Hidden in Plain Sight, by Miki & Jennie

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Hidden in Plain Sight, by Miki & Jennie

Postby LilJennie » Tue Mar 21, 2017 8:55 pm

Hidden in Plain Sight

By LilJennie and Miki Yamuri


Janice Linden - 22 year old antique collector
Melody Poole - 22 year old student of the arcane and best friend
Dr. Martha McCudgeon - Master Sorceress
Emkandar - Dark Wizard Lord

Scene: At an antique auction in the city

Janice waved her hand frantically when the last opportunity to bid came up. The old gold framed mirror on the floor for auction was just the thing she had been looking for. She was a bit surprised that only one other person had even offered a bid, and it was only $2,000.

She had just bid $2,001, the auctioneer's gavel slammed as he said, "Sold, to the young lady in black for $2001."

As it was the only item she was interested in, she went to the pick-up area and waited in line, then when it was her turn told the man in charge that she had won lot 149.

"Let's see ..." the man said, "149, full-length mirror, gold frame. Yes, that seems quite heavy; would you like Lars and Tony to help you get it to your vehicle?"

"Yes, please, I ..." began Janice, but then she saw two men wearing all black carrying the mirror off, though slowly, because it was quite heavy. "Hey! They're taking it!"

"What?" the man said, looking where Janice was looking. "Hey, you can't do that! That belongs to this lady here!" The two men in black looked up and tried to move more quickly, but were finding it difficult. Two large, burly assistants, probably the aforementioned Lars and Tony, ran after them, with Janice not far behind. The men in black dropped the mirror and ran, and although the bottom of the frame clattered on the wooden floor, the mirror luckily didn't shatter, and Lars and Tony caught it before it fell backwards.

An instant later Janice arrived, happy to see that the mirror's surface was uncracked, but then looked again. Turning around, she saw the two men who had tried to steal the mirror vanishing amid the crowd. She looked back at the mirror, confused.

"Is everything OK, Ma'am?" asked either Lars or Tony; Janice wasn't sure which.

"I ... it's fine," she said. "Everything's fine. Thank you for saving the mirror."

But everything wasn't quite fine. She had been sure, for just a moment, she'd seen something reflected in the mirror that wasn't right. The mirror was grimy and the reflection hard to see, but those two men in black ... their reflections ... they'd been ...

They hadn't been human.

Lars and Tony lifted the mirror and carried it back to the counter, where Janice wrote a check. The mirror was hers. As the man confirmed her ID electronically, she looked at the mirror again ... and in its reflection, among the crowds in the distance, she saw a white-bearded man nodding with a kindly smile toward her. Turning around, she didn't see him, and when she looked again at the mirror, he was gone.

"Well, that was exciting, Ms. Linden," the man said, "but let's hope everything's better from here on out, shall we? Tony, Lars, if you could help the lady get this to her car ..."

"Sure thing," said one of them, and they carried it to a wheeled hand truck, carefully strapped it down, and the other one followed her with it to her car.

"That was pretty strange, Ma'am," said Tony, as they walked. "Usually security keeps the petty criminals out, and it's weird that somebody would go after such a heavy item right here at the auction."

"Hmm?" she said; she'd been lost in thought. "Yes, very strange. It's almost as if they didn't plan to take it -- like it was some kind of sudden impulse."

After Tony helped her get the mirror in her car, she thanked him and headed home. After a drive of more than half an hour, Janice arrived at her barn sized house in the woods. She backed her vehicle up next to the large bay doors and parked. It was very difficult, but she managed to wrestle the large mirror into her studio and place it in the empty niche. It was as if the place had been specially designed just for the mirror. Looking on its back, she didn't see a way to hang it up immediately, and it was very heavy anyway. For the moment, she set it on the floor leaning against the wall.

She pulled up a large, comfortable chair and began to clean and polish the frame, and to remove the many years of grime and fingerprints from the mirrored surface. The more she looked into the depths of the mirror, the more she realized that the image she was looking at was wrong. Instead of being a mirror image of everything, it was an exact reflection, although she noticed some differences in places. Some of them were major.

She wandered over to a place where she could see a large open arched door in a wall. She ran her hand over the wall and could feel the irregular surface of it beneath her hand. When she turned around, however, she could still see plainly the arched door where her hand was.

Janice was a smart girl. She knew this had to mean something very important. Specially since she saw those weird looking creatures in this very same mirror where she should have seen the reflections of the men dressed in black hoods.

Janice began to knock on the wallboard. It seemed solid, although the mirror's reflection said otherwise. Janice had to find if there was a way to breach this strange invisible doorway.

But no matter where she knocked, she felt only solid drywall. It made her wonder whether this mirror was playing tricks on her. Why had she bought the thing, anyway? She had gone to the estate auction of old Professor Myrius in hopes of finding some valuable pieces -- hidden treasures like paintings, old books or photographs, rare furniture items, or even watches or clocks. But as soon as she had seen that mirror ... she just had to have it. It was like nothing she'd ever seen before. The frame was too heavy to be gilded wood, but it certainly wasn't solid gold, or it would be even heavier than it was. It was carved, not cast, so it was handmade. And it was carved in the form of intricate tree trunks, roots, branches, leaves, and fruit. If she had to guess, Janice would have said that it had probably been carved from a craftable metal such as bronze, then plated with gold afterward.

She realized she was back at the mirror, examining its frame. Was it healthy to be so obsessed with it? Why did Professor Myrius have it, anyway? It was rather ostentatious, unlike the rest of his furnishings, which tended to be smartly polished wooden pieces but hardly gold-plated. How had he kept the thing on his wall? Janice didn't think a simple wire and nail arrangement would work -- it was just too heavy. She would have to get some sturdy brackets and screw them firmly into the studs behind the drywall.

She looked at the reflection again -- yes, there was still an open doorway in the wall across the room. She looked back at the wall whose reflection had an opening, but the wall still didn't have one. If there were an opening there, it would open into the space above the stairs leading up to her studio -- a fall of eight feet or so. But the doorway in the mirror looked like it opened onto a hallway that led away into shadow; she couldn't see very far into it.

She had a thought. Picking up a flashlight she had in case of power outages, she turned it on and aimed it toward the mirror. She could see the flashlight's spot of light moving across the wall in the mirror, toward the doorway, then into the darkened hallway. She saw a stone floor, then ... stairs? Going upward? Pointing the light up the stairs, she thought she saw the top, and there -- for a moment -- a pair of reflected points of light. Eyes? Were those claws hanging over the top stair? But then they were gone.

Janice realized her heart was pounding. She felt frightened. She looked over her shoulder and saw the reflected flashlight beam illuminating the solid wall that had always been there.

"No," she said to herself. "This is ridiculous. This has to be some kind of optical illusion. Some kind of magician's trick mirror. I'm not scaring myself any more with this nonsense." She put the flashlight away. Very nice frame. Perhaps now that it was cleaned up, she could get even more for it than she'd paid. She'd ask some other antique dealers she knew about it in the morning.

Then the doorbell rang. Janice was sort of surprised someone wanted to visit her at this hour. It continued to bother her that the image in the mirror wasn't a mirror image, and that strange arched doorway was another thing as she went and answered the door.

It was Melody Poole, her best friend from college. She was dressed in those multicolored accessories that she had always liked, a scarf printed with many colored patches, a hat knitted out of many colors of yarn, a necklace with many colored beads. She had always been the one who found interesting music, poetry and stories, and had always dragged Janice to see interesting little cafes, historical sites, and art galleries in the city where they'd gone to school. They'd moved to different states after graduating, but they'd kept in touch via telephone and Internet. But Melody hadn't told Janice that she'd be coming to visit. Why tonight, of all nights?

Melody smiled a cryptic smile as Janice asked, "Melody, what brings you out on a blustery night like this?"

Melody replied, "Hi, Jan. I think you and I need to talk just a bit."

Janice's eyebrows rose in surprise as she asked, "Talk? About what? Last I heard you were taking some kind of course in 16th century arcane beliefs or something."

Melody entered the door and walked straight to the room with the mirror. She placed her palm on a place near the bottom where the carved roots appeared to wrap tightly about the frame.

Melody said softly in a dreamy kind of voice, "You have finally come full circle. All of creation is but wheels within wheels."

Janice replied slightly agitated, "Just what is that gibberish supposed to mean?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Melody said. "I wasn't talking to you -- how rude of me. I hadn't meant to stop here, actually -- I was on my way to St. Petersburg for a conference. But something told me to stop here in your town. And I'm glad I did. I looked at the newspaper while stopping for dinner. There was an article about an attempted robbery at an estate auction. And your name was in it. And ... a mirror. That settled it."

"Settled ... what?"

"I just had to come see you. And it."

"It? You mean ... this mirror here?"

"Yes, I do. Old Professor Myrius was ... a guardian of sorts, I guess. Or so I've read."

"You make just as much sense now as you ever have," Janice said.

"I prefer to take that in a good way," said Melody with a grin. "I did some research. Haven't found much out yet, but I think this mirror is meant to belong only to ... certain people. And only at the right times. In between, it's supposed to be guarded. Protected, so it will be there when it's needed."

"OK," Janice said, "so I take it you already know about its ... strange properties?"

"It does something?" asked Melody, sounding astonished. "Already, I mean?" She looked at her own reflection in it. "Well now, just look at that." Every colored patch on everything she was wearing looked like it had a tiny colored point of light at its center -- as if Melody were wearing strings of Christmas lights. But, as if that weren't important at all, she was pointing at the reflected doorway in the wall. "That is certainly something."

"It definitely is ... something, all right," said Janice. "But ... what?"

"I ... don't know," Melody said. "But I know who does. Professor Myrius may have passed on, but he's got colleagues who are still around. I think tomorrow we should both go and see Dr. Martha McCudgeon."

"Won't you miss your ... conference, or whatever?"

"Oh, pssh, this is way more interesting. I've already canceled."

"Well, would you like to stay the night? I'm afraid I don't have a guest room, but I do have a couch that folds out."

"That would be great! And it'll be just like old times."

Janice found she was having a very hard time sleeping. She could swear that, not only did it feel like she was being watched from the darkness, but she kept hearing a voice calling. It was very soft and just audible enough to be annoying. Especially since it seemed to be calling her name.

After several hours of tossing and turning, Janice got out of bed, slipped on her slippers and nightgown, and went down stairs to the room with the mirror. To her total surprise, she found Melody sitting cross legged in the lotus position, several candles burning in a semicircle around her.

Melody seemed to be totally engrossed in whatever it was she was doing and it surprised Janice when she said, "Do come in and sit with me. It appears you need to be here as well."

Janice gasped in shock, "Just what on earth are you talking about, Melody?"

Melody sort of unwrapped herself and stood up in a turning manner that had her facing Janice, then she said, "It appears you and I have ... a task. Exactly what it is remains guarded in the upper library."

Janice replied, "The upper what? Melody, I told you I won't allow you to smoke that weird stuff in my house."

Melody laughed a strange laugh, "Janice, once the portal opens and we gain access, you'll wish that's what I had been doing."

With that, Melody turned and sat gracefully once again in the lotus position, and began to make low humming noises.

"OK, nope! That does it," Janice said. "In the morning that mirror's going out to the garage, and I'm going to find someone who will take it off my hands, preferably for more than I paid for it. This is getting crazy."

"Oh, Jan, this is just like old times," Melody said. "It's how it's always been. You've got no sense of adventure, so I drag you along, and you end up having more fun than you've ever cared to admit. Tell me, you didn't want to go to that little hole-in-the-wall Turkish coffee shop on A Street, right?"

"No, I didn't," Janice replied, "but you made me come with you anyway. You said you were ‘scared,' as if you've ever been scared of anything."

"And," Melody went on, "what did you think of it?"

"It was filthy, they played weird music, and it stank of cigarette smoke," Janice said. "It was before those laws that made people smoke outside."

"And what happened?" Melody pressed her.

"... And they had the best espresso I've ever tasted, and the waiter was incredibly gorgeous, and single, and he gave me his number, and it was a very intense two months. OK. There's something to be said for trying new things. But this --" Janice gestured vaguely in the direction of her studio. "This is something downright weird. Possibly dangerous. There were -- creatures, Mel. They were not human, and I think there's something else at the top of those stairs, too. If those things could get here from wherever they are, other things could too."

"This is why we need to talk to Dr. McCudgeon," Melody explained. "I don't know what we're dealing with, but she knew Professor Myrius. She knows more, I'm sure. But we can't do it now."

"Why not? The stars aren't right?"

"Because it's 3 a.m. and she'd leave us out on her porch. For now, sit down right here." Melody pointed at a spot on the carpet right beside where she'd been meditating.

"... Why?" Janice asked.

"I'm going to help us both get at least some sleep tonight," said Melody, sitting back down. "Come on." She patted the carpet.

"Well, OK," said Janice. "I wasn't getting any sleep anyway."

"Now, take a deep breath," said Melody, doing so, "and let it out slowly. Do it again a few times, just to clear your mind and let your body relax."

Janice did these things. It did help her body relax, but her mind was still occupied by the mirror and what she'd seen in it -- so far.

"Now, you're probably thinking about your mirror already," said Melody, "so try picturing it in your mind. Just think about what it looks like."

"OK ..." Janice just imagined the mirror there, floating in imaginary space, not even reflecting anything.

"Right, now just kind of imagine that your mirror is a door. An open door." Melody paused so Janice could wrap her mind around that. "And imagine closing it. Reach out and close it like you would a door."

"Umm, all right," said Janice.

"Now imagine there's a key in the keyhole under the doorknob -- like one of those old-fashioned keys, like in antique doors in old houses."

Janice had seen lot of those, usually broken, but sometimes they'd been kept in good shape. She imagined she'd closed an ornately-carved door in front of the mirror's glass, and beneath its doorknob a key protruded from its keyhole. She turned it, felt it click, and took the key from the lock. "OK, it's locked."

"Now take the key and put it somewhere you'll remember," Melody said.

"All right," Janice agreed. She imagined putting it in the utensil drawer in the kitchen, where all her forks and spoons were.

"Well done," said Melody. "Don't tell me where you put it. Now, this might help you rest. Whenever you think of your mirror, think of it with a closed, locked door in front of it. Nothing's getting out of there. You can't see anything reflected in it. It's not a threat. It's turned off, closed shut. Think that'll help?"

Janice looked at the mirror once again, to her utter amazement, it reflected an exact mirror image now and the wall across from her was ... a wall with no arched doorway in sight.

Janice said slightly in awe, "It, seemed to have worked. It's ... just a mirror now."

Melody replied, "Good. Now, let's try and get some sleep. And remember where you put the key. It's important."

Janice returned to her bed and lay down. The very next thing she knew, the sun was just starting to peek in her bedroom window and it was almost 7am. She sprang from bed and dressed hurriedly, then hustled into the dining room to find Melody had already cooked breakfast and was on the phone. The wonderful aroma of pancakes and sausage filled the air.

"That's right," Melody said, " Apparently Janice was chosen. It's ... in her studio now. Well, I managed to get her to close the portal so we could get some sleep. Yes, it's locked and I told her to remember where the key is. Alright, I promise we won't do anything until you get here. Yes, that's the place. See you in about an hour and a half ... Bye."

Janice snapped, "Who was that ... and why are they coming here?"

Melody turned as she clicked off her cell and said softly, "That was Dr. McCudgeon, she'll be here in a bit with the proper documents for us to safely open the door and for you to take full charge of your new item."

"Charge of?" Janice snapped, "I want that thing out of my house immediately."

Melody laughed, "If it were only that easy. It seems you are chosen. We must enter the upper library and read the tome to discover exactly why the mirror has come round full circle."

"How do you know all this?" Janice asked, frustrated that she knew so little.

"I ... don't," admitted Melody. "I just get ... feelings. There are things going on around us all the time that we can't see. Your mirror can show some of them to us. But you ... your feelings are even stronger."

"Mine? What are you talking about?" Janice asked.

"You're the one who bought this house," Melody said. "The one with a hidden stairway that only some old professor's magic mirror can reveal. I didn't tell you what house to buy."

Janice was speechless. The stairway had ... always been here? Unseen?

"I found your pancake mix," Melody said instead of answering the obvious question. "Help yourself. I always make way too many."

Janice got out a plate for herself, and a knife and fork.

There was a key in the utility drawer. Right where she'd imagined putting it. She never seen that key before. It was a golden lever-lock key with an intricately-carved handle, looking like tree branches and leaves, very similar to the mirror's frame. She closed the drawer and turned her back to it.

"What's ... oh," said Melody, sitting at the table eating pancakes. "That was where you put it, wasn't it?" Janice nodded wordlessly. "Well, this is just more proof. You're more amazing than even I thought, Jan. And I've always thought you were pretty amazing."

"Where -- did it come from?" Janice asked.

"The mirror? Or the key? Or the house?" asked Melody. "The mirror and the house, I don't know. Dr. McCudgeon might know more. The key? I suspect you created it."

"But -- people can't just create things," Janice complained, "out of thin air. The workmanship on the key -- it's beautiful. I don't know how to do that."

"You didn't," Melody said, "and technically, you really didn't. It's a temporary thing, a symbol of what you did. When you unlock the door, I suspect the key will cease to exist again. Then everything will be as it was."

"You are telling me I did ... some kind of magic," Janice accused Melody.

"Yes, I suppose I am," Melody said. "I always thought you had it in you."

"But ... you're the one who does that stuff."

"Well, technically, I just study that stuff," Melody said. "Magic mirrors, though. Wow. Most of the time a magic mirror is for talking to spirits -- you know, ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall.' John Dee, magician to Queen Elizabeth the First, had an obsidian mirror that he said came from the Aztecs in Mexico, and he supposedly summoned spirits into it so he could talk to them. It's in the British Museum now. Or sometimes magic mirrors are for distance viewing, seeing things that are far away. Not sure I've ever heard of a mirror that shows things exactly as they are, even when they're hidden."

Janice had sat down and started eating, leaving the key in the drawer for now. "Hidden -- how can something be here but not be here?" she asked. "I thumped on that wall, felt every inch of it, and there's no doorway in it. And there's no room in this house for another story!"

"That's because it's -- well, hidden," Melody explained. "There are a lot of accounts of a hidden world that we live alongside, never seeing or experiencing as we do the ‘real' world we live our lives in, but no less real."

"The Twilight Zone," Janice said. "Oooo weeee ooooh."

"Well that's just a play on a much older concept," Melody said. "There are said to be beings that live nearby, but not quite here. Fairies are sometimes said to have houses just out of sight. Creatures may sometimes try to cross over, not quite making it, and sometimes people might interpret them as ghosts or hauntings, making noises, almost but not quite being seen, or moving objects around slightly."

"Those things at the auction, though," Janice said, "they went quite a bit beyond not quite making it."

"Yeah," Melody admitted, "that's gonna take more doing than what most of them can do. But two losers who can't even properly steal a mirror aren't the sort to have that kind of power. They're working for someone who does. Wish I had some idea who, but I don't."

In a secured, underground vault of the local bank, two men dressed in total black groveled prostrate in sheer terror on the ground at the feet of another man dressed in some sort of wizard's robe. It had long flowing sleeves that hid the man's hands and was so black it seemed to be cut from the very essence of darkness.

From within the ebony shadow of the hood where a face should have been visible, an ethereal bass voice rumbled through the chamber, "And you fools allowed it to slip through your fingers so easily?"

One of the figures said in a whiney trembling voice dripping with fear, "It could not be helped, oh mighty Emkandar! We were not only seen, but the eye opened and robbed us of our stealth and powers."

"What?" The chamber trembled with the anger in Emkandar's voice. "How in the infernal darkness did you manage to activate the mirror? You are neither of you high enough order, nor do you possess the powers or enchantments necessary."

The other man said in a trembling voice, "I do not know, my Lord! There were many in that place! Someone in the room must have had the power!"

Emkandar folded his hands into the sleeves of his robe and became silent. He thought to himself, "Either the old man's spirit lingered on ... or the glass has come full circle and selected its chosen one. It is possible that the time draws very near ... I must do something to stop this, or all is lost."

Out loud, Emkandar said in his most horrid tone, "Go forth, and find whom the mirror has sought out! Retrieve this person's essence, before the chosen's power can fully awaken." With this, he tossed a leather pouch in front of one of the prostrate men, saying, "How you accomplish that is of no importance now. Just do it." He turned away and began positioning the braziers around the intricately painted circle on the floor. "I must prepare to corrupt the glass."

Both men said in unison with great reverence, "It shall be done, O mighty Emkandar."

Some rain had blown in from the west, but the sky was still bright that morning, and a beaten-up pickup truck pulled into Janice's gravel driveway. "Must be Dr. McCudgeon," Janice said. "Let me get my umbrella." Melody held the door open as she went out to greet their guest.

Holding the umbrella high enough to cover the vehicle's door, Janice was greeted by a woman with a mass of long, gray, tightly-curled hair and a long black coat. "Well, now, thank you," said the woman.

"Dr. McCudgeon?" Janice asked as she helped the older woman out of the truck and onto the gravel.

"Yes, indeed. And you must be Janice Linden," Dr. McCudgeon said. "Myrius said you'd look about like this. Thoughtful, too. That's promising."

Walking together under the umbrella, they made it to Janice's door, where Melody held it open and helped with umbrellas and coats. "Wait, Professor Myrius told you ... about me? But that's not possible -- I'd never met him."

"Well, he was an ... unusual fellow," Dr. McCudgeon said.

"I'm Melody Poole," Melody said. "We talked on the phone yesterday."

"Oh yes, of course."

"Would you like some tea?" offered Melody. "I just started the kettle boiling."

"Are you sure that's worded correctly? The kettle doesn't start out --" Dr. McCudgeon's sentence was cut off by the whistling sound of a boiling kettle coming from the kitchen. "I see, so that's how it is," she said with a chuckle. "I'd love some tea, dear."

"Great! Let's go to the kitchen." Melody led the way. Janice followed.

"Lots of unusual people around lately," Dr. McCudgeon said as they sat down at the table and Melody poured tea.

The women began to notice the temperature in the room noticeably falling as the tea steamed ever more energetically and their breaths came out in small puffs of white mist.

Dr. McCudgeon stood from her chair and waved her hand in front of her. As it passed, Janice's eyes grew large in total shock as she watched Dr. McCudgeon's appearance change radically. She was now dressed in a red flowing robe with the hood pulled back. Her hair was still curly, but had changed to a beautiful golden with white streaks.

From her waist she pulled a very ornately decorated rod of some sort and held it at the ready.

Melody stood and said with total amazement in her tone, "You ... your ..."

Dr. McCudgeon said matter of factly, "I am a master Sorceress, and something is about to enter our world right here that ... we would really not want to enter."

Janice stood and said with a tinge of fear in her voice, "But ... the mirror is locked."

Dr. McCudgeon turned, slowly walked from the room, went up the stairs, and stopped directly in front of the wall where the mirror had once shown a hidden door.

Dr. McCudgeon said softly as she began to draw weird designs on the white wall, "The mirror only shows them, child, but the portals within this nexus are still there, and they aren't locked. I think we need to take you to the Library as quickly as possible. At least, you will be able to defend yourself from whatever is approaching from there." She drew with her wand, and more glowing lines appeared where its tip touched the wall.

Janice stomped her foot and screeched, "No! This kind of thing doesn't happen except in the movies."

Dr. McCudgeon said as she flicked her wand at the wall, "Well, this must be a movie, then."

The weird runes seemed to catch fire as the wall shimmered, and the hidden arched door slowly came into view. A low menacing growl could be heard coming from within.

"W-what was that?" Janice asked.

"Most likely a gargoyle," said Dr. McCudgeon. "They're usually set as guardians. And, you probably won't be happy to hear, not your greatest challenge today." Janice grabbed her flashlight, but Dr. McCudgeon flicked her wand, which began emitting a bright flame-like light from its tip. Together they went up the stone stairs.

"This is the way to the Upper Library," said Dr. McCudgeon. "I hope it will answer all your questions. But first you'll have to gain entrance."

"Me? But can't you --?" Janice asked.

"I can already get in," she explained as they reached a landing, turned a corner, and climbed further. "You have to pass the test yourself, or you can't get in."

"I think ... maybe I'll just stay outside," Janice said.

"You're the one the glass chose," said Dr. McCudgeon. "You can't just say no. I don't know everything, but I do know that if you're the one it chose, you're the only one who can face what's coming. It's happened every time. I can show you, if we can get in."

They reached the top of the stairs, where there was a large foyer. Two great sets of double doors stood on either side of an imposing statue of a gargoyle. It stood still, but its eyes glowed brightly.

"We seek entrance to the Upper Library," Dr. McCudgeon told it.

The gargoyle began to move, stone flowing like flesh. "You have already passed the trial," it said to her. "But you," it told Janice, "and you," it said to Melody, "have not. Who will be first?"

Janice looked at Melody. "If I've got to do this, then I'll go first. What sort of trial is it?"

"For you, merely a question," it said. "Answer, and answer truthfully. If you answer falsely, you will fail. Look out that window."

Janice turned where the gargoyle pointed. There were windows, beveled glass ones framed with metal. Outside was a breathtaking view -- forests far below, and mountains in the distance. It wasn't possible, but there it was.

"The tallest peak you see there is Mount Kallyptis," the gargoyle said. "At its summit is a shrine, and in that shrine is a chest, containing a parchment scroll, said to be the last message Master Lyricus spoke before leaving this world. What does it say?"

Janice sucked in her breath. What did it say? She'd never seen this scroll. She'd never heard of any Master Lyricus. What could she do?

"What happens if she gets it wrong?" Melody asked Dr. McCudgeon quietly.

"I eat well tonight," the gargoyle responded, looking at Melody with its glowing eyes. Melody gulped.

"I cannot advise you," Dr. McCudgeon said to Janice. "That counts as your getting it wrong. But be strong."

What would a wise master of some kind say as his last message to the world? Janice thought. Something wise, certainly. But what was wisdom? An idea in her mind caught fire. If there was one thing that she'd always read about wisdom, it was knowing how much there was to learn. The gargoyle had said to answer truthfully. So ...

"I don't know," said Janice. Her voice trembled a bit.

"You have answered truthfully," the gargoyle said, sounding somewhat disappointed. "You may enter."

"Melody," said Janice, "does she have to do it too? She's not chosen or anything."

"I want to!" said Melody. "I came here to help you. If I don't help, I'm ... letting you down."

"No you're not," Janice said. "You're --" Melody suddenly vanished.

"Where'd she go?" asked Janice in a panicked tone.

The gargoyle answered, "Her challenge is to be faced elsewhere. If she succeeds, she will be returned here."

"Then there's nothing we can do to help her," said Dr. McCudgeon. "I think her chances are very good, however. Come inside, and I'll show you the books you need to see."

"But ... Melody ..." Janice said as Dr. McCudgeon pushed one of the doors open.

Janice's words were cut short by the magnificent sight before her. A huge crystal rotated on a pillar of multicolored light, which in turn sent shafts of multicolored lights throughout the room in a spectacular display.

Row upon rows stacked higher than she could see were books of all shapes, sizes, and bindings. There were racks upon racks filled with many types of scrolls made from various materials. Some even appeared to made from light, or even darkness itself. Many countless bins stretched off in other directions filled with tablets that had even stranger carvings and runes inscribed on them.

As Janice's eyes became accustomed to the sparkling dazzle of the huge cavernous room, she noticed many strange creatures scurrying about. She took closer notice. The creatures were about three feet tall, and indescribably ugly to her senses.

Several of the creatures approached and quickly set up a viewing table and two chairs. Another appeared seemingly from nowhere with several large books and placed them on the table with a solid thump.

It turned to Janice and knelt as it bowed low with its forehead to the floor. It said softly, "Welcome, Oh one who has been chosen. Unto you this day the books of knowledge shall be opened and your powers shall come of age."

It stood and looked directly into Janice's eyes. She could feel the beady little eyes as it seemed they bored directly into her soul.

Dr. McCudgeon quickly placed her hand over Janice's eyes and snapped, "Do that again and you will be tossed into the pit for eternity. Is that clear?"

The Imp bowed in fear, then vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

Dr. McCudgeon said softly as she motioned Janice to one of the chairs, "I apologise for that. An imp does stupid things sometimes. That's why they are called imps." Dr. McCudgeon pulled a small volume that appeared to be bound in purple gemstone and opened it to just about a third. To Janice's astonishment, it was a perfect depiction of ... her incised into the purple clear thin stone that made the page. Dr. McCudgeon continued, "You have been chosen as a Defender of the Light." She turned to the next page where a picture of an individual in the darkest of dark robes showed, "And this is the person who is opposed to what you are guarding."

"There's opposition," Janice said. "Of course there is. Probably much more experienced and powerful."

"More experienced, yes," Dr. McCudgeon replied, "but more powerful? Not so much. You don't know it yet, but you can blow him out of the water with your little finger. Destiny knows what it's doing. It knows when someone's going to make a bid for power, and it sends someone who can stop them."

"This guy's out for power?"

"He rules most of one world, but he's trying for more. His name's Emkandar, and he knows where a lot of the portals between worlds are, allowing him to travel between them and give orders to his minions -- and get his minions there, if he can't find any native ones. But he relies on stealth and illusion -- both things that your looking glass happens to see right through."

"Melody keeps calling it my mirror. But it's Professor Myrius' mirror, isn't it?"

"Not anymore," Dr. McCudgeon told her. "He passed on -- and besides, you bought it, fair and square. It belongs to you now. Anyone who tries to take it from you risks the consequences."


"It's magical law. Take something from someone, and they're within their rights to take it back. By any means necessary. And magic itself tends to help restore items to their rightful owners."

"Hi!" said a voice from behind them. "Did I miss anything?"

"Melody!" Janice got up and hugged her. "You're OK! I wanted to help you, but there was no way. What happened?"

"Riddle maze through a museum full of arcane artifacts," Melody said. "No problem. A bit tricky in spots, but here I am."

"You didn't take anything," Dr. McCudgeon said, noting Melody was empty-handed. She sounded impressed.

"Nope," Melody said. "Everything I've ever read told me that would have been a bad idea. And, in fact, I'm pretty sure that was the solution to the entire challenge. I didn't even touch anything."

"So she was telling me about this Emkandar guy," Janice said, "who I guess is bad news." She pointed at the picture of him in the book.

"OK, now I'll know him if I see him," Melody said. "Nice robe. Looks like it absorbs light. I know of a few objects said to do that."

"You are most definitely the Defender's Advisor," said Dr. McCudgeon. "Just as I was for Professor Myrius. Melody, there's a collection I must show you. But Janice, read those books. I'll be right back."

"I -- OK," Janice said, sitting down and reading. She quickly learned many things, actually, like how to open the doorway to the Upper Library herself and how to access other portals once she found them. She read about Emkandar and his past. She read about the Glass of Truth and was just getting to an interesting section about how to invoke its power without carrying the entire object with her when Dr. McCudgeon came back.

"Melody's in the artifacts collection," she said. "She can check out a wand until she can get one of her own -- or make one. I have no doubts she can learn to do it. She's reading about that now, in fact. How are you coming along? Oh, I see you're in the chapter about binding the glass to your vision, very useful."

"Dr. McCudgeon --"

"Martha, please. It's just fine."

"OK, Martha, what am I going to be doing with this knowledge?" Janice asked. "I don't know where this Emkandar is right now, or what he's going to do, or how to fight against it."

"That's the point of being a Defender, dear," Martha said. "You can't always know. You have to be ready, and you have to think on your feet. The kind of guy he is, he'll send some minions after you first. Then he'll probably send some stronger ones. No telling how many times he'll do that, but eventually he'll come himself."

"Can he get in here?" Janice asked.

"If he knows where to find a doorway, and how to open it. But if he does, he's forbidden to attack you here. Harming others, in either magical or mundane ways, is forbidden in the Libraries. Not only won't the Imps stand for it, the Librarian takes a dim view of such things."

A shadow where no shadow could exist formed. It flowed like living smoke around several objects sitting near them before swirling around like a small tornado for an instant. From within the heart of the smoke-nado, a box formed sitting on a pillar of light that appeared as the smoke dissipated.

As the box opened, a bright white light began to emanate from the box. Within the box, on a cushion of the plushest blue velvet, rested an amulet. It was made of the purest crystal, the chain of the brightest gold.

Martha said with a tint of awe in her voice, "It appears you have also been given an accessory."

Martha stood and went to the box to retrieve the amulet. When she reached into the box, her hand passed through the amulet and its chain as if it were just a hologram.

Martha laughed and said, "Come, the only one who can receive this, is you. You must wear it at all times."

Janice stood and came to the pillar of light and brightly glowing box. She reached in and touched the amulet. It vanished in a bright flash, only to reappear around her neck.

Martha continued, "That gives you the ability to see the hidden things as if the mirror were with you. It is a magical conduit of sorts to the Glass of Truth. It can take any form you like." Martha opened a black box about 14 inches long and 2 inches wide and handed it to Janice, "And this, is your wand until you create one or one that wants you finds you."

Janice took the softly glowing amulet in her hand and held the ebony rod Martha had given her in the other. The amulet felt warm and pulsed as if with her heartbeat. She said, "This ... is a dream. It can't be for real."

Martha laughed, "I thought the exact same thing when I stood where Melody is right now ..."

Without warning, something seemed to change about the lighting in the room. Janice felt a strange sensation as it happened. Looking toward the exit, Martha said softly, "I fear the time of your awakening has arrived. What you must face, I cannot help you with. Do not fear, for you have power and authority, as you will soon discover. Now go and deal with that thing."

Janice started to say something, but Martha shushed her and pointed to the doors off in the distance. With quiet resolve, Janice moved towards the door. Melody saw Janice starting to go out, and quickly rushed up behind her. Martha smiled and nodded, The Guardian and her assistant were now together and chosen. Time to watch and see the awakening. Martha slowly moved towards the door as memories of this exact same thing came back to her when her powers awakened so many long ages ago.

What Janice saw when she opened the door was a powerfully-muscled grayish-skinned humanoid about 12 feet tall and almost as wide. It mostly wore chains, links of metal attached to nothing but each other. When it saw her, it roared angrily, its voice echoing through the Library's large foyer at the top of the stairs leading back to her home. This thing had stomped through her house?

"I thought you weren't supposed to let anyone in without a challenge!" Melody said to the gargoyle, who still stood atop his pedestal.

"He is not attempting to enter the Library," the gargoyle replied.

"Some good you are." commented Melody.

"Can we focus here?" asked Janice.

Janice hadn't failed to notice two people in dark robes standing in the far corners of the forum. They looked an awful lot like the two men who had tried to steal the mirror at the auction. She felt the amulet pulse, and they suddenly looked like what she'd seen in the mirror, only now she had a clearer view: they were gray-skinned like the monster that stood before her, only thinner -- much thinner, almost skeletally thin, the sinews beneath their flesh standing out through their skin. They seemed to be concentrating on something; each held a wand in his hand, with his arm outstretched toward the monster, and his eyes closed.

Wait. Martha said she had "power and authority." Authority? Authority enforced laws. Were laws being violated here? Anyone could visit the Library if they passed the tests. But ...

"Excuse me," Janice said loudly, and this time her voice echoed through the foyer. But she was addressing the two men in black robes. "That's right, I'm talking to you two! I couldn't help noticing that you were casting spells at this individual here." She indicated the large monster. "Those wouldn't be spells of influence, would they? Is usurping another's free will a lawful act?"

"Ooo, that's probably a punishable offense," Melody agreed. "Most things I've read about the subject ..."

"And what concern is it of yours, girl?" one of the men rasped in a voice that sounded as if he had been smoking poison ivy all his life.

"Look, I'm apparently the Guardian of Truth, and you're doing something wrong here," Janice said. "You don't get to keep doing it. I'm stopping you." She couldn't believe she'd said that. She whispered to Melody, "Do you know how to stop them?"

"Umm, see if you can interrupt their concentration," said Melody. "Or use your eye thingie and find the spells they're casting, and disrupt them. They're probably --"

"RAAAAH!" the monster roared, trying to hit Janice with one basketball-sized fist and Melody with the other. They leapt out of the way, making the monster even more frustrated. It roared again.

"Look, Sir, I'm sure you don't appreciate being forced to fight," Melody said, "but we're not the ones forcing you. It's really a terrible thing they're doing."

Janice, meanwhile, was searching for the spells, willing the amulet to show her the truth. And she saw it -- glowing red lines were extending from the men's outstretched wands, leading to the monster's head. No -- they were red snakes, made of some sort of transparent energy, and their fangs appeared to be sunk into the monster's skull. "I see what you're doing," Janice said, and raised her wand.

Roaring again, the monster swung its tremendous arm and backhanded Janice's wand out of her hand. It went skittering across the foyer floor and down the stairs, out of sight.

"Oh, great," Janice said.

"Oh yeah?" Melody said. "Well, now -- uh, now she's just gonna have to do it the hard way!"

"The ... hard way," Janice said incredulously, looking at Melody. "Really."

"Well, if you really are this Guardian thing, maybe you can do it anyway?" Melody suggested. "It's not like what they're doing is lawful. You've got the law on your side."

"I still see your magic snake spells," she said. "And I don't like them. Let's see here ..." Remembering how she'd locked the door in front of the mirror, she reached out and grabbed at the air, imagining herself seizing both snakes just behind their heads, so they couldn't bite her, and pulling them loose from the monster's head. Her amulet-enhanced vision showed this happening, and soon she was holding both serpents, dangling and whipping their bodies around wildly but unable to bite. She could almost feel them, but she could clearly see them.

The monster, for his part, looked confused and was shaking his head as if to clear his mind. "WHY ME HERE?" he said. "WHERE ME AT?"

The two men in robes looked apprehensively at each other. They waved their wands, and the ineffectual snakes vanished from Janice's hands. They tried to point again at the monster's head.

"NOT AGAIN," the monster said angrily, turning on the nearest of the two men. "HATE YOU." He tried to pick one of them up, and the robed man made frightened noises and ran away.

"I want to keep them from casting more spells," Janice said. "Can I do that?" She looked at Melody.

"I think so," her friend replied. "Just keep watching what they're doing and blocking them."

One of the robed men pointed his wand at Janice as the monster went after his compatriot, but as some sort of energy built up at the wand's tip, Janice made a dismissive gesture with her hand and imagined herself just tossing away whatever it was. The energy was snuffed out like a candle flame. "What --?" the man said, shaking his wand like a flashlight whose battery had just died.

The other robed man was trying to cast a spell with his wand at the monster pursuing him, but Janice snuffed out that spell before it was complete as well. "You might as well go away," she said to them. "I will not allow you to continue your unlawful behavior. Return to Emkandar and accept the penalty for your failure."

"Emkandar!" one of the men said, looking at the other. "She knows!"

"He will have our skins!" said the other, fearfully.

"Get outta here, or I'll let HIM have your skins!" Janice shouted at them. They ran down the stairs, the large monster pursuing them. But when Janice ran after them, they were all gone.

"Transported back to where they came from, I guess," said Melody.

Janice saw her wand at the landing halfway down. She tried imagining herself reaching for it, and it immediately sped to her hand so quickly that it almost stung. She looked at it with an amazed expression. "What did I just do?"

"Well, that is typically called conjuration," Melody said, "but to answer what I think your real question was, I think you just enforced some magical law and order."

"Now this Emkandar character's gonna be coming for me, though."

"He already knows about you," said Martha, emerging from the Library, "and has already sent minions after you. It's only a matter of time before he tries something else. You might want to come back inside and learn as much as you can."

"Good idea," said Janice.

"Oh, and that was in a way your first test," said Martha. "I'd say you passed with flying colors. The most important thing was that you spotted the mind-control spells they were casting and focused on how they were unlawful, rather than fighting the monster. Taking the monster's side turned him against them and made him an ally of sorts. Well done."

In a vault under the local bank, a being dressed in a blackest of black robes was more than showing his outrage. Two men groveled at his feet in abject terror as the concrete walls of the vault trembled in his rage.

"How in the seven bells of hell could you have allowed the chosen to escape you? The task was simple, retrieve the chosen's essence and return it to me! The way to the glass is now barred because of your incompetence!"

One of the men got to his knees as he clapped his hands out in front of him, "Have mercy, mighty Emkandar, the chosen is far more powerful than you can imagine. And her advisor ... is as powerful as the one before her."

Fiery red embers glowed brightly from within the shadow of Emkandar's hood, "You insolent piece of flotsam. From the embers I created you and to that shall you return."

A loud hissing crackling ZAP! And the remainders of the shreds of cloth that made up the individual's clothing fluttered to the ground. The other individual screamed in total terror.

Emkandar turned and pointed his bony finger at him and said in his terrible voice, "And why should I have any kind of sympathy for you? You failed as miserably as did he."

The man lay prostrate on his face as he mewled piteously, "I served you faithfully all these years, Oh mighty Emkandar. We have never encountered a Guardian nor her Advisor of such great power. As mighty as the last were, these are the most powerful ever."

Emkandar folded his hands into his longsleeves as his red fiery orbs stared at his lowly minion. He thought to himself, "If this is true, perhaps they are even more powerful than I." Emkandar shakes his head in disbelief, "This cannot be. Power of that sort does not manifest itself within the human coil so easily nor so secretly. There must be something more of this cycle I have not as yet seen."

To his minion he said, "Go you forth and observe this new Guardian. Tell me of their weaknesses and how I might strike at them. We cannot be foiled again, the next alignment will not happen for 5 hundred years."

The totally petrified man crawled away bowing as he replied, "Yes master Emkandar, I shall be as ephemeral as mist."

"I am so hungry now," Janice said, as the three of them descended the stairs. "I could make something, but ... I'm also super tired."

"Well, there are some nice restaurants ..." Martha suggested. "I'm going to have to change again if we go to one, though." She gestured with her wand and was again dressed in her black full-length coat and scarf.

"Are you doing that with illusion or transfiguration?" Melody asked.

"It's transfiguration, and it's quite simple if you set up a two-state system beforehand," Martha explained, but then they reached the bottom of the stairs and were in Janice's house again. They could see the Glass of Truth reflecting them as they descended.

"Oh, yes, I see that the mirror doesn't show any difference," Melody said, and she was right -- Martha's clothes looked just as they did to the eye when they were reflected in the mirror. Melody still looked as if she were covered in Christmas lights.

"Oh, you're probably going to close the portal," Janice said. "Let me watch and see how you do this."

"Good idea," Martha said. She faced the wall with the doorway and seemingly just flicked away the glowing lines she'd drawn earlier with her wand. The doorway promptly vanished from sight, although it was still reflected in the nearby mirror. "It's always easier to dismiss a spell than to cast it," she said, "but it's harder to dismiss a spell you didn't cast yourself. Now, what I want you to do is to lock this portal so that only you can pass through it -- preferably any one of us three, but it's simpler if it's just you."

Janice thought. "I ... think I can see how to do it, with what I've read today," she said. "This is a warding, isn't it?" Martha nodded. Janice took her own wand out again and drew an outline in glowing blue filigree around the entire section of wall, then added some symbols at its corners. "Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but if you each add to this before I finish it, you'll be able to pass through, right?"

"Yes, indeed," said Martha. "I think you're getting the hang of this." She added a symbol in red with her own wand. "Melody?"

"Well, from what I've read, I would need to do ... something like this." Melody took her mobile phone and added a very similar pattern, this one appearing in white lines.

"I still can't believe you made your phone into a wand," said Martha. "You youngsters and your newfangled gadgets. There has to be a reason why nobody's done that before."

"The tomes all said that to make a wand, it had to be something with a personal connection to you, intricately constructed, with traces of precious metals," said Melody. "It's the first thing I thought of. I already had it, it's got my personal information in it, its electronics are made of precious metals, and they're very intricate."

"And this way, if you lose your phone, you can conjure it back, just like I did with my wand, right?" Janice asked as she added more symbols and drew an inner line.

"Um ..." Melody said uncertainly. "I'm not sure I can do that."

"I think that's just you, dear," Martha said to Janice. "Not many people can cast spells without a wand. You appear to be able to do it with just gestures. That's uncommon. A few can do it with just words, or even with a mere thought -- that's extremely rare. Still, even if you don't need it, a wand amplifies your power."

"I'm so tired," Janice said. "The more help I have, the better." She completed the ward on the doorway, and the glowing lines intensified for a moment before fading from view, though they were now visible in the mirror's reflection. To the eye, the wall looked like a wall again.

"You'll develop more stamina with time," Martha advised. "It's like muscles; magic power gets stronger with exercise."

"If we're going out for dinner," asked Melody, "should we do anything to prepare? In case Emkandar sends any minions out after us? Or in case he's spying on us?"

"It would be best to assume he's going to do just that," Martha said. "Now here's what I suggest we all do ..."

Janice just knew someone was watching her the whole time they were at the diner. She looked around, but nothing her discerning amulet saw revealed anything hidden from sight.

Marthas leaned over and whispered softly, "What's wrong, dear? You've been antsy since we got here."

Janice took one more look around then replied, "I can feel something watching us. I can't find it anywhere near by. All is as it appears."

Martha replied softly, "There are other ways to observe someone other than being present. It helps to keep them hidden. I'm impressed, few Sorceresses have the ability to sense remote observation."

Melody leaned over and said, "Look here," she held out her cell. On its screen it showed a strange aura pulsating on the ceiling above them. "Whoever's watching, is using some weird form of magic. I can't tell from where it originates, but I can tell who they are observing ... it's us."

Martha removed her wand. To all the patron in the diner, it appeared as a fancy fountain pen. To the girls, they saw it in its true form. Martha waved the wand around in a figure eight pattern three times. The emanation above then faded and vanished.

Martha put her wand away, "That should give us a little privacy. I placed a nice wall of Emojfire between us and whoever is watching."

Within the secret lair of Emkandar, his viewing crystal flared painfully bright before he waved his hand over it and broke the viewing spell. Emkandar was impressed. This new Guardian did possess powers that required further study. Mayhap he was a bit too harsh on his minion earlier.

With a flick of his hand, a large flash of hellfire appeared, the smell of brimstone, a blood curdling, soul wrenching scream. A man appeared within the fire and smoke that quickly vanished from around his tortured body.

Emkandar said in a condescending off hand tone, "Let that be a warning to you. Failure will not be tolerated in the future. That was but a mere taste of the punishment in store should you fail me again."

The man wallowed on the floor prostrate as he said with a totally freaked out tone, "Yes, master ... I shall not fail you again."

"That is good to know," Emkandar said without much hope in his tone. "Now go. I must research these Guardians that Earth has. Evidently they will not be as easily defeated as I had expected." He took out a wand of black iron tipped with a blood-red ruby and drew a design in the air nearby, opening a portal and walking down the stairs beyond.

"Wait -- I think someone's trying to breach the perimeter," Janice said. She turned the TV off -- not with magic, just with the remote.

Melody sat up from her reading. "What?" She grabbed her phone.

Martha had set up several small challenges for Janice and Melody. They were meant to train them to not only work together better as a team, but to allow them the opportunity to use their powers and learn more about them in a controlled environment, rather than in the heat of a major situation. There was no way to know when Emkandar would attack or what he would do, but they wanted to be ready for a variety of possible scenarios.

"It's ... the southeast corner, near the woods," Janice said, closing her eyes momentarily. "I can feel it. Martha's right ... when you cast a spell you have a connection to it that you can feel."

"Do what she said -- you take care of it, and I'll take care of you," said Melody, flicking her phone at Janice and putting a warding spell on her. Janice quickly directed her more traditional golden wand in a series of complicated patterns and started to feel energy building up. Then she opened the back door of her house and went outside, followed by Melody.

"Is it inside, or is it still trying to get in?" asked Melody.

"It's outside, still trying," Janice said. "It's ... there!" She pointed at the corner of her property, where they could both see a deer standing, looking at them.

"A deer?" asked Melody. "Well, something that looks like one, anyway."

"If Martha can control a deer as a spy, so can Emkandar," said Janice. "I'm going to free it." She traced a pattern in the air and willed it at the deer, which suddenly leapt up and ran away.

Melody cautioned, "Make sure that's all there is," so Janice cast a divination very carefully to see if there were any traces left by the deer's departure.

"I see something!" Janice said. "There are symbols; I'm not sure what they do."

"Let me see," said Melody, using her wand as an actual phone and snapping a photo of the scene, magically enhanced to show the spell that was there. "Oh -- that's another divination," she said. "Probably spies on us."

"Let's get rid of it," Janice suggested, using the magic she had built up to assail the spell directly -- withdrawing one of your own spells wasn't hard, but it took effort to dispel someone else's. With a great flash that could only be seen by someone whose magical sense was available and active, a burst of energy came from Janice's reserve and struck the spell on the ground, shattering it in a burst of light and fractured runes.

"Next thing: Make sure it's really gone," Melody said, which she and Janice both did. When they had both scoured the area for more spells and found none, they both went back inside and found that Martha had left a message on Janice's phone. "Well done, you two, but don't let your guard down for a minute -- you don't know when the next test might come from me or from him."

But at the kitchen table, they found ... what looked like Martha sitting there, apparently drinking a hot cup of tea. Melody held out her hand and put her finger to her lips in the silence motion. She pointed to the steam supposedly rising from the cup. Something about it wasn't exactly right.

Janice waved her hand and invoked the truth glass. Martha vanished. "A glamour," Melody said -- it had been a magical illusion. The game was afoot once again. Now, they were going to see if they could outwit a Master Sorceress.

Hide and seek had always been fun for Janice as a little girl. This, however, was very much different. What the eye thought it saw wasn't necessarily what was there, nor was the object where it appeared to be. "Try the living room," said Melody's voice, only Melody was actually looking in the spare room in the attic. Melody thought she heard Martha saying something behind her, but she turned to find no one there.

"You're getting colder," Martha's voice said when Janice opened the basement door -- but her voice came from the bottom of the basement stairs. Each supposed find brought a new twist to the search, and much more enjoyment of the hunt to Janice and Melody.

"I should just activate the Glass of Truth and leave it on," said Janice.

"Why don't you?" Melody asked. "It seems obvious."

"It's very tiring," Janice said. "A glimpse of the truth now and then is fine, but when I try to leave it on for any length of time, it really wears me out."

"Bummer," Melody said. "That would be useful."

"Even so," Janice said, "sometimes a glimpse is all I need." A flick of her wand while looking around the living room ... revealed no trace of Martha.

"Well ... she's not here," said Melody. "What rooms haven't we looked in?"

"That way? Almost all of them," Janice said.

Suddenly, Janice had an idea. She said in a strange tone of voice, "What if, she isn't actually here, but there?"

Melody looked sideways at Janice for an instant before her face took on the expression of understanding. "I know of the door to the library. You think there's another?"

Janice already had the Glass of Truth out and was concentrating on it as she wandered around from room to room. Melody followed totally caught up in the search. This had proven to be really fun.

Janice turned a corner and stopped suddenly. The vague outline of another hidden door appeared on the wall in the hall to the bedrooms. Janice began to make the arcane drawings of symbols on the wall as Melody started singing the melodious words that would open it.

Janice tapped the wall with her wand, and the symbols seemingly caught fire as the doorway became visible. A horrible smell came drifting into the hall. It was so bad it caused the girls' eyes to water.

Janice cast a cleansing spell, and the vapors turned a visible, sickening green as they were gathered into a large ball and sealed within some kind of magic crystal. Melody held the sphere in her hand and looked within the swirling mass of oily green mist. Strange images seemed to dance within as shadows.

From the door came Martha, "Very well done. I was wondering when you would remember there are other doors in your house besides the ones you can see on this physical reality. And thank you for doing something about that stench. That dimension's atmosphere is really quite noxious."

Melody said, "But if there are other portals to other worlds that lead to this house ... and if Emkandar can travel to other worlds too ..."

A hideous laughter came from somewhere below them. "Ha ha ha!" laughed a deep voice. "Only now do you realize the folly of your useless warding spells. I am here to destroy you, and there is nothing you can do to keep me out now. I am already here!"

"Do you smell something burning?" Melody remarked.

"The basement!" Janice gasped and ran to the basement door.

"That's true; the wards only keep things out when they come from other parts of this world," Martha said as she walked after Janice. "Looks like another test for the new Guardian."

Opening the basement door revealed another foul stench, one that hadn't been there just minutes ago, and a reddish light coming from somewhere not visible from the top of the stairs. Janice flicked her wand in a now-familiar sequence of protective spells as she climbed downward, turning around as she neared the bottom to see a large being with glowing red skin who seemed to be emerging from her solid cement basement floor.

He had spiraling horns on his head and was wearing no clothing -- at least, on the upper half of him, which was thankfully all Janice could see. "Ah, there you are, tiny Guardian," he said. "You are a problem I've been sent to solve. And I don't think that will be much trouble." He spread his arms, and he began to exude flames. Everything flammable in his vicinity began to catch fire.

"Hey! My collection of old National Geographic magazines!" Janice shouted at him. "You're really pushing it, Mister."

"I'll lock down the fire," Melody said. "You focus on him." She gestured with her phone and drew symbols in the air, symbols of elemental ice.

Janice somehow knew, this being wasn't going to be much of a problem. The only real problem was going to be keeping the infernal fires from burning her house down, which Melody was going to keep from happening anyway. A smile crept across her face as she thought of a fairy tail she had read once about a fairy princess and her pink pet storm cloud.

As the icy runes Melody created began to cause the fires to solidify into red glowing ice, Janice pictured in her mind what that cute little storm cloud would look like, and the fact the water it would rain down would be the purest of the pure. Something Janice was positive the demon would be unable to tolerate.

A really cute little pink cloud suddenly boiled out of nothing to fill the ceiling space above the demon. It looked up, then the expression of sheer horror came over its face as water began to fall in copious amounts.

The demon screamed in abject agony as steam began to rise and nasty open wounds appeared on its body. Water quickly pooled, then turned to blue ice around the demon as it quickly became encased in a blue ice shell. Even the steam began to freeze and fell as a soft powdery blue snow to cover the icy shell that contained the demon. It took on the lovely appearance of a frosted ice cream of some sort.

Martha came down the stairs about that time, then burst into laughter, "Now, that's something he'll have to live with for centuries. None of his minions will let him forget this. Well done girls, very well done."

"Still don't want him in my basement," Janice said.

Martha replied, "Well, then, can you find a way to get rid of him?"

"I ... guess he got here through a portal," Janice mused. She invoked the Glass to see if it could show her anything, and a flicker of reflection passed across her eyes as she did so. "The portal's in the floor, of course," she said. "It's still open, and he's stuck halfway through it."

"Maybe if we open it up a little more, he'll just ... drop back out," Melody suggested.

"You get this side, and I'll get the other side," Janice told her. She circled around the frozen demon to the other side of the portal. "Hmm, I hope this didn't damage my hot water heater."

After stating some words and gesturing with her phone, Melody called out, "I think I've got my side!"

"All right then," said Janice, and chanted similar words and flicked her wand toward the arc of the opening. She could feel the magic take hold of the intangible edge of the portal. "One ... two ... three ... pull!" Janice raised her wand as if she were reeling in a fish; she could feel resistance as she stretched the portal.

"Careful, ladies," said Martha. "If you tear the portal, you'll leave a permanent rip in the universe."

They didn't pull any harder than that, but they didn't need to. The demon-like being suddenly dropped through the hole, giving them a brief view of an infernal realm of charred rock, molten lava, and skies filled with clouds of fire raining down cinders. "Done," Janice said, and let go. So did Melody, and the portal snapped shut again. The basement floor looked as if its solid concrete had never been disturbed.

"Whew," said Janice. "Now, can we go through the house and make sure there aren't any unwarded portals?"

"Excellent idea," said Martha. "Emkandar must have sent him -- though I noticed that he never used Emkandar's name. My guess is that he doesn't consider himself Emkandar's minion -- he was probably doing this as a favor, or as part of a deal. Regardless, we don't want Emmy sending any other surprises."

"Let's ward this one, then look for others," said Janice, and began doing just that.

A few hours later, she was sure there were no other portals in her home that weren't warded. "Is it normal for a single house to have portals to 16 other worlds in it?" Janice asked Martha as they all sat down for a rest.

"No, quite the contrary," Martha explained. "You were destined for this, so you were destined to buy a house that had lots of portals in it. They can be useful tools as well as entry points for threats, as you've seen."

"We should explore where they go," said Melody.

Martha nodded. "Not a bad idea," she said. "But now that they're warded, nothing's coming through them that we don't allow through. You can afford to explore them on your own schedule. And I'm sure Emmy's not done with you yet. But he'll have a hard time getting at you now. Maybe now you can take the fight to him."

"Attack ... Emkandar?" asked Janice, somewhat aghast. "But ... where is he? And what resources does he have?"

"Where he is is the first thing you'll have to learn," Martha said. "Old Myrius and I had to search for a number of creeps. But I'll bet he has fewer resources than you do. Fewer than he used to have, too. Still, he's trying to conquer a number of worlds at the same time. He's got his fingers in a lot of different pies -- which can mean his attention's split several ways, but can also mean he's got a variety of tricks."

"I've read about a number of different worlds that are supposed to exist," Melody said. "What if we find one that he's got a presence in, go there, and look around?"

"By ‘a presence,' you mean he's got minions there," Janice said.

"And maybe we can take them out," said Melody. "Or even set them free, turn them against him!"

"The more trouble you cause for him elsewhere, the less attention he can afford to focus here," Martha said.

"Awesome! When do we start?" asked Melody.

"Tomorrow," said Janice, "after some rest and research.

In a very dark and very smelly place filled with hydrogen sulfide fumes and sulfur, Emkandar sat amid his pentagram of magical flaming luminaries and brooded. He couldn't believe how easily those women had defeated and totally embarrassed such a mighty demongog as the one he had sent against them. They had managed to so humiliate it so badly that it refused to leave the flaming pits of Hades for at least a millennium.

None of Emkandar's enchantments opened any of the portals within the house of the library either. He discovered even its door had somehow been completely sealed against him. None of the previous Guardians had been able to accomplish this so completely, according to what he had learned, and Emkandar had begun to worry. The conjunction was approaching, and he had to have control of the other 4 dimensional planes required to make the quorum necessary. Without them, he wouldn't have the power to rule, and one of the other Black Wizards could possibly overthrow him.

A bell rang, interrupting his musings. Drat, he would have to assume his role as the bank manager. At least most of the employees in this branch were his minions ... he could sort of tolerate the puny humans with them around.

Emkandar stood, ran his hand from the top of his head to his feet, then stood up again. He now appeared to be an ordinary man of middle age and extra dark black hair in thick glasses. He turned, opened the secret portal, and entered the vault. It was time to assume his disguise.

"So you say this is Dualla?" Melody asked as they walked down the road. "I've read some things about this place."

"Yes," said Martha. "There is a World Above and a World Below. This is the World Above, and there are only a few places where the two worlds touch -- the World Below is a world of dark caverns and subterranean creatures."

"Do we have to go there?" Janice asked.

"Maybe," Martha answered without answering. "We're here to find out whether Emkandar has influence here, and if so how much. If we can cause trouble for him here, it's likely to take the pressure off us on Earth. And if we're lucky, maybe we can find out where some of the portals he uses are, and where on Earth they connect to."

"Other than my house," Janice finished.

"If we can find the ones Emmy uses, maybe we can find him," said Melody, starting to use Martha's nickname for the dark wizard. "And if we can find him, maybe we can mess up his plans on Earth."

"Indeed," Martha said. "But look up ahead -- the town of Muatar. Supposedly it's one of the places where the World Above meets the World Below, or that's what the old book I found said. Most likely there are some kind of tunnels, catacombs, or the like under the town that connect to the vast underground world."

"If I were going to take over a world that had two sides, I'd want to have control over places like that," said Janice.

As they started passing by the outskirts of the small medieval-looking town, they started seeing houses, shops, inns, and more people. Melody was still dressed in her multi-colored outfit, but here it made her look as if perhaps she were some sort of entertainer, and people didn't look at her twice. Janice had attempted to dress nondescriptly, in a plain blouse and skirt with a cloak. Martha was still in her black overcoat and broad-brimmed hat. Passers-by didn't seem to think anything was unusual about them, since they weren't staring.

"Now, that translation spell I cast should still be good for another six hours or so before it'll need renewing," said Martha, "so we'll be able to talk to the locals, but remember, they don't speak English here -- it only seems like it to us."

"Where should we ask?" Janice said. "I mean, if we ask a random person whether they've heard of ‘Emmy,' they're likely to either not react, or react very strongly."

"That's why we're going to listen," Martha said. "If Emmy's got a lot of power here, they'll be talking about him. If he's only got a little, they'll still be talking about him. If nobody ever mentions him at all, then it won't be a problem if we ask about him, because chances are that means nobody's ever heard of him."

"What if they pretend they've never heard of him when they actually have?" asked Melody.

"I think that's why we're going to an inn," said Janice. "If we get them drunk first, they won't be lying or pretending very well."

They approached a small building with loud rough laughter, women's giggles and screeches, and men's loud cursing coming from it. The large sign over the door read Brimstone Inn. The women looked at each other, Martha nodded and they entered.

A pretty barmaid with almost nothing on came up to them and asked, "Even to ya travelers. Ya come for tha celebration?" she screeched as she slapped at the hand of one of the large men sitting at the nearby table as he reached up her very short smock.

Martha replied, her voice sounding totally male, "Hail and well met, to what honor is this celebration?"

The woman showed them to an empty table and lit the small oil lamp, "Why the coming Conjunction of Grand. Is where our master assumes power over all and grants us our requests fo a whole day."

Janice asked, she was amazed her voice sounded like a young man's, "And whom is the one taking control from whom?"

Martha quickly placed a hand on Janice's as the woman looked them over with added scrutiny, "And whom do ye be that knows not our Master?"

Martha replied, "We come from afar, another place ..."

The woman giggled, "Ohhh, I see. Ye really b travelers, huh? Mmk, won't b inquirin ya ta tells me where cuz I prolly won't unnerstand enny ways. Lotsa yur type here for tha celebration. What cans I get for ya? A woman? Drinks? Food?"

Melody replied in a male voice, "A bit of ale and a touch of mutton would do nice this time o day."

The woman smiled, "Now that, I ken relate to." She turned and quickly moved off to the large wooden bar and started speaking to the huge mountain of a man in a white apron behind it.

They had a seat at the table the young woman led them to. Melody looked around. Everyone else was boisterous and getting drunk. She waited for just the right moment, stood up and shouted, "Three cheers for the Master!" This was greeted by more loud cheering, and sometimes actually three of them, among those who were not so drunk they couldn't count to three.

"What are you doing?" asked Janice.

"Not looking out of place!" Melody replied.

They soon had plates of roasted meat and mugs of watered-down ale; Janice practiced her currency-changing spell to give them coins of silver and copper to pay with. Melody tried singing along with some of the songs and telling some off-color jokes. Janice and Martha managed to talk to some of the more mellow drunks without causing a scene. "So, we know of Master Emkandar from afar," said Janice carefully, "and he's won many victories, but we're travelers -- who's the pathetic loser he defeated here?"

The man they were talking to mumbled, "Lord Hubert? Eh, wouldn't call ‘im pathetic, but I guess he's a loser, since he's all but lost. Sits in his mansion with his family. Nobody else loyal to him anymore."

"That's ... good though, right?" Martha asked. "The Master's going to make us all powerful, so you can beat your enemies, live in prosperity, good times for all right?"

"I guess," the man said. "Right now ... I think I'm just gonna ... fall asleep." And he did that.

"What about you, Sir?" asked Janice, turning to another wobbly-looking red-nosed individual. "The Master's going to beat those no-good, low-down ..."

"Tunnel dwarves!" the man shouted. "No-good sneaky cheatin' bastards! Minin' all our gold out from under our feet before we can get to it!" A few others nearby heard him and shouted imprecations against the tunnel dwarves.

"Death to the tunnel dwarves!" shouted Melody, with much loud agreement. She hadn't drunk so much as a sip of her ale, but she made a great show of toasting others using her mug, spilling a lot of it on herself, so she smelled believably like ale.

"Now might be a good time," said Martha quietly to Janice.

Janice raised her hand and gestured, wiping her open palm before her eyes, and suddenly no one was paying any attention to the three of them.

"Time to go?" Melody asked. "OK." She set her mostly-empty ale mug down, straightened her clothes out a bit, and walked to the door, where Janice and Martha joined her. The barmaid and barkeep didn't look at them even once.

"So," whispered Martha as they left the inn and walked down the street, "this place is nearly conquered, but Lord Hubert and these dwarves are two avenues to explore."

"Maybe Lord Hubert's fortunes need to take a turn for the better?" Janice asked.

"Perhaps the tunnel dwarves could be convinced to join forces with him against Emmy," said Melody.

"Let's go talk to Lord Hubert first," Martha suggested. "He might know about how to contact the dwarves."

They sought out the largest mansion in town, which was probably Lord Hubert's. It looked deserted -- no guards around the outer walls or gates. But there were lights on inside the house, it seemed, though the curtains were drawn.

The three women walked to the large oaken bridge and banged against it with a large mallet that was hung near by. A voice could be heard faintly as it shouted, "Go away! I cannot defeat that which I cannot see, nor can I do anything about a demon that can walk through mighty stone walls. Begone with ye and trouble me not."

Martha shouted out in that male voice, "Lord Hubert? I come not to harass, but to seek wisdom on the enemy you fight this day."

A very handsome middle aged man's face appeared at one of the low windows that was illuminated, "And who be ye that is so foolhardy as to seek out the losing side? ‘Tis magic, I tell you, and mortals cannot defeat it with cold steel and strong back."

Janice replied back, "Perhaps we know of allies that can aid you in defence. Perhaps they be closer than ye know."

The man laughed, "Be it even so, is it? Come, We discuss this madness over a pot and a pipe. Perhaps we find a way after all."

The women looked at each other in surprise. A very short time passed, and the sound of metal chains rattling, iron hinges squealing, as the hugely thick oaken bridge door began to rise. The man, dressed in very fine leathern jerkins and one of the finest slashed tunics Janice and Melody had ever seen, came out, saying, "Hail and well met, my foolhardy friends! Come, let us drink to those allies of which you spoke."

With this, the man held out a large hand and motioned the disguised women in, in a very friendly manner.

Entering, Janice and the others saw a hallway with beautifully carved wooden paneling, with light that came from a room to the interior. Carrying a lantern, Lord Hubert led them down the hall to a well-appointed drawing room, where a middle-aged woman sat playing cards with another man and a teenaged girl, while a young boy sat in a chair doodling in a sketchbook. Two guards dressed in uniforms stood at attention.

"And who might these gentlemen be, Hubert?" the woman asked. "They reek of ale."

"If ye note more carefully, the clothes of this one do bear the air of having been in a tavern, but I detect not the faintest trace of drink in their manner or breath," Lord Hubert declared. "It bespeaks deception, but I think deception of the fuddled common folk. They speak words of hope, words which few are speaking of late. I thought it better to die hopeful than hopeless."

"Indeed, if we die tomorrow, ‘twere better to go fighting into history," said the woman. "To whom do we owe our thanks for this ray of light?"

To Janice's surprise, Melody stepped forth. "Ah, I am but a traveling singer of tales, Melody of the Pools, but it is many a tale that I have heard, and my companions and I have come to relate one that may interest you quite urgently."

"Well met, Melody of the Pools," said Lord Hubert, "and as you seem to know I am Lord Hubert of Muatar. This is my sister Hortense and her daughter Helen. And this is my son Henry." He indicated the boy, who looked to be around nine years old. "But what is this tale?"

"I have heard tell, my Lord," said Melody, "of travelers who challenge the might of Emkandar."

Gasping, Lord Hubert said, "But this is foolishness! Do these travelers yet live? His armies are great, and his magic is beyond anything that any now living can counter."

"These are traveling sorceresses of whom I speak, my Lord," said Melody. "They hail from a far land that Emkandar's powers have barely touched, and it is said that they walk these lands to hand Emkandar a defeat that would wound him most sorely."

"Sorceresses, you say," said Hortense. "It is true that the arts of old have suffered here, and few know any of them. Except perhaps the dwarves of the World Below, and their arts mainly concern the making of things from metal and stone."

Janice spoke, following Melody's lead. "I have heard tell, my Lord, that these sorceresses are searching for a way to speak with the dwarves of the tunnels beneath, to ally with them against Emkandar. Know you a way to send them a message?"

"Know you a way to send a message to these sorcerous travelers?" asked Lord Hubert. "For time grows short, for my family and for the few in these lands loyal to us. We are far outnumbered by those who have been won over by Emkandar's hollow promises of riches and victories. And it is said that Emkandar's army arrives in the morn."

Janice, Martha, and Melody looked at each other. Janice wondered whether she should remove the illusion and reveal their true identities.

Janice said softly, "Might there perhaps be any others who are loyal to the light and not the darkness?"

The woman turned and eyed Janice and the others more closely as she said with a strange tone her voice, "Something about ye bespeaks other places. What know you of the old magics of light? The legends of that are but children's stories told by rushlight in the even."

Martha laid a hand on Janice's shoulder as she said, "Perhaps there's more to wandering bard's tales than meets the eye."

Lord Hubert laughed loudly as he said merrily, "Could this be the glamour of legend? I saw no sign of mirage or shadow! But though this be deception, I think it is deception born of caution." He came closer to Martha and looked her over, "Show me who thou art truly, so that I may decide light or dark."

Martha waved her hand. The glamour dissolved like mist to reveal the three women as they were. In this realm, they all glowed with a soft white light.

The woman gasped as her eyes grew large in awe, "Tis them, Hubert, tis those spoke of in the prophecy. They have come as it said they would to free us and to bring light to the darkness of men."

Martha said, "If there are those who are against Emkandar and could add their backs to the fight, perhaps you might tell me how we could speak with them ... or at least get a message to them."

"For our people, there is a signal I can give," said Lord Hubert. "For the Dwarves ... I have but the words passed down by my father, who had them from his father before him, and he from older times."

"We can speak with the Dwarves if you can summon your people," Janice said. "But what must we do?"

Lord Hubert pressed a hidden catch in one of the bookshelves and swung open a secret panel behind the books. There was a hidden strongbox in the wall behind, and opening this revealed a cache of various small objects -- scrolls, books, a few coins and jewels, and so forth. He picked up a largish golden coin, stamped with a device involving hammers and anvils.

"I will show you to the deepest cellar in this house," he said. "In its floor there is a doorway that leads to the World Below. It is said that when this coin strikes stone, it rings in a tone that no Dwarf can fail to hear, and they are bound by treaty to come parley. But this has not been done in centuries."

"If they come, we will speak to them," said Janice. "If they do not, we will seek them out. If they serve the Light, we will endeavour to convince them to lend their aid. We understand that Emkandar has fomented dislike for the Dwarves among his followers in the World Above, so they have no reason to support him."

"Indeed," said Lord Hubert. "Let me show you to the cellar and the secret door. There is no time to lose."

Hubert opened a massive oaken door bound by thick bands of iron. The rusty squeals of the door's hinges sent weird tingles down the women's spines. All that could be seen in the ebony darkness within, was the first few steps of a stone stair leading down into the bowels of the earth.

Janice whipped out her wand, and to show off the lumin spell Martha had first used when they discovered the library, gave it a quick flick of her wrist. A bright light began to flair from the tip, illuminating the long descent ahead.

The four of them descended with Janice leading the way. Hubert was totally awed at the fact not one, but three practitioners of the old magics of light had actually come as it was foretold.

The air within the stair was cool, and smelled of age and long time passing. When they had reached the bottom, it opened up into a large cavern that was hewn from the living rock by some means unknown to all of them. The cuts were clean, and without chisel marks of any kind.

In front of them, around which torches illuminated the room, stood a large stone with a flat top.

Hubert indicated with his hand, "Strike the stone with the coin. Be prepared, it has been said the sound is like a great bell or gong or some such."

Martha approached the huge stone. She recognized the Dwarven runes and words scrawled all around it. She took the golden coin and dropped it on the top of the flat of the rock. A very audible ringing sound started resounding through the walls and could be felt through their bodies, even after the coin bounced and spun and came to rest.

The rumble of huge stones grinding upon huge stones was not only heard, but felt as the entire chamber shook with it. Shortly, a large collection of bearded dwarves appeared.

One, who was more ornately dressed in gold and gemstones stepped forward and said, "An' who be ye who calls a parley with the Dwarves? It has been many an age since man called upon King Ironhammer to table. What be the matter that needs a miner this day?"

"I am Lord Hubert of Muatar," said Lord Hubert, bowing deeply, "and I come to your Majesty with the only words of hope I have heard in these dark times. There is some hope that Emkandar's invasion may yet be resisted."

"Emkandar!" the Dwarf King said the name angrily, then spat on the ground, as did several of the other dwarves, amid rumblings of anger. "Curses upon his name. He spreads slander in the World Above about me people, and he riles the dark nations below against us."

"This is ill news, your Majesty," said Lord Hubert. "Yet his army will arrive in the World Above in the morning, or so it is said. If they can be resisted, his followers may well have a crisis of morale, for they have been told that his army is invincible. If it can be shown that Emkandar is a liar and a fraud, there are many who would desert his cause."

"Ha! Invincible army?" bellowed King Ironhammer. "Be there any Dwarves in this army? I think not! And if not, how can it be invincible? It cannot!" The other Dwarves cheered this statement. "Are there yet those among the humans still loyal to you, the rightful Lord of Muatar Town?"

"There are some, but few yet," Lord Hubert replied. "I go now to rouse them to battle. But once the battle turns our way, as I am sure it would if we had access to some of the legendary armaments the Dwarves are said to make ... there are many who are staying in hiding who might come forth if they thought there was any chance of victory."

"Cowards," the Dwarf King remarked. "But ... Emkandar's magic makes cowards of many who know not how to ward it off."

"This is why I introduce to you Janice of Earth, Guardian of Truth," said Lord Hubert. "She is, I believe, the one of whom the prophecy of old speaks."

"A Guardian of Truth? Here?" asked the Dwarf King. "Oh, it will be a glorious day. Emkandar's magic will all be for naught. Lord Hubert, ye shall have Dwarven swords, axes and shields, and such human armor as there is in our armories -- there has not been a call for it for some time. And there shall be Dwarves fighting alongside humans for the first time in centuries!" He offered his hand.

"My heart leaps with hope," said Lord Hubert, shaking the Dwarf King's hand heartily. "And now I must away, to rally my faithful, but Guardian Janice and her friends mean to remain here to speak with you and your lords."

"May all speed be wi' ye, Lord Hubert," said King Ironhammer, and Lord Hubert returned up the passageway. "Now, I am amazed to see a Guardian o' Truth, which I had never thought to lay eyes upon in my lifetime. Lady Janice of Earth, did he say?"

"Aye, your Majesty," said Janice, "and this is my assistant, Melody, as well as Martha, a master sorceress, our mentor and assistant to the previous holder of the Guardianship."

"Ah, please to make your acquaintances," said the King, and he introduced his retinue, including Thane Silvershield, Earl Wyrmbane, Duke Stoneshoulders, and others. "Now, am I to understand that you are a new Guardian, then?"

"It is true, I have only become Guardian in the past fortnight," said Janice. "But we have already --"

"Now Janice, you're about to sell yourself short again," said Martha. "Pardon me, your Majesty, but she defeated Emkandar's first attempt to crush her single handedly, we've beaten a Lord of the Nether together, and I've been training her myself most strenuously. And ... I'm sure you know why a Guardian of Truth is Emmy's greatest fear."

"Aye, his illusions and lies stand nae chance against the light of Truth," said the King. "That is why I know this battle can be won. But I do have a question for all of ye: you are new here and see this world with new eyes. What be the news of the World Above? Be there many traitors who cheer on Emkandar with whole hearts?"

"From what I've seen, there are many, your Majesty," said Melody, "but their hearts are only whole when bolstered with drink. In the bright light of day and Truth? I think it will be another story."

In another place far removed from the dwelling places of light, Emkandar strode to the crystal podium within a huge dark cavern. It was lit by the sputtering light of fat soaked torches that gave off a smelly and horrid odor. The whole cavern smelled terribly of sulfur, rotted flesh, and many thousands of unwashed orcs.

Amid the grumbling growls and mumbled threats, Emkandar raised his arms above his head. Silence ruled as his ethereal voice rumbled through the chamber and through the souls of all his minions, "Behold, my many followers. On this day we attack. There will be feasting for all as we pillage and plunder Muatar."

One of the orcs said, "What ofa womens? Gotta hasa human womans. No hadda eated ones in many long time."

Emkandar laughed and replied, "Take as many as you desire, we shall have a huge bonfire made of the timber from Lord Hubert's castle to roast them by."

A terrible growling cheer rose as the orcs began to brandish the many and varied melee weapons.

Emkandar waved his hand, the sound of massive stones rumbling against stones was heard and felt through out the huge cavern as a beam of light grew larger far off in the distance.

Emkandar said loudly, his ethereal voice echoing throughout the area, "The time is nigh. Feast from dawn till dawn, for this day shall be ours. We shall leave nothing mortal alive. Go forth!" With this, he cast a glamour on his army of orcs that seemingly made a thousand appear to be uncountable, well armed millions. The roar and clamor was deafening as the orcs dashed madly from the cavern into the valley below, screaming and yelling as they waved their horrid weapons over their heads and made their battle cries heard.

Emkandar smiled an evil smile. He was positive nothing could stand in his way. Those weakling traitors in Muatar actually believed he was going to share the spoils with them. Bah! The fools would make good roasts for the orcs that day. He turned back toward his portal to Earth. He had to plan what he was going to do about the Guardian. He would return later to survey his victory.

There were perhaps a hundred humans on the walls of Muatar as the sun dawned. Many others laughed at them from below. Lord Hubert stood atop the gates with Janice, Martha, and Melody.

"You lot are gonna be orc fodder!" shouted a laughing traitor from below, throwing a piece of rotten fruit at a defender. "They'll cut you down like grass!"

"This is gonna be rich!" shouted another, tossing fruit at Lord Hubert himself. "You don't stand a chance!"

Melody pointed her wand at the fruit, which stopped in midair. The detractor and several others saw this and gasped. "And you think you do? Would you like to see the horde of orcs heading this way? They've just crested the horizon. They're a solid line of black, as far as the eye can see." She shouted with her full voice. "Do any of you truly think that they will spare you? These are orcs! Do you know nothing of them? Have you not heard of the Battle of ... of ..."

"Darkcrag Tower," Lord Hubert whispered in her ear.

"Darkcrag Tower?" Melody continued. "They roasted and devoured every man, woman and child, sparing none! They know nothing of treaties, alliances, or parleys -- all they know is slaughter!" Many among the detractors were looking uneasily at one another; none were laughing now. "This is your last chance -- leave now, and you may be able to escape with your craven lives! Or join us in our last desperate defense and at least die with honor! Or stay where you are and be slaughtered like cattle. The choice is yours." The din of the approaching army was now faintly audible in the distance.

There was suddenly a disturbance in the crowd as several turned and ran for the town's other gates, facing away from the army's approach. As they did, many others did too, until there were several hundred clamoring to leave town. There were some who stayed, though, and soon Janice stepped forth.

"She is correct," shouted Janice, "we do face an army of merciless orcs -- but now that the traitors and cowards among us have been sorted, let me show you the Truth!" She stretched forth her wand and cast the light of Truth upon everyone still in town and all the defenders on the walls. "See this army for what it truly is!" It was as if the clouds overhead had parted and the sunlight shone down. The soldiers on the walls gasped as they saw the oncoming army's size decrease by a factor of a thousand. Even the people on the ground suddenly heard much less of an approaching din and saw less smoke in the sky.

"A Guardian of Truth stands with us, and Emkandar's dark magic is swept away!" said Lord Hubert to his people. "There can be no more than a thousand! We are still outnumbered, but we have the walls, and not all our allies have yet arrived!"

From Lord Hubert's mansion the Dwarves began to emerge -- a handful, then a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand, all fully armored and armed with magical Dwarven weapons. They brought chests full of other weapons for the defenders, and some brought other types of weapons, which Janice and her friends recognized were likely to be cannons, in the shape of large-mouthed wrought-iron dragons. Several strong Dwarves carried these up the stone staircases to the tops of the walls and installed them at intervals.

"Well met, Your Majesty!" called Lord Hubert down from the walls.

"Death to Emkandar and his foul minions!" shouted King Ironhammer, spitting on the ground after saying Emkandar's name. Several other Dwarves took up shouting the same.

"T-tunnel dwarves?" said some of the remaining townspeople, looking around themselves as the Dwarves set up makeshift armories and began organizing themselves into squadrons for sortie.

"The Dwarves are honorable allies of old," Lord Hubert shouted down. "There has been slander about them of late -- all Emkandar's doing, to divide his opposition. But some of us have never forgotten the old tales, nor the old treaties! This fight will not be easily won, but now we have a chance."

"Nay, say rather we have the upper hand!" shouted King Ironhammer. "Now, Dragon Squadron, Anvil Squadron, form up and take the left. Runeaxe Squadron, Granite Squadron, yer on the right." He continued giving orders to his troops while Lord Hubert asked for volunteers from the unarmed townsfolk to take the Dwarven weapons up to the wall defenders and chose people he knew to join the fight, arming them as well.

The air filled with the rank stench of the approaching orc army. Ironhammer raised his hand and shouted, "Ready yerselves lads .... Fire!"

Ironhammer's hand fell, the dragon cannons fired. They belched large gouts of flame as a massive orb of light leapt from the mouths of the cannons and arched through the early morning sky. When it landed, it was like a large explosion of light that washed over the land.

In the wake of the light's overpressure wave, the orcs were picked up and torn to pieces in large swaths. Janice flicked her wand gracefully at one of the large orcs who was carrying a rather nasty looking sword type weapon. His entire body seemed to melt into a large pile of green smoldering jelly when the flash of light impacted on him.

The orcs were not to be dissuaded in their bloodlust as they brought up a large siege arbalest made from a huge oaken tree. Martha shouted, "Look out! They're launching hellfire at us from that thing."

The oak stave was released with a loud thrumming noise as huge gouts of unholy flame leapt across the the space towards the castle's walls. Lord Hubert and his men stood their ground bravely as they defiantly shot the arrows from the magical dwarven bows. The unholy flames lit all around them with evil glowing light.

Melody reacted this time and waved her cell wand in the direction of the flames. Using the exact same spell she used when the demon was in the basement, she turned the hellfire and brimstone into glowing sheets of ice which fell harmlessly to the ground and shattered on impact.

Meanwhile, the Dwarven cannons fired again, this time aimed at the arbalest that had fired and several others that were being brought to bear. Most of them struck true, driving the wood to splinters and scattering impaled orcs in all directions. Two cannons missed their marks, but their blasts still caught many nearby orcs within their deadly explosions.

Martha whispered something to Janice and Melody, who nodded, and the three of them began to walk together around the walls that encircled the town, their wands up. Those with eyes that could see magical energy might have noticed that each wand left a thin trail of light behind it -- but that included very few of the combatants.

While that was occurring, King Ironhammer was ordering the gates to be opened so his forces could go out and fight. "This battle willna be won if we dinnae cut some orc heads from their necks!" he said.

"It is your command, and it shall be so, your Majesty!" called Lord Hubert from the walls. "The names of any volunteers who go with them will be written in the book of glory -- and with the Dwarves on our side, I see not how we'll fail this day!"

There were some two dozen men and women who had taken up weapons and shields and formed up into their own squadron, and when the gates opened, the Dwarven and human soldiers emerged and broke into a run with a battle cry toward the orcs. When this happened, the archers on the walls loosed a barrage of arrows at the orc front lines to make them choose rapidly between defending themselves from the arrows or the oncoming ground troops. Most made the wrong choice. The battle was joined, and the Dwarves and humans were now clashing with the orcs in earnest.

Martha, Janice, and Melody had by this time proceeded about halfway around the town's walls, walking in step at a purposeful pace. The defenders let them pass with puzzled expressions on their faces and an occasional "What's this now?" But none stood in their way as their odd procession went on. When they returned to their starting point above the main gate to the valley road, where Lord Hubert stood giving orders, they completed their ritual, connecting their lines of energy into one spiral path that encircled the town three times.

The battle line had formed in the valley now, and although the Dwarves and humans were pushing forward, progress was slow and the going made slower by the mounting bodies of orks. The battle raged on as the sun rose high in the sky.

Behind this line, the remaining siege weapons loosed another volley of dark red hellfire, but this time Janice, Martha and Melody simply stood and watched. Lord Hubert worriedly watched it coming too, and the wall defenders scurried to move out of its path, but froze when the hellfire seemed to strike an invisible wall just before it would have splattered across stone, wood and thatched roofs, burning all alike. Instead, it sloughed downward and landed on the grass outside the wall, burning grass and soil but otherwise doing no harm. Lord Hubert looked at the sorceresses and cheered, as did the wall defenders. Janice smiled but kept her eyes on the battle in the valley.

The dwarves were making an impressive showing of themselves as the orkish gore splattered them heavily. Many of them started a competition to see how many heads they could collect. Not to be out done, this began to spread among the humans too, and soon the orcs had begun to realize something was amiss.

Instead of the fearful whimpering jelly sacks most of the humans they had eaten in the many thousands of places they had destroyed before, these seemed to revel in taking of their heads. The harder the orcs fought, the more devastating the attacks from the humans and the dwarves were, and the larger the pile of gory severed orc heads became.

The incessant buzzing of the magic arrows as they darkened the sky and landed only to penetrate the leather and skimpy metal armor of the orcs. Those that were impaled didn't have to await the reaper long as a dwarf or human quickly arrived to take their heads and add them to the ever growing pile.

Slowly, in groups of five or ten at first, the orcs began to retreat. Slowly at first as they couldn't believe they were being driven off. The only thing that had kept them on the field to take such heavy losses, was the fear of Emkandar's unholy wrath. But he was not here. At first the orcs had thought that was because they had no chance of losing. But now they began to believe that they had been abandoned.

"Lord Emkandar ... sent us to die?" asked one despairing orc. "Why he do that?"

"Noooo!" screamed another. "He promise us win, feast on roast human!"

It was not long before the orcs were routed, and King Ironhammer sent squads to harry any pockets of orcs that were still organized. The rest scattered and ran individually into the hills, hiding among the crags and rocks, no longer a military threat to the town.

"They have ... won!" shouted Lord Hubert from the walls when he saw that King Ironhammer had raised his victory flag. "They are forming up to return. Fly the colors!" The wall defenders put up a mast and attached to it the town banner. It blew gently in the breeze.

The news spread through the remaining townsfolk, who came out of their shelters looking amazed, most of them older people and children. When the gates opened and the Dwarven and human troops returned, there was enthusiastic cheering. Lord Hubert came down from the walls and greeted King Ironhammer with a firm handshake. "Let this be a harbinger of times to come, when our peoples will once more greet each other with good will," he said. "The aid of the Dwarves in our time of dire need shall never be forgotten! And from this day forth let none say an ill word about our honorable allies below!" There were cheers from the crowd at this.

"Aye," said the King, "we know what Emkandar's foul slander can do. ‘Tis a poison most vile, and a plague most virulent. Let it be gone from this land forever! And let us give thanks to the Guardian of Truth who came to us in this dark time." Amid more cheers, he beckoned to Janice and the others for them to come down.

Janice, Martha and Melody had been watching the valley for any signs of a response from Emkandar or any indication that the orcs were reforming for another assault, but there had been none, so they came down the stairs and approached. "With your Honor's permission," said Janice to Lord Hubert, "I would like to place a blessing of Truth upon this town, to make it more resistant to Emkandar's poisonous rumor-mongering in the future."

"In this you have my full agreement and support," Lord Hubert replied. "But for now let us rejoice in our victory -- Emkandar may return for another try, but not today!"

"He's got a lot of irons in the fire anyway," said Melody. "We'll be doing our best to keep him from sleeping easy." She grinned impishly.

Lord Hubert made sure a watch rotation was set on the walls, and the humans and Dwarves set about making a festival of the occasion, while Janice consulted with Martha and Melody on the best way to cast a lasting Truth ritual upon the town of Muatar. The more thorns they could put in Emkandar's side, the better.

Returning up the black stairs from the Lower Library, Emkandar was feeling a nasty sense of glee. He had found a spell that should be able to seek out the Guardian as soon as she was unwarded -- but his glee vanished as soon as he returned to his sanctum and saw two nervous-looking minions waiting for him at the doorway.

"Forgive me, my Lord, but --" one began.

"What is it? What?" Emkandar demanded. "Have the irritating rebels of Ilnat assaulted my citadel on Pejir again? Oh, how I long to place their heads on pikes."

"N-no, my Lord ..."

"Then what? Out with it!"

"M-my Lord, the assault on Muatar has -- failed," the minion said.

"WHAT?" thundered Emkandar, causing the candles in the room to flicker.

"A few orc stragglers have come in, my Lord, and they said that the Dwarves came to their aid ..."

"The Dwarves?" Emkandar shouted, unbelieving. "Those people would never have asked them for help -- not after I had them so sure the Dwarves were cheating and undermining their trade."

"Nonetheless, my Lord, the orcs were overwhelmed and fled ..."

"Fled? The cowards! They should have stayed and fought! Their victory was certain! Remind your successor to remind me never to use orcs again! Unreliable!"

"Um, y-yes, my Lord, of course ..." The minion gulped in fear.

"It's taken the better part of a year to prepare for that attack!" Emkandar ranted. "That was my best chance to capture a nexus between the World Above and the World Below on Niolar! Now I will have to go underground instead ... or assault the Fortress of Trema ... or ... you, what do you want?"

"Er ... my Lord," said the second minion, "about the rebels of Ilnat ..."

"Aaaaaaaargh!" roared Emkandar. With a wave of his hand, his minion caught fire. A smelly smoky oily fire as the man screamed in mortal agony.

Emkandar said angrily, "Don't you dare remind me of those ... those ... imbeciles ever again unless I ask."

He waved his hand and the fires extinguished, leaving the man wallowing on the ground in sheer agony for a few more minutes. The minion finally crawled out of the room on hands and knees as he kept his face to the floor.

Emkandar was worried at this point. He hadn't anticipated the orcan army to fail so miserably. Especially with such an easy target.

He brought up his enchanting bowl and began to toss in powders and artifacts. A large fog began to boil within the bowl and images formed within.

In an ethereal voice he intoned, "By the power of Drankool, by the blood of the Lethantor, I command the dark hoard of Remkar to attack Ilnat and bring me Lord DuDeres's head."

While on his morning stroll through the garden, Lord DuDeres looked at the sky and immediately knew something was up. A very dark cloud formed on the horizon, and he knew it wasn't just weather. He raised his comm baton and sounded the alarm.

As it rapidly approached, he could hear the eerie screeches of the winged demons as they dove and swooped, gathering up anything that fancied them along the way. The palace turrets fired their energy bolts and took down a few of them, but there were too many. He readied his weapons, as did the dedicated rebel soldiers who ran up to protect him. But they were armed with ... wands?

"They won't be getting you today, Lord DuDeres," said one of them, an older woman with curly gray hair. To the other two, who were younger women, she said, "Let's not be too flashy about this. It wouldn't do for Emmy to know we're the reason his demon pets failed. Let him think Lord DuDeres and the rebels are just plain tougher than he thought."

"Then how about this?" said one of the younger women. Touching Lord DuDeres' small target shield with her wand, she said, "Shield of Truth, be our defense against the minions of darkness." His shield shone momentarily with a light like the white sun and remained vibrantly glowing even after the initial burst had faded.

The other woman said, "I read about this in the Library," and touched Lord DuDeres' sword with her ... rectangular comm device and said, "Blade of Insight, cut sharp and true." His sword crackled with magic and seemed to slice the very air with each movement of his arm.

"Well done," said the older one and just gestured with her wand at him. He suddenly felt filled with an inner energy, like he was a young man again. He looked at the oncoming swarm of demons with defiance.

"I don't know who you three are," said Lord DuDeres, "but you've come just in time. Let's hope I get a chance to thank you later. Here they come!"

The first demon flew within range, and he swung his sword at it. He was barely able to believe what happened -- it hissed as it cleaved the air, leaving a trail of sparks behind it like static electricity, then carved through the demon as if it was barely even there, slicing meat and bone alike as if they were soap bubbles. Of course, there were three other demons immediately in range after that, slashing and grasping with their talons. But, though it was only the size of a dinner plate on his arm, his shield somehow always managed to come between the demons' grasping claws and anything they tried to slash with them.

His three defenders looked now as if they were fighting with swords and guns as well, even though he'd seen no sword on them when they'd arrived. "We've no sorceresses among our number," Lord DuDeres said while continuing to cleave demons. Their body parts and black blood was everywhere, smoking and steaming, and they had to keep moving so they had a clear place to stand without grisly demon carcasses underfoot. "The students of the ancient arts are quite rare nowadays."

"Probably why Emkandar picked this place," the older woman answered, blocking a demon with her sword in a way a woman of her age -- or a man for that matter -- should not have been able to. "Thought it was easy pickings."

"We'll introduce ourselves later," said one of the younger ones. She took aim with her energy pistol and blasted an incoming demon from the sky. "Kinda busy. Emkandar doesn't like us either, and we don't like him."

What looked like a mechanized knight strode from one of the ramparts. On top of one arm was what looked for the world like a gatling gun. In the other, was a sword comprised entirely of energy. It waded into the dark horde and began to blast away. Gore splattered every where as shell casings fell in large piles at the knight's feet. Martha realized suddenly a man was actually inside that thing, and he was making a huge impression on the horde.

The knight made an impressive jump, taking several dozen of the toothy winged demons with it. It landed, rolled, and came to a knee slashing with its energy sword and setting fire to many dozens more. Black bloody gore splattered everywhere as Lord DuDeres took his fair share of them from the air. Martha, Janice, and Melody refused to be out done, and produced as much mayhem and gore as the best of the rebels. The mighty winged horde soon became a few hundred, that turned and fled rapidly away, leaving a nasty black mess of smoldering body parts and steaming black blood all over.

Martha came to Janice and Melody and said with pride obvious in her voice, "Well done." she nodded as she looked at the huge mess, "Very well done."

"It's not always going to be like this, is it?" Janice asked.

"No," said Martha, "there will be long, boring stretches of library research too."

Their swords and guns became their wands again, and the spells faded. The mechaknight was saluting Lord DuDeres, who was saluting in response, then the armor somehow folded back upon itself to reveal a somewhat battered-looking soldier, who said, "Sir! I arrived as soon as I could!"

"Well, fortunately I had unexpected help from another quarter," Lord DuDeres said.

Martha, Janice and Melody introduced themselves, and Janice said, "I've recently been chosen as the Guardian of Truth on my world, which Emkandar is plotting to take over. He seems to be doing the same in many worlds. We aim to defeat him wherever he hides."

"We've heard his minions talking about some kind of conjunction of Grand," said Melody. "I think that means he's got some sort of big ritual coming up and needs things to be just right for it. We're trying to prevent that."

"Conjunction of Grand," said Lord DuDeres. "I can't think what that would mean, but perhaps some of my advisors would know."

"You could ask Traquia," said the soldier.

"A good idea. Let us get to shelter in case another attack comes. This is Captain Justinos, one of the rebel officers and one of the best mechaknight operators in the world."

"I'll accompany you back to the hideout," said Justinos. He stepped back into the armor, which folded itself around him again and became a complete battlesuit once more.

"My ground car is over here unless it's been wrecked," Lord DuDeres said. "No, there it is, it's fine." They got into the wheeled, open-top vehicle, which moved quickly and quietly along the garden's smooth stone pathways toward one of the buildings.

Emkandar was totally furious as he tossed a large beaker filled with some kind of reddish pink goo against a wall. It shattered in a large cloud of pink with sparks of electrical fire arcing all through it.

Emkandar raged, "How in this realm did that idiot Lord DuDeres manage to defeat a spell as powerful as that?"

He whipped out his wand and flicked it at the pink cloud, a large flash and the cloud vanished leaving behind the strong odor of ozone.

Emkandar smiled evilly as he muttered to himself, "Now, at least I will have the satisfaction of knowing those idiot girls will have their comeuppance shortly. Only the most powerful of Enchanters have ever beaten the Cloud of Emphantarus."

Janice was overjoyed to receive the accolades and honors heaped upon her, Martha, and Melody. She was thinking it a bit much to have been knighted and given the Glaive of Arms award, which was the highest merit this realm could bestow on one of its heroes.

The large table was filled with many cheering warriors and covered with food and drink of every description.

Janice said, "I most wholeheartedly thank you, My Lord, for the honors and this feast. I assure you that my companions and I are going to do our very best to end what ever Emmy's plans are in any other worlds he is seeking to conquer."

A handsome Rebel Earl kissed Melody's hand softly, and she shivered with delight, but she said, "Oh, my! Aren't you the charmer, then? But I do need to be getting back to the Library to learn what the Conjunction of Grand is and how it pertains to the Darkness."

Lord DuDeres said as he snapped his fingers at one of the attendants, "I'm not sure what that might be, but I'm sending for my High Advisor now."

The attendant came to Lord DuDeres, who said something to him softly. The man bowed gracefully, turned with a loud heel click, and vanished like a flash.

As it turned out, the High Advisor was at the banquet. A formally-dressed man with a mustache came over to Lord DuDeres and bowed cordially.

"Ah yes, Janice, this is my chief Advisor, Count Amberleigh. Count Amberleigh, you already know Lady Janice. Andrew, they've heard something about some sort of Conjunction of Grand."

"Hmm," said the Count. "Conjunction of Grand, you say. I can't say I've heard anything myself, but you could ask Traquia."

"I invited her to the banquet, but she didn't come," said Lord DuDeres. "I hope she's all right."

"Living up on the mountain like that," Count Amberleigh said, "I hope Emkandar's minions haven't gotten to her. And that they didn't get to the messengers. But it's more likely she just didn't feel up to coming all the way down here."

"Well, she is getting on in years."

"Could you tell us where she is?" Janice asked. "We could go to see her."

"Ah, yes, you three are certainly not opposed to taking the direct route," said Lord DuDeres. "Come to the window here, and I'll show you." They went to a large window that he indicated. It was dark, but there was bright moonlight from three of this world's moons -- Janice didn't know how many it had. "See that ancient stone archway just outside the west gate there? It's marble and still shines brightly in the moonlight. Through it is a pathway that leads up the mountain to an equally ancient monastery. Traquia the Devout lives up there. She's the last priestess of the old ways. If anyone in this world knows about this Conjunction, it would be she. But I wouldn't advise that you go tonight. Emkandar's minions prowl in the dark."

"We'll go first thing in the morning, then," said Janice.

"Excellent," said Lord DuDeres. "We of the Rebellion, too, would like to see Emkandar's plans ruined, whatever they may be."

Lord DuDeres insured the three women were treated like royalty. Even the beds were the most comfortable ones they had ever slept in. They were awakened by the Ladies in Waiting, who helped them bathe, dress, do their hair, and prepare for the long journey ahead.

When finally they were led to the stables, Lord DuDeres met them and bowed cordially, then said, "I'm sending several of my Mechaknights with you as retainers. They are the most formidable mobile weapon on this planet."

Martha said, "I thank you, kind sir. Mayhap we can repay you for this by discovering what the Conjunction of Grand might be and how to stop Emkandar."

Lord Duderes replied, "You have repaid me thousands of times over by aiding in stopping those nasty demons from killing us all. Now, mount up. ‘Tis almost a day's journey to yon mountain top."

Janice mounted her steed as if it was second nature, then replied, "Then let us be off." Then she spurred her mount through the door of the stable.

"Wait!" said Melody after the stable hands had helped her into her saddle. "I don't know how to ride this critter!"

Martha chuckled, reached out, and led Melody's horse by the reins while giving her a few pointers.

The path up the mountain had been paved with cobblestones at one point, long ago, but now it was basically a trail. Two mechaknights led the way while two brought up the rear, vigilant for attacks from behind. But not much happened on the way up the mountain: there were rustlings in the woods, but no evidence that they were anything other than woodland animals foraging.

The sun was getting low by the time they reached the end of the trail, emerging into a small clearing near the summit, and at the other end of the clearing was an unexpectedly huge stone building, majestic but in a bad state of repair.

Two women, one very old, one quite young, stood on the monastery's front steps. "Be welcome," said the old woman in a strong but slightly quavering voice. "All are welcome at the Monastery of the Old Ways."

Looking at Martha and Melody, Janice dismounted and stepped forward. "Thank you for your welcome," she said. "My name is Janice Linden ..."

"You have come from another world," said the old woman, "seeking knowledge about ancient lore, the Old Ways have told me, and a way to prevent a great darkness from overtaking many worlds, including this one. We will help all we can."

"You ... have seen correctly," said Janice. It was certainly not inconceivable that this priestess might be able to see the future or perhaps read minds. After all, Janice herself had not thought the casting of magic spells truly possible until fairly recently, but now she had learned how to do just that. "We overheard something that one of Emkandar's followers said and don't understand it. We were told that the Priestess of the Old Ways was the most likely person to know about it, if anyone does."

"Very well," the old woman said. "Please come inside, and we will speak." She turned around to go back up the stairs and into the monastery, but then stopped and held out her arm. "Jemi, if you would, please."

"Of course, Traquia," said the young woman, taking the older one's arm and guiding her up the stairs and into the building.

Janice, Melody and Martha followed. Jemi led Traquia, or perhaps it was the other way around, down the hallways of the old monastery and to a library of scrolls, the walls filled with nooks and niches holding metal-bound wooden tubes of the sort that often contained scrolls.

"Please have a seat," said Traquia, settling down into a chair of her own behind a large table. Janice, Martha, and Melody took seats around the same table. Jemi was seated by Traquia. "Now, these words you heard the lackey of Emkandar say ... what exactly were they?"

"Well, I'm the one who heard them," said Melody. "He said, and I quote, ‘The coming Conjunction of Grand is where our master assumes power over all and grants us our requests for a whole day.'"

"I see," said Traquia. "Conjunction of Grand ... Conjunction of ... ah yes, Jemi, could you please bring me the Apocalypse of Heliodorion?"

Jemi stood up. "Yes, of course, Ma'am." She started searching the niches on the left side of the room.

"Third row from the top, as I recall, fourth niche from the right."

"Oh. Oh! Here it is," said Jemi. "I don't know how you remember all of these."

"I don't know how you don't," Traquia said. "But you'll learn how, in time."

Jemi brought the scroll tube to the table, where Traquia took it out with careful, gentle hands. "This passage here," said Traquia. "Read it, if you would, Jemi."

"Well, it's in Ancient Rhuan," said Jemi, "but according to what you've taught me, this says, ‘And in those days the stars will come together, not just in this world, but in many, and from that day either the light will rule, or the darkness.'"

"Conjunction," said Traquia. "Those words mean ‘conjunction,' Jemi. It's ‘And in those days there will be a conjunction.'"

"Oh. Conjunction. I'm sorry, Ma'am," Jemi apologized.

"You're still learning, dear."

"May I read the passage?" asked Janice.

"You know Ancient Rhuan?" Jemi asked.

"No, dear, she has a translation spell," said Traquia. "Please go ahead. Sometimes I allow translation magic, but it is still important for Jemi to learn the ancient tongues."

Janice read. "The passage before it says, ‘You will know that doom is upon you when the demons descend from the sky, sent by a lord of darkness. And in those days there will be a conjunction, not merely in this world but in many, and from that day forth either the light or the darkness will triumph.'"

"Now I have absolutely got to get back to the Library," said Melody. "There just has to be something about this there."

"I'm sure," said Martha, "but there are many works of wisdom that are not found there."

"It goes on to say, ‘Only the conjunction can choose the victor, and only the victor will triumph.'" Janice paused. "That seems rather redundant. ‘No man knows who shall emerge triumphant, but the doom of many worlds ...' There's a gap there."

"The scroll is old and has not survived perfectly," said Traquia. "The priests, priestesses and monks have made copies, but when copying damaged scrolls, one cannot simply fill in the blanks. Sometimes, missing words must stay missing."

A void blacker than black opened just above and 20 feet behind where the women sat studying the ancient scrolls. Something that resembled a pink mist emanated from the very center and slowly spread like smoke through the many crevices throughout the Hall of Knowledge towards them.

This creature had only one thought on its microscopic mind, and that was to devour the soul of its target, and those nearest to it. It hungered for a particular soul it felt was very near. It was drawn ever closer to the source of its desire by the very light that grew so strongly from within it. Like an encroaching fog it spread along the cracks in the floorboards until ... it ran into a barrier it could not find a way past. It wiggled and squirmed and used its most powerful acids and heat, but to no effect. Whatever it was preventing the mist from approaching its prey was more powerful than anything it had met in its long existence.

It was maddening to be so close to its desire, and yet unable to reach it. It spread across the floor in a pinkish fog as it surrounded the barrier preventing it from devouring the bright souls it so intently slought. It knew within its single mindedness, that no matter how powerful an enchantment of protection was, there had to be an imperfection. All it had to do was search it out.

It knew, as did all demons and beings of darkness, there would only be one Enchantress who would be chosen that would be powerful enough to summon a perfect enchantment against a Cloud of Emphantarus ... it had the promise of the darkest of lords it was so. Those little girls were far too young and those old crones far too old to be the chosen.

It focused its attention on Janice. The one whose soul produced the light so powerfully. The Cloud of Emphantarus began to realize the prophecy it had been told so many long centuries ago, may now be unfolding ... it may have just met that Sorceress of the Light that had been said would come. This was impossible ... not here not now, not when the hunger was so overpoweringly irresistible.

It continued probing the protective barrier. This barrier was old, sophisticated, and very complex. This must be a place where magic had been studied and used for a very long time. Perhaps there were not many places like this in this world. But its targets would not be staying here forever, it suspected, so it bided its time and waited. Impatient beings did not live to be thousands of years old.

"So, Jemi, have you learned more Ancient Rhuan today?" asked Traquia.

"Yes, I have," said the teenage girl. "But there is so much more to learn."

"Everybody learns something every day," said Martha. "I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Thank you for your help, High Priestess," said Janice.

Traquia inclined her head and said, "It is my pleasure. That Emkandar is ... troublesome. Now, be careful on your way back to Lord DuDere's palace; I see danger. Not just any danger ... there is something ... that I have not seen for a long time." The old woman's brow furrowed as she concentrated, and her eyes seemed to focus on something the rest of them could not see.

"Traquia?" asked Jemi.

"Let me walk you to the door," said Traquia, moving gracefully without Jemi's help. Janice, Martha and Melody followed.

Traquia stepped outside, then stepped to one side to allow the others to pass through the doorway. Their horses and mechaknight guards stood waiting for them in the clearing, which may once have been a courtyard. The sky was orange with sunset. But the moment Janice stepped off the steps onto the grass, something happened. Twisting tendrils of pink fog swirled up from the ground, wrapping themselves around Janice's arms, legs, and neck. Melody shouted, "What is it?" while Martha immediately took out her wand and started to cast some sort of spell.

But Traquia, moving with determination, pushed Janice aside. "No, you don't, old thing," she said. She started to chant, using ancient words. The light of the sun grew brighter, and its orange fire bathed the clearing, seeming to concentrate itself around the old priestess' body. Every syllable Traquia chanted seemed to cause a tightly wound segment of orange filigree to surround her until there was a cocoon of byzantinely-twisted fire between her and the pink fog that was now tangled up within it.

"Traquia," asked Jemi, rushing down the stairs, "what have you done?"

Martha stared in wonder. "It ... doesn't want her," she said. "I think it wants Janice. But it can't get away. Traquia's trapped it ... temporarily, I'm guessing."

"Y-yes," said Traquia weakly from within the twisting patterns of sunset energy. "The Old Ways may not be perfect, but they are the best we've ever done on this world. They should be remembered. Protected. This creature ... it may be brightly colored, but it is of the darkness, and it is very strong. It will break free of my spell, and it will come for you, Janice. I won't have the strength to do this again for ... a few days, I suspect. You should go. And prepare."

Janice so wanted to do something although she had no clue as to what. This thing looked so much like that cute little pet cloud in the fairy tail. Martha grabbed one of Janice's arms and Melody grabbed the other and basically dragged her away to the awaiting Mechaknights and horses. Janice knew she had the ability to defeat that thing, but she also knew she had no idea as to how to use the ability she had.

As they quickly rode off, Janice watched as Traquia's spell burst out with giant tendrils of flame and golden yellow light. The display was magnificent as it filled the glade with golden light, and temporarily banished the Cloud of Emphantarus to another realm of light and weakened it further by the light.

Martha said soothingly to Janice, "We must return to the Library with all haste. I have not ever seen a Cloud of Emphantarus in my very long life, although I did read about them in the Tome of Forbidden Spells."

Melody's eyes get big as she asked in amazement, "You mean, there are actually spells that are banned?"

Martha laughed as she replied, "More than there are stars in the heavens, child. Evil has attempted to rule and bring darkness since light first came to be."

Emkandar banged his fists against the stand on which his viewing bowl rested over and over in frustration. He began to fear this girl child. He now knew beyond any doubt that she was the chosen due to the fact she was able to overcome some of the most powerful spells known to the darkness.

He swirled around. His minions trembled in great fear as they fell to the floor prostrate at his feet. Emkandar ignored them as he walked quickly past and opened his magic storage box. An evil grin crossed his face as he removed his mortar and pestle, the mixing bowl, and his black candles. He also removed a small book that was bound with human flesh.

Emkandar opened the forbidden book. He knew the Necronomicon would exact a price for what he was about to do, but it was perhaps the only way to stop this particular chosen. According to the Prophecy all had been taught from the beginning, it would be the only chance he had to rule.

"What did you say it was called, now?" asked Janice. "Cloud of ..."

"Emphantarus," said Martha. "The Tome of Forbidden Spells, which is not in this Library, only speaks of ways to summon them. But here in the Upper Library we might find hints of how to combat them."

"Conjunctions ... Astrology ... Prophecies of the Stars ..." Melody was saying as she picked out books to search through for mentions of a Conjunction of Grand.

"Ah, yes, here," said Martha. "This is the section about beings of darkness. Let's see what we can find." She started taking books from the shelves and carrying them over to a nearby table. Nearby, Melody was taking notes.

Martha discovered many references to a manuscript that had been totally forbidden to man. In associated listings it also mentioned The Grand Grimoire and several other manuscripts written by the lord of darkness.

Melody suddenly interrupts Martha's train of thought when she said excitedly, "I found something! It says here that once every 500 to a thousand years all the stars and planets in all of creation align into a great conjunction. It is said that at that time, all the portals to all realms open due to the energy created during this alignment."

Martha asked, "Does it say anything about a Conjunction of Grand? Or is it telling us this is what constitutes it?"

Melody shrugged as she replied, "It makes references to the fact that light and dark meet and only one survives to rule the universe ... or something like that. The words have many places where letters or entire sentences and paragraphs are missing."

Janice spoke up about that time and said, "I found a chapter with historical references to a particular Cloud of Emphantarus. It makes reference to a special Sorceress who has the ability to repel it and return it to the magic crystal bottle it was released from. Other than that, it references the Witches Bible and Old Magics ... and calls Traquia by name as one who is able to bind it for a time."

Melody looked at the book Janice was reading, "It has to be another woman by that name. That book is almost 2500 years old."

Martha shook her head slowly, "It is quite possible she's the one mentioned."

Both Janice and melody said at the same time, "How could that be possible?"

Martha laughed, "Know you not how old I am?"

The young women shook their heads.

Martha replied softly, "I'm 150 years old last week."

Janice and Melody's mouths fall open in total shock.

"I wouldn't have said a day over 39," said Melody, recovering quickly.

"Aren't you sweet?" Martha said. "But yes, there is a quality about magical ability that prolongs the lifespan. Not indefinitely. But Professor Myrius was over 400 years old."

"Seriously, I had you in the upper 60s at the oldest," said Janice. "So ... if Traquia wasn't able to bind this Cloud, is that because she's so old?"

"Well, it's true that our strength wanes once we truly reach our old age," Martha mused, "but it's also possible that this particular Cloud is too strong for her. Another possibility is that it's getting help from someone else, giving it more power. Three guesses, first two don't count. Starts with an E."

"Any clues about exactly how to go about binding one of those?" Janice asked. "I've been finding a lot of history but not a lot of actual pointers."

"Not yet, but we're getting close," Martha said. "Learning that each one is bound to a bottle means something."

"Yes! Namely, if we can find that bottle, we can recapture it inside," said Janice. "Emkandar probably set it free. But what if he destroyed the bottle?"

"You can't destroy something that strong," Martha replied. "If it was weak enough for Emmy to destroy it, it wouldn't be strong enough to hold a creature that could devour dozens of Emmies."

"Hmm," Janice said. Then something unusual happened. A book on one of the shelves suddenly lit up, as if it had burst into flames, except that nothing was burning and there was no heat. "Wait, what's this?"

"What's what, dear?" Martha asked.

"That book ..." said Janice, getting up to look at it. "It's lit up bright as a torch. You don't see it?"

Martha looked where Janice was looking. "I'm afraid not," she said. "I think it might not be the book so much as your magical intuition."

"I'll ask you what that means later." Janice took the book from the shelf and saw that its title was, "Practical Banishment." She laid it down on the table and began to page through it, while Martha looked over her shoulder.

As Janice read, Martha said, "Well, now, appears as if you have found some simple stuff that might send the Cloud far away or to another dimension. That wouldn't stop it for long, but it would slow it down."

Janice replied, "It says here that a Sorceress of the Old Magic should be able to wield a Benial Wand while intoning this ... I guess its a sound. I sure can't get the translation spell to make it readable."

Martha sighed as she sat back in her chair. After shaking her head she said, "There are some basic problems with that particular enchantment."

Melody said, "They are?"

Janice added, "Yea, what are they?"

Martha put her finger to the strange squiggles and said softly, "First off, this is a language older than time. Secondly, there hasn't been anyone capable of creating a Benial in many ... thousands of years. I'm not even sure if the magical ingredients are all still available. Many artifacts were lost in the great flood."

Melody and Janice said at the same time, "Flood?"

Martha nodded, "Most of Earth's magical history was destroyed once when the earth flooded. We managed to recover a great many things to defend against the darkness, however."

In another place, far removed from the light, a pink cloud squirmed mightily against the golden bonds that entwined it. Finally, it managed to slip free. Its microscopic mind was now filled with rage, as well as the all consuming hunger for that soul of light.

It didn't take it long to find an active place where a portal opened to the world it sought. As much as it was able to feel such emotion, elation coursed all through it as it once again slipped into a portal, then slowly emerged in a large hall with two doors, and a Gargoyle Statue with glowing red eyes.

The Gargoyle said in is growling voice, "To enter, you must first pass a ..."

The pink cloud entwined itself all around the Gargoyle's body. The Gargoyle never got to complete its challenge. The life force within it was hollow and empty. The cloud felt disappointed and the remains of the Gargoyle crumbled into a pile of loose rubble.

Janice looked up from her book. She noticed that both Melody and Martha were looking up too. "Something's wrong," she said.

"Yes," said Martha. "The protective spells around the Upper Library are strong, but ... there are a few things that are stronger."

"Where do we go? This is the only place that has any information about how to combat that thing," Janice said, starting to panic.

"I ... wouldn't say that," said Melody. "Janice, you can see portals, plain as day. And we're looking for a portal to a place called ... guess what ... Emphantarus."

It was Martha's turn to be surprised. "Emphantarus is a place? I thought it was the name of the sorcerer who discovered the things."

"Follow me," said Janice, grabbing her things and heading in the direction that felt the least wrong and distressing.

Doing likewise, Melody said, "Well, the Codex Astrologicus said that the astrologers of Emphantarus were the most renowned in any world for their study of conjunctions. I suppose that could mean that Emphantarus was their leader or master, but it really sounds like a place to me. Especially since it said they had a library in Emphantarus -- not that Emphantarus had a library."

As they hurried toward one of the Library's numerous doors, Martha said, "If the Clouds and the place have the same name ... maybe that library has more information about the Clouds too. It may be their world of origin."

"It may have people who are experts on the things," said Janice.

"Or maybe it's overrun with them," said Martha. "Let's be careful."

Pink tendrils of mist started entwining within the room where they had recently been reading. Goblins were scurrying out of its way, giving it a wide berth after they had seen what it had done to the gargoyle. But Janice and her friends had already left the Library.

Janice looked everywhere -- there were patterns to the placement of portals, and she was leading them through one after another, quickly shuttling from one world to the next, and she didn't know how she knew where she was going, but she strongly felt that she was getting closer to the place she wanted. Finally she stepped through another one and found herself in a world with a white sun and a violet sky, and from the hills where they stood they could see a distant green sea with pink mist rolling in onto the shore.

"Someone really needs to adjust the color on this world," said Melody.

Martha said, "I've seen worse. This just looks like somebody took Candyland too seriously. There are worlds that look like a day-glow rock concert poster from the 60s."

"It's probably following me, so if you were a library, where would you be?" asked Janice.

"In a city," said Melody, "and to get to a city, you follow a road, and I see a road down the hill that way." They crossed a meadow of silver-gray grass with occasional yellow flowers and found a dirt road that soon led to a larger one, paved with orange stones.

"If it's paved, it must be frequently used," said Martha. "Let's pick a direction and go until we find a sign." And this is what they did, finally finding a sign that said "Deep Ehren" pointing one direction, and "Bay Beach" in the other.

"Well," Melody said, "libraries aren't usually found on beaches, so let's go with Deep Ehren?"

"Sounds good," said Janice, "and that's the direction we were going in anyway."

"I haven't seen any other people yet," said Martha, "so we're obviously in a sparsely-populated area, assuming there are people in this world. So may I suggest a travel spell? We need to outrun that Cloud." She used her wand and drew a rectangle of thin glowing red lines around the four of them, near the ground. Suddenly they were all lifted a few inches off the ground and found themselves standing on a flying carpet. Martha sat down.

"Nice!" said Melody. "My feet thank you." She sat down too, as did Janice, and soon they were gliding quickly along the road, Martha watching carefully with her wand out to guide the carpet, following the road's twists and bends.

"You two let me know if you see anybody," Martha said. "This might attract attention, but if there's no attention to attract, it's fine."

For a long time they whisked along on the magical carpet. They hadn't seen a single soul ... or for that matter a single living animal. The very air was silent and not a single creature flying, nor any song.

They finally came over a large rise and the road fell off into a deep valley. A short distance away, the road ended in the front of a large wall that also had an enchantment protecting it.

Martha said thoughtfully, "So, that's how they did it."

Janice and Melody looked at her with big eyes. Melody asked, "Did what?"

Martha pointed and replied, "They keep the cloud out using two distinct spells. One is the Shield of Ethrifran and the other is the enchanted wall. Independently, the cloud would eventually find a flaw and manage to eek by it. Together, where one has a flaw, the other doesn't and keeps the complexity of the weave intact."

Janice asked, "Weave? You make it sound like a cloth." she pointed to the softly glowing wall, "Is that some kind of cloth?"

Martha laughed, "More like a magical tapestry, than anything else. Obviously there's a practitioner of the Old Magics within. Let's see if we can get in and find them ... or the library ... or perhaps both if we're lucky."

The carpet dissolved into a mist and vanished. Martha walked to the gate within the wall. To her amazement, the gate swung open and allowed them to enter. As soon as the women had passed the threshold, it close and resealed itself.

Martha looked around. Janice immediately saw In plain sight a large sign with an arrow, To the Infant Library.

"What's an Infant Library?" asked Janice.

Melody said, "Maybe it has books to read to kids?"

"Where do you see that?" asked Martha, looking confused.

Janice pointed at the sign. "Right there. I take it you can't see it."

"No; it must be an invisible sign, only for those who know what to look for ... or who are Guardians of Truth," Martha replied.

"Well, it seems to suggest we should go ... this way," said Janice, following the arrow. It pointed to a large stone building with a round domed roof.

"So that's an Infant Library," said Melody. "I suppose it might just be a place where you have to be super quiet, because in Latin the word ‘infant' means ‘unable to speak.'"

"Of course, we're only understanding this sign at all because of the translation spells we keep casting," said Janice, "so who knows? But at any rate, maybe we'll find answers to our questions there. You said they had legendary astrologers here, and they must know something about those Cloud creatures."

"I'm ... a little bit concerned," said Martha. "Why don't you go inside? I have to check something out. If nothing's wrong, I'll come join you in a few minutes."

"Um ... all right," said Janice, "if you think it's best. Good luck." Martha put up the hood on her cloak and went down an alleyway.

"I suppose we go inside?" Melody asked. "Look, the sign says ‘NO TALKING.'"

"I guess we should take that seriously," said Janice. "We want their help, after all."

"Here, have some paper and a pencil," said Melody, giving Janice these things from her messenger bag. "We can communicate in writing that way."

"Thanks, good idea," Janice said. "Shall we go in?"

Opening the massive metal-bound wooden doors, Janice found the interior of the building lit with oil lamps high above the floor. There were actual people here, standing at counters, sitting at desks, reading, and it was extremely quiet.

Writing on their pads of paper, Melody and Janice approached the large front counter with notes to hold up. Janice's said, "GOOD DAY -- WE ARE VISITORS HERE -- HOW DO WE GET STARTED?"

The librarian behind the counter smiled and pointed at a room to the left that had a sign saying, "CATALOG ROOM."

Melody held up a note saying, "THANK YOU," to which the librarian smiled again and bowed.

Searching the catalog scrolls was challenging, but soon Janice had several leads for books about Clouds of Emphantarus, while Melody had the locations of several books about conjunctions. They soon found where in the library these books were, claimed an unused table, and started bringing the books to their new base of operations.

After studying their books for some time and taking notes, Janice and Melody went back to the stacks for other books, coming back at the same time with puzzled expressions. Janice wrote a note to Melody that said, "THE EXACT BOOK I NEED ISN'T HERE."

"SAME FOR ME," wrote Melody. Then she noticed motion out of the corner of her eye. It was Martha, coming up the stairs with her wand in hand, looking ... at the other end of the room. Martha quickly made a symbol in the air with her wand.

Janice looked at Melody, looked at Martha, then followed her line of sight ... right to a figure in black robes holding two books and smiling at her. He spoke. "LOOKING FOR THESE?" His voice rang out loud and echoing through the silent library, amplified greatly by Martha's quickly-cast spell.

The effect on the librarians and other patrons was as if someone had blown an air horn. Dozens of librarians converged on the man, all saying, "Shhh!" Janice looked at Martha, holding up a note saying, "EMMY?" with an arrow pointed at the black-robed man, and Martha nodded.

When they looked back at him, Emkandar was now encased in some sort of block of transparent crystal with a sign on it that said, "1 HOUR TIMEOUT -- QUIET PLEASE!" It was all Janice and Melody could do to keep themselves from laughing out loud, but they had just seen what happened to those who couldn't keep quiet, so they managed.

Martha, however, was not laughing. She pointed at one of the pads of paper on the table, so Janice handed one to her along with a pencil. She quickly wrote, "THIS IS A TRAP. EMMY PLANNED ALL OF THIS. MAYBE NOT THAT." There was an arrow pointing to Emkanadar in the crystalline block.

"SHOULD WE GET BOOKS?" said the note Melody held up, because the two books Emkandar had been holding were on tables to either side of the block of crystal.

Martha shook her head no, and the floor began to shake. A low rumbling sound came from all around. All three of them were casting protective spells. Martha was surrounded by red filigree from her wand, while Janice had blue tracery in the air around her and Melody had bright white lines in ellipses, curlicues, spirals, and helices. The patches of color on her clothes were lit up brightly.

The solid stone floor cracked open with a sound like thunder. This was the second story, so the entire building must have just cracked in half. Janice did not know what was about to happen, but she didn't like it. From the crack came a foul-smelling cold wind and a faint howling sound that grew louder and louder as if something was coming from very far away ... from a place where everything was cold and rotten.

Janice realized what Martha had ... Emkandar had known exactly where they would go. They needed information about the Conjunction of Grand, and he had sent a Cloud of Emphantarus after her to make absolutely sure they would come to the one place likely to have information about both. And he had set a trap for them here. He had probably intended to leave before the trap was sprung, though.

The howling sound was unbearably loud now, and there was again a convergence of librarians coming toward it, but they looked frightened. And rightly so, because what then emerged from the crack was the stuff of nightmares. It was all howling, screaming mouths full of teeth of all descriptions, and in some of them there were eyes, and in others there were fingers or tentacles or claws. And just looking at the part she could see, Janice got the distinct feeling that there were miles more of it beneath.

And that it was there to devour. What else would a thing with that many mouths do? It snaked a tentacle out toward a library patron, but Janice didn't want that happening to anyone, so she discouraged it with a quick electric arc from her wand. She was rewarded by the same tentacle reaching toward her instead, although the scholar she had saved got away, running down the remains of the stairs screaming. This time Janice was a bit more forceful, conjuring a jet of searing hot blue flame to counter the thing's cold exhalations. The tentacle sizzled, but as she had been doing this, more and more of the horrible mass had continued oozing forth from the chasm.

Emkandar was totally frozen inside the crystal box. He felt a fear slowly creep up his spine as he realized he was totally unable to move or defend himself from his own trap. This wasn't how he had intended for this to go in any way. He had forgotten those imbecilic librarians had the ability to entrap. And that annoyingly clever Martha one had done something to amplify his voice to make sure they heard him.

As he watched the ongoing battle, he realized that other than its initial reach for a random library visitor, the thing had totally ignored all but the three women. That kind of creature normally attacked anything within its reach. Another fear began to gnaw at his mind; just what the required payment was intended to be for this conjuration. He began to have very dark thoughts on the matter ... since he could do nothing else until his forced timeout was over.

Martha waved her wand in an intricate weave pattern, producing something that looked for the world like a golden spider's web. Melody, couldn't help herself as she felt the strangest compulsion to begin constructing what appeared to be a three dimensional box made entirely of electricity. Janice's eyes grew large as something compelled her to act as well. She began to intone a spell she had no idea she even knew. The sweet melodic sounds began softly, then grew stronger as the box, covered in bars made of what looked like golden spiderwebs, surrounded the horrid creature.

Massive arcs of bright electricity lit the room brighter than noonday as the creature began to screech in more agony than when it arrived. As large as the creature had appeared to be, its entire form was drawn into the box, and the box sealed by the golden spider web of ethereal energy. The three women knew, this was only a temporary thing as the creature made massive damaging strokes to it causing it to begin to fail in large places.

While she had a chance, Melody waved her wand and encircled the two books Emkandar had been holding, causing them to come to her. She grabbed the one about Clouds of Emphantarus and started quickly paging through it. She gasped when she came to a particular page and started rapidly making notes on her pad of paper.

Meanwhile, Martha looked at Janice and traced a spell in the air. She then gestured to Janice and at the glowing red tracery. Janice attempted to trace the same spell, and a similar pattern appeared before her in blue light. Martha nodded and added more detail. Janice tried to copy it, realizing full well that their electrical web spell had only perhaps a minute remaining before they would have to either redo it or think of something else. But perhaps Martha had a plan. She kept adding more pieces to whatever spell she was creating, and it was obvious that she wanted Janice to learn how to do whatever it was she was doing, so Janice kept following along. This was starting to feel like something familiar.

With bright flashes of light and buzzing pops of arcing electricity, the makeshift cage around the creature finally came apart, and although the lightning played across its flesh, the monster was nonetheless free. Melody flicked her wand and seemingly drew fire from the hanging oil lamps, somehow weaving it into a barrier between the creature and the three women, causing Melody to nod pensively and the creature to hammer at this new impediment in frustration with its massive weight, but Martha and Janice continued their impromptu magic lesson.

Janice finally saw what Martha was doing. The spell she was constructing was just like the magic behind every portal she had ever seen. And the creature had outright opened a new one to get here. What Martha was showing her was how to close one. Once they had beaten the creature back through the portal, they could lock it back up in whatever hellish realm it had come from. But how were they going to do that?

The creature was now angry and its thrashings and attacks proved it. Janice realized the creature was no longer putting any kind of thought into what it was doing, it was just lashing out in any attempt to capture or cause reciprocal damage.

As Janice dodged and weaved to avoid the tentacles and gnashing teeth of the critter, she began to think hard about how this mindlessness could be taken advantage of. A thought came to mind; what if ...

Janice whipped out her wand in a great flourish. The creature, of course, slapped it from her hand as she waved it all about. Martha noticed what Janice was doing and frowned for an instant. Then, her eyes lit up with understanding as she too whipped out her wand and started to distract the critter with small blasts of ethereal energies. Melody saw that and she too began to do the same.

This infuriated the creature even more as it intensified it mindless attacks against something it couldn't touch. Janice quickly took advantage of this and began to weave an intricate spell of fine filigree around each tentacle of the creature. This in turn she anchored to the cube in which Emkandar was held captive.

Melody flashed her cell wand, a massive gout of icy blue fire lashed out against the creature causing it to stumble backwards. Martha used this off balancedness to reopen the portal the creature had created within the library. Janice pushed against the cube Emkandar was held in as hard as she could and started it to rock until if fell over into the open portal. As it fell, the tendrils of filagree pulled the off balance creature into the portal with the falling cube. Martha and Janice then wove the binding spell that closed and sealed the portal. Of course, the massive damage to the library was still there and major fires had to be dealt with quickly before any of the priceless scrolls were lost.

Melody held up a sign facing the nearest librarian that said, "CAN WE TALK?"

"Oh, goodness, yes," he said. "This is obviously an emergency."

"Oh good!" Melody said. "You see, there's this spell I read about once that I didn't think would be all that useful, but I guess you never know." She pointed her wand at a nearby fire that was burning a rug, two chairs, and one end of a table and was threatening to engulf a bookshelf. With the proper words and gestures, the fire ceased destroying furniture ... and suddenly leapt to the center of the room and danced, looking vaguely humanoid in shape.

"What." Janice was confused.

"Oh, I see," said Martha, "Theldron's Dancing Flames. Interesting use of it."

Melody cast it again on another fire, and Martha did similarly. Then Melody conjured a tambourine and started to sing and dance. The three flame creatures danced in time. As Melody started to dance down the broken staircase, the flames followed her, not burning anything, apparently enjoying the music.

"Where's she going?" Janice asked.

"Outside, I imagine," Martha surmised.

"Remarkable," said the librarian. "Alethea, are there any other fires burning on the second story?"

"No," came a woman's voice from behind some stacks, "none that I can find, Veritus!"

Leaning over a balcony, the librarian, whose name was apparently Veritus, called down, asking whether there were any more fires burning, but it sounded as if that problem was currently under control.

"Veritus," asked Janice, "there's obviously a lot of damage to repair, but can we stay and read a couple of books that we found?" She pointed to the ones Melody had reclaimed from Emkandar. "It's very important."

"Oh -- yes, the private reading rooms weren't damaged," Veritus said. "Why don't you just all go to one -- I'll show you where they are once your friend gets back. There she is now."

"That was fun," said Melody, coming back up the stairs, "in sharp contrast to the events leading up to it."

"Veritus here is going to show us to a private reading room where we can look at those books," said Martha.

"Wonderful! Thank you, Veritus!" said Melody.

"I ... you're welcome, though I'd obviously prefer the circumstances were better," he said. "This way, please." He led them away from the main room, through some columns, and down a hallway, where he stopped and said, "These are all fine. Choose any unoccupied room you'd like. Just turn the sign on the door over so no one disturbs you."

After thanking Veritus, they picked a room and turned around the sign on its door from "FREE" to "OCCUPIED." Inside they found a large table and several comfortable chairs, with empty shelves around the outside to hold whatever books they had brought with them.

"Let's see what Emmy thought were so important," Martha said, and Melody set the two books down on the table.

"This one is all about magic that affects Clouds of Emphantarus," Melody said. "Including interesting shielding spells that work on other things too. They do seem to mostly harness an external source of energy such as a fire or other light source. But obviously I haven't had a chance to read much more. Why don't you look at that one, Janice? After all, that Cloud is probably still coming for you, though I'm guessing it's stuck outside with all the rest."

"Good idea," Janice said, "and is the other one about conjunctions?"

"Yes, it's really a compendium of several of this world's greatest astrologers' work," said Melody, flipping through the first few pages. "Clearly Emmy thought these were important enough to keep from us."

"Unless it was a ruse," said Martha grimly. "But let's see."

Time passed as they all read and took notes. Janice found many passages of great interest and noticed that Melody seemed to be doing the same. Martha wrote several notes on Janice's page, coming up with ideas that Janice hadn't even begun to think of.

Melody seemed to have finished with everything she could find in her book and seemed anxious to tell them something, pacing the floor and occasionally looking over Janice and Martha's shoulders. Finally, Janice said, "OK, Melody, what did you find?"

"Conjunctions of planets means conjunctions of worlds!" she said. "Isn't that cool? When there's a conjunction of analogous planets on two different worlds at the same time, all the portals between those two worlds open."

"Really?" asked Martha. "All the portals? I hadn't known that."

"Yes! And once every few thousand years, it happens on many worlds at the same time," Melody went on. "All the portals from each of those worlds to each other one all open at once. Magical energy flows freely between them all. Both dark and light."

"A ... Grand Conjunction," said Janice.

"Or a Conjunction of Grand, as some call it," said Melody. "But the point is that Emmy's been trying to rule a bunch of worlds. They're probably all worlds that will be involved in the next Conjunction, and I'll bet he's been doing things to fill all those worlds with dark magic."

"So that when the portals all open," said Martha, "he can draw all of it to himself at once, many worlds' worth of dark power, and with it he can perform a ritual the likes of which can only be seen once every few thousand years."

"Can we build up a reserve of light magic?" asked Janice. "To defend against it?"

"When the Conjunction comes, we can certainly call on any beings who have allegiance to the Light to fight against the Darkness," said Martha. If all the portals will be open, they'll hear us just as Emmy's minions will hear him. But he's been preparing for a lot longer."

"Can we break his hold on more worlds?" Janice asked.

"That would take time," said Martha. "Time we may not have. Melody, can you figure out how long it is until the Conjunction?"

"According to these tables," Melody answered bleakly, "not more than a week."

"And we've still got a Cloud of Emphantarus coming after us," said Janice. "Or, after me specifically."

"We don't know that," said Martha. "It's one of us, certainly. One of us has the ability to bind those things permanently. Or it wouldn't be so interested."

"The problem is, whichever one of us it is doesn't know how to do it," said Melody.

"Let me go over what Janice and I have found," said Martha. She used their notes and launched into a lecture about the Old Ways and how labyrinthine protective wards didn't really stop a Cloud, but could slow it down a great deal -- unless the caster was one of the rare people with the ability to truly bind the creatures. They could trap one indefinitely.

"A Binding Master has an affinity with shields and wards of all sorts," Martha said. "Binding Masters can block any attack, as long as they're prepared for it -- sometimes they even protect themselves without even meaning to. They're that good."

"Well, it's probably Janice, then," said Melody. "She can cast without even using a wand."

"Hmm," said Martha. "Anyway, this city's shields are an interesting two-part affair that must have been cast by a Binding Master."

"Why haven't we been talking about how to kill a Cloud?" Janice asked. "Is there really no way?"

"If there is a way to permanently destroy a Cloud, no one in all of history has ever been able to find it," Martha said. "The greatest masters of destructive magic have tried to no avail. They can reduce one to apparently nothing, but it just regenerates."

"So ... according to this book, a Cloud can be bound to literally any object," said Janice. "But for it to be permanent, it must be prepared for that particular Cloud, and it must be bound by a Binding Master. When that happens, there's no way for the Cloud to escape unless it's set free by some fool who doesn't know the danger or thinks he's too powerful to have to worry."

"Looks like the preparation part's pretty simple," Melody said. "The Cloud in question has to be present for some portion of it, but that could be the last part, just before it's bound to the object."

"Where do you see that?" asked Martha, paging through the book.

"It's right here," Melody said, pointing to one of the formulae from Janice and Martha's notes. "That plus this," she continued, pointing to another one. "Together these mean you could make a Cloud trap pretty easily."

"Melody," said Martha, "have you considered that you might be a Binding Master?"

"What, me?" Melody laughed. "I'm not a natural at casting any kind of spell. Everything I've done, I've had to study like crazy first. The only thing I'm good at is making these ... wards ... that I've always worn everywhere ..." She looked at all the colorful patches on her clothes.

"So that's what those things are for," said Janice.

"Well they're supposed to ward off evil spirits and bad luck," said Melody. "It's not like I've had a chance to actually try them against any actual evil spirits until recently."

Martha encircled one of the patches with the tip of her wand. The patch glowed a bright lemon yellow as if it were a neon sign. "The banshee who could get past this has never been formed," she said. "And you have dozens more. Where did you learn to make these?"

"It ... just ... felt right," Melody admitted. "OK, you may have a point. Maybe there is something I'm a natural at."

"Which means it's you who's the Cloud's target," Janice said. "But you're also capable of locking it away forever."

"Lemme see that book," Melody said, suddenly very focused. She sat down, started paging through it and adding to Janice and Martha's notes.

"I'm learning new things already," said Martha, this time reading over Melody's shoulder.

"OK, so we're a pretty formidable team," said Janice. "You've got tons of experience, I'm a Guardian of Truth and a gesture sorceress, and Melody's a Binding Master."

"Yes, but we also face formidable opposition," said Martha. "Emkandar's not exactly Thoroxion the Black Fang, but he's been making his plans for a long time. It's important to remember that we still have limitations, because if he finds them and we don't, we're in trouble."

"Point taken," Janice said. "I'm assuming Thoroxion Whatever was pretty bad, but aren't we assuming that Emmy's going to get out of wherever he is now?"

"He will," Martha said. "He may pay an even greater price, but he may be counting on the great power he'll be getting from the ritual to offset it. He will literally say or do anything to reach his goal. The dark wizards always do."

"It's like it's in their contract or something," said Melody.

"Even if he doesn't make it out of the nether dimension we've sent him to in time," said Martha, "he may have things set in motion already -- minions who will perform their parts of the ritual for him, spells set to go off at the right time to make sure things happen, and so forth. We will need a lot of help to stop this."

Melody sees a small scroll sitting in a cubby hole appear as if it suddenly burst into flame. She rushed over and picked up the flaming scroll and whatever the flames were vanished.

Melody gasped, "This ... scroll looked like it was on fire ... and then the flames just vanished."

Martha took the scroll and unrolled about a foot of the metallic leaf it was made of. Martha's eyes get large in surprise as the Title, written in the oldest of the old Velcurian scransit language, said simply Binding Master's Ledger. Beneath this, were many of the oldest of the old and most powerful ways a Master Binding Wizard could bind, ensnare, and entrap all the creatures known with the magical, above and below realms.

Martha handed the scroll back the Melody and said softly, "Child, I do believe you, for whatever reason there is, are endowed with the Bondsman's Power. That is one of missing scrolls of power used by the Old Wizards to bind the darkest of the dark spirits. It has sought you out."

Melody unfurled the metallic feeling scroll and looked at it, The strange symbols and squiggly wiggly lines appeared to catch fire, then became readable words. It gave the ingredients, the actual lost spell of Binding Enchantment, and the steps necessary for a Binding Wizard to entrap.

Martha said softly, "It is you, child, you are the master. She turned and looked at Janice before she continued, "And it is you, who are the Meta Sorceress that was foretold in the old legends would come to end the rule of the Vile one over many."

Janice replied, "That may be ... but I don't have a clue as to how to use the power I'm supposed to have so much in abundance."

"Aw, c'mon," said Melody, "you've already done a lot of amazing things. You know plenty. And you're always learning more."

"But it's all been on-the-job training," Janice complained. "I've never really felt prepared for any of this."

"Let me tell you a secret I've learned from years of experience," said Martha. "You never will. You'll just get used to feeling that way. In fact ... the only people who are arrogant enough to think they can handle anything are the ones who go dark. We just have to do what we can."

"Not very reassuring."

"Being reassuring isn't my job."

"What next?" asked Melody.

"Next, I think, we go out of the city and find out what you can do to our Cloud friend," said Martha. "If it doesn't work, we can always step back inside. But I think it will. There are enough portents."

In a realm of fire and brimstone, the mighty binding box encasing Emkandar shatters under the intense power he was expending, and the fact his time out had ended. He was totally infuriated at this point and the massive torment of the realm tore at his very essence.

Every creature surrounding him, was in total mind bending torment. Emkandar had to find a way out of this or be forever trapped. He had come too far to allow some stupid oversight entrap him someplace he didn't want to be.

Emkandar brought out one of special trinkets and smashed it against a flaming rock. Instantly a portal opened, Emkandar stepped through. He felt it as much of his soul was taken away as payment.

As they were about to leave the reading room, Martha, Janice, and Melody suddenly found themselves surrounded by massively powerful portal spheres. Four of the things appeared from nowhere and dark creatures began to step out. They looked like a spider crossed with a scorpion and an ant. Neither its large spiked mandibles, nor its thrashing stinger tail looked anything like appealing.

The creatures were fearless as they attacked. Snapping jabbing, then able to spring away fast as lighting to avoid any melee attacks.

Janice waved her hand, a massive green cloud formed near the exit of one of the portals. Everything that stepped through, began to be eaten by acidic vapors and dissolve away. For a short time, this spell worked wonders, but there were many critters and they each took their own toll on the spell's duration.

Martha waved her hand in a graceful flipping motion, then began to toss small spheres of light at the spiders. When Martha tossed, there would be a sparkle of light in her hand, a flashing streak with a loud Zeeeeooouuuppp! sound before they impacted. Immediately they began to make a tremendous amount of ethereal energy bolts that spread out light tendrils producing a loud crackling electrical discharge type explosion. The energy would draw any within about a 10 foot circle in, and those external, but still nearby, took a discharge that burned their skins as well as their chitinous shells. Those drawn in, where basically shredded as spider body parts and gore splattered everywhere.

Janice said between sending massive overpressure waves into a crowd of spiders and tossing them against a far wall, "That's a neat trick, Martha. How about a few pointers on how to conjure them."

Martha replied back above the din of battle, "It's the hand gestures of the Infinity Ritual combined with the Ommm Ith entonement."

Janice shouted back with frustration in her voice, "How the heck am I supposed to know what a ommek, or whatever, is?"

Martha said as she seriously injured a spider just as it was attacking one of the hiding librarian helpers, "I haven't yet had a chance to show you. Ever since I first met you we've been kept rather busy ..." Martha's face took on an expression of extreme thought.

Janice said as she tossed another huge spider that tried to sting her with its awful tail, "What? Did you remember something?"

Martha nodded as she sent another of the arachnid critters to its eternal rest, "I think perhaps our fix, might also be part of the plan Emkandar worked out. Keep us distracted enough where we don't catch on, and I don't pass on that which is my charge to pass on. I hope we do get the chance."

"You're not going to go dying on us, are you?" asked Melody.

"Don't plan to," Martha said, "but things are just getting worse."

"What would happen if I tried to close these portals?" asked Janice.

"I expect bugs'll quit coming out of 'em," Martha replied. "But make sure you look -- carefully -- before you do."

"What do you -- oh!" Janice gasped as she activated her link to the Glass of Truth. The portals weren't quite the shape and size they seemed to be. They were offset in location, as well. Even someone with magical sight would have been fooled.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," said Martha. "Emmy's all about lies. Don't trust your eyes."

"Well, I see this portal here well enough," Janice said and went through the complicated sequence of gestures Martha had taught her earlier, sealing one of the four portals. However, this seemed only to speed up the rate at which the creatures were emerging through the other three.

"You know, I just read about ..." Melody used her phone wand and traced in the air, and the portal nearest her was suddenly englobed in a transparent force field. Creatures coming through it quickly crowded into the bubble, filling it up, unable to move.

"Well done!" said Martha, continuing to sear bugs with intense light and heat. "Get the other two and we're out of here!" But just as she said that, a lightning-like line of energy began to crackle between the two remaining portals, and the space between them tore open. An enormous creature emerged, shaped partly like some sort of mantis but with thick armor and horns like a rhinoceros beetle.

"Portal number two closed," said Janice, having closed the portal within Melody's shield.

"OK ..." said Melody. "Let's try this." She chanted magical syllables and gestured with her phone, and her hands began to glow with a faint white light.

Martha was assailing the large creature with bursts of energy, but the smaller creatures were still coming. "I can't handle both the big one and the little ones," she said.

"On the big one," said Melody. "I think. Janice, try to close it."

"It's not working," Janice said. "I think ... space is torn. It feels like it has to be healed, not just closed."

"Do what you can," said Martha. "Melody, what are you doing? Don't ..."

Melody had advanced right up to the huge mantis-like bug and was flexing her fingers. It reached out with its sharp spiked forelegs and tried to skewer her ... but Melody gestured just so, and it was blocked by a glowing white disc that appeared in the air right in front of her. It tried again, and the disc moved again to block. It lunged with two spikes at once, and a second disc appeared, joining the first to block both attacks. The creature grew frustrated and tried biting in addition to using its claws, but a third glowing white disc appeared. It tried attacking faster, but the discs danced even quicker. Melody was moving her hands, arms and fingers, directing the discs, and as the creature grew more frustrated and flailed at her more and more angrily, more discs appeared to block its attacks. Soon there were six, then eight, all moving independently, and Melody was somehow guiding them all. She wasn't doing the creature any damage, but this tactic was completely occupying its attention.

"I've closed the original portals," said Janice. "But the rip is still there, and it won't close."

"Feel ... the texture ... the pattern ..." said Martha, keeping busy but growing tired as she kept the small bug population down.

"The ... texture ..." Janice said, tracing with her wand. She could actually feel the pattern of space and time now, after interacting with it several times. It felt like ... and she tried to picture how it felt as she continued to trace the closing spell. The gash torn in the air behind the large monster was suddenly bridged by a number of blue lines, almost like stitches. "I'm ... doing it ... I think!"

With the stitches blocking the way, the small creatures stopped coming through, and soon Martha had killed the last one. As Janice kept concentrating and the number of stitches across the rip multiplied, Martha turned to the large creature. "Well, now," she said. "You're a big fella. I'm tired ... but not that tired." Its attention was still focused on Melody and her dancing microshields.

Martha raised her arms above her head and recited in a voice that rumbled through the whole of the building, "By the power of light granted to the seers from the dawn of time I command the light to strike at the heart of this darkness and enlighten the dark with truth."

There was a large electrical sounding ZAP! The creature squealed loudly as if it were in mortal agony. It rolled over on its back and kicked its feet spasmodically for a few minutes before it became still."

Melody said with awe in her voice, "That ... wasa neatos trick. " she slowly walked up to the inert critter and pushed on one of its huge mandibles with a foot, "is it dead?"

Martha nodded, "More than likely. Creatures of the darkness find the light of truth fatal."

Janice had finished up with the last of the small portals and the rift had been stitched together and sealed for the moment. She said exhaustedly, "I think I need a whole lot more studying and learning. I actually did several things and didn't know how I did em."

"I need to sit down," said Martha, then cast a cleaning spell on herself and a chair and did so. "So ... the tear is stitched together. Good job, there, especially for never having learned how to do it. But the worlds are still connected. Here's what you need to do ... just relax ... and cast this to attune yourself to the harmony ..."

Janice actually found this easier than what she had done. By the time Martha had talked her through the spell to heal this wound in the fabric of creation, which was actually rather small all things considered, Janice felt better and more energetic than she had before.

"Nice!" said Melody, who had been watching carefully. "So someone used a lot of power to punch those holes. There has to be a limit."

"Emmy's hoping we reach ours before his people reach theirs," said Martha. "Let's get out of here and to someplace they can't predict before they hit us again. Janice, can you see any portals nearby?"

Closing her eyes and opening her magical senses, Janice could feel ... "Yes," she said, "not within this library, but not far away."

The door opened. "I just wanted to check on ... my word!" said Veritus, looking at the horrible amounts of ichor and piles of insectoid body parts. "Were you attacked again?"

"We were, in fact," said Martha. "I think we will be leaving and taking our threat to your peace and quiet with us. We thank you for your hospitality, though."

"Well, you are welcome ... at any other time," said Veritus. "Let me get the cleaning wands. Farewell, and good luck."

The three women made their way out of the library; books were being moved out of the damaged sections in an orderly fashion to make way for repairs. Down the street and into an alley Janice led them. "Here goes," she said. "That Cloud is probably going to sense we've portaled out and come after us by another path. But at least nothing else will be finding us." She led them through this portal to a world that seemed mostly desert, then after a few steps to another one that was mostly jungle, then another that was marked by huge, majestic red canyons. After eight more transitions, they were in a world where three blue moons shone over a tropical lagoon, and they were on a beach in the warm night air.

"Let's get some rest," said Martha. "I'll show you an alarm spell that will wake us up if anything comes near, whether it's a Cloud or just a native of this world."

The women used their magic to create soft and comfy beds. The sand was soft and warm, the moons over head were .... Oddly colored, but the light was bright and allowed them to complete their tasks. Once the Safety Enchantment was cast over their makeshift camp, the three of them fell into an exhausted sleep.

From out of the thick and oddly leaved flora, a pink mist slowly seeped and gathered around the base of the shield surrounding the thing it hunted. It poked and prodded at the shield and slowly gathered itself in a small depression. It hadn't run into a Warding shield set by a Master Binder in many years. It knew its prey would probably become the hunter. It now knew the soul it sought, was a Master Binder and the greatest danger it knew. The other was even a greater threat, only she had the power to destroy a Cloud of Emphantarus ... although no practitioner of the Arts had ever gotten the tonal inflection just right to spark the master muse. Once the Master Tone had sounded, whichever cloud was within the radius of the tone would vanish. The cloud knew it must stop this particular Binder from learning her trade, and this Master Guardian ... to never learn the key to her power.

The cloud still searched the shield. It discovered it was woven in many layers. Where the weakness of one layer was, another's strength overlaid it. The cloud's frustration was only topped by the hunger for the object of its microscopic mind.

Martha, Janice, and Melody slept in peace and safety, not realizing the danger that awaited them on the morrow.

The sun of this world shone brightly on Janice's face. Its light was blue-white. She woke up. She looked around.

Apparently they had missed sunrise, since there were mountains that had blocked their view of it, and the sun was just now cresting those peaks to shine down upon their campsite. Janice knew their protective spells were still up -- she could feel them -- but they were invisible to the unaided eye. The alarm spell hadn't gone off, meaning nothing had made a serious challenge to the shield while they had slept.

Janice stood up and stretched, and saw Melody and Martha begin to stir as well. Evidently Emkandar's forces had left them alone -- no attacking demons or bugs or slime molds or whatever. Perhaps their tactic of slipping quickly away through multiple portals had lost them.

It wouldn't lose the Cloud, though; that she knew. It was capable of tracking its target across multiple worlds. She wouldn't be surprised if it showed up right then. But she didn't see it anywhere.

"Morning," yawned Melody. "I feel much better -- wait."

"What is it?"

"The outer three shield layers are out of alignment," Melody said.

"Does that mean something touched them?" asked Janice.

"Yes. Could've been a native or something, but they wouldn't get past the first one."

Martha stirred. "Is our pink friend back?"

"Can't be sure," said Melody, "but it's a good bet."

"Well, if it is, this is a great time to bind it," said Martha. "You're rested, and you've already got a shield setup to retreat behind if it doesn't work. Got your plan all worked out?"

"Give me a moment," said Melody. "I haven't even had my coffee yet. Not that I'm going to get any. Hear that, Cloud? I'm grumpy without my coffee, and I blame you."

"Where is the thing?" asked Janice, looking around. "I'd have thought I'd see it around somewhere."

"Hiding, most likely," answered Martha. "They're not highly intelligent, but they are pretty wily."

"All right," said Melody. "You two just stay inside the shield. I'm going to shield myself and go out looking for it."

Melody picked up a cute little hand blown wine bottle with swirls and twists in the glass. As she exited the shield, she had placed most of the Master's Spell of Binding on the bottle and had made a magical cork to seal it. She dropped into the bottle, a small crystal that pulsed seemingly like a heartbeat. When it entered the bottle, it turned a bright blue and continued its throbbing pulsations only now in blue light.

Martha looked on with trepidation and Janice had an expression of grave worry. Both of them knew if this was off by even a syllable of a tonal inflection what Melody was about to do could prove to be quite fatal. All the great masters had written that only an idiot would release a Cloud from its binding. Guess that said something about Emkandar, for the most part.

Melody felt the tingle of fear run all up and back down her spine as she began the systematic search. She hoped upon hope she found the cloud ... before it found her. More by luck than skill, Melody saw, all puddled in a low indentation in the ground, a reddish pinkness intermingled with small flashes of light. A smile crossed her face as she brought out her palmtop and began to weave a spell.

The cloud's senses came alive as one of its quarry approached. It focused its sense on her as she approached The cloud warily watched. It knew this person's potential. It also knew the tastiness of its soul. The cloud began to flow like a fog from the depression in the ground, inching very slowly toward its prey, always vigilant for some kind of warding it might have missed, but finding none.

It tensed, if such a being could. Just a little closer ... just one more step ...

Melody could see the cloud preparing to strike. She knew most poignantly that if her timing were off by scant fractions of a second, her soul would be devoured before any could help her.

The cloud saw Melody take that one more step it needed ... it sprang ...

Melody whipped out the wine bottle just as the cloud made its move. She intoned, "Bearka Ackbredth Tonuth Bindithed Inweth." It was perfect and the tones sang across the area like a wonderful song.

A bright flash of light, a soul curdling squeal ... the bottle filled with the streaming pinkness of the cloud. When the very last of it was inside, Melody sealed the cork with a magical bond only the mightiest of Sorcerers could break.

She held up the bottle and looked through it. Within was a roiling gelatinous goo. Melody said with a smile, "Sorry, I'm not on the menu just yet."

"You did it!" shouted Janice excitedly.

Martha smiled. "We might stand a chance after all."

"Well, I got it," said Melody, "but what do I do with it?" She shook the bottle.

"Try to figure out how to destroy it?" asked Janice. "It's only going to keep trying to kill you and devour your soul if it ever gets out."

"Many have tried, but none have succeeded," said Martha. "Melody only captured it with a perfect execution of the binding spell -- to destroy it would require even more exacting intonation, and that wouldn't be a binding spell, so her being a Binding Master wouldn't help her."

"Well, I'm going to make sure nobody's letting it out of there," said Melody. "You two enjoy the tropical ambience." She set the bottle down in the sand, sat down looking at it, and started concentrating on placing more shields around it, this time with the aim of lashing out at and discomfiting anyone who so much as tried to open it.

"OK ... I'll have a look around," said Janice.

"Don't go far," said Martha.

Janice surveyed the local terrain as well as the local portal population. When she got back, in about an hour, Melody was still looking at the bottle, but Martha looked back at her. "Well, I found a portal that ‘feels' like it goes home, and another that ‘feels' like it goes to Emkandar, or at least his minions.

On an icy world of deep frigid ice and snow, the last bastion of unconquered humans made their last desperate stand. Ammo was low, food was non existent, and fire was in very short supply. The ice demons were unrelenting in their assault on this world. Mighty glaciers had spread rapidly across the helpless world once Emkandar had stolen the Sacred Flame of Malocharn. It was the only thing that insured humanity would live and have the authority to keep the Ice Demons in their holes.

Valeric looked over the horizon. He could see another of the mighty Ice monsters as they approached. He sighed as he braced his Elven Longbow and nocked a metherium tipped arrow. He looked at his quiver. He counted only 24 left of the 500 he had started with. This would be a short fight. He hoped it didn't hurt too much being ripped to pieces as one froze solid.

From behind the man a large glowing portal opened. From within stepped King IronHammer and several thousand well armed and armored with the very best magical armor and weapons the Dwarven forges could create.

As Ironhammer directed his forces to fortify the wall emplacements and cannon emplacements, he also had much food and ammunition brought to the men defending the wall.

Ironhammer bowed gracefully and said reassuringly, "Greeting from the Tunnel Dwarves. We have a pact with man that is iron clad and centuries old. We have come to aid in defending Mythelguaard from the Ifelheim. Also we know Emkandar's behind this, and we wanna hammer him good." He spat on the ground behind him after saying Emkandar's name.

Valeric approached the King with renewed hope and shook his hand. "Your coming is like the legends of old come to life," he said. "I feel I must be dreaming, to greet a Dwarven King, yet here we stand. Hope had nearly perished in my heart, but now it breathes new life. I know not how we can repay you for your aid in our time of greatest need, but be assured that we will find a way."

Introductions were made, and the Dwarven cannons drove the ice monster away sorely wounded. The Humans and Dwarves mended the fortress walls and made their battle plans. Once again, the forces of light had ended one of Emkandar's hopes to bring darkness to a realm of light.

"What are we looking for?" asked Janice as they walked down the street. They were back on Earth, in the town where Janice and Martha lived, and Janice was actually finding it odd to be dressed like a normal American and doing normal modern-day things, after everything she'd done and seen.

"Somewhere in this town," answered Martha, "Emmy's got a base of operations. Probably someplace hard to get into, probably some kind of position of power or authority. Most likely it's hidden in plain sight. Like us. We're just three ladies having an afternoon out together, and meanwhile you can keep your eyes open looking for any signs of anything out of the ordinary. Helps to have all the experience you've had."

"OK, but I don't see anything right at the moment," said Janice. "Hey, let's stop at this coffee shop. It'll let us pause for a little bit and just observe without it looking odd that we're not moving along."

"Only if they have tea," Martha said.

Melody checked her messenger bag to make sure the bottle was still there, for the eleven dozenth time. "I'm watching you," she said to it.

~~ Several Hours Later ~~

Janice was doing her very best to make the tonal inflections required by the spell of dissolution. Martha did her best to give pointers on how to make the proper pitch. Although she did admit that after several centuries what the actual sound was most practitioners hotly debated, and the spell refused to work.

Martha said softly as she patted Janice on the back, "That's a wonderful try. It might even be correct. But there's some subtle thing none of us have ever figured out. I'll go and get us a snack and something to drink." She rose gracefully from the book stacked table and quietly left the room.

Janice was beside herself. All the things she could do, and a sound that mankind hadn't uttered since the dawn of time was what kept her from unlocking her power. She was so frustrated she could ...

Suddenly there was a bright flash behind her. Janice rose and turned. A strange creature, radiant with light, stood off in the corner, looking toward her with one hand raised as if in greeting. It was human-like in shape, but its face was not human; it had large dark eyes with glittering depths within them and a nose and mouth that were somewhat animal-like, though not like any specific animal Janice could name. It seemed to have short white fur all over its body, but as it was wearing something like an ancient Greek chiton she couldn't see for certain. There was an aura of light that seemed to surround its head and shine from behind it. She could feel the light it radiated as it touched her skin.

Janice tried to speak, "Hi ... uhhh ... i mean ... Ummm ... "

The creature laughed as it replied in its soft voice, "It's all right -- that happens to many who meet one of my kind."

The creature's magnificence took Janice's breath away. The pureness of the white light that it gave off added to the wonderful beauty of the creature. She finally found her voice and asked, "And ... just what kind of creature are you?"

It laughed again, "You do not know. I understand. You have not been Guardian for long. Behold, Wielder of the Light of Truth, I am a messenger sent from the source of all light to teach you a tonal language mankind hasn't spoken since you left the garden."

"Are you telling me you're ... an angel?" asked Janice. She looked around. Melody and Martha were talking as if none of this were going on.

"They cannot see me. This is so we may speak privately. As for whether I am what you call an angel -- that depends on what you believe. Am I a divine messenger sent by the Creator of All Things? Am I an emissary of a coalition of beings who believe in using their great power only for the betterment of others, but whose visits to Earth in the past have been interpreted as divine? How you interpret me is your decision. But nevertheless, I am here with knowledge that you need to hold back the darkness."

Janice was amazed. "Have you been watching us all this time? Why act now, and not before? There were times when we could've used your help."

The creature smiled and nodded. "But you did not need it, did you? You persevered without need of our interference. This speaks of your worthiness as a Guardian of Truth and of your companions' worthiness as fellow defenders of the Light. But I have been sent now because there is one thing that you cannot do without our help, because the knowledge simply no longer exists on Earth, nor indeed on any of the worlds you have visited lately."

"Why?" asked Janice. "It seems as if knowledge of this ancient language would be useful to a lot of people who are fighting against evil."

"Because it would also be useful to perpetrators of that evil," said the Messenger. "Knowledge is a double-edged sword. This knowledge should only be given to those who have proven themselves worthy. And you have."

"I ... am not sure I have," said Janice. "If you mean that we've helped some people who were fighting Emkanadar, well yes, we've done that, but only in an attempt to distract him and buy ourselves more time to figure out what he's up to."

"You do not give yourself enough credit," said the Messenger, "but then, you have not seen what I have seen. You have set events in motion across many worlds. Your actions have spurred others to fight who would have despaired or remained neutral. Your victories have saved the lives of many who now fight on the side of the Light, but who would have perished without your aid. And you have tipped the scales enough that there are those who were holding their own, but are now victorious, so they may now come to the aid of others."

"I'm ... glad our actions have had positive repercussions," Janice replied. "I suppose the general idea was to try to defeat Emkandar and the forces he's allied with."

"We ourselves do not struggle to defeat anyone, but to defend -- but in that struggle we sometimes assist others who are taking a more active role," the Messenger said. "And that is why I am here now. You will soon be in need of this knowledge."

"If ... if you're sure," said Janice. "What I don't know can't be taken from me."

"I am confident that Emkandar will fail if he tries to force you to reveal your knowledge," said the Messenger. "In a way, he has failed already, by following the path of ignorance and lies. I doubt he is capable of even understanding it."

The Messenger held out his arms and tilted his head back. Janice had to throw her arm over her eyes as the magnificence of the white light increased in intensity. From the mouth of the Messenger came the most melodic sound she thought she had ever heard. The messenger's light settled down to the original radiance as he looked at Janice.

Janice's mouth fell open as she realized she was expected to make that perfect tonal inflected note. She gasped, "How ... am I to utter something ... like that?"

The messenger smiled and replied, "It is up to you, and the others who aid you, to stop the Grand Conjunction from being corrupted by the legion of darkness. This is your calling, and this is the language you must learn to speak. So If you would ..." Once again, the messenger uttered the most wonderfully pure musical note, broken down in more simpler terms so Janice could at least try.

Janice had never been a great singer. She had been in the chorus in school, but it wasn't as if she was a featured soloist. It seemed as if she were being called upon to sing tones sweeter than the best opera singer in history, and that didn't seem possible to her. "I ... can't ..." she began.

"Listen to what I sing, not how," said the Messenger, and repeated the note.

Or ... notes. Janice listened carefully and heard in the single tone a number of separate vocalic shadings. With her imperfect human voice she tried to repeat these vowel-like sounds.

"You see! This is the beginning of the chant." The Messenger led, and Janice followed. After a few attempts, something happened. Janice's heart and mind, and even the very air leaving her lungs, suddenly resonated with something that she might label hope or joy, but it was not either of those really.

"Yes!" the Messenger said. "You have taken a giant step in the right direction." As Janice and the Messenger continued their training session, she felt this sensation of rightness or correctness from more and more of the song-like language she was learning, as if the universe itself was telling her when she got something right.

The next thing Janice knew, the messenger was clapping his hands with great joy. A bright light was dimming quickly.

"Yes!" said the messenger. That is exactly what I was trying to get you to do. What you were feeling is called the Master Muse. With it, there is almost nothing impossible within certain realms."

Janice felt drained in a way she had never felt before. Within her, though, was the understanding of just what it meant to be a Guardian ... a Wielder ... of the Light of Truth.

"Then it's that word I keep dreaming about -- it isn't actually a word, is it?" asked Janice in total wonder.

The being only smiled and said, "Learn wisdom, child, for in the days to come the power will show who is the Guardian of Truth of all the realms ... and that is you."

A bright flash and the being was gone, leaving Janice with a knowledge of what her duties truly meant, and how to wield the awesome power she had been handed.

Melody was talking to Martha. "... and so then Professor Tryon said none of them actually believed in the charms and sacrifices anymore by that time in history, but then I showed him the Letters of Theorbus, which apparently he'd never heard of before!"

"What?" Martha asked. "Not heard of the Letters of Theorbus? Did he know about Theorbus at all?"

"Excuse me a moment," said Janice. The other two looked at her.

"Oh gosh, I'm sorry, Janice," said Melody, "we were going on and on and totally ignoring you, I'm sorry!"

"Well, just a moment," Janice said. "This syllable ... I think it's pronounced ..." She uttered a sound that had not been heard on Earth in 30,000 years.

When the celestial brilliance that had suffused the table and momentarily banished all shadows faded, Martha blinked her eyes several times and took a deep breath. "I ... think ... you may have something there," she said, still sounding stunned.

"That was ... amazing ..." said Melody. "It was like ... I was dreaming, but now I'm awake. Why is no one at all staring at our table after an explosion of divine light?"

"I think ... they're not supposed to," said Janice. "There's ... something that prevents certain people from noticing certain things right now."

Martha remarked, "Not even Professor Myrius learned how to say that properly, and that was just one syllable."

"What if ... he didn't need to?" asked Janice. "Because there wasn't a crisis going on, not of the same level that's happening now?"

"Well, there was Eukraze the Soul Darkener," said Martha, "but no, there was no Conjunction then, no Emmy -- not that Emmy's a genius or anything, but his plans seem to go pretty deep. He's been working on this for a long time."

"I ... got a little visit," Janice said. "You're probably not going to believe this ..."

Melody said, "Oh! While we were ignoring you! That wasn't a coincidence! I feel better, actually. Was it a Nephilim? Or a Zeta Reticulan? If they exist, they might be ..."

"It said it was a messenger of the Light," Janice said. "It taught me how to pronounce ... another language. One that's not like anything I've ever heard before."

Martha sat up. "This is serious, then," she said. "This is really not just another minor would-be dark wizard grabbing some power. This is for real."

"We need to find Emmy's base now," said Janice. She activated her link to the Glass of Truth. Then she spoke a different syllable of the ancient language of the Light, one that she had learned meant to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And to Janice the world became as glass.

"Wh ... what did I just say?" Janice asked Melody and Martha.

"You said it's under the bank, in the vault," said Melody. "You said it was a place stained with dark power and a nexus of portals. You said Emkandar was not there at present but that he had left safeguards. And you said that those safeguards were now ... destroyed."

"I did?" Janice asked, confused. "I remember saying ... something ..."

"We should get there," said Martha. "Now. Before he comes back and sees what you've just done."

Emkandar was furious with his orc minions. After the several attacks where they had been driven off, the orks were balking at going unless Emkandar was there with them. He had no qualms. This particular nexus had to fall. There were only about 25 faithful to the light left in the whole realm.

Just as the sun began to turn the far horizon purples and pinks, Lord Jerome stood in his battlements for what he knew to be the very last time. There was absolutely no way the few loyal defenders left could hold off Emkandar and the orcish army he saw seemingly appearing on the horizon. Suddenly there was a great blue-white flash behind him. Lord Jerome's mouth fell open as he saw several Dwarves with a magic portal ring. The little man with the crown on his head motioned Jerome over.

He held out his large calloused hand and said cheerily, "Greetings to ye. I be King Ironhammer, and we're here ta rescue the lot of ye. If'n ye would step through this here glowy spot, we'll take ye somewhere safe."

"Abandon the realm to the orcs?" Lord Jerome asked incredulously. "There may be no hope of victory, but I'm sworn to defend my land and my people -- no matter how many are left -- to the very end!"

"Now, who said anythin' ‘bout abandonin' it?" asked King Ironhammer. "We go ta meet allies. There are many who'll help ye ‘gainst Emkandar's hordes. Ye'll see. But from this position ... no way. Ye'll have a much better chance if we take the Jessagine Crossroads fortress."

"But that's hundreds of miles away --!" complained Lord Jerome as he and his people stepped through the portal. Then his voice trailed off as he looked around. "But ... but this is the Jessagine Crossroads fortress right here! Magic?"

"Aye, laddie," said King Ironhammer. "Look around ye. We've made it ready. And we've brought friends. These orcs? They're nothin'. Emkandar's just got hisself another problem, and the more the better, says I."

Lord Jerome looked around and saw Dwarves and Humans, and some other beings as well, wearing the uniforms and emblems of many nations, only a few of which he recognized, all working together to make the fortress ship-shape. A man in armor and a gray cloak came up to him and offered his hand. "Well met, Lord Jerome," he said. "I am Lord DuDeres. My friends and I have dealt Emkandar's demons a decisive defeat on my world, so we've come to help you do the same to his orcs here."

Shaking his hand, Lord Jerome said, "I ... scarcely know what to say. I thank you on behalf of my men and the scattered and hiding people of my realm." He turned around and said to his soldiers, "Hoist the flag! Fly it high! It will take the orcs days to get back here once they learn this fortress is retaken, and when they do, we will finally hand them defeat."

"Well spoken!" said Lord DuDeres. "And it will be a defeat from which they'll not recover."

"Aye, we'll make sure o' that," King Ironhammer said.

"It's in the bank vault?" asked Melody in a whisper. They stood before the vault door in the basement of the town's First National Bank, which stood slightly ajar.

Janice replied, "That's what I saw. Let me just ..."

"Oh!" said Melody, as her vision was suddenly expanded, because Janice had just shared her sight with her two companions.

"Let's get inside before a random guard walks this way," Martha said. "The don't-notice-us spell I cast won't last long; I didn't want to be too obvious or tire myself out too much."

Janice pushed the heavy vault door open far enough for them to enter one at a time and walked right in. It was dark. There was a table in the center of the room with several books and sheets of paper on it. The walls were covered with locked drawers and cabinets, all closed as far as Janice could see.

"Is there a light switch?" Melody asked as she entered behind Janice.

"No," said a voice. The vault door closed behind them with a loud, echoing clang.

"Who's there?" Janice asked?

"You don't need to know my name, as you won't live long," said the voice.

Suddenly the room was filled with brilliant light. A black-cloaked figure in the far corner hissed and recoiled. "Sorry," said Melody, holding up her phone. "Was that too bright?"

"It was more of a rhetorical question, really," said Janice. "We could see you the entire time."

"But -- the wards -- the traps --" said the figure.

"We cleared those out before we even came here," said Janice. "Didn't you notice?"

The figure pointed at them. "You!" he said. "My Master will --"

"We keep bumping into your so-called Master," said Melody, "and he's never beaten us. Unfortunately we've never fully beaten him yet either. Just mostly."

"The Conjunction approaches! He will --"

"Are you still here?" asked Janice, who was looking at the parchment maps and charts on the table. "I wonder why? Could it be because the portals are all warded?"

Walking in through the solid wall, Martha said, "Oh, one of those guys. He giving you any trouble?"

"Not really, except for not knowing when to shut up," said Melody. "What took you so long?"

"I was having a conversation with one of the security guards in the hallway," said Martha. "I had to convince him that I was supposed to be here. Easy to do, but it takes a few moments."

"What's this book?" asked Melody. "Oh, I see. Conjunction timetables." She paged through it. "Not really anything I don't already know."

"This is a signed pact between Emkandar and, if I'm not mistaken, that demon guy who showed up in my basement," Janice said, holding up a sheet of parchment with bloody signatures on it. "And I think this one might have something to do with the horrible thing that showed up at the Library on Emphantarus."

The cloaked figure suddenly drew a dagger and ran at Melody. "Die, enemy of the great --" He stopped. Melody had turned her phone toward him. "Can't -- move --" he said.

"Well anyway, this seems to be his base of operations on Earth," said Janice. "Should we disable it?"

Martha nodded. "Closing all the portals should be sufficient. But take note where they lead first."

"I see ... many that I do not know," Janice said, looking carefully. "But, I'm not sure how, but I feel as if I could go to any of these places now that I've seen them."

"You're starting to overcome the need for portals," said Martha. "That's good. Professor Myrius didn't need them anymore either."

"OK, then, can we just close any of them we want now?" Melody asked. "I've watched you do it enough times. I want to try it."

"Go right ahead," said Martha. And the three of them closed three of Emkandar's portals, then three more, and again until the vault had no trace of either dark magic or portals to other worlds.

"Emkandar -- will -- destroy -- you --" said the hooded man, barely able to speak, let alone move, as he stood motionless.

"We'll see about that," said Janice. "Let's go." And they departed, not via a portal, but using a new means of transport, which Janice had just realized she could do.

"So wonderful to see you again, Your Majesty!" effused Melody, shaking King Ironhammer's hand enthusiastically. "I love Lord of the Rings so much!"

"Lord o' the what now?" asked the Dwarven King. "But aye, ye're a sight fer sore eyes. We might need ye to do yer magic again. Emmy an' his orcs are comin', and I got an inklin' he might actually be comin' with ‘em this time."

Martha looked at Janice and Melody. She was so proud of them, but she also knew that Janice had an awesome power she hadn't an inkling of its true strength. Martha looked through the magical tome she had managed to pick up from one of the local necromancer shops.

The force it described was totally something neither Emkandar nor any of his familiars had witnessed in the hands of a Guardian in ... many centuries. It was possible Emkandar had never seen it at all firsthand, though perhaps he'd read about it in books such as this. Janice was so young to have been chosen for this. Martha then thought of Melody and smiled. The fates couldn't have brought together any better team ... and then with her too. A chill of fear ran down Martha's spine as she began to think about the consequences of this coming conjunction if Emkandar got the upper hand.

Janice ported everyone to a very foggy location. The sound of dripping water and the heavy odor of mildew was strong in the air. Copious amounts of some kind of stringy moss hung thickly in all the trees.

"Now, as I understand it, the more magic he'll have to use, the more tired he'll be by the time he has to face the fortress ... and us," said Janice.

"Yes, and I think I see what you're planning to do," Martha said. "There are three of us and only one of him, and according to the map this is an area he's going to have to march his army through. If we set up a lot of spells for him to overcome here, he'll burn through a lot of his strength doing that. And this is less than a day from the fortress, so he'll either have to camp just past this swamp and rest, or face us the same day."

"And if he camps this close to the fortress, fighters from there can make sure he doesn't get a chance to rest," said Melody. "Let's see, I remember Clevins' Cleansing Coruscations; I can attach that to a magical-proximity spell so it goes off whenever any dark magic comes near ..." She set forth to prepare this spell in several key locations.

"Remember to leave yourself enough strength to get us back to the fortress," said Martha.

"I will," Janice said. "Let's see, I know he likes to cast glamours on his army to make them look stronger and larger, so ... let's make him have to recast them, preferably more than once." She started on an automatic dispel-illusion trap that would trigger once enough englamoured soldiers entered this area, then another one that would do the same but wouldn't trigger until after the first one went off.

Martha thought of a special surprise of her own. She knew Emkandar well enough from their encounters that she knew this would make him furious. She set it up again and again, so he'd have to deal with it every step of the way through this swamp. It took a long time, and she was exhausted by the time she was done, but it was worth it. It's not as if it was dark magic ... just very, very annoying light magic.

Emkandar rode the weird lizard-like beast over the crest of the hill overlooking the fortress just as the sun broke the horizon. Even without the glamour, the orc army behind him was impressive, both in sheer size and the many arms they carried.

Emkandar rode his mount into the swamp, content that none would interfere. Without warning, it was like major flashbulbs went off all at the same time. The mounts, being creatures of darkness, reared up in fear, tossing Emkandar into a pool of slimy, sticky greenish mud. He cursed. "It's those ... women. They did this. They're trying to rile me, get me off my game." Nearby orcs didn't know whether trying to help him up would get them magically incinerated until he snapped, "Get me out of this, you idiots!"

He got cleaned up as best he could in a swamp and got back on his lizard creature, but ordered the army to proceed carefully and slowly, wary of more magical snares. Once again an explosion of brilliant sparks went off in his face, big enough to momentarily blind him and his beast, which was unable to throw him off this time, but stopped dead still nevertheless and refused to move. When his vision finally cleared again, he noticed that the glamours and strengthening spells he had cast on his troops had been dispelled. "No point recasting them until I'm out of this little mud puddle of a swamp," he said to himself. "I'm sure there are other traps to deal with." He swatted at the biting insects that were always there regardless of magic.

King Ironhammer handed the spyglass to Lord Jerome. "Aye, he's in the swamp. If the sorceresses are right, he'll be havin' quite a time of it in there."

Lord Jerome looked for himself through the spyglass. "Yes, it looks like they've made it no further than the Fens of Weeping," he said. "They're taking it slowly. At the very least, we've got more time to prepare, and they've got more time to rest. As I understand it, the casting of spells uses some sort of reservoir of inner strength that must be replenished with rest."

"Aye, an' we've got three of ‘em on our side to his one," said the Dwarven King. "Still, he might be able to avoid many o' their surprises, if'n he's careful."

Many other snares and magical traps began to go off as they proceeded deeper into the swamp. It kept Emkandar very busy doing counterspells and spells of dissolution. Whenever he cast a spell, it seemed as if there were a trap already there to undo it.

Then he heard laughter. "Hahaha!" said Janice from a tree branch high above him. "Having fun?"

Emkandar swore and attacked her with a powerful lightning bolt, which passed right through her and into the clear sky. Janice vanished, an illusion.

"Oh, Emmy, you're so silly!" said Melody from a hilltop nearby. "You'll never get us that way! Don't you know which of us is really here? Here's a hint." She raised her wand and another explosion of light detonated above Emkandar's head, blinding and deafening all in the vicinity -- except Emkandar, who had raised his muddy cloak to shield his head. Some orcs were burned by the light.

Emkandar roared and detonated a ball of dark flame atop that hill, but once again, no one was really there.

"Seriously, you really mean to take the place of actual Dark Wizards like Xyragon of the Black Host?" came Martha's voice, and when he turned he saw her atop a rocky outcropping ahead of them. "You're not fit to be his towel boy." She raised her wand, and pale shadows rose from the ground among all of Emkandar's troops, drew swords, and swiftly stabbed every orc through the heart -- which did not kill them, but each one felt the icy grip of fear. Many shouted or screamed, and several on the outer edges bolted and ran off. Those in the interior of the army were unable to run and were stopped by their comrades.

Emkandar snarled and threw a bolt of utter darkness, to which Martha replied by vanishing an instant before it reached her with a laugh as the rocky outcropping was smashed to bits.

Emkandar was starting to feel the strain of all the small little snares. He began to understand why such weak incantations were invented. He knew beyond any doubt he would have to rest soon whether he liked it or not.

He saw they were two thirds of the way through the swamp and knew there had to be some kind of grand finale type of snare awaiting him. He had managed to keep his huge army together and only had a few hundred deserters. Their own would deal with those when this battle was over.

Emkandar came around a gnarly old twisted oak. Something reached out and grabbed him. It held on with the strength of an iron vice. Emkandar realized suddenly that the oak itself had sent out tendrils and wrapped him up like a mummy from his chest down.

With a mighty shrug, a massive sheet of fire rolled from him, devouring almost everything within a two hundred foot circle -- including his own troops. This time, Emkandar knew he had to set up camp once they cleared the swamp. He had to rest.

"Aw, what's the matter, Emmy? Tired?" taunted the voice of Martha from an illusion floating in the air above him. "Umbrion the Shade had more stamina than you've got."

Sweating and panting, Emkandar ordered the army to keep moving forward. They emerged from the swamp at last and began traveling on solid ground. "Give me a chance to rest," he told his lieutenants, "and I'll crush this fortress and Lord Jerome once and for all." He stretched out his hand toward the sky, and dark clouds that were not exactly clouds began to blot out the sun.

Then he collapsed in his saddle, and the nearby orcs started pitching tents. They lay him on a folded oily and muddy tarpaulin, erected a tent over him, and set up camp.

"That's done it," said Lord Jerome, looking through the spyglass from the battlements. "They're pitching camp."

"Prepare for sortie," said King Ironhammer. "We'll not give ‘em a chance to rest. This is the best time to attack." The troops started grouping up for the attack.

Janice had sat cross legged on one of the highest battlements and began to sing. The tones were pure and resonated throughout the valley like a breath of fresh air. All around Janice, a very bright and pure white light began to emanate.

King Ironhammer stopped his bowmanship and turned to look up. The wave of sheer darkness that had been encroaching on the castle walls was pushed back by the spreading of the light.

Martha smiled. If Janice could intone all the syllables in proper order and tonal inflection, those orcs were about to learn a lesson the hard way ... one more time.

The troops -- Human, Dwarven, and miscellaneous other races, from many worlds -- were ready. The fortress gates opened, and they marched out, the gates closing behind them. Lord Jerome and his men marched alongside a small group of Elves from a place they called Eupondea that he had never heard of, but it sounded as if it had been quite beautiful before Emkandar had attacked. The Dwarves marched in orderly squadrons, and Lord DuDeres' Humans were slightly less orderly but still disciplined, each group led by the strange Mechaknights they had brought with them. Were there really people inside those machines? Lord Jerome had been hard pressed to keep track of the variety of troops who had come to his aid, but he was very grateful. If they were lucky, they might manage to drive Emkandar from this world and retake this land for his people, who had lived there for countless generations.

After marching for about two hours they began to see the orc camp. They had cut trees and driven the timbers into the earth, sharp points outward, in all directions. There was the distant sound of a battle horn, signifying that the orcs had seen them approaching and were preparing. The battle would soon be joined. The day wore on as they continued marching.

"Telescopes don't use any magic at all," Melody mused. "They're almost to the orc camp. I'm not seeing any signs of magic."

Martha replied, "Emmy doesn't have much strength to work with -- he hasn't had much time to rest at all. He's going to conserve what he's got and use it only when it will do the most for him."

"I think ... I think I can do it," said Janice. "I can hear -- no, feel -- the words within me."

"Wait until the right time," counseled Martha. "Succeed or fail, you've got one shot at this. It'll probably wipe you out for the rest of the day."

"I'll keep watching," Melody said. "Until I get tired. Then one of you can take a turn. But I'm fine. The orcs are mobilizing. But they're waiting behind their stockade or whatever it's called. Looks kind of hastily slap-dash built."

"They didn't have a lot of time," said Martha.

"Oh! It looks like the battle's on," Melody said. "Yes, the Dwarves aren't wasting any time. They knew every minute they waited was a minute more rest for Emmy. They're making short work of that stockade with their axes. Holy smokes! Those elves aren't letting a single orc get near the axemen. Axe-Dwarves. Whatever. They literally never miss with those longbows of theirs."

The axe dwarves were viciously attacking all the hastily made wooden orcish emplacements. Large wood chips flew thickly everywhere. Many of the orcs who went to engage this wall of flailing axes, were never seen again in any form anyone could possibly recognize without a genetic investigation. The spatter of orc blood increased the dwarves' frenzy to an almost insane pitch.

The elven longbowmen repositioned themselves to a higher location that afforded them better range and more enemy targets. The mithril-tipped arrows darkened the sky once again as uncounted shafts feathered with the magical plumes of the fabled Rakkwauld darkened the skies.

A Rakkwauld was a mystical bird whose feathers caused a person's shaft to strike whatever target it was released upon, if they knew the secret. Most of the assembled soldiers had only heard about them in adventure tales told around campfires.

Each shaft had a particular target that it unerringly found. From over a mile, the elven longbowmen pinned the hapless orcs many times over with countless shafts. The remains lay piled in heaps looking like mottled birds of some sort.

The dwarves were by no means not taking damage, as one huge orc berserker was showing them. His mighty axe appeared to be on fire with some kind of unearthly energy. Each impact on a tree or ground would produce a huge explosive discharge, sending large amounts of debris or chunks of earth flying in all directions, along with whatever dwarf happened to be in the over pressure area. The huge, well armored orc took no damage from these explosive releases and used them extremely effectively to increase his charge.

Several of the elves saw this at the same time. This was too bad for the orc, as a hissing stream of arrows impacted a small circle about the size of a tea saucer in the middle of his chest. The clump was so tight, it appeared as one shaft, with much of its center splintered due to the many shafts that landed on top of each other. The orc growled deeply with a gurgling sound as he took one last swing to the ground. The resulting explosion was on par with a large 1000 pound gravity weapon, with the same damaging results, before the orc fell over and lay twitching on the ground.

Emkandar cursed weakly as the sound of the ever-worsening battle came to his ears. He knew he was too weak at this juncture to aid in the battle. Nothing he could do about it -- he had to rest and recharge. A real fear went down Emkandar's spine as he realized that, if the orcs couldn't stop or delay this attack long enough for him to recover, he stood a good chance of being taken, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

The battle raged on as the sun slipped past its zenith and started the inexorable fall to the far horizon. It was a bit disconcerting to Melody and Janice, because it was going the wrong direction ... west to east instead of how they were used to on Earth. But this was just how they defined the points of the compass in Lord Jerome's world.

Finally, as the shadows of late afternoon started to grow long, Emkandar opened his eyes and smiled. The battle raged on noisily, but still was far from the base camp. He arose from the filthy, oily tarp and left the animal skin tent. Emkandar turned his faceless hood of darkness towards the fortress far off on the next ridge. An evil darkness began to seep from around his form like a dense fog, and spread tendrils off towards the main battle line. What a major shock this is going to be to all those idiot dwarves. Stupid genetic mutants.

"I think Emmy's finally making his move," said Melody, looking through the spyglass from atop the fortress' battlements.

"Yes," said Martha, "I can feel it. He's giving it all he's got, too -- he knows that if he loses this battle, he might well be captured."

"It feels ... wrong," said Janice. "It's all I can do to keep from saying the words ... if ‘words' is the right word for them. They don't feel like words ..."

"No, they really aren't," said Martha. "Some say they're the music of creation. It may be that there is no proper word for what they are in any other language. But I think what you're probably feeling is the right moment approaching."

"I think the right moment's getting close," said Melody. "He's corrupting the very earth beneath the forward squadrons."

"I ... I have to do it," said Janice. And it began.

The Dwarves and Humans on the front lines felt something in their bones before it happened, a cold, shivering chill, like something draining the life out of them. Then it happened; black tendrils like spidery fingers erupted from the ground beneath them, wrapping around their bodies, pinning their arms to their sides and pulling their legs together. And beginning to drag them down into the earth. They struggled in vain against the unbelievably strong fibers.

The orcs grinned wickedly as they saw this happen to their foes. The tide had turned. They advanced with their swords, axes and bludgeons and began to batter their helpless, struggling enemies.

But then the song began -- quietly at first, then slowly growing louder. Those who could see the fortress on the ridge far behind them saw a light shining forth, as if the noonday sun had come to reside atop the battlements, but the light shone out not through the air, but through the ground. Vegetation bloomed and thickened everywhere between the fortress and the battlefield, continuing all the way to the swamp and beyond.

Soon the song, coming from everywhere, was all anyone could hear. To the orcs, this song was obviously horribly painful, for they dropped their weapons and covered their ears and still could not keep it out, so they howled in agony. But the world's defenders were in awe, and were heartened by its beauty and power. The black tendrils ensnaring the front-line troops were turning green, becoming verdant vines, and blooming with flowers, falling off the soldiers to the ground harmlessly.

Now it was their turn to strike -- the orcs were falling unconscious in droves. King Ironhammer sounded the charge, and the army broke into a run, swords and polearms set to impale all opposition, but there was none. The army quickly advanced into the center of the orc camp, where they found black-robed Emkandar, weary as he had ever been in his life. He fell to his knees in exhaustion.

Then he vanished, leaving only his final words hanging in the air -- "I will still win the war. The Conjunction draws nigh."

"Portal!" Melody shouted in irritation. "He was waiting on a portal just in case his last-ditch spell didn't work!"

"Where's it go?" asked Martha.

"It's too far away, I can't tell!" Melody answered. "Maybe Janice could tell, but she's out like a light." It was true; Janice's song had drained her of strength, and she lay unconscious on the floor. Martha had placed a wadded-up cloak under her head.

"Well, at least we've taken this victory from him," said Martha, "and obviously he wanted it badly. He raised a big army and led it himself."

Emkandar found himself on top of a tall mountain. Hot winds blew around him. He was incredibly tired and drained, but he somehow managed to get into a crag that was somewhat sheltered from the winds. He wrapped his cloak around his face to keep out the dust and closed his eyes.

"What happened?" mumbled Janice. "Did we win?"

"She's awake," said Melody. To Janice she said, "We sure did. The army captured the orc leaders and made them surrender. Turns out the orcs aren't from this world, surprise surprise. We're gonna send them back home once we've all rested up."

"I hope too many people didn't die," said Janice wearily, still not opening her eyes.

Martha came into the room where they had brought Janice to rest. "Yes, I'm afraid too many did," she said. "One is too many. But it was much better than it could have been."

"Emmy's not getting this world," said Melody. "He portaled out when you countered his spell. Don't know where. But the Conjunction ... it's coming up. The books say it's tomorrow."

"Have we ... done enough?" Janice asked.

"I'm not sure," Martha replied. "I'm not even really sure how to tell. But we've done all we could. That's what's important. We should all rest. We'll need our strength."

Many hours later, Emkandar appeared within a large cavern. Directly at its heart stood a large crystalline pedestal with several ornate looking metal candle stands side by side. He was still tired, but not as tired as he had been.

He staggered to the pedestal and stood wobbly for a few minutes, bracing himself with one hand as he turned the pages of the very old tome sitting between the candles with the other. He could feel the forces of the Conjunction coming together; he wasn't at full strength, but he had to do it now. Emkandar snapped his fingers and flipped his wrist at each candle in turn. They ignited with a sizzling popping noise.

Emkandar raised his hands and said aloud in a deep resonating voice that took on more and more force, "By the darkness that began, unto the darkness to return, this day is upon us. As is foretold in the Maanganhist, so I now stand and make the offering."

In a large crucible bowl in front of the tomb, he tossed several of the large stones he carried in his magical pouch. Each stone contained the very essence of darkness. They came to rest in the crucible, the flames of the candles danced gracefully from the wicks, and eventually rested on top of the stones. Instantly, the stones caught fire and a huge wave of darkness spread.

Like doors opening, many many many portals to many hundreds of worlds opened at the same time through out the enormous chamber. The time foretold was at hand. The only thing that could possibly stop him ... was that accursed Guardian ... she had the power of Light and could actually wield it.

Then the dark power began to flow. Perhaps there weren't as many worlds as before, but he had conquered more worlds than he needed. He was sure there was still enough evil energy to win the day. Streams of darkness flowed into the cavern through many of the portals and converged on the crucible, congealing all the misery of many worlds in one cauldron of despair. It boiled and bubbled more and more as more of the dark power flowed into the crucible like a black mist.

Waves of darkness began pulsing out from the crucible, all impacting on Emkandar. He felt the very essence of his eternal being seemingly catch fire as a power mightier than Emkandar had ever dreamed infused his body.

The ethereal voice of this nexus guardian spoke. Its deep base tones rattled through everything, "And who is the peon who awakens me? And tell me, little man, why I should even care?"

Emkandar was nothing like he had been when he entered this cavern. He held forth his scepter and proclaimed, "By the power of all darkness, I, Emkandar, do take my rightful place on the throne of Grand Conjunction." With that, he slammed it to the ground with conviction.

To the powerful demon, it was like his body suddenly exploded. His mind was filled with rage, but his body did only what that little flea told it to do. This was impossible. Only a Master Dark mage with the power of Eldritch LeThreada could do that.

Emkandar haughtily strutted around the enthralled demon. He cackled an evil laugh as he said, "I am no mere peon, oh stupid and captured flea. I am now your master, whom you will obey completely."

The demon was unable to help himself as he knelt down and kissed Emkandar's boots. With much loving reverence in his voice the demon said, "Yes, oh my master. A thousand times ... yes." The demon was totally furious, humiliated, outraged, and most importantly, totally helpless and completely unable to do a thing about it.

It was the day after the battle, the day when the Conjunction was supposed to occur, and they were all sitting on the patio outside Janice's house, getting ready. Then, suddenly, the sky seemed to grow dark.

"That doesn't look good," said Melody.

Martha replied, "No. It is time. Emkandar has started to make his move. His bid for power."

"I can feel the Conjunction happening," said Janice. "The portals opening."

"Emmy will be drawing dark power from all the realms he's conquered right about now," explained Martha.

"Should we, you know, do anything?" asked Melody. "The books said that this was the day when the fate of the universe would be decided for the next however many thousand years until the next Grand Conjunction."

"We should," said Martha, "but there can be no mistakes. No rushing into anything. Remember the plan. It has to happen just as we talked about."

"So ... we wait," said Janice. "It has to happen on its own."

"Evil is about force and control," said Martha. "Good is about choice and charity."

"So the ones who want to make a difference have to decide to lend their support," said Melody. "That's what I read too. If they don't, if they're coerced, their efforts won't contribute to the light."

"Do they ... know it's time?" asked Melody.

"Janice?" asked Martha.

"They know," said Janice quietly. as she felt dozens, then hundreds, taking up a chant. It didn't have to be any particular song; it just had to inspire them to fight against the darkness that would overtake them all if they didn't.

Emkandar climbed on the back of his new pet, dug his heels in and shouted, "Off we go! The place of battle has been determined. Be there so I can make my preparations."

A swirling cloud of the backest fog swirled around them both. When it had cleared, they were gone.

Martha stood with a gasp, "OMG!' she said with fear in her tone, "I just remembered something from one of those old tomes we've been reading."

Janice and Melody looked at Martha for an instant before both said at the same time, "Well ...??"

"There's an ... arena, for the lack of a better word, where Emkandar is to stand and make his final chant. It is there that light shall dispel darkness or darkness shall rule until the next conjunction."

Janice looked at Melody, "Do you know anything about that?"

Melody got big eyed as she replied, "It's at the bottom of the Well of Lost Souls. I only got to read a smattering of tales about it. What is written in the books I read, it's an adventure story told around warrior's campfires. I didn't think of it before because it wasn't clear it was even true."

Martha returned to the room with a large armful of old tomes and flopped them on the floor in front of them all with a small cloud of moldering dust from the ancient pages.

Martha said sardonically, "Get to it. We must find where this Well of Souls is immediately."

They each picked a book and started reading. "Well of Lost Souls," said Melody, pointing to a woodcut drawing in one of the volumes. "Some say it's where they put the worst of the worst after they die. There's no way into or out of that world ..."

"... except that on the day of the Grand Conjunction, all the doors open up," said Janice. "But ... where is it?"

No one had an answer for that until about half an hour later. "The Way to the Well at the End of All Things," read Martha aloud, "shall be ... hidden in plain sight, at the beginning of all things."

"I'm glad they make these ancient prophecies so clear," said Melody sarcastically.

"What does that mean," asked Janice, "the beginning of all things?"

"The Garden of Eden, perhaps?" suggested Martha. "The beginning of the world?"

"Where did Adam and Eve go when they left Eden?" Melody asked. "Cain was banished to the land of Nod, which is east of Eden."

"But nobody knows where those places are," said Janice, "so how are they in plain sight?"

"Well, we're just guessing," said Martha. "It might mean something else entirely."

Janice said, "What if the ‘beginning of all things' isn't the beginning of the world? What if it's the beginning of something else? Like ... where was Emkandar born?"

"Not on this world," said Martha. "But I don't know where specifically."

"Wait," said Melody. "Emkandar isn't the beginning of all things. If he wins, he'll be the end of all things, more or less. His opposite is ... well, you, Janice."

"But I was born in Phoenix," said Janice. "Unless it means ... no, that couldn't be. Could it?"

"What?" Martha asked.

"Where all of this began," Janice said. "The mirror. Could it have the portal inside it?"

"I ... well, I'll be ..." said Martha. "Old Professor Myrius always used to say to me ... he said, ‘Keep an eye on that mirror, Martha. That's where it'll all begin.' I never knew what he meant by that."

They all left the Upper Library and went back down the staircase to the portal that faced the mirror. "I'm activating the magic of Truth again," said Janice. "For all of us. Mirror, show us your secret."

It seemed like the mirror somehow opened up, at least, to the magical senses that the mirror itself granted Janice. There was quite clearly a portal inside the mirror. "You see that, right?" she asked.

"Yep," said Melody.

"Most likely it goes to the Well of Lost Souls," said Martha. "By all accounts it's not a nice place, so have your protection spells ready. And probably your spells for causing grievous harm as well."

A few precautionary wand flicks later, Janice said, "Well, here goes," and they entered the portal together.

Where they appeared was not where they expected. They were in a great hall with a blazing bonfire in the center. The smoke rose straight up toward a vaulted ceiling too high above to see, but presumably there was a chimney, because the smoke was being drawn upward. At one end of the long hall there was light that grew brighter the farther one looked. At the other end, there was darkness that grew deeper and deeper. And at either end, Janice could make out some sort of chair or throne.

But in the dark end, she thought she could see someone sitting in the chair. She edged closer and lit up the end of her wand. "You ... who is it? Emkandar, perhaps?"

"No," said a low, echoing voice. As Janice's eyes adjusted, she saw that there was some sort of dark demon-like figure on the throne. "Emkandar ... controls me. I hate to admit it. But he has too much power. There's nothing I can do."

"I'm sure you'd be up to no good either way," said Janice.

"Probably. It's my nature. But anyway, here I am and here I'll stay as long as he commands."

"OK, then, let's see what's at the other end," Janice said, backing away. Martha and Melody followed.

At the light end of the room sat none other than the Messenger, or a being of the same species. But as Janice got closer it was most definitely the same one. He, she, or it was seated at the throne of light. "Greetings," said the being. "You have found your way here. This is the room of balance. My opposite number and I are here to weigh the fate of the universe. I, however, am here because I believe it is necessary, while he is there because Emkandar forces him to be there."

"So whoever ... wins ... controls the fate of the universe until the next Conjunction?" asked Melody.

"That is correct," the being stated. "Emkandar has collected quite a bit of dark energy. There isn't yet enough light power to counterbalance it. If this is not corrected by the time the Conjunction ends, the universe will belong to the darkness for the next ten thousand years, at least."

"We can't let that happen!" said Janice.

"I, too, would prefer that it not happen," said the Messenger. "But the Light works differently from the Darkness. The power cannot be coerced. It must choose to be present."

The being looked at Janice and smiled. There was something about the way he did it .... That told Janice she was able to summon the power somehow, she just felt it in her spirit.

A swirling tornado of darkness filled with red and orange streaks of fire appeared. When it dissipated, Emkandar stood majestically within his sanctum. Emkandar looked nothing like he did before. He was huge and radiated evil and darkness in waves. He would launch his attack from this sanctum.

The three women could feel the pain and suffering from all the many worlds tearing at them and attempting to drain the light from them.

Janice stood in front, lifted her hands, and uttered three of the most beautiful tones Melody or Martha had ever heard. Immediately, an aura of intensely pure and very bright white light spread through the chamber.

In his sanctum, Emkandar screamed loudly at the pain as it tore shreds from his ebony black cloak. Emkandar wasn't to be taken lightly. He knew he was chosen to be the darkness ruler and he would show that virgin upstart what dark magic was all about. He stepped through a nearby portal.

Martha and Melody were surprised to see Emkandar suddenly appear within the balance chamber, holding a staff with a serpent head. They immediately readied their wands as Janice turned to see him.

Emkandar raised his serpent staff high above his head, then slammed it to the hall floor with intent. Huge amounts of fire and the horrible smell of brimstone lashed out from him. Where the light and dark met, was torn totally asunder and was destroyed as it sublimated away into its sub atomic particles.

Janice pointed her finger at Emkandar, who was ready for the next attack. He raised a shield the likes of which none of the women had ever seen before. The light did terrible damage to it on impact, but Emkandar was totally untouched.

He laughed an evil resounding laugh as he held his staff high over his head. A swirl of darkness that suddenly had many strange winged creatures coming from its depths. They were mostly sharp claws and dripping fangs as they attacked swiftly on leathern wings.

"Ha!" said a familiar voice suddenly. "We know well how to fight these creatures!" Lord DuDeres somehow came charging into the room, energy rifle in his hand, flanked by two mechaknights, and following him was an entire legion of rebel soldiers from Ilnat, their futuristic blasters laying many of the demonlike fliers low.

"Are we ever glad to see you!" said Melody. "Here, let me show you something I've learned!" She suddenly cast a massive protective spell over every single one of the rebels at once, Lord DuDeres included.

"You have indeed learned of the Old Ways!" said Lord DuDeres. A demon tried to claw at him, but the spell deflected it with a flash of orange fire, and he quickly dispatched it with a shot from his energy rifle.

Emkandar frowned. "Fine, I'll just bring in some more minions to keep you busy," he said, and called forth a vanguard of orc warriors.

"Not sa fast, Emmy!" said the familiar voice of King Ironhammer. "Ye'll not be winnin' the day with any orc band, not if I have anythin' ta say ‘bout it!" He swung his massive hammer and instantly separated an orc's head from its body.

"It seems as if we've got more allies than you expected, Emkandar," said Janice.

"You'll find that I've been stockpiling forces for longer than you've been alive," Emkandar snarled. He raised his staff and incanted forbidden words of the blackest magic. From a portal slithered a tentacle, then more tentacles, then eyestalks, and then a mass of slime-coated and tangled wormlike flesh, much like the being that had attacked them in ...

"For the Library!" called the voice of Veritus. Pushing his spectacles up on the bridge of his nose, the librarian read from a tome he carried and pointed at the creature. Many spinning energy vortices appeared and flew toward it, pushing it back and keeping its tentacles occupied. Several other librarians were visible behind him, all armed with various magical tomes, wands, and other artifacts they had brought with them.

"I'll guarantee you that you've not been working toward this longer than I've been alive, Emmy," said Martha. "Everyone we know now knows what you're up to. They know what's going on right now, too. And you don't know all of them, either."

A huge swirling mass of fire, brimstone, and mists of darkness formed around Emkandar. He grew enormous with the dark power as his fiery red obs glowered at Martha from the ebony darkness of his hood.

Emkandar said with a sneer in his voice, "I have come across your feeble attempts to stop me in the past, along with that pitiful excuse for a sorcerer. All the both of you turned out to be was a nuisance ... you know, like a mosquito at night that managed to get into the netting somehow."

As Martha brought up her warding shield that caused several sparkling balls of light to begin rotating around her in a dazzling display of light, Emkandar's mouth fell open in surprise. Not only was the Guardian of the Light of Truth able to intone the proper tones for the first time in many centuries, she did it with perfect inflection that unlocked the purest and most powerful form. She and her helper stood across the room from him now. And now, this upstart of a mortal sorceress claims to be a master. Not only that, she just proved it by wielding the warding shield of the Seraphs.

Emkandar laughs a soul chilling way as he flings his arms open wide. He says loudly in a deep base, ethereal sounding voice that vibrated all through the room, "Hear me, Guardians of the doorway, I am Emkandar, the chosen one to rule this realm in darkness."

From somewhere within his robe, Emkandar produced a large, very fancily made, Vase of purest crystal. He pulled the top off and dumped the contents on the floor. Within the very center of this gelatinous gooey mess, he jabbed his serpent staff."

The staff immediately caught fire and burned very brightly. Large words written in a dialect older than Earth formed on the flaming surface created by the fire. It read simply, "From hell's heart Emkandar comes. All darkness is behind. Chosen is he to wield the dark Magic for all eternity.

The creature sitting on the throne of dark stood. No power could control him at this time. The master of Dark was in chambers and now he had seen the proof. It moved to open the portal to all dark.

The creature of light smiled and looked at Janice. It said in its pure soft voice, "And now, it is your time to make proof of your claim. Once I can prove you are the chosen. I can open this portal to all light."

"But ... but how do I prove that?" asked Janice. "I'm not here to prove I'm any kind of chosen one -- I'm just here to protect whoever and whatever I can from him." She gestured toward Emkandar.

The Messenger said, "As before, your reluctance to arrogate power to yourself speaks well for you. That is actually part of the test, and you have passed. But ... there is more."

"Emkandar had to prove his mastery," commented Martha, speaking from experience. "In his case, it was his ability to defeat powerful beings with pure force and treachery. You don't want to know what that goo he dumped on the floor was -- what it came from, and which body part. But in your case ..."

Melody jumped in. "I would gladly give my life if it meant the defeat of the forces of darkness until the next Grand Conjunction!" she called forth. "If it need be for the test ... take my life!" She stepped forward toward Martha, her arms held wide.

"Aye!" said King Ironhammer, overhearing and stepping forth. "If my life be required, then take it! Gladly would I die if it meant m'people would be free o' evil." An orc broke free from the fight with the other Dwarves and came over to swing its axe at him, but he turned and smote it on the head with his hammer. "I wasn't talkin' to ye," he said to the orc as it collapsed to the ground.

Lord Hubert, Lord DuDeres, and Lord Jerome quickly stepped forward and said the same, as did many of their officers, whoever wasn't still busy fighting.

"And that," said the Messenger, "is what is required. Evil takes, while good is freely given." A door in the air opened, and a figure of pure light emerged. It strode toward the figure of darkness, which turned to face it, and the two began to grapple, testing their strength against one another. "Your sacrifices, while an important gesture, will not be required today, fortunately."

Massive amounts of dark and light energy danced across the huge cavernous room. Sparks of both light and dark walked long paths like spiders legs all around the both of them. The two beings couldn't be seen by normal eyes. All that could be seen where they were, was a huge boiling ball of pure white lite woven around and through with huge streamers of equal amounts of dark.

The very fabric of the reality that contained the Well of Souls began to tremble, and the seals to the many lost souls began to weaken and crumble.

Martha shouted, "Janice! The seals on the portals to the common grave of lost souls is falling apart. Whatever you are going to do, best do it fast."

Janice was totally confused as to what to do. She sees a creature of the purest light and a creature of the purest dark. Each was capable of destroying the other totally, yet was restrained by the other.

From within Janice's heart, a feeling of total peace filled her. She could actually feel something filling her and building inside her spirit. There was so much, so powerful, so radiantly pure.

She lay her head back as she spread her arms out wide.

The creature of light sitting on the throne said excitedly, "Yes, yes ... allow it to be free."

Janice could not restrain it any longer. She released the song she felt welling within her, giving it form with voice and tongue. And as she did so, the chamber grew brighter. It was as if a new chamber has appeared before their eyes, all decorated in white marble and gold. A new line shone.

And now in this light Janice could see the truth. The real truth. "I ... I can see ..."

"What is it?" asked Martha. "What do you see?"

"The darkness ..." said Janice. "It's ... not real."

"Not real?" asked Melody. "We've been fighting an illusion this whole time?"

Janice explained, "Well, not entirely -- but look." She extended the vision to the others using her connection to the Glass of Truth.

"Look!" said Martha. "The Avatar of Darkness -- it's not even there! What's going on here, Emmy?" The Avatar of Light wasn't where they had thought it was either -- in actuality the giant figure made of pure light was standing calmly in the center of the room, awaiting a challenger.

Emkandar cackled wickedly. "Your feeble spell of truth has no power over true darkness!" he declaimed.

"No ... that's not it," said Janice. "You didn't really have enough power to summon it, did you? You wanted us to give up so you'd win by default. That was the only way you could win."

"Untrue," Emkandar said. "You're trusting that lying mirror. Believe your eyes!"

Martha said, "The Glass of Truth cannot lie. Emmy, you know we don't trust you, so why do you keep talking? We're not going to start believing you now." Emkandar scowled.

"So ... we win?" asked Melody. "That's it?"

The Messenger said in a tone that rang throughout the chamber, "Unless the Darkness produces an Avatar by the time the Conjunction ends, the Light prevails. As things stand, a win for the Darkness appears impossible. The matter is settled." In a quieter voice, it added to Janice and those nearby, "Before you start celebrating, however, remember that Emkandar is still here and still has a rather large amount of dark power, along with many allies and minions."

"Oh, right," whispered Melody. "He's probably pretty mad and is probably gonna try to kill us."

"He's tried before," said Janice resolutely.

"As usual, don't underestimate him," said Martha. "But also, don't play his game. Make him play ours."

Emkandar was arguing with the Messenger. "I refuse to accept your judgment!" he shouted.

"You should take that up with your own representative," the Messenger replied.

The black-skinned demon on the dark throne said, "He is correct, Emkandar. The Dark Avatar never appeared. You lose. Too bad. Fortunately, all I have to do is wait for a better Dark Wizard to come along in a few thousand years. You were pretty pathetic." It stood up, turned, and vanished through a portal.

"Raah!" Emkandar raged. "I am still the most powerful Dark Wizard in existence! And you will still all die!" He grabbed his serpent-headed staff, raised it up into the air, and brought its end crashing down on the chamber floor.

There was a tremendous explosion of dark energy, and the chamber floor was shot through with cracks and began to collapse. Beneath their feet, the wailing of lost souls was beginning to be heard, and an eldritch greenish light began to glow from between the widening cracks. The Humans, Dwarves, and other allies of the Light were suddenly struggling to keep their footing -- as were Emkandar's orcs, but his winged demons weren't having any problems whatsoever.

"Uh-oh," said Melody.

"He's breached the Well of Souls," explained Martha. "Everyone, get out of here if you can!"

Many many very ugly and strangely misshapen creatures began to emerge from the well. Each and every one was totally evil and full of darkness. They poured from the many fissures like an oily fog to solidify into whatever their misshapen and totally horrid forms were. Some had eyes or screaming mouths on parts of their bodies where they did not belong; some had useless extra limbs protruding from their backs or pelvises; some had tentacles for fingers or tongues; there was no end to their wrongness.

Melody and Martha cast a huge binding spell over many of the creatures -- one that should have held them locked into whatever place they had occupied at the time of the binding. Janice backed away from the massive snarling crowd of lost souls as they crept ever closer. When her back was against Martha, Janice realized something. The spell of binding had to work. There was no way to escape it. Even Emkandar had been bound for an hour when the librarians had cast it on him. What they thought they saw ... couldn't be real.

Janice shouted above the cacophony of noise, "This is fake! It ... can't be real!"

Martha looked over at Janice with surprise as she replied, "They sure smell real enough."

Janice invoked the Glass of Truth once again. The massive cracks in the floor vanished as did thousands of the lost souls. What was left, was one minor breach in the well's entrance, and maybe a dozen of those misshapen condemned creatures were left. Only problem, there were many thousands of those flying things still appearing along with many orcs.

The dwarves let loose with a mighty war whoop, before they plunged in head first, and began dealing with the orcs like a reaper's sharp scythe. The mechaknights had no problems dispatching enough of the flying demons to keep the ground-bound combatants relatively safe from them. The gore and body parts mounted quickly until it was hard to find clear footing.

"Once again you used illusion to make your magic seem more fearsome than it truly is," called Janice to Emkandar. "Smoke and mirrors! I can't fathom how you thought to rule the universe with nothing but lies."

"Careful," Martha whispered to Janice. "If he does something truly dire, he might threaten the lives of our allies."

Emkandar was still in a rage. "You want to see?" he shouted. "You want to see the power of Darkness? Maybe I don't have enough to take the Conjunction ... or maybe I do!" Then he leaned backwards and screamed. His mouth opened wider and wider until it was beyond what was humanly possible, and as he screamed small batlike creatures started to fly out. There were only a few at first, but soon there were dozens emerging every second, with no end in sight, forming a cloud around him. His voice ceased to scream, but the number of bat creatures was still increasing. From somewhere in the cloud, Emkandar's voice raved at top volume, "I invoke the Heart of Sotz! I invoke the Black Fang of Thoroxion! I invoke the Amulet of Xyragon! I invoke the Stone of Vilecrag! In the name of Ulrognos the Destroyer I summon forth the darkest powers and call upon them -- to destroy this Guardian of Truth!"

"OK, I've read about some of these things," said Melody. "If he really has them, this could be big trouble."

"He must have the Heart of Sotz, if he can become a bat swarm," said Martha. "I didn't know that thing still existed."

The small batlike creatures were getting larger, and their teeth were growing long and black. There were thousands of them, and they quickly organized into a formation.

"Those are real, right?" asked Melody. "Not illusions?"

"You're seeing what I'm seeing," Janice said. Melody started casting a shield using her powers as a Master of Warding, while Martha started doing something with her wand.

"Janice, get ready," said Martha. "When a being of light dies, the dark rejoices, and not just because they hate the light -- If he really does succeed in killing you, it's just possible he might actually get enough dark power from the backlash to win the Conjunction after all."

Emkandar's voice screamed again, and a wind began to blow, fanning the flames of the fire in the center of the grand hall they were in, but it grew and grew until Martha was holding onto her hat and their clothes were fluttering like birds struggling to survive a hurricane. The ground shook as if from a mighty blow, then shook again even more fervently. The bats blew by them, bouncing off the shield Melody had made, but more and more of them kept coming, obscuring their vision and filling the air.

That was when Janice noticed that the ground was dirt and the sky was dark. They were no longer in a room. They were outdoors. The ground shook a third time, and that plus the hurricane-force winds were enough to sweep Melody off her feet. There was a horrible rumbling sound, and fissures started to appear in the surface of whatever they stood upon. "He's ... he's transported us all to some other world!" Janice shouted over the wind. "Through one of the many portals that were already open! And ... now he's trying to destroy it!"

"Destroy what?" Melody asked, struggling to her feet.

"The world!" shouted Martha. "It's not Earth ... but if he destroys it, he destroys everything in it! And we're in it!"

"Won't he destroy himself too?" shouted Janice.

"Maybe!" Martha shouted back. "But he might not care!"

Melody yelled, "The Stone of Vilecrag! If he has that, like he said, he might really be able to do it! It can shiver the greatest of mountains to dust! Or that's what the book said!"

A massive quake hit and knocked the three women to the ground. All around them, massive fissures opened and began to spew molten lava in huge pyroclastic fountains.

Melody managed to find her feet. She shook her fist at Emkandar in total rage as she said, "You have committed premeditated murder across many realms and now, you are going to destroy this entire planet? I think not! I am a Master Binding Wizard. I may be inexperienced, but I do know a thing or three."

With this, Melody spread her arms wide with the cell/wand in one hand. She closed her eyes as began to chant. Martha's eyes got huge as she realized what Melody intended to do. She was absolutely impressed. If Melody could intone exactly the proper ...

Melody said in a loud, ethereal voice, "By the power of the Bond. From all the places within the realm of light I call. Give to me the might to bind a world."

Janice and Martha looked on in total amazement as a large blue/white flash sparked from her cell/wand. Like tendrils of blue/white fire they wove and twisted all around. Within a heartbeat, the entire planet was completely wrapped in the energy. Melody closed her fist tightly as she squeezed her eyes closed in concentration.

Slowly at first, then with ever increasing speed, all the fissures closed and the many fountains of lava ceased.

Janice jumped to her feet and began to sing a most wonderfully pure song. Each syllable entoned as close to perfect as any human had done in many thousands of years. From within her began a very bright and pure white light that spread rapidly in an ever larger bubble around the three women.

Emkandar discovered he neither could destroy the planet nor could he launch any kind of attack against the three women. The barrier of pure white light prevented any of his dark powers from reaching them. He launched one last attack. Massive energies clashed only for an instant, then ended in a massive overpressure wave that cleared many hundreds of yards of everything.

Suddenly, a fissure opened in the ground. A small figure wearing a cloak even darker than Emkandar's rose slowly from within the fiery crevice. It closed leaving her standing only a few feet from Emkandar.

The being threw back it's dark hood to reveal a very beautiful female. She said in a tinkling, far away mysterious voice, "Emkandar, the time is arriving when all debts must be paid. Many promises have you made, and none are yet to be realized." the creature pointed to the three women then continued, "By the trial of combat, they have won. It is now time for the reckoning."

Emkandar screeched out his rage as he cast a mighty spell on top of the pretty creature, to no avail."

Janice leaned over and asked Martha in a whisper, "Who is that woman, and why is Emkandar powerless to harm her?"

Melody replied before Martha could answer, "Janice, that's ... one of the Angels of Death."

The beautiful creature turned and said in that voice, "My name is Coatlicue. As your friend stated, I'm ... thought of as the goddess of death. I am also one of the goddesses of babies and childbirth. My authority for infants comes from the Goddess Persephone, goddess of infants and babies."

Emkandar raised his fist and shouted angrily, "And not a single one of you so claimed all powerful immortals have lived up to your end of any of my bargains. You lied and are mostly powerless!"

The being turned. She was obviously angered by Emkandar's words. She said in a different kind of voice that echoed and reverberated through everything, "Careful what you say you insignificant mortal flea. With the merest inflection I can cast you into a torment the likes of which your worst nightmares couldn't conceive."

Emkandar snapped back just as angrily, and in a similar kind of voice that reverberated through everything, "Really? And how are you going to justify it? The terms of the bargain said if I lost the battle. You interfered and stopped the battle so it isn't won or lost."

The being's expression softened as a mischievous smile crossed her lips, "You are not allowed to destroy this world before its due course has been run."

The being waved her hand. Everything around them all changed and now appeared to be a large open area the size of an athletic field. Beyond its edges, nothing but fire was visible. Janice, Martha, and Melody were totally mind blown by this time.

The being turned and said, "Mistress Guardian of the Light. It is written in the scrolls of Eeskellous that on this day shall light and dark do battle." she waved her hand once again, the image of many worlds in total alignment appeared above them majestically wheeling slowly. "Emkandar, being the representative of the dark, as puny and pitiful as he is, is within his rights to request the continuation. I do apologise for his ineptitude. It is quite embarrassing to have him representing me."

The ground opened and a gout of fire surrounded the female. She vanished the same as she had appeared."

Emkandar roared in anger as he cast a massive volley of hellfire towards the three women. Martha also noticed, he had unleashed the Shadows of Inhelks. Obviously, Emkandar had artifacts that were thought lost in the great flood.

"OK, simple," said Janice, "block the fire, avoid the shadows, keep him busy." With her wand she shot a burst of dozens of comets of pure blinding light toward Emkandar as the three sorceresses ran from the shadows, which were oozing quickly along the ground toward them. Melody raised her phone and blocked the fire with a quickly-summoned shield -- the fire that was closest to them, at least. Other bolts of hellfire impacted the ground where they had been standing moments before -- and came in contact with the mysterious shadows that were now encroaching upon that position.

Emkandar cackled as he dodged the glittering missiles Janice had sent his way. "He's too happy," said Melody. "I don't like it when he's happy."

"Do you see what he's doing?" asked Janice.

"No, all I'm seeing is ... shadows and fire," Melody said. "Kind of what he's doing now. A bit hard to concentrate on premonitions while we're running."

"Look at what's happening behind us!" shouted Martha. They all looked when they got a chance -- the shadows were absolutely extinguishing the blazing fire, sucking it in and leaving nothing, no smoke, no ashes, no cinders. The shadows weren't just moving, either -- they were spreading. "In time there won't be anywhere left to run to! We have to finish this quickly!"

"Haha! Run!" laughed Emkandar from across the field. "Soon the battlefield will be mine!"

"I don't get it," said Melody. "Where's he gonna stand?"

"Do we know how to get rid of those shadows?" asked Janice.

Martha answered, "It requires a ritual that we don't have time to perform. The Shadows of Inhelks devour all. They consume even warding magic. To stop them, we have to stop their caster."

Janice was sending another volley of coruscatingly bright comets toward Emkandar. "Working on that," she said as she ran.

"I thought of a weakness," said Melody. "Do the shadows only affect the ground?"

"Yes, but ..." said Martha. "Ohhhh." She quickly drew a red rectangle in the air with her wand, and the flying carpet appeared, as it had back on Emphantarus. "Get on!"

The three sorceresses quickly stepped onto the carpet and sat down as the shadows covered the ground just a few feet below them. At Martha's command the carpet rose higher and dodged the next volley of hellfire that Emkandar threw at them. "That's just bought us more time," said Martha. "What shall we do with it?"

"Our goal is to defeat him, right?" asked Janice. "What counts as defeat?"

"Killing him, I suppose," said Melody with distaste in her voice. "I mean, sure, he's evil and trying to kill us, but aren't we supposed to be better than that?"

"Defeat simply means proving that he cannot defeat us," said Martha. "Sorcerous battles have ever been thus. But this means that he must go through every weapon in his arsenal and fail ... or simply run out of energy."

"Unless you've also got a genie in a bottle, that flying carpet won't save you," taunted Emkandar.

"A ... bottle?" Melody asked. She checked the magic bottle that she'd imprisoned the Cloud of Emphantarus in, which had been tied to her belt.

"That thing?" Janice asked. "Leave it there. If you let it out, it'll just come after us again."

"What if it wouldn't?" asked Melody. "Martha, would we win if this guy beat Emmy?"

Martha said, "The first defeated loses. How that defeat occurs matters not. Summoning creatures from outside the battlefield is prohibited. But ... that Cloud came here with us."

"OK, but wouldn't it just kill him?" asked Janice. "Wouldn't that be just like crushing him with giant meteors or something?"

"Oh, I think he can handle it," said Martha. "Besides, he owes a lot to a lot of powerful beings. They'll pull him out before he dies so they can exact their payment from him."

"All right, you!" said Melody, untying the bottle and shouting to the creature inside. The contents of the bottle swirled and flickered with occasional sparks like miniature lightning. "Do you want to be set free? Flash once for yes and twice for no!"

There was one single flash from within the bottle.

"I'll make a deal with you! I'll set you free, but only if you attack Emkandar and never try to hurt any of us ever again! Do we have a bargain?"

There was a pause, then a single flash of lightning from the bottle.

"Formalize it," said Martha.

"OK, wait, I read about this," said Melody. "By the seven circles of Creation, by the light of Truth, by the pits of Gehenna and the fires of Phlegethon," she intoned, "I swear to set you free if you honor our bargain and attack Emkandar here and now, and never hurt any of the three of us ever after! One flash if you agree!"

A longer pause, then, finally, a single flash.

Martha and Janice both nodded to Melody. She pointed the opening of the bottle towards Emkandar and removed the magical binding. Immediately, the pinkish cloud flowed from the bottle filled with electrical fire. Even the shadows retreated from the Cloud of Emphantarus as it flowed like a pink thunderstorm rapidly towards the new object of its desire.

Emkandar saw what Melody had done. He also saw how the cloud now appeared and it was extremely obvious it was furious. Emkandar looked all around. The only reality here, besides the massive walls of hellfire surrounding them, was the field on which they more or less stood. There was nowhere to run.

He tossed massive amounts of dark sorcery at the cloud. As many Wizards over the centuries discovered, nothing seemed to stop the cloud. For an instant it would seem like it had been killed, then it would respawn in a large swirling cloud of pink and lightning.

The cloud hungered for a soul -- dark would do, although one of light was far superior. Without warning, the cloud suddenly seemed to dissolve away, only to reappear at Emkandar's feet. It entwined all about his legs and up his torso as it began to feed voraciously on his withered and damned soul. Emkandar screamed in sheer agony as the women watched his very life force be torn from his body, which shriveled up into a desiccated husk of what it used to be.

A fissure opened and flames leapt out as the Angel of Death appeared once again.

The Cloud seemed to partially unwrap when Coatlicue set foot in the arena. It paused as if watching her. "I am sorry," she said, "but you're going to have to settle for only mostly devouring him." The Cloud disengaged sadly from the barely-alive husk that was all that was left of Emkandar. "Of course, you're free now, so you can go hunting across the many worlds once we're done here." The Cloud seemed to perk up upon hearing that.

"So. The conditions are met," said the dark lady. "Emkandar, you have lost. I know you haven't the strength to argue the point with me, so let me do it for you. You're the one who sent the Cloud after them, and they did bring it with them, so there's nothing unfair about their using it. I'm afraid you're going to have a very long and painful existence across a large number of infernal realms." She reached out and seemingly picked up Emkandar with one hand. Janice could see that she had just transported him to one of those realms.

"As for you three," said Coatlicue to the three sorceresses upon their flying carpet, "by the ancient rules you are free to go." They suddenly noticed that they were now in Janice's back yard, though still hovering three feet above the ground on the flying carpet, with the dark angel standing before them. "Do not think that there will come no other challengers."

Janice sighed. "I would expect nothing less," she said. "I am Guardian of Truth, until such a time as I pass the mantle to another. Until then, vigilance is my duty."

"So it is, as it has always been," said the dark angel.

With this, a fiery fissure opened beneath Coatlicue and she vanished once again. The fissure closed leaving no evidence she was ever there.

Janice asked, "Martha? What other challenges ... was she referring to?"

Martha smiled wryly as she replied, "If I'm not mistaken, with Emkandar removed from the picture ... there's this huge power vacuum left. Knowing the many Dark Wizards and Sorcerers throughout the many realms, It would seem there is going to be a civil war among them. It falls to you, and to us, to maintain order and ensure the light of truth prevails."

Melody climbed to the ground from her perch on the carpet and said, "I'm hungry. Anybody up for pancakes and syrup?"

Martha and Janice climbed down as well. Martha waved her wand and the carpet vanished. The three women entered the house. Tired, but elated at the same time.

Martha patted Janice on her back as they entered the house, "And you actually have learned to speak and sing a language that has been lost to mankind for centuries."

~~ The End ~~
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