Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 10

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Aralorn went back to work taking care of the children to give herself something to do. It was harder than it had been before. There was no place for them to run and play, and they were restless with the Uriah just outside. To distract them, Aralorn taught them the letters of the alphabet and how they fit together to form words. And then she told stories until she was hoarse.

"So Kai bet the whole troop that he could sneak into camp and steal the pot of coffee on the coals with no one seeing him." Seated on a bump in the floor, Aralorn checked to make sure that most of the children were listening. "He and Talor were raised in a Trader Clan, just like Stanis. When he was little he learned how to be very quiet and to sit still in shadows so no one could see him.

"That night they doubled the guard on the camp and assigned a special guard just to follow Kid around. Two men sat and just watched the coffeepot. But despite all of that, the next morning the pot was gone. The guard who was supposed to be following Kai around had actually been following Talor, who looked enough like his twin to be mistaken for him in the dark." Aralorn smiled at her intent audience. Stories about the twins were always guaranteed attention-holders.

"Kai was not only good enough to get the pot, he also painted a white 'X' on the back of every one of the guards without them knowing it."

"Wow! Can you do that, Stanis?" asked Tobin.

"Aralorn," Myr said quietly, putting his hand on her shoulder.

She turned from watching Stanis preen under the attention. "What's wrong?" Myr looked a bit pale.

"It's Wolf. He's in the library. I think that you need to see if you can calm him down."

THE LIBRARY WAS ENGULFED IN SHADOWS WHEN SHE CAUTIOUSLY peered into it; it felt warmer than usual. The only light came from Wolf's staff, which glowed a dull orange. Wolf sat in his usual chair, motionless. Only the scorched smell in the library suggested that the scene wasn't as peaceful as it looked.

Using her own magic, Aralorn lit the chamber. One of the bookcases was nothing but ashes on the cave floor. Thoughtfully, Aralorn wandered over to it and kicked the ashes. The bookcase next to her burst into flames and was reduced to the same state before she even felt the heat. She winced at the destruction of the irreplaceable books.

"Runyons, Wolf," she asked in calculatedly exasperated tones, "isn't this hard enough without losing your temper?" She turned to look at him. He wore his mask again.

"I have it, Aralorn," he murmured softly. "I have the power to do anything." Another bookcase followed the first two. "If I didn't have so much yawaning power, I just might be able to do something with it. There's a spell here to remove the ability to use magic from a magician who is misusing his power. I can't use it. If I tried, we'd have another glass desert on our hands." His eyes glittered with the fires of his magic.

Aralorn went to him and sat on the floor beside him, resting her head against his knees. "If you had less power, there would be no way to take the ae'Magi. You would never have been able to free yourself from the binding spells that keep all of the other magicians bound to his will. There would be no one to resist him. Quit tearing yourself into pieces and winning the battle for the ae'Magi. You are who you are. No better and no worse."

It was quiet for a long time in the library. Aralorn let her light die down and sat in the darkness with Wolf for a long time. No more bookcases burned in magic fire. When Wolf's hand touched her hair, Aralorn knew that it would be all right.

ARALORN TROTTED UP THE TUNNELS AT A STEADY PACE, walking now and again when she ran out of breath – which she fell was far too often. Slowly, though, her strength was coming back, and she had to stop less frequently today then she had the day before. Morning and night for The past four days, she had run the tunnels from the library to the entrance, trying to rebuild the conditioning that she'd lost.

Her path was free of people for the most part. The library was quite a distance from the main caves, and most of the refugees respected Wolf's claim that the Old Man of the Mountain wanted to keep them out of the tunnels, Aralorn was of the opinion that Wolf didn't want to spend his time searching for lost wanderers, because she'd seen no sign that the Old Man objected to anyone's presence. Although the path to the library was carefully marked out and considered part of the "occupied" caves, it was seldom that anyone besides Aralorn, Wolf or Myr went there.

The few times someone came to the library with a message, they looked nervous traveling the dark tunnels. Wolf said that they were waiting for the wrath of the Old Man to full on them. Myr said that it was Wolf, not the Old Man, that they were frightened of – Myr was probably right.

The two nobles had ignored the ban on the inner caves twice. The first time Myr brought them back. The second time Wolf went after them. Wolf wouldn't tell her what he'd done to them, and neither of them volunteered information, but they came back white-faced and had been remarkably subdued ever since.

As she came to the outer caves, Aralorn slowed to a walk. There were too many people around for her to dodge at a faster speed. When she started down the path that led to the entrance, the first thing that she noticed was the sound of her own footsteps. It took her a minute to realize that the reason she could hear them was because the Uriah weren't howling.

Sure enough, when she reached the entrance, the only evidence of the flaming barrier was the pile of Uriah bodies that lined the outside of the cave. The bonfire Myr had ordered laid near the entrance was still unlit. Other than the bodies, there was no sign of the Uriah or the barrier that had kept them out.

She stepped around the corpses, moving cautiously to see if there were any lying in wait. After so many days in the caves, the sunlight nearly blinded her. The air smelled fresh and pure, without the distinctive odor that accompanied Uriah. Only a slight burnt smell marred the fragrance of the nearby pine.

The source of the singed smelt wasn't only the corpses in the cave. It looked as if a ball of fire had been spewed from the cave's mouth, A blackened path in the grass and soil began from the entrance and traveled in a straight line a fair distance before disappearing. Within the blackened area were ten or fifteen bodies of Uriah. They were in much worse condition than the bodies in the cave, as if they had been gnawed upon by a large scavenger.

Aralorn followed the burnt path up the mountain and found that the trail abruptly slopped on a wide, Hat area. She started back and was several lengths down the slope when she realized that she might be thinking backward. What if the fireball hadn't come from the cave, but had been launched at it? Muttering to herself, she trotted back to where the trail had stopped.

Tracking wasn't her specialty, but it didn't take her long to find what she sought. When she was looking for them, they were hard to miss – very large, reptilian footprints with marks beside them that could be trailing wings. Just like the ones she'd seen the day she'd been taken by the Uriah.

"Well, Myr," she said thoughtfully, examining the teeth marks on one of the corpses, "I think I know what dragons eat."

"SO," SAID MYR IN DRY TONES AFTER ARALORN RELATED HER discovery, "we exchange Uriah for a dragon. Wonderful."

"At least the dragon's quieter," commented Aralorn, leaning against the cave wall and watching Myr pace.

The main cave was almost empty. Myr sent out a party to look for the missing hunters as well as a party to look for meat. He'd also ordered several watches on the lookouts.

"At least we knew something about the Uriah," Myr complained. "A dragon …" He broke off when the sounds of ragged cheers echoed into the cave, followed by the missing hunting party and the searchers.

When the welcoming was done, Haris the smith, who had led the party, told their tale, "We came upon a herd of mountain sheep and got two, so we headed back, About halfway here we stumbled upon some tracks, as if an army were wandering around out. We followed the trail and pretty soon we could smell 'em and knew that they were Uriah. Since their path was the same one we were on, it was obvious that the things were coming here.

"Figuring that we were too late to make much difference, we worked our way up the side of the mountain until we could see the Uriah. We couldn't see the cave, but the way they were swarming around showed that you must have found a way to keep them out. We decided that there was nothing we could do but wait. Our vantage point was far enough away that the chance of the Uriah seeing us wasn't considerable."

Hans cleared his throat and then said, "Late last night, just after the moon had set, I heard a cry like a swan makes, only deeper. I was on watch and it wasn't loud enough to wake anyone else up. Something big flew over the top of us, but I couldn't quite see it. After something passed overhead I saw a flash of golden fire down here and heard the Uriah step up their noise. Then it quieted down.

"This morning it looked like the Uriah had left, so we started home. The reason it took us so long to get here is that there are still a lot of Uriah scattered about. We were dodging two parties of the things when we almost ran into a third. It's a good thing that they smell so bad, or we wouldn't have made it back at all."

A WAR COUNCIL WAS CONVENED WITH MYR PRESIDING. THEY kept careful record of where the Uriah were seen, and hunting parties were directed away from those areas. Wolf took time out from his research to produce a detailed map of the area on sheepskin, which was hung on a wall of the central chamber.

With tactics that drew grunts of approval from Wolf and admiration from Aralorn, who had seen a few of the great military minds in action, Myr developed a series of Uriah traps in key locations.

Each group of hunters had a rough copy of the map, and if they ran into a group of Uriah they would lead them to one of the traps. The Uriah were slowed enough by the cold of the deepening fall that the humans could outrun them most of the time, especially since they were careful only to go out when it was coldest.

Hans suggested an adaptation of a traditional castle defense and created a tar trap that was one of the most effective. The easiest way to kill a Uriah was with fire. So pots of tar were hung here and there, kept warm by magic. Ropes were carefully rigged so that they would not easily he tripped by wild animals. When they were pulled the pots tipped over, and the motion triggered a secondary spell that lit them on fire, dousing the Uriah with flaming tar. The spells on the traps were simple enough that everybody, except for Myr, could do them after a little coaching from Wolf.

With this renewed purpose, the small group became a close-knit community, the grumblers fewer. Every evening they would all sit down and talk, when complaints and suggestions were heard and decided upon by Myr. Looking at the scruffy bunch of peasants (the nobles, by this time, blended right in with the rest) consulting with their equally scruffy king, Aralorn compared it with the Rethian Grand Council that met once a year and hid a grin at the contrast.

Only Wolf was excluded from the camaraderie, by his own choice. He made them nervous, with his macabre voice and silver mask. Once he saw that they were intimidated by him, he went out of his way to make them more so. He was seldom with the main body of the camp, sleeping somewhere deep in the caverns and spending most of his waking time in the library. He attended The nightly sessions with everyone else, but kept his own council in the shadows of the cave's recesses unless Myr asked him a question directly.

Most mornings Aralorn spent entertaining the children. Occasionally she went out with a hunting party, or alone to exercise Sheen and check the traps. The afternoons she spent in the library with Wolf, keeping him company and reading as many books as she could.

The nights she spent in the library as well, for she was still having nightmares and didn't want to wake the whole camp. Night after night she woke up screaming, sometimes seeing Talor's face, alive with all that made him Talor, but consumed with a hunger that was inhuman and wholly Uriah. Other times it was the ae'Magi's face that she saw, a face that changed from father's to son's. It was because of the latter that she didn't tell Wolf about her dreams.

Late in the afternoons Myr usually joined them, talking quietly with Aralorn while Wolf read tirelessly through books on rabbit breeding, castle building, and three hundred ways to cook a hedgehog.

It was on one such occasion that Myr came in to find Aralorn watching as Wolf carefully measured powders in a beaker. Aralorn looked up with a welcoming smile and waved him over.

"Wolf thinks that he found the spell. We're going to try it out outside. No telling what would happen if he worked it in here with all of the grimoires, especially since we don't know the range of effect." Aralorn spoke quietly, so as not to disturb Wolf's concentration.

They watched as he took a small vial from the open leather pack on the table. Opening it, he poured a milky liquid into the grey powder mixture, which became red mush and gave off a poof of noxious fumes. He donned his mask and cloak; then, ignoring his audience, he capped the beaker and took it and an opaque bottle and strode toward the exit, leaving Aralorn and Myr to trail behind.

"Won't the spell be affected by whatever it is that restricts human magic in the North?" asked Myr in a whisper to Aralorn, but it was Wolf who answered.

"No,'" he said. "It is a very simple spell. I only seem to have-problems with working more delicate magics."

He led them to the valley, where they were unlikely to have anyone interrupt them. Aralorn found herself holding the containers while, at Wolf's direction, Myr paced off circles, each bigger than the last until the dirt looked like an archery target. Wolf disappeared into the underbrush and reappeared holding a handful of small stones. He set several of them in each ring, floating about knee-high above the ground.

"This shouldn't be a particularly powerful spell; if I can get it to work, it doesn't need to be. If he doesn't know that it's coming, then he won't know to block it. Aralorn, stand over by the old firepit so that you are out of range of the spell. It won't hurt Myr, but I don't know what this could do to a shapeshifter," Wolf said as he sat on the cold ground in the middle of the innermost circle.

"How old is the ae'Magi?" asked Aralorn, moving to the position he'd indicated.

Wolf shrugged gracefully and gave her a half smile. "You aren't going to kill the ae'Magi the way that Iveress killed his Master. The Master was ill and near death, kept alive only by magic. As far as I know, the ae'Magi is nowhere near death, unfortunate as that may be – at least not from disease."

"What are our chances if the spell works as it is supposed to?" asked Myr. "Will you be able to kill him? I've seen him fight."

Wolf shrugged. "If the spell takes him by surprise, then the odds are about even. I used to spar with him often and sometimes I beat him, sometimes not. This spell gives us a chance, but that's all it does. If he recognizes the spell, it is easy enough to counter. That would leave us with only magic. I've learned a lot since I last faced him." He looked at Aralorn. "I've learned some things about what I can do that he doesn't know, but even so he would easily best me that way. Without magic, at least we stand a chance of killing him. Perhaps." Looking unconcerned, Wolf returned to his work.

Aralorn and Myr watched as he poured the substance into the beaker. Wolf shook it and then poured it onto the ground in front of him, where it gathered into a glowing pool of violet patterned with inky swirls. Dipping a finger into the pool, he used the liquid to draw several symbols in the air. Compliantly the purple substance hung in the air as if on an invisible wall. Wolf repeated the procedure with his left hand.

He picked up the pool in both hands then. It swayed and oozed, never quite escaping its confines. He held it up and blew on it gently.

Pain hit Aralorn hard enough to knock her to her knees. She fought to maintain consciousness for a moment, but she never felt herself hit the ground.

When she recovered, she felt the hard strength of Wolf's thigh underneath her car. Carefully she looked around. The spell was obviously directional. It had knocked down the stones in a "V" pattern with Wolf at the apex. She had been sitting on the edge of the path of the spell; apparently the firepit hadn't been far enough away.

"How long was I out?" she asked hoarsely, trying to sit up.

She was propelled down again with a none too gentle hand, as Wolf answered, "Not too long."

"How do you feel?" asked Myr, concern evident in his voice.

"Like the entire mercenary army of Sianim just got through inarching over my head." She closed her eyes and let herself enjoy their concern. She loved sympathy.

"Not too bad, then," Myr teased lightly.

"Not too," Aralorn replied, and decided that her headache had subsided enough so that she could open her eyes again.

"Wolf," said Myr. With Aralorn alive and well, the young king turned to the issue at hand. "Do you think that the ae'Magi will let you complete the spell? It seemed to take a lot of preparation."

"I won't need to," answered Wolf, relaxing against the wall of Haris's former kitchen. "With a spell this simple, it's easy enough to re-create the effect, once I see the pattern to push the magic into. It really is something only a beginning magic-user would have created. Take all of the most common spell components mixed together, add the first five symbols learned in magic and blow – poof: instant spell. What is really amazing is that it didn't blow up in his face. It came uncomfortably close to doing that with me." He tapped Aralorn's nose in emphasis. "Next time I tell you that you will be safe somewhere, don't listen to me."

"What are you going to do now that you've found it?" asked Myr.

Wolf took off his mask wearily. In the bright light of the winter sun, Aralorn noticed the strain he'd been under written into fine lines and dark shadows under the golden ambient eyes. "What else? I storm the Castle of the Master Magician and challenge him to a duel. Whereupon he engages me in best Aralorn-storytime fashion. Then either I win, and go down in history as the cruel villain who destroyed the good wizard, his father; or he wins." Wolf's voice was coolly ironic.

"If he wins, what happens?" Aralorn spoke from her prone position and showed no intention of moving. "I mean, what is he trying to do? Do you have any idea at all?"

Wolf played with a strand of hair that had worked its way out of her braid while he answered. "I've been thinking about that for a long time, trying to remember what it was that he wanted most. You asked me about that once before; I think I know the answer now.

"I thought at first that it was mere power he wanted. When I was his apprentice, that seemed to be it. He could link with me and use the power that I gathered for his own spells; much, I believe, in the same manner that he now uses the magic released by the death of the children he kills. But there was an incident that scared him," Briefly, Wolf explained his destruction of the tower for Myr's benefit.

Myr whistled. "That was you? I'd heard a story about that; I've forgotten who told me. They said that the tower looked like a candle that someone forgot to blow out. The very stone was melted."

Wolf nodded. "He started to try using control spells on me, but I left before he had much success. But what surprised me was that he continued to try to get me back under his control. He's been looking for me for a long time. If it were only power he wanted, then he's wasted a lot more of it trying to find me than he could ever get from me. I am more powerful than most magicians, but Lord Kisrah is very strong as well, and the ae'Magi never attempted to tap into his magic. The magic that he gets from one of the children he kills is probably more than he could get from me, because my defenses are stronger."

"Revenge, then?" suggested Myr. "Because he thought that he had you under his control and you escaped?"

"So I thought," answered Wolf, "until Aralorn told me that she thought that I was half shapeshifter and that some of the magic that I am using is green magic."

Myr started. "Are you? That's why you have so little trouble taking the shape of a wolf. I thought it was unusual."

Wolf nodded. "Most of the magic that I use is human magic. Since I found out that I could use it, I've been trying to work with the green magic. It is bound by much stronger rules than what I'm used to; so, except for shapeshifting. I find it much harder to work. Even so, it might give me an edge over the ae'Magi."

Wolf paused and then continued. "The question still remains, what does the ae'Magi want from me? He is a Darranian and while the animalism of having sex with a shapeshifter might appeal to him, I couldn't conceive that he would raise the resultant offspring as his own. Not until I realized that it was the green magic that he wanted. Green magic that I didn't use until I left his control."

"But why green magic?" asked Myr. "I can't imagine that he values shapeshifting that highly."

"Healing," said Aralorn softly, beginning to see where Wolf was headed.

Wolf nodded. "Exactly. As you told me, Aralorn, a shapeshifter can heal himself until he is virtually immortal. What the ae'Magi hopes to do is to reestablish the link that he had with me and use green magic to give himself immortality."

"No point in ruling the world unless you have time to do it in," offered Myr.

"Yes," agreed Wolf. "There was another clue as well. Neither of you were particularly well acquainted with Uriah as they were a few years ago. I was in the ae'Magi's castle when he created the first of his, using his own spell. The Uriah that I knew were barely able to function. They could not even understand speech as well as a dog can. Now, from what Aralorn says, he has some that even retain the memories of the person that they once were."

"The Uriah in the swamplands were created during the Wizard Wars; they are close to being immortal," commented Aralorn.

Wolf nodded. "They don't die unless they are killed. If he could get them just a bit more pretty, he'd probably turn himself into one."

Soberly, Myr said, "I don't think that he ever intended to turn himself into a Uriah. I've known him for a long time too. There is no way he would turn himself into something that by its very nature is a slave to its need for food – pretty or not. If a Uriah retains most of its personality, then it is possible that it also retains its ability to work magic. I would guess that he wants to kill you, Wolf, and turn you into one of his Uriah, obedient to his command, but just as powerful as you have always been."

Blank-faced, Wolf considered Myr's comment and said, "I hadn't thought of that. But I think that you are right. I'll have to make sure that it doesn't happen, hmm?"

There was a heavy silence and then Aralorn said in a bright tone, "Speaking of Uriah, do you realize what a mess we are going to have to clean up when the ae'Magi is dead and we have several hundred masterless Uriah roaming the countryside? Sianim is going to be making good money off this."

WOLF WORKED AT THE SPELL FOR DAYS, UNTIL HE COULD direct it better, but the force of the spell varied widely. Wolf muttered and finally even went back to mixing the powders, but the spell still wouldn't stabilize. He decided to try a few different herbs that might refine the reaction. He didn't have all that he needed, so he left to do some trading in the South.

THE SUN WAS DRIFTING TOWARD EVENING, TURNING THE PEAKS of the mountains red. Aralorn shifted contentedly on her rock near the cave entrance. Several days ago someone found a huge patch of berries, and the whole camp had spent the better part of two days harvesting the find. Haris had been mixing them into everything and today had managed to cook several pies. Given that the only thing that he had to cook on was a grate over a fire, it was probable that he'd used magic to do it, but no one was complaining.

Licking her fingers clean of the last of the sweet stuff, Aralorn ran an idle gaze up the cliff face and caught something out of the corner of her eye. It was a shadow in the evening sky that was gone almost as soon as she saw it. She got to her feet and backed away from the cliff, trying to figure out just what it was that she saw, calling out an alarm as she did so.

The four or five people who were out milling about with various chores started for the entrance at a run. Stanis and Tobin were coming up the trail to the valley with a donkey cart laden with firewood. Although they heard the alert too, they weren't abide to increase their pace much because of the donkey and they weren't about to abandon the results of their labors.

Aralorn distractedly glanced at them and then looked back at the cliff, just in time to see the dragon launch itself. The scales of its belly and wings mimicked the evening sky closely enough that it appeared only as a moving shadow, despite its nearness.

Aralorn headed for Stanis and Tobin as fast as she could. Seeing her, they abandoned the donkey and began running themselves. As she neared them, the shadow on the ground told her that the dragon was just overhead. She knocked both boys to the ground in a wrestler's tackle and felt the razor-sharp claws run almost gently across her back.

The dragon gave a hiss that could have been either disappointment or amusement, and settled for the donkey, which it killed with a casual swipe of its tail. As it ate it watched idly as Aralorn drove the two boys into the cave and stood guard at the entrance.

Aralorn met its gaze and knew that her sword was pitifully inadequate for the task, even if she were a better swordswoman. She had some hope that the runes that had kept the Uriah at bay would do the same to the dragon, but dragons were supposed to be creatures of magic and fire. A flaming barrier would be of little use.

She heard the sounds of running footsteps behind her and then Myr's exclamation when he saw the dragon. He drew his grandfather's sword and held it in readiness. Aralorn noted with a touch of amusement that his larger sword looked to be a much more potent barrier than her own.

"How big do you think that thing is?" asked Myr in a whisper.

"Not as big as it looked when it was over the top of me, but big enough that I don't want to fight it," murmured Aralorn in reply. The dragon paused in its eating to look over at them and smile, quite an impressive sight – easily as intimidating as Wolf's.

Myr stiffened. "It heard us."

Aralorn nodded reluctantly. "And understood what we said. Well, if you have to die, I guess a dragon is an impressive way to do it; maybe even worth a song or two. Just think, we are the first people to see a dragon in generations. Aside from Wolf, of course."

"He is beautiful," said Myr. As if in approval of his comment, a ripple of purple traveled through the blue of its scales.

"Watch that," said Aralorn. "I think that he can alter his color at will; when I first saw him he was nearly invisible. It could make him even harder to fight."

"It makes you wonder why there aren't more dragons, doesn't it?" commented Myr.

Finished with the donkey, the dragon rose and stretched. No longer completely blue, its scales showed highlights of various colors. Only its teeth and the claws on its feel and the edges of its wings were an unchanging black. When it was done it started, almost casually, toward them.

Myr stepped out from the meager protection of the cave entrance into the fading light and Aralorn followed his lead. Something about Myr appeared to catch the dragon's interest: it stopped and whipped its long, swanlike neck straight, shooting the elegant head forward. Brilliant, gemlike eyes glittered green and then gold. Without warning it opened its mouth and spat flame at Myr. Its aim was so exact that Aralorn wasn't even singed, although she stood near enough to Myr to reach out and touch him.

Myr, being immune to magic, was untouched, although the same could not be said about his clothes. The hand that held his sword was steady, though his grip was tighter than it needed to be. He was no coward, this King of Reth. Aralorn surprised herself with a bit of national pride.

The dragon drew its head back and said, in courtly Rethian that Aralorn felt as much as heard, "Dragon-blessed, this is far from your court. Why do you disturb me here?"

Myr, clothed in little more than the tattered remnants of cloth and leather, somehow managed to look as regal and dignified as the dragon did. "My apologies if we are troubling you. Our quarrel is not with you."

The dragon made an amused sound. "I hardly thought that it was, princeling."

"King," said Aralorn, deciding that the contempt that the dragon was exhibiting could get dangerous.

"What?" said the dragon, its tone softening in a manner designed to send chills up weaker spines.

"He is king of Reth and no princeling." Aralorn kept her voice even and met the dragon's look.

It turned back to Myr and said in a amused tone, "Apologies, Lord King. It seems I have given offense."

Myr inclined his head. "Accepted, Lord Dragon. We owe you thanks for driving away the Uriah, sent by my enemy."

The dragon raised its head with a hiss as its eyes acquired crimson tones. "Your enemy is the ae'Magi?"

"Yes," answered Myr.

The dragon stood silently, obviously thinking; then it said, "The debt dragonkind owed your blood is old and weak, even by dragon standards. Long and long ago, a human saved an egg that held a queen; a feat that we were most grateful for, as we were few even then. For this he and his blood were blessed that magic hold no terrors for them. For this deed of the past I would have left you and your party alone.

"Several hundred years ago, after the manner of my kind, I chose a cave to sleep in – waiting for the coming of my mate. I chose a cave deep under the ae'Magi's castle, where I was unlikely to be discovered.

"I was awakened a few decades past by savage pain that drove me out of my cave and into the North. Dragons are magical in a way that no other creature is; we live and breathe magic, and without it we cannot exist. The ae'Magi is twisting magic, binding it to him until there will be nothing left but that which is twisted and dark with the souls of the dead. The castle of the ae'Magi has protections that I cannot cross, and the power that he has over magic is such that if I were to attack him, it is possible that he could control me. That is a risk that I cannot take. Except for the egg that lies hidden from all, I am the last of my kind. If I die, there will be no more dragons." It stretched its wings restlessly.

"King," it said, "your sword is new, but the hilt is older than your kingdom, and token of our pledge to your line. If ever I can aid you, without directly confronting the ae'Magi, plunge the sword into the soil, run your hands over the ruby eyes of the dragon on the hilt and say my name." Aralorn heard nothing but the rushing of the wind as the dragon spoke its name for Myr. Then in the deepening light of the evening it reared back on its hind legs and fanned its wings, changing its color to an orange-gold that gave off its own light. Soundlessly it took flight, disappearing long before it should have been out of sight.

"Beautiful, isn't he?" Wolf's familiar hoarse voice emanated from somewhere behind and between Aralorn and Myr. It comforted Aralorn that Myr jumped too.

THE HERBS THAT WOLF BROUGHT BACK DID WORK BETTER. Once he got the spell just as he wanted it, he began working it without the props until he could direct it effortlessly. When he could drop the ensorcelled rocks in any pattern he chose, he spoke to the council.

"I have what I need to face the ae'Magi. I will leave tomorrow for his castle."

"You aren't going alone," said Myr. "This is my battle as well. He killed my parents to further his plans. You will need someone at your back."

Wolf shook his head, "You are too valuable to your people to risk yourself in such a way. If you are killed, then there is no one to rule Reth. If I am killed, your immunity to magic may be the only weapon left against the ae'Magi."

"Wolf's right," agreed Aralorn, "but so is Myr. Wolf, the ae'Magi is not the only thing that you will have to face. He has quite an assortment of 'pets.' They will tire you out before you even reach the ae'Magi."

"True," said Wolf. "However, I know how to avoid most of the monsters. The ae'Magi will see that none of them kill me. Even if he wants me dead, he wants to do it himself. If there is someone else with me that I have to worry about and guard, then it will be more of a liability than an asset, I'll leave at first light." He turned on one heel and walked away, without giving anyone a chance to argue further.

THAT NIGHT, AS ARALORN LAY DROWSING ON THE LIBRARY couch she'd commandeered as her bed, she heard voices talking to each other, a man's voice and a woman's. Being half asleep, she didn't think to question why she was hearing anything.

The woman spoke first. "I'm worried about them. There are too many things that can go wrong with what they're planning. I wish that they'd paid attention to what you tried to show them."

"I did what I could." Aralorn recognized the voice of the Old Man. He sounded a little petulant.

"It's up to them." The woman's soft voice soothed agreeably. "She's healed him enough that he might be able to carry it off. Can't you give them a clearer hint, though?"

"No. It isn't our concern. As long as he leaves you alone, I don't care what the ae'Magi does." He sounded like a little boy pouting.

"Of course you do, dear heart." She might have been shaking a finger at him from the tone of her voice. "Who was it that brought that young wolf to shelter here? Who gathered all of the people to shelter from the human Archmage's wrath?"

"I'm worried that I've interfered too much." The old shape-shifter's voice sounded completely rational for the moment. "My time is past. I should have died with you, Lys. It is not right to be a ghost and not be dead. If I tell them what to do, it might cause more harm than good. I fear that I have let you talk me into too much." There was a pause and then he said in a resigned tone, "Ah, well, once more then. Can she hear me?"

"Yes, she's listening."

"Then, daughter of my brother's line, you must go with him to the ae'Magi's castle and take what is yours with you." Aralorn felt a hand on her cheek and then she heard the rush of air that signaled the shape shifter's exit.

Once they'd left her, she found that she wasn't as sleepy. She sat up and waved on the lights. "So now you are hearing voices. It is sad to say, Aralorn, but you have definitely lost whatever touch of sanity you once had. That bodes well for the corning adventure, though – only an insane person would go to the ae'Magi's castle three times. Once was enough, twice was too many, but my little voices tell me that I'm going to make it three." She shook her head in mock disgust. Knowing that she wasn't going to get any more sleep she got up, strapped on her knives and began working out. By the time she had warmed up she knew how she was going to arrange to accompany Wolf.

Before first light hit the mountainside, she snuck out on four feet, following her nose to the small cave Wolf occupied. She'd never been in it before and was distracted from her intended goal by the opportunity to see a different side of her mysterious magician. He kept a small magelight glowing to keep the room from the total darkness that was natural to the cave. Wolf himself was lying with his back to her on a cot against the far end of the room. Although it was spartan and immaculate, she could tell by the smell that Wolf had occupied it for a long time. Being a mouse had its advantages.

Fascinated, she wandered around, noticing that for all of its surface plainness there were touches that showed an appreciation of beauty in small things. A small knob of rock reaching up from the floor was polished to a high gloss. A large clear glass vessel was placed in a secure nook: the tiny fractures that spiderwebbed the glass glittered even in the dim light. Wolf moved restlessly on the bed. Aralorn waited to make sure that he was still sleeping before she crept into the pack that lay out of place near the entrance, trusting that its position signified that it was something that he was going to take with him.

She made a place for herself amongst the various items and sat very still. She didn't have to wait long. Although he had announced that he would leave at first light, she wasn't at all surprised that he was leaving well before that. It had been obvious that neither she nor Myr had been particularly happy with his decision to go and face the ae'Magi alone.

To her relief he swung the pack up and carried it with him when he left. She hadn't quite figured out what she would have done if he'd left it.

She felt the roar of dizziness that signaled the magical leap from one place to another. When the sensation passed she scrambled for a secure position where the shuffling contents, which seemed to consist of nothing but hard angular objects, were not as likely to squish her. Even in human form it seemed that Wolf's favorite gait was a ground-eating run.

Apparently he transferred to a point several miles from the castle, as he ran for a long time. Battered and bruised, Aralorn was beginning to wish that she'd never heard voices in the first place when he stopped.

When Wolf opened the pack, the first thing that he saw was a bedraggled grey mouse, who looked at him with reproachful eyes and said, '"Would it have hurt to pack something soft, like a shirt or something?"

He picked her up out of the bag and held her at eye level in the palm of his hand. He shook his head with reproach. "When one comes along without being invited, one cannot complain about the accommodations."

"Oh, dear," said the mouse, in a shocked voice. "I hope I am not intruding."

He took off the silver mask and sat cross-legged on the ground – careful not to knock her off her perch on the palm of his hand. "I don't suppose that you would go back, would you? I trust it has occurred to you that it would be very easy for the ae'Magi to use you against me."

She ran up his arm and poised for an instant on his shoulder. "Yes," she replied, cleaning her whiskers, "but it also occurred to me that my friend was going off alone to kill his father. Granted that he is not the typical father, but I don't think this is as easy for you as you'd like everyone to believe."

She hesitated for a minute before she continued. "I know how he is. How he can twist things until black seems white. His power is frightening, but it is not as dangerous as his ability to twist thoughts with words. I was only there for a short time; you were raised by him. It doesn't seem to me that exposure would make you immune to him; rather the opposite, I think. Perhaps having someone with you might make it easier."

Wolf was still. Aralorn abruptly jumped to the ground so she could see his face. She might as well have saved herself the trouble, because his visage revealed no more than it usually did.

"I couldn't have lived with myself if something happened to you and I was not there." She shrugged and twitched her whiskers. "Besides, why should you have all the fun? He will see only a mouse, if he looks. I will do nothing unless you are killed: then I will destroy your body so that he cannot work his will."

He wanted to send her away, not just for her safety, but because he didn't want her to know what he'd been before, even though he'd done his best to tell her himself. These feelings that she brought out in him were so painful and confusing. It was easier when he had felt nothing, no pain, no guilt. No desire. His father had taught him how to be that way. When Wolf had seen what he was becoming, it had terrorized him into escaping. The desire that he felt, to return to what he had been, left him with a touch of the same terror. Aralorn was right. He needed her to keep him from returning to his old ways. The knowledge that she was watching might be enough to strengthen him.

"Stay," was all that he said.

He turned then, apparently ignoring her. Kneeling, he emptied the contents of the backpack, a motley collection of jars which he organized in an overtly random fashion. He stripped himself of his clothes and began a ritual of purification using the water from a nearby stream.

Aralorn watched for a while, but when he started to meditate she went for a scurry – mice seldom walk. Once out of sight, where she wouldn't pull his concentration back to her, she shifted into her own form.

She stopped when she had a good view of the castle. It was funny how she always pictured it as black on the outside, the way it appeared both of the times that she left it. In the sunlight it sparkled a pearly grey, almost white – like something out of old stories. She could almost visualize the noble knight riding out to face the evil dragon. She hoped in this story the dragon (accompanied by his faithful mouse) would defeat the knight.

She clenched her fingers into the bark of the tree she stood next to and turned her cheek against the rough texture, closing her eyes against the very real possibility that this story would turn out like all the rest – the knight living happily ever after and the dragon slain.

When the shadows lengthened into dusk, Aralorn – once again the mouse – snuck back to where Wolf sat with closed eyes, the last light resting on his clean-shaven, unblemished face with loving affection. Aralorn fought the chill that crept over her, knowing that if he looked, the all-too-discerning golden eyes would see her anxiety. It was unsettling to be in love with someone who looked like the face in her nightmares. Ah, well, at least he was handsome.

She leapt blithely onto his leg and ascended quickly to his bare shoulder, feeling a slight malicious pleasure when he jerked in surprise. When he turned to glare at her, she kissed him on the nose and then began to clean her forepaws with industry. With a sound that might have been a laugh, he ran a finger lightly up her back, rubbing her fur the wrong way. She bit him – but not too hard.

He smoothed her hair and set her down on the ground so that he could regain his clothing. She noticed that it wasn't the same outfit he'd taken off. It wasn't like anything that she'd ever seen him wear. The main color was still black, but it was finely embroidered with silver thread. The shirt was gathered and puffed, hanging down well over his thighs, which was just as well, because the pants were indecently tight, from mouse-height anyway. She could see the faint flickering of magic in the fabric, so assumed that the clothes he wore were the magician's equivalent of armor.

When he was dressed he replaced her on his shoulder and strode out of the clearing like a man who was at last within reach of a much coveted goal. He talked to her while he walked.

"I thought of confronting him in the castle itself, but it has been the center of so much magic that I really don't know how this spell would affect it. I suspect that at least some of the construction of the older parts of the building was done purely by magic. Without magic, it could collapse on top of us. I don't know about you, but I thought it might be interesting to survive long enough to find out just what the ae'Magi's loyal followers will do to his murderers. That is, if we manage to make it that far."

"I'd forgotten that aspect of it," answered Aralorn. "Will his spell still be in effect when he dies?"

"Probably not, but people will still remember how they felt. We will remain the villains of this story." Wolf leapt easily over a small brook.

"Oh, good!" she exclaimed, holding on tightly with her fore-paws. "I've always wanted to be a villain."

"I am happy to please my lady mouse."

"Uh, Wolf?" she asked.

"Umm?"

"If we're not going to the castle, where are we going?"

"Well," he said, sliding down a steep section of his self-determined path, "when I lived in the castle, he had a habit of going out to meditate every night. He didn't like to do it in the castle because he said that there were too many conflicting auras – too many people steeped in magic had lived and died there in the past thousand years or so. There is a spot just south of the moat that he used to like to use. If he doesn't do it tonight, he probably will tomorrow."

Aralorn sat quietly, thinking of all the things she'd never asked him, might never get a chance to ask. "Wolf?"

"Yes?"

"Has your voice always been the way it is?"

"No." She thought that was all of the answer that she was going to get until he added, "When I woke up after melting the better part of the tower" – he pointed to one of the graceful spires that arched into the evening sky – "I found that I'd screamed so loud that I damaged my voice. It is very useful when I want to intimidate someone."

"Wolf," said Aralorn, setting a paw on his ear since they were on relatively smooth ground, "not to belabor the obvious, but your voice isn't what intimidates people. What does intimidate people is your habit of scorching anyone who bothers you."

"Do you think that might be it?" he inquired with mock interest. "I had wondered."

She laughed, and looked at the castle as it rose black against the lighter color of the sky. She had the funny feeling that it was watching them. She knew that it wasn't so, but she was grateful that she was a mouse all the same, and even more grateful that she was a mouse on Wolf's shoulders. She leaned lightly against his neck.

She knew that they were near the place Wolf had spoken of, from the tension in the muscles she balanced on. A stray wind brought the smell of the moat to cut through the smell of green things growing. It almost disguised another scent that touched her nose.

"Wolf!" Aralorn said in an urgent whisper. "Uriah. Can you smell them?"

He stopped completely, his dark clothes helping him to blend in. His ritual cleansing had left no human scent to betray him, only the sharp/sweet scents of herbs. Even a Uriah couldn't track in the dark, so unless they had already been seen they were safe for a moment. Wolf scanned with other senses to find where the Uriah were. It wasn't hard. He was surprised that they hadn't run into one before. His father, it seemed, had been busy. There were a lot of the things around, waiting.

Once he had watched a spider at her web. Fascinated, he had tried to see what she thought about, waiting for her prey to become entangled in the airy threads. He got the same feeling from the Uriah. He wondered if he were the victim of this web.

He thought about turning back. If the ae'Magi were aware that he was here, it might be better to return another time. In the end he shrugged and continued on with more caution. The ae'Magi knew his son well enough to know that he would be coming sometime; a surprise appearance would make no difference either way.

Aralorn buried her face in the pathetic shield of Wolf's shirt, trying to block out the smell. For some reason the smell of them was worse than the sounds that they had made outside of the cave. Hearing Talor's voice, seeing his eyes on that grotesque mockery of a human body, had made her want to retch and cry at the same time; it still did. By the time she'd gained control, Wolf stopped for a second time and set her on the ground, motioning her to hide herself. He hesitated and then shifted into his, familiar lupine form before gliding into the clearing.

The ae'Magi sat motionless on the ground, his legs and arms positioned in the classic meditation form. A small fire danced just between Wolf and the magician. The newly risen moon caught the clear features of the Archmage ruthlessly, revealing the remarkable beauty therein. Character was etched in the slight laughter lines around his eyes, and the aquiline nose. His eyes opened, their color appearing black in the darkness, but no less extraordinary than in full light. His lips curved a welcoming smile. The warm tones vocalized the sentiment in the expression on the ae'Magi's face.

"My son," he said, "you have come home."

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