Magic Sword of Babygaard

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Magic Sword of Babygaard

Postby LilJennie » Wed Apr 21, 2021 8:41 pm

Magic Sword of Babygaard

by Miki Yamuri and LilJennie

Catrina was a very good swordswoman and knew a great deal of really powerful spells she had learned over the course of her many adventures. She had come to know and trust another young adventurer named Alexis whom she had basically grown up with.

The two of them sat in the Mage's conjuring room, looking over a strange scroll he had found in a faraway land. It described a very powerful magical sword that could be used to defeat the horrid dragon Fieorfang that was terrorizing the land.

Catrina was a beautiful girl of about five feet tall with red hair and freckles. Those who allowed her size, beauty and demureness to blind them to her other skills ... soon regretted it. She looked at the softly glowing runes of the scroll and commented, "How are we to find this ... castle it tells so much about?" She looked at Alexis.

Closing her purple pupiled eyes, Alexis started talking. "I think the gems on the scroll are the ancient waypoints. Look at the way they're spread, especially that one!" She moved her hand away from her long golden hair, pointing with her finger to the blue gem affixed to the parchment in the far lower right corner of the scroll, resembling an island-like shape. "That must be a clue, if the mapmaker went to the trouble to put it there. There’s an island there, and I know the place well; I found little Leapfang there." She looked at the window, from which she could see a little black scaled dragon sleeping in the valley, about human sized, striped with yellow lines every 20 inches. “I guess one of the other stones on this scroll should be the waypoint," she assumed, letting herself ease her stance from pointing her finger over the scroll, and letting it slide back to her slim body.

Alexis was just over five feet tall. She was ever so slightly tanned, so that one might think she only came out into the sunlight once a day. Her features were not very much developed, yet her looks were as cute as a button. She had the looks of Elvenry about her in the way her ears and facial features were. Even her purple pupils were a clue.

Like Catrina, Alexis knew many powerful spells and enchantments. Every item she carried was enchanted with some sort of magic – some people were magic purists and looked down on certain types of magic, but Alexis didn’t care what magic type she used, taking only the best options she had, treating magic mathematically as if it were some sort of code. She was also a swordswoman, but had never really experienced melee fighting using anything other than her great long sword, whose mystical blade was shaped like an angel’s wing.


“So … explain it to me as if I am a child, then,” said Catrina, “what is a waypoint?”

“Well, you know of the milestones that the old kingdom placed along the roads it made?” Alexis explained. “Most of them still exist and are readable.”

“Assuming you can read their dead language, and their peculiar number system,” said Catrina.

“Well, yes, but really all you need to know is their numbers,” said Alexis. “Find a milestone, and you know where you are.”

“Also assuming you know what milestones the towns are located at.”

“You are correct,” said Alexis with a grin. “It takes knowledge to use them, but with that knowledge you can never be lost. Now waypoints are even older. They were set up by the wizards of ancient times. No one even knows why or how, or even what their kingdom or empire was called. But the waypoints mark locations. They’re exactly the same distance apart and can’t be moved or destroyed. If you can decipher the markings on them, which scholars have already done, you know exactly where you are if you find one. Many maps mark their locations. And this one is no exception.”

“So does that island have a waypoint on it?” asked Catrina, pointing at the blue one in the corner.

“Sure does,” said Alexis. “I’ve seen other maps, but not many of this region.” She indicated the upper left part of the map. “Other maps show waypoints where some of these stones are. Maybe these are where the waypoints in that part of the world are.”

“And that region is where this sword is supposed to be, or the castle the sword is in,” said Catrina.

“Maybe? There’s supposed to be a castle connected with the sword there. It could be there, or at least there’s a clue there.”

Catrina scratched under her chin as she thought about it all. It had been a bit since they had had a really nice adventure, and Catrina had a few new spells she was itching to try.

She finally said, “I’ll start supplying our packs and making arrangements to store the things we won’t need.”

Alexis replied, “Bring everything we have with us, Cat. If we go after that sword, I know things are not going to be as they seem. I also know the minions of darkness will manage to discover what we seek and inform Fieorfang.”

Catrina nodded, “I can see that. Best to be well prepared than caught unaware.”

“I’m also sure along this path there are going to be snares and traps to catch those not worthy.” said Alexis.

Catrina asked with a slight tremor in her voice, “What if it is we who are not worthy?”

Alexis looked at Catrina with a strange expression for a few seconds then replied, “If we’re not, may the gods protect us from the hordes of attacking dragons that will surely follow our defeat.”

Catrina said nothing more as she turned and began collecting their belongings and packing the horses for the long journey ahead. While Catrina did that, Alexis gathered several large magic tomes and began sharpening all their swords and knives, using some spells she knew to make the edges especially keen.

Catrina smiled as she held up the blue fire Isofaren shurikens. She smiled to herself as she imagined the surprise of those who got the first taste of them. The art of making and welding them had been lost to man for many generations. Only a lucky cave-in during their last adventure had brought them back into their hands.

Alexis donned her cute leather battle gear and Elven armor. She hoped upon hope this wouldn’t turn into another of those kinds of adventures. As she shut the door and walked towards the Mage’s stables, in the back of her mind she said a prayer for them to have the ability and worthiness to accomplish the task.

Catrina mounted her horse as Alexis entered the stable, “Hurry up girl, it’s already mid-morning and will be lunchtime sooner than we would like.”

Alexis threw her saddle packs across her horse, then mounted. “If you don’t hurry, I’m going to lose you in the forest.”

Catrina knew the forest was several miles down the main trail as she watched Alexis spur her horse and exit the stable into the main courtyard in a flash. She smiled as she kicked her horse and dashed after. A bit of fun always made the adventures better anyway.

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The forest began to come into view in the distance as mid-morning drew on. The hills were dotted with farm cottages, and occasionally a valley contained a small village. But just as they had passed the first of the great forest’s trees, Alexis said, “Let’s stop for a moment.”

“Time for lunch?” Catrina asked, reining her horse in.

“Maybe, but that’s not why.” Alexis pointed in a direction off to the right of the road, where there was a large broken stone. “One of the ancient milestones.”

“So you did learn how to read Old Vornish.”

“Yes, and it took a lot of effort, so I try to use it whenever I can,” Alexis said. “Besides, it’ll tell us how far it is to the coast.” She dismounted and walked closer to the lichen-covered stone. “Looks like … 273. Yes, 273. Part of the number is on this half of the stone, and part is on that half.”

“What’s 273?”

“273 Vornish miles, and the ancient coastal city of Garavon was at the 510 mile mark, according to what I’ve read, so that means … 280 modern miles to the coast.” Alexis sighed. “Why is everything so far apart?”

“It’s a big world,” said Catrina. “But yes, the Valley of the Dead and the Mountains of Smoke lie between here and the coast, and then we’ll have to take ship and sail past that island you know into poorly-charted waters before landing again.”

“Well, poorly-charted as far as the Mage is concerned,” said Alexis, mounting back up. “Sea captains have been making charts of that area for centuries, I’m sure. We just have to find the right sea captains. Someone knows those waters. But first we have to get there.”

Catrina said, “When we hit the mountains, we have to pass through the fire worm’s lair. I'm not so sure about the fire worm ... in the mountains many things are enchanted ... many brave men and women have tried to solve the riddle ... none have returned."

Alexis smiled as she replied, "The answer to the riddle is as simple as saying the word water. Don't listen to the riddle ... pay no heed to the voice that speaks, for it is the trap itself. Just say .. water, it's that simple."

Catrina’s face showed her surprise, “And how on earth did you figure that out?”

Alexis replied as she slowly continued into the ever thickening forest, “It is a spell of misdirection. Sort of like a key that fits a lock. The words the worm will speak technically mean nothing. That’s the misdirection. The key that diverts the spell is simple and taken from the small waterfall and magical pool near the worm’s lair.”

Catrina laughed, “All this time, and it was simple as water? I can’t believe that.”

Wait until we get to that bridge, I will prove it.”

About that time, seemingly stepping from the shadows were many diminutive humanoids with small horns on their heads and small batlike wings. Each held a short sword in one hand, and an orb in the other. Both the adventurers knew immediately that they were imps. They were demons – minor demons, to be sure, but they never meant well.

Quick as a flash, Catrina brought out her magic sword and slipped off her horse, who was also doing its best to get into the fight. Several of the imps dodged the first power strokes of Catrina’s sword and launched a massive strike of their own. They were holding their orbs aloft, each glowing with a brightening red light.

Alexis and Catrina dove into the thick brush just as the blast hit, scattering large amounts of dirt and flaming debris all over. Alexis stood up and snatched one of the Isofaren Shurikens from its holder on her belt and tossed it at the group of imps directly in front of her.

The sound of an avalanche was heard as a bright blue fire rapidly advanced on the imps and impacted. No dramatic explosions, just a large sound like lightning striking and a huge roar of thunder. The imps vanished in a bright blue ethereal fire mankind had not seen in many generations.

The remainder of the imps lost whatever bravery they had and seemingly became part of the shadows of the forest once again.

Catrina looked at Alexis with a strange look on her face, “So, that’s why you were so excited about finding those things.”

Alexis held out her hand and like a boomerang, the shuriken returned to her, and she caught it between her fingers. As she placed it back in its holster she replied, “It’s a far more devastating weapon and longer ranged than our magic swords. Even the Angel Wing sword.”

“Seems like a shame to waste it on some imps,” Catrina remarked. “But then, it came back, so you can do it again.”

“But not until tomorrow,” said Alexis. “That one’s magic has to build back up. But my real concern is this: why are there imps in the forest?”

“You’re right,” said Catrina. “Demons aren’t naturally occurring. Somebody summoned them. Somebody who’s nearby, and still alive. Killing a demon’s summoner sends the demon back to the nether realm.”

“Yes,” Alexis said. “And that’s why I’d like to try a spell.”

“Something to trace demonic magic?”

“Exactly.” She took out some candles and a glass vial. “Doesn’t have to be too big a production. Like you don’t have to listen very hard to hear an explosion, you don’t have to search very hard for something as unnatural as demon-summoning.”

“I’ll stand watch, then,” Catrina said, her sword at the ready. She had some particularly good spells in mind to use on the summoner when they found them. The penalty for treating with the dark realm was death in most lands, which was probably why the summoner was here in the wilderness.

Saying a few carefully-pronounced words, Alexis lit three candles, one per phrase of the incantation, placing each candle in turn into a small candelabra. She then dripped one drop of the sacred oil onto each candle’s flame.

The light spread out into a large glowing sphere of illumination, bigger than a house, and within it … Alexis saw dark lines, black tinged with red, low down and parallel to the forest floor.

“What …?” she said.

She followed the lines and found that they met at a point, and at that point they seemed to also meet a curved line that went off in both directions.

“What have you found?” Catrina asked, continuing to focus on where enemies might approach them.”

“The summoner … has been busy,” said Alexis, following the arc. “If this is a circle … it’s probably half a mile across. The good news is that there don’t seem to be any lines of power outside it, so we’ve already found its outer boundary. The bad news is that it’s huge. The only way to create something this big is by performing a sacrifice. And the only way to keep it powered is by keeping the sacrifices going on schedule. I wonder if people have been going missing from the nearby farms and villages.”

“This is the blackest of black magic,” said Catrina.

“The blackest human magic, probably,” Alexis replied. “I shudder to think what we’ll find at the center, and it’s not really our quest, but I can’t in good conscience just walk away and let this go on any longer than it has.”

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The girls led their horses as they began to search for the summoner. It became clear almost immediately that whoever this summoner was, also had a knack for spells of concealment. Although he was powerful in this respect, the all seeing eye she carried in her backpack still managed to pierce the summoner’s deception enough and even illuminated a direction for them to find a path. The all seeing eye of Agamaghorra might be questionable as to good or evil, but it worked for good perfectly.

The day wore on as they searched and this summoner eluded. The girls knew whoever it was knew they were being tracked and was doing their best to remain elusive. By the time the adventurers had arrived at the edge of the magic circle where the bloodstained sacrificial slab rested among the torches of incantation, it had become totally dark.

There were many strange and fearful sounds coming from the stygian darkness deep within the wood. Catrina quickly built a fire and set up her small tent. By the time Alexis had her tent up, the wonderful smell of roasting meat and the aroma of herbal tea filled the air.

The girls didn’t fail to notice many sets of glowing eyes looking at them from the darkness beyond the firelight.

Catrina commented softly, "Let us hope those critters are more afraid of us ... than we are of them. Might have been a good idea to bring your pet dragon along to add some fear in them."

Before Alexis could answer, a deep and chilling snarl came from off in the darkness that sent chills up their spines. Both of them now just knew the summoner had chosen the time of darkness to make their move against them.

A single moment passed before Alexis came up with an idea. With no sudden movements, she plucked a small gem from her belt, allowing it to drop to the ground. The indistinct sound of many voices grew louder as the gem fell towards the ground.

As soon as the small gem touched the earth, a gigantic burst of light started crawling in every direction around the area as if alive, allowing the girls to see everything as it truly was.

The girls caught sight of something the flash revealed. A very large catlike creature that also had many human like characteristics lay just beyond where the firelight had allowed them to see. The girl's saw its huge and powerful muscles all coiled as if it were ready to pounce.

The bright flash of the gem's light caused it to spring almost straight up into the boughs of a large tree instead of making a stealth attack on them, as it had seemingly been preparing to do. It sat in the boughs of the large tree for only a moment before bounding from the tree and gracefully sprang away into the darkness beyond.

Catrina said with obvious relief in her voice, "I'm sure glad it was afraid of the flash. I would have hated to have to fight that thing off. It looks like it might have taken on a bear and won."

With a hand on one of the unused Isofaren Shurikens, Alexis replied, “I am too. But it also tells us something else rather important.”

Catrina asked, “What might that be? Beside the fact that we appear to have strange creatures stalking us?”

Alexis replied, “It tells us that whoever the summoner is, they’re also a rather adept shapeshifter. That Cat creature had way too many man like features to not have been a morph. That makes finding their trail even harder, because there’s no telling what form they’re in at any time we’re using magic to seek them out.”

“Maybe we should split into shifts for the night. Keep watch, in case something else is sent looking for us,” said Catrina as she grabbed a little cross-like necklace, one of the seven she was wearing around her neck, and held it in her hand. She gave it a squeeze, which caused it to magically grow to a meter in diameter, then stabbed it into the ground. “That should keep us safe enough, or at least it’ll warn us if something it cannot ward off is approaching so we can get some rest.”

Alexis commented as she laid out her sleeping roll in her tent, “So that’s why you made sure to pick that thing up. But since we chose to set up camp right by the sacrificial slab, odds are good we just might get some sleep. Most ordinary beasts will certainly avoid the spot. After the Valley of the Dead, there's another town where we can get one more day's rest. There I can maybe even find some useful items to help along the way. Then we have the long climb into the Mountains of Smoke."

"Dibs on this shift," Catrina said while she magically brought one of the roasting meat's slices from the wooden spit over the fire to her hand. “I have some new spells I want to try out, and from the looks of all those things looking at us from the dark, I might get the chance.”

Alexis slept soundly, knowing that if anything attacked, either Catrina would make short work of it, or she’d make enough noise fighting it to wake her up.

Meanwhile, Catrina sat and tended the fire, watching the glowing eyes that were watching her from beyond its light. That blazing gem of Alexis’ was bright, but it didn’t last long. She idly wondered what the creatures were. Felines had reflective eyes, but these didn’t look like cats’ eyes.

Demons were a good guess, since they were dealing with a demon summoner, but she didn’t know a type of demon with eyes like this – then again, Alexis knew a lot more about demons than she did. There was also the possibility that they were illusions, not real, designed to cause fear. They weren’t working, if so.

There were mutterings after a while – they were talking to each other too quietly for her to hear. Knowing that it might wake up Alexis, Catrina stood up and shouted, “I’m right here, you know. I can hear you. You might as well come out and tell me whatever you’re trying to say.” Not that she expected this to happen, but when she sat down she noticed that the mutterings had ceased, and there were fewer eyes now.

Catrina sat and whistled and sharpened her daggers for something to do. The ward was keeping truly evil things away, while misguided creatures of this world were probably being kept away by the thought of Catrina’s daggers piercing them between their shiny eyes. “Yep,” she said as she sharpened, “we’ve got your summoning altar. It’s our summoning altar now. Know what we’re gonna do with it? At high noon we’re gonna wreck it. It’ll be a pile of rubble. Such a shame. I know you’ve put so much work into making it a monument to evil. And it’ll all go to waste. Unless you can stop us. And frankly, if you could, you’d have done it by now.”

It wasn’t taunting anything out of the darkness, which frankly was disappointing. Catrina wasn’t getting the fight she wanted. But she knew better than to leave the firelight and her ward behind. Not that she’d have trouble seeing – there was a spell for that. But they already knew that the demon summoner had at least a few more imps already summoned and ready to go, which meant that they probably had other demons as well, and her ward was keeping them at bay.

Suddenly there was another muttering from the edges of the firelight, and everything went dark. The fire hadn’t gone out, because Catrina could still hear it crackling. It was obviously a magical spell of darkness, blotting out light with inky blackness. She couldn’t even see the stars overhead.

Catrina loudly shouted a few magic words. The darkness didn’t lift, but now she didn’t need to see with her eyes. She knew exactly where everything was without light. And there were three humanoid figures about her size closing in on her.

Hadn’t they seen her daggers? Two of the figures suddenly had freshly-sharpened blades flying toward their faces with great force, and the third figure was about to meet her sword blade. There were strangling noises, and she could tell the daggers had flown true, as those two collapsed to the ground. The one figure still standing was coming in her general direction, but not directly – so they couldn’t even see through their own darkness spell. Poor planning.

Catrina didn’t move toward them. She waited quietly for the figure to come to her. And then she suddenly struck with deadly power and accuracy. The ribs felt human as her sword bit into them and slid between them.

“Impressive,” said a deep voice from behind her. “You fight w –” The voice was cut off when Catrina hurled another dagger at the face of the humanoid figure whom she could sense in the direction of the voice. She could tell it had flown true just as the others had. The speaker hadn’t fallen, but was now dealing with an inconveniently-placed piece of sharp steel and probably some profuse bleeding, assuming they bled. Catrina wasn’t one to stand about listening to monologues. In her opinion, when somebody stood up and said something during a fight, they were presenting her with a target.

She picked up her shield and got it ready, wielding it with her left arm. They’d found out that facing her in close combat, even under cover of darkness, was a bad idea. They’d probably try throwing or shooting things at her next.

She spoke a few more magic words just at the same time the darkness spell went away. Catrina had found something out too, though – lying on the ground were some dead humans, wearing hooded black robes. It looked like their heads were shaved bald, and they had some arcane symbols tattooed on their hands and scalps. So the demon summoner wasn’t alone out here. They had acolytes. They were dealing with a cult, probably a minor one, led by one person – a larger operation would have been better known around the area.

Catrina sensed something flying her way and didn’t bother to raise her shield – she simply sidestepped it, letting it clatter against the altar stone. It was a spear. Three more of them came. She only bothered to deflect one of them with her shield – it had been headed for Alexis’ tent.

She considered picking up a spear and throwing it back, but that would mean either dropping or sheathing her sword. Or there was the third option. As soon as she had some idea where one of the attackers was, she quickly tossed her sword up into the air, grabbed one of the fallen spears, and threw it at the acolyte, then reached up to catch her sword as it fell in one fluid motion.

She guessed that Mr. “You Fight Well” had decided against making any more speeches. Had he been the leader? Alexis had all kinds of information magic. But she needed her sleep, and Catrina took her watch shift very seriously. Let’s see, three acolytes were definitely dead, one had a grievous spear wound and wouldn’t last long, and another had a dagger in the face, probably the leader or at least a higher-level follower.

Enough of this. “This is getting tedious,” said Catrina. “You know how I said we were going to ruin your altar stone tomorrow at noon? I think I’ll get a head start. The early bird gets the worm, and all.” She chanted an incantation that funneled magical energies into her arm and her sword, turned toward the altar, and swung with might.

There was a bright flash of brilliance and a tremendous cracking sound like a thunderclap. “Oops, sorry, Alexis. That’ll probably wake you up.” When the dust cleared, the altar had splintered into several pieces. There were bones of some sort beneath it. Someone would probably object to her doing that, which was Catrina’s plan, to force them out into the open so she could deal with them the old-fashioned way instead of all this waiting around.

Out of the darkness came a very large, black, feline type predator with very distinct human features and aspects. Its large muscles rippled as if it was contemplating whether to spring or not. Instead, it sat on its haunches and seemed to become some sort of strange jelly.

Its shape transformed into a large man dressed in red and black. His lower face was covered with a thick black scarf. Catrina instantly threw one of her razor sharp daggers directly at his forehead.

So nonchalantly did that individual seeming reach up and caught the dagger in mid-air between his thumb and forefinger that it made Catrina gasp in shock.

A growly ethereal voice said softly, “I agree. The time for this nonsense has passed.”

Quick as a striking cobra, Catrina once again launched an attack. This time, she was using a magic trick Alexis had taught her. She was itching to try it out too.

As Catrina dove from one spot to the next, she cast the spell. As she reached and hid behind the cover, the individual was struck full force by the spell. It seemed to encounter some other force as the both of them wove and arched ethereal energies all around in a huge pyrotechnical fireworks display.

The individual seemed to stumble a few steps before he overcame the spell. Catrina was floored to see him so effortlessly throw off her attack.

The man said in one of those voices, “The mightiest of Demons bow at my feet and grovel for favors. Do you think something as insignificant as you can harm me? Bah!”

Suddenly, from the darkness Alexis voice rang out, “Those selfsame demons tremble and soil themselves in fear before me. You, sir, were a fool to think the same should not hold true for you.”

Quick as a large flash of bright white light, Alexis appeared with her Angel Wing Sword brightly aglow with its power. As she swung, voices could actually be heard singing, although they were too soft to tell about what.

The individual seemely attempted to transform, but Alexis was too fast, and the sword was far too powerful. The sword passed through the jelly/smoke that the individual’s current state held him in. A massive shower of light and what could only be described as liquid dark splattered all through the glade, lighting and bringing impossible shadows all around.

The jelly/smoke fell to the ground oozing liquid dark. It took shape once again in the form of the large man with a rather serious wound across his chest. He looked Alexis right in the eye, “So, it is you. I should have known getting rid of you would be hard.” With this, the individual seemed to become smoke and vanished before their eyes.

Catrina was beside herself at this point. Whoever that summoner was, he seemed to know Alexis. Catrina looked at Alexis with big eyes as Alexis stood with a really weird expression on her pretty face.

Catrina said softly with real wonder in her tone, “You … know that man?”

Alexis cleaned her blade as she replied, “I’ve never met him in my life, as far as I remember.” She turned and looked at Catrina. “You and me practically grew up adventuring together. Do you remember either of us coming across that weirdo?”

Catrina stooped and thought for a minute. They had met a great many weirdos in their adventures. It might also be that their fame had spread, so that he and others knew of them. Although that didn’t explain the seeming familiarity he had shown toward Alexis. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose we must be famous.”

“Maybe.” Alexis turned toward the shattered altar stone. “I suppose we should probably do something about this.” She dug a glass vessel from her pack, filled it with water from her canteen, and held it aloft, chanting mystical words. “I beseech thee, O powers of Light, bless us as we drive forth the blight of Hell and Darkness in thy name,” she added before returning to ancient formulae.

The water in the vial sparkled before erupting into brightly coruscating light as the blessing took hold. Then, sprinkling the blessed water liberally upon the skeletons beneath the altar stone, she watched as they burst into bright flame, white smoke rising from them high up into the heavens. When it was done, the valley no longer had an ominous pall hanging over it; it felt like anywhere else in the forest.

Catrina picked up some of the larger fragments of the altar stone and threw them as far as she could in different directions, out among the trees, where they thumped into the soil and lay still. Alexis watched the holy water drip from the stone onto the diabolical runes that had been inscribed upon the living rock beneath, erasing them with a sizzling hiss.

“Think they’ll come back?” asked Catrina.

“I doubt it,” Alexis said. “They’ll likely either follow us for revenge or set up a new sacrificial site somewhere else. After all, if they come back here, they’ll have to start over from scratch, and not only do we know where they were, we’ll be telling others.”

“Poor demonic cultists,” said Catrina. “There’s nowhere they can go where they’ll feel welcomed. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.”

Alexis grinned. “Well, time to get under way.” They struck camp and packed up, as the sun was rising anyway. Soon they were continuing through the forest. For a long time they saw nothing but ordinary plants and animals.

They finally entered the Valley of the Dead. True to its name, all looked dead, burnt, and dessicated. Alexis said, “We should be leaving here before dark. I wouldn’t want to spend the night here, and I really don’t want to have to fight Delgorr. He’s a rather ill tempered demon.”

Catrina said, “We should be reaching that weird apothecary soon too. I would like to purchase some of his arcane powders.”

Alexis replied, “Somewhere soon we should also be coming to an inn as well. I think I would like a bath and to spend the night in a bed rather than a tent and a bed roll.”

It was about that time a small zephyr wind began to blow. The girls watched as several dust devils danced across their path. At first, it appeared to be a random sort of thing until the dust cloud became more solid looking in appearance and stood blocking the trail.

Alexis shouted loudly as she removed one of the Isofaren Shruikens from her belt, “Out of our way, or face the consequences.”

From out of the clouds came a mighty horde of flying things all headed directly towards them.

Immediately Alexis tossed the shuriken, and the sound of a mighty storm was heard until it slammed into the lead of the large horde of black flying creatures. There was a massive thunderclap and most of the horde vanished in a large splatter of gore.

“RRRRRAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH,” came a very loud voice, seemingly from out of the ground. “I’ve been working on that hellswarm for decades, and now you’ve ruined it! You’ve got some nerve, mortals!” From a fissure in the cracked landscape emerged a black, horned, 20-foot-tall demon with enormous protruding fangs and batlike wings. It basically looked like a larger version of the things that had been flying toward them.

“Ah, Delgorr, I presume,” Alexis sighed. “Sorry about the swarm, but to be fair, they were attacking us.” She and Catrina were both loosening their swords.

“I don’t care! I’m mad, and when I’m mad, I want somebody to KILL,” said the demon, leaning down to pound the earth with both fists, which shook the ground around him. Catrina and Alexis had been trying to dismount, and this sudden shaking knocked them to their feet.

It also aided them in drawing their swords. Catrina’s seemingly caught fire with some sort of living energy as Alexis’ glowed brightly white with the soft sound of many voices singing.

The demon stopped and looked at the two women and said in a seemingly calm voice, “So, the zephyr winds do carry truth.”

Alexis stood with her sword at the ready as she asked, “And what truth would a demon have an ear for?”

Delgorr stood to his full height and slowly flapped his wings, “The truth that the two chosen would come. If I were to fight you, that would probably mean I would have to spend several millennia in the nether realm. That is something I am not looking forward to. To allow you to pass would mean that there are more of my kind awaiting you en masse at the Castle of Bone.”

Alexis and Catrina looked at each other with big-eyed wonder. Alexis said, “I do not know this place you speak of. Neither my companion nor I have ever been there.”

Delgorr laughed an evil laugh, then said, “Know you not who you are, Elven child? Not an inkling of what you and your companion will become? The time of the proving is at hand.” He pointed at the two of them. “Both of your proving. If the test is passed, and the odds are poor, the Guild of Meta will once again arise. They who control the many shall wield their strength, and darkness will leave the land.” Delgorr snorted disdainfully. “And all of the realms of darkness shall come to stop you. “

Delgorr laughed once again as he vanished before their eyes.

Catrina turned towards Alexis and said, “And just what in all of Tunniasia is a Meta? What is this proving … and I knew you were an elfette. But who and what is your lineage? Apparently the underworld knows us and intends to stop us.”

Alexis replied, “I’d thought I had ancestors in one or the other of the Elven clans. There’s my appearance, and there are stories told in my family from long ago – and there are just feelings of intuition I have that are too similar to what it’s said the Elves can have. But where is the Castle of Bone?”

As Alexis walked to her horse and removed one of the several tomes she had strapped to its loins, Catrina asked, “Is there any mention as to what a Meta is and what type of guild that might be?”

Alexis opened the huge book to a place near the back. Catrina came close to see if it said anything useful. From what the two girls read, a Meta-Wizard had control of all the schools of esoteric magics and could wield them at will. There was also a very vague mention of some prophecy, almost lost to time, that told of the Meta-Wizards returning and driving out the dark forces.

It was clearly stated that no man shall again wield all the power; however, it said nothing about a woman, nor that the rules would be immutable once this status had been achieved.

Alexis’ eyes grew large as she said with awe in her tone, “It says here that a test has been set for two who will come to the Castle of Bone. It says, somewhat vaguely, that they will come seeking a prize only to unlock a far greater prize.”

Catrina sighed as she said somewhat dejectedly, “It figures. No matter what. Seems our adventures always turn out to be some earth-shattering quest of one sort or another,” as she sheathed her sword and remounted her horse.

Alexis said, as she did the same, “Apparently the castle we are looking for, hoping to find the Magic Sword of Babygaard, was named the Castle of Bone many thousands of years ago by the great wizards of old.”

Catrina’s eyes got huge as she asked with wonder in her tone, “You think … I mean … those mighty wizards who set the waypoint stones might have been Metas?”

Alexis replied, “Odds are good that might be so. That’s why no one can move or destroy a waypoint stone; the magics are unknown to us today.”

Catrina said softly, “If what I’ve heard so far and what that book told us are true, we just might be the founders of the new Meta Guild.”

Alexis laughed, “Yea, right, and I’m some sort of Elven highborn. Sure, I can see it all now. From what little we know, a Meta Wizard has to be a master of all schools of magic – and the schools of magic are all at each other’s throats. No one who studies one field of magic is welcome at the door of anyone who studies another. The illusionists are distrusted by all because of the deception they practice. The evokers are distrusted because of the destruction their spells can cause. The elementalists likewise, because of the destruction that summoned elementals can wreak. The enchanters too, because of the hold they can have on others’ minds. And so on and so forth, with the naturalists, the diviners, the binders, the crafters, the conjurors, all the rest. The only school that has any chance of being welcomed by another is the healers, for obvious reasons, and even they’re only welcome for the services they provide.”

As the girls slowly rode towards the small town they knew was at the foot of the Mountains of Smoke, Catrina asked, “Do you remember your parents? I mean, your real parents? Are there any artifacts they left you that might leave a clue?”

Alexis removed a very ornate necklace from beneath her chest plate and looked at it. It was a beautiful smoked crystal that sparkled with an inner fire. “The only thing was this. It was around my neck when my step parents found me among the burnt rubble of the house. From what I was told, it has some sort of magic that kept me from perishing in the blaze. It also had my name, Alexis Elvinlight engraved on it. I was too young to remember, and my stepmom does have a small wooden box with an inscription that says in Archaic Elven Script, “To my beloved daughter, Alexis Elvinlight” with some scraps of paper in it with some type of writing on it. No one has yet been able to decipher it, though – not even me.”

“Not even the Mage?”

“No,” said Alexis, shaking her head sadly. “I was hoping he’d at least know what language it was, but he hadn’t even the faintest idea.”

“Speaking of the Mage,” said Catrina, “he’s a diviner, isn’t he? And you, well, most of your spells have to do with evocation. Why does he let you in his doors? And me, for that matter?”

“Well, it might have something to do with how we saved his life on the Moors of Mystery,” said Alexis with a smile. “Also, as a diviner, he can cast spells to tell him whether someone’s come to cause him harm or good, so that probably has something to do with it. And … well, not all my spells have to do with evocation.”

“You’ve got quite a variety of spells at your disposal,” said Catrina. “Most of mine have to do with weapons and fighting. So I can see how you might someday become a Meta Wizard … but what’s that got to do with me?”

“You know … I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Alexis. “I studied the longsword under Master Pelorides, you remember. But he wouldn’t teach me any other weapon. Not even the main gauche for dual-blade fighting. He said it was an impure style.”

“Well, that’s what they say,” said Catrina, “but I’ve always found it best to use whatever works. But I think I see what you’re getting at – the Knights of Pantravia, like Master Pelorides, train exclusively with the longsword. The Order of Niria eschew blades and train exclusively with the mace. The dwarves of the Khazari Mountains use only battle axes, and they’re the world’s acknowledged masters of that weapon. The monks of Shuan Te use no weapons, but their bare hands are deadly. It’s kind of like schools of magic, isn’t it? None of them would ever use another’s fighting style. And then there’s me.”

“Yes, you seem to be good with anything,” said Alexis. “You could pick up a chair and clean somebody’s clock with it. And I think … there may be something to that. But however it all works, I think we’ve got a long way to go before we could be considered Meta-Wizards.”

“Yeah, I’m no wizard at anything,” said Catrina. “I just try to do what’s right with what’s here.” They had finally left the mountains behind them, and they saw a small village on the road ahead.

Alexis commented as they entered the neat little village, “Isn’t this the place where that funny little man owns the apothecary shop? I might be interested in looking around. Never know what you can find in strange little places like that.”

Catrina replied, “Been telling you. He sells some of the most potent arcane powders and roots I have ever seen.”

Alexis reigned up short and started to dismount, “You sold me. Give me a second to tie up my horse, and I’ll look into this place.”

Catrina’s eyes got large for an instant until she looked around. They were right in front of the very place she had been telling Alexis about. With a light amazement, because she hadn’t told Alexis where the shop was, almost hidden in a back alley by the village walls, she too dismounted and tied her horse next to Alexis’ so she could keep an eye on them and their stuff while they were in the shop.

Catrina entered the shop. The potent aromas of many strange and different items, intermingled with a wonderfully smelling incense, filled her senses. She saw Alexis standing next to a large rack and table covered in many kinds of strange glowy sparkly things.

Catrina walked up to Alexis and said, “What’s up, girlfriend? Find something interesting?”

Alexis picked up several glowing stones of different colors. “I think the illusion stones are neat. Not sure how helpful they might be, depending on the illusion, but he’s practically giving them away, and random they might be, but they have gotten us out of a lot of scrapes.” She gathered enough to fill a small leather pouch.

Catrina noticed several charms on the table that would aid and work in conjunction with the sol-fire within her sword. She chose several of them as well as many different arcane powders, which she stored in a different colored small leather pouch.

As the girls wandered around the shop, the man came to them and said in a jovial and friendly way, “Welcome, my ladies. Is there anything in particular I might help you with? I have glow silk taken from the cocoons of the magical glow moths. You can make practically invisible armor from it, if you know how.”

Catrina said in an off hand tone as she scooped another powder into a pink pouch, “Have you ever heard of Meta-Wizards? Or a proving test at a place called the Castle of Bone?”

The man gasped loudly as he put his hands to his face, “By the Nine, it’s true. The time has really arrived, and the chosen have come.”

Alexis turned. She had a very strange expression on her face as she asked, “So, you do know something. Perhaps you would be so kind as to enlighten us?” as she instinctively placed her hand on the pommel of her Angel Wing sword.

The man acted strangely for a few seconds as he noticed. Then, he replied in a very strange tone, “I am the keeper of the Tome. I do know, and I know far more than I can tell either of the chosen. I can, however, take you to the hall of learning that served your ancestors so well.”

As the man slowly wandered off, indicating the girls should follow with a wave of his hand, Alexis said, “My ancestors? I have no clue who they might be.”

The man stopped and looked at the two of them for an instant before he turned and continued on, “That would explain much. I do know that the answers you seek reside in the world. It is but a matter of a keen mind sorting them out.”

He stopped at a mytherium-banded door made of some strange kind of wood neither girl had ever seen. The man brought out a key from the huge ring at his waist that looked like a cross between an ornate item of jewelry and an arcane artifact and unlocked the door.

A bright light surrounded the door for an instant, then the man opened it and beckoned the girls to follow him in. When they entered, row after row of magic mem-crystals filled every wall in many rows stretching off to a far distance both girls knew was impossible. The apothecary shop was way too small.

The man walked up to a large smooth slab with a bowl artistically carved into it. Sitting on a three legged stand above that was some sort of very large dish made of something neither girl had seen before.

With speed and much practiced grace, the man dumped several powders and small items into the carved bowl in the slab. He said as he poured a sparkly silver liquid into the small pile of other items, “Oh, great keeper of knowledge, I beseech thee to unlock the secrets for the long awaited chosen.”

A mysterious voice that had the undertones of many said, “Who is it that awakens us?”

The man replied, “It is I, Drendle, the Keeper of the Meta-Tome.”

Within the carved place, the mixture ignited in a large flash. A huge cloud of glowing vaporous smoke rose and settled in the large dish sitting on the three legged stand.

Within the swirls of glowing smoke, a large clear image appeared of the face of a woman dressed in an elaborate headpiece and an even more elaborate outfit.

“I am the keeper of knowledge. If Drendle has come, as prophecy states, then the time of the Proving is at hand.” The face turned and looked at the two girls, who stood in total amazed incredulity. “I must first determine if you are chosen. There have been many unworthy over these long years.”

Drendle watched for a second before he turned towards the cloud, “It is they. They know of the Castle of Bone and the Test of Proving.”

As the beam of arcane truth faded, the face replied, “They are Chosen.” It turned and looked at the two girls. “Time is short, and there is much you must learn.” The entire cavern lit up at that point, revealing an area farther than the eye could see in all directions filled from floor to ceiling with mem-crystals. “I will attempt to instruct you in the ways of Meta. All the lost knowledge is here waiting.”

Catrina and Alexis looked at each other in total shock as a very large magical tome appeared on a small raised dais next to them. In fiery letters glowing with magic, it said simply, “Guild of Meta.”

“Aww, not more reading,” said Catrina in disappointment.

“Yes! More reading!” Alexis simultaneously cheered. She reached out to open the book to its first page.

They both realized that what they were looking at was a compilation of the notes made by generations of the finest Meta-Wizards who had ever lived. But apparently in those times the definition of “wizard” had been quite different, because the skills that had been deemed wizardly varied from magic, to prowess at arms, to musical talent, skill at dance, the writing of poetry, the art of diplomacy, the construction of buildings, the tending of gardens … the Guild of Meta had been the conclave of every master of every craft that had ever existed, for the love of the craft itself.

“But … how are we supposed to become masters of every possible craft and skill?” moaned Catrina in anguish. “That’s more than anyone can do in a lifetime! Several lifetimes!”

“It’s … amazing,” said Alexis. “They had so much knowledge … but then they just went away. How did it happen, when they were so powerful?” She kept turning pages, pages filled with the best advice on the execution of every possible task, each written by perhaps the one person in all of history who had been the best at that task ever.

“Wait, what?” asked Catrina, staring at the page that Alexis had just revealed. “That’s written by … Findora of Lochland! She was the greatest wielder of the northern duelblade who ever lived! She was in the Guild of Meta? Nobody ever told me that! I have to read this!”

She gasped with almost every sentence as she learned new ideas for fighting with this light, flexible weapon that Findora had been rumored to be able to use to stab someone from behind while standing in front of them.

As Catrina and Alexis both read it, it became clear how the Guild of Meta had begun to change. “Beware of rivalries,” Findora’s entry said. “From nearly all lands, the masters of the Guild have heard of challengers, people who wish to supplant them as masters of their craft. That is not why the Guild exists. But now, Yulen Ragul, the amazing horse breeder and florist, and a brewer of surpassing craft, is being challenged by some upstart from Phlenelon who says that he, not Yulen, should be in the Guild, because of his superior horses. This is not right. No one should deny that another belongs here. Mark my words. This will lead to the end of the Guild.”

“And this!” said Alexis, turning the page when they were both done. “This is what happened. People started specializing in one thing, devoting their entire lives to one narrow field, trying to become the best at exactly one skill so they could defeat everyone else. The Guild … fractured. Hey, I’ve always wondered how to tie a ribbon just like that! But anyway, it’s no wonder.”

“Sounds like some kind of guy thing,” said Catrina. “Always gotta prove they’re better than anybody else, thinking it impresses the girls. Must be why it says man will not possess that power again. Wait, is that page about how to make waypoint stones?”

“Actually … no,” said Alexis, looking closer. “It seems to be about … how to improve them. What? They have … that kind of aura? They were made to do this before the idea was even conceived? What kind of expert can plan for something they don’t even know how to do themselves? And … how am I supposed to match something like that? How do I pass a test that requires ability like that?”

“I’m not worried about you passing,” said Catrina. “I’m worried about me. There are practically a hundred kinds of magic, and I know a little bit of a few kinds. I suppose the Guild was about more than just magic, but I’m mostly about fighting, you know?”

“Catrina,” said the mysterious woman’s voice, “there is a stone at your feet. Hit the nose of the statue with it.”

“What, this stone?” She picked it up. It was smaller than her thumb. “That statue … way over there?” A stone statue of a man in a robe stood more than 500 feet away, among the mem-crystals. She tossed the stone into the air and caught it, gauging its weight. “Well, assuming there aren’t any strong air currents in here … I’d have to throw it pretty hard … like THIS.” She threw it. Air resistance slowed it down as it traveled, but it seemed to rise in the air – she’d given it a curve. And it struck the statue’s nose perfectly. “Ha! Yes!”

“And you learned to do that … how?” asked the woman, the keeper of knowledge.

“Well, by doing it again and again, for fun,” said Catrina. “As a way of, I don’t know, challenging myself, getting better at it, because I loved doing it. I was always knocking the bottles off Old Man Engrus’ wall. He yelled at me. Somehow that made it more fun.”

“For the pure love of the skill,” said the woman. “And these mem-crystals … none may learn from one of them without a love of the art, craft or skill it holds.”

“We can learn … from mem-crystals?” asked Alexis. “I mean, the book is great, and I’ve learned a lot of tips from it, but we’re almost done with it, and I’m not a Meta-Wizard yet.”

“Or … are you?” the woman asked. “What is a Meta-Wizard?”

“Well, someone who knows a lot of skills,” said Catrina. “It’s looking like the range of skills they included in those days was a lot broader than we thought, but you still have to be really good at a lot of things.”

“You do not yet see. Wizardry lies in the pursuit, not the mastery, for in truth mastery does not exist.”

“The journey … is more important than the destination?” asked Alexis. “The Mage says that sometimes.”

“This Mage is wise,” said the keeper of knowledge. “Where would you journey next? What would you learn?”

“I … always wanted to know how to make blessed oil,” said Alexis. “I’ve called on the Light to bless water, but it doesn’t work on oil, and I don’t know why.”

“Then here,” said the woman, and Alexis found a mem-crystal in her hand, iridescent and the size of a large fruit. “Shiri the Beloved knew. Let her speak to you.” And the crystal glowed, and Alexis’ eyes glowed with it.

“And you, named Catrina, what would you know?” asked the keeper of knowledge.

“I … still want to know how you can stab someone in the back from the front,” Catrina replied. “I mean, I’d only do it in self-defense, or to defend the innocent.”

“Ah, then Findora shall tell you,” she said, and Catrina also held a crystal in her hand, and also saw a vision.

“So that’s why it wasn’t working!” said Alexis after a moment. “But … now I want to know why I can’t ask the Light to bless incense …”

“Such is the journey of knowledge,” said the keeper with a smile. “And … you will not be able to stay here forever. But take this.” She gave Alexis a smaller crystal on a fine golden chain. “You will never stop learning, for there is no end to knowledge.”

“Ohhh, that’s sneaky,” said Catrina when her vision ended. “But now I’m wondering whether you can do that with a rapier, or even a rawhide whip …”

“And you too will have need of this,” said the woman, giving her another crystal on a chain like Alexis’. “You must always stay curious, for that is the way of the wizard. And you must not let boundaries define you, for that is the way of the Meta-Wizard. Another misnomer among peoples today is the word Wizard. What it means is Wise One, and not necessarily magic wisdom.”

Drendle returned from wherever he had been and bowed to the women, “I must say it is a high honor to be the one to meet the actual chosen Metas. We have awaited your arrival for several thousand years – well, not literally us, but a long line of keepers. If you will come this way, I think I can offer the both of you a nice meal, a hot soapy bath, and a soft feather bed to sleep in for this night.”

Drendle motioned with his hand as he started walking towards the door they had originally come in. The way back seemed a lot shorter that the long roundabout way they had followed the first time.

When Drendle opened the door ahead of them, the wonderful smell of perfectly roasted beast, veggies, and several types of bread wafted to their noses. Both girls knew this wasn't the apothecary, but the inn several blocks away.

Alexis commented softly to Catrina, “Neat trick. Now if we both could learn that particular spell, it would save us a lot of fumbling around in the dark.”

The large wooden-plank table was set with wonderful tasting food freshly cooked from the hearth along with several types of mead and tea. The girls sat and basically made pigs of themselves as they devoured the best meal they had had in days.

After that, a young girl arrived dressed in a cute peasant dress and escorted them up the stairs to a far back room. When she opened the door, Alexis and Catrina were astounded at the finely carved marble basins that were filled with nice hot water and many soap bubbles.

In a flash, both girls were nude and in the bubbly water relaxing. Catrina said in a dreamy voice, “Man, this is wonderful. I also agree with you, I would rather do this than jump in a freezing stream and sleep in a bedroll any day.” Both girls laughed.

“This is … wonderful,” said Alexis, lying back in her bath. “This is also … conjuration. Bringing things and people from one place to another. But so completely, so seamlessly … one would have to be a master. But master conjurors would be against Meta-Wizards. So either he’s lying and not on our side … or he’s something else, the last vestige of the Guild of Meta, in hiding all these years. Or … wait … it’s coming to me … there’s a third possibility, and that’s that if you’re in one place, layering your spells on top of each other for years and years, you don’t have to be a master, just really familiar with your surroundings.”

“That feels right,” said Catrina. “Like when you get really good with your sword, not necessarily all swords, just yours, because you’ve used it for so long. You know it so well that it’s become like part of your arm. Maybe this village is like that for Drendle.”

“I don’t sense deception,” said Alexis. “I think this is a stop on our journey. But it must continue. Looks like we set out to find a magic sword to defeat some dragon, but we might end up doing more. You know what I wonder? I wonder why those people all started challenging the Meta-Wizards at the same time from many different lands.”

“You think something pushed them to do it?” asked Catrina. “That sounds like … some kind of corruption. Like something the demons would do.”

“That’s just what I was thinking … now dragons, they fight people and gather treasure just because it’s their nature, but demons, their nature is to cause strife and chaos. If anybody’s happy or doing well, they want to smash that to bits. It’s what they do.”

“Well, smashing demons to bits is what we do,” said Catrina.

“That’s right,” said Alexis with a smile, lying back in the suds in her bath. The knots and runes of a spell of protection from demons began to form in her mind, and she gently whispered the words. She would relax that night.

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

The sleep of both young women were filled with dreams. Many different and exotic images washed all through and around them in the mists of them. A soft voice spoke to both women and told them how to call upon magics they didn’t have knowledge of and to have them perform properly.

In their dreams, they saw a mighty castle built from the bones of animals neither of the girls had ever seen before. Above the drawbridge at the main gate was the huge skull of Thermatrax, once the king of dragons. The way there was fraught with many dangers and many minions of darkness.

Both women awoke suddenly and snatched their swords to the ready. It took a few seconds for them to realize they were in a bedroom in the Inn, and the only thing there was a time candle. From the markings left on the candle, they had slept for almost 9 hours.

Alexis and Catrina looked carefully around the room, wary of anything that might be a danger. The room was beginning to get lighter as the sun slowly rose. By this time the both of them felt rather silly, since they could plainly see nothing was in the room but them and their belongings. They sheathed their weapons and began dressing for the long road ahead

After they had eaten a hearty breakfast, the girls turned their horses towards the distant shore. Once there, they knew they would have to find a sea captain who knew the waters ahead.

By the time they reached the next crossroads, the sun was hot and high in the sky. Many carrion birds circled expectantly overhead as the girls passed one of the milestones marked on their map.

“Yes, this is it,” said Alexis, pointing at the map. “Our path takes us into the Mountains of Smoke – through this pass here. We just follow the ancient road.”

Catrina looked at the road, which was not well maintained, and got worse as it climbed into the mountains. “Hm. No wonder people usually take the eastern route through Pental.”

The trail became so rugged the girls had to dismount and lead their horses through the very narrow pass.

“That would add months to our journey, though,” said Alexis, rolling the map up and putting it away. “The road may be broken and craggy, but we’ll be fine. The ancient histories say this road used to be smooth and straight.”

“Smooth and straight … a road that goes over a mountain range?” asked Catrina. “That doesn’t even make sense. I’m not sure I believe that historian.”

“Elivex the Elder wrote it,” said Alexis. “He’s not known for lying, or even being fanciful.”

“Doesn’t mean there weren’t errors in translation, or copying,” Catrina replied as their horses made their way up into the foothills. “It’s certainly not smooth or straight now.”

“Well … the land can change, I suppose,” Alexis said. “But … whole mountains arising where there were none? I’m not sure.” There was a great deal of smoke rising from the mountain peaks, high up and still in the distance.

The higher they climbed, the hotter it became and the thicker the smoke became. It had started out as something like a thin mist, but shortly became thicker reducing visibility to nil and creating a more hazardous journey up the twisty poorly maintained trail.

They came around a sharp bend to a well built, although very old stone bridge carved with many runes from a time in the far distant past. There were many places blackened from what looked like intense fire. Several places the stone had been so hot it had vitrified and small cracks had formed.

A large area on one of the stones had skulls and crossbones painted on it in the universal sign of severe danger. The blackened areas also became larger, and apparently the heat that created them had risen.

Catrina warily drew her sword and muttered the words “Inflammeliod.”

Alexis took one of the Isofaren Shurikens from its holster and held it at the ready. Both young women knew the fireworm was near.

Without warning there was a large flash of intense heat and fire, and the fireworm was there off the side of the bridge in all its heat and fiery glory. A voice said, “To pass, a question asked must be answered. Answer incorrectly, and I feast on your well-done meat.”

Alexis shouted back, “Ask your silly question, we will answer.”

It replied in its deep, rumbling voice, “I am rich, for I run between two banks. I am wise and I have many schools within me. To hold me in the hand is hard without losing all of me to the soil. I can be hard as a rock, or gentle as feather down. Just what am I?”

Catrina shouted back, “Water!”

The fireworm vanished, and a very frigid wind began to blow as the smoke seemed to turn to a feathery kind of snow. Instead of smoke, they now had to contend with a blizzard and rapidly falling temperatures, which was more than likely how it should be at this altitude.

The girls put away their weapons and bundled up in their heavy furs to ward off the stinging snow, biting wind, and extreme cold. As they led their horses across the bridge, both women discussed how rapidly things had changed.

The trail was no better on the other side of the bridge as they began the descent. The driving snow only made things that much harder and slowed them down, but didn’t deter them from their journey. At least it was downhill.

By the time they had descended back to the foothills and could catch glimpses of the sea off in the distance, the sun had begun to set. Both girls were very glad to see the small village in the near distance surrounded by large fields of abundant crops.

As quickly as they could, they entered the village and found the local inn. They smirked at its name, the Worm Your Way Inn.

As they ate a wonderful meal, they talked. “Soon we’re going to have to look for a sea captain who knows the waters to the northwest,” said Catrina.

“But this town isn’t on the coast,” Alexis said. “Wouldn’t Garvin be better? It used to be the ancient port city of Garavon, and even though the old empire is dead and gone, it’s still a mighty port.”

“Well, sure, Garvin’s a big port town,” said Catrina, “but we need to start thinking now how we’re going to go about it. What do we say we’re looking for, for example? We can’t exactly say we’re looking for the Castle of Bone or the Magic Sword of Babygaard. Nobody knows what those are.”

“You’re right,” said Alexis. “Even if they’ve heard those names, nobody knows where to find these things of legend.”

“And if they do,” Catrina added, “they’re probably out to stop us. We can’t just rely on finding somebody else like Drendle and his friend.”

“Yes, I’m sure there are far more followers of the demons than last remnants of the Guild,” said Alexis, thinking. “Well, first of all, we need some lie detection spells. There will be people eager to take on paying passengers and strand them after taking their money. If we give the impression that we’re searching for some sort of treasure, there will be those who want us to lead them to it, whereupon they’ll kill us and take it, or so they think. There will be outright robbers, too, wanting to take our valuables immediately, but I doubt they’ll be a threat.”

“Okay,” said Catrina, “suppose we do say we’re looking for a treasure. What’s the closest ancient waypoint to the Castle of Bone?”

“Oh, well done,” said Alexis. She got out pen and ink and a blank sheet of papyrus. “I’m going to say I’m … Janderax the Wanderer.”

“What in the world are you doing?” Catrina wondered.

“Well, if we’re going to make up a treasure, we’ll need a treasure map,” said Alexis, beginning to draw her map. “And maps are drawn by travelers. But it’s not a plausible map unless it was drawn by a plausible traveler. I’m making up Janderax the Wanderer. He drew this map long ago. There were … sea monsters here … and dragons here … nothing permanent, so if we don’t run into them, well, sea monsters and dragons move about.” She continued drawing carefully, being sure to include some of the ancient waypoints and other shores from the map they had studied earlier.

“So we’re going to show this map to a sea captain, are we?” asked Catrina. “And the treasure is at … that waypoint?”

“Yes, supposedly,” Alexis replied, marking a large X at a site where she knew there was a waypoint, the nearest one to the Castle of Bone, presumably on the same island. “The tale told to Janderax by the people who lived there was that a fierce ogre lived in the ruins of a town he had destroyed, and that he had gathered up all the valuables of the nearby land. But this was centuries ago, and certainly the ogre is dead by now.”

“And the captains who sail these seas wouldn’t have heard of this ogre because …?”

“Because they sail these seas. They don’t land there. If they did, there’d be complete maps of these islands. The one we studied at the Mage’s tower was the only map anyone had ever heard of showing these waters.”

“We might want to find out why,” Catrina said. “Before you get too clever.”

“We know why, though, don’t we?” asked Alexis. “It’s too far off the trade routes. The island of Pirios, where I found Leapfang, it’s already pretty distant.”

“But why would a captain know these waters, then?”

“They got blown off course, maybe more than once? They’re a pirate, and they need places to hide ships, so they explore carefully? Or they’re just an explorer, and they’re curious about the far lands?” Alexis shrugged. “I think if we have a map, we can use it. We shouldn’t even show it to anyone deliberately. We’ll let them catch glimpses or even steal it.”

“That map looks like it was drawn today on fresh papyrus,” said Catrina.

“It won’t when I’m done with it,” Alexis said. She continued to draw and add imaginative details. You could tell where this Janderax had been and where he’d just heard tales, because some areas were drawn in detail while others were vague or just had words like “Centaurs here.” Finally she was done, and she asked the innkeeper if she could borrow their oven for a short while.

She claimed she wanted to bake some holy bread – and she actually had a recipe for it in her books. But she also wanted to bake the map, to make it look older than it was. She rubbed some oil into the papyrus in places to stain it. When she was through, she had a map that definitely looked like it had seen better days, and a loaf of holy bread whose recipe had come from the Temple of Mercy.

“Not too bad,” said Catrina. “The handwriting doesn’t even look like yours.”

“I’m left-handed, and I wrote it with my right hand,” said Alexis. She had even signed it with Janderax’s personal symbols, which she had made up. She rolled the map up carefully – a few burned bits of it crumbled off around the edges, which only added to its authentic look – and slipped it into a scroll tube.

Then the two of them retired for the night. The beds were made of rough linen and stuffed with straw, but it was a far sight better than sleeping on the rocky ground in the cold.

Finally, in the morning, they rode the last ten miles to the city of Garvin, arriving by midday. It was time to seek out a sea captain who would know these waters and the island they were looking for. Getting a nice ship was easy; they had conjuration spells that would do that job perfectly. It was the captain and crew that might prove a bit tedious.

As they perused one of the many slop houses looking for likely candidates, several very scruffy mountains of meat stepped out of the shadows in front of the women.

The largest one, who had a really nice and expensive looking sword made of some of the finest Clagorian steel they had ever seen, said, “Well, and where might you two little girls be off to in such a hurry? Rumor has it you search for a captain who knows the seas to the far northwest.” He turned and looked at the others for an instant before he looked back at them. “What say you and we go to that ale house over there and discuss this over several large flagons?”

Alexis eyed the man warily as she muttered a small spell of revelation. The men had no ill will towards the women; all they wanted was to earn a bit of money if possible. If not, like most these days, they were willing to take their share if necessary.

Alexis replied, “Very well; I’ll buy the first couple of rounds. After that you guys have to fend for yourselves.”

The men all seemed to relax as the large one replied, “Fair enough. My name’s Garth, and I was a sea captain until my ship got caught in one of the nasty storms that spring up around here suddenly.” He waved his hand at the others with him, “And this is some of my crew.”

They all moved into the ale house. The smell of unwashed bodies, stale alcohol, and freshly baked bread permeated everything. They found a seat in a far corner that was lit by several large oil candles.

Catrina waved down one of the scantily clad bar maids and ordered several flagons and a large ale filled pot for everyone. She paid for it with silver coins.

The large man held up his flagon and said, “A toast to new friends and high adventures.”

They all drank down the large flagons, with Catrina and Alexis banging theirs on the table first. It wasn’t as if the two women hadn’t drunk their share of ale, both fine and not so fine. This ale was mediocre at best, but of course they weren’t there for pleasure.

The men laughed. Garth said, “That’s a good showing. Now, lets get down to business. First, what are your names? I don’t like working for someone I don’t have a name for.”

“My name is Alexis Elvinlight, and my companion’s name is Catrina Elest.”

One of the men’s eyes grew large as he said, “You … your name is Elvinlight? As in the clan Elvinlight?” Most of the others looked at him in confusion.

Alexis replied, “I don’t know much about the clan, but yes, my last name is Elvinlight.”

Another of the men said, “Could it be she’s the missing daughter of the High Priestess?” But again, most of the men looked confused. There was a murmur among them as the two who had spoken told each other of the rumors they had heard.

One of the men pointed to Catrina and commented, “I know of her father, Eladar Elest. He made and wielded some of the finest Erdasian broadblades ever created. I think … if I’m not mistaken, that her great grandfather was part of the ancient weapons master guild.”

Garth smiled broadly as he non-menacingly drew his sword and placed in in front of Catrina. He pointed to it and said, “Just so there’s no mistakin’ here, lassie, I do know of yer father and his weapons work.”

A very expensive sword made of some of the finest Clagorian steel sparkled in the oil lamp’s light. Catrina knew this sword was a specially made one. Her Sol-Sword was made by the same hands. “Indeed you do,” she said. “This is one of my father’s blades. And well cared for, at that.” She nodded.

Garth continued, “Take good care of your blade, and your blade takes good care of you, I always say. Since I know who you are now, I’m sure there is some kind of adventure in the offing. May I volunteer my services as ship’s captain, and my crew to run it? We have been out of work since the great storm and would sort of like to get a real deck under my boots again.”

“Let’s talk business, then,” said Alexis. “If you know of the island of Pirios …”

“Aye, there isn’t a lot of call to go there, but I’ve set foot on it a handful o’ times, and some of my men here have too,” Garth interjected.

Alexis continued, “Then you know where the journey begins. We are looking for another isle to the far northwest of Pirios, beyond the Sea of Mists in which Pirios lies. I have visited Pirios many times, but I have never had need to venture beyond it … until now.”

Garth replied, “Well, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what’s changed. Why the interest in the cursed waters northwest of the Sea of Mists?”

“Among other things I’m a scholar of ancient lore,” said Alexis, “and I’ve recently come across some very rare scrolls and maps … many of them mere fragments, sadly … telling strange tales of monsters and treasure, as well as places of knowledge. The waypoints of the ancient wizards are said to continue into those lands, marking their positions for all time. And where the ancient wizards went …”

“... they brought their wisdom with them,” said Garth. “I must admit that I have never traveled northwest of the Sea of Mists. But I have traveled north past the Gates of Ice, and I have traveled west beyond the Stones of Zephyrus, more than once. And here I stand. I am not afraid of what lies in the unknown waters, especially if I know that the ancient wizards once laid down their spells there.”

“Then let us talk business,” said Catrina. They discussed matters of payment for Garth and his crew, and they settled on a fair payment, half in advance and half on arrival at a known port, plus a decent share of any treasure they should happen to find along the way. Alexis and Catrina weren’t interested in gold, anyway – not more than they needed for expenses, at least.

“And then there be the matter of a ship,” said Garth. “As I said, we have none. Have you a ship?”

Alexis smiled. “Now? No.” But before Garth and his men could express their dismay, she went right on, “But what I do have is … well, you’ll see at dawn. Meet us at … name any dock you like.”

“Then let it be the Pier of the Tempests,” said Garth. “At dawn.”

“Very well,” said Catrina. “The bargain is struck.” She put out her hand over the table, as did Alexis. Garth likewise put out his, and they shook on it.

The men and the girls drank their ale long into the late afternoon and early evening. The men proved to be polite and a lot of fun. Eventually, the men and the girls retired to their rooms, heads all abuzz with ale.

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

It was just before dawn, and the two adventurers made their way through the quiet streets of the city of Garvin, leading their horses. “We’re going to be able to bring the horses aboard?” asked Catrina.

“There are ships that can handle far more than two horses,” said Alexis, “and ours will be whatever we need it to be.”

“This has got to be quite a spell,” Catrina remarked.

“I hope the pier can handle it.” They reached the Pier of Tempests, as Garth had called it, so named in ancient letters upon cast bronze plaques set into the paving stones, and carved stone statues of sailors braving the storm decorated the entrance. Garth and all of his men were waiting on the pier, true to their word.

“I hope the morning finds you well, Captain,” Catrina called to him.

“Ha! My head throbs with adventure, and with a long night full of ale,” Garth replied. “But I see no ship here, other than these fishing boats. The long side is bare. I admit to being curious.”

“What I’m going to do is a bit of conjuration,” said Alexis, “and by a bit I mean a fair bit. I have a splinter from the Fall of Nabokor, a snippet of sailcloth, a drop of tar, and a lodestone.” She got out each of these from her pack. “And I need to mark off the size of her in paces.” With a piece of chalk she wrote a mystical symbol on the pier where she stood, took ten paces, made more marks, and continued, as Garth and his men looked on in fascination.

“Believe me, I have seen her do some amazing things,” said Catrina to Garth quietly, “and I don’t doubt when she says she can do something, but I have never seen her do this one before. Although I’ve seen her conjure a house, so there’s that.”

“A house?” asked Garth. “Out of thin air? I’ve seen a conjuror summon a feast, or fill everyone’s mugs with ale, but … this can be done?”

“Just watch,” said Catrina. Alexis had paced nearly the length of the entire pier.

“A ship that long would be nigh unsinkable,” said Garth.

Alexis stopped and made her final marks. The rising sun glittered upon the water. She returned to the center of the area she had marked off. “You might want to stand back a bit,” she said to Catrina, Garth, and the crew. She took a step back herself. “It’s going to displace a lot of water.”

“Displace?” Garth asked. But then Alexis began to softly chant some ancient words in a low voice that gradually got louder, and the sea by the pier suddenly grew extremely smooth, calm as glass.

“Oh, here we go,” said Catrina softly.

It was as if something huge and invisible pressed downward into the water, suddenly shoving it aside in all directions. A wall of water expanded outward, as if a stone had been thrown into a pond making ripples, but it was as if that stone had been thrown by a giant into the ocean. The water momentarily engulfed the pier, tossing the fishing boats on the other side, and crashing into the seawall in the shoreward direction, sending up spray high into the air.

At the same moment, within the hole in the water that had been formed, large wooden shapes appeared out of nowhere, curved and shaped perfectly to fit together, almost faster than the eye could see. In seconds the wooden sides of the ship rose out of the water, obscuring the view of what was happening beyond, and the ship continued to rise, forming a forecastle and an aft deck, masts, spars, sails, ropes, and on up to the crow’s nest, before it all came to rest.

There was a huge and magnificent 4 masted sailing vessel there, floating on the sea, where there had been nothing. Flags on the mast blew in the gentle morning breeze. There were even ropes tied to the dock’s pilings, holding the ship fast. Garth and the crew stood in open-mouthed astonishment.

Alexis turned toward them, breathing heavily from the exertion. “Keneweth’s Galleon,” she said. “Found that one in an old tome in Leines. Figured it would come in handy one day.”

“Men, we are traveling with a conjuror for the ages,” Garth said quietly.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Catrina said.

“Hmm, I forgot to lower the gangplank,” Alexis said. She gestured, and the plank extended from the ship’s side to the pier. “By the way, Captain, once we’re done with this journey, we’ll have no need of her. We’ll be giving her to you. By the way, any ideas what we should call her?”

“Call … her?” said Garth. “Well, men, we have ourselves a ship. What name should she have?”

There was a great deal of discussion, but it came down to the fact that their previous ship had been named the Mermaid’s Folly, for historical reasons that few remembered, so the men thought it a good idea to call this ship the Mermaid’s Return. The fact that the spell had in fact carved a mermaid into the wood as the ship’s figurehead made it all the more appropriate.

“Then the Mermaid’s Return she shall be,” said Alexis, and a shining brass nameplate appeared near the bow with that name engraved upon it. “All part of the spell. And no, she’s not temporary. She’s formed out of the water and air, and out of legends of mighty ships of old, and a remnant of one in particular. That wasn’t easy to obtain.”

“So that’s why you made me fight off the fish-men while you investigated that old sunken wreck,” said Catrina.

“Pssh, the fish-men were pushovers,” said Alexis with a grin. “Also that’s where we found the map that led to Averaigne.”

Garth and the men had crossed the gangplank onto the deck and were inspecting the ship. They found everything in perfect order – even the stores were fully stocked with food and fresh water, enough for a voyage much longer than what they had planned. It was like walking onto a newly-built ship, but one that had been provisioned instantaneously.

“It’s like … nothing I’ve ever laid eyes on before,” Garth said. “Even the ship itself – I’ve never seen its like. It’s something like a Garvin galleon, but also something like an Erdasian frigate, with a touch of something ancient to it as well.”

“Captain,” said one of the men, “this is practically a warship. It’s got twenty six cannons below. We don’t have the men for all of this firepower.”

Garth raised an eyebrow. “Maybe not,” he said, “but it’s good to know it’s there, for all that.”

Alexis and Catrina were leading their horses onto the deck, and Alexis knew the way to the stables. Some of the men were eyeing the horses warily. “Don’t worry,” Alexis said, “I know full well how to clean a stable.”

“And so do I,” Catrina added. “We’re not some kind of wilting princesses here.”

“Besides, I did sort of make the ship,” Alexis said, “so I know it’s got plenty of hay laid in, enough for ten horses, and we’ve only got the two.”

The group began to explore the new ship. It was more like a floating well fortified fort with all the trimmings than any other ship the men had ever before seen. It had within its hold enough spaces for each crewman to have their own quarters. It also had a place with a clay type of open hearth stove for hot meals.

Garth was impressed with the bilge scavenging system. He had never seen one that not only operated by manpower, but an elaborate wind driven system turned a complicated array of pullies and cogs making it all possible even under little wind conditions.

The captain’s quarters were opulent beyond even his wildest dreams of a cabin abord ship. Fine woods and purple and red felt covered most surfaces making it soft and easy on ones head should an errant wave knock the ship about unexpectedly.

Deck three consisted of the ships armaments. A full 10 long jon cannons with 3 more siege cannons per side rack including many support features to aid in loading and firing the weapons. What that meant is the ship carried 40 of the nastiest long range cannons known in an upper and lower mezzanine deck arrangement along with 12 siege cannons known for brute force in the same upper and lower mezzanine deck arrangement.

Finally, they all gathered around the wheel. Garth said with amazement, “Girl, I must complement you on your conjuring skills. I also want to humbly thank you for this gift. It, more than anything else, would have been payment enough.”

Alexis waved her hand and replied, “Don’t be silly. Fair is fair. The way I look at it, I interrupted your life so we might make this journey, so it’s only right you take something substantial away.”

All the men laughed heartily.

Garth said, “I must admit, this is more than substantial. In my many years at sea, I have never come across a ship as tall or as fine as this.”

The men immediately set to task of rigging the ship to leave port. Garth was in his element as he barked orders and the men got to it. The sails unfurled with a loud pop as they filled with the early morning wind and the ship began to leave port and gain speed. The captain stood proudly at the wheel and expertly guided the huge four-masted vessel from its berth to open waters.

Once they were out of Garvin Harbor and out on the open sea, Captain Garth took a reading of the simple compass Catrina had made, adjusted the wheel, and called out, “We’re on course for the isle of Pirios, and points beyond!”

Alexis didn’t look particularly well and opened a small vial of crushed leaves from her pack. “What, don’t have your sea legs yet?” Catrina asked her.

“I know, I know, I’m the one who conjured the ship and all, and yes, you know I get seasick,” said Alexis grumpily as Catrina laughed loudly. “Luckily I know of this herbal cure.” She took a tiny pinch of the dried powdered herbs from the vial and dabbed it on her tongue. “I should be used to it soon.”

“Have you seen the chart room?” asked Garth’s first mate, a stout man named MacInnes. “Yer conjuration made maps as well … but they dinna show the seas beyond the Isle of Pirios.”

“Well, that’d be divination magic,” said Alexis, “as I don’t know those seas. I might be able to do some of that, mind you, but that’s a different spell. And it might be best to get to Pirios before I try any such thing, because the closer we are, the more accurate it’ll be.” They walked into the chart room, which had majestic navigation instruments stowed on secure racks on the walls, and a large chart of the nearby waters under glass on a table in the center of the room.

“Haha, does the Guild of Conjurors know you’re dabbling in divination?” laughed MacInnes in a mock-conspiratorial fashion.

“No, and the Guild of Diviners doesn’t know I’m dabbling in conjuration,” said Alexis. “I have nothing to do with either bunch. Well, there’s the Mage, but I don’t think he’s particularly fond of the Guild either, even if he is a diviner.”

“You’re not a Conjuror? And yet you conjured this very ship?” MacInnes was confused.

“Conjuror, but not with a capital letter,” said Alexis. “I learn a bit of this, and a bit of that, here and there.”

“Always selling yourself short,” said Catrina. “This one’s got more knowledge of magic than the so-called experts.”

“Hm,” said Alexis. “That’s why I’ve always got to stay grounded and not get a swelled head.”

MacInnes was measuring the map with a compass and straightedge. “Should be about five days to Pirios. After that, well, it’s up to you and the captain.”

“The waters between here and Pirios are usually fairly safe, if little traveled, but after that … I don’t know,” said Catrina. “We’ll just have to be ready for anything.”

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

The lookout had sighted the island of Pirios in his spyglass, and it was starting to appear on the horizon, a dark line between sea and sky.

In the near distance, the waters seemed to change from a blue/green normal, to a very dark gray in a large circle. The lookout pointed off in that direction and shouted, “Off the starboard bow, something strange is going on.”

Garth pulled an ocular from its leather carry case at his belt and extended it. Through the glass, he could see the huge gray patch of water and small bubbles that were starting to rise. More and more of the bubbles rose to the surface as they grew larger and started creating a huge patch of sea foam.

From the center of this roiling conflagration, rose the neck of a huge sea creature. It looked like a mishmash of dragon, snake, eel, and some sort of fish all fitted together into whatever this was.

Garth shouted, “Load the forward grapple. One pound of powder and load the breech with grapeshot. I intend to bring it down.”

In just a few minutes, the four small cannons on the bow used as boarding grapples were loaded with several pounds of grapeshot and other sharp debris. The gunners stood ready as they aimed the weapons using the newfangled sighting glass that Alexis had conjured and taught them how to use. The crosshairs in the glass made targeting super easy and extended their range tremendously.

Garth shouted out, “If that thing doesn’t attack or act aggressive, don’t shoot it. No reason to provoke an attack if we don’t have to.”

One of Garth’s men was on the foredeck eating an apple. The creature was huge, but the man removed a sling from a pouch around his waist and put the apple with 2 bites taken out of it in the sling pouch. He wound up and tossed.

The creature seemed to take notice and opened its huge mouth and caught the apple and seemed to chew for an minute before it slowly and warily swam a bit closer.

Garth shouted, “That was a great idea – feed it, might make it friendly. Gather several more apples and toss ‘em to it.”

Several of the men wrestled a barrel of apples to the deck as the rest got out their slings along with Alexis and Catrina. It was actually fun tossing the apples to the critter and watching it catch and eat them. It became obvious the critter was enjoying this as much as the crew was.

Catrina didn’t actually need a sling. Her strength was such that she could simply fling the apples with her unaided arms, and her accuracy was such that she didn’t miss once – not that it would have mattered if she had, for the creature was becoming quite good at nabbing the apples out of the air. It seemed to be enjoying the game, as well as the snacks.

Then, all of a sudden, the monster dove beneath the surface. They couldn’t see it for a few minutes. But then there was a tremendous splash of water, and Alexis thought she could see the creature’s tail causing it. A moment later, that water landed right on the main deck – and the water was full of fish. Hundreds of large Narathrian groupers flopped around on the deck, as the water drained away off the sides.

“Looks like our friend decided to return the favor!” shouted Captain Garth. “Gather ‘em up, men! Would be rude to refuse a gift!” The crew grabbed fishing nets and quickly collected the fish into a large pile.

As the ship sailed on, the creature was sighted off the stern jumping out of the water. It was unbelievably huge now that they saw it in its entirety, and yet it slipped back into the water with nearly no splash. The last they saw of it for the moment was its tail, sticking up out of the ocean and waving back and forth as if it were saying goodbye.

“Don’t suppose you could conjure some salt?” asked MacInnes as he and several of the men were cleaning and boning the fish for storage. Alexis was helping, but she nodded and wiped her hands before looking through her pack.

“We’re going to want something to put it in – how about one of the empty grog barrels?” Alexis asked as she sought ingredients for her spell.

“You can really do it?” asked another of the sailors. “How about gold, can you conjure that?”

Alexis laughed. “I can, but there’s a problem – the spell’s ingredients cost about as much as the gold! There’s not much point, other than maybe trying to impress somebody.” The man looked disappointed, but helped the others drag over a barrel that had been emptied the night before. They set it up in front of her and watched expectantly.

“I do happen to know the spell for this,” Alexis said. “We have to start with a pinch of the stuff itself, but fortunately it’s all around us, in the seawater.” She reached down and touched the deck, blowing on her wet fingers and rubbing them together. “An je, pan he, fo!” she said, and suddenly her fingers were covered with dry salt crystals. She sprinkled them over the open barrel and said a more complex set of mystical phrases. And the barrel filled right up with powdery white salt.

“Hey!” the crew cheered and clapped.

“Useful stuff, salt, good for a lot of things,” said Alexis. “Not hard to conjure, either, if you have the talent. Maybe too easy. I heard a tale once of a conjuror who made a magic barrel that just kept making more salt. But one day his ship was caught in a storm and it went overboard … they say the sea was fresh water before that happened.”

“What? Is that true?” one of the men asked.

“Can’t say,” Alexis said, shrugging. “Might be just a story.”

“So if you were a foundling,” asked another of the men, “how do you know your name’s Elvinlight?”

Alexis bared her left arm. There were markings there, on the inside of her elbow. None of the men knew what they were, but she explained, “Those letters have been there since I was a baby. Nobody could read them at first, until they took me to a scholar who identified them as Elvin letters. It’s the motto of the Elvinlight clan, the scholar said, and all the old scrolls I’ve found have said he was right.”

“What’s it say?” asked MacInnes.

“It doesn’t translate that well,” said Alexis, “but roughly, ‘Faith in Tomorrow.’”

“So wait, you were tattooed as a baby?” asked Catrina, who had come over to see what was happening. Some of the men were starting to pack some of the fish in salt, while others were taking some to the galley to prepare for a fresh fish dinner.

“Maybe?” said Alexis, shrugging. “I obviously don’t remember it, if I was. It could also be some sort of magic birthmark. I also had this around my neck.” She showed them the very ornate smoked crystal that glowed with an inner fire attached to a setting and chain made of the magic metal Mytherium. “The Elves were a mysterious bunch, as we all know. Or perhaps still are, if they still exist. Nobody’s seen any for a long time, or so they say.”

As the wonderful aroma of freshly cooked fish and several other items drifted up from the galley below, the men began making preparations to make landfall. The island of Pirios had grown and filled a goodly portion of the horizon by this time.

The Captain stood on the foredeck with his ocular and peered out over the sea to the far shore. It was obvious that the island was surrounded by some very hazardous rocks by the way the waves rolled, and that matched with his experience. He noticed an opening in the sheer rock cliff large enough for his new ship to easily pass through. It had been a long time since he had used this passage, but it was quick, sure, and safe.

Garth barked several orders as he had the ship tack into position to enter the opening in the side of the rocks. It was large enough and the water deep enough that the ship easily fit through. Once on the other side, it was like a tropical paradise. Many palm trees and date palms grew in abundance, along with bananas, mangos, pickle fruits, and something that looked like kiwifruit.

Garth pointed to something that looked amazingly like a pier made entirely out of natural stone. “There, After we drop anchor and eat, we’ll take a longboat to shore. Stay close and keep yer weapons handy. Sometimes natives from other islands come here, and most are unfriendly.”

One of the men commented, “What he means is ... we would be dinner.”

The other men’s expressions became one of determination.

As the longboat was provisioned and readied for landfall, Catrina discovered the island’s ancient waypoint stone sitting high on the beach as she peered through her ocular. She lowered her ocular and commented, “I see the waypoint stone over there. We need to go and see if we can decipher the writings on it.”

Another of the crew pointed and commented, “Yeah, and I also see one of those weird skeletal totem things the cannibals set to warn off trespassers.”

Alexis said, “I don’t remember any cannibals on this island from last time I was here.”

Garth replied, “That was before the Xaloobian tribe and the Balakan tribe both decided to try to take over this island and went to war. Lots of feasting for both sides, I’m sure.”

“The … Balakan Tribe?” asked Alexis. “The Xaloobian Tribe is from the island of Xaloob to the southwest. Where’s this other one from? That isn’t the island to the east.”

“No, it’s the island past the one to the east,” Garth replied.

“Ah,” Alexis said. “I never made it over there.”

“You didn’t miss much.”

As they rowed in the longboat toward shore, Garth asked, “You’ve been here before – why do you need to look at the waypoint? Haven’t you seen it before?”

“I have,” Alexis said, “but I’ve learned things since the last time I’ve seen it. I’ll be able to understand what it means better.”

“And … what does it mean?”

“Hoping it points our way to treasure – of one kind or another,” Alexis vaguely explained. The longboat met the beach, and they all got out and pulled it ashore. Four of the men drew their cutlasses and took up defensive positions while the rest of them started harvesting fruit from the trees and loading it onto the longboat.

Meanwhile, Alexis and Catrina accessed the waypoint stone. “I should have done this last time I was here,” Alexis said, laying a piece of papyrus across the stone and rubbing it with a charcoal pencil to copy the markings that had been etched upon it thousands of years before. “There. Now I can retranslate these whenever I learn more about the language they were carved in.”

When she was done and had rolled up the papyrus and put it away, Catrina looked at the stone and its ancient glyphs. “These things are supposed to be indestructible,” she said.

“That’s right,” Alexis replied.

“You know I have to do it,” said Catrina.

“I understand,” Alexis replied with a smirk.

Catrina drew her sword. She spoke a few ancient words. Wind began to blow, seemingly from nowhere, and her sword began to glow with a reddish light, which brightened to blue-white then caught fire as she held it above the stone, preparing to strike. When she suddenly brought the blade down, there was a ringing like the forge of the gods. Alexis had already wisely backed well away and covered her ears.

Garth and every one of the men was staring in disbelief. “Why did you do that?” Garth yelled. “Every cannibal on this island knows we’re here now!”

“What?” Catrina shouted back.

“What?” Garth yelled.

“The waypoint!” Alexis said in amazement. She ran up to look at it. It was undamaged, but new symbols had appeared, glowing, between the rows of carved glyphs. “This is new,” she said, getting out another sheet of papyrus and starting to trace the glyphs, which shone through with a bluish light. “Extra translation work tonight – I can’t wait!”

“I didn’t even scratch it,” Catrina said in disappointment.

“I know, I was kind of hoping for even a little scratch,” said Alexis as she copied the symbols. “Those ancient Meta-Wizards did not make shoddy waypoint stones. But it seems that you did wake it up. Not that I knew waypoint stones could be awakened.”

“I think they’re coming,” said Garth. The men looked at the dense jungle beyond the beach in apprehension.

“Why would they be coming?” asked Catrina. “If you just heard a sword strike a waypoint stone with enough force to split a mountain in half, would your first thought be, ‘I want to go attack whoever just did that?’”

“Maybe they’ve got a death wish. Maybe it’s some kind of religious thing. I don’t know. But we’ve got what we came for anyway,” Garth said. “Let’s head back to the ship.” The men started getting back into the boat. So did Catrina and Alexis, once Alexis had finished copying the new glowing glyphs, which were starting to fade.

By the time they had all gotten back to the ship and unloaded the fresh fruit, the beach had filled with shouting natives of neighboring islands. Their attempts to shoot flaming arrows fell short by hundreds of yards, as well as their tosses with some form of stick and spear arrangement, although it had much greater range.

The chief gunner and his mate took position at the grapple cannons at the bow of the ship and started making their aim. It was better to use the current loadout shooting a real target rather than waste it on a blank shot.

Before they fired, however, several large outrigger type boats appeared from around the blind edge of the shore. In the middle of these boats was a large clay pot filled with flames. It was more than obvious the natives intended to set the ship on fire as they dipped the tips of their arrows into a pot of some kind of liquid and then into the fire setting the tip on fire. “Oh, no way am I letting them set fire to the ship I conjured,” said Alexis, seeing them and digging in her pack for magical ingredients.

Garth barked, “I want another gunner crew on the other grapple cannon. Target those riggers with the fire pots!”

Three more men hopped onto the grapple cannon platform as the ignition torch was lit. The first gunner crew took aim at the outrigger boat that had cleared the corner. The cannoneer touched the spark hole with the torch. There was a huge boom with a cloud of white smoke.

An instant later, the first outrigger boat was shredded. All anyone on the deck of the Mermaid’s Return could see was a large cloud of debris and a quick flash of fire before the boat was just a pile of floating debris and mangled bodies.

Before the second gunner could target, which was only a moment later, there was a huge swirl of water and a large foamy splash. Two more boats vanished as the creature from earlier jumped from the water in a majestic showing and landed on top of the large boats, shattering them.

The crew of the Mermaid’s Return stood open-mouthed in incredulity as they watched this huge creature dispose of the remainder of the attacking boats in short, but violent, order. No bodies could be seen, even though several of the spotters carefully looked for any survivors amid the splintered debris.

Captain Garth said with a large smile, “Well, crew, looks like we have a new pet.”

The men and the girls all laughed as Catrina grabbed another apple from the barrel and tossed it out over the water. A large splash and the huge creature jumped clear of the water, caught the apple, then did a complete somersault before knifing back into the water with almost no splash.

Alexis said amid her laughs, “I guess we can call that critter a water dragon, right guys?”

All on board cheered in agreement. But Alexis stopped laughing after a moment and looked as if she were deep in thought all of a sudden.

“What is it?” asked Catrina.

“The Sword,” said Alexis. “The one we’re after. We’re trying to defeat Fieorfang, lord of dragons. Will this one turn against us if it finds out our goal? Or … since Fieorfang’s a fire dragon, are they and the water dragons not allies? I wish I knew more about dragons. Mysterious creatures.”

“I’ll bet there were ancient Meta-Wizards who knew about dragons,” said Catrina. “There were probably some who were dragon experts. I mean, their wizardry was dragons.”

“You know, you’re probably right,” said Alexis. “I’ll bet there were …”

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That night, the men were on deck having a party and consuming some of the finest ale they had ever tasted from the bottomless cask Alexis had conjured. Alexis was below decks with her books and scrolls out, looking for information on dragons and meta-wizards. And then she happened to think of a certain crystal on a chain around her neck.

She took the crystal out of her tunic and held it up. It glittered in the lantern light. Drendle and the Keeper had said this was a link to the wisdom of the ancient Meta-Wizards. “Not all dragons hate humans,” she said. “Why does Fieorfang? He’s rampaging across the continent, leaving destruction in his wake. Is the Magic Sword of Babygaard the answer?”

Suddenly, Catrina opened the door with a mug of a fruity and highly alcoholic beverage for Alexis in her hand, and another for herself in the other. “Whoo! The islanders all ran for the hills when they saw the … oh hey, you’re looking at that crystal thingie.”

“I’m realizing that I know so little about dragons,” said Alexis.

“I probably know even less. Huge, flying, fire-breathing, look kind of like lizards only larger, can apparently talk to you if they want …” Catrina set the two tankards down and took out her own crystal. “You think maybe these things can give us answers?”

“Maybe,” Alexis said. “Why does Fieorfang hate humans?” she deliberately asked the crystal. “Not all dragons do. Was there a Meta-Wizard who knew about dragons?”

Catrina held her necklace close to Alexis’. “Maybe they’re supposed to be close … or even touch …” Suddenly the crystals touched. And both of the adventurers had a vision. The cabin and the ship vanished, and they seemed to be standing in a gazebo-like structure in a huge, bright lake, surrounded by waterfalls in the distance that poured into it from high above. Also standing there with them was a hooded figure, who turned toward them.

“I am Kthruulis,” said the figure’s voice, removing its hood and revealing a reptilian face. They looked wise and benevolent. “Or rather, I am an imprint of Kthruulis, of the Guild of Meta-Wizards. I know not how many centuries may stretch between myself and you, but I have bequeathed my knowledge to the future.”

“The fire dragon Fieorfang ravages the land,” said Alexis, “razing every city, town, and farm as he goes. We wish to save the land. Why does he do this? We have made a water dragon ally who does not hate humans. We seek the Magic Sword of Babygaard to defeat Fieorfang, but is this the way?”

“In my time, the dragon Fieorfang was but a hatchling,” Kthruulis said. “My hatchling, in fact, although I laid hundreds of eggs in my time.”

“You’re a dragon?” asked Catrina. “But dragons are huge and … well, don’t look like people.”

Kthruulis smiled. “Indeed, our native form is not humanoid, but we are able to change form in order to speak with smaller folk. And yes, there were dragon Meta-Wizards, just as there were human, elven, and dwarven Meta-Wizards, and those of other races as well. But we were speaking of Fieorfang. He is of my brood and thus of my people, the fire dragons, and we have always been hot-tempered. It saddens me to hear that he is causing such death and destruction. But I say that we do not do such things without a reason. It is my hope that he has not become corrupted by evil, for an evil that can corrupt even the mighty heart of a dragon would be a monstrous evil indeed. Such a thing has never happened, in all the annals of dragonkind. But the other possibility is that there has been a misunderstanding, possibly a deliberate one, again due to some evil person or being whispering lies into his ear, inflaming his anger and directing it against humans.”

“The demons,” said Alexis. “They already knew. They were already trying to stop us. Even before we knew.”

“Knew what?” asked Kthruulis. “Ah. Now I see. You are from the time of the Chosen. It is at hand. A new Guild will arise, but the forces of darkness oppose it already. You seek the Sword, and the Castle of Bone. Yes, the Sword will save the land … but not by defeating Fieorfang. For it is not a weapon of destruction; it is a weapon of resisting evil, of defending against evil. It can only kill Fieorfang if he is truly so far gone that the corruption has blackened his heart – but no demon has ever corrupted a dragon, and I doubt one has. If he has not fallen to evil, the Sword will drive away the corruption and save him along with the land. Do you see?”

“I understand,” Alexis said, and Catrina nodded. “So our quest to find the Sword is still a righteous one.”

“Indeed it is, Chosen Ones,” Kthruulis said. “The forces of evil are coming for you. Do not let your guard down. But when you obtain the Sword, you will gain the power to finally drive the powers of darkness back to the nether realms from whence they came.”

Catrina asked, “How are we supposed to learn all the skills required to become a Meta? There’s so much knowledge, and I’m not able to learn that much in one lifetime.”

Kthruulis laughed, “What makes you think that you are not now a Meta?”

Alexis and Catrina looked at each other before Alexis replied, “Meta-Wizards are expert in all aspects of the arts. How can one person be so?”

Kthruulis replied, “Seek and you shall find. Ask and it shall be revealed.”

Catrina asked, “And whom shall I ask? I have so many questions.”

Once again, Kthruulis laughed as she said, “Faith in tomorrow. You asked me ... didn’t you?” Then her image faded to nothing, leaving the girls alone once again.

“Wow!” said Catrina. “That was something else! Who’d have thought there were dragon Meta-Wizards back in the day? But I guess there were!”

“I’m not a Meta,” said Alexis. “I’m not. No way. Maybe someday. But not now.”

“Pfft, I’m not either,” said Catrina, “but if anybody is, it’s you.”

“Now wait, remember, skill in weapons is also wizardry. Drendle and the Keeper said so. There’s no weapon you can’t wipe the floor with an adversary with.”

“Water? Feathers? My breath? There are some things I can think of that I probably couldn’t win a fight with,” said Catrina with a grin. “But I guess those things aren’t technically weapons, and … oh, now I’m already getting ideas. You can sharpen a feather to a point to write with, and you could probably stab someone with one too. You can throw scalding water at someone. And if I took a mouthful of Aznagian firewater and blew it at an enemy over a torch, that would be pretty effective.”

“See? You always find a way,” said Alexis. “Well. Castle of Bone, Magic Sword, defeating or at least uncorrupting a fire dragon, reestablishing the Meta Guild – so many quests, so little time. Oh, and then there’s the question of whether there are still any elves left in the world.”

“There’s one part elf, at least,” said Catrina. “Hey, I brought us drinks! Look what the cook, Heinrich, came up with! He’s mixed a blend of fruit juices with the grog, and it’s delicious! And has a great kick!”

Alexis sipped from the tankard and smiled. “Mmm, not bad at all,” she said.

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“Can’t put new stars in the sky,” Alexis mumbled. “‘S not allowed.” She gradually woke up. The sun was glaring down at her. “Whoo, what time is it? Ow, my head.” She realized she was lying on the deck, and the ship was in motion.

Catrina giggled at her, helping her to her feet. “Good morning! Late morning, anyway. You drank more of that stuff than I did! The men are very impressed. Not that they weren’t already, with the whole making a ship out of thin air thing. Don’t worry, I kept ‘em off you.”

“Are there any gentlemen in the world?” asked Alexis.

“Plenty,” Catrina said, “but they get less gentle when they get incredibly drunk. Luckily they also can’t walk a straight line or stay standing for very long.”

“Ugh, where’s that willow bark preparation …” Alexis muttered, finding and digging through her pack. “Yep. There we go.” She swallowed a vial of a white powder and a bit of water. “Want any?”

“Eh, I’m fine. Right now we’re rounding the western point of the island, and MacInnes is comparing the coastline to the charts. North side of the island faces the Sea of Mists. Not that it’s particularly misty right now, but maybe that’s just its name.”

“Yeah, from what I’ve read it’s called that because it’s often misty, not always,” Alexis said. “But it’s also not well charted.”

“Wonder why?” asked Catrina.

“Partly because there’s just not much call to go there – no trade, not much land,” Alexis said. “But some charts say there’s something – including the maps we found.”

“Partly …” Catrina said. “Is the other part because it’s dangerous?”

“I don’t know,” replied Alexis. “There’s always that whole ‘lots of people who go there have never come back, so we don’t know what got them’ thing, but that’s true of a lot of parts of the world. Well, MacInnes is doing what I’d do – making sure the coast of the island facing the unknown sea is charted, so we can navigate back here if we have to, get our bearings, and so forth.”

“Yes, nobody wants to be lost at sea,” said Garth, coming down the steps from the aft deck. “But once we get this coastline well mapped, we’ll take a stab at the mysterious Sea of Mists! The men are curious, and itching for a little adventure. Let’s see what’s out there. How’s it coming, MacInnes?” He went toward the chart room.

MacInnes had a huge blank chart page spread out over the plotting table. The usual extremely rare glass top that the navigator used to mark their course with a plotting crayon had been removed and placed in its special protective cabinet. The only markings on the new chart were the well plotted northern shore of the island made by a permanent drawing utensil and carefully placed longitude and latitude lines. Depth soundings and any other formations discovered in the waters over the last few hours of looking combined with any previous knowledge were also well documented.

It was clear that MacInnes had taken great pains using the new plotting device Alexis had created. It consisted of a metal disc, a sighting arm, and several rotating parts used in estimating unfathomable distances, telling time, and plot more accurate courses. The rest of the chart was blank, and the only markings said “Sea of Mists,” an indication that they intended to travel further into unknown waters.

MacInnes looked up from his detail and replied, “I’ve added as many of our measurements as possible to this new chart. I feel we’re as ready as we can be to travel further into the uncharted area – whenever you’re ready, Captain.”

Alexis came to the plotting table and said as she pointed, “Can you make an entry here, maybe?”

MacInnes raised an eyebrow as he replied, “I can, but it would help if I knew a little more accurately what entry I was making.”

Alexis brought out a small scroll cylinder and opened it. She pulled the papyrus scroll from the tube and unrolled it. There wasn’t much data on the scroll, but it did show a definite plot to another waypoint stone several days’ travel from the northern shores of the island of Pirios into the mysterious Sea of Mists. There wasn’t much else indicated, except for the mentions of many types of creatures most seafaring people referred to as ship-killing monsters.

Garth said after looking over the scroll and handing it to MacInnes, “From what I can tell from the little information on this scroll, you are wanting to visit a place no one has seen in recorded history.”

“There is supposedly a waypoint stone on an island there,” Alexis replied as she watched MacInnes make a detailed plot using a hinged compass and straightedge, since they had no real distance measurements, only approximate longitude and latitude. “If we can find the stone, it will give us better directions to where we’re trying to find than we currently have.”

Garth replied as he looked over the new plot, “I do hope we have heavy cold weather gear. From the looks of this plot, it’s taking us into the realms of the ice demon. We can keep it and its minions away with fire, but the cold is another matter. Ice accumulates on the spars and sheets, making things very hard.”

Alexis replied as she turned to leave the plotting room, “Cold isn’t an issue. I have several spells that can ensure that won’t be a problem.”

MacInnes said under his breath more to himself than anyone else, “Cold isn’t what we should be worrying over. These waters are uncharted. No telling what snags and hidden shallow peaks we might encounter, not to mention critters.”

Garth slapped MacInnes playfully on his shoulder, “Are you telling me you’re getting soft? Those few months on shore took away your adventurous spirit?”

MacInnes stood up after making the last plot markings on the new chart, “No, it hasn’t. But how many have ventured out this way and never returned?”

The two men looked at each other with an expression of determination before Garth said, “Don’t fret it. From what I have seen of the women, our safety is in very good hands. If they can’t deal with what’s there, no one can.”

MacInnes replied, “Let us hope. Some of those creatures on this scroll don’t look too pleasant.”

Garth set the ship’s course northwest by north. The magnetic lodestone Catrina had placed near the wheel seemed to always know where north was. It was a simple arrangement of a thread sized string of leather attached to a piece of stone shaped like a knife with a point on both ends and no matter how it was moved, the end with the N marking always pointed in a northerly direction and made it easy to follow the plots into unknown waters.

The wind was unusually steady and strong in the direction the group wanted to travel. The waters were like glass up until the sun rose to midsky. Then the mists began. At first, a bit of haze began to gather all around, but by noon, the crew could see a thick wall of white mist off in the near distance in their path stretching all across as far as the spotters could see.

The waters also changed color to a dark gray and began to become choppy, with small whitecaps visible as the wind that had been mild and warm began to take on a biting cold edge.

Once the ship entered the thick misty whiteness, the crew began to become jittery at a soft, almost audible sound like whispering voices. Strange dark shapes seemed to dance around and vanish just as quickly in the mist, which didn’t help their dispositions in the least.

“Pay it no heed, men!” shouted Garth. “It’s naught but your eyes and ears playin’ tricks! There’s nothing out there but fog, wind, and water, same as ever.”

“Thought I heard the voice of me dear, departed mother cryin’,” said one of the sailors.

“Me, I heard a screech like the raven in the tree, the night my dad died,” said another.

Nearby, Alexis added, “There was a demon once, came close to sinking its teeth into me. I don’t mind saying that its howls made my backbone shiver. I just thought I heard something like them, out in the distance. But that’s not possible – because I saw Catrina pin that demon to the ground with a javelin, and then I burned its corpse to ashes with holy water. Not even the bones were left.” She turned to Garth and said, “These illusions are meant to scare us, but something’s sending them. I think it’s time to tell it that we don’t appreciate it.”

“Ha! Go right ahead, for all of me,” said Garth.

Alexis turned to Catrina. “This could be anything from puny miststalkers to the Ice Demon itself, so let’s be ready.”

“I’m always ready,” Catrina replied. She had a weighted net in one hand, and a loaded crossbow in the other – the bolt in the crossbow glowed like hot iron from a forge.

“You always are,” said Alexis with a grin. “All right, first of all, away with these illusions.” She went to each of the ship’s lanterns, adding some sort of magic powder to their oil, chanting all the while, and lit them one by one, even though it was broad daylight. Then she returned to the aft deck, took a deep breath, raised her arms, and shouted a single ancient word. The lanterns seemed to flash brighter than the sun for an instant, then faded again to their normal strength. But there were no longer shapes in the mist or whisperings in the distance. “There,” said Alexis. “I doubt they’ll be happy about that, whatever they are, but if they want to scare us, they’ll have to do better than that.” There was cheering among the men.

“Alexis, you’ve been doing conjuration, and now that’s illusion magic,” said Catrina quietly. “Dispelling illusions is still illusion magic.”

“Well, yes,” Alexis replied. “What’s your point? Anyway, now we’ll reveal whatever’s out there.” She set an incense burner on the deck and lit it with a flint. White smoke rose into the air, somehow undisturbed by the wind. Alexis sang in an ancient language, and the smoke formed into floating mystic symbols in the air before swirling into a blob of whirling smoke above the deck. She spoke to it, in words no one else could understand, and suddenly there was a wind that originated from the ship and blew outward in all directions, clearing the air of mist for half a mile in every direction. Everyone could suddenly see the sea below and the sky above; the sun shone on the ship through a circular well in the mists. The blob of smoke returned to the spot above the incense burner, where Alexis spoke to it quietly again.

“That’s elementalism, or I’m a marmoset,” said Catrina softly. “And who isn’t a Meta-Wizard now?”

“Can we talk about that another time?” asked Alexis.

The spotters could see something that looked like eyes burning with red fire seemingly fade in, then out in the wall of mist off in the distance. They also saw a derelict sailing vessel from times long past seemingly drifting nowhere, out in the suddenly clear sea.

The mainmast was broken off and lay haphazardly across the deck. The secondary mast was intact, but the shredded sail and the lines were covered in some sort of green growth that was hard to determine from this distance.

Garth pointed and said, “Drop the mainsail and the follow sail. Leave the spinnakers up. Approach it slowly so we can at least see if we can find a name or something.”

The men instantly climbed the rigging and brought the mainsails down. The ship slowed as Garth steered it closer. As they approached, it was obvious that the ship had seen some rather rough times. Green algae grew almost everywhere, and it was evident that several of the men had been tied to the mast before it broke. Their skeletons were still roped there and mostly intact.

One of the spotters shouted down, “Ahoy Captain! I see a nameplate. It’s the Winstril. That ship’s been missing for 100 years.”

The men began murmuring among themselves. Many stories and conspiracy theories had arisen about the mysterious disappearance of this ship and its crew.

While this had been going on, Alexis and Catrina had seen the huge twin glowing lights, like eyes. Alexis sent her air elemental in that direction to clear away more of the mist, but it had gone, and with the elemental so far away, the mist started to gather near the Mermaid’s Return, so Alexis brought it back to the ship for now. Catrina kept her crossbow at the ready, but at present there were no targets.

“Can’t say I’ve heard of the Winstril,” said Alexis.

“Far from the only ship ever lost at sea,” Garth explained. “It was lost famously, though. Laden with gold and jewels from the Prince of Faience, hoping to woo his love, the Princess of Karanu. Some say she was lost passing through the Strait of Suggurath, but most say it was the Sea of Mists that took her.”

Alexis had removed her ocular from its protective leather holder at her waist. From what she could see, looked more like many years of serious neglect coupled with extremely severe storm damage. She didn’t see any signs of battle, however the two skeletons tied to the mainmast told the story that the captain and first mate had determined all was lost and took their prerogative option of going down with the ship. They apparently hadn’t survived the fall of the mainmast. The damage to the skeletons told of massive impact tramas to what was left tied to the remains of the mainmast.

Several of the men tossed grappling hooks over to the derelict ship and lowered the thick boarding mats down the side between the 2 ships to keep from damaging their ship when they banged together in the choppy waters.

Catrina, Garth, and Alexis made the crossover along with six of the strongest men to explore the derelict. The wood under their feet felt soft and spongy as they started looking around. Thick green furry mold covered most everything in large patches along with some kind of green slime. The door to the stairs down to the hold was battered and broken. It was obvious it had taken a beating, although it had managed to survive enough to stay afloat.

As expected, the bilge was waist deep in slimy water, although the hold was also stocked well with gems, jewelry, gold, and other valuable trinkets.

The irritating almost audible whispers were there as well, annoying all as they did what they could to recover those items. By the time the men had transferred and stowed all the treasure to their ship’s hold, the voices had become really annoying.

Alexsis had gone to the captain’s quarters to see if she could find enough of his log entact to see what happened. She found it within a metal container that had a waxen seal around the lid. The seal had gotten very old and brittle, but it still kept the box sealed tightly enough that the pages had survived.

The last entries were really chaotic, although it did tell of a massive hurricane that had sprung up out of the mist. The last entry told how the first mate and the captain were going to lash themselves to the mainmast, because if the ship went down, they were going down with it. There were also prayers for the rest of the crew and they somehow finding a safe haven.

One of the entries in the log spoke of a strange rock that seemed to be floating on top of the water. The only location data it gave was northern waters. Shortly after that notation, were the storm entries.

“This is very interesting,” said Catrina. “A rock floating on water. Rocks don’t float … well there are a few that can, but I don’t think we’re talking about something simple like that. You don’t write log entries about pumice.”

“No, you don’t,” Alexis said, scratching her chin thoughtfully. “But I’m a bit worried about the storm. Hurricanes just don’t happen in waters this cold. Ordinary hurricanes, that is. Also … there’s that crazy whispering again. I’m sure we’re only hearing it because we’re out of range of the spell I put on our ship’s lanterns. I didn’t put it on this ship, obviously – at the time, we hadn’t found it yet.”

“Something with big red eyes is probably still out there, whether we can see it or not,” Catrina said. “And I’m itching to tell it to go away, in no uncertain terms. But of course we’re on water. All it has to do is dive, or even move too far away from the ship to target it. Unless … hmm.”

“You still have those boots?” Alexis asked.

“You said to bring everything.”

“Let’s get this log book back to the ship, then.”

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Alexis brought the Winstril’s log book back to the Mermaid’s Return, and Catrina got out some armored boots made of an oddly bluish metal. She clanked when she walked, but she looked like she was ready to kick something in very uncomfortable places. When she returned, Alexis was showing Garth the relevant sections of the log.

“Rock floating on the sea?” Garth asked.

“Well, if you read it carefully, it says the rock is on the surface of the sea,” said Alexis. “It doesn’t say it’s floating.”

“Interesting. And then there’s a hurricane. In these cold waters?”

“Exactly what I said,” Alexis reiterated.

“She did say that,” Catrina confirmed, nodding.

“Something’s out there,” Alexis said to Garth. “Something that makes whispering audible illusions, something that can also make storms, something big with red eyes. We need to get it to come closer.”

“Would a big fire at sea do it?” asked Garth. “I don’t feel right leaving that ship floating out there. It’s got those men’s remains on it. It’s a grave.”

“I see, so you want to send them off to the Seas of Light with a funeral pyre,” said Alexis. “A fitting tribute to a brave captain and first mate. And perhaps we’ll get the thing to come close enough to do something about. I’m sure we’ve gotten its attention, with this huge hole we’ve punched in its mist. The air elemental I’ve summoned won’t stay around forever.”

“Well, then, let’s send the Winstril off with a proper sailor’s funeral!” said Garth.

He called MacInnes over and told him what he wanted him to do, and MacInnes got men to fetch oil from the stores. Alexis went over to the derelict again with them; they spread oil across its decks, while she cast spells with some dust and a fan, drying out the wood, driving away the water.

Finally, they returned, casting off the grapples so the derelict was floating freely, to find that Garth had some of the men ready with fire arrows. Behind the points, the arrows were wrapped with rags soaked in more oil.

“Do you know any words to say?” Garth asked Alexis.

“We commend these brave sailors to the Light,” she said. “May they sail the Sea of Light in eternal honor.” She added some more words in an ancient tongue, and it seemed that the sun shone brighter upon the Winstril somehow. She nodded to Garth.

“Light the arrows!” he ordered. The men ignited the rags on their arrows with the lanterns. “Take aim … Fire!”

A dozen flaming arrows struck the deck of the derelict Winstril and quickly ignited the oil-soaked wood. Everyone aboard the Mermaid’s Return saluted as the flames rose higher. “To Cap’n Hammond and Commander Hughes!” shouted MacInnes. “Courage to the last!”

Then a massive voice thundered out of the wall of mist that surrounded them, somewhere to the fore of the flaming derelict. “First you shove aside my mist. Then you desecrate my chill seas with flames! This affront cannot go unanswered!” The huge red eyes reappeared behind the mist, and a cold wind began to blow.

“Show yourself, coward!” Catrina bellowed, running up to the rail. She had her crossbow in hand again, its bolt still glowing red like a hot coal. “I’m not afraid of you!”

“I do not need for you to be afraid,” said the huge voice. “I need you to die.” From the mist emerged a huge head and torso, glowing red eyes framed by curving horns and chitinous plates that were translucent like ice. In one of its massive fists it held an enormous flail, a shaft like a tree trunk connected with chains to spiked balls the size of the ship’s longboats. The links of the chains were each larger than a man’s head.

Catrina stood up on the railing at the side of the ship. Balanced there despite the ship’s tossing in the turbulence kicked up by the massive creature, she took aim and fired her crossbow straight at the thing’s mighty chest.

The fiery bolt streaked through the air, leaving a trail of crimson light behind it, and when it struck, there was an explosion of fire as it pierced the plates on its chest. But the creature didn’t fall. It roared in fury, although the cavity now adorning its chest didn’t look comfortable.

“I am Catrina Signum Elest, demon, and one of us dies this day!” she cried, leaping from the rail, and landing on the sea – on her feet. She drew her Sol-Sword as it ignited in its ethereal fire and ran toward the demon.

“He’s big, but I wouldn’t want to be him,” Alexis said to Garth. “So those water-walking boots she found finally come in handy.”

“Err … she can take that thing?” asked Garth nervously. “Putting two and two together, I’m guessing it’s responsible for the loss of hundreds of ships.”

“Well, yes, but not all at once,” said Alexis. “She can do it. And we’re not losing this ship. I put too much work into conjuring it. I’m playing defense on this one. She’s likely to bring it within range, so I suggest getting the cannons ready.”

Garth immediately barked orders. The men began loading all the long johns on the broadside facing the demon. Alexis had the men add some strangely-glowing white powder to the charge. It made the charge package glow white as they loaded all of the weapons with their maximum safe charges.

They even loaded the siege cannons with shot and other metallic debris to add extra carnage to any solid hits or near misses. Whatever this demon might think of himself, five long johns coupled with 3 siege cannons were going to make one heck of a mess on that demon’s weird ice armor.

Catrina was oblivious to the ship at this point; she was in her element. Her boots made it possible for her to jump long distances as well as walk on top of the water. She reached into a small pouch at her side and removed a glowing crystal, which she gave a hard toss as she made a bounding jump towards the demon.

The illusion crystal hit the water at the demon’s feet. Instantly what appeared to be many well armed troopers appeared. The demon ignored what he thought was an insignificant target, Catrina, and focused on the more immediate threat. Big mistake, and the one Catrina had hoped for.

The demon deployed his massive shard blizzard in a huge gray cloud about his feet as Catrina landed on his shoulder and swung her Sol-Sword hard at its neck. With a massive fiere flash, there came the sound of the gods’ blacksmith hitting his anvil.

The demon’s armor about his neck fractured as he bellowed out his pain. Catrina wisely jumped from there a goodly distance away as a very severe but super compact hurricane-like blizzard appeared about the demon as it stumbled and fell.

Catrina didn’t miss a single move as she did a double flip as gracefully as any ballerina and returned to her feet. She launched herself over the top of the ice shard mess the demon had created to once again land beside him. She chopped downward into his chest plate next to the hole she had made with her crossbow bolt.

A massive sizzling crack as the chestplate shattered into icy fragments and the demon once again took a nasty impact with the ethereal fires of the Sol-Sword. Catrina didn’t have time to swing a second time as the winds of the storm became so strong that she had to jump away or be consumed by them.

Garth, who had been watching in total incredulous amazement at Catrina’s bravery and skill turned and shouted, “Gunners, in rotation, fire!”

One at a time, the mighty long johns went off with a huge report, and large smoke clouds followed, emitted by the siege cannons. The demon had started to rise again when the cannonballs impacted and exploded, followed by the shot and debris from the even larger siege cannons. Those initial shots had struck with far more power and velocity than any cannon it had encountered before.

This knocked the demon down in a huge splash that created an even larger wave. The ship was well conjured and constructed and rode the massive wave like a champ. The water where the demon had fallen was nasty with some kind of strangely colored gore.

The gunners had reloaded the cannons for another go, but the demon didn’t rise. Catrina came back abord the ship while all waited for the demon to show itself again.

Instead, a mist imp appeared and said in its strangely low-pitched but tiny voice, “You have done what others have failed to do and returned that ice demon back to the nether realms. No man has done that in our memory.”

Catrina shouted back, “I’m not a man … I’m a woman.”

The imp actually appeared to salute before it and the massively thick misty fog dissipated and was gone. The sun sparkled off of the waters as far as they could now see.

“Think we really did get it?” asked Garth.

“Never trust an imp,” said Catrina. “But even if it survived that, it’ll be licking its wounds for a while.”

“From what I’ve learned of demons,” said Alexis, “they heal pretty fast, but on the other hand, they do also learn. There are really only two possibilities. Either we did send it back to the Nether Realms, which means it’s got centuries of shame to work through before it dares show its face around here again, or we gave it such a bad thrashing that it’s going to leave this ship alone for fear of another round.”

“Hm,” said Garth. “Either way, we’ve just bought ourselves some clear seas. Well done, men! And ladies as well!” The crew cheered and started stowing the cannons. The late-afternoon sun shone in the clear sky. Only a few clouds remained now, and they looked ordinary.

“After the cannons are stowed, resume course,” Garth said to MacInnes.

“Aye, Cap’n,” replied the first mate, and started barking orders to any crew who weren’t already busy. One of them climbed up the mainmast to the crow’s nest with a spyglass to survey the horizon while there was still daylight. Soon the sails were raised and the ship was once again under way.

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The sun had set, and dinner was behind them, as Alexis sat in her quarters looking at the glyphs from the waypoint stone on Pirios, both the original ones and the new ones that had appeared when Catrina had struck it with her sword. She made notes with her pen on the papyrus next to the symbols.

Catrina and MacInnes entered. “Anything?” asked the swordswoman.

“Well, as is common for these waypoint stones, the symbols here and here signify the stone’s coordinates, in the ancient wizards’ system of reckoning,” Alexis explained, pointing to certain of the glyphs. “This set of glyphs is the name of the stone – Hespirinios, it says, which I guess has become shortened over millennia of repetition to Pirios. These glyphs are the capstone of the spell that fixes the waypoint in place and makes it permanent. And then there are these, which I’ve never seen before.”

“Those are the ones I beat out of it,” said Catrina with a grin.

“You certainly did,” said Alexis with a similar smile. “I wouldn’t have thought of doing that. But that’s why it’s better that there are two of us. These say …” Alexis pronounced the words, in the ancient language of the wizards’ time. “From what I can tell, they mean, uh …” She looked at MacInnes for a moment. “Chosen Ones, take heed. Third ring from the Castle of Bone.”

“Chosen Ones?” asked MacInnes. “Some kind of … ancient prophecy, is what it sounds like.”

“I’m not going to lie to you, MacInnes,” said Alexis. “This isn’t the first time we’ve run across prophecies using language like that. It’s enough to make a girl suspicious that she’s gotten herself involved in something too powerful for any mortal.”

“Who says?” asked Catrina. “I think we’re plenty powerful, and we’re only getting better.”

“This has the ring of one of those legendary epic quests,” said MacInnes. “Trouble with them is, us ordinary mortals don’t tend to fare too well in them. There tend to be big monsters, demons, gods and the like. It’s the heroes who survive that kind of thing.”

“I’m not interested in getting people killed to get what I want,” said Alexis, “and what I really want is to find a way to stop that rampaging dragon down south. Because rampaging dragons tend not to stay down south; they tend to go where they want and kill everyone until they’re stopped.”

“I’ve heard tell of that one,” said MacInnes. “You think there’s something out here that might help?”

“Yes, we’ve found enough ancient tomes and scrolls to tell us there’s an ancient castle on an island out here that’s supposed to have a magic sword capable of stopping the dragon,” Alexis said. “Plus there’s likely to be lots of treasure. Ancient books of knowledge.”

“Forgotten magic weapons,” Catrina added.

“Well, I’ve just been sightin’ the stars,” said MacInnes, “and we’re still on the course the captain set for us. What I’m wonderin’ is … those ancient waypoints, and their coordinates, do they predict exactly where other ones will be?”

“They didn’t exactly plot them on a grid, but there are maps,” said Alexis, pointing at hers. “There’s supposed to be another one here. That ‘third ring from the Castle of Bone’ probably means that it’s part of a circle of waypoints centered on that legendary castle. If we find one that says ‘second ring,’ that’ll tell us we’re getting closer …”

The entire ship shook as if it had struck something. In the distance they could hear Garth shouting orders. MacInnes was back out the door like a shot. “We’d better see what that is,” said Catrina, and Alexis nodded.

By the time Alexis had everything stowed in her usual watertight containers, Garth had had the men lower all sails. The ship was floating dead in the water, under the glittering stars, and the men were holding out lanterns on long poles, trying to spy what the ship had struck. There were also some men carrying up buckets from below. “What happened, Garth?” asked Alexis. “Are we taking on water?”

“Aye, not much, but there’s been damage to the hull,” Garth said. “We don’t know what we hit.”

“Send me out in a longboat, and I’ll look for it,” said Alexis. “And I’m going to fix the hull. I can’t have the ship I conjured taking on water. It’s just not … right.”

Garth nodded at MacInnes. “Ready longboat!” shouted the first mate, and men hurried to uncover one of the longboats. Alexis went with them, and Catrina followed. They had soon lowered the longboat into the water, along with eight sailors and the two adventurers. “We need some light,” Alexis said, drawing her Angel Wing Sword and holding it aloft. Brilliant white light from the blade shone in all directions, lighting up the ship, the waves, and hopefully anything they might have struck.

“Row us to near where the hull’s damaged,” Alexis said, and the men started rowing. Soon they approached the side of the ship again, and they could see a narrow indentation, as if they’d hit some kind of spike sticking up out of the water. Fortunately most of the damage was at and above the waterline. “What in the …” Alexis began.

“I know, Miss,” said a sailor. “Oddest thing I ever done see. Water’s hundreds of fathoms deep in all directions. Yet there it is. As if we struck a piling made of solid iron, stickin’ up outta the middle o’ the sea.”

“Well, let’s keep the ship afloat, first,” said Alexis. She set her sword down, reached into her pack and took out a lump of clay. She then reached out into the water and grabbed a floating splinter of wood from the ship. “Once together, always together,” she muttered, and started working the clay with her fingers, mixing the wooden splinter into the clay. All the sailors stared at the hull of the ship as its wood magically began to reshape itself, seemingly weaving itself back together.

“Now, isn’t that transmutation magic there?” asked Catrina.

“Alteration,” said Alexis. “Transmutation would be if I were turning it from wood into iron, or the like. I’m just changing the wood from one shape to another – a shape that’s better for being a boat, in this case.”

“I’m all for ships havin’ fewer holes, meself,” said the sailor. “This be already the oddest voyage I ever been on.”

“Oh, we’re just getting started,” said Catrina. “Mind if I hold your sword while you’re doing that? I think I see something.”

“Go ahead,” said Alexis, continuing to work the clay and smooth out the damage. Catrina held up the Angel Wing Sword and looked out into the night, where something seemed to glint a few dozen yards out.

“Yes, there’s something out there,” Catrina said. “Not sure what …”

“I’m nearly done, and then let’s row out and see what it is – carefully,” said Alexis. “Do you still have those boots on?”

“Yeah, I just thought it might be good in case I had to get out of the longboat,” said Catrina.

“OK, there, it’s done,” said Alexis. The side of the ship looked as pristine as new, except that the paint looked a bit scuffed, but the wood now seemed as if it had never been damaged.

“Good job,” said Catrina. “Here’s your sword.” She handed the Angel Wing Sword back to Alexis, who held it up as Catrina stepped out of the longboat and onto the sea, drawing her Sol-Sword, its fire lighting up the waves around her with an orange glow. She stepped warily toward the object she had seen.

“We might want to follow her,” said Alexis, and the men rowed after Catrina. Then, a short time later, she said, “No. We don’t want to follow her. Row farther away.”

Catrina approached the object that was somehow on top of the waves. Then she saw it. “It’s a waypoint!” she shouted. “It’s just … here!”

“I think there used to be an island here, thousands of years ago!” shouted Alexis. “But it’s not here anymore! But the waypoints can’t move! Their magic doesn’t allow it! So there’s a point of rock sticking up from the bottom of the sea, holding the waypoint up, and nothing in the world can damage it!”

“Hazard to navigation, that is,” said the sailor. “Better tell MacInnes, so he can mark it on the charts.”

“And that’s exactly what we’ll do, once we’re back on board the ship,” Alexis said. “But for now … watch out! She’s going to do it again!” The men remembered this. They covered their ears.

Catrina muttered spells of might and main and swung the Sol-Sword with all her power at the waypoint stone, just as she had done before. The sound rang like the world’s largest church bell across the waters, and Alexis could see from the longboat that the glyphs had appeared on the stone, glowing blue, just as the stone on Pirios had done.

Alexis pointed toward Catrina, and the men rowed carefully in her direction as Alexis got out a blank papyrus scroll to record the stone’s glyphs on. When she had finished copying them, Catrina got back on board, and they all helped row the longboat back to the ship.

“It turns out that this waypoint is already on the map,” said MacInnes when he had done all the calculations. He pointed at the old map, which showed an island where they were. “I hadn’t thought that we could be there, because there’s no island here, so I’d second-guessed meself. I figured I’d done the figurin’ wrong around here.” He pointed to a course he’d plotted on the glass. “But no, I’d done it right, there just … isn’t an island here anymore. Not sure why, but it’s been thousands of years. Anything could happen in all that time. Big earthquake, maybe.”

“These glyphs … yes …” said Alexis. “Second ring from the Castle of Bone.”

“So we’re closer,” said Catrina.

Alexis replied as she translated more of the cryptic glyphs from the stone, “We are very much closer. According to this, it says the next stone should be on the island of Ynitsed. Funny, if I’m not mistaken, that word translates to bone, or something similar.”

MacInnes carefully looked over the coordinates Alexis had translated and very carefully made a few marks on the chart he had been scribing. He took the astrolabe Alexis had conjured and shown him how to use and went out of the cabin.

MacInnes took very careful sightings of the stars and triangulated their exact position in relation to the heavenly guide marks. When he returned to the chart room, he very carefully marked the new chart with the new course.

When MacInnes had put the final meticulously calculated position mark on the chart he said, “Unless something has happened to the island, it should be about 4 days north of here. I would suggest the cold weather gear get passed out, as we’re going into some rather cold regions. That ice demon thing was making things unnaturally cold … well, this will be naturally cold.”

The ship sailed on into uncharted waters. Garth had assigned several more spotters in places to keep a sharp eye out for more things that might be sticking out of the water, just in case.

Just about mid-morning, a large swirling black cloud appeared to the north. From out of its stygian black heart emerged a horde of demons of many types: imps, minor, and mid-range.

The largest, ugliest, and stinkiest one of the bunch roared out, “So, at last the weakness of flesh has finally arrived. Did you think it would go unnoticed when you took out the Mist Guardian?”

Garth had already ordered all cannons loaded and broadside achieved to the horde.

Alexis pulled 2 Isofaren Shurikens from their leather holster and shouted back, “Come, you ignorant thing. You smell worse than a dung heap. I’ll show you what it means to feel fear!”

“Interesting,” said Catrina. “There do seem to be a lot of them.”

“Is … that a problem?” asked Garth, sounding a bit nervous.

“A problem?” asked Catrina, looking surprised. Then she laughed. “No, no, it’s just a question of which weapons and tactics to use.” She took out the net that she had readied once days earlier, not knowing at the time what sort of enemy they faced. “Alexis, those shuriken things are great against single targets or a few, but against a great swarm you might want something with a bigger burst radius … oh.”

Alexis replied, “That’s a good point – and that’s why I’m switching tactics once we silence this mouthy one. This might demoralize them a bit.” And just as she’d done before, she held the shuriken between two fingers and flicked it toward the largest demon, which was still flying their way screeching its defiance. It was a much longer distance than could be covered with an ordinary shuriken, but this was, of course, no ordinary shuriken. It lit up like a white-hot filament as it flew straight and true, contacting the demon on the side of its horrible face and detonating in a spherical explosion of pure white light larger than the ship – fortunately it was still quite a long way off. The explosion dissipated, leaving a cloud of drifting ash where that demon and its neighbors had been flying. A shock wave expanded from the explosion, stunning many more nearby demons, which dropped out of the air and into the water below them.

Several of the men on deck nearby cheered when they saw this, and Alexis caught the returning shuriken between the same two fingers. “Let’s see if the rest of them decide today’s not a good day to die,” she said.

“No such luck,” said Catrina as the horde continued approaching after slowing for only a moment.

“We hated him anyway!” screamed another demon. “You just did us a favor!” another one shrieked.

“Very well, then,” Alexis said calmly. She took from her pack a pair of fans – steel-framed, tipped with blades, but made of fine red silk. “Time for some fireworks.”

Catrina chuckled and got ready with her net. Shaking it, sparks of electricity danced among its knots.

“Here they come,” said Garth. “Even cannons, fire!”

Alternate guns roared, and the men hurried to reload, while those who hadn’t fired yet waited for the order. Screeching demons tried to avoid the cannon fire, but they were loaded with shot pellets rather than the larger cannonballs, filling the air with hot and speeding iron. It tore into their bodies and wings, and many fell.

Alexis struck a pose with the fans, aiming the steel blades toward the veritable cloud of demons as if they were her fingers, and once she could see the beady eyes of the imps she began what could only be described as a dance. With each sweep of the fans through the air at the horde, a sheet of fiery red heat launched through the air and buffeted the incoming enemy, making the very air shimmer with intensity. Wave after wave of fire she threw, and seared and flaming demons dropped by the dozens.

“Now that’s evocation, isn’t it?” Catrina asked. “What kind of magic don’t you know anything about, exactly?”

“Don’t have time to list,” Alexis said as she danced, “though the good thing about this particular spell sequence is that it’s all about movement. No words, no chanting. I can say whatever I want.”

But Catrina couldn’t continue the conversation just then – the demons were in range of her net, and besides, Garth had just ordered, “Odd cannons, fire!” More shot tore through the air, but now the surviving demons were all around them.

Catrina cast her net at the swirling horde, just as if she were trying to catch fish. But the net lit up with bolts like lightning whenever it touched any of the demons, and soon she had a netful of smoking, inert creatures that smelled horrid. She simply shook the net out over the side of the ship and cast it again. The demons clawed and bit at her, but her armor and helm held.

Alexis kept sweeping out great arcs of searing heat at these frost-based demons to withering effect, not seeming to tire at all; the fact that they were now all around her made no difference as she could launch another wave in any direction at any time she liked. Garth had ceded the aft deck to her, climbing down to the middle deck and continuing to order the cannon fire. Between orders he swung his sword at the larger demons who avoided Alexis’ heat waves and Catrina’s lightning net. He was back-to-back with MacInnes, so no demons could outflank them.

Once one of the larger demons tried to grab Catrina’s net, seizing it with its long claws, but this was a terrible mistake, as the net’s lightning quickly discharged into its body, causing it to convulse and fall helpless to the deck, where Catrina soon dispatched it with one of her many daggers.

But there was a problem, and that was the fact that the horde of demons just kept coming. “We’re not taking them out fast enough!” shouted Catrina.

“So it seems,” said Alexis. “I think I have an idea. Wish I’d thought of it before. Do you have one?”

“I … hmm. Wait. Yes, I do,” said Catrina. “Just a minute.” It was Catrina who rummaged in her packs this time, as Alexis began to chant ancient words in addition to dancing.

Alexis’ fiery waves changed. They grew brighter, becoming waves of white light tinged with gold. “That’s … holy fire!” Catrina said, astounded. “How is that … no, wait. You’re Alexis. You just combined holy magic with evocation, didn’t you? Of course. But now you can’t talk at the same time because you have to keep chanting.” Alexis merely nodded, and every arc of holy fire that spun outward from Alexis’ fans simply burned every demon it touched to drifting ash. They tried to avoid it, but it was difficult, because the holy fire now swept the entire length of the ship, and it didn’t so much as singe any of the mundane rope or sailcloth; it damaged only that which was of the infernal realms. She no longer had to aim carefully to avoid damaging the ship or its crew.

Catrina found a pouch full of some odd red shot and an old sling. Improvising, she altered the sling a bit. “I found those fireball seeds we saved,” Catrina said. She ran to the forecastle carrying these and her net, just in case. And then … she swung the sling in an arc through the air toward the incoming horde, releasing the shot into the air along that arc. The tiny red metallic pellets flew out of sight … and then each one exploded into an enormous burst of fire. An entire wave of demons was engulfed in fire. Some survived, injured, but most were either burned to the bone or actually aflame and fell into the sea. And Catrina simply reloaded and did it again.

Without warning, the attacking horde vanished in a greasy puff of ebony black. Except for the massive carnage left by the attack, and the swirling mass of stygian darkness ahead, all became silent. The crew could hear the sound of the wind in the rigging and sea slap against the hull, even a far off cry of a sea bird. Other than normal sounds for their location, no other sound was heard for a short space.

“Is that it?” asked Garth. “Did we win?”

“I’m guessing no,” said Alexis, her fans poised for another attack.

A burning smoldering tear appeared in reality in front of the ship, as tall as the mainmast. One of the nastiest, meanest, most vile looking creatures from some depraved individual’s psychotic nightmare stepped through before the rent in reality sealed and vanished.

The creature looked over the large sailing vessel before it said in a surprisingly mild tone, “So, it is obvious we did not manage to kill off the last of the metas, although great effort was put into it.” It seemingly looked directly at Alexis, then Catrina in turn, then said, “You of Elvin kind, hear, we did our best to kill you and your depraved human and elf parents when we attacked so long ago. We know you are the daughter of the High Priestess of Magic.” It then turned slightly and looked directly at Catrina and added, “And you, daughter of the High Master of the Weapons Guild. That cursed Elest, who made the finest magical weapons known to humans, weapons which kill so many of my kind.”

Many more ugly and nasty demons seemingly stepped through another large fiery rift before reality sealed and healed.

Catrina looked at Alexis and said with incredulity, “Daughter of the High Priestess of Magic?”

Alexis replied, “What about you? Daughter of the Master Weapons Crafter. I knew he was of the Weapon’s Guild, but its leader?”

One of the other demons laughed in its horrid way as he pointed in their direction, “Isn’t that cute? Neither one knows what position they hold.”

A loud roar of evil and horrible laughter from the dozen demons that now stood in front of the ship chilled all on the ship to their bones.

The first demon said with a snarl, “Then the prophecy is now unfolding. The time of proving is at hand, and the chosen have come … to die. Take your positions, brothers. If it is a testing and proving that comes, we will prove it forever. No Man shall ever wield Meta again.”

Catrina and Alexis shouted back in defiance at the same time, “We are not men! We are women!”

The demons all laughed again before one replied, “Makes it easy, doesn’t it?”

Amid many chortles and belittling comments from the demons, all vanished, including the dark cloud.

“What? Hey!” said Alexis, chanting and throwing a few more sheets of holy fire through the space recently occupied by the demons, but they were gone. “Bloody demons.”

“So … they’re really gone now, yes?” asked Garth.

“Let me just make sure,” said Alexis. She put her fans away and made some gestures with her hands, closing her eyes and chanting ancient holy words. “I’m sensing no demons for miles in any direction.”

“That big one looked pretty powerful,” MacInnes said, as Catrina returned from the forecastle. “You’d think it would’ve fought you, considering they seem to think you’re pretty important.”

“Probably would’ve,” said Catrina, “if they’d thought they could win. No, they’re going to bide their time. First rule of strategy. Never let your opponent choose the battleground.”

“So … what’s the battleground?” asked Garth.

“First off,” said Alexis, “you’ll notice the first batch of demons was cold-based. They came in a wet, cold cloud. That’s why attacking with fire worked, and lightning too. This second bunch was all about fire – and this is a ship on the ocean. Plenty of water for us to attack with.”

Catrina nodded. “They’ll pick someplace less watery,” she said. “Also, there’s all this talk of a test coming up for us – most likely they’ll attack us during the test, whatever it is, while we’re distracted.”

“Either that, or just after, when we’re exhausted,” said Alexis. “But my money would be on during.”

“They’re … not after us, are they?” asked MacInnes.

“Very unlikely,” Catrina replied. “Unless you’re an aspiring Meta-Wizard, they don’t care about you. Well, if they kill us, they’ll probably go on to kill anything else in the neighborhood just because they’re demons and like killing living things, but still, they won’t go for you specifically.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” said Garth, sarcastically. A few of the men laughed darkly. “Well, men, time to stow the guns and set sail again. Same course, MacInnes.”

“Aye, Cap’n,” said the first mate. “Sail crew! Raise mainsail, then foresail! Lookout, to the crow’s nest!” MacInnes continued managing the crew. Meanwhile, Alexis and Catrina took deep breaths and tried to recover.

“Wow,” Alexis said. “That was a lot of exertion.”

“Really?” asked Catrina. “I barely broke a sweat. You should exercise with me.”

“You get up before the sun every morning,” said Alexis. “I need rest so my mind can work.”

“Well, you do need your beauty sleep,” Catrina jibed. Alexis made a tired face.

They both cleaned up and tried to rest as the ship continued on its course. As it turned out, Alexis was asleep minutes later, while Catrina stayed up chatting with the men until the dinner bell rang. Alexis slept through it, and slept until very early in the morning.

When Catrina woke up before the sun and went out on deck to do her exercises, she was astounded to find Alexis already up. “Well,” she said, “I guess you came to take me up on my offer. Let’s start with some stretches.”

“Maybe later,” Alexis said. She had the sextant and astrolabe from the chart room and was sighting the stars. “The planets are aligning,” she said. “Thrice curse it. All these prophecies, signs, and omens. I think we have to face it. We are these bloody chosen ones. Something’s going to happen at the Castle of Bone, and it’s us that it’s going to happen to.”

“Well then,” said Catrina. “Nothing to do but be as prepared as we can.”

“How do we do that, when we don’t know what we’re going to be facing?” Alexis asked.

“It’s like my dad always said – you don’t try to outguess the enemy. You gather as much strength as you can, and you overpower them.”

“He lived pretty long, I guess,” said Alexis.

“Yeah, he won more than his share of battles,” said Catrina. “But it’s why I exercise. I want to be as strong as I can be, when the time comes and I need it.”

“I’m seeing the wisdom of that,” Alexis said. “Let me set something up, and I’ll join you.” She put together some kind of contraption involving a crystal and some lenses and prisms, then she came and did some calisthenics with Catrina, then they went together on a run around the perimeter of the deck. Meanwhile, the lenses and prisms focused light from the planets on the crystal, which began to glow with its own light.

“What’s that?” Catrina asked when they were done, pointing at the crystal.

“Collecting … magical … energy … from the … planets,” panted Alexis. Catrina was barely sweating, but Alexis was wiped out. “Every chance I get … I’m going to store energy. Nobody’s getting the jump on me. I just wish … well, I wish I knew what it meant, daughter of the High Priestess of Magic. I wish there were somebody to ask, some book to read, something. I’ve looked and found a lot of nothing.”

“We’ll find something, someday,” Catrina assured her. “I’m going to clean up for breakfast.”

“Me too,” Alexis said, and set her crystal to absorb the rays of the rising sun. She also set up a vial to absorb magic from the crashing waves, and a flag to soak in energy from the winds.

“Not catching me low on energy,” Alexis said, going in to breakfast just as the cook rang the bell. “Got star energy, air and water, fire from the sun … earth is a bit hard to do here on the sea, but soon we’ll be on an island …” She thought about this all through breakfast.

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The day was quiet except for the wind. It had steadily become colder until it had a very vicious bite to it. Alexis took it all in stride as she cast a small but enduring spell that allowed the ship to remain warm … and to keep the water barrels from freezing. The galley had its clay ovens to keep it cozy, and the crew and captain’s quarters were equipped with a small stove that burned coal to keep them moderately comfy. Among all that, the crew was mostly warm enough not to worry about hypothermia. The spell kept the hold and the main deck areas warm, so the crew would be comfortable and ice and slippage wouldn’t be an issue.

Alexis and Catrina were in their cabins going over as much of the old tomes as they could read at a sitting. Neither had discovered any new information about what the Test or Challenge might be.

Without warning, the crystal pendants that the Keeper of Knowledge had given them began to glow brightly. Catrina felt hers as it warmed beneath her tunic. Alexis had hers off; it was hanging on a stand she had made from a small twig, but the bright glow was unmistakable.

Catrina held hers in her hand and said, “It seems someone from the Hall of Knowledge is wanting to speak with us.”

Alexis picked hers up and tapped Catrina’s with it. As before there was a huge spark and a tinkling shower of light, but this time a very tall and thin elf stood in the cabin with them.

It looked at Alexis, then at Catrina before it said in a soft but ethereal voice, “The time has finally arrived for you, my chosen. The Test is at hand. From this moment onward you must have your wits about you at all times.” The sparkling image placed two gemstones on the table, where they became material, “Carry these with you. It is all the help I, Meta Grandmaster Ilshainen, can offer as aid in this perilous time. Know this as well: both of you are Meta-Wizards in your own right. Both of you were born into the families of the last, and by birth are now the Masters.”

With this, the image vanished and the crystals on their necklaces went dark again, no longer glowing with the inner fire both had come to enjoy.

The faint voice of the lookout was heard. “Ahoy below! The sea ahead is ice, and I can see what looks like a blizzard ahead.”

Alexis said with a sigh, “Darn! We would have to face Barafu.”

Catrina asked, “Who? Just who is Barafu?”

Alexis rose and started putting on her Mytherium Elvin armor. “He’s the king of the winter storm demons. He’s also one of those that are darn near impossible to kill in any normal way.”

Catrina asked with worry in her tone, “What other way is there?”

Alexis fastened her Angel Wing Sword about her shapely waist. “I’m not sure, but somehow we have to find out.” Then she picked up her gemstone from the table, turned, and left the cabin. Catrina could hear her climbing the stairs to the main deck.

“Well, it sounds like here we go,” said Catrina. She had to choose between various sets of armor and many weapons …

“So, just what is this all about, then?” asked Garth, following Alexis as she carefully painted arcane symbols on the ship’s railing, going slowly all the way around the exterior of the deck. She was using some sort of reflective gold paint.

“We’ve only got a certain amount of time before he comes,” said Alexis. “But I’ve got enough time to ward the ship against his power. He can’t sink the ship if I do this. We’ve got some kind of test, but I’m not letting it get anyone else killed in the process.”

“What are those symbols?” Garth asked. “It seems as if you know many languages, both ordinary and magic.”

“I do,” said Alexis as she painted. “I’ve had to read a lot of ancient manuscripts, and those aren’t exactly written in modern languages. So I’ve had to learn the languages they were written in. And … a lot of magic requires different languages too, but they’re not languages you speak in, exactly. They’re made for magical formulae. Like this one. This is the language the celestials and infernals were created with by the Powers that Be. Their names are all in this language, their real names. And what’s written in it binds them, if it’s written just right.”

“Why aren’t you preparing for your battle with Barafu?” asked Garth.

“I’ve said it already,” Alexis said, glancing up at him for a moment, then going back to painting the symbols. “The test is for me and Catrina. I don’t want Garth or MacInnes or any of the others harmed. That’s important to me. They’re not … chosen.”

“Ah, so you noticed,” said Garth, taking a step back.

“As if I hadn’t already cast wards,” said Alexis. “You’re a bit early … Barafu.” With a final strike Alexis completed the final symbol, and Garth’s body was suddenly engulfed with holy fire. He stiffened, and vanished.

“Now, that was odd to watch,” said the real Garth, stepping forward. “Suddenly I couldn’t move or speak, just watch. I was a bit worried that it was gonna harm you, but maybe I shouldn’t have worried.”

“No, I knew it wasn’t really you as soon as he mentioned Barafu,” said Alexis. “I never told you the name of the demon lord we face.”

“Ah,” Garth said. “So … he’s gone, then?”

“Well, he wasn’t really here,” Alexis said. “He made a projected image, an illusion, after paralyzing you. But he can’t do that anymore, now that I’ve completed the warding. He can’t affect the ship with his power. He can affect the sea and air, though, and those can affect the ship – but wind and water, you can handle.”

“So, he’ll make storms and heavy seas,” Garth said. “Fair warning.”

“Yes, he’ll do that. But he can’t directly attack the ship. Catrina and I will take care of him. If we can.”

“If?”

“This one’s the king of the winter storm demons,” said Alexis. “Remember the mist-ice demon Catrina took out? This is the ruler of all of those guys, and more. And how you get to be the king of a bunch of demons is by being able to kill them all when they try to rise up against you.”

“OK, then,” said Garth. “We’ll do what we can. You do what you can. We’ll see what happens.”

Catrina had come up from below decks, wearing her Frostfang Armor, made of a bluish steel that looked like it had icicles on it, but they were patterns crafted into it. “We’ll find a way,” she said. “We always do.”

The sky had grown darker and darker, and the wind had begun to blow. But the lookout cried, “Land ho! Clouds’ve parted! Just for a moment! Land! To the nor’ nor’west!”

“But, um, the sea’s ice,” said Catrina. “How do we get from here to there?”

“Do we go with the ship, or by ourselves?” asked Alexis? “I vote for by ourselves. The ship can’t help anymore.”

“Yeah, let’s go,” said Catrina. She took off at a run toward the bow of the ship and leapt off onto the twisted ice.

“I guess that’s it,” said Alexis, shouldering her pack. “Let’s hope the ship doesn’t get too much of the nastiness.”

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The lookout in the crow’s nest watched Alexis and Catrina as they bravely walked across the ice pack into the huge blizzard off in the far distance. The further from the ship they went, the less the storm affected the ship. It was still freezing cold and blustery, but as far north as they were, this was absolutely normal. All the really severe weather seemed to be following them, although it was obvious that some sort of spell, no doubt Alexis’ doing, was keeping it from around them in some sort of bubble.

Outside the bubble, the storm raged. Inside the bubble, Alexis and Catrina were warm and protected from the severely blowing snow and ice. This didn’t stop the many frost imps and minor ice demons from attacking.

By this time, Catrina’s fire sword and Alexis Angel Wing Sword were getting to be like buzz saws in the grass as they mowed down many of the frost imps in a single swing spattering the pristine whiteness of the rapidly blowing blizzard with what could only be described as liquid dark ... the blood of the demons.

Catrina had devised a neat way to keep their directions in the nearly white-out conditions and the constant attacks. She had made a small sphere of crystal filled with oil. Floating inside this sphere was another sphere that had a lodestone arranged and marked within so north and south could be determined at a glance. It was a bit more elaborate than the one on the ship, but just as effective, and not affected by the storm.

Alexis commented after several miles of ongoing salvos of attacks, “Man, this is getting tiring. I think I’m going to use a bit of holy light to illuminate things a bit.”

Catrina replied as she swung her sword once again with all her might, “With all this dark flying around, that might make it so we can see clearly where we are going.”

Both women laughed as Alexis intoned the musical words and a huge burst of bright, pure white light spread out from her. Immediately there was a huge flash of fire and the horrid smell of burnt flesh and brimstone, and the attacks ceased suddenly. The blizzard seemed to rage on even more intensely outside their bubble of protection.

Alexis perused one of her map scrolls and pointed off to the north into the worst of the storm, “The waypoint stone is supposed to be in that direction about 2 miles. Keep that pointy thingy out so we don’t get lost. When we find it, I will need to make several rubbings of it. I’ve never seen that particular stone before and need to translate it.”

Both women steeled their resolve and trudged off into the ever deepening snow in the direction of what they hoped was the final waypoint stone before they reached their primary objective: the Castle of Bone.

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“On the one hand, we’ve just made a huge arrow pointing to where we are,” said Alexis. “But on the other hand, every demon in the world already seemingly knew exactly where we were anyway.” They continued to walk across the frozen sea in the midst of a ball of bright heavenly light. There were occasional tiny screams as small imps either flew into the light or tried to stand their ground as they advanced. The result was the same, and imps were the only demons stupid enough to allow themselves to be incinerated by the divine magic. Any smarter, more powerful demons hung back and awaited their chance – or the order of a demonic commander or lord with the authority to force them to attack.

“Once we’re on land, things will be different,” Catrina said.

“Yes, in multiple ways.”

“Is that the island up ahead?”

“No, that’s another ice floe. No, wait, I think … it’s a rock!” They walked up to a large boulder, seeing that it had smaller boulders as neighbors, and a line of rock stretched off to the north. “The map isn’t detailed enough to say whether the island has a rocky cape, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t, and these rocks weren’t floating on the water. They’re not waypoint stones. I wish I could sight the stars.”

“Well, let’s get farther inland, then,” Catrina said. “Just … go uphill.” The blizzard swirled around outside their bubble and blocked their view, but they could still tell which way was up. The land was covered with snow and ice just as the frozen sea had been, but the sea didn’t have hills and boulders.

They stood on what appeared to be a hill. “OK,” said Alexis, “time to switch things up. Remember the Fieorfang fight? Our opening move?”

Catrina grinned and chuckled, as she liked this idea. Alexis drew her Angel Wing Sword again, and Catrina already had her Sol-Sword in hand. They swung the flats of their blades at each other’s sword and combined their strength in a flashy move that they hoped would also be highly effective.

There was a mighty explosion of holy fire for hundreds of yards in every direction. The light was bright and golden orange. There was suddenly no snow beneath their feet, just frozen earth, and no snow falling from the sky either. The blizzard demons who had been howling as they flew through the chill air were stunned and fell to the ground in the hundreds all around. But more importantly, Alexis and Catrina took the moment to scan their briefly expanded field of vision for their target.

“There!” said Alexis, pointing. “The waypoint!” They wasted no time but ran toward it. Atop a cairn of more recent stones was the waypoint, which had preserved the integrity of nearby rocks to anchor itself in place.

Catrina once again wasted no time and charged her sword up to strike it as Alexis got her papyrus and charcoal out. The Sol-Sword slammed into the stone and awakened the glowing blue symbols. Alexis began quickly copying it all down, translating as she wrote. “‘Stone … of … Glacios. Chosen Ones, take heed. First ring from the Castle of Bone.’ And the coordinates, and the spells, as usual. From these coordinates … the Castle must be on this island, and it must be … uphill, of course, this way.” Alexis stood, put away the papyrus and charcoal, and faced toward the island’s center, where a mountain had long ago risen up from the sea.

“OK, then,” said Catrina. “Let’s go.” Alexis nodded, and they started toward the mountain.

Alexis reached down as she walked and picked up some small stones from the ground. She spoke ancient words to them and scattered them again as they walked. “I think I can gather some earth energy here,” she said. “I’ll have some of every kind of elemental energy. I only hope it’s enough.”
As Alexis and Catrina followed their compass through the clearing in the otherwise nasty blizzard surrounding their magically cleared area, Catrina began to gather together several of her more arcane weapons.

Alexis watched in a sort of side glance and smiled, “Now, from what I’ve seen Metas described as, you seem to me to be a perfect Weapons Meta.”

Catrina snorted, “Yea, right. I suppose next you’re going to tell me I’m also a high-born member of the weapons guild.”

Alexis laughed, “Yes, I am. Wasn’t your grandfather the head Weapons Master? How about your father? Isn’t he also the high Weapons Master of the current guild?”

Catrina looked at Alexis and narrowed her eyes. “What about you? Miss Daughter of the High Priestess of Magic. Seems to me you are the better candidate for Meta than I.”

Alexis laughed. “Based on what? Look at the weapons and their magical attributes you have selected for what seems to be a showdown with the creatures of darkness.”

Catrina took a good look at the magical weaponry she had chosen to combat the demons she was sure awaited them. Alexis was right; Catrina seemed to be just as much a Weapons Meta as Alexis was a Magic Meta.

Catrina replied, “So it would seem. And both of us have been called Chosen by not only the Keeper, but by several nasty demons.”

About that time, reality seemed to rip in a fiery tear. Out stepped many large, smelly, and extremely ugly demons. The largest, nastiest smelling one was Barafu. He wasn’t the size of the mist demon, but he was still easily twenty feet tall, and he radiated a cold, dark power. His eyes shone with a darkly blue light that seemed to take the very warmth from whatever they fell upon.

Barafu said in his rumbly horrid voice that shook the frozen ground, “Attack those puny humans. They must not be allowed to enter the Castle of Bone. It would mean the end of our reign on this planet.”

The demons rapidly took up positions and began their attack. Ice shards sharp as any razor and fast as any arrow flew all about as the storm seemed to rapidly intensify and the temperature to plummet.

Alexis easily deflected the many ice shards from the intense cloud swarms with a wave of her Angel Wing Sword as Catrina swung her Sol-Sword again and again. Liquid dark stained the pristine white all over as more and more of the huge demons fell and dissolved in their greasy black smoky way. “Back to Arallu with you!” shouted Alexis. “May you spend millennia in torment before you are allowed to venture back to this realm!”

“You do not reign on this planet,” called out Catrina, “and you never will!”

“Hm!” snorted Barafu. “I know you could swat this simple attack away with one spell, but you are not doing so. You think to save your strength for the much-vaunted Test. Well, I think not.” He simply reached out one huge hand as if gathering something to himself, and it was as if all heat was sucked from the air. Ice crystals formed and dropped to the ground, looking like snow, but somehow colder. Alexis and Catrina shivered despite Alexis’ spells and Catrina’s magic armor. It was as if the very air was freezing. Their breath turned to snow as soon as it left them, and inhaling was becoming painful.

“You think that’s cold?” asked Catrina. With both hands on her Sol-Sword, her fingers were quite warm, but that might change if she reached for a different weapon. So she spoke the words of a spell she knew; it was as if the blade of the brilliantly glowing sword became several yards long. She leaped into the air and brought the extended blade down with main force upon Barafu’s head – or would have, if he had stood his ground. Instead, Barafu dodged the blow, and Catrina’s sword baked the ground where he had stood, leaving it charred and the stones temporarily red-hot. She slashed sideways, but again he was faster than he looked; the air shimmered with the heat from her stroke.

“Fire!” said Alexis. “And earth.” She held the Angel Wing Sword in front of herself, one hand holding its hilt and the other pressing forward against the flat of the blade. Glowing magical symbols appeared in red and green around her hands, and suddenly, from the stones that Catrina had heated sprang what looked like vines, glowing like red-hot filaments, spreading across the ground in all directions, growing a jungle made of fiery stems and leaves. As the ground cover grew more dense and fiery tree saplings started to grow up from it, one of the demons found its legs entangled in the vines, burning its flesh. It tried to escape, flapping its wings frantically, but it was held fast. The vines grew around it, entangling it and finally snarling its wings. It fell to the ground, then burned to ash within the bright orange-red traceries of the vegetation.

“Upon fire I feed,” said Barafu, grasping the fire-vines with its black-clawed hands. The fire sizzled in his flesh, but where he touched it, its light went out and became darkness, then ice, then shattered in his grasp.

However, the other demons were having a lot of trouble with the searing hot vegetation, and Barafu could only be in one place at once. Two more demons fell, entangled and ensnared.

“Um, Alexis, we’re not immune to fire,” said Catrina, backing away as the fire-vines started to encroach on her position.

“Relax, I’m in charge of it,” Alexis said. “One thing Barafu doesn’t want us to know: he wants us to think he’s made of anti-life or anti-heat or some such thing that doesn’t really exist. If he was truly made of negative energy, he wouldn’t be able to exist – he’d have absorbed all his own energy long ago and would have died. Isn’t that true, Barafu? Upon fire you do not actually feed.”

“You know nothing,” said Barafu, leaping into the air and spreading his wings, making a downdraft of frigid air that dimmed the glow of the fire-vegetation beneath him. “My essence drains life and warmth.”

“You tell yourself that,” said Alexis, “but you actually generate quite a lot of warmth as you struggle. Could it be that you just summon a lot of cold magic? Sure, quite a bit more than the average ice demon, but it’s still just cold magic.”

Catrina thought of something. “Don’t you have that one spell that –”

“Don’t spoil the surprise,” said Alexis.

“You cannot defeat me,” said Barafu, still speaking in his dead-cold voice.

“Oh, I’m not going to defeat you,” said Alexis. She chanted in an ancient tongue, and gestured with her left hand, as arcane symbols started glowing in the air around it. Barafu blasted at her with beams of pure dark cold, but she deflected them with the Angel Wing Sword in her other hand. As Alexis’ spell neared completion, Barafu created a reflective shield out of cold and ice.

Catrina watched carefully. Alexis glanced sideways at her, then completed her spell. A beam of arcane energy lashed out at Barafu, but he deflected it with his shield in Catrina’s general direction, and Catrina intercepted it with a deft maneuver of her Sol-Sword, which was now rimmed with a strange arcane aura in addition to its usual fire. She then spoke some mystical words of her own and leapt into the air. Alexis sent some bolts of holy fire toward Barafu, and he tried to block them, but they shattered his icy shield, and that was when Catrina brought the Sol-Sword fully to bear upon him, slicing straight through Barafu’s body.

Or … seeming to. Barafu wasn’t cut. It was as if the Sol-Sword had become insubstantial, or Barafu had. But as Catrina deftly landed back on the ground and slashed at other demons nearby, Barafu’s form was suddenly outlined in arcane symbols of cold magic … which then shattered, one by one in quick succession.

“I think I’ve finally accepted that I’m a Meta-Wizard,” said Alexis. “I’ve known the Spell-Shatterer for some time. Catrina and I used it on an ancient spell once. I placed it on her sword, and she followed through, then just as now. Your cold magics are ended.”

“No,” said Barafu, trying again to draw all the warmth from the air around him. Nothing happened. “No!” The blizzard around him was beginning to lessen in intensity.

“I told you I wasn’t going to defeat you,” said Alexis. “Catrina is.”

Catrina grinned up at the demon. “Flying won’t save you,” she said fiercely.

Alexis eyes grew large and her mouth fell open at the most amazing and graceful attack she had ever witnessed. The icicle designs on Catrina’s armor seemed to ignite in some sort of blue/white energy as her sword flared brightly.

Catrina launched herself in a graceful spinning and tumbling motion that would be the envy of any acrobat or dance performer. Her sword came down with the roar of an avalanche as it impacted on one of Barafu’s wings, cleaving it from his body in a massive shower of liquid black gore.

Barafu roared out his pain and frustrations as he stumbled backwards and dropped to the ground from the serious injury caused by the blow. The blizzard immediately stopped, and the surviving minor demons looked on with trepidation obvious on their ugly faces.

Catrina immediately launched herself from Barafu’s shoulder to the ground directly in front of him. What Alexis saw was one of the most artistically graceful sword attacks she had ever in her life witnessed. Speed, precision, and grace flowed smoothly as Catrina carved Barafu into huge chunks covered in black gooey mess which splattered all around the pristine white.

Catrina did a triple back flip away from the gory mess that was Barafu to land as softly as a butterfly next to Alexis. What was left of Barafu dissolved away into the usual demonic ebony black vapor and vanished.

The remainder of the demons feld through another firey rip in reality. When it sealed, the storm had stopped. It was still sub-zero weather, as was befitting the current northerly location, but none of the magically induced weather remained.

Alexis commented, “Well, girl. Now who is trying to convince me they aren’t a Meta-Wizard Weapons Master?”

Only then did Catrina stop and assess what she had just done. She was a master swordswoman, true, but what she had just done went way beyond anything she had ever accomplished before. It was something that would have made her grandfather and father extremely proud.

Alexis said as she wiped off the blade of her Angel Wing Sword, “Apparently we are both Metas, whether we like it or not, or whatever our definition of that word might be.”

“And believe it or not, we still have to get to the Castle of Bone and face whatever this Test might be,” said Catrina.

“Yes, because like it or not, the world is still plagued by evil and demons,” said Alexis. “OK, then. Let’s find the Castle. It has to be on this island. Most likely higher up the mountain.”

Alexis renewed her spells of protection against the icy cold, but now there was only natural cold to defend against. The two continued blazing a trail upward through the icy crags.

Soon they saw it. The rising sun gleamed off the storm-polished white of an enormous horned skull with jaws full of teeth, and as they got closer they could see that it was atop a vast white structure. As they drew closer still, they realized that this structure was only the gatehouse of a larger one, ringed with crenelated towers, all seemingly constructed of bleached white dragon bones, held together with some sort of mortar.

They continued climbing; the problem with large structures far away is that it’s hard to tell how far away they are. At one point there was no alternative but for Catrina to throw a grappling hook that Alexis had cast a piercing spell on, causing it to affix itself to the rocky mountainside far above, and this allowed them to climb the rope to a higher ledge. “Whew!” said Alexis. “Glad I started exercising with you!”

The way became more treacherous and extremely sheer. The grapple hook and line were no longer usable due to the sheer distance to the top of the next cliff. Also, it seemed some sort of force kept knocking it down when Alexis tossed it with the magical spell.

Catrina, being more agitated, decided to try something a bit different. She dug in her pack for a bit and brought out an expandable entrenching tool. Alexis looked at Catrina and asked, “What are you going to do with that? Make steps?”

Catrina laughed as she replied, “Something like that, but just a bit more elaborate than just notches in the cliff face.”

Catrina brought out several pouches with enchanting powders and a small crystal bowl. She measured several quantities of each powder before she started chanting the incantation. Alexis knew exactly what was going on and brought out her vial of the juice of the hydrogen tree’s berry and poured it into the bowl.

There was a huge roaring flash as Catrina took the bowl and poured the boiling miasma all over the entrenching tool. It went to work quickly as the girls watched. When it had done, there was a shelf ladder leading all the way up to the top of the sheer peak. Each step was wide enough for both women to sit or stand when ever they chose.

Catrina started the climb, “Best get to it. It’s a long way up and it might even be getting dark soon, not real sure how far north we are.”

Alexis looked around. The sun had stayed near the horizon all day and seeming now was sinking behind one of the distant mountains. “I agree,” she said as she started to climb. “I hope the ground’s level above that cliff ledge, so we can walk.”

The girls climbed for what seemed like hours. By the time they had reached the high precipice, they had more or less followed the sinking sun. It was not yet dark since they now were above the mountain in the distance that had been obstructing the daylight, but it also wasn’t very light.

Alexis finally reached the top and crawled over the ledge, then helped Catrina up. The women stood and stretched as they looked around. Off in the near distance were the red glowing eyes of Thermatrax in the huge skull above the gatehouse door.

They covered the distance as they trudged through the knee-deep snow. When they got within a hundred yards of the gate, a booming voice spoke. “A question is asked and an answer given. Those who miss will out be driven. Those who answer are in the know, within they can go.”

Catrina spat on the ground, “Darn, another of those idiotic rhymes.”

Alexis replied, “Don’t fret. I’m sure we can answer, or we would not have been chosen.” She looked up at the huge skull with the glowing eyes and shouted, “Ask your stupid question.”

There came something that sounded like a deep rumbling laugh, then it asked, “I have four legs and run all day to nowhere. I have teeth but do not chew. All the day I see that which comes and goes, all the while motionless.”

Alexis looked at Catrina, who shrugged.

Catrina said, “That sounds like the statue fountain of that fierce critter on the pedestal in front of the Hall of Knowledge.”

There was a large creaking boom, and the doors opened before them, showing a large courtyard.

The voice said, “Two have you completed, but beware the third.”

They entered the gatehouse. Just the courtyard inside the gatehouse was big. Nothing, of course, kept the ground within from being covered in knee-deep snow. There was another gate at the other end. They trudged through the snow to the inner gate. “So climbing the mountain was the first test,” said Alexis. “A test of endurance and perhaps some ingenuity? Maybe some teamwork? Then the next was a riddle, but it was more a test of identity, because the answer was something only the Chosen would know – or Keepers of Knowledge, I suppose. What could the third be?”

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon,” said Catrina. “We’re officially inside the Castle of Bone.”

“You know, demons can fly,” said Alexis. “I’ve been wondering why they haven’t just flown up here and taken the Sword, or the treasure, or whatever is here.”

“That’s a good point,” said Catrina. “The demons don’t want the Meta Guild reformed. They’d do anything to prevent it. Why not just steal the Sword?”

They reached the inner gate. It was a portcullis, but Catrina simply cast a spell to increase her strength and lifted it up, allowing both of them through, then letting it drop again once they were inside. There was a central keep across another courtyard, but at the center of that space was a low stone column, and in the center of it, a sword was lodged, blade downward. The hilt was elaborate, and the blade was engraved with fine traceries.

“Could that be –” Alexis asked. “Why would it still be here? Any demon could just have flown up and taken it.”

“Well, maybe it’s got wards against demons, or maybe the castle does,” said Catrina as they walked quickly toward it.

“Careful,” said Alexis as Catrina reached out to touch it. She cast a spell, muttering ancient words of seeing the unseen. “I’m … well, I’m sensing quite a bit of magic from and around it, but I’m not getting anything like a curse. Just … something strange.”

“All right, then,” said Catrina, reaching out to take the sword’s hilt in her hand.

Her fingers closed on empty air. All they felt was each other. She blinked. The sword was right there. She tried again, but again her hand passed right through it.

“Hm,” said Alexis. “Interesting.” She waved her hand at the sword. It passed right through as well, as if the sword weren’t there, but they both saw it, plain as day. “Yet not an illusion. It’s there, but it’s not. Now we know why the demons haven’t stolen it.”

“They … can’t,” said Catrina. “Of course, we can’t take it either.”

“Not unless we can solve this,” said Alexis. “The third test. Figure out how to actually take the Sword when it’s both here and not.”

“How can that be?” asked Catrina. “Here and not here?”

“I … am not sure,” Alexis said. She thought. And she thought some more.

Alexis and Catrina brought out the necklace the Keeper had given them and looked at it. They brought the two of them together and tapped them. A soft glow appeared and the woman dressed in the very ornate outfit appeared and smiled at them.

The Keeper looked at Alexis and said, “For this, I cannot help you or offer any knowledge that you do not already have.”

Alexis snorted and replied angrily, “What knowledge have I that can allow me to take an item that exists in several places and no place at the same time?”

Before the image of the Keeper dissolved it replied in a mysterious tone, “You have always had the answer.”

Catrina looked at Alesis and said, “Always? What possible answer could we have always had?”

Alexis noticed something. She took out the necklace that had been around her neck when her step-parents had found her and looked at it. The soft glow within it had now become what looked like a raging inferno. It cast bright blue light all around. “I’ve … always had this,” she said.

Catrina said, “I have never seen that thing do that before.”

Alexis replied in wonder, “Neither have I. I would think that somehow, this has something to do with our getting that stupid sword.”

Catrina knelt down next to the stone the blade of the sword appeared to be buried in and brushed some of the dirt from its side. Alexis eyes grew wide as she too knelt beside Catrina.

“Look there,” said Alexis, pointing to some arcane writing that became apparent as the dirt was brushed away. “This is Elvin script,” she said softly.

Catrina asked, “Can you read it? Or do you at least have something to translate it with in one of those books you have?”

Alexis replied as she ran her hand lightly over the script, “I can actually read this. Roughly speaking, it says: “From the mind of babies comes the foundations upon which all reality is made.”

Catrina sat back and wrapped her arms around her legs, “What is that supposed to mean?”

Alexis looked at her necklace one more time. “This is the Sword of Babygaard. It would seem to me that only an infant can remove it from the stone.”

Alexis had an overpowering urge to put the brightly glowing stone to the middle of her forehead. She did so, and there was a blindly bright blue flash. Where Alexis had been standing, there was now an adorable little toddler elfette as cute as any button.

Catrina realized with a start that she had been caught in some sort of magical fallout of the transformation, because she too was a little human toddler.

Alexis wasted no time as she toddled up to the hilt of the sword and took hold. This time, the hilt was actually in her hand. She realized as she tugged and pulled that she alone didn’t have the strength to remove it from its resting place. She tried to ask Catrina for help, but all that came from her mouth were baby noises – and what was more, the fragments of words that she was producing were barely recognizable even by a speaker of Elvin.

Catrina heard Alexis making sounds, though, and turned her head. She realized what was going on, toddled to the stone, and took hold of the hilt. Catrina felt a tingle of surprise as a warm pulsating sensation throbbed all through her. Then, at the same time Alexis did it, she pulled hard. With a sliding ringing sound, the two toddlers fell over onto their bottoms with the sword in their hands. Suddenly there was another bright blue flash, and they both had returned to their normal ages, with the sword still solidly in their hands.

“I … we … did we get it?” asked Alexis, unconsciously adjusting her jacket. Their clothes had shifted in position on their bodies, as if the fabric had been stretched to great size and then shrunk again, although in reality their clothes had transformed with them and then transformed back again.

“We … we did!” said Catrina, standing up and holding the sword up, looking at it closely. “I … I’ve never held its equal, not even in one of my father’s masterpieces. This was made by a legendary master weaponsmith of the ages,” she said with awe in her voice. “They were a Meta, all right.”

Alexis examined the sword too. “That blade – it’s made of crystalline mytherium. Forged crystalline mytherium. I didn’t even know that was possible. The art of such work must have been forgotten millennia ago for every mention of it to have been lost from the literature. And … it’s even inlaid.” Indeed, there were fine traceries of gold inlaid into the crystal, looking as if they were part of a larger engraving or image. “I think … it’s part of a scene, a place.”

“Well …” began Catrina, “what now?”

“Now, I imagine,” said Alexis, looking around, “we probably should investigate the rest of the Castle. There might be more finds here that could tell us what we should do next. If we can get into the inner keep, the ancient Metas might have left some magical messages, or some carvings at the very least.”

“All right, then,” Catrina said, continuing to hold onto the sword. “I’m still expecting a demonic welcoming party at any second.”

“Yes, be ready for anything,” Alexis said. “It simply isn’t like the demons to just sit back and let us walk away with that sword – assuming they have a choice. The legend says it banishes them forever, so they may simply not want to risk coming near.”

The two walked toward the central keep’s gate, keeping their eyes peeled for anything that moved. Alexis cast another spell to detect demons and their fell sorcery, not wanting to be ambushed by one of their fiery rifts suddenly opening.

When they reached the gate, they saw it was twice as tall as either of them, and in the center of the huge doors was an indentation shaped exactly like the sword.

“Guess only someone who’s able to take the sword and bring it over here can open these doors,” said Catrina, and held the sword up to the indentation, pressing it in.

There was a glow from behind the doors that brightened to a blaze of pure white light, and the doors gently opened to let them in. A calm voice, sounding like that of an elderly woman, said, “Welcome, Chosen Ones. You have come far, and bested the trials. Please keep the Sword close by you, for the powers of darkness will surely assail you soon. But for now, enter, be welcome, and hear the last words of the Meta Guild.”

“Are you hearing this?” asked Catrina as she entered, taking the sword with her. “She’s speaking ancient Erdasian. My father taught it to me.”

“I’m hearing her speak Elvin,” said Alexis, “and an ancient dialect of it, at that. I’ve never heard it … I’ve only read of it. Yet I understand it perfectly.”

The two of them walked into the bright light, and the doors quietly closed behind them. Catrina’s instincts told her to ensure that she had an exit, and she could see that the doors did in fact have handles and an unlocking mechanism on the inside.

Their eyes adjusted, and they saw beautiful stonework: a fountain with an intricate statue of a sculptor carving the statue of himself, exquisitely carved stairways ascending on either side of the fountain, meeting on a balcony above, the balustrades seamlessly constructed of shining white marble. There was a huge crystal chandelier on the ceiling, producing the bright light via some magical means; there were no flames, just glittering diamonds.

“Chosen Ones,” said the voice, “please ascend the stairs and be welcome in the room that has been prepared for you. Here we have left what we could give you, to prepare you for the task that lies ahead of you.”

Alexis took the left staircase while Catrina took the right, meeting at the top, where another pair of doors opened wide. The voice continued, “The Hall of Knowledge is now fully open to you, for you have passed the tests. But here is the Hall of Wisdom.” The doors opened to a large rotunda; they stood on a mezzanine that surrounded it, and across from them and to their left and right, as well as right in front of them, stairs descended to the circular floor below. The mezzanine contained doors to other rooms. The open floor was currently empty, but the voice said, “Descend the steps to the Hall of Wisdom, and what is needed will appear for you.”

Alexis and Catrina looked at each other and stepped down, at the same time, setting foot on the floor of the open area simultaneously.

“First,” said the voice, “you shall need this.” A scabbard appeared before them, intricately decorated and worked. It floated in the air until Catrina reached out to take it, carefully sliding the Sword into it. It fit perfectly.

The voice said specifically to Catrina, “You are a Weapons Meta-Wizard. To this end shall you now wield the Sword of Babygaard. With this.” A beautiful set of softly blue/white glowing ornate armor appeared. The craftsmanship was beyond anything Alexis or Catrina had ever beheld before and was obviously crafted specifically for a woman. “You shall now take your rightful place as Meta Weapons Master of the Meta-Wizard Guild. The darkness that the demon realm forced upon the land will now end at your and the Meta-Mage’s hand.”

A very beautiful and masterfully crafted set of armor appeared. It glowed with a soft and ethereal white light. The voice now obviously spoke to Alexis. “And you, daughter of the most high priestess of Elvin magic. You shall now take your place as the Most High Meta-Wizard of Magic. It was a hard thing to hide you and save you from the ambush. We apologise to both of you for the lack of knowledge you were given in advance of your roles in this plan.”

A speck of light then suddenly grew in size until an Elvin woman, a reptilian looking individual, a bearded Dwarf, and a human man, all dressed in very finely crafted outfits, appeared. “We are what was the Council. There are others who should be in this; however, they were the ones who kept you and Elest alive at the time we made this, and were occupied with the spells necessary. The Orb of Foretelling’s prophecy of who you would be and your being chosen from birth enabled us to protect you so far in advance.”

Alexis sputtered in frustration, “Wha … Wh … Why in all of this mess couldn’t you have at least trained us or left some type of message somewhere?”

The woman laughed as she held out a small very ornately carved box Alexis was very familiar with. “We did,” she said. “We also left you with your house tattoo and the necklace that was the key to the sword. We also left detailed scrolls in this box with everything you needed to know as you grew up if those responsible for your well-being lost contact with you.”

The man spoke up and said softly, “As for training? Why, child, you and your companion had the very best training anyone could have. Your companion’s father was the Weapons Guild’s Master Weaponsmith. Her grandfather was the Head Weapons Master of the Weapons Guild. How many mages were also willing to teach the both of you any of their crafts? I tell you, none alive today are as skilled as the two of you in all the arts.”

“Now all that remains are three tasks,” said the reptilian being. “You must, of course, drive the demons back to the infernal realms from which they came. You must stop the dragon rampaging across the Midlands. And you must recruit new members for the new Guild of Meta.”

“Nothin’ says ye hafta do ‘em in that order, o’course,” said the Dwarf, and the rest of them nodded. “It’s up tae ye now.”

“We are … not exactly here,” said the Elf. “We can only address you because the Orb of Foretelling told us who you would be, and where, and when – and a few of the questions you would ask.”

“All right then,” said Catrina. “How do we use the Sword?”

“The Sword is most powerful for the most innocent,” the Elf said, “for when there is no taint of evil in the soul, the forces of darkness have no power.”

“The thing’s a funny weapon,” the Dwarf said. “Ye don’t exactly hit ‘em with it.”

The human advised, “The Sword’s a mighty defense against evil. You can block with it – block just about anything, really.”

“But,” said the reptilian being, “to attack with it, one must not attack. I know this sounds like a riddle. But when the sword’s power is at its strongest, you need do nothing, for evil will vanquish itself.”

“Oh – also the armor will help protect ye,” the Dwarf added. “We threw that in in case the devils decided to try chuckin’ bloody great rocks at ye or somethin’, instead o’ tryin’ to zap ye with evil black magic. The armor’s magicked to fit ye automatically an’ move with ye.”

“I want to know,” said Alexis, “are there any of us left? The Elves? Am I the last? Are we extinct?”

“The Orb of Foretelling is not telling us the answer to that question,” replied the Elf. “And that in itself tells us something. I can assure you that there are Elves remaining, for if there were none, the Orb would tell us that. But they are using their magic to hide themselves. It works so well that the demons cannot find them – unfortunately, that means that neither can we.”

“At least we know the Dwarves still survive,” said Catrina, “within their mountain fortresses.”

“Aye, it’d take the end o’ the world and the final battle tae bring the fastnesses o’ the Dwarves down,” the Dwarf said. “But that’s a long, long way down the road.”

“There’s one other matter,” said the human. “We know that getting here wasn’t cheap, and you might have a crew to pay. That’s why, well, we left this.” A large iron-bound wooden chest appeared, with a key in its lock. The key turned, and the lid sprang open to reveal that it was full of gold and silver coins and rare gemstones.

“Garth and the crew will finally be happy they came along,” said Catrina. “Well, that and the fact that they get the ship and all the gold and jewels we rescued from the ghost ship when this is over.”

“Just remember,” said the reptilian being, “not only can you each combine many disciplines, you can also combine powers with each other.”

“Yes, like how I put that dispelling magic on her sword,” said Alexis.

“The Orb of Foretelling said that you would do something of the sort against the demons that stood in your way to get here,” the dragon continued, “but you will need to be even more creative with such tactics in the future. And you will. For you have gotten this far.”

“We have faith in you,” said the human. “Go get ‘em!”

“Show nae fear,” said the Dwarf. “The devils are the ones who’ll fear ye.”

“Indeed, fear is a creation of evil,” said the Elf. “Banish fear, for innocence knows it not. Demons cannot understand the absence of evil, for they can only imagine a world where evil holds sway.”

“I sense that you’re saying goodbye,” said Alexis. “But there’s so much more to ask.”

“Alas, our time was over long ago,” said the Elf. “But your time is now.” The image appeared to gesture towards a far wall. The glowing outline of a magical portal appeared glittering and sparkling. “I am sure the way here was frozen and fraught with demons and perilous climbs. The way through that portal is far shorter, warmer, less fraught with demons, and no need to climb.”

A flash of light, and the images of the Metas vanished, leaving Catrina and Alexis standing dressed in their new resplendent outfits. Both women were absolutely beautiful and it was more than obvious, this armor was made by a Master Meta Craftsman.

Alexis walked to the large chest. She reached into a pouch still hug about her middle and removed a small amount of sparkling powder. As she sprinkled a bit of it all over the chest she said, “This Pixie Dust should make the chest almost weightless.” after she finished and closed the pouch back she turned and looked at Catrina, “I need to find some way to read the scrolls in the chest at Mom and Dad’s hut. I am more than positive it will answer many of my questions and a lot of yours on top.”

Catrina helped Alexis carry the chest. It was no longer heavy, but by sheer size, it was awkward and ungainly to carry. Both women stepped through the portal to suddenly find themselves on the deck of the Mermaid’s Return. The men all stood with open-mouthed incredulity at the sight of them.

A huge grin crossed Garth’s face as he realized who it was. He jumped up and shouted loudly for all to hear, “Men, they have returned triumphant! It appears they have successfully completed the quest!”

A large cheer rose as Garth patted both women on their backs and shook their hands.

Alexis said, “We also have this chest. It’s full of coins and gemstones. I’m going to put it in the hold with the rest of the treasure. You guys can divide it up. All we’re going to take is the scrolls, which I think are some important lore that I’ll have to translate.”

The men started fussing. They didn’t agree with that – they wanted to more or less bury the women in jewels, figuratively speaking, because without them, none of this would have happened. They managed to convince Catrina and Alexis to take equal portions of the treasure, the same portions the crew members were getting.

The first mate shouted down the stairs to the cook, “Hey, Cookie. Throw the best on the fire, our prodigal sojourners have returned.”

His voice was heard replying, “Aye, Mr. MacInnes, already doin’ it.”

By the time the men and the two women had stored the chest and Alexis had removed the Pixie Dust spell of levitation, the wonderful aroma of cooking meat and fish permeated the air. The intermingled smells of freshly-baked bread enhanced the tummy rumbles and mouth waterings.

One of the men commented as he and several others arranged a makeshift table on the foredeck, “I am glad those heat runes of yours are still around. From the looks of our surroundings, it’s nasty cold, and another blizzard is approaching.”

Catrina and Alexis looked over the side of the ship. Off in the near distance they could see a massive wall of approaching dark clouds, high winds, and blowing snow.

“I doubt those demons are done with us,” said Alexis, “but it could also just be a natural storm.”

“Aye,” said MacInnes, “we’re certainly far enough north for that.”

“Well, just in case,” said Catrina, “I’ll be sure I’m prepared.”

“As will I,” said Alexis. “I’m not out of tricks, and now we’ve got a few more.”

There was time for a meal, and the men took it in shifts to eat and to man the rigging as Garth pointed the prow southward. “We might be able to get out of that storm’s way, or at least out of the way of its center. And the farther south we are, the less of a blizzard it’ll be and the more of a rainstorm,” said the captain.

“I wonder if there’s a way to make the wind blow in our favor,” said Alexis. “That’s not something I’d picked up, and I knew there was no point asking the Metas for knowledge about that on the way to the Castle because getting there had to be part of the tests, but … well, we’ve been there.”

“Can’t hurt,” said Catrina, and took out her crystal. She and Alexis touched their pendants together, and … after a flash of light, both of them sat there blinking for a moment.

“Anythin’?” asked MacInnes.

“Sort of?” Catrina replied.

Alexis said, “Well, it’s like this. Magic can make things move, even ships, and air. But if you want to move all the air it takes to fill the sails and make this ship move, you might as well just make the ship move. After all, a lot of that air misses the sails and doesn’t move the ship at all.”

“Wait, but air doesn’t weigh anything,” said one of the men.

“Oho!” said MacInnes. “So air doesn’t weigh anything, eh? How’s it move a bloody great ship, then? Course it weighs somethin’. Just takes a lot of it to make up as much weight as you or me, or a ship.”

“How much does a pound of feathers weigh?” asked Alexis with a grin. MacInnes laughed.

“So, we can move the ship,” said Catrina. “Faster than the wind. But … once we’re ready, you’ll have to lower all the sails.”

The nearby sailors were catching on. “... Because if we’re going faster than the wind, the sails’ll slow us down!”

“Now you’re getting it,” said Alexis. “So we’re going to do some conjuration prep work here, and I’m going to make sure the wards against evil magic are still in place, and then we’ll tell you when it’s time to lower sail.”

“Got it,” said MacInnes. “I’ll tell the captain.”

“Good, let’s get to work,” said Catrina. “The Hall of Knowledge people told both of us what we have to do.”

So both Catrina and Alexis started mixing pigments in oils and painting symbols on the deck and hull of the ship. The crew lowered them on wooden seats, just feet above the waves, to paint on the outside of the hull. The symbols weren’t writing; they were patterns of color and shape. The work took hours, and as they kept painting, the storm behind them kept coming, but it did look as if they were moving away from the center of its path.

Finally, the two adventurers were done. The ship appeared to be oddly decorated, but Alexis said, “It’s all for the sake of magic. MacInnes, is the course plotted?”

“Aye, as best I can,” he said. “Most o’ what we know of these seas we mapped ourselves. We can avoid smashin’ the hull on that waypoint stickin’ out of the water, but what else may be out there is anyone’s guess. We can retrace our steps, though.”

“Good enough. We’ll be going faster this time,” said Alexis. “This is a lot like conjuring the ship itself, but instead of bring the ship here from nowhere, we’re bringing it from here to there.”

“I … almost understood that,” said Garth.

“Actually … I did understand that,” said MacInnes. “Hope I’m not turnin’ into a wizard.”

“Why not?” asked Catrina. “It’s not so bad.”

“Are the men ready?” Garth asked.

“Aye, just waitin’ for yer word, Captain,” MacInnes said. Indeed, the sailors looked ready to spring into action.

“Good, then,” said Alexis, “I’ll finish the spell when the sails are down.”

Garth nodded. “Lower all sail!” he bellowed, and the men got to work, taking all the sheets down and stowing them. It didn’t take them long. Soon the masts were bare, only the rigging ropes hanging from them.

“Brace yourselves!” shouted MacInnes, and Alexis now sprang into action, using her Angel Wing Sword as a ritual object and going through a number of arcane gestures and movements as she chanted the ancient words she had learned. At times she would strike the deck in the center of one of the geometric diagrams with the pommel of the sword, and at other times she made sweeping aft-to-fore motions in the air with the blade. Finally, her voice reached a crescendo, and she leaped forward off the aft deck, landing with her feet in the center of one of the deck designs, her sword pointed forward …

… And the ship lurched forward as if it had caught a gale wind, except no sails hung from the masts. Garth steered, his teeth gritted, the rudder now the only way to control the ship’s direction. The lookout in the crow’s nest hung on for dear life. The ship’s prow split the waves, churning up foam and sending it flying to either side.

Sheathing her sword, Alexis returned to the aft deck next to Garth and Catrina. “Nice!” said Catrina. “I was hoping all that painting would do something.”

“I knew some of this already, but the Hall of Knowledge put me on the right track,” Alexis said. “I get the impression that they’d done this before, but possibly not for the best of reasons.”

“Imagine a fleet of warships with this kind of speed,” said Garth as he held the wheel firm. “They could outrun any pursuit, catch any quarry, attack any port before they even knew they were coming. Was the ancient world … like that?”

“I’d like to tell you yes or no,” said Alexis, “but we really don’t have a lot of information. So much was lost.”

“One thing, though,” said Catrina. “The Meta Guild kept the world pretty much free of demons. So it’s likely that a lot of this kind of thing was done to keep the demons away.”

“I think there was still some war between, well, people,” said Alexis. “Demons make war more likely, but they’re not the only reason wars happen.”

“How’s the storm, MacInnes?” asked Garth.

“With this kind o’ speed, Sir, it’ll be lucky to land a snowflake on the deck,” MacInnes said, emerging from the chart room. “Chart says three degrees to port, Cap’n.”

“Three degrees to port … check,” said Garth, adjusting the wheel slightly.

The men didn’t have much to do. After ensuring the spars were stowed to what was now leeward – the wind was now effectively always coming from the fore end of the ship – they marveled at this way of traveling for a while, until they’d gotten used to the idea. One of them took out a concertina and started playing some jigs from his home country, and others started showing off their dance steps.

This was, it turned out, not an entirely trouble-free way to travel. Garth started to tire, so he and MacInnes set up a rotation, not so much to change the course as to keep the wheel from turning, because if it went too far from straight on they had a good chance of snapping off the rudder. And they had to sleep sometime – the spell didn’t stop just because night fell.

“How long does this spell last, Alexis?” Catrina asked. “This seems crazy powerful.” There were still some flashes of lightning from that storm far behind in the distance, but they could only see them because it was dark. The sky above was filled with stars, and that had allowed MacInnes to take a sighting and ensure the accuracy of their course before he’d gone to get some sleep.

“It’s drawing on the energy of wind and wave,” said Alexis. “It lasts until we cancel it, or until the glyphs are erased.”

“What if we run aground?”

“Then the deck ruptures, and that counts as erasing the glyphs,” said Alexis. “But we’ll cancel it before that happens and switch back to regular old wind and sail.”

The trip back to the island of Pirios was sort of uneventful except for a few annoying imps that harassed them along the way. Once they made landfall to gather more fruits, things changed a bit.

As soon as the longboat touched the shore, a huge, vile-smelling, and incredibly ugly ogre stomped to the beach and bellowed, brandishing its nasty excuse for a sword.

Catrina drew the Magic Sword of Babygaard, and instantly there was an adorable toddler standing where she had stood. A very bright and pure light flashed from the sword, and the ogre wasnt smelly, ill tempered, nor even an ogre anymore. Instead there stood a bewildered-looking island native, a young man who looked around in confusion, dropping the twisted and jagged piece of metal the ogre had been using as a weapon.

All stood in open-mouthed awe at what had transpired. Garth asked, “Did she just … turn into a little kid?”

Alexis commented, “It’s the holy power of innocence that stops the darkness. This is pretty amazing. Normally the only way to stop an ogre is just to kill it. I’ve never seen an ogre purified before.”

MacInnes said, “Now wait, are all ogres just people who were corrupted by evil?”

“Not all of them,” explained Alexis. “That is how the first ogres came to be, but then ogres … multiplied, just as all creatures do. Their offspring are little more than animals. But … this man was a poor hapless islander who was corrupted by demonic forces. We should find out whether it happened recently.” She went up to the man and started asking him questions in the language of the people of the nearby islands.

Catrina giggled, then returned to her normal self with a flash of light and sheathed the Magic Sword.

“Are you … all right?” Garth asked.

“I feel great, actually!” Catrina said, her voice full of energy. “My heart feels like it’s full of divine light! Did you know that you and MacInnes are Metas? It’s true!”

“We’re what now?” asked MacInnes.

“You’re Metas, people who seek mastery of whatever craft they turn their hands to and … hey, you know this already,” Catrina said, seeming to come back to herself. “Don’t pretend not to know. It won’t protect you from the demons anyway. They just know.”

“That man’s only been corrupted for a few weeks,” said Alexis, walking back to the group. “We didn’t see him when he was here before, but of course we didn’t stay here long. I know this island pretty well, and I think I know where he’s been hiding. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go there and make sure there aren’t more ogres, and make sure he’ll be all right.”

“OK, I’ll help,” said Catrina.

“I’ll come too,” said Garth. “Any of the men who want to come along can come as well, but I’m not going to make it an order. We should be able to handle it, right?”

“It appears that the warring islanders who were here before have left the island, at least for now,” said Alexis. “Now there’s nobody here but the ogres.”

“There are more ogres?” asked Garth.

“At least a few,” said Alexis. “But if Catrina does the same thing, they won’t stay ogres for long. It’s this way.” She started leading the way inland through the trees.

“I guess it’s follow or not,” said Garth. “Coming, MacInnes?”

“Thinkin’ about it … aye, I’ll come. I’ll tell the men what we’re doin’.”

They began to search the island. They found a place that used to be a village. From the looks of things, it hadn’t been long ago that it was occupied by humans, although evidence of ogre population was everywhere.

Garth said, “I think we need to be getting back to the beach.”

Alexis replied as she began to run towards the beach, “I agree. I believe they are after the ship.”

The group all hurried back towards the beach. Before they got there, the sounds and horrid smell of many ogres filled the air. Catrina burst from the foliage and shouted, “Fear me, you ugly things!” as she drew the sword of Babyguaard once again.

Once again, a toddler stood where Catrina was and the large pure white flash of light. Suddenly no more ogres stood, but many confused islanders who looked all around in fear.

Alexis frowned, however. Quietly, she said to MacInnes, who happened to be standing nearby, “If there are this many corrupted ogres and none who were born that way … then they all must be recent. Whatever corrupted them could still be here on this island. We can’t leave it here. It’ll corrupt more people.”

“How d’ye know none were born that way?” asked MacInnes in a low tone.

“There’s nothing human in that kind of ogre,” replied Alexis softly. “If that kind were purified, they would just … boil away into black smoke.”

“What corrupted them, then?” MacInnes asked. “What are we looking for?”

“Could be either a demon, or a curse left by a demon,” Alexis answered. “I can cast some detection spells to make both easier to find. The curse could be on a place or an item. That village we found is probably the best place to start looking.”

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

After a good night’s sleep, the search party arose and began to make preparations. Alexis wore her very cute and sexy new armor as did Catrina. The men were all complimentary over the new armor too. None had ever seen its like. Quality and skill were beyond anything any armorer had accomplished in their memory.

Alexis had made a whole new set of bows and their accompanying quivers of arrows. They were a recurved type of bow none had seen before. They weren’t longbows, but had power and range beyond their mighty longbows and shot smoothly without hand shock on release, making them extremely accurate and hard-hitting over long distances.

The arrow shafts were made of some type of crystal, and they were tipped with magical mytherium heads. The men knew that their quarry this day, if it was a creature, would more than likely be a creature only magic could overcome, and these bows and arrows were just the ticket.

After Catrina and Alexis had discussed, fussed, and argued, over it, they created complete sets of magical mytherium armor for the rest of the crew. The girls were determined not to loose any of the brave men. The only argument was over how exactly to do it.

“Our two basic options, magically speaking, are conjuring the armor from scratch, or duplicating what we already have,” said Alexis.

“You can duplicate our armor?” asked Catrina incredulously.

“I can duplicate its material and shape,” said Alexis. “But not the magic on it. That would take a lot longer. There’s another problem, though; they’re made to fit us. And we’re, you know, women.”

“Hmm,” said Catrina. “Well, I guess you could turn the crew into women so the armor would fit them,” she suggested with a giggle.

“Somehow I think there might be some objections,” Alexis said, grinning wryly. “Though perhaps not all of them would object. At any rate, then there’s conjuring it from scratch. The problem is that I’m not an armorer, and frankly neither are you. You know a lot about weaponsmithing, but …”

“You’re right, armorsmithing is a different matter,” said Catrina. “If we had existing armor that fit men, even if it were made of ordinary steel, we could use it as a guide …”

It turned out that Garth had a set of armor for himself. So they presented the crew with a choice: they could get armor like the ladies’ armor, and be temporarily turned into women for the duration – or for good, as far as Alexis was concerned; she didn’t care – or they could get armor like the captain’s, only made of mytherium.

They brought each member of the crew in for a fitting and explained the options. As it turned out, there was only one who chose to be transformed into a woman for the battle ahead, a crew member named Layne Shanks. When they explained the possibilities, he got very quiet and stammered out a question. “I-if I chose … you know, the armor l-like yours … I could be a g-girl for as long as I wanted?”

“Wha -?” asked Catrina, open-mouthed.

“For as long as you wanted, Layne, dear,” said Alexis, nodding sympathetically, taking his hand in one of hers and patting it with her other.

“But …” began Catrina.

“Catrina is right,” Alexis said to Layne. “We’re going to have to make your armor based on Catrina’s, because my body’s got more Elvin proportions, so my armor isn’t likely to fit human women very well. Is that OK?”

“I … s-sure,” said Layne.

“You can turn men into women?” asked Catrina.

“I can turn men into lizards,” said Alexis. “Turning them into women is actually a lot easier, because nobody’s changing species. Are you ready, Layne? The easiest transformation would be to just make you into what you’d be if you’d been born a girl instead of a boy.”

And with that, Alexis intoned a transformation spell while Layne held a golden coin in one hand and a silver coin in the other, after which she was now a bit shorter, as well as curvaceous in figure, but still obviously quite strong, and her black hair was exactly the same length. Her facial shape was more rounded, but it was obviously still the same person. “Wow,” she whispered, as Alexis took the coins back from the stunned girl and put them back into her pack. Alexis then got Elaine, as she decided to call herself, kitted out with a mytherium duplicate of Catrina’s armor, sized to fit, as well as some basic women’s garments she’d need on an everyday basis.

“Now, when this is all over, if you want to go back to being a man, just let me know,” said Alexis. “It’s really not that much trouble. The transformation guild is too conservative and uptight to sanction this kind of thing, but I’ve seen enough to be open-minded.”

“Thank you!” burst Elaine and hugged Alexis quickly, then backed off, blushing. She cleared her throat. “Now back to bein’ a sailor, just a girl one.”

“Wow – you’re still very strong,” Alexis said. “That’s likely because you’re still a sailor, just a female one. Hauling ropes day in and day out will make anybody strong. But good luck, sailor!”

“If they get fresh, just kick ‘em where it counts,” said Catrina. Elaine giggled, then left.

“She’s always been a quiet one,” said Alexis. “I always kind of wondered.”

But Elaine was the only one who took that option. The rest opted for duplicates of Garth’s armor, which Alexis magically sized to fit them, which was especially good for Yuri, who was nearly seven feet tall and built like a Harasian gorilla. The last was Garth himself, who got armor exactly like his, except made of mytherium.

Garth said to MacInnes as they donned their new armor for the hunt, “I wish we had this when we fought the Mountain’s Keep battle. This is amazing stuff. I barely feel its weight. My regular armor’s like carrying an anvil with me wherever I go.”

MacInnes replied as he finished fastening his new sword to his back for easy access, “Me too – would have been a lot fewer losses on our side, and we would have won the day faster.”

Garth stood on the raised aft deck and addressed the crew members who were chosen to be part of the team, “Men – and ladies – this day we search for something not of humankind and more than likely extremely powerful. We have seen what it can do to a man: turn them into a hideous creature that’s almost mindless. With the aid of our newly crowned Metas, and their exquisite gifts, I know we will prevail.”

A loud roaring cheer rose from the many men, and one woman, as they waved their new bows, swords, and other magical weapons they had chosen to carry.

MacInnes said, “It’s time to hunt. Remember, we could be seeking a demon. If we are, it is not flesh and blood and can appear at will anywhere it chooses. Stay together, and keep your wits about you.”

The eager crew once again cheered as they slung their daypacks across their shoulders and began climbing down the nets hung down the side of the ship into the longboats waiting below.

After they had landed and the gathering party began collecting the many and wonderful fruits available, the hunting party began their search. Many places the brush was so thick several of the crew had to use their swords to blaze a trail through it.

Alexis had cast her spell of divination to search for the dark magic. Unfortunately, the whole island had become permeated with it, proving that the minions of darkness were not only here, but here in fortified numbers. “So much for ‘there might still be a demon here,’” she said. “There are definitely demons here, and no shortage of them, either.”

It wasn’t long before one of those nasty brimstone-smelling fiery rifts opened and three large fire tornados appeared. One went left, one went to the right, and one came straight for them.

From the spinning flames came a massive group of something that looked like large bats, only with sharp, slavering fangs and claws. Instinctively, Alexis and Catrina each drew two of the Isofaren shurikens and tossed them at the lead critters.

The sound of an erupting volcano was heard for an instant before the area filled with splattering liquid dark. Several of the men with bows who had knelt and drawn their weapons were splattered. It smelled horrid.

“Don’t strike out on your own!” shouted Alexis. “Let them come to us. They will. And we’ll deal with them here.”

They had chosen a wide beach area with a good view up into the hills. It wasn’t likely for them to be attacked from behind, and if they were, the ship wasn’t far away. But Alexis pointed to the sea. “Look,” she said, “under the water!”

Glowing rifts were appearing beneath the ocean’s surface, and some sort of aquatic demons were pouring out, surrounding the defenders on the shore as more demons began to descend from the hills.

Alexis shouted, “Catrina! Draw your sword! Do it now!”

Catrina sputtered unintelligibly for an instant before she complied. As her sword cleared its scabbard, and the bright pure light of infanthood burst out, several of the less intelligent minions had jumped towards Catrina who was now an adorable toddler.

Instantly, in a bright puff of horrible smelling inky black smoke, the demons nearest to Catrina vanished. Many of the medium sized ones transformed into nakid men and women who looked around in dazed amazement.

The larger demons dove back into the rift, the last one through didn’t quite make it as he too vanished in a large inky black cloud of smoke before the rift closed.

The demons from the sea apparently were smarter as they lobbed large gooey blobs of some kind of acidic gel at them. Everything the gel touched started to dissolve away. The light of the Babygaard sword kept it from harming the defending party, but the water demons stayed far enough away the light had dissipated before it could harm them.

Alexis said with exasperation, “This is bad. We can’t get close enough with the sword to banish them.”

Several of the men came to the edge of the light bubble and knelt, nocked an arrow, then fired at the water demons from shore. The arrows flew true to their feathers and impacted right on the soft squishy tender parts causing the demons to howl in pain and range.

About that time, a huge swirl of foamy water and a very large water dragon came from the water and attacked. The demons didn’t expect an attack from their rear and about a dozen of them were dissolving away in a cloud of black mist as the water changed color from a pretty blue to a deep black as more and more liquid dark splatted around.

The water elemental demons that remained didn’t want to have anything to do with the water dragon and sped quickly away in terror.

The crew cheered at the water dragon, and Garth shouted, “We’re going to give that guy some extra apples next time we see him!”

MacInnes noticed that Alexis was staring at the water dragon with wide eyes and an indecipherable expression. “Everything alright?” he asked her, and she blinked and looked at him.

“I … think I have an idea,” said Alexis, “and I think I just realized why the demons hate Metas and want to stop us at all costs. Meta-Wizards are the greatest threat to them that ever existed. Especially now that we have the Sword.”

“Must be a doozy of an idea,” MacInnes said.

“I need a mirror,” said Alexis, rummaging in her pack. “Well, it doesn’t have to be a mirror. It could just be a reflective piece of metal. Well, it could just be a piece of glass. Or shiny stone even. But it has to be something we can cut into pieces. Not fracture. Cut. And give pieces to a lot of people. Or … everyone? First things first. I’m thinking aloud.”

“I can do that, once we get back to the ship,” said MacInnes. “I’ve got scrap metal from lots of things that I can work and polish, and I’ve made some polished metal mirrors. I can cut them, too. There are ways.”

“Excellent,” said Alexis. “A wonderful start. The power the sword emits can only go so far … directly, that is. But a bunch of Metas working together can make it cover the entire world. That’s how we banish them. The entire world! Haha! It’ll be beautiful!”

“You seem … inspired,” MacInnes said. “I wanted to say that Catrina said Garth and I were Metas. I’m not sure how that could be true. But that was when she was still under the effects of the magic sword. She didn’t seem to remember saying it later.”

“Really?” asked Alexis. “Well, keep in mind that a Meta-Wizard is just someone who is a great artisan, unbound by convention. What field is irrelevant. And you can navigate a ship without need for a chronometer. I have no idea how you do that.”

“A … chronometer?” asked MacInnes. “I don’t know what that is. The time is just always obvious to me when I see the stars or the sun.”

“Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing I’d say,” said Alexis. “OK. I feel hopeful, for the first time since we got the label of Meta stuck on us. We might actually be able to do what the prophecies say we’re supposed to do. Not that it’ll be easy.”

Across the beach, Catrina had returned to her normal self. “Who wants to go demon hunting?” she shouted, and the crew cheered and raised their weapons in the air.

Everyone still had Alexis’ evil-detection divination on them, and they could see that the area where they had fought was now bright and clear. Catrina and most of the crew picked a nearby area to work on, and off they went. Meanwhile, Alexis and MacInnes went to work on her idea in the cabin on the ship that he used as both his quarters and workshop.

“What’s that?” Alexis asked as MacInnes took out a tool that looked like a dagger but with a strange shaft instead of a blade and an odd point at its tip.

“It’s a scoring tool that I came up with,” he said. He took his mirror down from the wall; it was a large, flat polished piece of what looked like brass.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Alexis said. “Here, let me start the spell.” She held one hand out parallel to the surface of the mirror, which MacInnes had placed on his workbench. “Once together, always together,” she stated, and her hand glowed with light as she chanted arcane words. The mirror started to glow as well, and it continued to do so after she was finished.

“All right, now what do I do?” asked MacInnes.

“You’re going to cut the mirror up into a lot of tiny pieces,” said Alexis. “They need to be as close to the same size as you can manage, but other than that it doesn’t matter how big. The more of them there are, the better this will work, though.”

“Right, then,” MacInnes said, getting out a metal straightedge and starting to measure, then scored the mirror in a grid pattern with the scoring tool. It left a deep, straight cut in the brass, and soon there was a grid cut deeply into the mirror’s surface. It wasn’t long after that that he had a number of small, square polished mirrors, each the size of his thumbnail. He buffed the edges of them with a file so they weren’t sharp.

“All right, now we give one to each member of the crew. You take one, I’ll take one, and make sure Catrina gets one.”

And that is what they did. Each member of the crew was carrying one of the small brass mirrors the next time Catrina made another foray into the evil-tainted parts of the island, and this time Alexis and MacInnes went along with Catrina and Garth.

Demons seemed to ooze out of the very soil to reach for the crew, but they fought them with their weapons, and their armor protected them. Then Catrina drew the Magic Sword of Babygaard.

Catrina immediately shrank to toddler size and age again, looking at the demons with an uncomprehending gaze that dissolved them to black goo and ashes before even those vanished away. But as this happened, a similar aura shone forth from each of the crew, who were holding a tiny mirror piece in their hands, carrying it in a pouch or pocket, or wearing it on a wristband, armband, or necklace. The range of the sword had just increased dramatically, and now an even larger piece of the island was purified.

“That was great!” Catrina said afterward. “But how do you know that evil can’t get through it? What if a demon got hold of one of the shards?”

“It wouldn’t work,” said Alexis. “They’re imbued with a spell of purity. Only magic that dispels evil can pass through.”

“Nice!” Catrina said. “That means next time you can hold the Sword, and I can go out with the crew and help defeat evil.”

“Wait – but what if –” Alexis began.

“That’s right, you get to be the cute little toddler elfette while I go out there and make extra-thin demon slices,” said Catrina.

One of the men laughed. “Cookie has a large block of nicely aged cheeses in the galley’s food locker.”

Another commented amid the laughter, “Never had a damned sandwich before. Wonder what it would taste like with a bit of lettuce and tomato to go with the cheese?”

Garth replied as he laughed and braced his magic bow, “Probably tastes like hell, if you ask me.” all the men laughed again.

After she had handed the Sword of Babygaard to Alexis, Catrina pointed and said, “Guess we’re gonna find out. Here they come, right on cue.”

The men and Alexis turned in the direction Catrina had pointed. Off in the near distance they saw what looked like a massive boiling jet-black thundercloud rolling along the ground. It was filled with lighting and threw off electrical bolts in all directions that started fires as it rapidly approached.

Alexis drew the Sword of Babygaard. Where she had been standing now stood an adorable toddler elfette holding aloft a sword that looked far too large for her to hold.

The amulets that Alexis had made from the shards of mirror and that all the men and Catrina now wore or carried began to emit the pure white light of innocent infancy. A huge sphere of beautiful bright white light shown all around in a large sphere encompassing the group in a protected area of 1000 yards, and it got even larger as they spread out to approach the dark cloud.

The large cloud immediately stopped approaching before reaching the lightened area and dissipated into hundreds of ugly, foul-smelling ogres brandishing many types of their favorite magical weapons.

The crew members with the bows immediately knelt, stabbing their arrows into the soil and nocking one. The sweet sound of many bowstrings singing was heard over and over as the magic arrows flew true to their feathers and smashed through many of the ogre’s armor causing seriously grave damage.

As amazing as it was, the larger of the ogres brought out slings and began tossing projectiles at the men. Somehow, the projectiles weren’t affected by the light shield and impacted on the men’s magic mythirium armor, knocking several off their feet. It didn’t kill anyone due to the mytherium metal, but it didn’t stop it from hurting on impact. “I suppose the light magic purifies evil things,” said Garth, “but those are just plain ordinary rocks they’re slinging at us.”

Catrina did something all the men were shocked at as she made several hops and then did a spinning leap right into the midst of the horde. Her magical SOL sword was on fire as she swung it in many graceful arcs that would have made her Grandfather proud. The magical mirror charm she wore brought an aura of pure light with her, causing the ogres to recoil and blinding their vision.

As gracefully as any ballerina, Catrina danced, twirled, bounded, and pirouetted among the ogres, slicing them to bloody ribbons as she went, before making a tumbling jump back to the main bubble of light and landing lightly on her feet. Ogres that stayed too close to her for too long started to dissolve into black smoke; these had never been human.

The ogres that had managed to survive the carnage looked at each other for an instant before dropping all their weapons and running in the opposite direction. Catrina was having none of this and charged after them. She and some other crew members harried the ogres all the way out of the valley they had been fighting in, taking several more out with their purification auras.

Once the ogres were gone, Catrina suggested, “How about we spread out around this valley and make sure there’s nothing demonic here, then move on to the jungle to the east?”

“Good idea!” shouted Garth. “Are the ogres going to stay out of purified territory?”

“Well you’d have to ask Alexis for sure,” called Catrina across the battlefield, “but I’m noticing that they’re not coming back into areas we’ve purified. They might if they’re determined to, I’m not sure, but so far, no.”

“Good, well, that means we can hold this beach,” said Garth. “Go get ‘em!”

While Alexis remained an innocent baby elfette back at the ship, Catrina and most of the crew advanced into the jungle. It was easy for them to stay in sight of each other despite the dense foliage, because each one shone like the full moon even in daylight.

“If we push north, we should start approaching that village where we first found ogres,” said Catrina. “Spread the word. Let’s move in that direction. Whatever made the humans into ogres is likely to be there, and if we don’t destroy it, there will just be more ogres.”

So Catrina and the crew moved northward out of the jungle and through the overgrown fields toward the ruins of the village. Now and then they found a corrupted animal like a poison-belching toad or a crane with a needle-sharp beak and black feathers, but contact with the purification aura changed the animals back into ordinary natural creatures.

Through one ruined house after another they searched, sometimes finding an ogre, but it would boil away into black smoke, meaning that it was at least a second-generation ogre if not more. About halfway through the village, Catrina and several others entered the village square, where there was a noxious odor coming from the old stone well. “Something’s down there,” she said, pulling on the old rope that still dangled down into the darkness. “Wonder if there’s still a bucket.” She hauled the rope out of the well and found a rotten old bucket attached to it, with too many holes to hold water but still able to hold something made of tarnished metal. She dumped it out onto the ground. “What’s this, now?”

Catrina and some nearby crew members looked at the object, which seemed to be some sort of old coin or medallion. Looking more closely, it seemed to have some kind of demonic face engraved into it, along with some evil-looking writing. But as Catrina and the others stood near it, their purification auras joined and grew more powerful, and black smoke began coming from the medallion. Once the smoke dissipated, the metal disc was once again bright and polished, apparently made of silver, though it still had the engravings upon it. Catrina risked picking it up; there seemed to be nothing evil about it anymore. “Let’s show this to Alexis when we’re done out here,” she said. “Maybe this will tell her something about this place.”

They continued their sweep of the village’s ruined buildings and their forays into what remained of their basements and cellars. They found one ogre who changed back into a frightened human child when they came close, and brought the child with them. But finally they had swept the entire village.

“Let’s go back to the ship,” said Catrina. “We need to bring this child back to the others, and I really want to know whether this medallion means we’ve done enough.” The crew seemed to think this was reasonable, so they headed back.

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Sitting in a foul dark place beyond human knowledge, a scowling evil visage watched the images of all these goings-on in its magic scrying puddle. It knew things were going very badly for it and all its minions as the foretold Metas were now on the hunt for them. It tried to claw at the cursed medallion it had left in the well, but its claws slipped off it now; they wouldn’t sink in. It tried again, but all it could feel was that disgusting purifying light. It hissed in frustration.

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Alexis giggled a lot after she put down the Magic Sword. She had returned to her adult body, but it was as if her mind remained in an in-between state for a few minutes. “Still there, Alexis?” asked Catrina.

“You’re a good girl,” said Alexis, hugging Catrina. “You do good stuff.” Then she said something in a language Catrina didn’t know – it sounded like Elvin. She looked sad suddenly and started to cry. But then she blinked and stopped. “What … happened? Why was I crying?” she asked.

“Are you OK?” asked Catrina. “You said something in … Elvin, I think.”

“I remember feeling … very lonely,” Alexis said. “I was happy that you were here, but … somehow that wasn’t enough. Hmm … hey, what’s that?” Catrina was holding the silver medallion.

“Found this in the well in the ruined village,” Catrina explained. “It was all tarnished, almost black. But in the Babygaard aura it turned all shiny again. I thought you could make something of these markings.”

“Interesting,” Alexis said, taking the medallion so she could look at it more closely. “This is definitely a curse spell, and I’m betting it’s got something to do with creating ogres. And this face … I think this might be Horkos the Curser, lord of ogres, which would make a lot of sense given what we’ve seen. And if it is … these crudely-drawn symbols in a demonic script might be his name, which tells me the mode that the script’s being used in … yes …”

She turned the medallion over, revealing more writing and more symbols. “I see. I don’t think I’d need to look at this in any more detail unless I wanted to make some ogres myself. Which I don’t! This is definitely the thing that cursed the village, turning everyone there into ogres, and they in turn spread the curse across the island.”

“So do you think we need to keep purifying the island?” asked Catrina.

“I think that with this taken out of the equation, we can probably send teams to the far corners of the island and use the Magic Sword to purify the rest of the island at once,” said Alexis. “Maybe we can sail around the island and the teams can just row ashore, once they’re all clear on the plan.”

“Then sail around the island again and pick them all up,” said Catrina, nodding. “You think there’s nothing else here that’s this powerful?”

“Not right now, at least,” said Alexis. “My detection spell just isn’t picking up anything that big, just a general sense of corruption from the parts of the island that haven’t been purified yet. That’s a big difference from before – taking out this medallion is probably what made that difference. However …”

“I knew there was a ‘however,’” said Catrina.

“Well, Horkos made this thing and sent it here,” Alexis said. “He probably knows we’ve decursed it. He’s probably not too happy about that. He might take revenge.”

“Right,” said Catrina. “So we should be ready. Let’s tell Garth.”

“And I’ll check the protection wards on the ship,” Alexis said.

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As the day wore on and MacInnes verified the time, Alexis, Catrina, and several of the crew including the newest female sailor insured the ship was well guarded and the gun emplacements were properly magicked and supplied.

Then, from the crow’s nest, the lookout called, “Beeee-low! Strange goings-on on the far mountaintop!.”

Alexis, Catrina, and Garth went to the rail facing the island and looked through their oculars to the mountaintop. A swirling whirlpool of dark, foreboding cloud rapidly formed and swirled around the mountaintop, throwing off huge lightning flashes.

Garth lowered his ocular and said, “Looks like whoever owned that coin is slightly angry at us.”

Catrina nodded, “Good. I need the practice.”

One of the men sitting close by and sharpening several of the weapons commented, “From what I saw earlier, you’ve gotten good enough already. I mean, you made it look like some kind of dance when you sliced up those ogres.”

Catrina replied as she patted her trusty Sol-Sword, “Brother, you haven’t seen anything yet. When this Meta is in her element, it’s pure art.”

There was laughter from several of the crew.

Garth replied amid his laughter, “I agree. And I’m glad to see you’re finally calling yourself a Meta.”

Alexis replied as she strapped the Sword of Babygaard around her shapely waist, “It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to deny it. Almost every demon we’ve encountered calls us that. But, given that they’re demons, they might be trying to get us to be overconfident, so it’s always good to watch out.”

One of the crew brought Alexis and Catrina’s fighting packs and gave them to them. He said as he strapped his sword on his shoulders and braced his magic bow, “Lets get to it. I’m still waiting for one of those damn sandwiches.”

Amide the laughter, Alexis, Catrina, and about a dozen of the crew that had volunteered to go and wipe out the last of the rot on this island climbed down the netting draped over the side to the longboats below.

One of the remaining crew turned to the one next to him and said, “I dunno there, mate, but looks like that there critter on top o’ that mountain’s in fer a bad day.”

More laughter as another replied, “I would think it would be more like a bad year or so if ya ask me. I saw what the girl there done to them hordes a little while ago, and it weren't pretty … except fer tha fact it was one o’ the most artistic sword attacks I ever saw.”

Everyone laughed as they finished climbing into the longboats and started rowing towards shore. The blackness on top of the mountain was sharply contrasted by the brightly glowing light of infant innocence round about the rest of the island that made up the mountain’s base. Their earlier action had left a great deal of residual light.

The walk to the base of the mountain was quick. Each of the group’s brightly glowing charms banished the darkness as they went – as long as any of the charms was in any patch of divine light, all the charms glowed with it. Catrina was itching to meet this ugly maker of ogres and slice him into a few small chunks.

The climb up the trail seemed to last for hours as the way got rougher and rougher. Along one narrow ledge, a dozen or so large boulders came tumbling down on top of them. The magic spell Alexis had cast to protect them from any sling stone projectiles worked for the boulders as well, so no one got hurt.

Catrina drew her Sol-Sword, and it ignited with a bright red flame. With a screaming warcry, she lept gracefully over a large rock. The men heard swishing and slicing sounds for an instant as they saw a great deal of liquid darkness fly from behind the rock. Catrina returned with a very satisfied look on her face, “That’s one imp that won’t be spying on anyone for a while.”

The small group laughed as they continued up the trail toward the nearby wall of darkness. “So, this Horkos the Curser,” said Catrina. “Do we know anything about his attacks, defenses, or particular weaknesses?”

“Well, I assume he’s affected by the Sword’s effects,” said Alexis, “because all demons are. He’s said to bring down curses on anyone who breaks an oath. Careful with oaths, especially magical ones, around him – he can curse your family down to the last generation. Or so they say.”

“Right – no swearing oaths,” said Catrina as they approached the wall of darkness.

“Suppose somebody in that village swore some kinda oath?” asked Elaine.

“It’s possible – that might have given Horkos an opening,” said Alexis. “Anybody starts to swear anything, somebody else smack ‘em one across the face. You swear something, and then break it, and he’s gonna turn you into an ogre.”

About that time it began to rain. Not any type of wet rain either, but the gooey tarry kind that smelled like an old swamp.

Gath wiped some of it off his face and said with disgust, “Just what on earth is this crap?”

Alexis commented as she mumbled a small spell of dispersal under her breath, “Ogres are disgusting creatures. That’s a rather close description to what this might be.”

Garth’s face darkened with a nasty look as he drew a shaft from his quiver. “Is that so? Take a dump on us, will he?”

With this, he fastened a small mirror amulet to the mytherium head after ensuring it glowed brightly with the light. He then drew the mighty bow, hesitated with feather to cheek for an instant, then fired.

The musical sound of the bowstring sung sweetly as the arrow sped off out of sight. For an instant, nothing happened, then a loud wail of anguish as the black stuff stopped falling.

Catrina ran straight into the black cloud, heading toward the sound. Alexis muttered, “With some demons that might have been a trick, but not with this one … trickery is not what he’s known for.”

Some of the crew followed Catrina, while some stayed back with Alexis and Garth. Looking at Garth, Alexis drew the Sword and shrank into a tiny toddler elf girl. Garth and the nearby crew guarded her, but as usual it wasn’t really necessary, because her vicinity was suddenly suffused with the brilliant light of childlike innocence, anathema to evil. The rain became pure water, and the dark clouds burned away to clear air and sky.

Catrina’s charge continued, and the light around her brightened in intensity, so she ran faster, her Sol-Sword at the ready. Finally she reached the source of the cry of pain, and the dark clouds around it dissipated to reveal the ugliest demon she’d ever seen.

Its grayish skin was only the first of its horrors. Its head was huge, and its eyes were horribly uneven, one large and far from center, the other small, lower down, and nearer to its nose. Its mouth was off-center too and at a severe slant; a few teeth stuck out of its disgusting gums, which were showing because its lips were open, drool flowing freely down its chin.

It howled in pain because of the arrow protruding from its forehead, light from the mirror charm at its tip pouring out through the wound like blood. Its body was small but fat at the same time, though nowhere near large enough to be proportional to that huge head.

“I’m not going to swear that you will die today, demon,” said Catrina as she approached. “I’m just going to predict it.” She jabbed at Horkos with her flaming Sol-Sword, as her aura of light clearly caused the demon pain.

“Go! Go!” shouted Elaine, as the crew, similarly adorned with mirror amulets and thus encircled with auras of pure light, charged in with their swords, axes, and spears. But Horkos swung its black iron club and knocked the magic weapons out of some of their hands with sheer force.

“Dam-” yelled one of the crew whose sword had been knocked aside, but before he could get farther than that, Elaine slapped him across the face, silencing him.

“No swearing!” she said, aware that even cursing in anger was a form of oath. “That’s how he gets you!” The sailor looked angry for a moment, then nodded and turned his anger upon the demon instead. Even those who had momentarily lost their weapons still had mirror amulets that were focusing the light of purity from the Magic Sword upon Horkos.

And every slash and cut that Catrina made upon the demon’s vile body admitted more of that light upon its underlying flesh, which seared and smoked as the light burned it.

“No more dark clouds to hide behind – how do you like it?” Catrina yelled as she continued to fight.

The demon tried to block with its weighty iron club, but Catrina was just too fast. He tried swinging at Catrina’s body when he thought there was an opening, but she leapt upward out of the way and jumped high over the demon, landing behind it and jabbing the Sol-Sword into its back.

“Sometimes backstabbing is just stabbing somebody in the back!” Catrina shouted. The demon howled in pain.

The light of purity was only growing brighter, and Horkos looked for its source, but the toddler form of Alexis was far away, and there were many human fighters between the demon and Alexis, each reflecting the searing light that she emitted, and each ready to wound him with many wounds. Horkos resolved itself and charged at her, swinging its iron club to knock aside the defenders, but before it reached her, it realized that the light was only getting stronger the closer it got, and its strength was quickly waning as its body was being burned away.

Alexis only looked at the demon with her childlike innocent gaze, and it never approached within 50 feet of her before its body finally boiled away into pure white smoke and left nothing but pure white ash – and Garth’s arrow dropped onto the pile of ash, the demon’s iron club falling to the rocky ground nearby.

Nothing else remained. The remainder of the black smoke and foul-smelling miasma had been burned away by the light from the Sword during the fight. The summit of the mountain was now cleansed. As Alexis put away the Sword and returned to her normal self, Catrina and the crew gathered any of the magic weapons that had fallen down the mountainside and used the altitude to survey the land around.

“Looks like that point, that beach, that cape, and that other beach are pretty easily accessible from the sea,” said Catrina, pointing at areas of the island that were visible from the mountain.

“I can sail the ship to them,” said Garth. “We can land crews at each, and they can be ready.”

“At noon, then,” said Alexis, recovering from the effects of the Sword. “The sun will be at its highest. The perfect time to banish darkness.”

At dawn the next morning, Garth sailed the ship to each of the four corners of the island, dispatching a team of sailors in a longboat at each location to await the coming of noon.

Noon came and Alexis drew the mighty Sword of Babyguaard once again with the same results to her person. The bright pure white light of infantile innocence spread out and was taken up by each member of the crew’s mirror amulets, which they held aloft to better reveal the light. There was a large flash of white that completely covered the island, and after she sheathed the Sword, Alexis verified that she could detect no further traces of demonic influence anywhere on the isle of Pirios.

By the time Garth had picked up all the crew, the wonderful smell of roasted beast and the aroma of freshly baked bread wafted up to the deck from the galley below, causing everyone’s tummies to rumble and mouths to water with expectation.

When the chow bell finally rang, everyone eagerly went to the galley. The galley was laid out as opulently as any formal dining room. The tables were set with a plate, a knife, and a tined thing the crew had just started getting used to that Alexis and Catrina called a fork. Each plate had a thick slice of roast beast, a thick slice of wonderfully aged cheese, lettuce, and several slices of tomato between two slices of the freshly baked bread. There were also several loaves of bread on their platters as well and fresh fruits and another large platter with the roast beast garnished with potatoes and a huge flagon of fruity flavored ale for each person.

Garth asked Cookie as he brought a platter of fresh fruit to the table, “What’s this? What’s the occasion?”

Cookie replied as he wiped his hands on his apron, “I kept hearing all of you commenting on how much you wanted a damn sandwich … so I made damn sandwiches.”

Everyone laughed.

One of the other younger men asked with trepidation in his tone, “This .. isn’t ogre meat is it?”

A roar of laughter as Alexis replied, “Not at all. If you kill a second generation ogre, it goes away in that foul smelling black smoke and vanishes – no meat to eat. A first generation would revert to whoever it was before the transformation.” She pointed to the beast on the large platter in the center of the table. “I’m sure that has nothing to do with people … except maybe feeding us.”

More laughter as Alexis stood and said solemnly, “Let us give thanks to the Creator for his abundance this day and for the protection from the minions of darkness as we attempt to cleanse the earth of their foul influences.”

She raised her flagon along with the rest of the crew, then emptied the wonderfully fruity beverage in one draft before she and Catrina once again beat the rest of the crew to banging the empty flagon on the table. Of course the alcohol content was extremely high, none of the crew seemed to notice as they dug in, feasted, and had a well deserved good time.

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The sun was at midmorning when the crew finally awoke and were well hung over. Alexis passed out her headache cure to all abord. Shortly after that, the crew was able to eat a hearty breakfast before Garth started commanding them to set sail due south back to Garvin and much warmer climates.

Before they left the vicinity of Pirios, though, a very large but familiar head poked out of the water on the port side of the ship and made a playful but very loud honking sound. It was the water dragon. Garth ordered the sails lowered so the crew could throw apples at it, which it happily caught in its mouth. “Hope she doesn’t get too lonely,” said Alexis.

“She?” asked Elaine, throwing another apple.

“Well, I have no idea, so I’m assuming the dragon’s a she like me,” said Alexis. “Men call a lot of creatures ‘he’ by default, so why not? Of course, I’m assuming dragons have male and female, which I don’t actually even know. Dragons might be different. Hmm.” She shrugged.

“What … else would they be?” asked Elaine, confused.

“I mean, maybe they’re all magically egg-layers and don’t need to mate,” said Alexis, “or maybe any dragon can mate with any other, then they both go off to lay eggs, or maybe they can decide when they mate who’s going to be male and who’s going to be female this time, or … who knows? Dragons are different from every other kind of living creature in so many other ways. Maybe I’ll ask one if I get a chance.”

“Ask one?”

“Dragons talk. Of course, not all of them speak a language we understand. But they have their own languages. I know a little of this, and a little of that. Not too many humans have managed to write a complete book on dragon languages. When a dragon gets tired of explaining things to you, I guess, you either get away while the gettin’s good or you … well, hanging around after that is bad for your health, not to mention just impolite.”

Elaine giggled. “Impolite scholars are crunchy and taste good with Jirish sauce.”

“Exactly.” Alexis smiled. “So, thinking of staying a woman, or do you want me to change you back?”

“I … can’t decide. Can I get back to you later?”

“Not a problem,” said Alexis. “Being a girl all the time’s not too bad. A lot of people don’t mind it too much.”

“Seems some men think it’s our duty to cook and clean for them, though,” said Elaine. “I’m not a subscriber to that belief.”

Alexis laughed. “Me either. They need to learn to fend for themselves. Otherwise they get complacent and weak.”

“That’s a good way to put it! I’ll remember that one. Oh, it looks like we’re done playing with the water dragon.” Garth had given the order to raise sails again, and the crew was waving to the dragon. It made foghorn-like honking sounds. Elaine and Alexis both waved, and Catrina was waving from the aft deck, where she’d been tossing apples from.

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The next two days were clear sailing. MacInnes calculated that they were in well-charted seas again, and they started to see other ships in the distance, probably also headed for Garvin.

At one point there was a ship that was on a course to intercept them, but Alexis quickly scried that they were pirates, Garth had some signal flags hung up that said that anyone who got in their way would deeply regret it, and Catrina sent them a signal.

Licking her finger and holding it up to the breeze, Catrina asked MacInnes for an estimate of their speed, and she chucked a spear, after incanting a spell of combat prowess, that flew over half a mile and landed square amidships in the center of their deck and buried its head to the shaft in the wooden planking. The pirate ship changed course after that, and they didn’t see it again.

Soon the lookout sighted Garvin on the horizon, having seen the familiar port from sea many times before. It was late afternoon when they docked.

“Well, Captain,” said Alexis, “before we disembark, a bargain’s a bargain. The ship’s yours. Catrina and I have that share of the treasure you all insisted we take, and the rest of that’s yours too. And we’ve already given you the fee we agreed on when we got started.”

Many of the crew were in earshot. “I’m sure we’re all going to be very sad to see you go,” said Garth. MacInnes nodded. “But I do want to say one thing. Sure, you’re giving the ship to me, but what I’m going to do with it is the same as we did with the old Mermaid. We’re signing a compact, mateys. She belongs to us all. MacInnes drew it up. We can all read it over later, and those who can read will read it aloud for those who can’t read it themselves. Sound proper?”

There was a lot of excited buzz among the crew, signifying general agreement.

Garth held out his hand, and Alexis shook it, then Catrina. “Thanks for a successful voyage, Captain,” said Alexis.

“Oh, come here, you,” said Catrina after shaking Garth’s hand and hugged the man. The crew laughed. “You know what? Drinks are on me at the … um, what’s a good inn for drinks to be on me at?”

“The Red Lighthouse?” Garth suggested. The crew’s attitude was positive toward that idea.

“The Red Lighthouse it is,” said Catrina.

“And next time we need to sail anywhere, it’s you we’ll be looking for,” said Alexis. “Hopefully a bit less eventful next time, but …”

“But anywhere you two are needin’ to go, it’s not the uneventful kind of place,” MacInnes said.

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The group wound up in The Red Lighthouse. At first, the rough rabble within the bar thought the three very beautiful women that came in with the other crew were fresh meat for the hunt. Rather quickly, they discovered at least two of the very well dressed women were nasty’s nasty, as they more than adequately proved they not only could handle themselves in a man’s fight far better than they could, the rest of the well dressed men in their group weren’t to be trifled with either.

The proprietor realized immediately that these guests had money and were here to enjoy themselves and not have to constantly fight off unwashed heathens. After being paid off for the large meal and huge flagons of his top ale in solid gold, and after seeing the women and several of the men knock out half a dozen of the local rowdies as casually and nonchalantly as swatting an insect away, the proprietor called in several of his enforcers to make sure his fine guests were left in peace.

Alexis, Catrina, and the men partied hearty until the eastern horizon began to show sunrise was rapidly approaching. All of them bought the finest rooms in the inn and crashed. Of course. Alexis’ hangover cure was the top of the morning item when they all awoke.

Garth asked as the girls stood on the dock to wish them fair journeys and farewell for now, “What’s your next adventure? Can’t be anything as exciting or rewarding as this one was.”

Catrina snorted a laugh, “We are now going to try to stop the horrid dragon Fieorfang, who is terrorizing the land and causing much death and destruction.”

Alexis added, “To be fair to the dragon, it’s not so much death as the destruction of the towns, villages, and their crops. Without the crops, the people will starve, and they need their houses to live in and the animals to eat and plow the fields. But he’s not at all what you’d call stealthy, so at least there’s quite a bit of warning before he shows up, and most of the time the villages are evacuated before he gets there.”

“Well, please call on us if you think there’s something a ship’s crew could do to help – but I’m not sure how we could assist you against a dragon, and on dry land.”

Garth shook both ladies’ hands firmly and warmly before he walked up the gangplank onto the main deck and it was withdrawn. As the ship left port, all the men and Garth waved fondly as they gained speed in the early morning breeze.

Catrina commented as she mounted her horse, “Those were some of the nicest sailors I ever met.”

Alexis repled as she spurred hers towards the main road, “Didn’t you recognize Garth?”

Catrina looked at Alexis for an instant, “Not as anyone special, beyond probably one of the best sea captains I’ve ever met.”

Alexis smiled as she replied, “He’s Garth Ironclaw. Prince Garth Ironclaw from the Iron Keep, along with several of his men being knights of his personal guard.”

“What?” said Catrina, flabbergasted. “And you didn’t think to tell me this before?”

“I kept forgetting to,” said Alexis. “Every time I thought of it, we got attacked by another demon or monster.”

“Well, that does happen to us with astonishing frequency. But I’m definitely looking them up next time we need to make a sea voyage. Why isn’t he in Iron Keep, anyway?”

“Well, from what I hear tell, it’s a long story. It all started when his brother, who’s really his half-brother, killed the prince of the neighboring kingdom in a duel …” Alexis told her what she knew about it as they rode.

They took their time, but didn’t waste it as they rode along. It was easy enough to find where the horrid dragon Fieorfang was currently creating mayhem. First they just asked in villages, then they started seeing camps of refugees, then they started seeing smoke on the horizon. Unsurprisingly, they were the only ones on the road headed toward that direction rather than away.

Alexis and Catrina dismounted as they watched the dragon in the distance using its fiery breath to burn another village. Both women did notice, however, that the dragon did seem to be going out of its way not to kill any of the few people who hadn’t already evacuated, destroying only the things around them.

Catrina and Alexis approached the mighty dragon and dismounted. Catrina drew her Sol-Sword, and it ignited and burned brightly. “How about a little protection from fire, then?”

“I have no problem with defensive magic,” said Catrina, as Alexis dipped her finger into a vial of some alchemically-prepared powder and drew an arcane symbol on Catrina’s forehead, then took out a mirror and did the same on her own. Alexis then intoned a mystical phrase three times, and the symbols vanished, leaving both of them glowing with a faintly visible but potent magical aura.

“All right, now at least you shouldn’t instantly turn to ash if he breathes directly on you, though I suggest avoiding that if possible,” said Alexis.

“Feeling his fiery breath firsthand wasn’t on my list of things to do today,” Catrina said. Then she shouted, “Fieorfang! It is time your rampages ceased!” She ran toward the dragon, sword at the ready. Alexis stayed back, prepared for anything, including the Magic Sword.

“Tiny mortal,” said Fieorfang, and his voice shook the very earth. “My rampages are the very thing protecting you.”

“Explain yourself!” shouted Catrina. “That is nonsense!”

“These villages are infested with demons,” the dragon said, with clear disgust for the denizens of the nether realms. “I sense no evil in the humans, so I let them leave. But I see the signs of corruption wherever I look. I will purify the land with flame!”

“What? There is no corruption here,” said Catrina. “Though I suppose you’ve already done quite a bit of ‘purifying’ already …” The village around her was in fact entirely on fire.

“Exactly,” said the dragon. “The demonic altars, the infernal symbols, the storehouses of dark magic, all have been purified as only I can.”

Catrina stopped approaching at a respectful distance from the dragon, who stalked over one end of the flaming village like a huge cat, but she did not put her sword away. “All right, granted that there isn’t much left of this village, but I don’t see any of those things here. I see stables, houses, shops, grain storage silos.”

“You are deceived by the forces of darkness, then,” the dragon said. “My eyes show me the truth.”

“Another dragon has told me that it is impossible for dragons to be possessed by demons,” Catrina said.

“You have heard correctly,” said Fieorfang. “The demon does not exist who is powerful enough to enslave even the youngest of my kind. The fire of our souls would burn them from existence.”

“That same dragon said that it is still possible for one of your kind to be deceived, just as one of my kind can,” said Catrina. “Could something be fooling your eyes?”

“I see clearly,” the dragon said. “The threat is greater than you understand.”

“I have fought many demons, and I understand their threat quite well,” said Catrina. “But you must see how great a tragedy it would be if demons had clouded your senses, causing you to see corruption at every turn?”

Alexis heard the dragon’s words, of course; one would have to be miles away before he became hard to hear. She began casting a spell to detect demonic presences. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t sense any in what remained of the burning village. But …

“There is a demon lord with many names,” shouted Alexis, who was suddenly there next to Catrina. “He has been called Mara, Morgana, Dolos, Apate, Mendacius, and many others. It has the power to deceive the senses of any being with its illusions and trickery. And with the time of the return of the Metas at hand, the forces of darkness will stop at nothing to retain their foothold on this realm.”

“Deceive me? Never!” shouted the dragon, and the very earth shook. “But … I have heard of this being in lore,” Fieorfang said. “It is said that the power of any demon lord is not to be dismissed … and you say the time of the Metas is at hand? Has the test been passed?”

Alexis cried out, “Behold, Fieorfang; I have the sword that no demon has a defense against, and I will use it now!” She drew the sword and instantly transformed into the most adorable elfette toddler anyone had ever seen.

It had been hardly noticeable, a mere shadow hiding among the various horns and scales of the dragon’s face, but suddenly, as the pure light of innocence expanded from Alexis, there was a blob of darkness atop the dragon’s head, looking like a humanoid figure with very long fingers that were reaching into the dragons eyes and ears. It shivered as the light struck it, trying to hold on, but soon it had no choice and leapt away, outside the radius of the light.

“Ah!” said the dragon. “Now at last I understand. Demon! You shall know the wrath of my kind!”

Now that its shadowy facade had been exposed and dispelled, the demon had a twisted body and very long fingers, each with seven joints. “You cannot burn me,” it hissed, “for I hail from a land of eternal flame. Not even the pure light of innocence can burn me.”

“I think you’re lying,” said Catrina, rushing toward the demon lord, and she was still wearing one of Alexis’ mirror charms around her neck, so she carried the light of innocence with her. “If it can’t burn you, why’d you run away from it so fast?” The demon hissed and emitted smoke as she approached. It tried to get away.

But it found its way blocked by a set of enormous claws. Moving faster than one would expect from a creature so large, Fieorfang had passed the demon and now crouched before it, claws impaling the ground, as Catrina approached it from behind. The dragon inhaled and burned the demon with purifying fire, while the pure light from Catrina’s amulet bathed it at the same time. The demon cried out, and then its cries were extinguished, leaving nothing but a drifting white ash.

Fieorfang then transformed. He became a winged, reptilian humanoid wearing a red tunic trimmed in shining gold and a sword belt, on which was a sword with an ornate hilt and scabbard, bejeweled with many rubies.

“I … I am ashamed,” he said, in a deep voice, but one that no longer shook the earth. His golden eyes looked toward the ground, troubled. “I have caused so much needless destruction. It has been almost a year since what I believed was an epiphany, but in truth it was that accursed demon. That must have been when it seized control of my senses, and I took leave of them.”

“Not your fault,” said Catrina. “As you said – it was the demon.” She put away the Sol-Sword. She hadn’t even had to use it.

“The only saving grace is that so few humans died,” the dragon continued. “The demon disabled my ability to sense demons, so I would not sense its presence, but because it did that, it could not make me falsely sense humans to be demons. Otherwise I would have far, far more deaths on my head than I do. But still, there are several humans who would live today had I not allowed myself to be deceived.”

Alexis approached behind Catrina, having sheathed the Babyguaard Sword. “The fault lies with the demon, not with you, Fieorfang. But it is to your credit that you feel such remorse.”

“That sword – is it true?” asked Fieorfang. “Are you Metas? Have you passed the Test? Is that truly the Magic Sword of Babygaard?”

“Yes, though I can hardly believe it myself,” said Alexis. “It’s all happened so quickly.”

“An Elf …” said the dragon. “I had thought your kind had vanished.”

“I’m hoping they’re just hiding really well,” said Alexis. “I am Alexis Elvinlight, and this is Catrina Signum Elest.”

“Elvinlight, and Elest,” rumbled the dragon. “These names are known to me. You are both of noble lineage.”

“As are you,” said Alexis. “We have met your mother, Kthruulis. She was a Meta.”

“Indeed she was,” said the dragon. “I have always been proud of her. And sad that the demons brought about the end of the Metas. If the time of your return is truly at hand, it is an occasion for rejoicing. Yet I do not rejoice, for I have wrought such sorrow. I have allowed myself to become an instrument of evil.”

“Perhaps you can atone,” said Catrina. “Can you build houses?”

“I can,” said the dragon, “and I only wish I could show you my dwellings, for I have wrought them out of the very living molten rock of my homeland far to the East. Perhaps there is something I can do for the people of this land, whom I have wronged.”

The dragon went to the burned-out embers of one of the houses he had burned to the ground. “Let this be the first step,” he said. As Alexis and Catrina stood back, he transformed into his true form and breathed his fire upon the ruins, and the molten rock beneath it rose up, brightly orange and red. The dragon’s magic shaped the lava into intricate forms, and as it cooled and the blackened ash flaked away, it left behind a magnificent edifice of polished white marble, ornamented in fantastic shapes and decorated with glittering crystals. Its windows and doors were open rectangular gaps, ready to be fitted by human artisans.

“That’s … amazing,” said Alexis. “That house is a work of art, and it will never burn down. Now I truly must see your home someday.”

“You will be my welcome guest when that day arrives,” said the dragon, “but before then, there is much that I must do to make amends.”

“You’re an architect and sculptor,” said Catrina. “In what way are you not a Meta? I’m betting you’ve got more talents than those, too.”

“You flatter me,” the dragon said, “but I am unworthy. Perhaps, once my task is done, I might consider undergoing the trials of the Meta Guild.”

“Let’s help each other,” said Alexis. “I think I know a way to make your task quicker, though it will still be a lot of hard work. You see, there’s still a little matter of every demon in existence trying to kill us.”

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

It didn’t take Fieorfang long to rebuild many of the villages and towns he had burned down. What he replaced the ramshackle huts with grass thatched roofs with was opulent beyond belief.

Each dwelling place was a work of art, and each civic center was a masterpiece. Several of the buildings were made of diamond crystals, while others were artistic mixes of emeralds, jade, and rubies.

The interiors were lit with special kinds of crystals. They glowed very brightly, or softly, or even extinguished at the soft commands of the people living in them. To the amazement of all, there was even running water within each of the constructs, something they had never had before. Even the streets and walkways were some form of crystal that made travel quick and easy, and there was no more dust when it was dry or mud when it rained.

The fearful citizens took a bit of convincing before they started to return to their now opulent villages and towns. Once they did, however, and the word started to spread, the tale was that the old town had been burned as an eyesore so this new one could be built. That sounded reasonable, since the dragon had gone so far out of his way not to kill or hurt anyone if he could help it.

Each home and building had a special place within it that held a mirror that glowed a soft white with infantile innocence; this was Alexis’ contribution. The harder the evil ones tried to regain entrance once the dragon and the Metas had departed, the more of them became white ash and vanished from the realm of mankind.

Not long after that, the Fieorfang flew in and settled to the ground near Alexis and Catrina. He lay on his belly and said in the slathering way dragons do, “I have something to show milady Metas. If you’re willing to ride on my back, we can get there a lot sooner than if you travel by horse.”

Catrina looked at Alexis and raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never ridden on the back of a dragon before. This sounds like fun.”

Alexis laughed and replied as she climbed up, “I haven’t either. I’m also curious as to what it is he wants to show us.”

The dragon flapped his huge wings and created a small gale as it lifted off and headed back towards the general direction of the Mage’s keep. Off in the far distance, the girls could see a bright and shiny object sparkling brightly in the afternoon sun.

As they approached, it became obvious they were seeing some type of palace that was far beyond any such construction either of them had seen before. On their many journeys and quests, they had seen quite a few.

After the dragon had settled gently in the huge courtyard of the new palace and the girls had dismounted, he transformed into his humanoid state. He waved his arm in a grand manner and said, “Now, the Metas needed a place for the new Meta Guild, so behold, I have created one. I am fairly sure there is no place quite like it anywhere. I have built it to surpass even my own dwellings in some ways – of course, it is meant to house humans, Dwarves, Elves, and other such small beings, rather than dragons, so I had to take that into account.”

“This is … mind-blowing,” said Catrina. “Can I go inside?”

“Be my guest,” said Fieorfang, walking to the grand jeweled double doors of the main entrance and opening the latch. He opened the doors wide, revealing an atrium of unparalleled splendor, with columns of polished marble finished with gold and silver, a floor containing gemstone mosaic maps of the known world, crystal sconces around the outside providing light, and more details than Catrina could take in at once. Alexis followed and was unable to do more than gasp at the sight.

“That,” he said, “is just the entrance hall.” It took them half a day just to see the interiors of the main hall, and there were several outbuildings that they wouldn’t see until the days that followed. Each room contained more surprises and creative decorations.

“I think we’ve decided that you’ve passed your entrance exams,” said Alexis, and Catrina couldn’t disagree. “You’re without a doubt the first dragon Meta of the New Meta Guild. We have to lay down some bylaws, but we’ll get that taken care of as soon as we can.”

“I know there are still demons in this world, though,” said the dragon.

“Oh, we know it too,” said Catrina. “I’m willing to go anywhere I have to to slay them, though.”

“It will be a quest, all right,” said Alexis, “but let’s not make it any harder than it needs to be.”

“That’s Alexis for ‘I’ve got an idea,’ I think,” said Catrina.

“Well, Fieorfang, what I need is the largest crystal you can either make or find,” said Alexis.

“Crystal?” asked the dragon. “What sort do you mean? Diamond, corundum, beryl, quartz, or something else?”

“Quartz would be best,” said Alexis. “It doesn’t have to be fine gemstone. In fact, what I’m going to do is put a spell on it, and then crush it into fine sand. But it has to be as large as possible, so there’s as much sand as possible. Because the sand has to go all over the world.”

“Hmm,” thought the dragon, “suppose we work together to conjure or transmute …”

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So it was that there came to be a giant quartz crystal buried beneath the Meta Guild Hall, as large as the palace itself, but it was only a small fragment of an immensely larger crystal that was ground to sand and sprinkled all over the mainland.

And so it was that Alexis and Catrina called upon some friends of theirs in the port of Garvin one summer evening. “Do my eyes deceive me?” shouted Captain Garth across the great hall of the Red Lighthouse Inn. “Or do I spy the founders of the new Meta Guild?” The crew cheered and raised their glasses as Catrina and Alexis entered the room, followed by Fieorfang in humanoid form, with a hood over his head so as not to cause unnecessary panic.

The women greeted and shook the hands of everyone in the crew, glad to see them all again. But they finally made their way to Garth and MacInnes, who were at the captain’s table with the other crew of higher rank. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again, Captain,” said Catrina.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes yourselves,” said Garth. “We’ve had a voyage or two since we last met – though nothing so eventful or profitable as when you sailed with us. I trust this isn’t strictly a social visit, though.”

“It’s true, we’ve got a job for you,” said Alexis, “though it’s likely a bit less perilous than last time. But a bit more open-ended. You see, we’ve got some sand.”

“Sand?” said Garth, confused.

“Well, this is what I mean.” She held up a black velvet drawstring bag, opened it, and took out a pinch of pure white sand that glowed with the light of innocence. MacInnes gasped, as he knew exactly what he was looking at.

“You mean you –” MacInnes began.

“That’s right, it’s just like the mirror, only we started with a far, far larger crystal,” said Alexis.

“So basically we’ve got a hundred barrels of sand to load on your ship,” said Catrina, “and we want you to sprinkle some on every beach on every island in the world.”

“Every –” Garth began. “That’s a tall order.”

“Just think,” said Alexis, “you can do it whenever you visit any island for any reason, and you can be paid by both the Meta Guild and by anyone else who hires you. If there’s any light of innocence anywhere near any grain of this sand, anywhere in the world, that light shines through every other grain. This sand will purify the world of demons. This is the reason why they didn’t want the Meta Guild to be rebuilt.”

Garth’s mind was already going a mile a minute. “We could break the record for sailing around the world and win that prize from the King of Moranay,” he said.

“I’ve got a course in mind that could visit a hundred islands in one year,” said MacInnes. “Give me a day and I could make it two hundred, I’m sure. And that’s not counting the tiny ones.”

“And the sand is itself protection from demons,” said Elaine, who had worked her way up to Second Mate. “They wouldn’t be able to stop us.”

“Soon this sand will be everywhere in the world,” said Catrina, “and we’ll know a demon-free world for the first time in a thousand years.”

“One thousand, six hundred and forty-three,” said Alexis. “But that’s not all. I’ve found a scroll that I’ve been able to translate, and I think it was meant for me. There’s a specific island that we’d like to hire you to take us to, while you’re scattering sand.”

“What’s on it?” asked Garth.

“If this is right … my people are,” Alexis said. “The Elves.”

--------------------------------------- The End (?) ----------------------------------------
Sunshine & rainbows,
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