt Roland, this is Darli. Darli, this is my great aunt. I met Darli while I was searching for Kelvin. She’s lost her memories. Sammual says that she’s a Darkhall Princess.”

Darli made a curtsy. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. She kept looking at the noblewoman’s hoop skirt. Marc could only imagine what she was thinking. As a small child, Marc had thought that such skirts must hide legs as big as elephants’.

Lady Roland nodded sagely. “I see. And she has lost her memory. How unfortunate.” She turned to Fyre. Still smiling, she kicked Marc in the shin undercover of her skirt.

“This is Fyre, Sammual’s son.”

“Sammual. Yes. Where is the inestimable elden mage, Sammual?”

“He had to go check out something in the desert. He should be back soon. Won’t you come inside? This sun is murder on the skin.”

Lady Roland laughed. “Dear, I haven’t suffered a sunburn in years. I’m sure that you have noticed by now that your friend Sammual isn’t burned by the sun, either. Magic has its uses.”

“Yes, I know. Sam’s teaching me.”

“Is he? How delightful!” She clapped her milk white hands.

“How did you find Marc?” Fyre interrupted. These were the first words he had spoken to the noblewoman. The question was so unexpected and the accusation contained within it so naked, that Marc could only gape.

Smiling amiably, Lady Roland replied “Find him? I didn’t find him. Rather say I stumbled upon him. I was on my way to Al-Shiraz. From there I plan to visit my sister, Joland. She is understandably distraught. Her stepson is acting like a beast. Her family is falling apart. She needs a shoulder to cry on.” She linked her arm through Marc’s and began walking along the edge of the lake. “Now, tell me more about your magic studies. I didn’t realize that you were interested in such things.”

“I didn’t know that I was either, until I met Sam. He’s been teaching me how to make fire and how to move rocks.”

The two elderly ladies in waiting tottered along behind their mistress, carrying the trail of her dress clear of the mud. Since the path through the marsh grass was narrow, Darli and Fyre were forced to follow several paces behind.

“So you can make fire and move rocks. It’s a start. However, I would have guessed that your specialty would be in the area of the aquatic arts. The Suunians used to be a seafaring race.”

Marc nodded. “That’s what Sam thinks, too. He says I’m a natural water mage, but someone else will have to teach me, since he doesn’t do water magic.”

“No water magic? None whatsoever?” Lady Roland arched one perfect black brow.

“His grandfather came from the Darkhall.”

“My, how fortunate,” she replied cheerfully.

Marc wondered if he had missed something important. Maybe it was because of the headache that had set in above his left eye, at the site of the healed arrow wound. His great aunt’s medicine was not as innocuous as it first seemed. “Fortunate that his grandfather came from the Darkhall?”

“No, dear. It’s lucky for us that your friend isn’t a water mage. This should be a good spot. Watch carefully. You will never see this again.”

“See what again?”

“This.”

Once, as a child, Marc has witnessed a tidal wave approach the southern coast of Suunland from the safety of a military watchtower. That was nothing compared to the awe he felt now as the entire body of the lake rose from its bed and hovered over him like a formless giant. The tower of water rose so high in the sky that he could not see the top of it. The rushing sound deafened him. His mage senses, primitive as they were, could not help but awaken to the sheer power of the colossus.

Fyre made a grab for his arm. A wave lashed out from the giant and pushed the dragon man high into the air and far away. If not for his wings, with which he was able to slow his descent, the fall to earth likely would have killed him. The two ancient ladies were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they had been washed away too.

Darli was still there. The Darkhall princess cringed in terror at the sight of so much water rising above her. “Burns, burns!” she shrieked as droplets rained down upon her.

Marc tried to shield her with his body. Her claws dug into his arm.

“Auntie! Make it stop!” he shouted above the roaring of the water.

“Patience, my love. The worst is almost over.” Lady Roland stood with her hands folded across her waist. The only sign of the tremendous struggle that it must have cost her to control the risen lake was a slight furrowing of her brow. “Marc, dear, I’ll have to borrow a little of your power. Since it isn’t really yours to begin with, you shouldn’t mind sharing.” She stood on tip toe so that she could touch her great nephew’s brow. Pain lanced through his scar, as if the wound had been violently reopened.

Though he shook her off, it seemed that a mere touch was all she required. “Ah!” she exclaimed. “Watch this, Marc! You will do the same type of magic yourself, one day, but never on such a scale!”

***

Where the lake once stood, a building made of water began to take shape. Marc, who was trapped inside, could not appreciate the liquid construct’s final form. However Fyre, who had been thrown one hundred yards away and who was still trying to catch his breath, had a perfect vantage to watch the structure rise from the lakebed.

It was a castle—a fortress made of liquid water which continued to flow even as it adopted the form of towers, turrets and walls. The structure was vast, easily large enough to house hundreds of people. The water was too murky to allow the dragon man to see the castle’s interior. He had no idea what had become of Marc or his great aunt---assuming that the woman really was his great aunt and not an imposter. The daema princess had also vanished from sight.

Fyre cursed his own stupidity. His first instinct was correct. He should have taken Marc and Darli far from the oasis so that he could question the new arrivals alone. He searched frantically for a door or a window through which to enter, but the fortress had none. He flew overhead, hoping to find access from above, but the roof was covered with a dome of water. He tried diving through the roof as one would dive into a pond, but the water spit him back out. Stubbornly, he repeated the process, with the same results. The spell which forced the water to assume the shape of a castle also enabled it to keep out unwanted visitors.

Below him, the noblewoman’s servants went about their work as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. There was no use questioning them. They spoke only an obscure dialect of Sarahajuun that Fyre had never heard, and the bodyguard was too big even for a dragon man to tackle. When his father got there, he might have more luck with them, assuming that they knew anything.

He spotted a dozen or so figures in the distance, several on horseback. The shrine priests had finally returned to the oasis with the pilgrims. His father and brother were not among them, so he turned his attention back to the magic fortress. A stone thrown at its walls disappeared for a moment but then emerged again, several feet from its point of entry. Another stone vanished for a longer period of time and reappeared at a different location. He repeated the process but could find no pattern.

Finally, the shrine priests and the pilgrims arrived at the oasis. Fyre landed on the lake bed beside them. Fish, which had been exposed to the air and sun when the lake was drained, lay on the damp earth dying. Their pale eyes stared up that the dragon man reproachfully.

“The elden mage!” the head priest exclaimed after the dragon man explained that the castle was the work of a witch from Sarahajuun, not a miracle sent from Ser Shiraz. “Fetch him, quick!”

Fyre rarely lost his temper, but he also seldom encountered a crisis like this one which he could not handle. He stamped one scaled, clawed foot . It made a squelching sound in the mud. “Damn it, don’t you understand. Dad doesn’t have any water magic! The castle is made of water. It won’t obey him.”

“Then his apprentice, the water mage, where is he?”

The dragon man pointed at the castle. “In there, with the witch.”

“Ser Shiraz save us!” the head priest exclaimed. “What are we to do?”

“I don’t know. Pray?”

***

When Sammual and Flayme arrived not long afterwards, they found the priests laying face down on the muddy lake bed surrounded by pilgrims, praying. The air reeked of fish. The buzzing of flies and the chanting of the Shirazians formed a dissonant melody that added to the surreal nature of the scene.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Fyre began. “I made a mess. “ He was only halfway through his explanation, when Sammual’s third eye opened. The ground beneath the water fortress began to shiver. A fissure appeared in the earth. The split widened to form a tunnel which ran directly towards the front of the structure and then underneath.

“Stay here!” the earth mage told his sons. He climbed into the tunnel and followed it to the base of the castle. He was hoping that Lady Joland had skimped on the floor, however, he found the base to be as soundly constructed as the walls. When he tried to rise through the floor, he became disoriented. Soon afterwards, the liquid matter ejected him.

Dripping wet, he rejoined his sons. His hair was plastered to his scalp. Water made the flimsy material of his clothes indecently diaphanous. A flame spell could have dried him in seconds, but he was too worried about Marc to notice his own appearance.

“I haven’t been able to detect Marc’s energy for over half an hour,” Sammual told Fyre, fingering Marc’s ruby ring. “Before he disappeared, he didn’t seem to be afraid, though his old wound was giving him some pain. I didn’t notice anything as dramatic as death or even the kind of injury that would knock him unconscious. His presence simply vanished. As if he had moved from this world to another. I assume that’s about the time the castle went up.” His son nodded confirmation. “There’s still a void where he ought to be, however, if he is in there---“ He glared at the magic fortress. “I might not be able to sense him. Goddess, I hate water! It can’t answer the simplest question. It never stands still. It exists just to vex---“

Fyre laid his hand on his parent’s arm. “Dad.”

Sammual took a slow, deep calming breath. “You’re right. I’m letting my emotions get the best of me.” He smiled ruefully. “Just like a water mage. Tell me, how did he and Darli look when you last saw them?”

“Darli said something about the water burning her skin, but she didn’t seem to be physically injured. Marc looked fine. However, he’s mortal. He could drown in there.”

“So could Lady Roland. She’s mortal, too, even if she does have unsuspected magic talents There’s almost certainly an air pocket inside. The castle is meant to keep me out and Marc imprisoned while she does….what? Did she say anything else? Was there any other clue? Tell me everything!”

Fyre had already gone over Marc and Roland’s encounter in his own mind while waiting for his parent’s arrival, so he had his response ready. “She was pleased by the progress he’s made with his magic studies. That surprised me. Suunland has that ridiculous prohibition against royal mages. Marc can’t inherit his father’s throne if he’s a mage.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want him to inherit,” Flayme suggested slyly. “The old witch in Suunland is the king’s stepmother, remember. She has a son of her own. If Marc dropped out of the line of succession, that would put Joland’s son one step closer.”

“You’ve been watching too many three act dramas,” Fyre told him.

“Have not!”

“Hush, both of you!” Sammual said sternly. “When Kelvin was kidnapped and Marc was blamed, I considered the possibility that Joland and her son were behind it.”

Flayme stuck out his tongue at his brother behind their parent’s back.

“However, that doesn’t explain Darli and the warded fortress and now this castle. Why go to so much trouble just to eliminate two heirs? Assassination is much cheaper and easier. Think, Fyre. Did she say anything else?”

“She didn’t seem surprised to see Darli, and she knew that you were helping Marc. I thought that was suspicious, but she claimed that she had had a letter from her sister.”

“More than likely.”

“She put some ointment on Marc’s eyebrow, on that little scar he has here,” Flayme touched his own forehead just above his left eye. “She said it would make the scar fade---“

Sammual’s third eye blazed the color of the sun. “The arrow!” he shouted.

Simultaneously, each of his sons took a step back. They knew better than to draw attention to themselves when that kind of fire raged within their parent’s magic eye. Things had a tendency to ignite spontaneously when the elden mage’s dormant daema blood was up.

Fortunately, these spells never lasted long. The red fire quickly changed back to its usual green. “She isn’t planning to kill Marc. She’s trying to transform him. All this time, he has been changing. He told me himself that he had never been able to summon rain so easily before. “ Sammual covered his mouth with his hand. “Goddess, I have been so blind, only seeing what I wanted to see. The man who came to find me on Gold Mountain---was he the same man who was struck by that arrow---or had the process already begun?”

“Dad,” Fyre put his arm around his parent’s shoulders. “You aren’t making any sense.”

“I’m making perfect sense. It’s just that you don’t know enough about transformation magic to understand. A mortal is not cast in steel. He grows, he changes, finally he dies. Events affect him. The passage of time changes him. Magic can change him. There are spells that can change a man to a woman irrevocably. Or make a young man old before his time. You can erase his memory. You can turn a genius into an imbecile. You can even change an ordinary man into a mage.

“But in doing so, you do not merely endow him with a little knowledge and a few new powers. You change his very essence. You alter his soul. You can not give something without taking something else away. Maybe you take away something as trivial as fear of the dark. Maybe it’s something as important as love---“ He choked on the last word.

“Son of a bitch!” Flayme exclaimed. “The sand sprite said his mistress was trying to resurrect her old man. Do you think she’s going to use Marc---“

“As the vessel? Yes. One of the hardest parts of resurrection magic is finding a host. Use a corpse, and there may be brain damage. Use an infant and memories may be lost. A healthy living breathing man makes the perfect vessel.”

“And Marc will be the king of Suunland one day,” Fyre said. “Dad, where is the closest water mage?”

“Al-Shiraz. It will take you a day to get there and back by air---“

“For all we know, the spell Lady Roland is working on will take a week. I will fly to Al-Shiraz. Flayme, you stay here with Dad. The Holy Days are coming. Maybe you’ll get lucky and a water mage will happen to pass through on the way to the capital. Don’t give up hope, ok? Maybe the old witch will make a mistake or you will think of some way to get inside the castle. She seemed pretty fond of Marc. Maybe he can make her listen to reason.”

***

Marc had always like his Aunt Roland. Unlike her sister, she knew how to entertain children. When she journeyed to Suunweiss to visit, she had always brought her great nephew presents, beautifully illustrated story books and miniature knights and even a tiny canon that fired real pellets. She was a wonderful story teller. Once, he had confided to his Uncle Corwyn that he wished that Roland was his grandmother instead of Joland, to which Corwyn had replied

“Sometimes I agree with you.”

Had it not been for Darli, Marc might have marveled that his great aunt was able to construct a castle using nothing but water. The room in which they stood was an exact replica of the throne room of the palace in one of his favorite story books, a tale from Sarahajuun about a prince who rescues a sleeping princess with a kiss. Lady Roland had reproduced the pair of carved thrones, one slightly taller than the other, where the king and queen were meant to sit when they held court. The walls were covered with richly embroidered tapestries. Glass chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Potted palms were spaced evenly along the floor. It was perfect in every detail---

And every object in the room, every bit of furniture and every ornament was made of water, as were the floor, ceilings and walls. The liquid was cool to the touch, and it left moisture on his skin, but it was not frozen. It held its shape by magic. It was a spectacular creation, a childhood fantasy come true for a man who, as a child used to spend summer days at the beach and then dream about visiting undersea kingdoms at night.

However, for the Darkhall princess, the water castle was like the darkest pit of hell. The moment the walls of the structure closed upon her, she began to shriek. Recalling the bird which fell dead at the sound of the daema princess’s keening, Marc plugged his ears with his fingers, but her cries were so intense that he could not block them out. After a while, when he did not die from listening to her, he gave up trying to muffle the sound and tried to comfort her instead.

“Darli, love, it’s alright. See, there’s no water where we are. You’re safe in this room.” He held her in his arms so that she would not have to touch the watery floor with her feet. “Try to calm down, Darli. I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m sure Sam will be here soon to save us.”

It was like trying to reason with a wild animal. Before long, his arms were covered with lacerations from her claws, and his clothes were scorched from the many tiny fires she started in a futile effort to insulate herself from the damp which surrounded her.

He looked to his great aunt in desperation. “Why did you bring her here? You saw how much she hates water. What do you need her for? What do you need me for? What are we doing in here?”

“One question at a time, dear.” Lady Roland stared at the Darkhall princess, a very slight frown marring her otherwise perfect features. “What am I to do with you? You really are making quite a fuss. Here.” She mumbled a few words under her breath and a canopied bed appeared. In contrast to the rest of the room, this piece of furniture was made entirely out of flame, from the pillow to the mattress to the curtain that could be drawn around the bed to form a snug cocoon. It was a replica of the bower in which the sleeping princess waited for the kiss which would free her from the curse of the wicked witch. “Put her down here.”

Marc could hardly bear to approach the bed, which was as hot as an oven, but as soon as he laid Darli on the fiery coverlet, she stopped crying. Her eyes were still as wide as saucers, and she kept a firm grip on Marc’s arm.

Lady Roland patted her curly hair. “There, there child. It will be over soon. Sleep.”

The demon princess yawned and curled up with one hand beneath her cheek. Her eyelids grew heavy. Soon, her breathing was slow and even.

Lady Roland fanned herself. “Come. Let’s get away from this heat.” She took Marc’s arm and lead him to the far end of the room, where she sat down on the smaller of the two thrones. Carefully, she arranged her skirts. She looked regal, every inch a queen holding court. “You needn’t feel sorry for her. She’s here of her own free will, it’s just that she doesn’t remember the bargain we made. When the spell is over, she will be good as new, and then I promise you, Lady Darlinjahara of the Darkhall will have no regrets.”

“What bargain? What are you talking about?”

One of the two ancient ladies-in-waiting appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. She carried a silver tray and flacon and two crystal goblets. Lady Roland poured a glass of red wine and offered it to Marc. “It’s from my own vineyard. An excellent vintage.”

“Is it drugged?”

She raised the glass to her own lips and sipped. “See? Perfectly safe.”

“You’re a mage. You could drink pure poison and survive. What kind of bargain did you and Darli make?”

“Please sit down. It hurts my neck staring up at you. Sit down and stop glaring at me, and I’ll tell you everything. “ She took a long drink from the goblet, then another. “There, that’s better. Lady Darli and I made a deal. She loaned me her soul—temporarily---so that I could use it to cast a magic spell to bring her mortal lover back to life in this realm. Since her lover happened to be my father, the rightful king of Suunland, it seemed like a good idea to use the next king of Suunland—you—as the vessel. That way Father could reclaim his throne. I knew that he wouldn’t be happy returning to this life as a mere nobody.”

Marc could only stare, speechless.

“You needn’t look at me like that,” his great aunt tittered. Was she slightly drunk? She drained her glass and poured another. “I’m not insane. Joland and I are the daughters of Elias III. I know you’ve heard of him. The monster king, they call him. After he was kicked out of Suunland, he moved to Sarahajuun. That’s where he met our mother.”

“Elias was born centuries ago!”

“Mages live hundreds of years,” Lady Roland reminded him. “Father didn’t live as long as most. He was never particularly interested in life prolonging magic. However, Joland and I have made a careful study of the art. Did you think that Joland was only sixty or seventy? Try one hundred eighty. I myself will be one hundred seventy three next month.”

Marc tried to make sense of what he had been told. “I don’t understand. If you want me to be the next king of Suunland, why did you turn my father against me. That was you, wasn’t it? You’re the one who had Kelvin kidnapped and then pinned the blame on me. I’ll be lucky if I’m allowed to return home again after what you’ve done. How does that improve my---or Elias’ chances of being king?”

“Oh that!” She giggled like a silly schoolgirl. “Our goal wasn’t to kidnap Kelvin and blame you. We were trying to get rid of the brat. We couldn’t take the chance that Kel would decide to disinherit you in favor of his real, blood heir. Who would guess that you would manage to find your brother and bring him back? Joland only had the blame for the kidnapping shifted to you to keep anyone from suspecting her. I admit, it was a stupid thing for her to do, but she had to think fast. You showed up with that bloody elden mage, asking all sorts of questions---“

“Hold on. What do you mean ‘real blood heir’? Sam swears that I’m not his son.”

“He’s correct. Sammual isn’t your father.”

“Then how can you say that I’m not my father’s son?”

Lady Joland covered her mouth with her hand. “We should talk about this later.”

“Let’s talk about it now, Aunty,” Marc suggested smoothly. “We don’t have anything better to do. Here, let me pour you some more wine.”

After two more glasses, Lady Joland was in a better mood for reminiscences. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Marcellus, but your mother was a bit of a slut. Though she was engaged to Kel, the crown prince, she had an affair with Corwyn, his brother. That’s how you were conceived. Are you sure you wouldn’t like some of this wine, dear? You’re looking a bit green.”

“No. No wine. What makes you think that Uncle Corwyn is my father?”

“Joland cast the runes, love. She’s never wrong. She knew that Morgany was pregnant and that you would be a healthy baby boy—all this before the girl had even missed her first monthly cycle. My sister was overjoyed. Kel’s son and heir would actually be her grandson. Elias’s descendents would regain their rightful throne.

“When your mother realized that she had conceived a child with Corwyn, she was less than delighted. Corwyn was dark. Morgany and Kel were fair. If she bore a dark child, Kel would know the truth, and being Kel, there was a good chance that he would kill his brother. Though Morgany didn’t love Corwyn enough to elope with him, she didn’t want to see him dead. You get your soft heart from her, Marcellus. Neither of you knows how to say ‘no’. It kept her moving from one bed to another, even after she married Kel…” Her head nodded forward. For a moment, it seemed that she was about to drift to sleep, but then she jerked herself awake again. “Where was I?”

“Mother was worried for Corwyn’s sake.”

“That’s right. Kel had threatened to kill his brother if he touched his fiancé. She had every reason to believe that if she married Kel and gave birth to a child with dark hair and eyes it would send her husband into a murderous rage. Her worry was baseless. Joland would have turned Kel into a newt before she would have let him harm her precious son, but Morgany didn’t know that. So, she fled from the capital.

“On Gold Mountain, she met Sammual. I think you know the rest. She flaunted her affair with the earth mage in hopes that Kel would break off their engagement, but Kel still wanted her. And she still wanted him. Or at least, she wanted to be queen. Thanks to Sammual, her pregnancy was no longer a problem. If her child was born dark, she could name the elden mage the father. Kel would never try to seek revenge against Sammual—he wouldn’t dare---and Corwyn would be safe

“In the end, you were as fair as your mother, so no one could say who your father was.”

It could not be true, Marc thought. Roland’s story had to be another lie, intended to drive the wedge deeper between him and his father. And yet if it was true, it would explain so much--the arguments between his parents, his mother’s taunts, his father’s anger towards Sammual. Did Morgany tell Corwyn the truth? Did Sammual know that the woman he loved carried another man’s child? How could an earth mage not know something like that? Marc resolved to ask Sam directly, once he was freed from this water prison and the two of them were face to face. Assuming that he was still himself the next time the two of them met.

The wine had finally proven too much for Roland. Her head fell forward. With her chin on her chest, she began to snore loudly. The crystal goblet slid from her slack fingers and hit the floor where it disappeared briefly before emerging a few feet away from the spot where it had entered the water.

Marc sighed. His best idea for escape was looking increasing slim. However, he had to give it a try. He could not stay here while this madwoman attempted to resurrect a dead man by placing his soul into Marc’s body. What if her scheme worked? What would happen to Marc? Would he have to take Elias’s place in the Darkhall? What would become of his father and brother? What would happen to Suunland?

The four walls of the throne room looked identical, since Lady Roland had omitted windows and doors, but Marc knew where the door was supposed to be. He made a dive for the wall, hoping to find a thin liquid barrier separating this room from another room. Instead, he found himself in a sea of fresh water that dragged at him, tossing him this way and that until it finally spit him back out into the room from which he had come. He lay in a puddle on the floor, panting for breath, gazing up at the ceiling. Another thought struck him. There had to be a hole somewhere, for ventilation. Darli’s flaming bower should have used up all the air in the room by now, unless there was some way to replenish it.

You’re thinking like a scientist, not like a sorcerer, said a voice close to his ear.

“Who’s there?” He propped himself up on his elbow. His aunt was still snoring. The old women who served as her ladies in waiting were standing as still as two statues beside her chair. “Did one of you just speak?”

The old women stared past him, as if he was invisible and mute.

Was his aunt’s magic beginning to affect him? The scar on his forehead, which she had anointed with oil, felt swollen and hot to the touch. A disturbing image popped into his head. Perhaps his great grand father was inside his skull trying to find a way out and the heat which he felt was coming straight from hell.

The thought combined with the pain made him physically ill. He vomited. The floor absorbed the contents of stomach, and, mercifully, brought them back up on the far side of the room, so at least he was not lying in his own filth when he lost consciousness.

***

Outside the castle, night came.

All day, Sammual had studied the fortress in which Marc was imprisoned, checking it for weaknesses, finding none. At the same time, he kept fiddling with Marc’s ring, hoping to detect some sign of the prince. However, just as he could not command the castle to move or change its shape, he could not order it to speak. Or maybe it was telling him everything he needed to know, and the fault lay with him, because he could not understand the language of water.

In the end, he was forced to admit that he was wasting his time. Should he have accompanied Fyre? Would the mages in Al-Shiraz listen to his son and lend him the help they needed? Ser Shiraz would have been able to command assistance from the most powerful water mages in the city. Here, he was accomplishing nothing. When he tried to bend the water to his will, it eluded him. It was like a woman, like Morgany. He could chase it and cajole it and try his best to charm it, but it had a mind of its own.

Water, Sammual decided, was very much like the human heart.

As the shadows lengthened and then faded, frustration gave way to desperation. Once his back was to the wall and he found himself face to face with despair, a sensible little voice at the back of his head said. Stop thinking like an earth mage.

It was one of the favorite sayings of Elice, his master.

He knew quite well what he could not do. He could not command water to change its shape. He could not tell it “Go back to being a lake.” That did not mean that there were not things that he, with his own peculiar talents, could not accomplish.

When he thought about it that way, the problem no longer seemed so insurmountable. There were many things that he could do to water. He could boil it. If he had more air magic, that would be the obvious solution. Turn water into steam, and then treat it like air. He could freeze it---

Suddenly, he thought of a way that an earth mage with no water magic might take down a water castle. “It’s a long shot,” he told his son. “It’s going to take all my daema powers, and I’ll have to get it done tonight, because once the sun rises and the desert begins to warm up again, it will be impossible. I’ll need your help.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Get everyone at least a mile away from the castle. That includes Lady Roland’s servants. If they give you any problem, tell me, I’ll see that they obey. Get the horses and goats away, too. Very soon, the sand around this oasis is going to be too hot for anything mortal to walk upon it.”

Flayme’s eyebrows rose comically. “You’re going to smoke them out?”

“I’m going to freeze them out. Daema magic doesn’t merely start fires. It steals heat. If I were full blooded daema, I could feed on the heat myself. Being elden, I’ll need somewhere to store the heat I extract from the water fortress. That’s why the surrounding desert is going to get very, very hot.”

“I know I’m not a mage or anything, but won’t turning the castle to ice just make it stronger?”

“Water is a tricky element. It’s the only one that is three elements in one. Boil it and it becomes steam. Air. Freeze it, and it becomes ice. Rock. If I can make that water stop moving, I may be able to do something with it. But sucking the fire out of so much water---that’s going to be a Herculean labor. If only Granddad were here. For a daema lord this would be a piece of cake. ”

***

Marc woke after dark, shivering. The only light in the throne room was Darli’s flaming bed, which was also a welcome source of warmth. How had it grown so cold, he wondered?

He found his great aunt still sitting on her throne, fast asleep. Someone had tucked a blanket around her. She looked much older than before. Presumably the work of maintaining the castle or Elias’s resurrection or maybe both were taking a tremendous toll on her. The prince wondered what would happen if he were to strangle her. Would the castle disappear? Would the pain in his head cease? He wished that he were braver person. Darli would not hesitate to kill the old woman, if Marc were the one suffering.

It was a moot point. A mage capable of performing magic feats like the ones he had witnessed today would not allow a no talent mortal like Marc to kill her with his bare hands. Sammual could have done it. Sammual could have turned her to stone with a wave of his finger. That was why she had built the water fortress.

Did Darli have the strength to stop Lady Roland? Apparently not in her present state, paralyzed with fear, lacking both memories and soul. He recalled what Lady Roland had said about Darli. If his great aunt was correct, the Darkhall princess had set this in motion, but Marc could not find it in him to hate her. Look at all the heartache his own mother had caused for love. It was the old women he blamed

And what of Elias? Was the Darkhall so terrible that he would risk his daughter’s youth and his lover’s sanity and sacrifice his great grandson in order to regain a few years of mortal life?

Don’t blame me. None of this is my doing.

“Who is there?”

Elias. Who are you?

“Elias! Damn it! Get out of my head!”

You get out of my head! Why does everything feel so wet? There is no water in the Darkhall, and yet I smell mildew and damp. And it smells like someone threw up their breakfast and didn’t bother to clean up. Do you know how long it has been since I have had to face a stench like that? Go away!

“You don’t want to be resurrected?”

Resurrected? Hell, no!

“But Aunt Joland said that Darli wanted to---“

Is Darlinjahara there?

“Yes.”

Good, I need to talk to her.

“You can’t right now. Aunt Roland used a sleep spell on her. If I wake her up, she’ll start crying again. She’s afraid of the water.”

What do you mean she is afraid of the water? You aren’t making any sense. Look, boy. I’m going to muck around in your head a bit, since someone has left this door open between the two of us. I don’t mean you any harm, so please don’t try to fight me. I just want to know what the hell is going on.

“No, wait!”

Too late. It’s done.

“You can’t just peek at my thoughts like that!”

I already have. Console yourself, Marc. I have already taken your secrets to the grave. So my silly daughters couldn’t live without me. It would serve them right if I came back. However, I have no intention of leaving the Darkhall. I like it here. Plus, I owe it to poor Darli to make sure that their plan fails. Resurrection magic is strictly taboo. Darli could be banished from the Darkhall forever if it succeeded.

“Pardon me, but doesn’t the fact that you’re talking to me right now mean that it’s working?”

It could mean that you are going crazy.

“Thanks a lot.”

You’re welcome. So you and Sammual are a couple. Funny. I courted Sammuelle many years ago, but she objected to the fact that I already had a wife. I wonder if you were already starting to think like me when you met him---No, better not go there. Sam doesn’t have a whit of water magic, but he knows his way around a daema spell. I think I know why it is so cold in there. Don’t say anything aloud that Joland might hear. You need to wake up Darli. With her help, Sam’s plan just might work. But only if Darli becomes Darli again. I think I’ve figured out where Joland hid the poor girl’s soul.

“Really? How. Sammual tried and tried, and he couldn’t----“

I said don’t talk about it aloud! I have one advantage that Sammual lacks. I taught Joland and Roland everything they know.

***

Outside the castle, the sand glowed red hot. From the air, the fire made a circular pattern whose outer edge slowly expanded as Sammual sucked the heat from the water and fed it to the desert. It was a slow, tedious process. Shortly after midnight a thin crust of ice appeared around the base of the structure, but there was still a long way to go.

All the plant life of the oasis was soon scorched by the blaze. The buildings went up in flames. The fire spread, turning sand to glass, which cracked as the heat intensified, breaking into slivers and then forming molten glass again.

The humans and animals had been lead or carried to safety by his son. The humans watched in awe. From time to time, small groups of desert nomads would arrive, attracted by news of the magic battle which was taking place around the holy shrine. Rumor had it that Ser Shiraz herself had returned to earth to rescue the sacred lake from nonbelievers. Occasionally, an especially devout pilgrim would try to get too close, and Flayme would swoop down from the sky to herd him back towards the others. Once he convinced them that he was Ser Shiraz’s “angel,” it became easier to get them to obey.

At regular intervals, Flayme flew over the castle to check on his parent, ready to carry him to safety if the task proved too much for him. Though he knew that elden mages were immortal and that they were impervious to most forms of physical harm, he could not help feeling alarmed at the sight that met his eyes.

The earth mage stood sunk to the ankles in burning red sand, oblivious to the deadly heat. His hair stood on end, framing his pale face in a dark halo. His third eye rivaled the molten sand in its color and fire. His clothes had long since burned away, but he did not notice. He had even tossed off all his jewelry, except for the one gold and ruby ring, so that there would be nothing to distract him from the task at hand.

“That damn prince had better be worth it,” Flayme muttered as he flew away.

***

Lady Roland stirred. “So cold,” she murmured. “Why is it so cold?”

Marc stopped in his tracks. “It’s night, Auntie. The desert is always cold at night.” He sat down beside her. After tucking her blanket more securely around her, he refilled her glass. “Here, some more wine will warm you up. I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why does this scar hurt so badly? This is part of your plan, right?”

Drink had made her maudlin. A tear slid down her cheek. She leaned forward to plant a sloppy kiss on her grand nephew’s brow. “I’m so sorry about that, dear. To get the spell started we had to almost kill you. Resurrection magic is necromancy, after all.”

Jo has turned into a lush! Elias exclaimed in disgust.

Marc refilled her glass. “I suppose it wasn’t an ordinary arrow.”

“Dear me, no. The barb was made from Father’s breastbone, and we dipped it in his semen before firing it---“

My seed? How the hell did they get that?

“--and Joland attended you afterwards. But the most important ingredient came from the Darkhall princess. Without her, we never would have been able to create an opening between the worlds, no matter how big or powerful a weapon---” The old woman—for she truly looked old now—yawned. “I think I’ll take a little nap. Wake me when it’s morning. It should be almost over by then.”

Marc waited until she was safely snoring again, then he hurried to Darli’s bedside. Bracing himself against the heat, he leaned over her sleeping form. “Darli, honey. It’s me, Marc.”

Her eyes opened. She blinked once, twice. At the sight of Marc’s face, a smile lit up her face. She was so innocent. He could not believe his great aunt’s accusation.

Go on. Do it.

“She’s just a child!” Marc protested aloud.

Bullshit. She is older than you, me, Sammual and Roland combined. You have something that belongs to her. Unless you give it back, she is never going to be whole again—and neither will you.

Marc leaned forward. The warmth of the bed increased her intoxicating aroma. His face was inches from hers. She stared up at him, eyes unblinking. Her lips parted. Their mouths touched, tongue met tongue, a razor sharp tooth nipped at his lower lip----

And then he screamed, as the marrow was sucked out of him along with his breath and his strength and every bit of joy. He collapsed like a rag doll, a creature stitched together from pain and bitterness and nausea. The arrow wound above his left eye reopened. Blood gushed from the injury and flooded the vision in that eye. He staggered backwards, clutching his hand over the wound.

Despite his shock and pain, Marc could not stop staring at Darli. The daema princess rose from the bed. Her lips were stained red. She licked them. Her eyes began to burn. So did her hair. Her body went through an astonishing array of changes, in size, color. One moment she had scaled skin like a dragon, the next, she was almost transparent like smoke. She was a serpent. She was a bird. When she finally settled upon one form, she was a tall woman, lithe, with mottled copper skin that shimmered brightly as if she were made of a mixture of flame and flesh. Her ankle length hair was a waterfall of pure fire. “Elias!” she cried. “Marc!” Her voice had a harsh quality that reminded Marc of a crow mimicking human speech.

“Here!” the prince replied weakly.

The daema princess knelt beside him and lifted his chin. Her touch scorched his skin, but it also sent waves of pleasure down his spine. She examined his eyebrow which was still bleeding. With the lightest of kisses, she cauterized the wound. Then she licked the blood from his face and arms. Everywhere her tongue touched, his skin tingled and burned, but the lacerations which had been left by her claws earlier healed. The blisters which he had sustained from leaning over the fiery bed healed. She licked the old scar on his chin and the brand scar on his chest, both of which vanished. Finally, she sucked at the wound above his left eye. The pain subsided. When she drew her mouth away, he touched his brow and found the flesh knitted with only the tiniest of scars.

“Marc,” she croaked. “Elias.”

Her aroma made him giddy. So this was the difference between a full fledged Darkhall princess and the girl with whom he had traveled.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world to press his body close to hers and let her hair cover them both. The flames did not burn. They merely warmed him. He had never wanted any woman—or man—as much as he wanted the daema princess. He let her ride him, to protect her from the watery floor and so that he could revel at the sight of her rising above him, phoenix like---

Marc’s aunt woke with a start. “What are you doing you foolish girl!” Lady Roland exclaimed struggling to get to her feet. She overturned the empty wine flask. “We aren’t finished yet—“ Her next words were lost forever. Where Marc’s great aunt had been, there now stood a statue made of cinder which rapidly turned to white ash.

The mood was broken. The sight of his favorite aunt’s corpse had an immediate cooling effect on Marc’s passion. “Elias!” he demanded, disentangling himself from Darli’s embrace. “I woke Darli up, the way you told me to. Now, how the hell do we get out of here?”

***

Something had changed within the castle. Some balance had shifted. Sammual did not try to guess at the nature of the change which had caused the ice to thicken rapidly even though the circle of lava around the fortress was not widening at all. Something or someone within the structure was sucking all the heat out of the building. The result was all that mattered. Ice spread like lightening, enveloping the towers, reaching the very center of the colossus.

He was weary after his night’s labor, but he gathered his power and reached out to the ice.

It responded to him. It spoke to him exactly the way that any other crystal would. He learned its secrets. He used Marc’s ring as a conduit and felt the prince’s presence---alive, subtly changed but not so changed as to be unrecognizable—at the center of the castle. Ruthlessly, he began to demolish the ice castle, shattering it from the outside, taking care only to leave the single, innermost room intact. Huge chunks of ice flew through the desert and landed upon the sand where they quickly began to melt. Fortunately, the priests and pilgrims were still too far away to be hit by the flying debris, otherwise they would have been crushed by the boulders.

It took mere minutes to destroy the fortress. When he was done, a single room remained. This he opened with greater care, cracking the ceiling and walls like an eggshell and causing the two halves to fall lightly to the earth.

The only thing remaining of Lady Roland’s castle were a pair of thrones cast in ice. On one sat a mortal man with tattered clothes and tangled blonde hair. On the other, slightly larger throne sat a daema princess with tawny skin and ankle length red hair. Her mouth was set in a sneer and her eyes burned with barely contained anger. Though she wore a flimsy garment made of pure flame, her mortal companion was shivering and his lips and fingertips were blue, perhaps because the Darkhall princess was absorbing all the warmth around her.

Her eyes met Sammual’s. In the high speech of the daema she said, “Get this mortal out of my presence. His stench sickens me.”

Epilogue

Marc was attempting to read the future in a crystal ball. At least, that was the point of the lesson which Sam had assigned him. There was a pail of water nearby, and from time to time he would glance at the bucket. He was not actually cheating. Since no one had ever taught him how to scry in water, he did not realize why he kept looking in that direction for answers.

There were many things that he did not know that he knew. Knowledge kept coming to him, seemingly out of nowhere, since the night he had spent in Aunt Roland’s water fortress. One day, he might happen upon a clump of flowers in the meadow and remember that they were good for plague. Or, he would meet a badger in a dangerous situation and think of just the right thing to say.

His brow furrowed. The rock was very pretty and shiny, but it was just a rock. Again, he found himself distracted by the bucket of water. The surface shivered at the slightest breath of wind. Even a thought could make it move. It reflected a man’s face. Why not the future? If he concentrated….

“Sam!” he called. “We’re going to have visitors! A party from Suunweiss and another group, dressed in clothes I can’t identify. I think the two groups are separate.”

The earth mage emerged from one of the back rooms of the cavern, where he was conducting an experiment. His hair had grown back longer than it was before he cut it. Today, he wore it in a braid to keep it out of the powders and potions with which he was working. A white linen apron protected his clothes. He stripped off his gloves and cupped the crystal ball with his hands.

“It’s dark,” he said, frowning.

Marc flushed. “I didn’t see them in the crystal,” he admitted. He pointed to the pail of water.

Sammual patted the top of his head. “I’ll have to find a proper water mage to teach you.” He breathed on the crystal to warm it. A scene came into view. Two Suunian soldiers were being lead up the mountain by a local guide. “They’ll be here, soon. Do you want me to send them away?”

“It’s probably another message from my father. It won’t hurt to read what he has to say. It isn’t as if I’m going to change my mind. What about the others? Do you recognize them?”

The scene in the crystal ball shifted. Two men and a woman, dressed in russet colored robes were rapidly making their way through the forest on the north side of the mountain. They rode winged beasts that looked like dogs but they were the size of ponies.

“They’re from the Darkhall,” Sammual said.

“Is it Darli?”

“Hard to say. If you don’t want to see her, I can tell them that you’re away.”

Marc shook his head stubbornly. “No, I owe her better than that. “

“Good boy. Come! You may not be Prince Marcellus of Suunland anymore, but that’s no excuse for greeting your guests looking like a street rat.”

Marc barely had time to change his clothes and comb his hair, before two of his father’s royal guards appeared along with Brion. He was glad to see the Pryytan woman. She was his favorite drinking companion, and one of the few in the local village to whom he could confide the nature of his relationship with Sammual, since Pryytans were more open minded than Suunians.

He had intended to accept whatever message his father had sent him and then send the soldiers on their way, but since Brion was there, he decided to offer drinks instead. One of the soldiers, a short, stocky man named Earl, had trained with him, and they were on good terms. Soon, all four of them were pleasantly jovial from Sammual’s pungent elderberry wine.

“We’d better stop,” Brion warned, even as she poured herself another cup. “If we don’t leave soon, we won’t make it back to the inn before night.”

“There’s no rush,” Marc told her. “You can spend the night here.” He looked to Sammual for his approval.

“The more the merrier,” the elden mage said with a slight smile. “But have you forgotten the other visitors who are fast approaching?”

Marc set down his cup. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to leave. We have some people from—from---they’re not really people----“

Sammual interrupted. “Supernatural guests are approaching. It would be safer for you three if you were far from here before they arrive.” He offered Brion a stone charm. “Carry this, and you’ll find that your journey down the mountain takes a fraction of the usual time.” He turned the two Suunian royal guards. “I believe you have something for Marc?”

Earl laughed at his own foolishness. “That’s right. It wouldn’t do to come all this way and forget.” He rummaged in his leather travel bag until he found a document sealed with red wax. He handed it to Marc. “This is from the King.”

Marc handed it to Sammual who tore it open and scanned the document. “Your father says that they have overturned the prohibition against royals practicing magic. He says that there is nothing to prevent you from returning home to Suunweiss---“

“Tell my father ‘No’”, Marc told Earl.

“Don’t you want to think about it---?”

“My answer is ‘no’.” He folded his arms across his chest.

Earl squinted up at him. “You’re different than you used to be, Marc. Not in a bad, way, mind. You seem a lot older.”

“Thanks. I guess.”

“I’ll tell him you read it, and you’ve decided to stay here on Gold Mountain and keep working on your mage skills. He won’t know how to interpret that.”

“Very diplomatic,” Sammual said approvingly. “Thank you for coming all this way to deliver the good news. I’m sorry that we had to cut our hospitality short. Please, take this with you.” He pressed a wine jug into Brion’s arms. “I’ve sealed the cork so that it won’t open until you reach the valley,” he warned her softly. “I don’t want to have to come out tonight and rescue drunken travelers who are stranded on the mountain.”

Marc and Sammual waved until the visitors were out of sight. They were still standing in front of the cave when the second party of travelers arrived.

Marc was both relieved and disappointed to see that Darli was not among the visitors from the Darkhall. He wanted to apologize to her for the way he had acted the last time they had met. His behavior was inexcusable. Rutting with her one moment, like an animal in heat and then rejecting her the next, because she did what any sensible person would do.

His Aunt Roland was a monster. Just how much of a monster she was he did not discover until after her death. Then, he learned about the score of children which she had personally sacrificed in order to resurrect her father. As he and Sammual had gathered up the handful of remaining orphans and returned them to their families or found them new homes, he had found his dreams haunted by images of all the little ones whom they had not managed to save.

While he and Sammual rescued the children, the elden mage’s daughter Catria took care of the crisis in Suunweiss. She flew to the capital city of Suunland with her brother Fyre, intending to confront Lady Joland. However, Joland had fled and covered her trail. All that was left for Catria to do was to was uncover the old woman’s allies and the conspiracies which she had left in place---an easy enough task for an elden mage who could detect lies like her father.

There were rumors, of course. People said that Catria was in league with Sammual, who was defending his son, Prince Marcellus’s claim. Some spoke of a return of Elias, the monster king. Marc spent two days and one night in Suunweiss, watching people whisper about him behind his back before he decided that enough was enough.

He had never regretted his decision to come to Gold Mountain with Sammual.

The visitors from the Darkhall brought their beasts to a halt in front of Sammual’s cave. On close inspection, these were the fire-wolves which Sammual had once described. They were long, muscular wolf-life creatures with leathery wings. Smoke coiled from their nostrils. Their eyes were covered with heavy golden cloth. Did the bright light of this world frighten or hurt them?

Their riders were no less remarkable. Red brown hooded cloaks only partially concealed creatures whose mottled skin appeared to be made from a mixture of flame and flesh. Like their fire-wolves, they wore blindfolds. Two of the visitors were men and one was a woman. This was obvious, because underneath their open robes, they were naked except for gossamer thin garments made of flame. The woman carried a bundle in her arms.

Marc was about to suggest to Sammual that he bring their guests inside one of the deeper caverns, where it was dark, and the light would not bother their eyes. Then, he had one of his flashes of knowledge. Once invited into a dwelling, supernatural creatures could not be kept out.

“We bring greetings from our mistress, Lady Darlinjahara of the daema to Lord Sammual, of the elden,” croaked the taller of the two males. Daema voice always startled Marc. Their harsh quality seemed so unrefined compared to the elegance of their appearance. Like the cawing of peacocks.

The earth mage bowed graciously. “Please send my regards to the lovely and mighty Lady Darlinjahara. The darkness is but a setting in which the jewel of her beauty may shine.”

Marc’s upper lip twitched. Was he going to get a greeting? Probably not. Even if she did not have reason to despise him, Darli could hardly acknowledge the existence of a mere mortal like him. A creature of corruption.

The woman approached the earth mage. She was short, with fiery red hair, pointed ears and a streak of fur down her back. A natural, a daema who either could not or chose not to make use of a glamour. Marc was reminded of Darli, the way she looked when they first found her in the village of Errlie. He felt a pang of regret. He missed sweet little Darli. This woman was not her, but she might have been her big sister or her mother. She even had the same intoxicating aroma.

“My mistress has come upon this.” She thrust the bundle into the elde-mage’s arms. “She understands that you have made a study of such things. Perhaps you would be interested in it.”

Sammual’s three eyes widened. “Marc, get over here!”

Nothing could have prepared Marc for what he saw nestled in the blankets in Sammual’s arms.

A baby boy gazed up at him with blue-grey eyes. Its skin was pale pink. The hair which framed its face was the color of spun gold. It seemed perfectly normal in every way, except for two, tiny canine ears which peeped from its golden curls.

“It has dog ears!” Marc exclaimed. “How precious!”

“Not only that,” Sammual said, turning the infant over in his hands. At the base of its spine was a bushy tail.

Marc’s eyes met Sammual’s. “Do elden mages sometimes give birth to were-wolves?”

“No, but the daema do. Particularly when they breed with mortals.” He addressed the daema woman. “Is your mistress giving me this child to raise?”

She shrugged. “Raise it. Study it. Eat it. She has no use for such corruption.” However, the longing look which she gave the child belied her harsh tone.

Marc had a sudden hunch about the daema woman. “Darli? That is you, isn’t it? I’m so glad you came. I wanted to thank you for what you did in the desert. I was wrong----“

Her hand covered his lips, silencing him. “I will give my mistress your message,” she hissed, her mouth close to his ear. “Take good care of your son.”

With these words, she turned. The two males followed. They mounted the fire-wolves, which spread their wings and took to the air, leaving Marc and Sammual alone on the mountain with the were-wolf cub.

The End

Copyright © 2007 by McCamy Taylor. After a number of years as Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and occasional contributor of remarkable short fiction of her own, McCamy was sidelined by illnesses that made prolonged sessions at the keyboard impossible. But now, at last, she's ba-a-ack. She also tells us "I have been doing political cartoons for almost two years and then I started working on my first comic book, Drug Puppies. Only two chapters are done so far..."

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