The Broken Pillar

A place where users can post their wonderful stories.

The Broken Pillar

Postby Miki Yamuri » Tue Apr 12, 2016 9:43 pm

Title: The Broken Pillar

All Characters played by: Lil Jennie and Miki Yamuri

Characters:

Xerchinita - 18 yo Swamp Witch
Norhouse - 18 yo Adventurer

Prologue

“FREE!  LET THE WORLD TREMBLE AND BURN IN MY FIRE!”  A tempest of flame sprang forth as the freestanding column cracked.  Its upper half tottered and fell, plummeting from the precipice where its lower half still stood and disappearing into the mists below.  But the whirlwind of fire remained, and in its center was a gigantic humanoid figure, male and bare-chested, with skin the red and orange colors of the flames that surrounded him.

The comparatively tiny human standing before the column huddled against its surface for some measure of protection against the sudden heat.  He had just seen his companion blasted to smithereens by a massive fireball.

“I WOULD THANK YOU, HUMAN, BUT YOU ARE INSIGNIFICANT.  MY ESCAPE WAS INEVITABLE.”

“I … get three wishes, right?” the human asked.  “The legends all say --”

“HAHAHA!” laughed the fiery behemoth.  “YOU DO REALIZE THAT I WROTE THOSE STORIES, DON’T YOU?  YES, THERE WILL BE WISHES -- I WILL FINALLY GET ALL I HAVE WISHED FOR.  MY FREEDOM, FREEDOM FOR MY FRIENDS, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF THIS WORLD.”  His voice shook the very mountains.

“But you’re a genie --”

“I AM AN AFREET,” the Afreet said.  “AND NOW -- TO FREE MY FRIENDS.”  

A mile-high tongue of flame set the heavens ablaze as he leapt into the sky.  It certainly set the mountaintop ablaze.  The human screamed briefly before the fire consumed him, burning even his bones to ash.

From the lower remaining half of the column came a second figure, a woman wreathed in wind and cloud.  Her blue and white veils swirled around her.  “Unwise human,” she said, looking down at the ash that was all that remained of the man who may have doomed the world.  Then she looked to the sky with eyes that glowed with a blue fire.  “I must stop him,” she said to herself, “but I cannot leave this place, or a sixth part of Creation will crumble.  The ancient powers must awaken.”

She reached out and stirred the winds, not just on her precipice, not just on her mountain nor the mountain range in which it stood, not just on the orb that held those mountains, but throughout every world of Creation.  The winds of change began to blow.  Things long forgotten would arise again, and new legends would remember the old.  Or they had better, if there was going to be anyone left to tell those legends.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Your diary, Milady,” said Norhouse, “or at least I assume it lies within this box.”  He held forth a decorative but nonetheless iron-bound and locked contrivance of wood, precious metals and jewels.  “I dare say, you may have fewer thefts if you would use a less attractive container.”

“It was a gift from my mother,” said Lady Aureen of the Western Marches.  “I am grateful for its return, and if you would but wait while I make sure the diary is safe, I will reward you as we agreed.”  Grasping the fine silver chain around her neck, she lifted a small key out of her bodice and opened the box’s lock with it.  Inside was indeed a bound book, which she examined.   “It is indeed my diary,” she confirmed.  “No pages are missing, and not even one gem is gone from the box.  You do fine work.”

“I am beyond pleased that I have attained Milady’s approval,” said Norhouse, bowing respectfully.  “The thieves were working in two teams, one causing a distraction to stop traveling carriages while the other stealthily ransacked the carriages as they could.  They will not be troubling this part of the Western Road again, however.”

“Well done -- and you say you are but a wanderer?” asked Lady Aureen.

“Yes, Milady,” Norhouse said, “I make my way accomplishing tasks that fit my talents.”

“It may be that I have other tasks that might fit your talents,” said Lady Aureen.  “My husband has been away these two weeks, at court before the King, leaving the castle lordless.”

“That … is too bad,” said Norhouse.  “Surely your castle guard protects you well.”

“Far too well,” she said, taking a gradual step toward him.  “We should discuss your reward.”

Norhouse took a step back.  “Yes, the town criers were saying that you were offering 50 pieces of gold for the safe return of the box.”
“Yes, and of course you will have your gold,” she said, “but surely there are other rewards an adventurous man like yourself could imagine.”

“Ah, surely,” he said.  “Oddly, the thieves spoke of the diary within the box, and yet insofar as I can tell they never had the chance to open it.”

“Perhaps a lucky guess,” said Lady Aureen.  It was almost as if they were doing a dance around the parlor, but if so, she was leading, because he kept stepping backwards.

“The thieves didn’t seem to have been operating for very long,” he said quickly.  “Actually, they weren’t very good.”

“All the better for you, then,” she said.  She was beginning to unfasten her bodice.

“It, uh, would be unseemly for me to see Milady in a state of undress,” he said.  “Perhaps I should return later.”

“But I beg you to stay,” said the Lady, as Norhouse tried to keep a small round table between them.
“I … I’m afraid I’ve heard of a family in the Southern Woods that has need of assistance,” he said, grabbing the white cloth that covered the table to shield his eyes.  “I must beg Milady’s pardon.”  He as much as ran from the room.  The less he saw and did at this point, and the faster he left, the less trouble he’d be in.

“Wait!” she called after him.  “You didn’t get your reward!”

“Milady’s favor is reward enough,” he called back as he made a hasty retreat from the castle.

There was some trouble he didn’t need to be in, right there.  He now suspected that Lady Aureen had wanted the diary to be stolen and read -- perhaps there were secrets in it that she wanted leaked to the public but didn’t want to be blamed for the leak.  He didn’t much care, especially now.  Either she was truly lonely and looking for companionship, or she was playing some sort of game, and either way, Norhouse wouldn’t be the winner.  It was time to go.  He found where he’d tied up his horse and started riding -- and not south, either; he’d made up the story about the Southern Woods.  He tucked the cloth he’d taken from the castle into his horse’s packs and headed east, riding for hours before taking the Witch’s Road north toward the Marabane Swamp.

He’d never been to the Marabane Swamp before.  There was supposedly a Swamp Witch who lived there, but since people had been telling the stories for generations, he suspected that she was long dead, assuming she’d ever existed at all.  She’d be hundreds of years old by now.  Of course, witches did take apprentices; maybe there was still a Witch, just not the same one.  Still, the road was named after either her or her legend.
It was starting to get dark, and traveling in a swamp at night was a bad idea.  It was too easy to take a wrong step and end up mired in a bog.  

He was starting to think about looking for a place to camp for the night when he caught a glimpse of a band of horsemen behind him.  They had the colors of the Western March -- Lady Aureen had sent men to look for him!  He hoped they hadn’t seen him, as the light was getting dim, but it was too much to hope for -- he heard distant shouting from behind, and although he urged his horse on as quickly as he dared, they seemed to be getting closer.  The road twisted and turned, no doubt avoiding ponds and bogs, and that made the going slower.  

He saw them behind him, now carrying lit torches, and he goaded his horse faster and faster -- and finally his horse had had enough.  The horse stopped suddenly, and Norhouse kept going, sailing through the air, into a tree, and from there down into the mud.  The horse ran off in another direction, but Norhouse kept quiet, hoping they wouldn’t see him.

The pursuers did in fact go riding by, looking for his horse, which they assumed he was still on.  He breathed a sigh of relief, but then realized that he was now chest-deep in the mud.  He’d probably be under already if he’d been struggling, but he’d kept quiet.  But still, he didn’t have much time left now.  He looked around for something to grab onto, but it was getting very dark by now.  Norhouse was starting to panic.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Xerchinita was a baby by all her peers standards, since she was a very pretty girl of 18. She had studied hard since she learned to read at age four and proven to all the old cronies that age meant nothing when it came to the mystical arts. She had proven this beyond any doubt when she was 16 and had bested the powerful and evil Dark Sorceress Malathousia Krhann and removed her influence from the land of Ghorrn, and banished her to a realm where she couldn’t cause any more harm.

Instead of studying the many dark and evil places of the darkest tombs of magic, Xerchinita had chosen instead to study the arts of light and goodness. She had discovered, much to her delight, that the spells of light proved to be far more powerful, although a Sorceress of Light had to always be diligent against the underhandedness of Darkness, since it tended to act in cowardice and secrecy more often than not.

This night was proving to be a beautiful one for her to search for the magical Unicorn Dragon Firefly. It wasn’t really an insect, but a small mammalian creature whose light was said to show the way to many neat and wonderful places for those practitioners of light able to find and befriend one.

She gathered her wand along with several other items she would need, placed her wand in its leathern holster strapped to her narrow waist, and finally donned her cloak of light woven from the fibers taken from the cocoons of the fabled Phantom Moth.

The Phantom Moth is nocturnal and tends to fade in sunlight or the light of a luminous orb. Only when dead does it finally withstand sunlight, and such specimens, along with their nests and cocoons,  are often collected for use in magical glow-in-the-dark inks, and apparel.

Phantom moths are one of the few creatures which can feed on the Night Envy fungus, and can often be seen at night, glowing softly green, as it feeds from the similarly glowing Night Envy fungi. The Phantom Moth is also known to feed from a large assortment of magical flowers, and Wixen gardeners across Anisia encourage growths of Night Envy and certain other magical plants in hopes of attracting this moth. Its glow is also a wonderful way to attract a Unicorn Dragon Firefly.

Xerchinita left her cottage in the middle of Marabane Swamp, casting a simple spell of protection around it and her beautiful yard filled with many magical flowers and shrubs. The happy plants could be heard giving off a very soft pleasant musical humming sound which in turn attracted many other types of wonderful magical creatures who came to dwell in the surrounding area. One whole wall of the cottage glowed a soft green with glowing Night Envy fungi. Many Phantom Moths danced and flitted around as they fed and went about their nightly mothly tasks.

As sunlight faded, Marabane Swamp started to come alive with the sounds of the night creatures and the flashes of fireflies; many of which Xerchinita knew, were Unicorn Dragon firefly. She had no fear of the swamp, as it knew her to be a Sorceress of Light, and the many dark and evil creatures there in shied away from the light with all the diligence they could muster.

After walking a short distance, to her amazement, a Unicorn Dragon Firefly appeared and began to dance around her head. By the way it was acting, it truly wanted to show her something. Since these creatures were known to show the way to amazing and excessively rare items and places of great importance, she didn’t hesitate to follow.

It lead a straight path, to someone caught in a sucking bog, then began to dance around that person’s head before returning and alighting on Xerchinita’s shoulder and glowing brightly, filling the area with a wonderfully soft blue/green light.

Xerchinita said with a giggle in her voice, “Well, now. Seems we are in a bit of a muddle, doesn’t it? How came you to be in such a state?” Xerchinita removed her wand from its leather holster strapped beneath her cloak and gave it a graceful swishing flick of her wrist.

A sparkling, tinkling wave of energy surrounded Norhouse for an instant, then he found himself standing on solid ground in front of the very beautiful young woman who had just rescued him from a horrid death in a bog.

“I … well, the Western Marches troops were chasing me,” he said.  “You’re … quite good with the magical arts.  You wouldn’t happen to be the Swamp Witch, would you?  I’d always wondered whether the legends were true.”

Xerchinita returned her wand to its leathern holster, straightened out her softly glowing cloak, then took the brightly glowing Unicorn Dragon Firefly in her palm. She said with glee, “I am the current Witch of the Swamp, as told by all who dwell in the land. How camest you to have that horrid woman’s guards chasing you? Her husband didn’t find you and her … in compromised places did he?” She looked at Norhouse and blinked for a second, her eyes opened wide, then narrowed, “No, I don’t think that’s the reason. Unless something even stranger transpired?”

“Well, the town criers in Wellerc were spreading the word that Lady Aureen had lost a valuable treasure box and that there was a reward for its return,” said Norhouse, “so I tracked down the bandits who had stolen it, took it back, and tried to claim the reward.  It would seem that Lord Morrinon is away, and it would also seem that Lady Aureen is either starved for companionship or playing some other game.  I … chose not to become embroiled in her machinations.  But it seems she sent cavalry squads after me.  My horse threw me as it was getting dark.  Thank you, by the way, for saving me -- I owe you my life.  Oh -- by any chance have you seen my horse?”

Xerchinita said quietly as she gently stroked the Unicorn Dragon Firefly, “I must deal with that woman and her machinations one day soon. Twould seem she has resorted to inventing thefts to bring her diversions while her husband is away. As for your horse …"

Norhouse watched in fascination as Xerchinita bent close to the creature in her palm and whispered something in a language he heard, but couldn’t hear. The words felt so strange as they fell on his ears and tingled all through his body. Quick as a flash, the creature whisked away through the dark and foreboding swamp.

Xerchinita held out her hand and said softly, “Here she is now, I would think she is in need of a bit of grain and a bed for the night. Perhaps I could interest you in a pile of warm, soft hay as well? Makes a wonderful bed. Worry not of the creatures of the swamp, they won’t bother you.”

Suddenly, Norhouse’s horse burst from the dark foliage with the glowing creature riding on its head. The horse stopped and snorted once, and seemed as if it bowed slightly towards Xerchinita before nuzzling up to him.

“There you are!” Norhouse said, patting his longtime traveling companion on the nose.  “I’ll forgive you for throwing me into the muck -- you were just as panicked as I was, weren’t you?”  The horse nickered in response.  To Xerchinita he said, “Well, my name is Norhouse, and if you’re offering a pile of hay to sleep in for the night, I’ll say that it beats a mud puddle any day of the week.  I’ve had worse, and in fact almost did have worse this very evening.”

Xerchinita laughed in her tinkling way as she turned about. It seemed to Norhouse she floated rather than walked it was so gracefully done. She didn’t even look over her shoulder as she said, “Well? Aren’t you coming? A dark swamp full of vile creatures is no place for a woman … wouldn’t you agree?”

Quicker than Norhouse would have believed, the swamp began swallowing the light from Xerchinita’s cloak, and the bright glow of the creature she once again held in her hand. Even his horse began to nudge Norhouse as if to say, step up faster.

Within a few minutes, he came upon the clearing within which Xerchinita’s house was built. He stopped short with mouth opened and eyes wide in wonder. He could feel the wonderful hum that permeated everywhere, smell the aroma of the flowers. He saw the glowing wall and the many glowing moths that danced all about. He now stood on the grounds of the Witch of Marabane Swamp and it was exactly as the tales had said.

She showed him to a stable to one side where there was hay and water, and he made sure his horse was taken care of, then she showed him to the house.  When she opened the door, he saw that the interior was decorated with mystical symbols on every inch of every wall and item of furniture.  Medicinal herbs hung from the ceiling to dry, filling the air with a combination of many aromas.  On the table in the center of the room, which was draped with a dark purple cloth decorated with more mystical sigils, sat a smallish transparent crystal orb.  And not a broomstick in sight.  Candles were already lit around the room, and she motioned Norhouse inside. He accepted her invitation, and she shut the door to keep the night air out.

Xerchinita carefully removed her beautifully glowing cloak and hung it inside a masterly crafted wardrobe made of finely polished cedar and cherry woods. She gently placed the Unicorn Dragon Firefly on a small platform and sprinkled some kind of seed in a small pile. The creature, which looked like across between a lizard and a dragonfly, glowed softly as it ate.

Xerchinita glided over to a chair and sat next to the orb. She placed a very ornately and finely woven scarf over her head as she said an incantation. She waved her hands over the orb, it began to glow, and much to Norhouse’s amazement, images appeared and began to move about within the roiling cloud of shifting colored lights within it.

She frowned darkly as she muttered, “It seems you are more important to the scheme of things than the Orb of Casting wishes to tell.” an expression of deep concentration crossed her face before she sat back and sighed. “There is reason for us to sleep tonight, for on the morrow we have to travel long before the sun sets.”

“We … have to go somewhere?” asked Norhouse.  “Together?  What’s going on?  You’re a witch, sure, doing important things all the time, but I’m not anything important.  I just travel -- wherever I can find work.”  But she did have a crystal ball, and everyone knew witches could see things with those.  Or everyone knew the stories, anyway -- Xerchinita was the first witch he’d ever actually met.  Could she see …?  He wasn’t sure.  Evidently she couldn’t see everything, because she seemed somewhat frustrated, like someone looking for something she can’t find.  “Where does the, um, Orb say we have to go?”

Xerchinita replied cryptically, “To the place where butterflies go to die and the waters end.”

Norhouse’s eyes got big with confusion as he gasped, “What does that mean? Sounds more like a children’s story than a place.”

Xerchinita said softly as she stood and placed the scarf from her head back where she got it, “It’s the doorway to the pillars of the earth, where the foundation meets creation. There’s someone there I have always wanted to meet, but now is summoning us both." Xerchinita glided gracefully across the room and opened a door, telling Norhouse, “You may sleep in here. I’ll bring you a basin of water and some saponin so you can wash. I’m sure … someone such as yourself would want to take a bath after your … swim?” She giggled as she turned and went to the pitcher pump at another far point in the other room.

After Norhouse entered the room and looked around, Xerchinita entered and placed a large porcelain bowl on the commode.  

“Oh -- thank you, Ma’am,” he said, but she had already closed the door and left.

Norhouse began taking off his leather traveling gear -- good for protection, but it required care, especially when it got wet.  He cleaned the mud from it and then took a flask of oil and a cloth from his pack.  As he rubbed the oil into the leather to keep it supple, he heard a voice singing from elsewhere in the house -- it must be Xerchinita.  He didn’t recognize the language she sang in, but her voice was beautiful.  She didn’t seem to be trying to seduce him, at least, so she was a much better host than Lady Aureen.

He noticed that the water in the bowl wasn’t getting any dirtier no matter how much mud he cleaned off -- some sort of magic, he supposed.  He didn’t know anything about magic -- some people didn’t believe there even was any such thing, but he’d seen enough to know otherwise, today especially.  But since there was still clean water, he started washing himself off.  His short brown hair hadn’t gotten much mud in it, fortunately.  
He took off his shirt, replacing it with another from his pack before washing the dirty one -- and noticed that when he dipped the mud-caked collar into the basin, the mud outright disappeared.  Yes, this was either magic water or a magic washbasin.  He continued removing clothes, washing his skin, replacing the clothes, and washing the clothes, a laborious process, but when all was done he felt much better, and his damp clothes were drying on a string he’d tied from a wall hook to one of the bedposts.

He ran his fingers through his still-damp hair and went in search of Xerchinita, whose voice he could still hear. He found her in a beautifully flowered room with many kinds of softly glowing creatures flitting all around.
She was in a gown of the purest white as she knelt by a small pool built in the floor. Her hair hung about her shoulders as she raised her hands in the air. Norhouse watched as many of the different creatures flitted up to her and landed in her outstretched palms. It tickled Norhouse to hear Xerchinita as she giggled like a little girl and cooed to each creature. It appeared each and everyone had a name of its own, and if Norhouse didn’t know better, the critters knew what they were.

The new arrival, the Unicorn Dragon Firefly, danced and flitted all around her head as it glowed brightly. Finally, Xerchinita shooed the other creatures away and held out her palm. The Unicorn Dragon Firefly landed on it and flipped its long tail comically.

Xerchinita said in a soft coo, “And just what is it you have to tell that’s sooo important?”

To Norhouse’s amazement, the creature let loose with a ball of flame. Within the ball of fire, Norhouse saw a frightful Djinni setting fire to the world. Xerchinita’s face held the look of wide eyed horror as she looked on.

“Was that … some kind of magic vision?” asked Norhouse.  “Because it looks like something out of the legends of old.”

“Many of the legends of old are quite true,” Xerchinita said seriously.  “Many are not.  The trouble lies in knowing which are which.”

“I know many old legends,” said Norhouse.  “I heard them often as a child.  One of them says that the world was once all chaos and flame, unformed and void.  The forces of Creation and Destruction ran wild, and there was neither land nor sea.  But out of this chaos came order: the mightiest of the Afreet and the Djinn fell in love and joined together, and likewise the mightiest of the Black and White Dragons, and other couples.  They came together as one, the legend says, and dwell together to this day, and in their unity the world came to be.”

“I, too, know this legend,” said Xerchinita, stroking the head of the Unicorn Dragon Firefly gently, calming it somewhat.  “In the version I heard, the Afreet and the Djinn made their home in a pillar once they were married, as did the others, and the pillars hold up all of Creation, just as a normal pillar holds up a building.”

“And you say we are going to the Pillar of Earth?” Norhouse asked.  “What could we possibly accomplish there?”

“That is a very good question,” she answered, “and I usually find that we will discover what we need to do as we go.”

“Well, you’re the witch,” Norhouse said.  “I guess you’d know.  And I wasn’t doing anything anyway, other than staying away from Lady Aureen and the Western Marches.”  He paused.  “The way to the Pillar of Earth doesn’t go through the Western Marches, by any chance, does it?”

Xerchinita replied, “No, we have to travel through Demon’s Bog near the tar pits. Hope you have a strong stomach.” she wrinkled up her nose and made a cute face, “It sorta smells through there. Best be getting some sleep. It’s a hard trek through the bog, especially if the fire mountain is grumbly n angry.”

Xerchinita stood from the pool and glided off in her graceful way. Norhouse noticed creatures in the pool about that time. They … didn’t look like fish. As he stared at them, it seemed a fog filled the pool. An image formed depicting the two of them crossing a large rift in the ground with fumaroles bubbling nearby before it faded away and the creatures in the pool reappeared.

“Well, far be it from me to argue with the forces of magic or destiny or whatever,” Norhouse said.  “We should get some sleep before we head out.  I’m no good with magic, but I’ll try to be useful.”  

He’d been through Demon’s Bog before, chasing after a thieving creature that had stolen a family’s life savings.  It had not been a pleasant experience, and he didn’t want to repeat it if possible, but it looked as if this was the direction his fate had turned in.

Xerchinita giggled a bit as she passed through the door. She replied, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about magic. Most dark creatures stay away from a Sorceress of Light. Good night, see you early.” and silent as a summer’s breeze, Xerchinita was gone.

The only light was from the many glowing creatures flitting about. To Norhouse’s amazement, the Unicorn Dragon Firefly started circling his head and giving of a soft glow bright enough to lead him to his room without stumbling over or into anything. Once Norhouse had entered the room Xerchinita had shown him, the creature darted off about its own errands for the night leaving him alone with just the flickering light of a small rush candle.

The Bed may have been nothing more than a sack stuffed with hay, but it was the most comfortable thing he had ever slept on. It wasn’t long before he was caught up in a dream. In the dream he was dressed only in a silk robe and trapped in some kind of cage.  Meanwhile, outside the cage Norhouse could see the injustices of the world -- warlords and bandits preying on the weak and helpless, who were unable to defend themselves because those same brigands kept them in their helpless state, but trapped and without his armor or weapons Norhouse couldn’t help them.  But then, even worse things started to happen to the world outside, Afreets and other terrible monsters rampaging across the countryside setting everything ablaze and slaying everyone and everything in their path.  And again, Norhouse could do nothing but cry out and struggle against the bars of his cage, watching helplessly as all was destroyed.  The world burned, and he couldn’t help anyone -- until someone came to open the cage.  It was Xerchinita.  She conjured a magical key and unlocked the cage, and he leapt out and seized his sword and, now clad in armor, ran forth to battle the foe.  Xerchinita was there too, weakening the monsters and protecting the innocent with her spells.  But then the very world itself began to crumble -- the ground beneath his feet trembled and fell away.  The dream began to dissolve … and somewhere a rooster was crowing.  Norhouse opened his eyes.  There was a dim orange light coming through the windows.

Norhouse dressed quickly and left the room only to find Xerchinita had been up for a while. She was dressed in an outfit of tight white leather pants, boots, and a loose fitting finely woven cotton top. She had already packed a large pack and had her wand strapped in its holster about her narrow waist. She looked up as he entered the room and smiled.

“Well, sleepyhead, good morning. I trust the bed met your needs? You do need to be about packing some staples and other … necessities for the trip. Am sure there are things you will need from my stores.”

She led Norhouse to a large wooden door and unlatched it. It opened with a creaking groan of great weight. Within were many supplies. Meats, veggies, herbs, and things only a woman would know of. Before Norhouse could say anything, once again, Xerchinita had vanished off silent as a whisper about some other task.

It wasn’t long before they were on the trail. Xerchinita was riding a stallion that was coal black and had eyes of red. It contrasted well with her sitting on it in white leather. Off in the distance, Norhouse could see the fire mountain smoldering as it had done for several years. Only once had it erupted, and that was very minor. However, tales were told of how the door to the pits of Arallu opened and demons came out to roam the land from the maw of the same mountain.

Xerchinita sang a very pleasant song in a language Norhouse didn’t know, but her voice was wonderful and even attracted birds that flitted and sang their songs through out the thick brush. He did also notice the many dark eyes that watched from hiding places as they passed. Norhouse experienced a serious case of deja vu as he saw the smoldering fumaroles near where the trail followed the spine of a cleft in the earth. OMG! this was what he had seen in the pool. The smell of rotten eggs became heavy as the temperature rose. Norhouse could see as they drew closer, the clefts held molten rock boiling far below.

As they went, there was less and less vegetation, and what there was became gnarled and scrubby.  There were also fewer eyes watching them from within bushes and behind trees.  Norhouse led his horse rather than riding, because the going was treacherous; a misstep could send them tumbling into one of the ravines that led down to the bottom of the cleft.  There was also the constant possibility of ambush, because a lack of trees didn’t mean a lack of hiding places …

Norhouse heard a rock skitter down into a crevice, a rock that neither he nor his horse nor Xerchinita had dislodged.  Something was watching them from behind the boulders and outcroppings of rock that lined their trail.  But would it, or perhaps they, attack?  The creatures of the swamp had stayed away due to the witch’s power; did it protect them here too?

Whatever they were, they were quick.  Norhouse glimpsed one for a blink of an eye: a short, thin, almost skeletal creature, black as soot, with a horned head and a toothy grin.  They were kantzaroi, he knew, a kind of minor demon.  But would they attack?  Not until they had enough numbers or saw a good opportunity, he guessed.  He stayed ready, always looking for advantageous positions to move to in case the attack came.

As soon as the two of them rounded the next bend and entered a sort of cave like overhang, a large group of the creatures dropped in front and behind them, blocking all exits. Norhouse could hear their slavering growls as they smacked their lips loudly.

Xerchinita didn’t seem to be the least bit ruffled as she slid from her horse and drew her ornate wand from its holster. She said quietly in a voice that had major undertones Norhouse felt all through his soul, “And who art thou to hinder a Sorceress of Light from her appointed duties?”

In a very strange, high pitched growly voice, one of the dark creatures said as he crouched to all fours, “All the better it is it is!” It laughed in a hysterical maniacal way, “Hungry for your heart, for your liver am I!” Then it leapt towards Xerchinita quick as lightning.

Xerchinita just as quickly waved her wand and pointed it at the lunging creature. The loud sound of a lightning strike accompanied by a huge clapping explosion sent the now totally mangled and smoldering creature tumbling off through the air towards its compatriots.

Some of the kantzaroi turned toward Norhouse, thinking him perhaps an easier target, he cut powerfully with his short sword and sliced two of them cleanly in half, impaling a third that leaped at him.  He then swung the sword with both hands, demon still upon it, to throw its body at another that was coming, knocking it away, then kept another at bay with the sword as he swiftly drew his dagger with his other hand, slicing yet another demon with it.  They backed away a bit, clearly finding him less easy pickings than they had first thought.
The rest of the horde stopped and growled their displeasure, before whirling about and vanishing in a nasty looking greasy fog that appeared around them.

Xerchinita holstered her wand, gracefully remounted her horse and said in a soft unconcerned way, “Are you coming? Or are you going to await the arrival of more of those nasty creatures?”

Norhouse snorted a small laugh as he cleaned his sword’s blade with a cloth from his horse’s pack. He shook his head, mounted his horse, and resumed following Xerchinita. What a day this was turning out to be. Norhouse had never seen magic -- real magic, not conjurer’s tricks -- at work before he had met the young witch, and what he had witnessed thus far since meeting the pretty young woman riding in front of him was truly amazing.

“It seems to me they won’t be so quick to attack from now on,” said Norhouse.  “I know those things don’t spent much time above ground, though -- why do you think they’re out and about?”

“My guess?” Xerchinita replied.  “Because of us.  They want to stop us doing something important that we’re supposed to do.”

“I thought they spent their time gnawing at the roots of the World Tree,” said Norhouse as they continued along the craggy trail.  “Or so the legends say.  Though they do sometimes attack and eat unwary travelers.”

“Perhaps they do,” said Xerchinita, “at least figuratively.  Their masters, like all demons, wish to see a return to the time of chaos, before Creation.”

“And … we’re supposed to be opposing something that’s strong enough to destroy the world?” Norhouse asked.  “I’m fairly tough, and you’ve got some impressive magic, but … against anything that powerful, what could stand?”

“We can’t do it without help,” Xerchinita said.  “We’ll need the help of as many of the ancient arcana as we can manage.”

“Ancient arcana?”

“Well, you know of magical objects,” she explained.  “Magic swords, wands that can shoot fire, ice, or lightning, magic potions, rings that make you invisible.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of them, but I take it these ancient arcana are something else.”

“Indeed they are.  The Pillars of Creation were sealed with their magic -- but then, like everything else in the universe, they changed form.  They became other things, unique items that wield great power, if they are used in the right way.  The Orb of Casting, which you saw in my home, is supposed to be one such, but its secrets are lost in the mists of legend.  I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, as it doesn’t seem to help me cast any spells.  It behaves like any crystal orb of that size -- it can help me with my clairvoyance spells, but so could any other crystal ball.  At any rate, we’re going to have to find more ancient arcana like it -- and learn how to use them -- in order to protect the Pillars.  Someone must have used at least one of them, maybe more, to break the Pillar of Air and Fire.”

“So … where are we going?  To find one of them?” asked Norhouse.

“I told you,” said Xerchinita.  “We’re going to see a friend.  A friend who might have some helpful hints.”

They traveled long, only stopping to water the horses and to fix a quick trail dinner. That didn’t take any time at all as a quick incantation created it seemingly from nothing. The landscape had become something from a nightmare as the rocks and crags took on demonic shapes and the smell of brimstone hung heavy in the air.
They finally arrived in a location that looked easily defensible to Norhouse: a rather large hole in the side of a rock. The entrance was obviously a carved arching opening with many arcane squiggles and symbols all around it. When they entered, the air was clean and smelled sweetly of incense, a welcome change to the sulfurous vapors that had tainted the air outside. In the very center of the large cavernous grotto was a stone fireplace on top of a short pillar.

Xerchinita removed a small cylinder from a pouch around her waist, opened the top and struck the top to the bottom. With a flash of light, several torches around the cavern began burning. She then removed something from her pack, carried it over to the fireplace on the pillar, and placed it inside. She raised her wand and began an incantation. Each word seemed to echo off the walls and cause the earth to tremble.

Norhouse realized the entrance to the grotto was no longer visible; only solid rock surrounded them on all sides. A blue fire began to burn brightly within the hearth on the pillar as it grew and took on the form of some kind of humanoid. After a sudden rush of icy cold wind, a woman dressed in mist stood looking on.

She said in a chilling voice that sounded as if it was made of rushing storms, “Who calls the Mistress of the Storms to this place?”

Xerchinita replied in that voice of hers that sent chills to Norhouse’s soul, “It is I, Xerchinita, oh sister of the arcane. For I have been summoned by a Unicorn Dragon Firefly, and by many visions of dire necessity.”

The being turned and looked at Norhouse with eyes of ice that bored through him, “And who be this, who walks about in secrecy? The one who accompanies you?”

Xerchinita replied, “This is my fighting companion and another who seeks the way, O my sister.”

The being turned, looked once again at Xerchinita, and replied, “So be it, little sister. Here is that which you seek to know. May it also lead you to that which you need.”

Suddenly, Norhouse found himself standing in a place his mind refused to see. He heard voices whispering things he could not hear, for his mind could not understand. His head seemed to expand and grow larger until it almost hurt.

He saw a mystical pillar as it cracked, he saw a huge fiery creature as it went about to destroy the world, and a gentle female creature wrapped in blue veils as it came up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Take this,” she said in a voice Norhouse couldn’t hope to describe, “it will keep you and protect you in the journey to come. For the battle you must fight cannot be lost, or all creation ceases to be.”

“Y-you’re … the Genie, aren’t you?” Norhouse asked in a tremulous voice, for he could feel her tremendous power in his bones.  The very breath in his lungs was hers to command, he knew.  But she had given him a gift …

“So mortals name me, and as none came before me to name me, it is as good a name as any,” she said with a small smile, as Norhouse looked at the powder-blue shoulder streamer she had given him, now apparently a part of the blue cloak that he wore to keep the road dust away.  “I have guarded that all these years, and now I give it to you, to help you guard the other Pillars from harm.  It stayed close to me after the Beginning, for the Banner of the Winds has always shared an affinity for the air with me.  Its power is great, as mortals reckon power.  Use it well.”

“But what does it do?” Norhouse asked.

“As with other ancient arcana, it is what it cannot do that is more the question,” she countered.  “Learn as you go, and it will learn from you, for air takes the shape of what contains it.  This witch you travel with can help you, for I am told that she is wise.”

Norhouse was still puzzled, but he still had great respect for beings that could crush his life out with a thought.  He bowed and said, “Great Lady, I will do my best.  The Pillars will come down only over my dead body.”

“So bold,” said the Genie.  “You now have two of the arcana, but you will need to gather more power before you can truly mend what is broken.  My gift should help with that.  And to you, I say,” she continued, turning toward Xerchinita, “you already wield one of the great powers, though you know not what kind.  I do not know either, but I do know this: names can have more than one meaning.  And my servants tell me that you should seek the Temple of Aeolus, for another of the ancient arcana lies therein.”

Xerchinita’s  face showed surprise. She said softly, “I only have the Sphere of Casting. It was very difficult to come by that. I … can’t seem to get it to work.”

The Genie laughed, “Perception is a strange creature. That which we think we see and know, is not necessarily that which actually is. There is more that you will need and one of your older practitioner friends will deliver, although they may not realize what it is they do at the time. Once again, perception is a strange creature.”  

She rose slightly into the air and said to both of them, “And finally, beware, for the one who caused this Pillar to be sundered is still at large.  I know not who it was, but I doubt their designs ended with this act.  Be on your guard, for already they have power enough to shatter a Pillar of Creation.  And meanwhile the Afreet seeks to free his ancient friends, though they are not imprisoned.”

Suddenly, Norhouse and Xerchinita found themselves back within the stone grotto, with the Mistress of Storms smiling down at them. In her voice that sounded of many rushing storms she said, “For now begins that which ended long ago. A wheel turns only to return the the place it began. Sister Xerchinita, take care of your companion, as they will take care of you.” It turned and looked seemingly through Norhouse as it continued, “And you, O mortal of secrets, take care of my sister, for surely she shall take care of you.”

With a rush of freezing wind and a spattering of moisture like blown mist, the Mistress of Storms vanished. Xerchinita had no idea where it was she was to meet this … old friend, nor even whom it might be. She did know of one that lived near the smoking mountain. She glanced sideways at Norhouse and wondered if she should tell him that all of her familiars know, then decided no, let him find this out in his own way.

Xerchinita gathered her magical items and repacked her pack. She said, “Come, it seems we have more traveling to do, and little time to do it. There are things I need to learn and people I need to meet.”

She reached into a pocket of her leather pants and pulled out an amulet on a finely crafted chain. She quickly hung it about Norhouse’s neck before he could protest. It was very obviously made for a high born lady and stuck out like a sore thumb against his leather armor vest.

Xerchinita said as she walked towards the now visible opening to the grotto, “You will learn how to use that in time shortly to come. It is a magical amulet to aid us in … our task.”

Xerchinita moved swiftly and gracefully to her black horse, draped the pack across its neck, then swung herself onto its back as if she were a part of it. Swiftly, Xerchinita began to ride off into the darkening surroundings this time towards the smoldering mountain.

Norhouse took the white cloth from his horse’s pack and wiped his brow … and noticed that it was oddly still completely clean, even though he could have sworn it was the same cloth he’d wiped the demon blood from his sword with not an hour ago.  Perhaps it had been a different cloth, but … he folded it carefully and put it in a compartment that had no other cloths in it.  These were strange times.  He gracefully mounted his horse, the shoulder streamer gracefully trailing his movements, and followed after the witch.

“BEGONE,” said the spectral armed figure.  “OUR MASTERS DO NOT WISH TO BE SEPARATED.”

“But … the prophecy says …” said the small man in the tattered clothes.

“IT IS FALSE,” said the knight, through whose figure a glow could be seen far off down the cavern in the distance.  The figure was soon joined by three others.  “BEGONE, OR PAY THE PRICE,” they said in unison.

“I must gain the power,” said the small man.

“VERY WELL,” the knights said together, and set upon him with their swords.  They were highly skilled, and their timing was perfect.  The small man was unarmed and undefended.  His body fell to the ground, headless, blood everywhere.

“FOOLISH,” said one of the knights to the others, and to several others who had come to investigate.  “HE PERISHED LIKE THE REST.”

“I DOUBT HE WILL BE THE LAST,” said another knight.  “WE MUST REMAIN VIGILANT, AS ALWAYS.”

“EVER VIGILANT,” the knights said in unison, raising their blades toward each other, where they met at the points in salute.

“Well … that didn’t work,” said a mysterious hooded figure who stood on a hill overlooking the cavern entrance.  Above the figure the sky glowed nearly as bright as day, lit with innumerable stars and three moons in different phases.

“So … why are we going toward the smoldering mountain rather than away from it?” asked Norhouse.  The heat was oppressive and seemed to emanate from the very ground.

“Well -- you heard the Genie.  One of my old practitioner friends is supposed to tell me something,” said Xerchinita.  “The nearest of them is Iatril, a friend from my apprentice days.  He is a healer.”

“He lives near here?” asked Norhouse.  “Must get lots of burns to treat in these parts.”

“Yes,” she simply said.

Norhouse watched Xerchinita. He had never met a real witch, and she was proving not to be as the many stories he had been told. She was not only young and very pretty, but she was a practitioner of the art of light, not darkness which pretty much went contrary to everything he had ever heard about witches in general.
Norhouse noticed she was no longer her cheery self, but had slumped into a melancholy mood. Apparently, whoever this ‘friend’ she was going to see was, she wasn’t very fond of the idea of the meeting. Norhouse also kept a wary eye on his surroundings as the terrain became ever more rough, the air ever hotter and filled with sulfurous and other malodorous smells. The smoldering mountain filled the landscape all around as they slowly made their way through the tortured area.

Norhouse realized suddenly, they were following a rather well traveled path, although it didn’t actually seem to stand out among all the tumbled ground around about. The femorals close at hand kept most of the ground covered by a heated fog of foul smelling gasses. He now understood what the term Dragon Breath was all about since this mountain was also supposed to have a resident dragon of one sort or another.

As if on cue, the loose stones and earth trembled and fell away as a large reddish green dragon arose from beneath it and shook the loose detritus from its back, then flapped its leathery wings several times. Its penetratingly red eyes fell on the two of them, then it stooped low in front of them.

It said in a strange warbling kind of voice, “Ahh, so it seems a long lost friend has come at last to the healer. How is my fine friend Xerchinita? Have not seen you since the days of apprenticeship with the mighty Mage Margolin.”

“Iatril,” said the witch with a nod as they both looked up at the dragon’s face.  “I’m doing well, thank you, but we don’t have a lot of time for catching up, I’m afraid.  Do you know what’s happened?  The Pillar?”

“The Pillar of Air and Fire is sundered,” said Iatril with a low rumble.  “It doesn’t bode well, does it?  But what can we do?  We’re not vastly powerful immortal beings.”

“Well, we’ve spoken with the Genie,” said Xerchinita.  “She thinks someone did it, and they’re not done.”

“Someone … actually gathered together enough power to break a Pillar?” said the dragon, looking surprised.
“Why, how did you think it had happened?” she asked.  “You thought the Pillar broke itself?”

“It’s an ancient prophecy of my people,” said Iatril.  “They say that one day the Pillars will all crumble and the primal chaos will return.”

“I don’t think it’s time for that yet,” the witch answered.  “Someone is trying to bring about the end of the world -- on their own timetable.  Oh, by the way, this is Norhouse, who seems fated to be tangled up in all of this.”

“Delighted to make your acquaintance,” said the dragon, inclining his head and putting a forepaw on his chest.

“Err -- charmed, I’m sure,” Norhouse said, bowing as best he could, while still on a horse.

“Now, the Genie told us to come talk to you,” she began.

“No, she didn’t,” Norhouse interrupted.  “She said that one of your older practitioner friends would give you some kind of information.  Still, it makes sense to come here if he was the friend that lived nearest.”

“That’s right -- and you’re older,” said Xirchinita to Iatril.  “But I guess she didn’t necessarily mean you.  Still, if you have any advice, I’m listening.”

“Advice?  Hmm, let’s see,” said Iatril, scratching the side of his head with a massive claw thoughtfully.   Suddenly there was an upwelling of gas or smoke that obscured their view for a moment.  After it passed, the dragon had seemingly vanished, and in his place stood a red-headed man in green robes who was scratching the side of his head with a finger thoughtfully.  “Nothing’s coming to mind right away,” he admitted.  “But why don’t you tell me what you’ve found out so far?”

After a summary of their meeting in the swamp and their journey to see the Genie, the sky was beginning to grow a bit dim.  “So after that, we came here, because she said she knew someone who lived here,” Norhouse concluded.

“So … after she gave you that gift, she said you now had two of the magical doodads,” Iatril repeated.  “But was she talking to both of you?  Or just to you, Norhouse?”

“What?” Norhouse asked.  “That would mean I already had one.  That doesn’t make sense.”

“She must have meant both of us together,” said Xerchinita, “because she went on to talk about this, the Orb of Casting.”  She reached into her packs and brought out the crystal sphere.

“I suppose …” said Iatril, looking at the sphere.  “And you said you had no idea how to invoke its power.”

“No -- if it’s supposed to help with casting spells, I must be doing something wrong.  I mean, it helps, but no more than any other crystal orb of this size would.”

“And she said that words mean more than one thing,” Iatril said.  “Maybe she means it will help with your fishing.  Casting your line into the water.”  He chuckled.

“Very funny,” she said.  “And unlikely to help save the world.”

“Well, have you tried making a mold of it?  Casting its image in bronze?”

“No,” the witch answered, “but again, how would that help?”

“No idea.”  He scratched his head again.  “Would you mind if I looked at it more closely?”

“It … could help, I suppose.”  She held it out, and he took it, turning it over in his hands and frowning at it.

“Not thinking of adding to your hoard, are you?” asked Norhouse.

“Now now, that’s a compulsive disorder that some of my people are subject to, but I’ve never had it,” Iatril said, trying to stare at Norhouse through the orb.  “Hmm … casting my gaze at you through it doesn’t seem to accomplish much.  And I’m not sure how a sphere made of crystal would help me shed my skin, even if it were time to do that.”

“You do that?” Norhouse asked.

“Once a decade or so,” Iatril replied.  “It’s very renewing.  But anyway, I think I’m out of advice there.”  He held the orb out toward him.  “Have you tried holding it?  Perhaps it’s specific to a person.”

“No, I haven’t,” said Norhouse, taking it -- and immediately flinging it away, because after being in the dragon’s hands, the orb was as hot as an iron.  “Ouch!  Are you trying to burn me?”

“I’m sorry, I should have warned y --” began Xerchinita, then stopped and stared.  The Orb had continued straight in the direction that Norhouse had thrown it -- straight as an arrow, in fact, and faster.  Then its path began to curve, and it circled around, coming back toward them.  “Look out!”

“What?” said Norhouse, grabbing a cloth from his packs to wrap around his right hand, trying to catch the speeding sphere -- which went right for his hand, stopping within it as if it meant to return there.  Its flight through the air had cooled it a bit.  He looked at it in amazement, ignoring the pain in his hand for the moment.

“Ho ho!” said Iatril.  “That’s no scrying crystal -- that’s a weapon!  For casting at your enemies!  Let me see your hand, though -- you might be burned.  I’m an expert at treating burns.  And, sometimes, at causing them, I’m afraid.  Sorry about that.”

Xerchinita gingerly picked up the still-warm Orb of Casting, and Iatril chanted some words that Norhouse didn’t recognize before taking Norhouse’s right hand in his own.  Norhouse seemingly felt the heat being drawn from his hand into Iatril’s, along with the damage it had done, leaving it feeling actually cold in this swelteringly hot volcanic caldera.

Xerchinita had been throwing and catching the Orb with fascination.  It went straight and true in the direction she threw it in, for quite a bit farther than anyone could throw a normal object, and always returned perfectly to her hand.

Norhouse put the cloth away in his packs -- again suspiciously clean and white, though he wasn’t sure what good a magical cleaning cloth would do against the end of the world.  But … what if it were another of the arcana?  He got it out again.  

“I picked this up at Lady Aureen’s castle,” he said, holding it out for Iatril to look at.  Xerchinita came over and looked at it too.  “What if the Genie really was talking to me when she said I had two of the ancient arcana?  I’ve wiped swamp mud off myself with this -- and it’s stayed white as snow.  What do you think it is?”

“Hm,” Iatril said, taking it and holding it up.  “If it’s one of them, that can’t be its only power.  But … what could its power be?”  He reached down and rubbed the cloth in the dirt at his feet, then held it up again.  There was no spot or stain.  “There’s something to it, all right.  But … hmm.”  He held one corner of it carefully up, then blew lightly at it -- and a plume of fire came from his mouth, seeming as if it would have to singe the corner of the cloth.  But the cloth was untouched.  He held it up, away from the two humans, and took a deep breath, blowing a great gout of flame directly at the center of the cloth -- to no effect.  “Withstands dragon fire,” he said.  “This is definitely something.  Wouldn’t protect you against the fire, though, because I’m pretty sure the fire goes right through it.”  He held it up to his face and blew through it -- and surely enough, the flame appeared to go through the cloth.  He waved the cloth in the air a bit to let it cool before handing it back to Norhouse.

“I guarantee you that Lady Aureen had no idea what she had there,” said Xerchinita.  “Most likely it has been lying in the castle storehouses since time immemorial, unnoticed and unsuspected.  Until one day the maid found it and decided to use it as a table covering.”

“But what does it do?  Is it a magic carpet?” Norhouse asked.  He put it on the ground and stood on it.  “Fly,” he said, willing it and himself to rise up into the air.

“Um, Norhouse --” began Xerchinita, but Norhouse found himself being tugged off the ground -- by the left shoulder.  The streamer, the Banner of Air, was being blown straight upward by unseen winds, strongly enough that he was dangling by it a few inches off the ground.

“OK, that’s different,” Norhouse said.  “Um, it’s OK, you don’t have to do that,” he said to the streamer, and it dropped gracefully to trail behind him again.  “So … not a magic carpet.”  He picked up the cloth, which was as usual free of footprints or dirt.

Iatril looked the cloth over carefully. Each thread was finely woven. His eyes got large as he said, “The fabric is from the webs of the Antspiders of Vercambria.”

Xerchinita gasped softly, “That can’t be. The last nest of those were destroyed when the Ulgarians flooded the valley where they lived over a century ago.”

Norhouse snorted, “So what? As far as I can tell, it just doesn’t get dirty and makes a great washcloth.  You’ve got a magic wash basin with water that doesn’t get dirty, and it’s not an ancient arcane thing.”

Iatril and Xerchinita looked at Norhouse with one of those expressions. Norhouse knew he had said something he shouldn’t have. Xerchinita said with a tinge of anger, “It just so happens, that cloth may well be a time weaver.”

Norhouse blinked in confusion.  “A … time what?”

Iatril nodded his head slowly.  “It may well be, at that. If so, it would make it one of … what, only two others ever documented by sorcerers?  But even so, they aren’t among the arcana.  The true ancient arcana come from the beginning of time.”

Xerchinita commented as she held a corner of the finely woven cloth between thumb and forefinger, “Well, for one thing, this may be both an ancient arcanum and a time weaver.  It’s certainly not like the other time weavers -- the others I’ve read about are in the form of a cloak and a dress.  This one’s form is much more primitive -- just a rectangle.  So perhaps this did not come from the past as other arcana do.”

Iatril asked softly as he looked closer at the cloth, “If not from the past, where would it have come from?”

Xerchinita replied with wonder in her voice, “From the far flung future.”

Iatril nodded again, “That would explain why the Antspiders were only found in that one place, and not in viable enough numbers to have been breeding.”

Xerchinita replied, “Exactly, they came from the future to the past, just in time to be totally wiped out in a flood created by a greedy people seeking gold within a mountain they brought down by diverting a large river.”

“Flotsam and jetsam from the cataclysmic forces that created the Pillars and thus the universe,” said Iatril.  “The forces of Time itself drew a group of creatures from the future and wove their silk into an arcanum.  That isn’t the strangest thing I’ve heard about the arcana, actually.  It could really have happened.”

“But … what does it do?” asked Norhouse.

Xerchinita shrugged, and Iatril looked uncertain.  “I wish we knew,” she said.  “It’s a rectangle of magical time cloth.  It might allow its bearer to control the flow of time -- if we only knew how it was meant to be used.  Evidently the answer is not as a tablecloth or a cleaning cloth.”

“Or a rug,” Norhouse added, and the witch nodded.

“Perhaps some kind of garment?” asked Iatril.

There followed a series of attempts by all three of them to try wearing it as a scarf, a sash, a hat, a blindfold, an armband, a skirt, and many other configurations, until it was Norhouse who observed, “Am I the only one who notices that it kind of becomes as big or small as it needs to be?”

“Wait,” said Xerchinita, “you’re right.  It fits around my waist as a skirt, but it also fit around your head as a blindfold and Iatril’s arm as an armband without much extra length.  All part of its magic, I suppose.”

“It’s getting rather dark,” said Iatril.  “Are you planning to journey onward, or -- what is that?”  

Some sort of bright light was shining beyond the mountain, and the sun had set recently.

“THERE YOU ARE,” said a resonant voice as a living flame came into view around the side of the mountain.  “YOU WHO WOULD DARE STAND IN MY WAY.”

“The Afreet,” said Iatril softly.  “Step into that hollow there.  It’s the entrance to my cave.  It goes quite deep.  Hurry!  I can withstand his fire.  You can’t.”  Suddenly he reverted to his true form, and beat his great dragon wings against the air, soaring into the sky.

Xerchinita pulled Norhouse down into the hollow between the boulders Iatril had indicated, where they found the cave opening.  Their horses were already running away, neighing in terror.  They heard Iatril saying loudly, “Who could you possibly want here?  You must be mistaken.”

“I CAN FEEL THEM,” the Afreet’s booming voice said, shaking the ground with its sheer volume.  “THEY HAVE THE ANCIENT POWERS.  DO NOT TRY TO DENY IT.  THEY ARE HERE, JUST AS HE SAID.”

“Just as who said?” Iatril asked.  “Are you sure he’s trustworthy?”

They ran deeper into the cave, which was quite dark now except for a tiny speck of light that hovered just above the witch’s forehead, no doubt some sort of spell.  Xerchinita said, “Come on … I know he’s got one here somewhere …”

“But … Iatril …” said Norhouse.

“Don’t worry about him,” said Xerchinita.  “He’s not going to be harmed by fire, and what’s more, he’s a dragon with magical training.  If that Afreet picks a fight, he’ll probably regret it.  If worse comes to worst, Iatril can escape … which I hope we’re going to … whoa!”

Without warning, both of them tumbled down a steep incline. When they came to the bottom, there was a bright flash, a bit of tingly prickly heat, and they found themselves in another place. Xerchinita sat up and looked around. Norhouse lay haphazard in a pile nearby.

Xerchinita stood and brushed herself off as she looked at the many artifacts on shelves that counted time in millennia, and centuries … not in months and years. For a sorceress of light, she had basically found a playroom filled to the brim with toys she had only read about in old forgotten tombs or heard about retold in stories so misunderstood as to sound like fairytales.

Norhouse groaned, “Wh … where are we?” He sits up and looked around with astonished eyes.

Xerchinita replied with wonder in her voice, “In a place I’ve only read about in the Ancient Tome of Knowledge written by the Worms of the Earth.”

Norhouse stood as he said, “Worms of the … another one of your riddles?”

Xerchinita shook her head slowly as she picked up a small clear stone from one of the many shelves, “Not a riddle, but a dream come true. We are actually in the storeroom of the Temple of Aeolus.”

“That place the genie said we needed to go?”

Xerchinita nodded as her face took on a worried expression, “Only thing is, we didn’t come here by normal means. There is no doors or other openings to gain entrance to this place. It’s … magical and exists outside what mortals call reality. And another thing, The Guardians will probably be rather upset by the fact we are here without their knowledge or permission.”

Norhouse turned at a loud sound off in the distance. The ground trembled in very large booming thuds that grew ever louder as whatever it was approached. He said in a small voice, “They wouldn’t be large giant creatures would they, by chance?”

Xerchinita said softly, “They would.”

“Well, um, now we’re only here without their permission, not without their knowledge,” said Norhouse.  “You’d think they’d be happy.  Or at least, less upset.”

“You’d think.”  Xerchinita looked at the stone she’d picked up.  “No, this is just an ordinary prayer stone.  But the Genie said there was an ancient arcanum here somewhere!  We have to find it!”

Norhouse felt bad about how they’d left Iatril to face the Afreet alone.  “I’ll keep them busy,” he said.  “You find the thing!”

“Norhouse, wait --” the witch called, but he’d already charged up the stairs and out the door.  She sighed and started searching.

Running up the stairs, Norhouse saw a vast open area -- mostly open, that is, with a ceiling high above supported by towering columns.  The marble floor extended far in all directions, and beyond it was nothing but thick clouds below and blue sky above.  But Norhouse was concerned with the guardians -- heavy footsteps were coming from all directions, but he couldn’t see what was making them.  Were they … invisible?  How could he defend himself against one giant he couldn’t see, let alone more than one?
Well, they were invisible, but definitely not inaudible.  

He ran between two ranks of columns, calling out, “Hiiii!  Sorry to be trespassing in your temple, but kind of trying to save the universe here!  Hope it’s not too big a bother!”  He could hear heavy thudding footsteps behind him, obviously giving chase.

Then he stopped, because he also heard footsteps in front of him.  He turned right and ran that way, the streamer on his left shoulder trailing gracefully behind.  But he stopped again -- there was a third set of heavy footsteps, and now another, or perhaps the first one, coming toward him from his right.  He didn’t know which way to go.  

“This may not have been the best idea,” he said.  “Look,” he continued, turning around to face beings that might perhaps not have faces, now that he thought about it, “I’m trying to help all of us here -- the Pillar of Air and Fire has been broken, and I’m trying to stop the guy who did it before he breaks any others, and …”  
The footsteps stopped.  He felt momentarily relieved.  Were they listening to him?  But then he heard a whooshing sound … and a clang like a bell, as the streamer on his shoulder rushed upward and spread itself out.  A large voice grunted wordlessly.  Had it just … deflected the invisible giant’s attempt to crush him?
The streamer moved, and there was another clang.  

“Oooooowwwwww,” said another huge voice.

“Banner of Air,” said another voice.  “Has Genie favor.”

“Under Genie protection.”

“Let it be … me guess.”  The footsteps started to move away slowly.

“Um, thanks?” said Norhouse.  “Yes, the Genie wants me and my friend to save the world from the Afreet and whoever broke the Pillar.  What about you guys?  You want to save the world, don’t you?”

“Little thing still make noise,” said one of the giant voices.  “What it say?”

“Dunno,” said another, “voice too tiny.”

“Hey!” yelled Norhouse.  “You can’t hear me?  What if I yell as loud as I can?”  He was yelling as loud as he could.

“Noisy little thing.”

“What if I -- hey!”  Norhouse thought.  Sound travels through the air.  He thought about the Banner of Air.  Could it make his voice louder?  He took a deep breath -- and the streamer shaped itself into a conelike spiral in front of his mouth.  “THE GENIE SENT ME TO SAVE CREATION!” he shouted, and he could hear his voice echo off one column after another.

“Oh!  Genie sent it!” said a giant.

“Why it no say so?” asked another.

“Should go to Pillar of Dark and Rock,” said another.

“Or Pillar of Water and Sleep,” said another.

“Or Pillar of Honor and Courage,” said another.

Norhouse stood for an instant with his ears ringing from the booming volume of the giant’s voices. He had heard legends of those pillars, but had never in his wildest dreams ever thought such magical places existed … much less that he would be standing near them.

This reminded him that the place where he stood was also a place of legend.  As Norhouse looked around, he became aware of the many huge columns scattered across this large flat expanse of stone tiles. In the far distance, he could see nothing below but cloud and above was a deep blue.  Norhouse decided he had better return to the level below before he became lost or worse.

It was more of a chore finding the stairs back to the lower level than he would have thought, considering the huge floor area was wide open and flat as it was.

In the Temple archive, Xerchinita was totally absorbed. She wandered about among the many artifacts like a child in a toy store. Every item her eyes fell upon, was something she had read about in an old moldy tome from some hags basement. She had never dreamed of ever actually seeing them.

She came finally to a small chest. It appeared to be made of some kind of ivory and crystal. On closer inspection, the ivory was some kind of creature’s bone, and the crystal she couldn’t identify. She could tell many years of candles had been burned on its top. It did make a nice candle holder because of the way its lid was carved.

She carefully removed the many layers of thick tallow wax from the globbed mess. Many Arcane symbols she had only seen in one place before were inscribed all over. From the book of Enclid Ventiom, the Mage of Masters who discovered how to use magic. The very first … Mage. A chill ran down her spine as she cleaned the lid enough to open it.

Within were what appeared to be a small tree limb thirteen inches long and about as thick as her little finger that tapered almost to a sharp point on one end. An obvious crystal that had a finely woven golden wire threaded around it and a thread made from some kind of fiber she couldn’t identify from looking made up its grip. The final two items appeared to be arm bands of some type with several blue crystals imbedded within them. Xerchinita’s eyes grew large with realization … these were the tools to command the Blue Fires of Heliosphar. The cold fire would burn even the Afreet.  No wonder the Genie had sent them here.

Norhouse’s voice called down the stairs in the entry room, echoing through the storehouse chambers.  “Xerchinita?  You OK down here?  Find anything?”

“Over here,” she called back, “in the room with all the crockery.”

“Be right there,” echoed his voice.  It didn’t take him long to find her.  “So … that stuff looks important,” he said, looking at the contents of the chest.  “Some kind of wand and two bracelets?”

“You should put one of these on your sword arm,” she said, giving him one of the armbands.  “I’ll put one on my wand arm.”  She slid the armband up onto her left arm, where it fit perfectly, as was the common behavior for magical items of even a little power.  “We probably shouldn’t do it right now, but now when we both hold the wand with those arms … I’m betting we could give that Afreet a … run for his money, as the saying goes.”

“Great!” said Norhouse.  “I didn’t like running from that guy.”

“By the way, why are the Guardians not killing us right now?” asked the witch.  “Don’t tell me you defeated them single-handedly.”

“No, no way; they’re some kind of invisible giants --”

“Ah, Wind Giants -- made of air, can’t be seen, but very strong.”

“Yeah, that sounds like them.  Anyway, apparently this Banner of Air has meaning to them.  I explained that the Genie sent us, and they were OK.  I did a lot of running first, though.”

“Oh.  Well done!  But the question is where to go next.”  Xerchinita thought.  “The Afreet said he wanted to ‘free his friends.’  What could that mean?  As individual beings, the two creatures who combined to form each Pillar of Creation may have associated with each other before then, but it was so long ago that only the most ancient of creatures would remember that.  The Genie might.”

“Would the Wind Giants?” asked Norhouse.  “They said we should go to the Pillar of Rock and Dark, or something like that.  Or the Pillar of Water and Sleep, or the Pillar of Honor and Courage.”

“Well, Wind Giants aren’t ancient creatures as old as Creation, but they live a long time and might pass down stories.  The Pillar of Earth and Darkness, the Pillar of Water and Slumber, and the Pillar of Honor and Courage, hmm?  We’ll have to pick one.”

“How do we get to them?” asked Norhouse.  “Magic, I suppose.  But how do we even get out of here?”
Xerchinita explained, “We got here through Iatril’s travel gate.  Many spellcasters keep one in their homes -- they’re not portable.”

“So do you have one we could’ve used?” Norhouse asked.

“Not to visit the Mistress of Storms,” the witch answered.  “She’s got powerful magic defending her home.  We wouldn’t have been able to get close, and we might have been hurt if we’d tried.  But … if there’s a travel gate here, maybe I can use it to send us to one of the Pillars … or at least the gateways to them on our world …”

“The Pillars … aren’t on our world, are they?”  Norhouse remembered that the Genie and her broken pillar were atop a mountainous precipice somewhere he’d never seen before.

Xerchinita was looking behind paintings on the walls and under shelves on the floor.  “No, they’re not.  But there are gateways to them from our world -- and, so it’s said, from every world, so their power can flow throughout Creation.  There’s probably too much magic near a Pillar to get there directly, but maybe I can get to one of the gateways on our world -- I know where some of them are, at least.”

Norhouse lifted one end of a chest to look beneath it.  “Nnnnng, heavyyyyy … but nothing there.  What are we looking for?”

“If you find some kind of magical-looking pattern inlaid or engraved in the wall or floor, let me know, and I’ll look at it,” said Xerchinita.

“Oh, I saw something like that upstairs, while I was running away from the Wind Giants,” said Norhouse.  “Circle made of geometric shapes carved into the stone floor?”

“Sounds promising!  Lead the way.”

Norhouse scaled the stairs one more time with Xerchinita close behind. Norhouse could feel the band on his sword arm as it throbbed and felt like it was humming or something. He glanced at it once or twice and saw the gem stones glowing a soft pulsing blue. He shook his head slightly as they came to the top.

Xerchinita seemed to lead the way more than Norhouse, but the two of them walked almost in a straight line to this very ornately carved geometric design in the polished stone floor. Xerchinita held out a hand and stopped Norhouse from entering a small outer ring that completely circled the design.

She said in explanation, “That line is the barrier of protection. Once you cross it, any creatures from the other side of the door are in direct contact with you. I will need to cast a spell of seeing to determine what we are going to encounter.”

Xerchinita, with a well practiced graceful swishing flick of her wand, produced what appeared to Norhouse as a tear in reality. It opened and formed what looked like a glimmering pool through which he could see … another place beyond his imagining and descriptions.

Many different colored energies danced and shimmered. Glimpses of strange creatures flitted by. He could feel cold, and heat, and something he had no way of describing emanating from the pool before his eyes.

Xerchinita smiled as she said, “Good, there’s nothing within bowshot that can cause us harm.”

Norhouse looked at some of the weird creatures flitting by and really wondered. He realized suddenly, Xerchinita had taken him by the arm and pulled. She was far more powerful than her petite frame could have possibly suggested and he was basically snached into the circle … a wash of indescribable cold fiery energies washed through his existence … and he now stood in a place even stranger than the one he observed through the pool.

“Ummm, Xerchi?? Where are we?” Norhouse said quietly as he looked around at the area surrounding them.

Xerchinita said softly, “We are at the place Butterflies go to die. That place the wind whispers through the pines so the babbling brook tells no tales.”

Norhouse looked at Xerchinita and felt a wash of irritation … until he saw the look of worry on her pretty young features.  “What’s wrong?”

“The gateway to the Pillar of Honor and Courage is near here,” she said, “but … it feels wrong.  Something’s been done to it.  I have to look at it.  It’s this way.”  

She led the way between two trees with strangely glowing vines dangling from them, and suddenly after turning a corner between two massive stones, the ground dropped away beneath them -- they were on the edge of a cliff, with only a narrow ledge to the right around a huge boulder, and Xerchinita was carefully edging her way along that ledge.  A cool night breeze wafted up from below.

Norhouse looked out over the darkened countryside -- there were some distant lights, perhaps the campfires of travelers or the lights of faraway cottages, but everything was very, very dark, and if it weren’t for the witch’s floating mote of light, he wouldn’t know where to go.  

“Careful,” Xerchinita said, “this part is tricky.”  

Norhouse edged his way along the ledge behind her. They managed to traverse the narrow ledge and arrived finally at the bottom after a very arduous and sweat producing journey. Norhouse looked at his new surroundings. They may have been on broader footing, but with all the heavy gnarled growth, and the even stranger noises the critters hidden within the shadows were making, it appeared to be just as dangerous.

Norhouse was surprised when he realized he had already drawn his sword. The jewels on his armband had begun to glow brightly. He could feel a tingling warmth washing through his sword arm.

Xerchinita drew her wand suddenly and cast a huge amount of glowing energy at a large tree which burst asunder. Where the tree stood, now stood a demonic looking creature. It cringed and squirmed apparently in great pain from the strike.

Xerchinita said menacingly, “And what mischief brings one such as you from the dark realms into the light? Know you not who and what I am?”

The Demon laughed a soul-curdling laugh. “I know who you be, oh Sorceress of the light. Know you not who I be in return thou foolish child?”

Xerchinita snorts a derisive laugh, “And how would I not know of one so stupid as you, Shundalll of Galoon?”

For an instant, the expression on the demon’s face was priceless. Norhouse couldn’t help himself as he broke out in a laugh. This enraged the demon even further as it squealed, “No mortal will ever call me a Galoon!” and it leapt toward Xerchinita.

With a quick practiced movement her wand came up. A strange thing happened at that moment. The band around her wand arm seemed to catch fire … or iced … or burn with a fire made of blue ice. The effect ran down her arm and lashed out at the lunging demon in a flash of blue fiery cold. The demon hung for a moment suspended in the energy ball. On its face was an expression of unfathomable pain and total shock, before its being totally sublimated away to nothing and vanished.

Xerchinita looked at her wand with wide eyed surprise. She said in a small voice, “I never wielded that much power in my life before. I totally destroyed a hunter demon with one blast.”

Norhouse was looking around warily.  “So … was that the thing that was wrong here?  That was a pretty strong demon.”

“I’m not sure,” she said.  “I’m going to look.”  She closed her eyes and held her wand up, its tip softly glowing.

Norhouse couldn’t see much, as it was night and they were in some sort of glade or hollow, but he paced around the witch with his sword drawn, mentally daring anything hostile to show itself so he could deal with it.

“Someone was here,” said Xerchinita, opening her eyes suddenly.  “There were more than one of them.  They used the portal and called up that demon to guard the way behind them.  That means … they’re probably still on the other side.”

“Can you do as you did before and show us what awaits us beyond it?” Norhouse asked.

“I can,” she said, “but be careful, as they’ll be able to see us too.”  Norhouse renewed his grip on his sword and nodded.  The witch flicked her wand as before, and beyond the remains of the shattered tree a tear opened in the air, to a place with orange sky and gray, rocky terrain.  A hooded figure stood on a hill, looking downward at the opening to a cave.

Norhouse’s eyes widened, and Xerchinita drew a tense breath.  The figure was turning toward them.

“I seem to be outnumbered,” said a creaky voice that sounded like that of an old man.  He turned to face them, but all they could see under his hood was his chin, which moved as he spoke.  “Come to see what I’m doing, then?  As I’m sure you know, the Pillar is still intact.  Though … not from a lack of trying.”

“You’re the one, then!” said Norhouse accusingly.  “You’re the one who broke the first Pillar.”

“Not I,” croaked the old man.  “Far too dangerous.  After all, I want to be alive to collect my reward.”

“Alive?” Xerchinita broke in.  “Destroy the Pillars and you destroy Creation!  We all die.”

“Again … not I.  I will survive the primal Chaos.  And you … will not.”  

He raised his hand and opened it, cackling.  Out came hundreds of shrieking black faces that flew straight at Norhouse and Xerchinita, the teeth in their smiling mouths sharp and slavering.  Xerchinita’s armband glowed, and she incinerated one with her wand, but there were too many.  They were almost upon them …

Norhouse thought of his streamer, the Banner of Air.  Suddenly the black creatures screamed as they were pulled together into a spinning column of wind.  There they stayed, screeching eerily, but no longer threatening the witch and the adventurer, who suddenly noticed that the old man was gone.

“Where’d he go?” shouted Norhouse over the shrieking.

“He took advantage of the distraction to escape,” Xerchinita shouted back.  “I have to banish these things.  Good job getting them all together!  Makes it easier!”

Sending creatures who didn’t belong back from whence they’d come was relatively simple, but it took a few minutes, Xerchinita chanting an incantation while Norhouse concentrated on the Banner of Air, keeping them trapped within the whirlwind.  Finally, the tiny creatures rapidly disappeared one by one, like popcorn in reverse, until they were gone.

“I don’t sense him around at all now,” said the witch.  “I think we can assume he’s the one who shattered the first Pillar.  I think we can also assume he tried to break this one too, but failed.  Let’s see if we can talk to its guardians.”

“Um, OK,” said Norhouse.  “So we should go over there?”

“Yes, where we saw him.  That’s where the gateway is.”  

The two of them crossed the hollow, stepping over fragments of wood from the tree, and stood where they had seen the vision of what lay beyond the portal.  On the ground, almost covered with vegetation, was an ancient flat stone slab, carved with symbols and inlaid with jewels.  Standing upon the stone, Xerchinita spoke an ancient invocation, and the two of them were suddenly in the place with the orange sky, standing upon a hill made of gray rock.  At the bottom of the hill was a cave entrance. They both knew where they had to go.  They approached the cave.

“HALT,” said a voice, echoing through the cave, just as they had stepped inside.  “WHO GOES THERE?”

They identified themselves.  “I am Xerchinita, Sorceress of the Light.”

“I am Norhouse, righter of wrongdoing, caught up by destiny in all of this magical business, or that’s my best guess.”

“YOU ARE PEOPLE OF HONOR AND COURAGE,” said the voice, and an armored knight came forward out of the darkness of the cave.  “YOU MAY APPROACH.”  

Several other knights stood at attention along the cavern walls, but they could only now see them, because their eyes were adjusting after being outdoors under the odd orange light.

“Thank you,” Xerchinita said, and they walked through the cavern toward what seemed to be a light at the far end.

It was a light.  The cavern opened up into an enormous underground hall, supported by a Pillar that must have been hundreds of feet high.  It seemed to glow with an inner light, and the very air vibrated with power.  More knights stood steadfastly around the chamber.

“Surely this is the Pillar of Honor and Courage,” said Norhouse.

“That it is,” said another voice.  

Somehow, from within the pillar stepped two giant armored figures, one wearing black armor and another wearing white.  They must both have been over 25 feet tall.  They removed their helms to speak.

“You must be the White Knight of Honor and the Black Knight of Courage,” said the witch.  “You are … legends of old.”

“We are,” said the White Knight, whose hair was blond.  “We are saddened that an unwise mortal seeks to destroy the Pillars.  We felt his presence, but he didn’t come close.”

“He sent a lackey to do his work,” said the Black Knight, whose hair and beard were black, of course.  It was clear that he didn’t approve of these cowardly tactics.  “If we were not bound to stay near the Pillar, or if he had come himself instead of cravenly remaining distant, he would now be dead.”

“He got away from us, too,” said Norhouse.  “He used a distraction and slipped away.”

“Do you know anything about who he is?” asked Xerchinita.

“He is cunning and cruel,” said the White Knight.  “He sent a minion with promises of power that he clearly never intended to keep.  His dishonor is shameful, but I doubt he feels shame.  He possesses some items of power -- as, I sense, do the two of you.”

“The Genie helped us,” said Norhouse.

“Ah, the Genie,” said the Black Knight.  “I see she has given you her Banner of Air.  A courageous thing for her to do.  Her power wanes as long as the Afreet is no longer by her side -- as does his own.”

“Why don’t they get back together, then?” Norhouse asked.  “If they’re meant to be together, why doesn’t he come back?”

“Perhaps he is … nostalgic for the old times,” suggested the White Knight.  “We were all different beings back then.  Also, we are not like you mortals.  Together, we take on aspects of each other’s personalities and become a complete whole.  Apart, we are quite different -- nearly opposites, really.”

“How is it that courage and honor could be opposites?” wondered Norhouse.

“Really, we’re not here to discuss philosophy,” said Xerchinita.

But the Black Knight answered, “I would put it like this: sometimes there are things one must do that require the courage to defy honor -- when one must sacrifice one’s personal honor for one’s family’s, or one’s country’s.  And it is quite possible to have courage without honor -- to bravely but immorally pursue a dishonorable goal.  So it is not that they are opposites, but that they can exist without one another.”

“However, as we speak,” said the White Knight, “the blackguard is doubtless heading toward another Pillar, plotting to shatter it and move the universe further toward its destruction.”

“Quite right,” the Black Knight said.  “If you are to stop him, and especially if you are to repair the broken Pillar, you will need to find more of the ancient arcana in your world.  Some of them can be found in the humblest of places -- but others require great courage to obtain.”

The Black Knight turned towards Norhouse and said, “It takes great courage to hide one’s true nature and don the mantle of a warrior.”

The White Knight added, “And to perform the deeds so honorably is most notable.”

Swiftly as the wind, both knights drew their mighty swords and laid the flats of their blades on each of Norhouse’s shoulders. Norhouse could no longer stand and knelt beneath the intense surging energy that coursed through his body.

The White Knight said with rumbling Authority, “Arise, O Knight of the Defenders of the Pillar. You are now one among many who hold not only the great honor, but the mighty responsibility of defending the Pillars of Creation from all evil.”

When the knights had removed and sheathed their swords, Norhouse’s fine leather armor had transformed into something beyond his ken. He now arose wearing armor made of what looked like a softly glowing blue crystalline material. His sword and dagger were also seemingly made of the same substance, and some type of crystal throwing star was holstered at his side.

“I … promise that I will try my hardest to live up to the trust you have placed in me,” he said.  “I take it that these other knights here have also been given the honor and responsibility of defending this Pillar.”

“They have,” said the White Knight.  “They are not human, as you are, but then, neither are we.  But all the beings of the universe would suffer and perish should the Pillars fall.  Your adversary and quarry does not realize this, or else does not care.”

“This is your charge,” said the Black Knight: “Find him, and remove him as a threat to Creation.  Bind him, imprison him, slay him -- the means matters not.  But he must not be allowed to realize his aims.”

“This I will do, or die in the attempt,” said Norhouse.  “I fight for those I love and those I have never known.”

“And now, you, Sorceress of the Light,” said the White Knight, “please, step forward.  You fight with spells, not arms, but we still wish to aid you.”

Xerchinita walked gracefully forward and knelt before the giant knights. They once again removed their swords from their sheaths and place one on each of her shoulders. She felt the energies as they rushed through her body. She realized suddenly … her powers had been enhanced almost 20 fold. She was now the most powerful sorceress in the realm.

Her outfit changed to the same type of crystalline form as Norhouse’s armor, but hers became a softly glowing white. Xerchinita slowly stood, her head reeling with the sudden influx of power. The band on her arm now seemed to give off an otherworldly icy fire of an intensity only spoken of in the oldest and most magical tomes. Her wand was no longer made of willow, but now of some strange crystal much like the throwing star at Norhouse’s waist.

The Black Knight said in his deep rumbly voice, “Arise, oh knight of the powers of light. Go forth and defend all of creation with the might of those who came in the beginning. For the power has now been given unto you to fulfil their duty.”

Xerchinita replied softly, “I will defend creation with my life. None shall pass less it be over my cold corpse.”

Both White and Black Knights seemingly melded into each other, then dissolved once again into the pillar. Norhouse couldn’t believe it. Everything he had witnessed in the last several days, had only been children’s stories in his mind, until he met Xerchinita. Magic was not only very real, but he now had been recruited to defend its very foundations.

“My skill and strength will be the stuff of legends!” said the swordsman.  “Tales of my deeds will go down in history!  I can scarce believe it!”

“I am impressed already,” said the hooded old man.  “But first we must use this mystic portal to travel to the dragon’s cave.  It is on another world.”  He stepped on the circular stone, engraved with arcane symbols and inlaid with sparkling gems, and beckoned for the swordsman to join him, which he did.  After an incantation of a few words, they vanished from that place and reappeared in another.

They stood before a vast opening in a rock face.  Above them was only darkness.  The only light came from the old man’s staff, whose head was carved to resemble a gargoyle’s face.  The swordsman quickly took out a torch and lit it with a few sparks from a flint and his steel axe blade.  

“The beast lurks within, I take it?” he asked as he worked.

“Indeed,” the old man said.  “Now, I’m sure it has hoarded a great deal of treasure, but that does not interest me.  I want only revenge for my family, which it slew, then retreated to its lair to hide, like the cowardly beast it truly is.  Any treasure you find you may take for yourself, if you wish.  Though if you care only for glory, that is here for the taking as well.”

“I will prove myself a worthy hero!” the swordsman said.  “There is no dragon who can withstand my blade!”  He marched into the mouth of the cave.

The old man cackled quietly to himself.  Soon after, the swordsman’s voice came echoing back from within the cavern.  “Come out, dragon!  Come out and face me!  I challenge you!”

He knew then that the brave fool stood before the Pillar.  He raised his left hand, on which he wore an intricately worked gauntlet made of a black metal in the shape of some sort of horrific creature’s twisted claw.  Dozens of chains dangled from it, and at the end of each was a small shrunken skull.  Eldritch energy played about the gauntlet’s scales and knurls, like red lightning.  

“Doom!” he cried, cackling.  “Doom to all!”  

He raised the gauntlet, the skulls clattering together like eerie wind chimes, and pointed toward where he could feel the Pillar stood, and suddenly a bolt of crackling ruby energy leapt forth toward the cave mouth, lighting the cavern’s walls a blood red as it meandered its way to where the swordsman stood, ready for anything except this.

From behind him the swordsman saw a red light, then a jerkily advancing ball of red lightning, bolts licking out in all directions like a spider’s legs.  The floating ball of energy suddenly leapt at the enormous pillar that seemed to hold up the cavern, striking it with terrifying force, causing great cracks to shiver into view throughout its length, and then, slowly, it began to crumble.  From within the disintegrating Pillar came the figure of a dragon with two heads: one white and one black.

“What have you done?” said both heads at once.  “Do you wish to doom yourself and all of Creation to -- aaagh -- no!”  

As the pillar crumbled, the dragon split into two, a white dragon and a black one.

“I care not how many of you I must face!” the swordsman shouted.  “My name will be legend!”

“At this rate, there will be none to tell your story,” said the white dragon.

“You ridiculous fool!” the black dragon shouted.  “Your story ends before it begins!”  And with a great gout of fire from its mouth it incinerated the foolish swordsman who had listened to the old man’s lies.  “Ha!  Creation is doomed.  The primal Chaos shall roil again!  I am … alone.  But I am also free!  I can sense that the Afreet is free as well.  I would see you again, my old friend!”

“Come back!” called the white dragon.  “You will weaken -- as will I -- and Creation will crumble unless we stay with the Pillar … or at least unless one of us does …”  

But the black dragon spread its wings and flew down the huge cavern to the opening, spewing fire at the cackling old man, who deflected it easily with a flick of his gauntlet, but the dragon cared not and vanished as it passed over the portal stone.

“So … the humblest of places, and somewhere that requires great courage,” said Norhouse as they walked down the road.  “Do you have any spells that could help us find these places they were talking about?”

“I’m a bit more concerned about our horses, and our supplies,” said Xerchinita.  “We might be able to find them if we went back to Iatril’s cave.  I’m sure they didn’t run far.  Iatril might even have gathered them up for us.  I’m getting hungry, and all my food was with my horse.  Using magic tires me out and makes me hungry -- just as swinging a sword does.”

“Point taken,” said Norhouse.  “All my food was with my horse too.”

The return Journey to Iatril’s cave was faster than the leaving. When they returned, it was obvious that Iatril had won the battle, or at least had come out far on top. There was obvious blast damage all around, however most of it appeared to have been made by a very angry dragon, and not the ethereal energies and pure elemental fire of an Afreet.

Xerchinita called, “Iatril? Hello?”

As the first time they had approached the Dragon’s cave, the ground trembled and he stood in a large cloud of falling debris. The large dragon shook himself and flapped his leathery wings several time casting the remaining detritus from his shiny scales.

A puff of seeming mist and the dragon transposed back into his more humanoid form, “Ah, my friends. It is good to see you are no worse for the ware.”

Iatril stopped and blinked as he looked the both of them over, “I … see that there is a major change in the both of you.” Iatril slowly circled Xerchinita and Norhouse, examining their new armor and other objects that had majorly transformed since their last meeting.

Iatril said in surprise, “I have not seen the likes of that armor … except in the tome of Hecramacos. And then it was said to be only legend. Behold, I find two Knights of the Pillar before me.”

“I think they made us Knights of the Pillars, plural,” said Norhouse.  “There were lots of Knights of the Pillar of Honor and Courage.  And it seems they proved too much for the old geezer who’s doing all this.”

“Truly?  You saw who’s behind this?” Iatril asked in amazement.  “Old fellow, is he?  Don’t suppose he gave you a name.  What’s he look like?”

“Like this,” said Xerchinita, holding up the Orb, with an image of the old man’s visage within.  It was, unfortunately, just as she remembered seeing him, meaning that his face was mostly enshrouded beneath his hood.  “No, I’m not scrying on him -- that would draw his attention.  This is just an image of him as I remember him.”

“Ah, Philamon’s Memory Projection,” said Iatril.  “Well, he seems not to want to be identified.  There’s probably a reason for that, but unless we know it, we can’t really use it.  He seemed old, you say?  And knew something of magic?”

“He summoned a swarm of shadow imps,” Xerchinita said.  “And he’s better at using portals than I am.  He’s probably got one or more of the ancient arcana, or he wouldn’t have enough power to shatter a Pillar of Creation.”

“The Knights of Honor and Courage said that ancient arcana can be found in the humblest of places, and in places that require great courage to go,” said Norhouse.  “I can’t help feeling that was a clue.  Any ideas where they meant?”

“A few,” said Xerchinita, “but I need food and rest, and so do you, I’ll wager.”

“Say no more,” said Iatril.  “You are welcome to stay here for as long as you like, and I found your horses, by the way.  Oh, while exploring my volcanic caverns, I’ve also found a hot spring you might be interested in.  Not big enough for my natural form, unfortunately, but a dozen humans could fit in it.”

“You can bathe in lava anyway,” said Xerchinita.

“And it’s quite exhilarating, but I’m always picking out bits of rock from between my scales for weeks afterwards,” Iatril replied.

“Well, thank you for your hospitality, old friend,” she said, “and who knows, maybe we’ll manage to stop this miscreant after all.  Maybe.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In a dark misty place beyond places, what appeared to be a very wizened old man removed his hood. There are places that are missing from his head from all appearances. Blank spaces where his eyes should have been, with only a greenish red glow for pupils. With an angry flip of his wrist, he tossed an object into a swirling mist within a crystal bowl.

He muttered, “The fools. Do they think I care if all of reality and creation vanishes? How many uncounted eons have I awaited my chance to return to the place of the beginning? How many of my kind have long ceased awaiting this time?”

The very air around the being trembled as he removed another strangely glowing artifact from around his wrist and tossed it into the swirling mist of the bowl. The being leaned across the table, resting both hands beside the bowl. The mist seemed to take form, and a female shape appeared.

The being said softly, “Fear not my love. I promised you I would destroy all of this ordered creation, and this, the Underlord of Chaos will do.”

The image within the mist dissolved back into the swirling mass as another image formed. If it could be said the being frowned darkly, this is what he would have been doing. He watched as a very powerful Sorceress of Light and a very skillful human mortal were transformed into Knights of the Pillars. This was a variable he had not foreseen.

The being shook his head as he muttered softly, “How could I have been so blind? This is a major obstacle that will have to be dealt with. Especially since they appear to be allied with a Magical Dragon. This … was totally unforeseen.”

The being swirled and glided over to a strangely shaped object with a very shiny crystal surface. He grabbed a box and removed a small white mouse. With a quick slash of his dagger, red splattered the pristine and smooth crystal surface. Everything began to shake as a huge fire began to burn. The being smiled: he would send a Gorgon.

He mused to himself, “The dragon may not have anything to worry over, but let's see if those puny mortals can handle it.”

The being began an awful incantation. A creature more horrible than the powers of description can tell appeared. The being said softly, as he pointed at the images of Norhouse and Xerchinita, “Kill them. Kill them in the most horrible of ways.”

The Gorgon replied in her terrible voice, “I obey, Master of Chaos.” then vanished in a cloud of greasy black mist.

“Ahhh, this is wonderful,” said Xerchinita, luxuriating in the underground hot spring that Iatril had found.  “You really should try this.”

“And I will,” said Norhouse from around the corner.  “When you’re done.”

“I’m not shy.  I don’t care what you look like.”

“I, er, don’t think it would be proper.”

“Suit yourself.”  The ground shook slightly.  “How long’s it been since the fire mountain exploded?”

“That’s not the mountain,” Xerchinita said.  “That’s … everything.  With one pillar gone, that can’t be good for the universe.  And I’ve got a bad feeling … I think he may have gotten another one.”

“That’s bad.  We’re supposed to be defending them.”

“We can’t really stop him, not without more ancient arcana,” said the witch.  “I’m not afraid; I’m just stating a fact.  If he’s got enough power to break Pillars, we’re not strong enough to stand up to him.  Yet.”

“Maybe we can look into the hints the Knights gave us,” Norhouse said.  “I’m feeling much better after a night’s rest and some food.”  

Iatril had gone out to the forest lands that bordered the volcanic caldera and caught them a deer -- it had taken nearly no time at all.  Being a dragon has its advantages.

“Me too, and when we’re done I’ll cast some divination magic that might reveal more about their clues,” said Xerchinita. “Your cooking is beyond what I’d expect for an adventurer.  I’d expect you to be able to live off the land, dressing the carcass and preparing the meat as you did, but … I also expected you to just roast it over a fire.  I didn’t expect, well, whatever you did to keep it so juicy, and that blend of spices?”

“I bought those in South Stendor,” Norhouse said.  “There’s a spice merchant there whose variety is known throughout the kingdom.  And, well, you pick up a few tricks if you don’t want to be gnawing on jerky your whole life.”

“You’ll have to tell me the name of that merchant … assuming we can save the world,” said the witch.  “That was delicious.  Also sometimes I need rare spices for potions.  Well, I’m about done in here.  Your turn!  Just let me dry off.”

“OK, let me get ready,” said Norhouse.  “Now, promise you won’t peek in while I’m in there.  I didn’t peek while you were in the spring, not even once.”

“Sure, sure, I promise, witch’s honor.”  She came around the corner out of the cavern that housed the hot spring, wrapped in towels.  “Oh, you have that cloth -- the time weaver.”

“Best towel ever,” Norhouse said.  “Never gets dirty.  And we don’t know -- maybe I’ll find out how it works.  Maybe it’s supposed to be a turban.”  He nodded at the towel Xerchinita had wrapped around her hair.

“Hm, well be careful; don’t blow yourself up or anything.  I’m not really worried, though -- I don’t think you’re going to find anything new.  Enjoy!”  She went down the corridor toward Iatril’s storeroom, which was where the tunnel connected to the dragon’s caverns.

Norhouse carefully undressed and dipped a foot into the pool of steaming water in the cavern floor.  It was quite hot indeed, but bearable.  Soon he was entirely submerged.  Taking a deep breath, he released all the tension of the past few days and cleared his mind to think about the days ahead.  After a moment, he reached out and picked up the white cloth.  He dipped a corner of it in the water, then lifted it out -- completely dry.  He submerged it in the water entirely -- it appeared to be totally saturated -- then brought it out again, and once more, it was completely dry.  This made no sense, except that it was obviously magical.

He rubbed his skin with it -- soon feeling clean and invigorated, and the cloth never got dirty, of course.  What an odd thing for an ancient arcanum to do!  Shouldn’t it be somehow more powerful than this?  But whatever control over time it was supposed to have was remaining elusive.

Suddenly, he heard Xerchinita’s voice calling down the corridor.  “Norhouse!  You might want to come here -- I think we’ve got something!”  

He panicked.  There was no way he was going to let her see him -- he quickly jumped out of the water and wrapped the cloth around his loins.  Suddenly, though, everything went crazy.  The room seemed to become very large, unless he was shrinking.  He lost his balance and tumbled to the cavern floor beside the spring.  He cried out, but his voice sounded so high and shrill that it didn’t sound like his own.

“What was that?  Norhouse?  Are you all right?  Are there some kind of creatures in here?” called Xerchinita.

“Xerchinita, something happened!” Norhouse called, but in a very high-pitched, squeaky voice.  What was going on?

“What?  OK, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to look in on you,” said the witch.  “I know, by the way, you’re not a -- what in the seven spheres?”  To Norhouse, Xerchinita was suddenly a giantess now.  She came over and picked him up as if he weighed nothing.  “Norhouse?  Is that you?  Is this the doing of the -- oh!  Of course!  I get it now!  The time weaver altered your personal time frame!  So this is what you looked like as a baby!  So adorable!”  The cloth had remained wrapped around his loins like a baby’s diaper, and it had shrunk with him.

“But -- can I turn back?” asked Norhouse in his tiny voice.

“We probably just have to take it off -- my thought is that the effect lasts only as long as you wear it like that, since it had no effect in any other configuration.”  She set him down again and started to unwrap it.

“No!” Norhouse said.  “You’ll see --”  It was possible that she still didn’t know, because the cloth covered that part, and as a baby his chest was undeveloped ...

“Norhouse, I know.  I’m a Sorceress of the Light.  My magic told me you were female in body as soon as I got you out of the mud -- very strongly built, but female nonetheless.  Now I don’t care whether you’re calling yourself a man because you feel you are one in your heart, or because a woman adventurer isn’t taken seriously in these lands -- believe me, I know how that is -- or because you’re trying to escape some awful suitor, or whatever.  I was perfectly willing to let you be, because you must have your reasons.  But we have work to do.  I’ll go right on telling everyone non magical we meet that you’re a guy if you want.”

“Oh.”  Norhouse didn’t know what to say -- he’d been so guarded about anyone discovering the truth that he didn’t know how to behave now that he didn’t have to hide.  He thought for a moment.  “Well … OK.  That’s fine, then.  I’ll tell you about it when there’s time.  It’s about my family, to make a long story short.  Meanwhile, can we get this thing off me?”

“Certainly.”  She helped Norhouse take the cloth off -- and as soon as it was off, Norhouse was back to his, or her, normal age and size.  He got to his feet -- he was still going to think of himself as a man, as he’d gotten so used to it during the past two years; it helped keep up the disguise.  

“There you go, back to normal.  I wonder, though … whether it grants any other powers while one is under its effects.  Hmm, we’ll have to look into that … Anyway, if you could join us back in Iatril’s study when you’re dressed, I think we might have a lead.”

By the time Norhouse had dressed and looked like a very cute young man once again, he began to smell a very strange, sickly sweet odor. He looked around suddenly at what he thought was movement out of the corner of his eye. Norhouse saw nothing, but his radar was on high alert. This feeling of Hypervigilance had saved him too many times for him to ignore.

Norhouse began looking over his shoulder as he walked down the tunnel towards the dragon’s massively huge and well stocked library. Norhouse swore he could hear some kind of slithering noises, although he saw nothing.

When he entered the huge cavern, Xerchinita and Iatril were standing around a huge crystalline bowl. Norhouse eyes grew large as he watched Iatril seemingly pull something from his ear and drop it into the misty liquid looking substance within the basin. Norhouse wasn’t sure what happened at that point, but Iatril seemed to become slightly transparent, and he saw something dive from out of his body into the bowl.

Long minutes passed as Xerchinita kept softly chanting strange words over and over. Norhouse could feel each word as it fell on his soul. It was all he could do to resist rushing up to the bowl and staring in. Knowing that this had to be some kind of magical item, he resisted the almost overpowering urge, and instead walked up to Xerchinita.

Immediately she stopped chanting, Iatril returned to normal opacity, and the liquid looking substance in the bowl became thick and creamy white.

Xerchinita said, “I have found one of the arcana … and you won’t believe where it is.”

Norhouse asked, “Ok, and where is it?”

Xerchinita turned with a large grin on her face and picked up a huge and very old tome. “Near the palace of the Western Marches, where you found that cloth, is a forest, and in that forest lives a woodcutter.  The woodcutter’s daughter’s baby rattle has a large polished green stone in its handle.” Xerchinita opened the book to almost the last page and pointed to a picture there, saying, “It says here that stone is the Eye of Binding. A powerful magical artifact for merging two forces into one.”

“Like … two halves of a broken Pillar of Creation?” Norhouse asked.

“Exactly!” said the witch.

“But wait … the Western Marches is Lady Aureen’s territory -- and she probably still has troops looking for me,” Norhouse said.

“I’ve got an idea about that,” said Xerchinita.

“I can help,” said Iatril.

“This feels quite odd,” said Norhouse as they rode toward the Western Marches border.  “Despite the fact that it’s how I always dressed and rode, once, I haven’t done so for years.”

“Remember to stop disguising your voice,” Xerchinita said.  “Lady Aureen’s soldiers are looking for a man, and right now you’re obviously not that.”

Norhouse was going by the name Clarice, which wasn’t her real name either, but she had no desire to be recognized by anyone who knew her original identity -- though she was far from her homeland, so that was quite unlikely.  She wore a saffron yellow dress and a warm dark green traveling cloak.  Her glowing blue armor and weapons were packed away.  She felt oddly naked and unprepared, though she still wore the blue armband, and she knew exactly where all her supplies were.  Iatril had a supply of fine cloth that he had accepted as payment for his healing services from time to time, and it turned out his healing magic was closely related to the magic of shaping materials -- it had taken him no time at all to make a dress and cloak that fit Norhouse perfectly.  But riding sidesaddle in that dress and cloak was … like going back to eating rich food after swearing off it for one’s health.  It was very comfortable, but she felt that it wasn’t good for her somehow.

“So,” said “Clarice” as they rode, “what’s this about magical training that makes one sensitive to the exact shapes of everything and everyone around you?”  She tried to keep her voice higher, above the center of her natural range, rather than at its rock bottom, where she’d been accustomed to keeping it.

“Oh, yes,” said the witch, “once you’re attuned to the flow of air and the mystic energies, you can feel how everything is moving around you -- and around everyone else.  It’s almost like seeing everyone naked.”  She giggled.

“All I can say is that I’m glad I’m on your side.”  Norhouse changed the subject.  “So this woodcutter lives beyond the Palace, then?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Xerchinita.  “It’s past the river, beyond the castle.”

“In the Forest of the Pells,” Norhouse said, nodding.  “So we’re going from one sparsely populated area, through a densely populated one, to another sparse one.  I haven’t heard that there are monsters there, though, just wild animals.”

“Animals and I have an understanding,” said the witch.  “But with two of the Pillars gone … I’m not sure how that might change the world -- and all worlds, really.  It might change the animals -- or it might even bring elder creatures out of the ancient depths.”

“This is no time to be parading around without armor and weapons,” Norhouse said.

“Halt!” came a voice.  “Stand and deliver!”  Two men emerged from trees on either side of the road, crossbows at the ready.

“Oh, for the love of …” Norhouse began.  She knew these bandits.  She’d trounced them before.  She knew instantly how to dismount, seize the glowing blue chakram from the horse’s packs, and grievously wound these two before they’d fired even one bolt.  Her training and experience were still there for her, even if her armor wasn’t at present.

Xerchinita began to wave her hand gracefully but quickly in the air. A bright blue flame ignited around her hand. But then, without warning, a creature that looked like a huge snake with a woman’s nude torso emerged from the foliage. It seemed to spit at one of the men, who instantly turned to stone. The man’s partner turned rapidly and shot a bolt from his crossbow into the back of the creature.

A bloodcurdling screech came from it as it swirled around. Xerchinita launched her spell, not at the two men, but at the Gorgon, who was in process of attacking them. A loud whining zapping noise followed by the crackling of a lightning strike complete with the earth trembling roar of thunder.

There was another loud unearthly screeching sound as the Gorgon was tossed many yards away. The surviving man stood totally transfixed, his mouth and eyes opened wide in awe. There were no thoughts in his mind as he watched something transpire he had heard of only in the tales told him as a child.

Xerchinita said with menace in her voice, “If I were you, O mortal, I wouldn’t think of  harassing a witch, or her guardian, again. The fate of your companion was light compared to what could have happened.”

All the man could do, was nod his head as he backed away into the thick brush. Norhouse couldn’t help but notice that the man had soiled himself in fear.  His other companions were already far away and likely wouldn’t stop running for some time.

Norhouse brought her attention back to the creature squirming on the ground several yards away. Its body had taken damage, and it sported a nasty wound.  She held her sword and chakram at the ready, both glowing their calm but intense blue, but the creature looked beaten.  

She pointed and asked with trepidation in her voice, “And just what pit did that thing crawl from … and what is it?”

Xerchinita replied as she watched to see what the creature was going to do at this point, “If I’m not mistaken, that’s a Gorgon in its normal state. As for where it came from ... a sorcerer of great power had to conjure one. Apparently the person we are after knows very dark and powerful magics.”

Norhouse turned and looked at Xerchinita, “Which is more powerful? Light or dark?”

Xerchinita laughs her tinkling laugh, When you light a tallow lamp, does it remain dark?”

Norhouse laughed, “Of course not, because the lamp gives off light.”

Xerchinita replied, “Exactly -- the light is more powerful than the dark, for the darkness flees before it.”

Xerchinita removed her new crystalline wand from its holster and gave it a graceful flick of her wrist. There was a flash of white light around the Gorgon, and it vanished away.

Off in the distance further still, another light could be seen. This one, was the light given off by many lamps through window casements. The town wasn’t far, so they should be there in a few minutes.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Who goes there?” asked one of the guards at the town gates.

“Xerchinita, Witch of the Swamp,” she said.  “And Clarice, who is under my protection.”

“No, you’re under my protection,” said “Clarice” with a wry grin.

“Well, this could go on for hours,” Xerchinita said.

“Swamp witch, eh?” said the guard with a condescending grin, souring Norhouse’s beginnings of a good mood.  “Well, you ladies had better get indoors.  It’s not right for you to be out on the road after dark.  Too dangerous.”

“Just a --” Norhouse began, but Xerchinita touched her arm, and she stopped.

“Thank you, sir,” said the witch.  “We’ll just be on our way.”  They entered the town.  “We should find an inn for the night.  The Light might conquer darkness, but when our adversary can summon Gorgons, he can summon other things -- things we’d rather be able to see coming.”

They wandered through the darkening streets. The lamp urchins scurried all about lighting the many oil lamps throughout the small town that cast a dim shadowy pall throughout. The horses seemed to know where they were going, because they soon arrived at a cute little cottage looking place with a large sign out front that read: Mysty Bottom Tavern and Inn.

Xerchinita said softly as she guided her horse to the stables in the rear, “I think there might be more afoot here than just a woodcutter’s baby.” Xerchinita dismounted gracefully as any highborn lady, “I seem to feel something unusual here. An … essence of some sort I haven’t felt since I was in Training.”

Norhouse removed the throwing star from its sheath and held its softly pulsing crystalline weight in her hand at the ready.

Norhouse said quietly as Xerchinita knocked on the stable door, “Do you think it might be dangerous?”

Xerchinita replied as a smallish boy opened the large door, “No, but I do think that it is something that we will need.”

The small boy said in a soft squeaking voice, “Gooday mum. Needa horses cared for n stuff?”

Xerchinita placed a heavy coin pouch in the boy’s hand. His eyes opened wide as he opened it. She said with her tinkling voice, “Yes, please, only the best. There’s more where that came from.”

The boy said with a gasp, “This … is moren I get inna year.”

Xerchinita replied, “The pouch is bottomless. The more you remove, the more that’s there.”

The boy looked at Xerchinita. An expression of recognition came across his face, “It’s … it’s you! You're the white witch ofa swamp. Tha one that bringsa glowy cloth to tha thieve’s market now n then.”

Xerchinita smiled as she patted the youth on his head, “I am the same …”

That was when she saw the old carved and twisted staff leaning against the stable rail in the back. It was obvious it had been used to toss hay and other things around. It was none other than the Mystical Sun Strike Staff, Might of the Brotherhood of Ancients. It was said in myth that this was the very staff that ignited the sun and the stars. Xerchinita was totally speechless to have found such a mighty artifact being used for such a base and humble thing.

She walked over to it and picked it up. She could feel the energies instantly come to life in her hand. She said softly, “Would you mind terribly if I kept this … stick? I need a good sturdy walking stick.”

The boy laughed, “Sure. I found that out in the dark wood near whispering falls. I used to to toss hay, but think am gonna buya pitchfork now you giveded me this kinna gold.”

Xerchinita turned and looked at Norhouse. Her eyes big with awe and wonder at having found the most powerful arcana yet. She mouthed the words, Let’s find a room for the night, but made no actual sound.
Norhouse was totally taken by surprise as she heard what Xerchinita had said, without hearing a sound.  These magic types had all kinds of crazy tricks.  After she had recovered, she merely looked at the witch and nodded in agreement.

They walked into the Mysty Bottom Inn, where there was a lutist playing quietly in a corner and soft conversation taking place at several tables over beverages.  

“C’n I git you ladies ennyfing?” said the innkeeper from behind the bar in a thick accent.

“Do you have a room for the night?” Norhouse asked, trying to keep her voice higher than she was used to.
 
It was normally a rather husky contralto anyway, which helped a lot when she was in disguise, but over the past two years she’d gotten into the habit of keeping it to a low monotone and using few words with little modulation.  It felt like she was trying too hard now, trying to mimic the all-too-familiar feminine practice of expressively varying her pitch, but the more she did it, the quicker the old habits came back.

“Well, now, yer in luck, then -- will it be one er two rooms for yer?” asked the innkeeper, nodding at another patron who had come from the tables, perhaps to purchase another drink.

“I think … just one, if that’s all right, my good man,” Norhouse replied.  The innkeeper looked at her a bit oddly, which was when she realized that “my good man” was a thing that men typically said to each other in this area, not something that a woman would say.  This was more difficult than she thought -- disguising herself by acting as herself to prevent people from recognizing her disguise.  Her hair was still cut quite short, although she was wearing a hat of the sort that ladies typically tucked their hair up into, to make that fact less obvious.

“Well, now, that’ll be fine, then -- usually it’s three pieces of silver for a night, but for two lovely ladies such as yerselves --” he began, until Xerchinita interrupted him by placing two pieces of gold on the countertop, causing him to raise his eyebrows in surprise.  “Oh -- well, now, I thank yer kindly, ladies, and lemme show yer up to yer room, then.”  They were likely to get very good service during their stay, and probably the best room in the house.

“Thank you, sir,” said Norhouse.

The keep yelled out, “Leah! Come … got guests ta show to their rooms. Hurry yerselfs up there girl, don’t dawdle.”

A rather plain blond young woman with many blemishes and  scars on her face entered from the back. She had on a flowered frock with a white and yellow checkered apron. Her hair was done up in two buns on either side of her head. She nodded to Norhouse and Xerchinita, took out a flint and steel and lit a small oil lamp, then led them up the stairs.

They followed the girl down the short hall to a large oak door bound with several large iron bands. She unlocked the door with a large key from the ring on her belt. When the door swung open on creaky hinges, it revealed a very nicely decorated room, complete with a goose feather bed and eider feather pillows.

The girl said softly, “If there be ennythin’ else, m’lady?” she curtsied humbly as she held out the small lamp.

Xerchinita removed her crystal wand from its holster and gave it a quick flick of her wrist. The girl instantly sparkled all over. She no longer was plain, but became as beautiful as any fairy princess. The nasty blemishes on her face were gone.

Xerchinita handed the girl another heavy pouch and said softly, “Take this, and go buy whatsoever your heart desires. Your service is well met, and we are very grateful.”

The girl curtsied gracefully, unknowing what Xerchinita had done for her, then left. It wasn’t long before  Norhouse and Xerchinita heard the girl’s happy voice crying out, “Papa! Izza miracle, I tells yer. It … it’s so wonderful!”

Norhouse could hear a hubbub of voices from below, although they weren’t loud enough for her to hear what they were all talking so loudly about.  She could guess, though … Leah was probably already attracting attention and questions from the inn’s guests.

Xerchinita removed her shawl and laid it across the nearby rack as she said softly, “Well, now, Let them think on that for a little while.”
 
Norhouse agreed.  If they were smart, the innkeeper and his daughter would not talk about what had caused the “miracle,” and would make sure that she and the witch weren’t disturbed, now that they were known to bring both money and blessings upon the house.

The witch then sat on the soft bed and turned the staff in her hands as she examined it closely. Xerchinita fumbled through her small satchel and removed a bottle of some kind of oil and a small cloth. She began to polish the rough wood of the staff with the oil soaked cloth. In just a few minutes, the staff sparkled like new, and had begun to give off a radiance as all arcana seemed to do.

Meanwhile, Norhouse looked out the window through the thick curtains, parting them only a sliver, noting which nearby rooftops had a view of the window and nodding with approval that there were no other buildings allowing anyone to approach the inn from the side they were on.  They were up against a dangerous sorcerer who could summon demons.  One didn’t take chances with that sort.  She had brought her weapons and armor inside, wrapped up in the packs from her horse, just in case.

Xerchinita said, “Let me hold the Time Weaver cloth. I want to … try it out and see how it works.”

Norhouse laughed as she pulled it from her pouch and handed it to Xerchinita, “I bet you were one cute baby.”

Xerchinita began removing her bottoms as she replied, “No more so than you were a little while ago.”

Both of them laughed as Xerchinita spread the cloth out on the bed and folded it into a triangle. She sat on it and pulled it between her legs. She only had enough time to tuck the sharp edge of the triangle in, before she was unable to sit up. Xerchinita found herself lying on her back, her arms and legs helplessly doing whatever they seemed to want to do.

Norhouse’s mouth fell open as she watched Xerchinita shrink rapidly into an infant and fall over onto her back.  Norhouse came up and cooed softly as she tickled Xerchinita in her tummy, “Aww, such a cute little baby. Now I think you’ve got a real problem here. What if I think you’re so cute I want you to stay this way?”

Norhouse then bent quickly and blew a soft raspberry in Xerchinita’s tummy. She, of course, lost all adult thoughts as this wonderful electric sensation coursed through her. She screeched and kicked her feet and giggled as any baby would under those circumstances … she also knew something of the future, and of the past, and ways to weave threads of change in subtle ways to create outcomes of predetermined choices.

Norhouse couldn’t help herself as she picked the infant Xerchinita up, put her to her shoulder, and patted Xerchinita’s diapered bottom. She carried the infant to a nearby chair and sat, as Norhouse cooed softly and rocked back and forth singing a lullabye. Xerchinita’s mind began to drift as everything lost all relevance and blurred into an all consuming now.

Norhouse smiled.  This was actually making her quite happy.  Not happy enough that part of her stopped paying attention to the doors and windows, but happy enough that she apparently knocked a candle off a side table as she shifted position.  She was going to try to catch it when she noticed that it had just … stopped falling.  It hung there in the air, droplets of molten wax floating nearby, even its flame unflickering, unmoving.  She stared at it for a moment.  These magic things.  Full of surprises.

Norhouse looked at the infant witch she was holding, whose eyes were open, staring at the candle.  “Are … you doing that?” she asked.

“Yes,” said the witch in a tiny, sweet voice.  “The Weave of Time can make time cease to flow for things.  If you could put the candle back … and pick up the Sunstrike Staff …”

Norhouse took the candle in her hand, holding Xerchinita in the other arm, and placed the candle and its holder back on the side table.  Then she picked up the staff from the corner where it was resting.

“Hold it up … and simply let it fall,” came the tiny, cute voice that was still recognizably Xerchinita’s.
 
Norhouse did so … and again, the staff began to drop, but then stopped in midair, unmoving, as if caught by invisible hands.

“Interesting,” said the witch.  “Now try to move it.”

Norhouse took hold of the staff and tried to take it -- and found she couldn’t.  It was fixed in the air as if it were embedded in stone.  “I … can’t,” she said.

“Also … very interesting …” said Xerchinita.  “OK, you can put it down again.”  The staff suddenly moved, as if it had pulled free, and it was difficult for Norhouse to keep from falling over as whatever force had been holding it suddenly let go.  Stumbling back to stability, she set it back in the corner.

“Anything else you want me to do?” she asked the baby in her arms, but now it appeared that the witch had gone to sleep.  Was she meditating?  Or dreaming infantile dreams?  There was no way to know.  She sighed and sat back down in the chair, rocking her traveling companion soothingly.

Norhouse felt so happy as she adjusted the sleeping infant Xerchinita more comfortably and started to gently pat her hinny. Xerchinita looked so adorable, Norhouse couldn’t help herself. She took Xerchinita’s left hand and curled the fingers up, then put the thumb in her mouth. Xerchinita began to suck her thumb just like any baby and didn’t wake up. Norhouse smiled. She knew she was going to try her best to see how often she could get Xerchinita in the Time Weaver cloth. Norhouse couldn’t remember anything that made her feel this happy before.

Suddenly, Norhouse jerked awake. She didn’t know when she had fallen asleep. She felt the warm soft weight of  Xerchinita on her chest. Norhouse looked down. Xerchinita was sound asleep and still adorably sucking her thumb. Norhouse smiled. She was going to let Xerchinita think she had done that all on her own.

Norhouse carefully got out of the chair and laid the sleeping infant gently on the bed. She piled several of the feather pillows around Xerchinita to insure she didn’t fall out of the bed. Then, Norhouse left the room for a bit and went down stairs. It was very late. All the candles had burned very low and the oil lamps were almost out of fuel.

Leah was still up primping and preening in front of a mirror. Norhouse was sure the young woman couldn’t believe how pretty she had suddenly become.

Leah noticed Norhouse and quickly approached and curtsied humbly, “How may I be of service mum?”

Norhouse replied, “I’m just looking for something to feed an infant with, and perhaps some milk or something to put in it.”

The young woman smiled as she spun around several times before skipping off into the kitchen. Norhouse could hear the girl banging around and the sound of clinking glass. When Leah returned, she had a warm baby’s bottle complete with a new type of device that looked just like a nipple fastened to the top.

Norhouse said, “Thank you. This will do perfectly.”

The young woman curtsied as she said softly, “Anything, anytime for the ones who stopped my torment and brought about this miracle.”

Norhouse patted the girl softly on her head as she replied, “It was the least we could do for someone as nice and friendly as you.” Then turned and walked back up stairs.

Norhouse looked down the stairs before turning the corner out of site and could see the girl still staring at her new face in the mirror. Norhouse smiled. Xerchinita was truly a Sorceress of the Light to have brought so much happiness to one house.

Opening the door, Norhouse saw a strange sight.  The infant witch was right where she’d left her, in a comfortable pile of pillows on the bed, but her eyes were wide open -- staring at what appeared to be a tentacle that was reaching through the window, apparently trying to grab the Sunstrike Staff.  It was, however, not moving at present, making Norhouse suspect that the witch had frozen it with the powers of the Weave of Time.  The rest of the creature was outside, and Norhouse didn’t know whether Xerchinita had frozen the whole thing or just this one tentacle, but in an instant she set the milk carefully down, grabbed her sword and the chakram, and leapt out the window.

As she’d suspected, the tentacle was fixed in place as if it were made of iron and embedded in stone.  She landed deftly on a horizontal section of it to look at the rest of it.  There was enough light from the surrounding buildings for her to see that the monster attached to the tentacle was climbing the outer wall of the inn -- or had been climbing it, as it was now unmoving.  The bizarre creature seemingly had eyes all over its body, but none of them were moving or even blinking either.  Apparently her friend had the whole thing frozen in time.

That was something of a dilemma.  How was she going to kill it if it was stuck magically in time, harder than iron?  Well, Norhouse had some magic of her own.  Swinging down the frozen tentacle, she stood atop the thing’s body and took a swing at the tentacle with the glowing blue sword.  She felt no resistance as it continued on through, almost as if the tentacle weren’t there.  She looked at the sword, nodding with approval and noting that there was no blood, ichor, or whatever this creature had, on the blade.  She couldn’t tell, though, whether she’d actually cut the thing.  If there was a wound, it was like a fine crack in a block of marble, too narrow to see.

From here she leapt to the ground, doing a flip in the air and landing with a somersault, ending up back on her feet in the darkened street in front of the inn.  A shady-looking passerby, likely a pickpocket or mugger, noticed this acrobatic woman with two glowing weapons and turned away to take a different path.  

Norhouse aimed the chakram and threw it overhand, sending it spinning at the creature’s body, now that she had some distance to work with, and struck it edge-on.  It continued parallel to the inn wall, through the monster, past it, and then around and back through the air to Norhouse, who caught it in her fingers.  Again, she didn’t see a wound in the monster, but she suspected that when the witch released it from her time spell, it would have one or two major difficulties, such as being missing a tentacle and also cut bodily in half.

She nodded and reentered the inn.  The innkeeper did a double-take when he saw her, saying, “Now, weren’t yer just upstairs, then?”  

Norhouse nodded and hurried back up the stairs and into the room, where she set down the chakram, picked up Xerchinita, and held her sword at the ready.

“I caused the critter some problems outside, Xerchi,” she said to the witch.  “I think you can let it go now.”

The baby nodded, and suddenly the tentacle flopped to the floor, then slipped back out the window.  They heard it fall with a squelching flop onto the cobblestoned alleyway outside.  Norhouse looked out the window and saw that the rest of the creature, including its other long tentacles, was lying motionless below, in a pool of greenish-gray goo.  

“That worked pretty well,” said Norhouse.  “And woe betide anything who looks at you as you are and thinks you’re helpless.”

She sat down with the witch, making sure her sword and the Sunstrike Staff were both within easy reach, and started to feed her the bottle.  The milk was easily still warm.  The infant witch nursed thirstily and happily.
When Norhouse awoke again, the first golden rays of early dawn were starting to stream through the window. Norhouse quickly and carefully removed the Time Weaver cloth from Xerchinita. Instantly, the infant began to grow larger, and within a short span, Xerchinita had returned to her normal size.

Xerchinita quickly dressed after doing a short washover with the rag left by a large bowl full of water for just that purpose. Once dressed, Xerchinita packed all her things back into the the small pack, then placed her crystal wand in its holster about her waist. She picked up the staff and moved to the door.

Xerchinita said softly, “That … was a rather interesting night. I had such lovely dreams too.”

Before Norhouse could say anything, they both heard Leha scream. They hurried down stairs just as the girl came rushing back in. She pointed out the still open door and said with gasping fear in her voice, “There’s … there … theresa thing … a … dunno whacha calls it out there. Is in two parts n gots goo all round it … but … it there!”

Norhouse put her arm around the scared girl’s shoulders and said soothingly, “It’s alright. We’ll go out and take a look see.”

Norhouse noticed the strange expression on the Innkeeper's face as she and Xerchinita left.

Xerchinita said softly as they rounded the cottage, “That … was more something a man would say than a lady.”  Norhouse bit her lip.  She had to watch that.

They came to the back of the cottage and found the dead creature lying right where it had been sliced last night. It looked like some kind of large slug with 6 tentacles, three on a side. It had many eyes, and apparently was made of some kind of gelatinous substance.

Xerchinita walked up and looked the remains over. It was obvious this was some kind of construct summoned of magics, and not a creature of this realm. She took the staff and slammed it to the ground amid a large shower of fiery sparks. A blue/white flash of icy fire and the remains of the creature vanished leaving no trace behind.

Xerchinita said, “We need to be off to the woodcutter’s home as soon as possible. I don’t want to be caught out in the forest in the dark with creatures like that after me.”

Norhouse replied as she pulled the door to the stable open, “Nor would I.”

The women packed their things onto their horses, gave the stable boy more gold coins just because, and mounted their steeds gracefully. They left the town quickly, before they had to answer too many questions. Norhouse was sure many would know who Xerchinita was, but some questions might best be left to the townsfolk’s imagination.

The sun rose quickly into the sky and the day became hot and dry. The road was dusty and Xerchinita removed a small bottle from her pouch and handed it to Norhouse. She said, “Drink this slowly, it’s some tea I made before we left.”

Norhouse took the bottle and undid its tie. She lifted it to her lips … and the most amazing ambrosia she had ever tasted filled her mouth.

“Not too much,” said the witch.  “You won’t have to drink again all day now, but too much of that and you might find yourself suddenly having to run behind a tree at an inopportune moment.”

They crossed the river at a stone bridge, but the road led into a dense forest.  There was a trail, but the going became slower, and they had to ride single file, Norhouse going first.  

“I suppose not many people use this way other than the woodcutter,” she said.  She looked behind her … and Xerchinita was nowhere to be seen.  “What?  Xerchinitaaaaa!” she called out.  There was no answer.

She stopped moving, thinking that she had perhaps just gotten too far ahead and the witch would soon catch up.  But after something like a quarter of an hour, Norhouse still hadn’t seen any sign of her friend, and she was getting more and more worried -- not that it was likely that anything would get the better of Xerchinita, but that perhaps Norhouse herself had fallen into a trap of some kind.

That was when Norhouse noticed that the trees around her were seeming denser than they had just minutes ago -- and she hadn’t moved one step.  

“OK,” she said, “now we’ve got evil magic tree monsters.  What’s next, things that attack from out of the dirt?”  She looked warily at the ground.  “And don’t take that as a suggestion,” she said to the imaginary dirt monsters.

She saw a bird flying by overhead and wished she could look down on the forest for a better view -- then remembered that she had the Banner of Air.  She could.  She moved as if to dismount but concentrated on continuing upward, and the air suddenly whirled around and beneath her, bearing her up into the sky.  It seemed as if branches clutched at her and tried to catch her skirts as she rose, but it happened too quickly.  Soon she was above every tree, and she could barely see her horse below.  But what she did see was strange -- the trees around her were sharp, angular, like the teeth of a mouth.

“I’m not going to let some tree monster chew me up and swallow me!” she said.  “Let’s see what this thing can do.”  

She concentrated on the Banner of Air, and it swirled around her furiously.  Clouds gathered and darkened, and lightning struck one of the menacing trees, blackening its trunk.  It began to rain, and Norhouse came down for a landing beside her horse.  She took a deep breath because it seemed right to do so, then imagined sending the tree monsters away -- all of them, pushing very hard.   The wind howled like a hurricane and whipped around her, but didn’t touch her.

Then the air cleared.  She looked around.  For twenty or thirty yards in every direction, every tree had been knocked down -- all of them in a direction away from her.  That had not been a natural storm -- as she knew, for she had caused it.  And right then Xerchinita came into view, from ahead down the trail, looking surprised at this unnatural clearing, tree trunks splintered and broken, though the ones nearby had strange black wood inside them, crawling with beetles.  

“So … that’s what separated us,” she said, surveying the damage.

“Guess so,” Norhouse said.  “What were those trees?”

“They’re all one tree, though it looks like several,” Xerchinita answered.  “It grows in the dark places.  Part tree, part demon.  It shifts around, confuses travelers, and tries to devour them.  It must be here because of the broken pillars -- the rules that keep the old chaotic places separate from the sunlit worlds are weakening.  But it didn’t count on you being armed with ancient arcana.”

“The Banner of Air is powerful enough to knock down this many trees at once, I guess,” Norhouse said.

“I imagine that you’ve only scratched the surface,” commented the witch.  “Let’s keep moving.  We don’t know what else might be around.”

Both women noticed the small flash off in the shadows. It was easy to see since it lit a small area up brightly for an instant. The horrid smell of brimstone came to their noses.

Norhouse wrinkled up her nose in a cute way and said, “Whew! Apparently some critter has just arrived.”

Xerchinita drew her horse up short. A very unusual worried look on her pretty face, “I think more than one creature is here stalking us this time.” Xerchinita slid from her horse gracefully and drew her wand from its holster, “Apparently whoever that person was we saw, wants us dead.”

Norhouse pulled the chakram from its leathern case and held the pulsing crystal star in her hand. She glanced down at it and realized the armband and the chakram were both pulsing with the same icy blue cold fire. Xerchinita removed the Orb of Casting from its pouch and held it in her other hand. It too began to fill with a swirling mist that took on the same icy cold blue fire the other arcana had.

Xerchinita said in a voice that brought chills to Norhouse, “Come, o creatures of the pit, let the Sorceress of Light fill your darkness.”

Cackling laughter filled the still thickly standing trees and brush outside the circle where the tree creature had been vanquished. A large tree was suddenly bodily ripped from the ground, dirt and splinters flung all around. A large ogre-like demon with long fangs came into the clearing. Several other of the ugliest kind came out in sort of a semicircle around the two women.

Xerchinita laughed, “Yuxzk? You old ugly critter.”

“You know its name?” Norhouse whispered to the witch, who ignored the question.

“Who in their right mind would let something as ugly and stupid as you from its cage?” Xerchinita continued.

As the creature growled horribly and showed many fangs and long sharp claws, Norhouse whispered, “I don’t think you should antagonize … that thing.”

Xerchinita replied, “Why not? It’s fun to make an idiot look even more stupid … don’t you think?”

The creature totally lost it and lunged towards Xerchinita, growling loudly. Norhouse could see the flames around its eyes and smell the brimstone smoke coming from its ears and nose. With a quick flick of her wrist, the witch threw the Orb of Casting. With a loud echoing Zeeeoooop! It crossed the distance to the creature and then seemed to explode in an icy blue fire.

The creature screamed in pain as it fell over and wallowed on the ground. Its companions stopped in mid-attack and looked at each other for an instant, then vanished in a dark, misty, brimstone smelling cloud. The Orb of Casting returned to Xerchinita’s hand and once again seemed to fill with the pulsing blue icy fire as before.

Xerchinita said softly, “I am very sorry, Yuxzk, but I think those kinds of wounds tend to cause protracted suffering and are ultimately fatal unless treated by the Light.”

Yuxzk rolled on the ground and screamed in its horrible way. The most awful thing it could possibly think of, was having Light touch within its darkness.  It writhed, then suddenly stopped -- and then howled out one long, final scream as its body seemed to develop dark cracks throughout and shatter in an explosion of agony.

“What -- just happened?” Norhouse asked.  “Is it dead?”

“Yes and no,” Xerchinita answered.  “It chose to destroy its own material form rather than allow me to heal it with the Light, which I would have, if it had allowed it.  Its essence returned to the outer dark, so it’s not gone forever -- but it will take time for it to form another material body.  Probably about a hundred years, actually.  It’s a big one.”

“All right -- let’s head for the woodcutter’s house, then,” said Norhouse.  “Assuming he hasn’t taken his family and fled, with all this going on.”

They turned from the blasted clearing that hadn’t existed just an hour before, and continued down the trail through the woods.  It wasn’t long before they saw a thin trail of smoke rising up into the air nearby, and soon after they saw the outline of a log cabin through the trees, off the trail to the left, with a stone chimney.  It was refreshing to smell smoke that didn’t smell like brimstone.  They found the path that led to the small clearing around the cabin, hitched their horses to trees, and went to the door.

“After you, O wise and powerful Swamp Witch,” said Norhouse, motioning toward the door.

“No, after you, O mighty warrior,” said Xerchinita with a giggle.

Norhouse grinned slightly and knocked on the cabin door.  

“Who -- who’s there?” came a man’s voice.  “If you mean us harm, we won’t give up without a fight!”

Norhouse turned her head and said to Xerchinita, “Well, he’s got a right to be scared, with all that’s been going on …”  Then she turned back to the door and said, more loudly,  “We’re here on saving-the-world business!  Besides, if we meant you harm, would we be knocking on the door like civilized people and waiting for you to open it?”

The man’s voice said, “I … suppose you wouldn’t.” The door is yanked open. A rather large mountain of a man stood menacingly within holding a double headed axe at the ready, “Then again, it might just be the ploy … Oh … goodness …,” the man lowers the axe as he bows at the waist, “I had no idea such lovely ladies were at my humble door. Please, enter and be welcome.”

Norhouse felt a tingle run down her spine. It had been quite a few years since someone had referred to her in that manner. Both women gracefully entered the cottage. The man showed them to a large sitting place near the fireplace. He pulled up a chair made of logs and sat across from them.

The man called, “Lunda? Lunda, come here and meet our visitors. It’s OK, it’s none of those creature things we’ve seen scurrying about.”

A thick wooden door creaked open and a small woman in a white linen smock peered out. In her arms she carried a very cute little baby all wrapped in swaddling clothes. After a moment, she entered the room proper and walked up to the man and stood beside him.

The man said, My name’s Druugh. This is my princess wife Lunda, and the baby is my daughter, Sherilly.”

The woman curtsied shyly as she punched the man playfully in his shoulder. She said, “Hush, you old goat. You’re not supposed to tell people that.”

The man took the woman by her hand and smiled up at her, “Well, and why not? Are you not Lady Lunda of Darthmoore?”

She blushed softly pink as she looked to the floor.

Xerchinita said, “I am so glad to meet you. Now, It makes more sense how what we came to chat with you about came to be where it is.”

Drrugh asked, “And just what is it that is so earth savingly important an obviously highborn lady and her lady in waiting would come and visit us way out here?”

Norhose said, “Now, wait just …”

Xerchinita placed her hand on Norhouse’s arm. Norhouse fell silent. Xerchinita replied softly, “We are on an important quest to gather as many arcana as we can together to undo a great evil that has been done.”

Lady Lunda spoke up, her eyes wide, “It’s the Stone of Binding, isn’t it? You’ve come to take it.”

Xerchinita said reassuringly, “We didn’t come to take it, but perhaps trade something of great value for it? it is of the greatest importance we obtain it.”

Druugh spoke up and asked, “Great Value? And just what value can be placed on something as priceless as a baby’s rattle?”

Xerchinita held out her hand. There is a small flash of light. She is suddenly holding a baby rattle made of the finest Ivory, encrusted with many sparkling gemstones. When Xerchinita shook it, it gave off the most pleasant sound of falling rain one had ever heard. The baby immediately reached for the rattle. Xerchinita gave it to the infant who began to shake it gleefully. The soft soothing sound of a summer rain filled the room, complete with the fresh clean smell of ozone and rain.

Xerchinita said softly, “I will also give to the Lady, this.” she handed over a small hinged box obviously made of the finest wood. The hinges appeared to be made of gold. Many large gemstones adorned the lid and sparkled brightly. Lady Lunda took the box and opened it. Within was a disc of a violet-colored metal, engraved with a many-pointed star and intricate arcane symbols.  Her eyes widened in recognition.

“I know what this is about, Druugh,” said Lady Lunda.  “The Stone of Binding … it’s older than we thought, isn’t it?  It’s an ancient arcanum.” Xerchinita and Norhouse both nodded.  “It is said that the Stone can bring together two pieces of a broken whole and bind them together more strongly than they were bound to begin with.  It’s happened, hasn’t it?  The Pillars.  One of them’s been broken, maybe more.”

“Two, that we know of,” said Norhouse.

“That’s the only thing that could explain the things we’ve seen,” Lady Lunda said.  Her husband nodded silently.

“You must have had some training in the mystic arts,” said Xerchinita.  “Not many people know these things.”
Lady Lunda nodded.  “My mother was a powerful Sorceress of Light.”

“Sorceress Liandra?” asked Xerchinita.  “You’re her daughter?”

“You’ve heard of her!”

“My teacher was her friend,” Xerchinita said.

“But this … this is the Chakra of Wishes,” said Lady Lunda. “It grants any wish within reason, if made with a good heart.  Why would you give this up?”

“It’s not an ancient arcanum,” the witch said.  “It’s powerful, but it’s not powerful enough to fix what’s been broken.”

“Well, I don’t know as much magic as my mother,” said Lady Lunda, “but I know enough to know that power stolen is weaker than power given.  I accept your trade.”  She went across the room and opened a large wooden toy chest.  “Here is the Stone of Binding,” she said, holding forth a wooden baby rattle, ornately carved, with a brilliant green jewel at the end of its handle.  “May it'll heal the world.”

“You can do it?” asked Druugh.

“We will try,” said Norhouse.  “We have the blessing of the Genie, the Knights inducted us into their order, and we’ve seen the old man who’s doing this.  I don’t know of any better hope.”

Xerchinita added, “They also had enough confidence in us to induct us as Knights of the Protectorate. They even gave us new and more powerful tools to deal with whatever is to come.”

Druugh sat back and rubbed his chin with his huge calloused hand, “It would seem to me if such beings as those chose the two of you, there are none better to give that stone to. I was actually sorta worried onena those weird critters been sniffin around wuz gonna poke its nose in my door.” With this, he picked up his double bladed axe and held it up, “I don’t think they woulda been none too happy when they left.”

Norhouse and the witch laughed. Both could imagine him swinging that axe and making huge piles of mush out of many of the creatures of darkness. Xerchinita quickly removed her crystal wand from its holster and gracefully flicked it in the direction of the axe. A very bright white light flashed from around its head, then began to softly pulsate.

Lady Lunda’s eyes widened as she raised her eyebrows, “You have given the Enchantment of Light to his axe.”

Xerchinita replied, “It will aid in keeping any … darkness from creeping too close. Although, a good whack with it on the braver ones will cause gravely serious damage.”

Druugh smiled, “I would cause gravely serious damage to any of those smelly things regardless.”

Norhouse snorted softly, “I’m sure you would.”

All laughed as Druugh and Lady Lunda invited them to sup with them and offered a room with a straw bed for the night. A far better proposition than sleeping in the wood with creatures of darkness creeping about.

The women were finally alone in their room. Norhouse removed the time weaver cloth and smiled to herself. She turned and said, “Can I ask you a favor?”

Xerchinita didn’t look up as she rummaged through her pack, “Sure, as long as it isn’t something out of hand.”

Norhouse looked at the cloth, “It might be on one hand … on the other, maybe not.”

Xerchinita turned and looked at Norhouse. Even with her muscular frame and short hair, Norhouse was a very becoming woman. Xerchinita said warily, “OK, so what is it?”

Norhouse handed Xerchinita the time weaver cloth, “Would you submit to being my baby again? It made me so happy to just … hold you and stuff.”

Xerchinita’s mouth opened for an instant before she closed it again. Then she said, “Sure, why not? I liked being in that condition and besides, it will give me insight into things for tomorrow.”

Xerchinita removed her clothes and lay on the soft bed. Norhouse grinned as she took Xerchinita by her ankles and lifted, placed the folded time weaver cloth beneath her, then put her hinny in its embrace. Norhouse didn’t have time to completely fasten it on before Xerchinita had shrunk to an infant once again.

Norhouse picked the infant witch to her breast, then sat on the edge of the bed, softly patting the baby’s hinny while humming a lullaby. Norhouse had never really thought about having children, nor had she much thought of herself as a woman. Holding the infant Xerchinita and caring for her this way made something inside her feel so … wonderful. Norhouse smiled down at the apparently sleeping infant. She gently balled up the baby’s left hand’s fingers and stuck the thumb in Xerchinita’s mouth. Norhouse smiled broadly at how adorable Xerchinita looked sucking her thumb. A wonderful feeling of completeness washed through Norhouse as she thought of all the time she could have like this.

Xerchinita, on the other hand, externally was all baby, but in her spirit, she rode the threads of time as the time weaver showed her things from the far past. A creature from the very dawn appeared in her mind’s eye. Xerchinita knew at that point, things were a whole lot worse than what she had thought. They were up against one of the actual Underlords of Chaos … but then the vision slowly gave way to infantile dreams of soft things, warm things, and toys that rattled and went squeak.

The dawn came without further attacks by eldritch otherworldly creatures -- perhaps the lessons they had taught them the previous day were well learned, or perhaps there simply weren’t any left in the area.  In any case, Norhouse helped Xerchinita out of the Weave of Time so they could both get dressed and ready for the day, and they spotted Druugh going out to chop firewood at the woodpile behind the cabin.

“Morning, ladies,” he said, setting a log on a tree stump that he apparently used as a chopping block and going to work.  “Lundra and the baby are up -- she’s probably getting some breakfast together.  You’re welcome to have some, I’m sure.  Where are you off to next?”

“We should check on some of the other Pillars,” said Xerchinita.  “The Pillar of Water and Slumber is probably still intact … I get the impression that the Pillar of Earth and Darkness was the second one lost, so we need to visit that one to see what we can do.  Then there is the Pillar of Ice and Starlight, and the Pillar of Nature and Spirit.”

“These are places of legend,” said the woodsman as he worked.  “Are they … real?  Do you know the way?”

“They’re as real as that axe in your hand,” Norhouse said.  “Well, the ones I’ve seen are, and I’ve no reason to doubt the rest.  I guess you have to find the magic portals that take you to them, and she knows where those are.”  She pointed to Xerchinita.  “It’s the sort of thing she has to know, being a witch and Sorceress of Light and all.”

“Hm.  Well, least we can do is get you fed before you set out again,” said Druugh.  “See you inside.”  The two travelers thanked him and went to the cabin.

“Good morning!  You’re in for a treat,” said Lady Lunda when they knocked on the door.  “I’m making my famous pancakes -- now, these are no simple flapjacks; they’re pancakes the way they make them up north.”

“Oh … I miss those so much,” said Norhouse.  “With the crispy edges that puff up and the powdered sugar and fruit.”

“You’re from the north?  I’ve got relatives up there.  Learned it from them.”

“Can I help?” Norhouse asked.  “I always used to help make them as a child.”

“Please do!” said Lady Lunda.  “Just be sure to wash up first.”

Seeing that there was one remaining job to do, Xerchinita said, “I’ll watch the baby.”  The little girl was in a high chair -- wooden, of course, and probably made by Druugh -- babbling up a storm as she shook her new rattle, making the sound of rain.  

The witch moved a chair next to the baby and sat down.  “My, you’re having a good time, aren’t you?  I’m glad you like that rattle -- it was mine, you know.  I’m glad you agreed to trade with me -- yours is going to help us save the world.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In a place darker than dark a creature sat and brooded over long horrid thoughts. It knew all of its eternally long planning and waiting was about to end. A lord of Chaos had told it so. At long last it would be able to roam at will and take what so ever it chose.

A massive quake rumbled through and through the realm. Something that appeared to be a jagged lightning bolt stretched from eternally above to eternally below. Another massive quake and the realm was no longer dark, but light spread through the crack of infinity throughout the realm.

All the creatures of the pit gathered at the widening crack, jumping, squealing, growling in anticipation of freedom. Soon, it would the time of feasting …

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Breakfast was over, the chores done, the women had packed their horses and once again begun to travel. The town was far to their backs and the sun past zenith by the time Norhouse drew rein and slid from her horse.

Norhouse said as she removed her new crystalline armor from her saddle pack, “I think it would behoove me to be more man than woman in these parts. I have worked here in the past and the folk know me better as Norhouse the adventurer, than Norhouse the woman.”

Xerchinita watched as Norhouse bound her breasts so they wouldn’t show and donned her armor. Xerchinita said, “It must be rather uncomfortable to be so bound. And you are such a lovely woman too. It’s a shame to hide that fact.”

Norhouse looked at Xerchinita for an instant, before bending and putting on her grieves, “The way a woman is treated in these parts, I don’t think it would be too wise, since there are those unsavory types looking for a fight.”

As Norhouse remounted her horse completely in her new armor, Xerchinita waved her hand in front of her, her armor appeared on her body in a sparkling shower of light. It was obvious Xerchinita was a woman, as her armor was made for a female.

Xerchinita said softly, “I don’t think it would take but one such fool to try something with me, before the whole of the area would know just how much folly it is.”

Norhouse said as she urged her horse on, “Maybe so, but most know me as a man hereabouts, not as a woman, and it would be more advantageous for us to present myself as all know me.”

Xerchinita nodded and the two women rode on mostly in silence towards their next destination,  The Portal to the Pillar of Earth and Darkness to see the White Dragon … something Norhouse had only heard about in children’s bedtime stories.

“If you know these lands,” said Xerchinita, “the portal is behind an old statue garden by the ancient Chapel of Arindue.”

“In the Forest of Dueron,” Norhouse said, nodding.  She was trying to think of herself as “he” again.  It was an easy habit to get back into.  “Many years ago it was a well-traveled road, but the Chapel is a ruin now -- it began its decline when they built the temple in Arinston.  Nobody wanted to go out to the forest to pray anymore when they could just stay in town, except the die-hard old followers, and in time they all passed away.  It’s been centuries since then, though.  I heard the story from the locals.”

“Well, then, the only trouble we should have getting there is … whatever isn’t supposed to be there,” said the witch, and they both thought of their experience in the forest trying to reach Druugh and Lunda’s house.

“If it isn’t supposed to be there, then we’ll just have to send it packing,” said Norhouse.  “Now, once we crest this hill we should see Arinston -- yes, there it is, you can see it on the horizon.”  

There in the distance was a city, most of its buildings obviously made of the yellowish stone that was common in this area, the sky above it gray with a haze of smoke from its chimneys.

“The portal is to the west,” said Xerchinita, “and the road we need branches off before we get to town.”

“But there are several villages between here and there,” Norhouse said.  “There will be plenty of opportunities for ambush, if our adversary so wishes.  We should be ready.”

“Yes we should.”
 
They followed the road to a small village where the children gathered to watch them pass, staring in amazement at their glowing blue and white armor.  Norhouse smiled and waved at them.

A few miles later there was another village, and the same thing happened, except that one of the villagers, a blacksmith by his apron and tools, came out too, and called out, “Well if it isn’t Norhouse!  Still fighting the good fight?”

“Angus!” said Norhouse, shaking the man’s hand firmly.  “How are your wife and kids?  That family heirloom hasn’t gone missing again, has it?”

“No, after you found it for us we’ve been extra careful,” said the blacksmith.  “And they’re doing fine.  Little Fionn almost broke his leg playing kickstones, but the key word is ‘almost.’  Off on another errand, then?  Protecting this lovely lady here?  And look at that armor you’ve got -- what’s it even made of?”

“Sometimes she protects me!” Norhouse said.  “Yes, we’re on a mission -- pretty important.  The armor’s a long story, but there’s magic involved.  I’d stop to talk, but I’m afraid I really can’t.  I’m glad things are well.”

“I understand,” Angus said.  “Hope to see you soon -- fare thee well, my friend!”

“And you, my friend,” said Norhouse, and they rode on.

“I guess people do recognize you here,” Xerchinita said.

As they passed through, there were several more who came up and were very glad to see Norhouse and commented on her new armor. It was quite obvious none suspected she was a woman, although she made a very cute man.

They finally arrived at the Abbey. The roof of the Temple Proper had long since fallen in and wild growth had encroached into the structure in many places. Norhouse thought it strange that the graveyard and crypt area was in prim condition. This made her very wary.

Both women slid gracefully from their horses. Xerchinita drew her wand and gave it a graceful flick of her wrist. A large blue/white sparkling flash of light and reality seemed to bend before Norhouse. A huge shimmering pool of … something opened in front of her. She could see ghostly images flickering across its moving surface, but couldn’t tell exactly what they might have been.

Xerchinita said, “And that, “ she pointed to the pool of light, “is the portal to the Pillar of Earth and Darkness.”

Norhouse drew her sword from its scabbard as Xerchinita stepped into the circle of light. With a sound of crackling ice, she vanished. Norhouse took a deep breath, then stepped through to find herself in a very dark place.  She could see Xerchinita’s glowing white armor but not much else, until the witch sang a few notes of a song in an arcane tongue, apparently causing some of those tiny motes of light she’d summoned before to arrive and hover in the air around them.  They stood before a huge rock face with a very large opening in it.  Apparently they were standing on stone as well.  Other than that Norhouse couldn’t see, because wherever they were, there was only darkness above and behind them.

“White Dragon,” called Xerchinita into the cave mouth, “are you here?  We suspect that something terrible has happened!  May we speak with you?”

There was no immediate answer.  “Perhaps it is too deep within its cave to hear us.”

“We should go closer,” said Norhouse.  “Normally I wouldn’t say that, but Iatril is a decent enough dragon, and this is supposed to be the guardian who stayed to protect the Pillar, or what’s left of it.”

“Indeed we should,” Xerchinita said and began stepping cautiously into the cavern.  There were boulders and stalagmites in the way, and her light spell was not very bright.  Norhouse followed.

In the distance Norhouse began to see a cool blue glow, faintly at first, then growing stronger.  Once it was clear that its source lay around a bend in the cavern, Xerchinita tried calling out again.  “White Dragon, I am Xerchinita, Sorceress of Light, and this is my traveling companion, Norhouse -- we have come to find out what happened here!  Will you speak with us?”

“Come, then,” said a rumbling voice.  “There may yet be hope.  Come, and I will show you what I have seen.”

The travelers worked their way among the rocks toward the light, coming around the bend to see a massive cavern, in the center of which were the remains of a column that had once stretched upward into the darkness, out of sight, as the cavern’s ceiling was not visible, but now lay in ruin.  Among the rubble sat an immense dragon, easily four times Iatril’s length, powerful in body and mighty in presence, with glistening white scales and bluish spikes and horns covering its body.  Around it was a chill white mist that glowed slightly.  

“Ah, there you are,” said the Dragon in its deep, rumbling voice, looking at them with its huge cobalt blue eyes.  “You see there the remains of the means of the Pillar’s destruction, the catspaw of the true villain who shattered it.”  It gestured with a slight tilt of its head.

Following the gesture, Norhouse and Xerchinita both saw a charred skeleton impaled upon a stalagmite.  There was no way to say how long it had been there.

“That seems to be what this guy does,” Norhouse said.  “He tricks some fool into getting close, then destroys the Pillar from afar, which usually causes the fool’s death.”

“The two of you have spoken with the Genie and the Knights,” rumbled the Dragon.  “But let me show you what I saw.”  

It turned its head and sighed, emitting more shimmering pale mist in a cloud to one side of the two travelers. In the cloud appeared images -- the swordsman, his challenge, the erratically-moving ball of red lightning, its shattering of the Pillar, the flight of the Black Dragon.

“That -- wait, that can’t be,” said Xerchinita.  “Can you show me that orb of crimson lightning again?”

“Yes,” the Dragon rumbled, and the image in the mist showed the red lightning once more.

“Have you read about such things?” Norhouse asked.

“Yes,” said both Xerchinita and the Dragon at the same time.  They looked at each other in surprise.
“One of the most powerful of the ancient arcana is the Gauntlet of Obliteration, also known as the Glove of Infernes,” Xerchinita said.  “It is mentioned only in the oldest stories.  It was thought to have been lost, when the Prince of Chaos, Infernes the Render, was defeated by literally armies of the forces of Light.  His hand was cut off and fell into the primal chaos, and the Gauntlet with it.  Nothing is supposed to be able to survive that intact.”

“Yet there it is,” said the Dragon, “the rending forces of destruction that only the Gauntlet can wield.  I have seen them before -- I was present at that battle.  Someone has found the Gauntlet and is using it.  They have learned its secret.”

“The secret … of how to make it work?” asked Norhouse.

“To use it,” rumbled the Dragon ominously, “one must sacrifice an ally.  It cannot target an enemy.  Its bolt must travel in friendly footsteps, and an ally will be slain in its wake -- if they do not die by other means first.  But it brings destruction when it detonates.”

“That’s why our adversary talks someone into going in and stays behind,” Xerchinita said.  “That particular detail is not in the version I read.”

“No wielder of the Gauntlet would speak of it, of course,” said the Dragon.  “And I suspect that the forces of Chaos have endeavored to keep their secrets out of human tomes.”

“Who could use something like that?” asked Norhouse.  “I mean, aside from a complete and total jerk.  Who has the power to wield such a powerful weapon of chaos?”

“Lords of Chaos,” said the Dragon, “or Underlords, perhaps, if they have the will.”

“We can’t leave out humans,” Xerchinita added.  “Some of the blackest-hearted sorcerers would love to have that kind of power.  They’re out there.”

“It is obvious that the two of you have given your oaths to defend the remaining Pillars,” said the Dragon.  “And you have the Blue Fires of Heliosphar.  That is, in fact, my name.  It has been some time since I lent my flame to those arm-rings and that wand.  I would bolster their strength, which must have waned over the millennia.”

“He means he’s going to breathe ice at us, and we’ll be fine, so don’t run away,” said Xerchinita.  She took out the odd crystalline wand with its coil of metallic wire, holding it aloft.

Norhouse said nothing but braced herself.  Or himself.  Or whatever.

The Dragon, Heliosphar, took a deep breath, then exhaled forcefully toward the two travelers.  An icy wind like ten thousand blizzards buffeted them, but although it looked like it would freeze them to ice, they felt only a slightly chilly breeze.  When Norhouse looked up at the wand in Xerchinita’s hand, she saw that it was shining a brilliant blue and taking in the vast ice magic of the dragon’s breath.  The bangles on their arms were also affected, their blue jewels also shining brightly.

“It is not for nothing that the Knights honored you,” the Dragon said when this was done.  “I am weakened by the Black Dragon’s absence, but your power is now bolstered, the wand and bangles are as strong as they were when they were new.  You have other ancient arcana, so together they may be enough to counter the Gauntlet’s devastation.”

With this, Heliosphar said in its deep voice, “I bid thee farewell and may all the creators be with you on this quest. Failure is not an option.”

The massive dragon breathed its icy breath on the two women, they were suddenly standing next to one of the many statues within the graveyard. The ruin of the ancient temple stood in the aura of the setting sun as a skeleton of a long dead creature.

Norhouse looked at his crystal throwing star. It too had been enhanced and glowed bright blue. Norhouse said, “I do hope we are powerful enough to bring an end to this.”

Xerchinita replied, “We are as powerful as our wills allow us to be. Think not on weakness, but on strength. Remember, when you light the lamp, darkness rolls on its side.”

Norhouse nodded, “True enough, but within the light there are shadows that have a tendency to intrude.”

Xerchinita cut her eyes at Norhouse and made a face, “That, you should not dwell upon. Remember that where superstition dwells, so runs the spirit.”

“And just what do you mean …”

Norhouse didn’t get to finish. A massively large oak was bodily ripped from the ground and tossed aside. A creature from a drug induced nightmare stood there with its fangs bared and its leathery wings outspread.

It said in its terrible voice from the darkest pits, “At last, I have found you. Those who seek to imprison us longer. Long have I dreamed of feasting on your flesh, for it was foretold the Knights of the Pillar would come.”

It took several steps closer, the demon’s cloven hoof making massive smoldering impressions in the ground. Xerchinita drew her wand and did a circular waving flick. A massive bolt of eldritch energy flashed to the monster and impacted on its armored chest plates.

The demon stumbled back several steps, before shrugging it off and tossing a huge ball of fire at the two women. Xerchinita dove one direction, Norhouse the other. Bearly did they manage to get out of the total destruction zone of the demon’s attack.  The stones of the ruined chapel behind them were blackened, the vegetation that had grown up between and around them aflame.

Norhouse saw the Orb of Casting lying at her left hand and picked it up and threw it. With a loud hissing, buzzing sound it crossed the distance and impacted on the demon’s armor. Once again in an explosion of icy blue fire, the demon was knocked back, but this time knocked from its feet. The ground trembled and shook with the impact as the demon hit the ground hard.

Infuriated, the demon stood back up and roared a terrible roar, blindly tossing several more huge fiery attacks. The Orb returned to Norhouse’s hand and filled with the swirling blue flames of Heliosphar’s power. The blue gemstone set in the bangle on her arm gleamed brightly.  Without taking an eye off the demon, she took hold of the Banner of Air and used it as a sling. She placed the Orb of Casting within it and began to whirl it above her head. With the sound of a thousand tornadoes, Norhouse released the sphere. A huge sonic boom echoed across the land as it traveled faster than thought to impact on the demon's armor once again.

The blunt Orb pierced the demon’s chest plating by dint of pure momentum, releasing its magical charge once inside.  Blue arcing bolts of icy fire ran up and down the demon’s body as massive amounts of gore splattered everywhere. The monster ceased to make sounds as it fell limply into a smoldering pile of icky goo that constituted what used to be its inner parts … and lots of greenish purple blood.

Norhouse heard the sound of the returning Orb zipping through the air and held up his hand.  It landed faithfully there, blue flame swirling within its heart bravely for a moment, until it faded and was once more merely transparent crystal.  Holding it carefully in one hand, he stepped through the burning undergrowth toward the demon’s body.  The creature lay still and was bleeding profusely from many wounds, the largest of which was in its chest.

“Careful,” said Xerchinita, who was not far behind.

“Don’t worry -- a human this badly wounded would be dead, but this thing’s obviously not human.”

 Norhouse drew his sword and did not gingerly poke the creature with its point.  He stabbed it fiercely where its heart should be, then quickly withdrew the blade and swung with all his strength at its neck.  The glowing blue sword sliced cleanly and true, and the creature’s head was severed.

“We’ll want to step away now,” Xerchinita said, “and quickly.”  

She didn’t have to tell Norhouse twice.  They both moved some distance away, and the demon’s body soon burst into flames -- dark, red flames producing a thick, black smoke that rose only so far into the air and then hung low, as if the sky rejected it.  

“Its material body destroyed, it will return to the outer dark -- the primal chaos behind the world.”

“I hope we don’t have to go there,” said Norhouse.

“We won’t -- unless we fail,” said the witch.  “Then we all go there.”

Xerchinita gathered some of the char left behind from the demons remains. She placed it inside a small locket and closed the hasp. Norhouse saw this, but knew better than to ask too many questions. She was sure that when the time came, Xerchinita would tell what the need for that might be.

The women repacked their horses and mounted, Xerchinita said softly, “I think you need to decide how you're going to handle what’s coming.”

Norhous’s eyes get big in surprise, “How so?” She asked, her voice betraying the fact she was female.

Xerchinita urged her horse forward, “We are traveling towards your home place now. We must see the pillar of Nature and Spirit. Someone there I know you will want to chat with; her name’s Shema.”

“Shema? Echoed Norhouse.

Xerchinita replied, “Yes, it means Spirit.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As they approached the borderlands to Norhouse’s homeland, she became more and more antsy. She had become the adventurer disguised as a man to run from the way those around her treated her. Now, she was returning with one of the greatest honors a man could ever hope to have, Knight and Protector of the Pillars of Creation. She had no idea how those uneducated buffoons were going to handle this.

Xerchinita came up short and slid from her horse. She quickly removed her crystal wand from its holster. She said in that voice … the one that could be felt to the soul and sent chills all through a person, “One thing about robbers, you can smell them from a thousand yards away.”

Several gruff laughs as about a dozen grubby filthy men with weapons of all sorts came from the thick brush.

“Well, boys, that says alot about our hygiene … huh?” Said a rather large man wearing tattered animal hides.

They all laughed again.

Xerchinita made a face and held her nose between her thumb and forefinger, “There’s a river over there I would think might do the lot of you good to be within.”

The man walked up to Xerchinita and said gruffly, “And just who is going to put me there? You? That fancy glowy armor doesn't impress me …”

The man didn’t get to finish his statement. He was suddenly flung through the air by a great flash of icy fire and tossed off into the nearby river. Even as close as the river was, the force required to toss a large man that size that distance, didn’t do his body very well. He landed in a great splash. Fortunately, the sandy bottom was soft and the water where he landed shallow or he would have drowned before he recovered his wits enough to swim.

Several more flashes and several more of the men were down in a blink of an eye. Norhouse didn’t want to be left out of this fray, and snatched his crystal throwing star from its satchel and tossed it towards one of the men. With a loud buzzing sound, it struck 2 more of the men, carving large gashes through their bodies where it passed before returning to Norhouse’s hand, just like the Orb of Casting. Norhouse was impressed with the damage a small toss had just done. If any of the others were still inclined to attack, they would discover what a well meant and hard toss would accomplish.

Xerchinita said in that voice, “Are there any more comments? I have plenty more answers and lots of instructional moves.”

“Run for your lives!” shouted one of the highwaymen, and they promptly scattered in all directions.  The roads were always full of such robbers -- they were balanced only by the local nobility’s soldiers, who were unfortunately easy to see coming, or by travelers who were stronger than they appeared.  Robbers would rarely pick a fight they didn’t think they could win.

“Word will likely spread,” Norhouse said as they rode on.  “I doubt we’ll be bothered again -- even if the leader wants revenge for his humiliating defeat, I doubt he’ll get any volunteers to help.  Robbers like to sow fear, but they also like to stay alive.”

“I believe you’re probably correct,” said Xerchinita.  “Now, the portal to the Pillar of Nature and Spirit is in the heart of an unspoiled wilderness -- where we’re headed is only the place where the road comes closest.”

“You don’t mean the Forbidden Pinelands?” Norhouse said.  “There are a lot of superstitions about that area.  They say that people who go there are cursed.”

“That’s what some say,” agreed the witch.  “Others say that none who go there return unchanged.  And others simply say that they’re a focus of natural power.  Of course, that’s mostly witches.”

“Of course.  So the portal to the Pillar is there?”

“Yes.  And we don’t know where our adversary is, so we don’t know whether he might get there before us -- or whether he’s at one of the other Pillars.  I don’t feel a if a third Pillar has fallen yet, and we’d like to hurry.  If we can get there, perhaps we’ll get another clue about the location of another of the ancient arcana, or at least perhaps the guardians’ help.”

They continued riding for most of the day, and just as the sun began to sink low toward the horizon they began to approach an old stone cottage to one side of the road. Xerchinita drew up and slid from her horse gracefully and began leading it towards the rear as if she owned the place. Norhouse looked at her with askance. Without any kind of warning, a shimmering light formed and resolved into a rather pretty female sprite. She had long silvery white sparkly hair, pointy ears and was dressed in something that Norhouse could only guess at.

In a wonderfully musical voice it said, “Welcome Sister of the Light. The prophecy foretold the Protectors would arrive. I guess it’s no far thought that meant the two of you?”

Norhouse looked at the sprite closely. She seemed to be made of some sort of … smoke, for the lack of a better word. She didn’t appear to be solid as her image softly wavered in and out of opacity.

Xerchinita replied as she tied her horse next to the watering trough close by, “I would suppose it does, Sister. Somehow we managed to get ourselves Knighted by none other than the Knights of Honor and Courage.”

The sprite giggled in a musical way, “Only you could pull off a feat such as that. Like the time you learned how to transform into another form. Old Derkina almost fainted when she learned the statue on her desk was actually you. Moving when you did and handing her her quill was so funny.”

Both the sprite and Xerchinita giggled for an instant, “Yes,” Replied Xerchinita, but I was only eleven then and not fully indoctrinated into the Order of Light.”

The Sprite turned and said to Norhouse, “Welcome to my humble abode. Please do not be … afraid when you enter. The place is a whole lot bigger inside, than out. Oh, my bad manners, I’m Shema, the Spirit Sprite.”

Norhouse dismounted and said as he bowed cordially, “My name is Norhouse, and I’m very honored to meet you.”

The sprite said as it turned and glided to the door to the cottage, “Do I address you as male, or female?” She turned and looked at Norhouse as she opened the door to the cottage and motioned the both of them inside.

“As you wish,” said Norhouse.  “In the world of men I go about as a man named Norhouse and have helped many people and righted many wrongs.  If I went about as Princess Norrice of the House of Nordane, I could have done none of this, for many ignorant people refuse to take a swordswoman seriously -- most of all, sad to say, those of my own family.”

“Princess Norrice of Nordane?” Xerchinita asked.  “I knew you had the bearing of nobility about you.”

“Well there’s no need to hide among you magic types, who can see though a simple disguise,” Norhouse said.  “You’re not the people I’m trying to fool anyway.”

“I can see the blight on your spirit,” said Shema.

“What, from going around pretending to be someone I’m not?”

“No, from being at odds with those who you thought loved you,” the sprite said.  “There must have come a day when everything changed.”

“My mother had one child,” said Norhouse.  “My father was a mighty warrior, expert at many forms of combat and renowned throughout the land.  He had no son to teach, so he taught me, and I learned well.  He also taught me about honor and bravery.  But Mother, my aunts, my cousins, the Queen, all said that it did not befit a girl to learn to fight -- that I should learn music and embroidery and dancing.  None could gainsay my father’s will, though, for in the Northlands, as in many lands, the will of the father comes first.  But then … he took ill.  As he weakened he remained steadfast that I should be the protector and defender that he had been, girl or no.”

“I’m sorry,” Xerchinita said, putting a hand on Norhouse’s as they sat at a round table in a dining room that should not have fit within Shema’s cottage.  “You must have loved him.”

“He was -- he was my guiding light,” Norhouse said, gulping back a sob.  “The illness was so fast.  And -- the day after his funeral the Queen called me before her and said I was to be married to some Duke I’d never met and should put aside all this ‘foolishness’ about protecting the land.  That very night I heard that there were reports of trolls menacing the eastern villages, and none who could stand before them -- there was nothing else I could do.  The King’s army would have taken weeks to organize and get there.  I could get there by dawn.”

“Trolls,” said Xerchinita.  “Tough customers.  Also, terrible breath.”

“You can say that again,” Norhouse said, with a bit of a laugh.  “They’re big, but they’re also slow, and easier in daylight if you can find their lairs.  My father taught me that.”

“Someday you will have strong daughters, and you can teach them what you’ve learned,” said Shema.  “None can dispute what you have already achieved, and you shall achieve still more.”

“There will have to be a day of reckoning,” said Xerchinita.  “Not just with our adversary -- with your family.  When it comes, there will be no way for them to deny that they all owe their lives to you.”

“Let’s not count our chickens just yet,” Norhouse said, standing up.  “That villain is still out there, and who knows what pillar he’s plotting to assault next?”

“About that,” said Shema.  “I sense a disturbance approaching in the flow of Spirit.  He may be near.”

“What?” Norhouse asked.  “He cannot be allowed to destroy another Pillar!”

“Agreed,” said Xerchinita.  “Can you tell how much time we have?”

Shema seemed to … become almost transparent for a bit, then returned. She said with concern in her tone, “I fear we have much to prepare for and no time within which to do it.”

Xerchinita stood, knocking over the chair she was sitting in. With a wave of her hand, she stood in the now brightly glowing armor of a Protectorate. She withdrew her crystal wand and held it at the ready. Norhouse didn’t quite know what to do as Shema even took on an armored appearance suddenly.

Xerchinita flicked her wand, and Norhouse too was fully armored in his Protectorate armor. Norhouse instinctively drew sword, turned, and went to one knee as the oaken door exploded into many jagged shards. With a mighty swing, a very surprised Orc fell into two very gory pieces as it tried to bully its way into the room.

The roaring stench of many more came from just out the door as Norhouse lunged through the now shattered entry way into the front yard. He swung his sword and parried hard as two large Orcs attacked with their war clubs. The impact of their attack ran all through Norhouse’s shoulders, but his guard held firm.

Xerchinita was no slouch as she too entered the fray. Massive amounts of ethereal energy erupted across the attacking hoard’s front line, causing many to fall, unable to arise again. Many more were tossed like chaff in the wind, while the better armored ones stumbled and howled in pain.

Shema entered the fight with sparkling blue lights of energy that settled on many of the Orc’s heads. They fell to their knees and screamed in total horrid pain as their souls were shredded by an attack never before encountered by Orcdom.

Norhouse saw far off on a rise near a large tree, a dark image of a person in a hooded cloak. He withdrew the Orb of casting and fitted it into the Banner of Air as if it were once again a sling. Norhouse twirled it about her head, the sound of a thousand tornadoes caught the remaining Ork’s attention.

Norhouse released the Orb. With the speed of thought, and a very loud Zeeeeooooppp!! It crossed the large distance to the person off on the rise. The person moved with the speed and grace of a hunting cat as he dodged the Orb. It impacted on the tree, causing a huge fiery explosion of blue icy fire and sparks. The man vanished in a cloud of inky greasy black smoke as the orb returned to Norhouse’s hand.

The battle raged as the three women showed the hoard they were none to trifle with. After what seemed like hours, but was only 40 minutes, The few remaining Orcs that were able, fled as fast as they could into the deep forest. Even those, however, bore the scars of this battle that they would carry to the afterlife and beyond. Mounds of gory testimony to the prowess of the three warriors lay all around.

Shema commented with some pride in her voice, “It’s an honor, a true honor, to have fought with two of the finest Protectorate Knights of the Pillar I have ever met … and I have met several, I promise you.”

“I, too, am honored,” said Norhouse, bowing respectfully.  “However, I feel certain that this was a diversion to keep us busy while more of our adversary’s minions move on the Pillar.  Can we get there quickly to defend it?”

“Yes, if he’s here, it’s to attack the Pillar, not us,” said Xerchinita.  “Shema, can you …?”

“If we hold hands,” said the sprite, reaching out both her hands.  The warrior and the witch sheathed their weapons and reached out.  As soon as they touched the sprite’s hands and felt her grip, the world around them wavered and shifted, seeming a shaky, pale shadow.  “We are partly in the realm of Spirit now,” she said.  “Run!  Follow me!  Every step we take will be as ten in the material realm.”

As they ran, Norhouse realized that he was not feeling tired or winded.  In only a few minutes they had traveled what looked to be dozens of miles.  Shema stopped, her companions did too, and the world around them solidified to normal.  They were among many pine trees in the moonlight -- and at their feet was another of the circular, carved stones, inlaid with small, colorful gems.  Xerchinita already had her wand and was already intoning her mystical syllables.

The portal opened in the air before them.  “It doesn’t look as if he’s here yet,” said the witch, “but we should be careful.  He may have sent forces ahead somehow, as a trap -- I don’t see how, but let’s not underestimate him.”

“We should go in, and be lying in wait for him when he arrives,” said Norhouse.

The three of them pass through into the realm of the pillar. Norhouse and Xerchinita’s Protectorate armor began to glow brightly with the bangler pulsating. Shema looked as if she were made of clear ice as she was almost invisible.

Norhouse commented, “This doesn’t look promising.”

Shema replied, “It’s normal. You are a Protectorate Knight of the Pillar and we are in close proximity of a pillar. Me, on the other hand, I don’t know what’s wrong. I have … no control it seems.”

Xerchinita said softly as she began to weave a spell of discernment, “I think there’s more here than we can see just now.”

Round about, the spell began to weave what looked like a writing spider’s web all around. Then, several small creatures began to glow. They sprang from hiding and wallowed on the ground as if they were on fire Shema became her normal … smoke like spirit self at that point.

Xerchinita said, “So, they left dream casters behind to run interference.”

Shema said, “If they left those to distract us, what would the main attraction be?”

Norhouse drew his sword and held it before him, “Perhaps it’s something that appears to be something it is not.”

It was then that Xerchinita and Shema noticed the large boulders off to their left had moved slightly towards them.

Norhouse whispered, “Oh, no! Magma golems.”

“Get out your chakram,” said Xerchinita.  “Quickly!”  

Norhouse had it in his hand in an instant.  The witch took out the crystal wand and started whispering arcane words and making patterns in the air with its tip, and blue-white fire started to flow from the wand to the starlike weapon.  White mist started to form around it and pour toward the ground as the chakram became colder and colder.

While this was happening, though, the boulders unfurled into twenty-foot-tall menacing shapes with thick arms and legs and glowing red eyes.  Their bodies glowed red, too, from the heat within them.  

“How did … the adversary conjure these?” asked Shema.  “If he isn’t here yet?”

“He may have placed them here long ago,” said Xerchinita.  “They’re not truly alive, so he may have set them here as sentries, ever-vigilant, never sleeping.”

“They’re coming this way,” Norhouse said.  “Is it ready?”

“It has to be,” the witch said.  “Freeze them, then strike them with the Orb!  They might shatter!”

“Here goes,” said Norhouse and threw the chakram at one of the golems with all his might.  

Blue fire streaked behind it as it flew.  When it struck, a wave of the same blue fire washed over the golem, putting out its red glow, but the chakram had stuck in the creature’s magma and wasn’t returning.  He put the Orb of Casting into the Banner of Air and used it as a sling again, sending the Orb hissing through the air at the frozen golem and striking it with a sharp crack.  And cracks appeared in the creature as it began to crumble.

“That worked!” Norhouse shouted.  “But there are two more of them.”  The Orb came quickly back to Norhouse’s right hand, and once the chakram was free, it also came spinning back.  But it was no longer seething with the blue-white fire of Heliosphar.  “Can you charge it up again?”

“Maybe if we retreat -- they’re kind of slow,” said Xerchinita.  The second golem had reached Norhouse, though, and it raised its huge fist and struck at him -- the ground cracked and shook where Norhouse had been standing, though he was no longer there by that time.  The warrior and the witch bounded away until they were at a safe distance again.

“That first attack seemed to work,” Norhouse said as the witch charged up the chakram with blue fire from her wand again.  Just then, though, he saw the rubble of the first golem begin to glow again.  Its shards began to melt and move toward one another.  “Or not!  How do we keep them down?”

Xerchinita muttered her arcane words and thought furiously.  “They’re golems, not elementals -- they were created, not summoned,” she said.  “Each one has to have a focus inside it somewhere -- something that can withstand their heat and pressure and maintain the spell that holds them together.  It probably looks like a piece of metal or possibly a gemstone, inscribed with magical symbols.  If we can find it and crush it, that golem will cease to be.  We’ll have to get each one.”

“I thought we were up against some sort of chaotic magic,” said Shema.  “Chaos both destroys and creates, without pattern -- these don’t look like they were made by chaos.”

“That’s really odd,” Xerchinita said as Norhouse threw the chakram at the second golem and avoided the devastating hammer blows of the third.  The first one was still reforming, a slow process.  “But you’re right, these are too regular to be created by chaos.  Unless --”  The second golem crumbled as Norhouse struck it with the Orb, then retrieved his weapons and poked through the debris with his sword.

“Found it!” Norhouse said, picking up a cubical piece of dark metal, engraved with red glowing mystical symbols, from amidst the rubble.  

He ran away from the third golem until he could set it on the ground and decisively split it with his sword.  It exploded with a shower of sparks, and the red glow faded from its symbols.

“You did it!  That one can’t get up again!” called Xerchinita.  To Shema, she said, “Our adversary didn’t create them -- someone else did.  He’s just using them.  I’m guessing it’s another of the ancient arcana.  I don’t know of one that can make golems, but -- oh yes!  The Seal of Verhane!”

“But that emblazons magical symbols on -- oh!” Shema said.  Norhouse had found the first golem’s focus and split it in two as well, so only one golem now remained.

“Yes!  If someone already knows the symbols to cast a spell -- and if it’s the kind of spell that can be cast with symbols -- the Seal of Verhane lets them rewrite them as many times as they can!  Which means …” Xerchinita looked around.  There were a lot of large boulders on this plain, all surrounding the Pillar that towered in its center.  “No.  That’s just not …”

“Look at all of them,” said Shema.  “There must be thousands.  Luckily we haven’t gotten close enough to more of them than we have.”

“All right, then,” said Xerchinita, “remind me to take the Seal away from our adversary when we find him.  But for now …”  She shouted, “Norhouse!  Can you bring me the third one’s focus before you destroy it?  I have to look at it!”

Norhouse had a lot of black crushed basalt dust all over him, but he brought the metal cube to the witch shortly.  “OK, here it is,” he said.  “Can you tell anything from it, or …?”

The witch took it in her hand, after touching it with her wand to cool it with blue fire.  “The symbols say that anything that comes within three paces of them, they are to attack until it is destroyed,” she said, turning it over to read all the symbols.  “Wait …”

Two forms appeared before them, a large tree with a Dryad sitting within its leafy boughs.

“I am pleased that you have come to defend our Pillar,” said the Dryad.  “The Great Tree and I have been together for so long that we couldn’t bear to be apart.  Do you think the adversary, whoever he is, will still try to attack it?”

“If he does,” said Xerchinita, “he’ll be attacked by his own creations.  We only got here because Shema brought us here through the Spirit Realm.  The golems cannot walk through the Spirit Realm, so we did not come within three of their paces of any of them.”

“Why did he not assault the Pillar before, when he planted all those golems here?” asked the Dryad.  

She was tall and slender, over seven feet tall, and wore a dress that looked as if it were made of green leaves and a circlet in her hair that was made of golden leaves.  She and an enormous tree had emerged from the Pillar once the travelers had approached and introduced themselves.

“I’m guessing he wasn’t ready yet,” said Norhouse.  “He was still making his plans.  If he’d begun before he was really ready, it’s possible that people like us would have been able to stop him before he’d managed to destroy any Pillars at all.  But what do we do, now that we’re here?”

“I think we wait,” Xerchinita said.  “He attacked us, so he’s in the area -- he plans to come here next.  And I don’t think he knows we’re here yet.  We’ve destroyed three of his golems, but we cleaned up the debris.  There are thousands more.  He won’t be able to tell.  For all he knows, we’re still trying to catch up to him.”

“He has to sacrifice an ally to destroy the Pillar, though,” said Norhouse.  “How’s he going to get an ally past all those golems?  They’ll be attacked.  Unless … do the golems count as allies?”

“No,” Xerchinita said, “golems aren’t alive.  They’re more like tools or weapons.  I expect he’ll … wait.  What’s that?”

The ground started to shake.  A dark circular rift opened in the rocky soil near the Pillar. From within the rift appeared to grow a crystalline plant of some sort. Xerchinita held her wand at the ready as the Dryad warily backed away, and even the Great Tree shifted away slightly. Norhouse stood almost transfixed by what he thought he was observing.

A hole that apparently lead to the darkest of outer darkness lay almost at his feet. If it weren’t for Xerchinita taking hold of his battle armor and pulling him away from the precipice, the possibility he would have tumbled in was very real.

From the middle of the plant a large multi-colored crystal began to form that had the appearance of a flower or seed pod … or something. It grew larger until it fell free from the plant and shattered on the ground. The plant along with the rift closed and vanished.

Amid the colorful shards stood a thin male figure. It had white hair, pointed ears, and was thin as a nail. In its hand it held a bow made of the finest Magical Mytheerial Xerchinita had ever seen. She knew immediately this was Prince Ghonthar, the Wispian Elf of old earth.

He sees them and bows gracefully as he said, “Ahh, hello. I have come to aid mortals in defending the Realm. It seems a Lord of Chaos has escaped from the outer darkness and come to wreak havoc among us all.”

“Once again the old tales prove to have a grain of truth,” said Norhouse, falling  back on courtly manners drilled into every member of his family.  “I cannot express how honored we are at your presence, nor how appreciative we are of your aid.  Did you say … a Lord of Chaos?”

“This is what our diviners have been able to discover,” said the Elf.  “Would they could learn more, but in dealings with Chaos there is always a barrier.”

“The Entropic Aura,” said Xerchinita, nodding.  “Past a certain point all you get is garbled gibberish.”

“Ah, you know the ancient arts,” the Elf said.  “From your words I assume I need no introduction.”

“Not if you are indeed Prince Ghonthar, Rider among the Seven,” said the Dryad.

“Of the Palace of Alabaster,” Norhouse said.

“Forger of the Greenwand,” added Xerchinita.

“Well, then, since all know me, on to business.  Have you seen the Chaos Lord?  Or his minions?”  Norhouse, Xerchinita and Sheema briefly explained the recent events.

“So I was about to put us into the Spirit Realm, where we would then wait for his sacrificial ally to appear,” explained Sheema, “so he wouldn’t suspect we were here already.”

“The element of surprise,” said Prince Ghonthar.  “Let us proceed with that plan.”

Sheema performed what looked like an elegantly graceful dance. A bubble of some kind seemed to form around them, and reality took on a different aspect for those within. To Norhouse, this was like a dream. He had heard all the legends since childhood, but to actually experience them … that was totally fantasy come true.

Time … did whatever it did within the spirit realm. Norhouse couldn’t tell if it was passing, running backwards … or even existed. He did notice that when the stray Golem lumbered past, it moved quickly, as if time outside the bubble were in fast forward or something.

It wasn’t long before there was a bright white flash at the portal at the edge of the plain, where Norhouse and Xerchinita had arrived with Sheema, and a man dressed in fine leather armor and golden grieves appeared.  Striding toward the Pillar, he attracted the attention of several Golems, which attacked.  Immediately he drew a mighty battle hammer from his warbelt and began to swing it at the Golems. Each impact made a resounding bell like ringing, and shattered the Golem. However, it was only a lone man with a battle hammer against many hundreds of Golems that reformed a few minutes after being shattered … the eventual end came. It was then, as the Golems closed around him, that the ball of red lightning began moving rapidly toward him.  Xerchinita and Norhouse drew in their breath.  They knew if that lightning ball reached him, the explosion would be enough to destroy the Pillar.  But could they act quickly enough?

Sheema gestured suddenly, and they all dropped out of the Spirit Realm -- but the red lightning ball reached the warrior before they could do anything more.  There was a mighty explosion, releasing huge ethereal energies as the man vanished in the all consuming power.  The Dryad and the Great Tree were using their magic to try to hold back the explosion, and it was only because of this that Norhouse, Xerchinita, Sheema and Prince Ghonthar survived.

Xerchinita looked at Norhouse and tossed a simple baby’s rattle into the massive conflagration, much to the surprise of the Elf and Sheema. The Gemstone within its handle flashed brightly, then bound the mighty power into huge stalagmites that glistened with the raw energy as they grew from the ground.

A greasy blackness formed at the portal. A hooded figure appeared and began swearing at the Sisters of Fate for what had intervened that was powerful enough to bind the destructive power of Chaos so.  “You have interfered with my plans for the last time!” he raged.

“You’re no Lord of Chaos!” shouted Prince Ghonthar.  “Underlord Kanthros, I presume.”

The figure in the black robe jabbed his staff at the ground and dragged it through the dirt.  “So you know one of my names,” he said, “but I still know lore that was old before this universe had form.”  He dragged the end of his staff in another direction.

“He’s inscribing a symbol!” Xerchinita realized.  “The Seal!  We have to stop him before --”

“Hahahaha!”  With a cackling laugh, the cloaked Underlord completed his spell, and a black tentacle erupted from the symbol at his feet.  Laughing more, he raised his hand, in which he held a small cylinder with a jeweled handle.  The jewel flashed, and hundreds more identical symbols appeared all over the plain, surrounding the defenders, and tentacles sprouted from each one.

“They’ll drag you down into the outer dark!” cackled Underlord Kanthros, his mirth unceasing even as the tentacle nearest him wrapped itself around him.

“They’ll get you too!” Norhouse shouted, trying to slice at a nearby writhing tentacle with his sword.

“Where do you think I came from?” asked the Underlord.  “The outer dark is where this universe’s formation banished me long ago!  I live there now -- it is my home!  And soon, it will be all that exists!”  The tentacle dragged him willingly down into the ground and vanished with him.

Xerchinita shook her head as she cast her spell of light. The nearby tentacles recoiled at the light and began to smolder heavily. Several of them burst into bright flame as darkness was dispelled by the light. Several of the more massive ones persisted as they totally wrapped the Dryad and pulled her into the abyss as the others watched in abject horror. Her echoing screams could be heard as they faded away in the endless distance.

“No!” shouted Norhouse, slashing at every tentacle that dared come near, leaving writhing bits of blackness on the ground that evaporated into black smoke.  He tried to get to the dark rift into which the tentacle had pulled the Dryad, but there were several more intact tentacles in the way, which he began to attack.

“We can’t lose her!” cried Prince Ghonthar, piercing a tentacle with a silver arrow that exploded into pure light, but there were many others near him.

“I don’t know what to do!” shouted Sheema, looking down into the rift, having reached it through the Spirit Realm.  “I can’t fly!”

But the Great Tree had bent over the opening into blackness as if peering eyelessly into it.  Its branches twisted and flung a thick vine down and through the rift.  The vine kept growing, faster and faster, reaching deeper and deeper into the abyss, but there was no way for the others to tell whether it was getting close to the Dryad at all.

Xerchinita was still at the center of a huge sphere of light, and any tentacle that made contact with it writhed as if in pain and burst into flames like the rest -- but hundreds of others were still out of range.  Concentrating, she looked at the stalagmites that had formed when she had bound the energy of the Underlord’s earlier attack with the Stone of Binding.  She ran to pick up the Stone and the baby’s rattle in which it was set, holding it in one hand as she touched one of the stalagmites with the other.

“She’s tapping the stored energy to power her light spell!” shouted Prince Ghonthar.  “The tentacles are about to die, and the rifts they came out of will close, so we’ll have to focus on keeping that rift open if we want to have any chance of rescuing the Dryad!”

Whispering ancient words of power, Xerchinita closed her eyes, and the sphere of light around her exploded outward, filling the entire plain and bathing it with positive energy.  Every tentacle ceased attacking and began to writhe and smoke, and soon they all retreated back into the ground in flames.  The dark circles from which they had come began to close, including the one the Dryad had been pulled into.

“Join hands with me -- quickly!” Prince Ghonthar urged, and Norhouse and Sheema ran to do so.  He began to chant in some ancient language, and the rift at his feet ceased shrinking.  The vine from the Great Tree was still growing down into the hole, faster and faster.  The Tree made creaking sounds, but if this was its way of speaking, no one knew what it was saying.

Norhouse, clasping hands with the Elf, thought about helping him do whatever magic he was doing, and it did feel as if he were working hard, pushing with all his might against … something.  This magic stuff was beyond his understanding.  He figured that Prince Ghonthar was struggling against whatever was trying to close the rift -- which was probably the normal tendency of nature not to have rifts to the outer dark in it, and that was normally a good thing, but right now they needed this one.

“The Darkness falters against the Light,” said Xerchinita, who had come toward them.  “Norhouse -- the Orb of Casting …”

“Oh!  Sure!” he said, taking the Orb from the leather pouch at his belt that he normally kept it in.  He gave it to the witch, who filled it with white light, channeled from the bound energy, as she held it in her hand.  And then … she looked down into the rift and threw it.

“Was that -- the Orb of Casting?” asked Prince Ghonthar.  “Of course!  It strikes unerringly …”  

They all watched the Orb shoot into the distance, farther and farther, until it was like a star, just a tiny pinprick of light in the utter blackness.  Then there were what looked like flames, and then -- the Tree’s vines stopped growing and started to pull backwards, like a fisherman reeling in a catch.

“You got it!  You destroyed the tentacle!  She’s free!” cheered Sheema.  The light of the Orb started to grow larger and brighter as it returned, and finally it emerged from the rift and landed back in Xerchinita’s hand, still pulsating and coruscating with brilliant energy.

It took some time, during which Prince Ghonthar continued to concentrate to keep the rift open while Xerchinita lent assistance using the bound energy from Kanthros’ attack, but finally the Dryad emerged from the portal, the Tree’s vine wrapped gently but firmly around her waist.  

“Oh, you take such good care of me!” she cried happily, running to embrace the Tree’s trunk, and it wrapped some of its lower limbs around her.

“That’s enough of this thing,” said Prince Ghonthar, gesturing dismissively at the rift with his right hand.  It immediately closed, their efforts having been the only thing that had kept it open.

“Oh, my friends, you saved me -- you saved us all!” the Dryad exulted.  “And I cannot truly repay you!”

“You don’t have to repay me, for one,” said Norhouse.  “All I did was what was right.”

“I am sure the same is true for all of us,” said Xerchinita, “but do you know anything about the locations of any of the ancient arcana?  We must find as many as we can in order to put an end to the Underlord’s scheme and heal the broken Pillars.”

“Well now, let me see,” said the Dryad, thinking.  Behind her, the Tree creaked and shifted.  “You’re right,” she said to it.  “The Water of Growth -- we think we know where it is.”

“Ianuun Aiundriniar?” replied Prince Ghonthar.  “It has been lost for ages,” said Prince Ghonthar.  “Its healing power might be very useful in this effort.”

“The Pillar of Ice and Starlight is on a frozen world,” the Dryad said, “and we think that’s where the Water of Growth has been all this time -- frozen and dormant, but its power is intact.  We can sort of -- feel it.  Through the Pillar and its affinity with the other Pillars.”

“Then we must go there to find it,” said Xerchinita.  “Thank you -- this knowledge may turn the tide.”

The four returned to the to the portal’s entrance. The Elf did the arcane incantation, and the four of them found themselves back on earth. This time, however, earth didn’t look the same as the one they had left.

Prince Ghonthar looked around at the erupting volcano off in the distance and said, “New Earth is far different than old from what I see.”

Xerchinita replied as she saw the massive lava rifts that were slowly spreading from the base of the new fiery mountain, “I can assure you, this isn’t how this looked when we traveled to the pillar a bit ago.”

Sheema said in a worried tone, “It would seem the Underlord of Chaos has accomplished one of his objectives. The world and reality is reverting to primal state.”

About that time, a massive earthquake shook everything. The mountain in the distance erupted, throwing massive amounts of fire and pyroclasts far and wide. Huge electrical strikes all around the summit seemed to add urgency to the hearts as Norhouse felt the first tingle of fear she had ever known.

Sheema said, “I think we need to be off to our next destination. Time … is something we do not have in premium.”

Suddenly, Xerchinita had a sort of vision of a small infant girl manipulating something and reweaving something. The vision was sudden, intense, and fleeting. Xerchinita didn’t quite grasp what exactly the vision was telling her, but the time weaver cloth seemed to be calling to her more intensely as they travelled towards their next destination.

Xerchinita brought her horse up beside Norhouse’s and said in that way she had of speaking without saying anything, “I … need a favor from you … as a woman.”

“You have only to ask,” said Norhouse, suddenly feeling her mood lighten just a bit.  In a way Norhouse couldn’t explain, she knew exactly what it was Xerchinita was going to ask. It tickled her to her heart.

Norhouse actually enjoyed the times she got to hold Xerchinita as an infant.  It was a bonus to the fact that the witch was probably going to use the Weave’s power over time in some useful way.  And … it helped distract her from the fact that she was going to be heading back to her homeland, where people knew her as Princess Norrice -- and didn’t think it was proper for a princess to practice swordplay, no matter how many lives she’d saved by doing so.

They made it back to Sheema’s cottage -- although its interior was nearer the size of a palace.  Norhouse figured it probably had something to do with the Spirit Realm, but didn’t ask because she wouldn’t understand the answer anyway.  Balance points of edged weapons, she knew.  Which spices brought out the best flavor in venison, she knew.  Magic, not so much.

Once inside, Prince Ghonthar said to Sheema, “Now I see why this place is still standing, despite the cataclysm that has obviously struck this area recently.  It’s not fully part of the material realm, is it?  That must have taken you some time to accomplish.  Perhaps we can catch our breath and plan our next move.”

Sheema nodded.  “Please, have a seat,” she said, sitting down at the large table in her dining room and motioning for the Elf to join her.  “It is fortuitous that you came to join us when you did, Prince Ghonthar.  Few now know the truth, that the weight of the universe really does rest upon the Pillars.”  

She motioned to Norhouse and Xerchinita to join them as well, but the witch looked at Norhouse, who looked back and nodded.

Ghonthar said, “It has been a long known fact among Wispian Elves. It has also been a well known fact that we have a certain … let us say, talent?”

Xerchinita responded, “Yes, the one where you make powerful magical artifacts from certain materials.” she nodded to Ghonthar’s bow and quiver of arrows.

Ghonthar looked at his wrist for an instant, before removing a very finely crafted bracelet with several shimmering pinkish stones imbedded in its rune-worked shell. He said softly, “This is one of the … darker magics of light.”

Sheema gasped as her eyes grew large, “That’s … a Soul Stealer.”

Ghonthar said even softer, “It is at that. And within those soulstones reside the souls of some of the most powerful demons, if you could call them that,  I have ever had the misfortune of encountering.”

Xerchinita said, “And because of the nature of the Mitherial Silver it is made of, combined with the soulstones, the power of those demons’ souls must obey your every command.”

Ghonthar nodded his head. Norhouse was totally flabbergasted. Every childhood story, legend, and even monster story she had ever been told was coming true right before her eyes.

Xerchinita stood and took Norhouse by one hand as she said, “If you two would excuse us, we have something important to discuss.”

Sheema replied slyly, “Careful sweetheart, it becomes rather addicting.”

Xerchinita gave Sheema a side glance as she led Norhouse into a long hall, and then into the room they had been given.

Xerchinita began removing her armor and other clothing, “If you would be so kind and loving?”

Norhouse felt a tingle of joy rush through her as she removed the time weaver cloth from her pack, folded it deftly, and set it down on the edge of the bed.  “You have … no idea how adorable you are when we do this,” she said, finding her cloak pins from her packs.

“Ready?” asked the witch, sitting down upon the Weave at Norhouse’s gesture and lying back.  She pulled the cloth up between Xerchinita’s legs to cover her, and immediately the witch began to grow younger and smaller, the cloth diaper shrinking to fit her perfectly.  Finally when the process had stopped, Norhouse carefully pinned both sides of the Weave together and picked the infant Xerchinita up.

“Who’s the cutest Swamp Witch that ever was?” Norhouse said, smiling happily and tickling the baby’s chin with a fingertip.

Xerchinita’s mind rapidly lost all adult reasoning, although she didn’t lose something else more important. As Norhouse sat on the edge of the bed and slowly rocked, and patted the baby's bottom softly, Xerchinita had a wonderful infantile fantasy of being among large towering blocks and stacking them and assembling them. The more she stacked and assembled, the more there were to stack. Oh this was such fun.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A large demon suddenly realized it’s trapped and another opposite of itself is engulfing it. It cries out in sheer terror as its darkness is illuminated with pure bright light. A massive wall of some kind of magic has surrounded and contained it so it could not flee. The demon only had a few more seconds to think and feel of itself, before it merged and became another creature entirely.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Norhouse bent over and gave Xerchinita a large raspberry right in her tummy. The infant screeches with glee as it kicked and squirmed.

The new creature knows who its mistress is, she is a weaver of time.

Unknown to Norhouse, the more she played with the infant witch, the stronger and more intricate her ability to manipulate the strings of time became. Although, to the infant witch, she knew nothing of this consciously, only the wonderful, intoxicating, and most addicting freedom that a happy baby knows.

The creature now knew it must take its mistress and her companions to the ice world and search out the most powerful of the archaean … to The Pillar of Ice and Starlight and to find the long lost Ianuun Aiundriniar.

Within the room Norhouse and Xerchinita played as nurse and infant, a large flash of light. Norhouse lunged for his sword only to find it actually refusing to allow him to grab it. Norhouse swung around and said, “With, or without weapons, I will not allow you to harm my infant.”

The creature said in a resonating mysterious voice, “I come not to harm my mistress, but to take you and her to the place of frozen ice, and the place of the arcanum, Ianuun Aiundriniar.”

Norhouse looked down at the baby in her arms, then looked at the muscular, toothy, horned, yet apparently sincere creature again, and said, “Yes, the ways of magic continue to elude me.”

“The breach occurred in here --” said Prince Ghonthar, throwing open the room’s door, his bow somehow at the ready, but he paused, clearly unsure of what he was seeing.  “You’re not a Herem demon -- though you look like one.  And where is the Sorceress of Light?”

“I am here only to serve my mistress, who summoned me,” said the creature.  “I am to escort her safely to the Pillar of Ice and Starlight, and this shall I do.”

“My word -- is that the Weave of Time?” asked the Elf.  “It has been millennia since I last saw it.  And never have I seen its power so fully expressed.”

“I doubt this is the limit of what it can do, either,” said Sheema.  “Xerchinita can’t truly understand us right now, but she can still manipulate the flow of Light and Darkness.  This is why she was chosen to be Sorceress of Light, I think.  She has an inborn understanding.”

“I … guess we’re going north soon,” said Norhouse.

Prince Ghonthar nodded.  “You should.  And now that you have this protector, I feel better about the choice I must make.”

“What do you mean?” Norhouse asked.

“I must stay here, in this region, and work with Sheema to repair the damage that has been done,” said the Elf.  “After that, perhaps we will look for more we can do.  We can accomplish much if we pool our powers.  The two of you are destined to solve the true problem.  Others such as ourselves must keep the universe from unraveling so you can do that.”

“You mean … defeating the Underlord and fixing the Pillars that he’s damaged,” said Norhouse.

“Put simply, yes,” said the Elf.  “But do not be afraid to think creatively.  It may not be your task to return things to exactly as they were.  It is only important that the universe find a balance, not that it find the same balance.”

The baby witch in Norhouse’s arms cooed and clapped her tiny hands together.

Sheema watched Norhouse as she cuddled the infant witch and played lovingly with her. Sheema knew immediately that the weaver was leaving indelible traces on both of them and could see within Norhouse’s spirit that she was having dilemmas on returning Xerchinita to adulthood.

Sheema came up to Norhouse and handed her a small bundle. It was an extremely cute little dress woven of the finest spider silk and adorned with Lenemos moth scales. It sparkled and glimmered softly as Norhouse looked at it.  

Sheema said softly, “You must be very careful with the Time Weaver. Not only is Xerchinita totally helpless to return to her adult self, I can see within you that there is a strong mothering instinct that is being tapped.”

Norhouse felt a small tingle of embarrassment run through her as she realized Sheema had read her deepest thoughts. She felt slightly ashamed at wanting to keep Xerchinita as an infant, but she was so adorably cute and cuddly. Then, on the other hand, Norhouse could tell Xerchinita had no thoughts of returning to or ever having been an adult.  The witch’s powers would be badly needed in the dangerous trials ahead.  The Underlord still had his ancient knowledge as well as the Seal and Gauntlet, as well as probably an untold number of minions; they would have to contend with all of that.

In Xerchinita’s mind, the ever constant now and the wonderful contentedness of a well cared for baby was all that she experienced. The dangers of the Time Weaver were nowhere within any of her thoughts.  Then, suddenly, she found herself thinking with more complexity again -- yet more clearly than she could remember thinking in years.  She had ideas she wouldn’t have thought of yesterday -- but when was yesterday?  How long had it been since -- what had happened?  Oh, yes, the Weave of Time -- she’d been a baby!  But, looking around, she saw only Norhouse and … what manner of creature was this?  Not a Herem demon as it appeared at first, but …

Norhouse was helping Xerchinita get dressed again.  “As much as I enjoy caring for you in your infant state,” she said, “you seemed to have accomplished what you set out to do, so after letting you get some much-deserved rest, I thought it was time to bring you back.”

“Oh,” the witch said, “thank you.  I’ve had -- certain insights, and I believe I’ve managed to reweave destiny to some small degree.  And then -- might I ask how long it’s been?”

“Only an hour or two,” Norhouse said.  “I must be honest with you, though -- I … wanted it to be longer.”  She blushed from head to toe.

Xerchinita swallowed.  “I, um … found the experience very pleasant, I must admit.”

“Sheema says we need to be careful about that,” Norhouse blurted out.

“Sheema?  Saw me?  As a baby?”  Now the witch blushed brightly.  “Oh no!  I’m a Sorceress of Light!  I can’t have people thinking I’m just a child …”

“We were all children once,” Norhouse said.  “But yes, I’m afraid she and Prince Ghonthar both did -- they came to investigate after you did, well, whatever you did.  I think they felt the magic or something.  They can probably do that.  Can’t they?”

“Well, yes, they probably can, at that.”  Xerchinita looked at the strange horned figure, who was down on one knee before her, eyes closed, one hand on his chest.  “The Herem demons are balanced on a knife’s edge.  Many thousands of years ago there were two ways events could have gone -- and as it turned out, they went the way of darkness, becoming bringers of utter destruction.  Or … that’s how it used to be.  If things had gone only slightly differently, they’d have gone down the path of utter devotion.  And I seem to have rewoven this one’s destiny in that direction.”

“Oh -- so he’s a spirit here to help us save the universe?” asked Norhouse.

“Well … he’s here to defend me,” Xerchinita said.  “I can’t be sure what I was thinking, because things are difficult to remember.  But it makes sense that if you’re not worried about defending me, you can focus on defending the Pillars -- or attacking Kanthros.  Get that Seal away from him, and the Gauntlet if you can.  And I’m sure he’ll have other surprises we can’t foresee.  But … I saw some things too.  Not all of them make sense right now.”

“We need to get going,” Norhouse said, “after some rest.  There’s no time to lose, but then again, if we attack while we’re tired, our chances aren’t good.  Oh -- also, the Prince and Sheema aren’t coming with us.”

“No, I figured they wouldn’t,” said the witch.  “Let’s get some rest, then.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In a place beyond the outer darkness where chaos ruled, What appeared at times to be an old man, and at others a being of total energy that existed in no one place in particular. Kanthros watched through his prism of entropy and saw the things transpire. Anger welled up within his breast as he also saw that one of his adversaries was not only a powerful Sorceress of Light, but she was a Guardian of the Pillars and apparently … a Time Weaver to boot.

This brought an entirely new twist to otherwise straightforward proceedings. Kanthros knew now that Xerchinita had taken possession of one of his demons. As an Underlord of Chaos, he had worked very hard in the beginning of order to have them all follow the path of darkness. The only thing that could thwart that plan, was a Weaver of Time and their ability to reweave certain pivotal events to follow a different path. Since Xerchinita was a Sorceress of Light … she could reweave the thread of light through his finely woven tapestry of darkness and bring his carefully laid plans to a halt … or worse, stop them from ever happening in the first place.

Kanthros began the incantations to reenter the world of order, and to confront those high minded self righteous Guardians with what true power is. Order always descends into chaos. Light dissipates into darkness … at least, in Kanthros’ mind it did. The one major flaw in his thinking, was he had knowledge that started with the creation of Chaos which came after the creation of light. For without light, there can be no darkness.

“Farewell,” said Sheema the next morning, “and we will be watching, to see if we can help!”

“Thank you, Sheema,” said Norhouse, “and well met!  I hope to see you again soon -- under better circumstances!”

“One can only hope,” said Prince Ghonthar.  “Please remember, the universe is with you!”

Xerchinita said, “I know you will do well healing the land.  Please do not worry about us overmuch.  Everything you heal will strengthen us and weaken our enemy.”

The two women were on their horses, and the Herem Devotee was walking silently beside them, cloaked in white and carrying a staff.  Norhouse knew they were going north, so she knew there was less and less chance that anyone would recognize her as anything other than Princess Norrice, no matter how she was dressed or how short her hair was.

“Is he going to be all right walking?” Norhouse asked.

“He literally does not get tired,” said the witch.  “His body is not made of flesh and blood in the same way ours are.  He doesn’t sleep, either.”

“Oh.  That’s … kind of creepy.”  Norhouse imagined the previous night, when she had assumed the Devotee had been sleeping, but now she knew he had in fact been standing guard silently, unmoving as a statue.

They rode east until they came to a major crossroads with signposts pointing many directions.  They both knew the way at this point: the northern road.  

“So … where is the portal?  I know the Northlands well, of course, but I didn’t know there was any sort of magical portal about.”

“I have not been to this one,” said the witch as they turned northward, “but all the teachers and books say that it is to the northeast of the ancient Castle Nordane, no more than one hundred paces.”

“There’s an orchard there,” Norhouse said.  “I used to play there as a child.  But aren’t portals marked by those round flat stones in the ground with jewels in them?  I don’t remember ever seeing one of those.”

“Perhaps something is covering it, or maybe something was built over it,” Xerchinita said.  “We’ll see when we get there.”

“Yes,” said Norhouse, “when we get there.”  She would have to go right up to her family’s ancestral home, where her grandmother the Queen still ruled.  There was no way she was getting out of seeing her family.  She just hoped it didn’t slow them down too much -- they had a world to save.  Social niceties would mean nothing if Underlord Kanthros got there first.

After they’d traveled for about an hour, a voice shouted, “Hail, Princess!” from a field to the left of the road.

It was a field worker who was herding his cattle, and clearly he was busy and merely wanted to acknowledge her in a friendly way.  She didn’t know him, but he was being very informal -- which she greatly preferred to formal bowing and scraping, and the fact that he knew this meant that he was familiar with her.

“Hail, good man!” she called out, raising her arm and waving toward him, without attempting to lower her voice.  The man smiled and continued his work.  It was true that she had fought against marauding bands of Orks in this region in past years.  Doubtless he remembered her from that.

“Will the news spread?” asked Xerchinita.

“Probably faster than the fastest horse,” Norhouse answered with a wry smile.  “I didn’t think we’d get far before I was recognized.”

The further the women traveled, the more often someone hailed Norhouse as Princess Norrice and greeted her. It wasn’t long before the women saw a large regime of Knights and armored men rapidly approaching. Norhouse shook her head slowly as she recognized the banners as those of her Grandmother, the Queen.

Norhouse said, “I think you better prepare yourself.”

Xerchinita looked at Norhouse with raised eyebrows, “Prepare myself for what?”

Norhouse sighed, “Enough pomp and circumstance to make your stomach turn.”

Xerchinita laughed, “Don’t feel too awfully bad, Princess, I too have a similar problem.”

Norhouse looked sideways at Xerchinita, “And how could you have this kind of problem?” She pointed at the rapidly approaching retainers.

As the men rode up, Xerchinita said as she reined her horse, “Didn’t you know? I’m Princess Xerchinita of Lighmnir. Keeper of the Sacred Scrolls of Light.”

Norhouse only had time to show surprise before the commander had dismounted and came to a knee before her, “Hail, Princess Norrice. The Queen awaits your arrival with celebration and dancing.”

“Hail, Commander Greycloak,” Norhouse said, “but there is no time for such frivolities.  The very universe is at stake.  Reality as we know it is under siege by an Underlord of Chaos, and two of the Pillars of Creation have already fallen.  More are to come if we do nothing.”

“But … but this is … most distressing news …” he said, hesitating and looking behind him at the shape of the distant castle, still gray with mist upon the horizon.  “No one has informed me of this -- and yet, there are so many disturbing reports …”

“You know what the Queen would have me do,” Norhouse said.

“Indeed,” said the commander.  “Her will is well known.  Your husband has been chosen, and you are meant to become a proper lady of the court.”

“Forsaking all these unwomanly pursuits such as fighting and saving the kingdom from one threat after another when none else would act,” Norhouse finished.  “This will not come to pass, for if I do not fight, there is no future, no husband, no kingdom, and no world.”

“What -- what would you have me do, Your Highness?” asked the commander, bowing his head.  “I risk the Queen’s wrath, but I have a family in Granswick, which just yesterday was attacked by dark fiends of terrible description and had to be evacuated.”

“Here is what I have in mind we do, Commander,” said Norhouse, “and Xerchinita, advise me if I’ve forgotten any details …”

At the lead of Commander Greycloak’s brigade of light cavalry rode the commander alongside the Princess herself, riding properly and wearing princess white linen.  She was wrapped up warmly, as was the custom in the Northlands, where the chill breezes sometimes brought a shiver to a lady’s frame, but she carried the family banner and her horse carried the family livery.

“There she is,” said the Queen, watching from the castle balcony at the approaching group.  “Finally, at long last, she’s coming home to do her duty.  All these happenings … I think they’ve been omens, signs that our ancestors are displeased at her failure to fulfill her role.”

“Yes, no doubt, Auntie,” said Prince Iglathor in a very effeminate way, dabbing at some excess hair oil before it could stain the ruffles on his shirt.  “Princesses simply do not pick up swords and fight.”

“Yes, yes, but you should be in the welcoming party,” the Queen said, “not waiting up here on the balcony.  Go!  Scoot!”  She shooed the Prince away with her hands.  

Turning  back toward the spectacle, she serenely posed for anyone who might be watching, the very picture of the dignified monarch, as her husband surely would have wanted, were he still in the land of the living.
A group of men escorted a fine carriage to meet the Commander’s brigade, so the Princess would not have to muddy her slippers in the castle stables.  Queen Miarline watched dispassively, until something odd occurred … the Princess appeared not to be dismounting from her horse.  And when the footman went to help her down, her linen finery just -- blew away in the wind.  No one was inside it.

“WHAT IS THIS?” the Queen blustered to the ladies and gentlemen in waiting around her, who scrambled into action.  “A TRICK?  Find her!  Search every inch of the kingdom!  She has been seen!”

Just over the crest of a hill beyond the castle, Norhouse, Xerchinita and the Devotee were hurrying toward the orchard when they heard a commotion taking place behind them.  “Ah, that’s torn it,” said Norhouse.  “The distraction lasted longer than I thought it would.  I hope it’s enough.”  She willed the wind to blow away the linen bedsheets, and the Banner of Air, which had been holding them in place with nothing but air within, released the captive wind, and back at the castle’s front gates, that was when the sheets blew away like cut sails.  “Go! Find it!  We’ll catch up!”

Xerchinita was on her horse, but Norhouse’s horse was at the castle gate, so she and the Devotee ran after the witch as she galloped toward the orchard to search for the portal stone. Without warning, the Devotee grabbed Norhouse solidly and yanked her backwards with force. Xerchinita turned her horse aside and drew her crystal wand. Both women’s armbands and Xerchinita’s armor began to radiate bright blue as a dark greasy fog formed in front of them. Within the sphere of blackness, a faint form of a cloaked and hooded figure could be seen.

The Devotee placed itself between Norhouse and the cloaked being and stood defensively. A massive stroke of dark evil force impacted and exploded violently, knocking the horse down and causing the Devotee to stumble. Norhouse was completely shielded by the Devotee’s massive body. Leaping from her horse mid-fall, Xerchinita cast a mighty spell of light with a graceful swish and flick of her wrist. To her and Norhouse’s surprise, the dark fog appeared to become even darker as the spell of light deflected and surrounded the sphere for an instant before dissipating in a mighty explosion of icy blue fire and white electrical sparks. The being inside the sphere stumbled backwards as it held its chest with a free arm.

The dark being stood steadily once again after an instant or two of recovery and waved his arm in a graceful flick. Xerchinita did the same, and huge amounts of ethereal energy, Order against Chaos, impacted in the middle of the orchard, causing massive damage. A very beautiful Gazebo adorned with large sweet smelling roses and many old and hugely fruitful grapevines was severely damaged as smoldering pieces of it scattered far and wide across the huge orchard.

The Queen looked out a window from one of the towers after hearing the sound of a huge explosion. In horror, she watched Princess Norrice stand and remove something from a leather holster at her waist. The crystal throwing star began to radiate brightly with massive pulsating blue energies as she threw it directly at the dark sphere. It flew truly, impacting and slicing through it like a hot knife through melted butter amid huge showers of bright blue icy fire and what looked like electrical discharges.

The being within the sphere took a massive hit, but recovered amazingly, although slowly, then tossed another huge bolt at Norhouse. There was a bright blue flash, and she was wearing her crystalline armor, all charged with icy fire, instead of the princess’ finery she had been wearing. The impact came and tossed Norhouse into the air, only to have the Devotee defend her in the same way it would have Xerchinita, catching Norhouse before she could fly far and placing her back on her feet.

The  star returned to Norhouse’s hand and seemed to recharge with the blue energy. Norhouse didn’t hesitate as she bounded into the fray once again and tossed the star at the shield of Darkness. The Devotee roared mightily as it too tossed a huge amount of ethereal energies at the sphere. Another massive explosion occurred as both attacks impacted, along with an enchantment from Xerchinita. This time, the dark greasy sphere had sustained too much damage, and the spell of Chaos Protection was broken. The black sphere fractured and fell away.

The cloaked being lay crumpled in a shimmering heap amid large grapevines and thorny tangles of roses. It shakily rose and cast one last spell, to vanish in what anyone would call a massively dark shadow. That was when Xerchinita realized the portal stone was right where the Underlord of Chaos had vanished. He had transported to the realm of ice … and the home of the next pillar.

The Queen stood in the battlements totally astonished. She had witnessed her granddaughter perform feats of bravery and combat skill that surpassed even the captain of her personal guard -- rivaling even the legendary heroes of the past. The Queen had searched hard and held many a challenge to find her current captain, who was the bravest and most skilled swordsman she had found in the land. None of his mighty achievements came close to matching what she had just witnessed.

“We have to catch him!” Xerchinita shouted.  “His minion may already be at the Pillar!”  She gestured and spoke the incantation to open the portal, and a shimmering vision of white appeared above the stone.  “This is going to be cold.”

“I am a Princess of Nordane,” said Norhouse.  “Cold weather?  Bah!”  She ran at the portal and leapt through.  

The subfreezing air took her breath away, but she drew her sword and looked around for any sign of the Underlord or his minions.  But the air was presently full of snow, and there wasn’t much else to be seen.  There was light coming from somewhere, because the visibility was better than that in a blizzard at night, but the exact source of the light was unclear.  She knew blizzards and did not move far from the portal stone, because more than a few paces and she wouldn’t be able to see Xerchinita when she came through.

The witch and the Devotee appeared at the stone shortly thereafter, seeing Norhouse with her sword at the ready.  

“I can sense the Pillar’s presence magically!” Xerchinita shouted over the wind.  “But I’m sure the Underlord can too -- or why would he come here?  This way!”  She pointed out into the blinding snow, and Norhouse followed.

“Can he sense us?” Norhouse shouted.

“Not unless I start casting spells!” the witch answered.  “He’ll probably assume we’re somewhere between the portal and the Pillar!  Otherwise, he’s as blind as we are!”

“Then let’s hurry!” yelled Norhouse, starting to run.  Xerchinita ran too, and the Devotee also broke into a run, staying just behind them, as the witch was the only one who knew the way.

“Is it in a cave or the open?” Norhouse asked as they ran.

The witch was breathing heavily, for running through the snow like this was a struggle.  “Ice -- and Starlight,” she said.

“Of course!” Norhouse shouted over the wind.  “It can’t see the stars if it’s underground!”

“We’ll make -- a witch -- of you yet!” replied Xerchinita.

The way was trending upward, and after a few more minutes the witch slowed down.  “Just a moment,” she said.  “Going to cast just a tiny spell -- hope he won’t sense it.  After all, the Pillar’s magic is very powerful -- I can’t sense anything else near it either.”  The Devotee and Norhouse slowed down and stopped as Xerchinita held her hands together in an arcane gesture and murmured her strange words.  Then, among the many snowflakes that were falling appeared one that glowed like a candle and hovered in the air before them.  “Follow that snowflake!” the witch said.  “It will guide us on the best course -- so we don’t fall into a crevasse or run right into the Underlord’s minions!”

They resumed running, and this time the Devotee ran first, following the snowflake, as the witch and the warrior ran behind, somewhat sheltered by the creature’s huge and untiring body.  The shining flake changed directions abruptly a time or two, but they followed, and soon they came to the top of a ridge -- and found themselves amidst clouds, not snow.  Following the ridge, they climbed higher still, until the ridge widened into a hillside and they emerged from the clouds.

The sky above them was afire with brilliant stars and what looked like Northern Lights.  They seemed to have reached the top of the highest mountain on this world, for all around them was a sea of clouds, and no other peaks emerged from it.  At the highest point, no more than thirty paces away, the Pillar reached upward into the heavens.  It was a fluted column made of what looked like ice, glass, or clear crystal, set throughout with glittering lights like stars.

And they weren’t alone here.  Standing nearby was another human, wearing a thick coat and carrying a knapsack.  “Beautiful!” came a voice.  “The most breathtaking view I have ever seen or imagined!  I must paint it!”

“No!” shouted both Norhouse and Xerchinita.  “Don’t go near!  He’ll kill you to destroy it!”

“What?” said the man, looking astonished at the two women running toward him.

“The cloaked old man who brought you here -- he’s not whoever he said he was!” Norhouse shouted.  “He’s an Underlord of Chaos, and he wants to destroy the universe!”

“Now, you can’t be serious!” the man said, laughing.  “Surely you must be insane!  Or telling me a very strange joke … what is that?”

“Here it comes,” Xerchinita said, for the clouds in one direction were beginning to glow with a reddish tinge.  “Your ‘friend’ just sent an unimaginably powerful bolt of chaos magic at you, and if we can’t stop it, you die.”

As the man made confused noises, Norhouse was readying the Orb of Casting, and Xerchinita was charging it with blue fire from her crystal wand.  Norhouse threw the Orb with the Banner of Air, and it sped truly to its target within the clouds.  There was a muffled explosion, causing the ground to shake beneath their feet and the clouds to part momentarily, but the Pillar stood.  

The witch and the warrior stood ready, in case another bolt came.  But one did not, only the returning Orb, which Norhouse caught and held at the ready.

“THE HAND OF INFERNES!” shouted a fearsomely loud voice, like a dozen avalanches.  “HOW DARE YOU BRING SUCH A THING HERE!”  

A huge, hairy, white figure leapt over their heads into the clouds, landing with a faraway boom.  Then the cloaked figure leapt up out of the clouds, hovering darkly in the distance, looking not at the Pillar but at something beneath him -- until blades of ice began firing upward at him from below.  It took all the Underlord could do to keep himself from being skewered.

While this was doing on, another voice came from the Pillar.  “The Yeti is ferociously angry -- and with good reason.”  Looking upward, they all saw a huge bear, made not of flesh and blood but of stars, emerging from the Pillar.

“The Great Bear,” said the artist.  “I never thought I would see …”

“So,” said the Bear, “It is Underlord Kanthros, then, who has been causing all this trouble, and using the Glove of Infernes himself.”

“It certainly is,” Xerchinita replied.  “But this man is but an artist, I think, lured here by false promises.”

“Truly?” asked the Bear, pacing around the man and looking down at him.  “Know ye, then, human, that had these two not intervened, you would now be less than ashes, and the Pillar would now be shattered.”

“I -- I didn’t know!  I swear --”

“Swear only that you are no longer ally of that man in the black cloak,” said the Bear.  “For as soon as you are no longer his ally, he can no longer destroy the Pillar.”

“I s-swear that I’m no ally of his!  He tricked me!  He lied to me!  I’m not working for him!”

“Good,” said the Bear.  “Now, then.”  

The stellated figure leapt into the sky, falling upon the levitating cloaked figure like a meteor shower, combining with the barrage of icy spikes from below to assail the Underlord from both directions.  The Underlord shouted and screamed in pain, unable to escape.  The ice engulfed him, and he fell into the clouds.
A few moments later, the Bear leapt from the clouds back to the mountaintop, and a tall hairy figure that must be the Yeti climbed back up, carrying a huge block of ice in one arm.  

“Hmm.  Here he is, then,” the Yeti said in its deep voice, dropping the large ice crystal near the Pillar, where they all looked at it.

“He’s in there, all right,” said Xerchinita.  “If we can only take the Gauntlet and the Seal away from him …”
“What, these?” asked the Yeti, dumping a black cloth and a number of items on the snow.  “Junk, if ya ask me.”

“The Seal of Verhane!” said the Witch, holding up a cylindrical metallic object with a spherical crystalline handle.  “And the Gauntlet of …” she began, reaching for the black metal object …

“NNOOOOOOO,” came a strained voice from within the ice.

“Oh, he’s trying to get out, then,” said the Bear.  “There’s only one way for him to do that, you know.”

A great shadow emerged from the huge ice crystal, like noxious gas escaping from some infernal machine.  “My plans will be fulfilled,” said the same voice, sounding unearthly and tenebrous.

“Sure enough, that’s the way,” the Bear said.  “Discorporation.”

“But if he leaves his mortal body behind, won’t it take a long time for him to form a new one?” Norhouse asked.  “I thought that’s how you said it worked.”

Xerchinita was looking upward, awestruck.  “You won’t be able to have a body for ten thousand years!” she shouted.  “Unless --”  Suddenly the witch started gesturing and chanting, and a network of silvery tendrils of Light started spreading forth from her hands, trying to ensnare the dark cloud.

“Hahahaha, too late,” the voice said, “and I do not need my body to finish this.  You have accomplished … nothing …”  The black cloud seemed to explode in all directions, seeping into the clouds.

“The Gauntlet!  Did he get it?” shouted Norhouse, looking at the pile of objects in the snow.

“He did not,” said Xerchinita.  The Gauntlet was in her hands, wrapped in a protective sphere of Light.  “I don’t even want to touch the thing.”

“What have I seen?” asked the panicked artist.  “What has happened here today?”

“We’ll explain it to ya,” said the Yeti.  “Don’t worry.”

After a long, but still extremely brief, explanation of current events, the artist was allowed to paint all he was able. Of course the Bear and the Yeti posed and even showed the artist some of the most spectacular sites the realm had to offer.

Xerchinita took Norhouse by the arm and tugged her towards the direction the portal stone on this side of the rift existed. She said with an urgency in her voice, “We must hurry. Kanthros will try and convince the Afreet and the Black Dragon to aid him in his quest, for he cannot put forth a false seeming to fool humans now. We must arrive there before they do and set up our defenses.”

The Yeti took each of the women in an arm and bounded off into the howling blizzard and down the side of what seemed like an impossibly sheer cliff face. Before they knew it, the Yeti had gently and safely deposited them at the portal stone.  The Devotee … was somehow already there waiting for them.

The Yeti said softly, “Much thanks for the aid, Guardians. The Knights chose well when they inducted you. Now, I must be off and return to my post.” With a mighty bound, the Yeti was lost in the swirling snow.

Xerchinita wasted no time as she drew her crystalline wand and gave it a graceful flick of the wrist. Norhouse found herself surrounded by her Grandmother the Queen’s personal guard, and her on her knees wailing over the loss of her granddaughter to some kind of dark magic.

“Grandmother, fear not,” said Norhouse.  “We have returned.”

With a gasp the Queen looked up.  “I have seen … terrors and miracles this day …” she said with a sniffle, prompting a retainer to offer her a kerchief, “beyond anything I could have imagined …”

“Well, to make a long story short, he escaped, but not in material form, but we know where he’s going, so we have to beat him there.  And, perhaps, end all of this so we can go home.  Oh, by the way, this is Xerchinita, Sorceress of Light.”

“Your Majesty,” said the witch with a deep curtsy.

“No need for that, we’re not at court,” said the Queen.  “So what I’m supposing is that my granddaughter possesses the fighting prowess of the mightiest warriors of legend, and that means that she’s got to face the great challenges of legend as well.  That’s always how it is.”

“In a very small nutshell, that is correct, Grandmother,” said Norhouse.

“Though usually it’s men.”

“Usually, Grandmother, but not always.  There are many --”

“Yes, yes, yes, many famous women warriors of legend as well.  But none of them from this kingdom,” said the Queen with a sigh.

“Well, then, it’s about time, isn’t it?” Norhouse suggested with a grin.

“What you’re doing is not proper conduct for a lady,” the Queen began.

“Grandmother …” Norhouse tried to stay, but the Queen held up a hand.

“But it is proper for a hero of the realm,” continued the Queen.  “And thus, before these witnesses, I would like to declare you Princess Norrice, Hero of Nordane and a credit to the family.  Kingdom hasn’t had an official Hero in five hundred years.”

“Shouldn’t it be Heroine?” asked the Princess.

“We don’t have that title.  But there’s nothing in the laws that says that only a male may hold the title of Hero, is there?”  The Queen turned toward her assistants and retainers.

“Err … no, your Majesty, by your command we’ve been looking through the scrolls of the law, and nowhere is that specifically stated …” said Sir Hinckel, the Crown Attorney.

“Then Hero it is,” said the Queen.  “Now, since you’ve clearly got more to do …” began the Queen, taking Norrice’s hands, “go, and bring even more glory to our family’s name.”

“Grandmother,” said Norrice, a tear in her eye.

“Oh, be off with you before I break down into weeping again,” said the Queen.  “Come back in one piece!”

“Xerchinita and I will do all we can,” said Norrice with a catch in her voice.  “Thank you, Grandmother!”

“Well, we’d better go, then,” said the witch.  “To the Pillar of Water and Slumber.  This will take some doing.”

“The problem is,” the witch explained, “the Pillar is deep, deep underwater -- and so is the portal that leads there.  That means we’re going to need some special magic.  The good part of it is, if Kanthros is looking to bring the Afreet there, well, he’s a spirit of fire and won’t be doing so well under that much water.  The Black Dragon’s fiery breath won’t be much good down there either.  So I’m sure Kanthros is trying to figure out a way around that problem, while I already know a way around our problem -- specifically, the fact that we are not fish and have to breathe air.”

The road to the edge of the of the Southern Ocean was long and fraught with many dangers. Of course, Xerchinita and Norrice left a trail of legendary tales from the survivors of the attempts to harass and rob them. For a highway brigand who had robbed and pillaged the road for many years unopposed, it came as a major surprise to find two women and a terrible beast had by far the better of them.

Norrice stood on the sands of the beach and allowed the waves to gently caress her toes as it kissed the shore. She said wistfully, “This reminds me of that fairy tail about the mermaid who fell in love with a human.”

Xerchinita exclaimed, “Norrice … you read my mind!”

Norhouse turned with surprise on her face, “Wha? What did I do?”

Xerchinita had already drawn her wand and given it a flick after saying some of those strange words that Norrice could feel all the way to her soul. A sparkling mist formed around Norrice. Her legs felt weird as she lost the ability to stand. The next thing she knew, the Devotee was tossing her into the surf with a mighty heave with Xerchinita following close behind in the same manner.

Norrice hit the water with a resounding splash, only to discover she had flukes where only moments ago she had legs and feet. She poked her head above the waves and said with amazement, “What have you done?”
Xerchinita replied before diving beneath the waves, “I have made it possible for us to reach the portal stone. Come and be quick.”

Norrice took a deep breath of air out of habit before ducking her head below the water, then realized that she wasn’t feeling the need to breathe.  “Okay then …” she said, “I’m assuming that this spell isn’t permanent?”

“No,” said the witch, “this form of it lasts three days at maximum, and I can cancel it at any time before then.  You’re not stuck as a mermaid forever or anything.”

“That’s good,” Norrice said.  “It took a long time to practice my combat footwork techniques.  It would be a pity never to have feet again.  But I have to admit, footwork won’t do me much good down here.”

They swam near the bottom, where it got darker and darker as the water grew deeper and deeper, and the Devotee swam after them, neither tiring nor needing to breathe, as a supernatural creature.  The Banner of Air trailed gracefully after Norrice, even in this realm where there was little air.

“Here,” said Xerchinita after hours of ceaseless swimming, “we should be at the deepest point of the Bay of Bathys, where in ancient times there was a great city, the legends say, before the earth shook and it sank beneath the waves.”  And, indeed, many of the rocks and coral formations around them had somewhat of a look about them that reminded Norrice of ancient ruins.  “I can sense the portal stone nearby.”

As she followed Xerchinita, Norrice noticed the cold of the water and felt it pressing on her. She was amazed that it really didn’t bother her that much. She turned her head towards the far off surface. All she could see was a very diffuse light filtering down from somewhere far above. The portal stone was easy enough to see, once they were close enough, even through all the murky darkness and encrusted overgrowth surrounding it. To Norrice’s amazement, the surface of the portal stone was clear of any growth or silt. The mystical runes carved in its surface could be seen plainly as they softly glowed.

Xerchinita performed the customary incantation, and the portal opened to show another underwater scene, though one with a bit more light.  There didn’t seem to be any signs of immediate danger, so the women and the Devotee went through.  They found themselves in relatively shallow warm water. The chill of the deep vanished from them quickly. Norrice looked around. As far as she could see was nothing but what appeared to be some kind of feathery and longish types of tree. It suddenly dawned on her, what she was seeing was a large type of seaweed waving in the gentle currents.

Xerchinita said softly, “Swim carefully -- I’m not sure what type of creatures the Underlord might have summoned if he arrived before us.”  

She touched the silvery bracelet she wore as if for reassurance.  Then she swam gracefully off through the thick growth surrounding them.  Norrice followed, as did the Devotee, for the witch alone knew where the Pillar was.

Xerchinita stopped suddenly, and it wasn’t until Norrice caught up that she saw why: they had reached the Pillar. But it seemed they had found not its base but its apex.  Not far above them, near the surface, they could see the top of the pillar.  But of course, all the other Pillars had been remarkably tall, so Norrice looked down.  Around the Pillar was a great cylindrical well, leading down into dark water far below.

“I suppose we go down there?” Norrice asked.

“I think we have to,” said Xerchinita.  “The Pillar’s guardians, the Leviathan and the Dreamer, are most likely to reside in the depths.”

“But couldn’t Kanthros attack the top of the Pillar just as easily?” asked Norrice.

Xerchinita thought.  “All the lore says that a Pillar’s strength is at its base,” she said.  “And that does seem to be where each Pillar’s guardians live.  I think a Pillar’s appearance is more or less just a reflection of its true mystical reality anyway.”

“This magical stuff is way beyond me.”

“Well, when you smile, it reflects the true reality within, that you feel happy.  You could hide your smile, or cover your face, but you’d still feel happy.”

“Or I could fake a smile.”

“That’s … wait …” Xerchinita thought.  “Norrice … you’re a genius.  Come on.  Let’s get down there.  If the Underlord isn’t here yet, we might be in luck.”

“What’d I say this time?” Norrice asked as they swam downward into the darkness, but Xerchinita didn’t elaborate.

Thousands of feet downward they swam, and the water grew darker but not colder as the strange types of fish that lived here grew stranger still.  In the depths lived odd fish with parts of their bodies that glowed, and other fish that were blind but seemed to have many antennas or whiskers all over their bodies for senses, and stranger things.  Small fish were attracted to the tiny motes of magical light that Xerchinita summoned to illuminate their surroundings.  And then they saw the eye.

They suddenly found themselves looking at a great eye that was bigger across than both of them were tall.  It was part of a huge body that they couldn’t see the entirety of.  A voice came from it, saying, “SO, THE DEFENDERS HAVE ARRIVED.”

“You’re … the Leviathan,” said Xerchinita, apprehensively.  “We meet at last.  I am …”

“Xerchinita, Sorceress of Light,” said a voice in their heads.  “And Princess Norrice.  I have dreamed of you.  And now here you are.”

“And the Dreamer, I presume,” said the witch.  “Yes, Norrice and I are here because we believe Underlord Kanthros will assault this pillar next -- he suffered a defeat at the Pillar of Ice and Starlight, so we think this will be his last, desperate move.”

“WITH TWO OF THE SIX PILLARS BROKEN, HE NEED ONLY SHATTER ONE MORE,” rumbled the gigantic voice of the Leviathan.

“Is … that true?” Xerchinita asked.  “Will it all fall to ruin with three Pillars still intact?”

“He means that the damage will be irreversible, and the other three may fall after it,” said the Dreamer’s voice within their minds.  “We’re not sure -- it’s never happened before, of course.  Not even in my darkest dreams.”

“We think he’s going to enlist the Afreet and the Black Dragon,” said Norrice.  “But they’re both dependent on fire, and this is a realm of water.  And they’re both weakened without their counterparts.  Which means he’s going to have to do something special that I can’t even imagine.”

“Imagination is my realm,” said the voice of the Dreamer.  “And I believe the Sorceress has dreamed up an interesting stratagem …”

“IT BEGINS,” said the Leviathan.  They had to take his word for it, as the water near the base of the Pillar was as dark as it had ever been, and they could see nothing.

Suddenly the water around them felt different -- as if it grew less heavy and less, well, wet, if that were possible.  “Unreal!” said Norrice.

“It’s Chaos magic -- he’s twisting the properties of the water,” said Xerchinita.  “No, I can’t do this kind of thing.  And normally he can’t either.  He must be using up reserves of power it took him centuries to store up.  Just be ready.”

The water around them took on a consistency of something like a liquefied powder, if that were even possible.  Xerchinita snapped her fingers, and Norrice discovered she was no longer a Mermaid, but her legs and feet had returned as well as her magical crystalline armor.  She stood on what had recently been the ocean floor at the bottom of a huge well, the Pillar stretching far upward into the distance.

Norrice looked around and saw a large wall of black water surrounding a large circle of the weird liquefied powder. Far off upward, she could see a very bright red light growing ever brighter as the tense moments ticked by. A large fireball exploded nearby, scattering everything and scorching all the pure whiteness of the sand black.

Xerchinita jumped into action and created a huge wall of icy fire that was several feet thick. The next fireball that came impacted impotently against its solidness. The Devotee bellowed out its rage as it beat upon it chest, then threw a large volley of ethereal energies back at the as yet unseen foe. Norrice could feel the Isofar armbands becoming very cold as they burned ever brighter with their strange cold blue fire.

Together, more by accident than any design, although it appeared well rehearsed, Xerchinita flicked her new wand as Norrice tossed her star. Xerchinita’s bolt impacted on the star creating something that neither could hope to describe as it became brighter than a nova and sped off, lighting the entire well bright as day with blue icy light.

For the first time, Norrice saw what an Afreet looked like. The Black Dragon was even uglier still as the huge bolt impacted and basically exploded.  But there was something different about them.  The flames surrounding the Afreet’s form were shot through with streaks of darkness, and the Dragon’s very skin, already black, was covered with even darker lines that looked like veins or cracks.  

“But … where’s Kanthros?” Norrice asked.

“He won’t show his face unless he has to,” Xerchinita said.  “We have to force him, by defeating these two.”

She called upon the power of the Light and threw a great orb of energy upward, which exploded into a shower of shards of pure light that embedded themselves in the creatures.  Where they struck, the Afreet’s flames looked more like real fire and the dark veins vanished from the Dragon’s skin, but then the strange darkness reappeared.

“What are they doing?” Norrice asked.  “They’re going to --”

At that moment her chakram returned, and she caught it.  The Afreet looked as if it was building a huge ball of fire and darkness in its hand, preparing to throw it at the Pillar, so Norrice threw her star again to intercept.  It flew upward just as the Afreet released its fireball, which struck the weapon and sent it tumbling back downward, where it buried itself in the sand at Norrice’s feet, searing hot and smoking.  

“Cowards!” Norrice shouted.  “You’ll stay up there, will you?  Not come down here and fight me?”  They seemed to pay no attention.

“I think he’s filled them with his dark energy of chaos and destruction,” said Xerchinita.  “They’re little more than puppets in his hands.  Away from their counterparts, they’re very weak by themselves, so Kanthros is feeding them power.”  

The Black Dragon breathed a great cloud of black fire at the Pillar, but Xerchinita neutralized it with a huge burst of icy blue fire from her wand.

“WE ARE NOT WEAKENED,” said the Leviathan’s voice, and a mighty tentacle came from above to slap the Dragon downward, where it slammed into the sand with great force.  Norrice leapt toward it, drawing her scintillating blue sword and preparing to bury it point-first in the Dragon’s neck.  It wasn’t quite clear where the Leviathan’s body was, or where the tentacle attached to it.

But before Norrice could jump, it rose again in a cloud of shadow and anger, roaring back out of Norrice’s reach, and preparing to launch another gout of black flame.  And just as another tentacle tried to slap at the Afreet, it became clear that the creature wasn’t truly material and solid, as the tentacle phased right through it and slammed into the ground.  The Afreet began to build up another huge fireball, and Norrice tried to grab her throwing star, but it was still glowing red hot.   The two were going to strike at the same time!  

“Here we go,” said Xerchinita.

As the fireball and the dragon’s breath both struck the Pillar -- it vanished.   And reappeared several dozen yards away.  The voice of the Dreamer in their heads said, “My word.  That actually worked.  I was worried they’d be immune to my dream that the Pillar was somewhere else.”

“Keep doing it,” said Xerchinita softly.  “He only has so much power to feed them.  If we keep them attacking, they’ll begin to run out.”

The Dragon rose from the sandy ground where it had stood with a huge growl. It reared back its head, there was a loud rushing sound of wind, a gigantic red ball of energy flashed towards the newest pillar just as the Dragon exhaled. The two energies met in an all consuming conflagration and hit the image of the pillar that once again dissolved into a glimmer of light.

A boiling miasma of black particles swirled around and seemed to form a being. It yelled out, “That’s impossible!” Everything shook with the force of its terrible wrath, “A simple glamour cannot dissuade a Lord of Chaos!”

The voice of the Leviathan boomed out, “But you are just a pissant. You never were powerful enough to take the position of Lord. You, why you’re just a gofer for Overlord Creatonus.”

A web of electrical fire coursed through the misty body of the being as it yelled out in rage, “I am far and away above Creatonus … he’s nothing more than a decoration in my privy.”

Norrice and Xerchinita both burst out laughing. Even the Leviathan and the Dreamer snorted in mirth. It was about that time a small blue stone fell from the swirling blackness of the being. Norrice didn’t miss it and dove for it as soon as she saw it. Norrice never felt the impact on her back.

When Norrice opened her eyes, The Leviathan was holding one of its many tentacles over her defensively as the Devotee attacked the being with a massive bolt. Xerchinita pulled Norrice from the battle zone to a place … a bit further away.

Xerchinita bent over Norrice and asked worriedly, “Are you alright? That had to be the bravest thing I ever saw a mortal do. And now, we have another stone of binding thanks to that. “ Xerchinita held it up proudly for Norrice to see.

“And you thought we would miss that, did you?” asked the voice of the Dreamer.  “I, not you, am the master of misdirection, Underlord.”

“What would that have done to me if it had hit me?” Norrice asked quietly.

“I’m not entirely sure,” said Xerchinita.  “That depends a lot on what Kanthros was trying to do.  Nothing good, certainly.”

“How do we get the Afreet and the Genie back together when she’s not even here?” asked Norrice.
“We need to get them to do one more blast,” said the witch.

Norrice got up and ran back toward the Pillar, or what looked like it.  It was probably another illusion.  “Well, that didn’t work!” she shouted.  “You might as well give up!  You’re never going to destroy the Pillar!”

“We’ll see about that,” came Kanthros’ hateful voice.  “I don’t know how you knew I would come here, but I will finish what I started.”  

The Afreet and the Dragon started charging up blasts of dark fire again.  “Now, that is quite obviously not the Pillar, but that’s fine -- it’s not quite in the proper center of the well, is it?  My friends, I think you should aim at the point right in the center of the well -- right there -- even though we can’t see a Pillar there.  Because that is, most assuredly, where the true Pillar lies, concealed by the Dreamer’s illusions.”

“Hmm,” said the voice of the Dreamer.

“So you think it’s there, do you?” Norrice taunted.  “Good guess, but …”  She paused and whispered. “That’s not where it is, is it?”

The Dragon danced with agility around the Leviathan’s massive attacking tentacles; they couldn’t prevent the two assailants from releasing another burst of energy.  A massive blast of black fire and a fireball struck the same point on the ground at the same time … and detonated against sand, spraying wet silt everywhere.

“No!” came Kanthros’ voice.  “The Pillar must be somewhere!  Find it!  Wait, what are you doing?”

The Afreet’s fire was flickering and guttering, like a candle that was nearly burned out.  It listed lethargically to one side, then dropped from the sky, falling through the powdery water to the ground … but just before it struck the sand, it vanished.

“WHAT?” shouted Kanthros.  “What is this?”  At the very point where the Afreet had vanished, a square stone appeared in the sand, decorated with gems and carved with arcane symbols.  Above it was a floating image of a high precipice and a broken Pillar -- the remnants of the Pillar of Air and Fire.  “The portal stone?  But we aren’t -- the stone is -- we’re in the --”

The walls of the deep well that held the Portal wavered and vanished from around them.  They were in the shallows, where the portal stone was.  

“Not even close,” said the Dreamer’s voice.  “The Pillar’s over yonder.  The Leviathan and I are everywhere, thanks to my friend’s tentacular nature and my own incorporeality.”  And Xerchinita had already leapt through the open portal after the Afreet, with Norrice right on her heels.

“Yeah, you can temporarily change the destination of a portal stone,” said Xerchinita as they emerged at the top of the high mountain, where the Genie was waiting by the remnants of the Pillar of Air and Fire.  “It takes some power -- but the Leviathan and the Dreamer helped out.  And now … the Afreet is near his own Pillar.”

The form of the Afreet lay a mere few hundred feet from the Pillar. The Genie flew over to the unmoving, smoldering Afreet and picked him up.  

“It is nearly too late,” she said, carrying him toward their Pillar.  “But now that we are both here, I can feel myself -- and him -- growing stronger.  You should hurry.”

Xerchinita held the Stone of Binding in her clenched fist, closed her eyes, and chanted some arcane words.  The clouds around the precipice began to swirl, and when the Genie and Afreet reached the base of the Pillar, there was a massive flash of brilliant white -- and the Pillar was renewed.  The Afreet and the Genie floated to either side of it.  

“I … only wanted to relive the old times,” the Afreet said.  “Was that so wrong?”

“You’re better than that now, my love,” the Genie said.  “The world isn’t like that anymore.”

“We ... must get back …” said Xerchinita faintly, falling to one knee in exhaustion.

“That took a lot out of you,” Norrice observed.  “Here, let’s get back to the portal.”  She took the witch’s arm over her strong shoulders and helped her get to the still-open gateway.

“Well done,” said the voice of the Dreamer when they emerged in the ocean world once again.  “Kanthros isn’t pleased, as you might imagine.”
 
There was a pitched battle going on now, with the Underlord throwing bolts of dark energy from the sky and the Black Dragon breathing blasts of dark fire, while the Leviathan’s tentacles tried to catch both of them and the Devotee tried to blast them with bolts of violet-blue ethereal energy.

Xerchinita collapsed into an exhausted heap. She had extended her powers well beyond the limits any other Wizard or Sorceress could have. A bolt of ethereal energy exploded nearby causing massive amounts of detritus to fall on top of Norrice. She was furious as she brushed her crystalline armor off. A strange thought crossed Norrice’s mind as a large wiry smile crossed her pretty face. She removed the time weaver cloth from her pouch, then made a daring jump towards the Black Dragon. At the apex of her jump, she tossed the Time Weaver cloth at the Dragon’s legs. Being magical, it wrapped itself around the dragon, and even took into account for its tail, and diapered the huge Dragon, which immediately shrank to its infant size.

Kanthros couldn’t believe his eyes as the dragon’s fire ceased. Infant dragons didn’t know how to use their fire or ice breath yet -- not to mention how to fly. The smoky being turned to look, which gave Norrice just enough time …

The being looked down as a bracelet fastened around a baby rattle struck it dead center.  Kanthros had enough time to scream out his rage, as the Stone of Binding within the baby rattle’s handle bound his spirit to the Soul Stealer for all time. A massive electrical firestorm ensued as a whirlpool of energy surrounded the being, and sucked it into one of the very brightly glowing jewels on the soul stealer.

Silence fell except for the squeaks of an infant and very cute little dragon.  Norrice went over and picked up the small black bundle of squirming wings, limbs and tail.  “We should get you home, little … guy?  Girl?  I have no idea, frankly.  Not a dragon expert.”

“You’ve just -- captured Underlord Kanthros inside a Soul Stealer,” said the Dreamer’s voice incredulously.  “Now why didn’t you tell me you had one of those things?”

“There … wasn’t time,” Xerchinita said weakly, leaning on her magic staff.  “We should probably leave here, before the water returns to normal …”

“LET US SEND YOU TO THE WORLD OF EARTH AND FIRE,” said the Leviathan’s booming voice, “TO RETURN THE DRAGON HOME.”

“Sounds reasonable,” said Norrice.  “Thank you!”

“It is we who thank you,” the Dreamer said, “but we can always meet again later.  For now, off you go …”  The portal changed, and Norrice and Xerchinita stepped through.

“You are … pardon me, but you are adorable!” said the White Dragon when it laid eyes on the baby Black Dragon in Norrice’s arms.  “You were a beautiful baby!  I’m glad I got to see this.”  The Black Dragon’s cheeks were blushing a bright red.

“How do we do this?” asked Norrice, holding up the baby rattle.

Xerchinita said, “It’s actually quite simple … let us do it together.  Lend me your strength.”  

Taking Norrice’s hand so they were both holding the rattle with the Stone of Binding in its handle, she slowly and carefully spoke the words, and the Pillar was healed -- Norrice felt tired too now, but she was glad to help.

“Now to remove the Weave of Time,” the White Dragon said, unwinding the white cloth from around the baby Black Dragon -- and in moments the Black Dragon was back to its normal size.

“I -- can’t believe you saw me like that!” the Black Dragon said with a pained tone.

“Now now, you were completely adorable,” said the White Dragon.

“Not like that -- I meant, with the Pillar sundered,” the Black Dragon said.  “It was like all my worst tendencies came to the forefront.  Everything I ever felt remorse about doing back in the old times … I wanted to do it all again.”

“Well, you’re back now,” the White Dragon reassured its compatriot.  “Thanks to these good people.”

“Yes,” the Black Dragon said, looking at Norrice and Xerchinita.  “We owe you a debt of gratitude.  In a way, the entire universe does.”

“I don’t know about that,” Norrice said.  “After all, our loved ones get to live, and we continue to have a universe to live in.  There’s something in it for us too.”

“I … suppose …”

“By the way, I’m noticing that you Pillar Guardians don’t seem to get to visit each other that often,” Norrice said.  “Is there a way we can help you with that?”

By Xerchinita’s house in the swamp now stood a mighty glowing Pillar that reached up into the misty sky.  The Genie and the Afreet were saying farewell.

“We thank you so much for doing this,” the Genie said.

“We haven’t been able to leave our Pillar in a million years,” said the Afreet, “save for the Time of Troubles.
 
But we should be getting back.  It was nice to be able to visit the others -- you know, without risking the destruction of all that has been built.”

“Well, now that there’s a Pillar of Light and Strength, the universe has more Pillars than it needs,” Xerchinita said.  “So it’s just fine if you take a break.  But you have to take turns.  I think the Great Bear wanted to visit its friends in the sky.”

“And I would like to go visit my family now and then,” said Norrice, “even though it’s just fine staying with you.”  She looked at Xerchinita and smiled.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Time passed as it always did. The world had changed since the pillars had been restored and a new a different world blossomed forth. The dark arts had lost much of their power and sway as the powers of light and good grew ever stronger.

Norrice sat in a soft chair with a very adorably cute babygirl nursing one of her breasts. She was so glad Shema had introduced her to the Spirit of Childhood, for it had given her the ability to breastfeed which brought Norrice even more pleasure than ever. Norrice felt a little guilty about keeping Xerchinita as an infant for so long, but it made her feel so wonderful to care for her this way. Norrice smiled, she knew that Xerchinita had no idea what was happening and only experenced what a little baby should ... Sheema assured her it was so. The warning that it would become addicting and leave ever increasing residuals didn't dissuade Norrice nor did it dissuade Xerchinita in her willingness to do it.

Word had gone out far and wide what Xerchinita and Norrice had done. The Sacred Scrolls of Light lay in a wonderfully flowered gazebo atop a crystal podium. Many magical creatures flitted and fluttered all around as a real unicorn, all white with very pink tips to its long mane and tail grazed on the magical icegrass growing beside a small pool.

The Queen had proclaimed throughout the land that her Granddaughter and Xerchinita, who were both princesses in their own right, were also the Heros of the Kingdom and they both were to be afforded the respect and honors of that title.

Norrice looked around. The small cottage and as far as she could see, now flowered and was visited by all the magical creatures of light as they came to pay homage at the Temple of the Scrolls of Light in their own way.

Within the base of the podium, in a box, ornately carved from Zebrawood and bound in Mithril bonds, lay in a thick black velvet inlay, a bracelet with many soulstones attached. One stone glowed brightly, and if one listened closely, they could hear the horrid screams of torment coming from the spirit of the Underlord of Chaos that was forever bound to it along with many of the nastiest demons the underworld had ever known.

~~ End of the Beginning of the Next ~~
Miki Yamuri
 
Posts: 218
Joined: Mon Jun 23, 2014 3:06 pm

Re: The Broken Pillar

Postby TiresiasRex » Wed Apr 13, 2016 4:16 pm

I'm sensing an excitement permeating the words and writing of this story...almost like you are returning to an old friend, the fantasy realm. Is this your preferred medium these days? Or will we see some more epic science fiction tales in the days ahead?

For some reason, the black/white dragons remind me of a potent mix of the game of Go, the Dragonriders series by Anne McCafferey (sp?) and even the Doctor Who version of "The Lady or the Tiger" riddle from O.Henry (Tom Baker years: "The Pyramids of Mars") AND our lady of dragons on "Game of Thrones." All of that word potency packed into a simple image (Well, it's either that or I have had too much caffeine today). But I digress.

Nothing more to add for now...although I do get a vibe that this story may continue....
TiresiasRex
 
Posts: 42
Joined: Sat Jul 05, 2014 9:05 pm


Return to The Story Circle

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

cron