One Small Candle

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One Small Candle

Postby LilJennie » Fri Jul 28, 2023 8:13 pm

Brand new modern/epic fantasy tale! -- Jennie

One Small Candle

By Jennie Flint and Miki Yamuri

I said goodnight to the office. Not to anyone in it, you understand – I was the only one left. I turned out the lights and locked up. I was starving after a long day, and I’d worked late, trying to get ahead of the boss’s next big case. On the contrary, though, I was barely keeping up.

But Antonio’s should be open. I could almost taste their fettuccine Alfredo. Just a couple blocks from the office. I left the office building and took a right. There was a shortcut through an alley that I usually took – mind you, I usually took it in broad daylight, and now it was after 8 p.m. and getting dark. I should have thought twice. It wasn’t until I was well into the alleyway that I realized how dark it had gotten and that I was a young woman alone in a dark alley in a big city. I slowed down and walked carefully, quietly.

And then I saw her. The last person I expected to see. I’d expected to run into some drugged-up thug with a switchblade or gun, demanding my money or worse, but instead, I walked around a dumpster and there was this little girl. She had the strangest hair, very light, almost white, and iridescent. It was up in ponytails. She had bare feet, a simple pink T-shirt, and a diaper.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, looking up at me with her large, steel-gray eyes. “You should get away.”

“W-what are you doing here, Honey?” I asked her, worried that such a tiny girl was apparently out on her own in a dangerous place. “You’re the one who shouldn’t be here! You’re not safe! Here, come with me, and let’s get to someplace where I can help you call your Mommy and Daddy, OK?”

“Too late,” the little girl said. She looked over my shoulder, so I looked too.

There were not one thug, but two. One tall and dark haired, the other shorter and sandy-haired, but the tall one said, “Look, Nail. Two for the price of one.” They were walking toward us.

“Uh, look, I’ll give you my money, and you can just leave, OK?” I said, standing in front of the child. “No need for you to hurt anybody …”

“Oh, I’m afraid you’ll be giving us more than that,” said the short one. As they got closer, I noticed that when they opened their mouths, they had fangs for teeth.

“What … the …” I started to say, but then the little girl just stepped forward and stood in front of me. “No, Honey, they’re –” I didn’t know what they were. “They’re dangerous!”

“Nothing here is dangerous,” said the little girl.

“Oh look, the little baby’s gonna –” the taller man started to say, and then he screamed. He screamed because the little girl had just changed form, right in front of me, into some sort of creature, with golden horns and back ridges, scales the iridescent white color of her hair, and a long tail, all about six feet long, and this creature had just bathed the alleyway in front of us in blindingly white flame. When my eyes finally recovered, the little girl was there again, looking up at me, though the tattered remains of her clothes were on the ground. There was nothing left of the two men at all. Nothing.

“W-what just happened?” I said, panicked. “What were they? What are you?”

“Vampires,” she said, as if vampires just showed up every day. As if she just turned into a monster and incinerated vampires all the time. “Sorry ‘bout that. I’m a dragon.”

“D-dragon?” I repeated. My brain felt like it had just been blown away as cleanly as the two vampires, or whatever they’d been. “There are vampires? And … dragons?”

“Yeah,” the girl said.

“B-but Honey,” I said, trying to reestablish some sort of normality, “you’re all alone here in this alley, and you don’t have any clothes, and it’s getting late …”

“Hmm, that’s true, I didn’t think of that,” she said. “I don’t have any other clothes right now.”

“Well, here,” I said, taking off my jacket and wrapping her up in it. “I can take you to my place … order something delivered …”

“Thank you,” she said. She let me pick her up. I carried her in my jacket and walked through the rest of the alley, faster this time, past where the two men … vampires … had stood. I looked. There weren’t even scorch marks on the ground.

I got her back to my place. “You live on a ley line,” she said when I set her down on her feet inside my apartment. “That’s good.” She went over to my door, which had just closed, and traced some sort of pattern on it with her tiny finger. Lines of white fire appeared where she drew, and then she thumped the door with her little hand, and it disappeared. A doorway to someplace extremely bright was there in front of me, not the dimly-lit hallway of my apartment building’s 18th floor. “Be right back.” She walked through. The door was suddenly a door again. I stared. And not 10 seconds later, the door lit up again, and she was back, in a yellow dress and diaper. And my door was once again a door.

“What – how –” I sputtered.

“Oh. Sorry. You can call me Lydia, I guess. Klimakalydia is the first part of my name, but that’s kind of long.” She spoke fluent English, not what I’d expect to hear from a tiny toddler. “I’m a dragon. But we can take human form.”

“Are you a baby dragon?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” she said. “That’s why I look like a baby human. I’m only 600 years old. Well, 598. You humans grow up really fast, not like us.”

“And your … parents? They let you just wander around?”

“Sure,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like there’s anything in the human world that can hurt me.”

I guess that was probably true, from what I’d just seen.

“Uh … well, welcome to my apartment, I guess,” I said. “And thank you for saving my life. I’m Lila.”

“Hello, Lila,” said Lydia. “I’m sorry you got mixed up in that. Maybe I saved you, but I was also kinda looking for trouble.”

“Looking for …?”

“Vampires. They’re no good. They eat people and stuff. And you humans don’t think they’re even real. That’s ‘cause my people burn ‘em up whenever we find ‘em. Other kinds of bad things too. The human world used to be full of ‘em, but not so much anymore, ‘cause we’re fighting ‘em. Mommy and Daddy say it’s better to light one small candle. Now I guess you humans think they’re just stories or whatever.”

“Wait … other kinds of bad things?”

“Yeah,” Lydia said. “There are all kinds of monsters … or, well, there used to be. I guess a few of ‘em might still be around. But we get rid of ‘em whenever we find ‘em.”

“Wow,” I said. I realized I was sitting down on one of my dining room chairs. I must have needed to sit down. “Thank you. I mean, for getting rid of monsters. I thought you were a monster for a second.”

“I guess you never saw a dragon before, then.”

“No, not before today I haven’t. You’re … beautiful. Pearlescent and gold.”

“Aww, thanks!” she said, smiling for the first time since I’d met her. “Mommy and Daddy say that I got her scales and his horns and ridges. And his eyes.”

“Wow … uh … I’m really hungry, so I’m gonna call for delivery,” I said. “Do you need … a place to stay or anything? I’m not set up for having a child around, really. But I mean, you really did save my life. Those vampires … they were in that alley, whether you went looking for them or not. If you hadn’t been there, they would’ve gotten me.”

“Well, I can always go home,” Lydia said, pointing at my door. “It’s not like I need a place to stay. But … if you insist, what I do need is … a home away from home. When you saw me in that alley, I kinda realized … every human is gonna think I need help. They’re gonna get in my way. But if I’m with you …”

“... they’ll think I’m your mom, or your aunt, or nanny or whatever,” I said, looking up Antonio’s on my phone, placing an order. I was freaked out, but I was still hungry. “That does make sense. And … uh … now that I know there are vampires and things … I’m kinda scared. Really scared. The fact is, I’d feel safer with you around. Although … I don’t know what you eat.”

“When I’m in human form, I can eat human food,” she said.

“OK, then. Do you like Italian?” I asked. She did. I ordered her a chicken Alfredo too. Adult portion – anything she didn’t eat could be leftovers.



The next morning, I felt like I hadn’t gotten any sleep at all. I had tossed and turned all night, and whenever my eyes had closed, it seemed that I’d had nightmares of vampires or monsters, each one uglier and nastier than the last. Lydia had disappeared through my doorway after dinner, saying that her parents were calling for her. Now I had to somehow go to work, as usual, knowing that the normal world I lived in wasn’t really anything like what I had ever considered normal at all.

All day long I wondered when I’d see Lydia again, but I didn’t need to wonder. The moment I walked in my door after work, there she was. “Hi!” she said. “I got your note. I had to ask Mommy and Daddy to tell me how to tell human time, though.”

“Well, I just got home from work,” I said. “But if you’re going to stay here, I’m going to need a few things to take care of you. Do you want to go with me to the store?”

“Store?” she asked. “Oh, like … buying stuff? With human money? I guess so.”

“I’ll buy some things that can make it look like I’m taking care of a baby in my apartment,” I said. “I’m not sure what dragons need, but I know what human kids need. I babysat for extra cash all through high school. Also … if you change shape, you’re gonna go through a lot of clothes.”

“Yeah …” she said. “I guess that’s true. Mommy and Daddy have a trick where they can make their clothes appear with magic when they turn human. I don’t know how to do that one yet. They say I’ll learn it when I get to be about 1000. That’s about when they say I’ll be potty trained, too.”

“Definitely getting you disposable diapers,” I said, making a list. “Cloth diapers are better for the environment, but they’re more expensive, especially if you turn dragon and rip them to shreds.”

So she went with me to one store after another. I got her a portable crib-playpen thing, some sippy cups, some simple, inexpensive clothes that I had her try on first – an advantage of having her along – some toys she looked like she was interested in, and anything else that I could think of that might make it more plausible to a visitor that there was a baby or at least a toddler living with me in my apartment. Even though she probably wouldn’t be spending all her time living there; she just went home to her … dimension or whatever … whenever she wanted. I guess I’d say she was a friend’s daughter? I’d have to work on a more airtight story.

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Now, meanwhile, though I didn’t know it yet, somebody was wondering what had happened to those vampires. They’d had a master, and that master had felt it when they’d died. And he didn’t like it. Not that he had any idea they’d been outright disintegrated by a dragon, but he knew that there was no sign of them. Their destruction had been sudden and complete. There were only a few things that could do that – massive explosions, a smaller but still hot explosion like a white phosphorus grenade, certain fire spells cast by those who knew how to use such magic, and the breath of certain magical creatures such as dragons. He didn’t like any of them.

“I ain’t afraid of nobody,” said Master Fyodor, “but if somebody’s gunnin’ for us, comin’ after me and mine, we gotta watch out. It’s just … smart.” His vampire progeny stood around in his lair and listened intently; they were bound to him by blood, hanging on his every word. “You go out there and listen. Tell me what you hear. Be careful. And be smart.”

They went out into the night, looking for humans to sustain their thirst for blood, but also looking for any sign of anything that was seeking to utterly destroy vampires.

Of course, just as Lydia had said, vampires were only one kind of creature of the night. Fortunately for me, what I didn’t know was that Lydia wasn’t just any dragon.

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I sat at my computer and searched for what was known about dragons. I was amazed to learn that according to one legend, the skies used to be dark with them … they also said that there were many wizards, witches, sorcerers, and whatnot in the land then too. And … many monsters. The people lived in fear of the night. Of course, there was also a legend about a kid who climbed a magic beanstalk to kill a giant. You can’t tell what was really true just from legends.

I looked over toward the crib I had purchased for Lydia. I smiled. She was such an adorable baby girl. The new outfit I had her in was just precious too. Now I understood why they named it “SNUGGLE BUG.” That is exactly what the infant in the crib looked like, a snuggle bug.

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I didn’t know this yet either, but off in the dark realm, a very angry Master Vampire Mage was adding more arcane powder to his scrying bowl. Nalgrim knew he couldn’t add any more powder to the mix; it would explode and tear a hole in reality if he did. A great many centuries ago, several of his subjects had simply vanished and left no trails to follow, and this still bothered him, so every so often he made an attempt to find out why.

He leaned over and stared into the misty bubbling miasma. For the first time in his long memory his scrying bowl boiled and glowed ominously red. As best he could tell, he was trying to make the scry find something that didn’t exist in this continuum.

The Master Vampire Mage did notice a very strange indication of something he had thought lost to the mists of time. He shook his head – no, such things could not be. Did not the reign of the Saurens end when Thermatrax was defeated? Nalgrim selected a large tome in the bookcase near his coffin. He had to know more. At this point, he was almost positive he had overlooked something crucial.

From the best he could tell, the last of the Sauren Empire fell the day Drakoll the Slayer had killed Thermatrax and placed his skull above the entrance to the Castle of Bone. This was well known history; it was also the time the Realm of the Vampire had begun to hunt the realm of Sauria, now rechristened the dark realm, for their favorite food, mortals, once again. He smiled as he thought of the warm sweetness as the last throb of their heart pumped. He shivered with delight, then shuddered as he hoped what he thought he had seen ... wasn’t real.

He turned and snapped his fingers. Something like a huge bat dropped from the cavernous ceiling, fluttered to a landing near the Master Vampire, then transformed into a humanoid form and bowed at the waste, “You call, O Master? Your humble servant …”

Nalgrim banged his fist loudly on the table and said sternly, “Enough. I have summoned you to carry out a mission for me.”

His subject seemed to quiver with excitement. “Can I hunt too? It has been so long.”

The Master waved his hand. “Sure, Vladimir, take your fill, but be discreet. I need you to look into the disappearance from our continuum of two of my other subjects – children of Fyodor. They were stalking a place called Slideway Alley, in the city where Fyodor lives. Their presence was plain until something happened and they vanished as if they had never existed.”

The other vampire gracefully bowed once again, “Fear not, Master. I will discover what transpired one way or the other.” He then vanished in a cloud of inky black smoke.

Nalgrim then waved a hand over his scrying bowl. “Fyodor,” he said, and the startled face of Master Fyodor appeared in it.

“Y-yes, my Master, I hear and heed you,” Fyodor said.

“Two of your chosen have vanished, Fyodor, and I felt it. What do you know of this?”

“I know it too,” Fyodor replied. “They were just gone. I sent out all my other subjects to look for any sign of what happened. I’m hunting too. Nothing yet.”

“I have sent Vladimir to … assist you in the hunt,” said Nalgrim. “It is most important that I learn what became of them, Fyodor. Do not fail me … again.”

“Hey, hey, Master, I know how important it is. Anything that can kill us that fast, that easy, that’s something we want dead.”

“Precisely, Fyodor. But what it may be … is from before your time.” Nalgrim scowled. “And should already be dead.”

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“This is considered an efficient conveyance here?” asked Lydia as she rode in the stroller.

“Not particularly,” I said. “It’s a way for human parents – and any caregivers of children, really – to take them out for a walk, so they can enjoy the fresh air and the outdoors.” I was taking her for a walk in a nearby park. It was still in the city, but at least there were trees, grass, birds, and the occasional squirrel. “Especially really young ones who can’t walk on their own, like the kind that you look like.”

“I see,” said Lydia. “I should not walk?”

“Well, some children the age you look like can walk,” I said, “but not very steadily yet.”

“What is that creature?” Lydia asked. “It cannot be a threat to you, can it?”

“That’s a dog,” I replied. “It belongs to that lady there, who’s holding its leash.” The dog ran up and smelled the stroller, and Lydia with it. Its reaction was interesting. It didn’t growl at her; it didn’t ignore her; instead, it sat down and looked at her. I stopped pushing the stroller.

“Does it want to talk to me?” Lydia asked.

“No, dogs can’t talk; they’re sort of intelligent, but not that much …”

“Oh, hello,” said the woman holding the dog’s leash. “I guess Sammy here is very interested in your … daughter?”

“Oh, she’s my niece,” I said, giving the story I’d worked out. “I’m watching her for my sister. Thought we’d get some fresh air. I’m happy she’s not scared of … Sammy, is it? Hello, Sammy,” I said, smiling at the dog, but Sammy remained fixated on Lydia, mouth open, tongue hanging out.

Lydia said something to Sammy that I couldn’t understand. “Oh look, she’s talking to him!” said the woman.

“I guess so!” I said with what I hoped was a natural chuckle. I didn’t feel much fear in broad daylight, assuming that vampires couldn’t stand the sunlight as was the case in movies and such, but Lydia kept doing things that were a constant reminder that nothing was as it seemed and the world was no longer the world I’d thought I knew.

Sammy made a soft bark sound and stood back up on all fours. He stopped staring at Lydia and started paying attention to a squirrel that was halfway up a nearby tree. His owner chuckled. “Well, that didn’t last long. Short Attention Span Sammy!”

“Haha, well, have a good day!”

“Thanks, have a good walk!” They passed by, and I resumed walking.

“He hasn’t seen any beings of darkness,” Lydia said. “You’re right – they aren’t that intelligent, but they still recognize us.”

“What … did you say to him?” I asked.

“I said thank you for honoring me, but he shouldn’t make a scene.”

“Oh …”

“The other animals seem too flighty to pay attention to me, and that dog almost is too. But … what is that?” It suddenly grew dark, as if a cloud had gone over the sun.

“Oh, is it going to rain?” I asked, looking up. The stroller had an awning, protecting its occupant from the sun and some rain, unless it got windy. A cloud had gone over the sun. All around us, people were scurrying away, suspecting rain was near, and they hadn’t brought their umbrellas, because no rain was in the weather forecast for today.

And then there was a rustling in the trees above us, and approximately zero seconds later something large and gray thumped to the ground near us. I probably screamed or at least squeaked. I know I jumped and backed away.

“No, it’s not dangerous,” Lydia said. “Let me out of this conveyance, please.”

“Um, sure, just a moment,” I said, coming around and trying to simultaneously undo the buckles that weren’t so much holding Lydia in as keeping up a semblance of normalcy, while looking over at whatever had fallen from the sky. It was … a person? They were lying in the grass, not moving? “What is … going on?”

“Sun spirit,” Lydia said, walking toward it, “what has hurt you? I’m so sorry … let me help …”

It was an androgynous person, lying in the grass, with silvery-gray skin and clothing of the same shade. They shone with a faint light. In a faint, weary voice, they said, “Something … crossed the sky … from the realm of darkness … pierced my veil of light …”

“No!” said Lydia. “That isn’t supposed to happen! Not anymore! Just wait, I’ll get you fixed up.” She looked up at me. “I gotta get my clothes off, I guess, or they’ll get all ripped.”

“Here, I’ll help,” I said, and the moment I had her dress off and she’d kicked off her shoes she turned into her dragon form. What she breathed at the sun spirit seemed to be pure light, but more than that, as my heart leapt with joy to feel it. I couldn’t see for a moment afterward; it had been so bright. But when she was done, she started putting her clothes back on – I put her old diaper in the trash bag and tried to help her on with a new one once she returned to human form. But the sun spirit was shining with a golden radiance now, getting up off the grass and standing.

“Thank you, young dragon,” the sun spirit said to Lydia. “It has been a long time since I last saw your kind. I must warn you. The dark realm remains, and one of its denizens has come here, in daylight. I could have stopped it, but it took me by surprise, as it has been long since I last saw one of them as well.”

“It sounds like we should both be careful from now on,” Lydia said to them.

“You’re … the sun?” I asked.

“The sun is a sphere of hydrogen undergoing fusion into helium,” said the spirit, “but my siblings and I are also the sun, its light, its warmth, its life-giving energy. We are its personification. We dance the dance of day for you and all life on Earth.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I doubt many of us get to meet you in person.”

“Indeed, but I must return to the dance. Be well, and be wary! Thank you, dragon!” The spirit steeled themselves and jumped straight up into the sky, leaving a sunbeam momentarily shining down to mark its path. The sky lightened again.

“What … just happened?” I asked Lydia.

“Something that I’m gonna have to ask Mommy and Daddy about,” she said. “We should probably go back to your home.”

I put her back in the stroller and headed for my apartment. “There are spirits of nature all around you all the time,” she said. “You usually can’t see them. In the old times, they say, humans of your world could talk to them and ask them for help. But nobody like that has been around for a long time. The art has been lost.”

“Were there a lot of dragons here back then too?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It was before I hatched. They say there were dragons everywhere, in all the realms. But mostly in the Realm of Sauria. They say the dragons ruled there. It was called the Sauren Empire. But then the forces of darkness attacked and defeated us. Now it’s just called the dark realm. And … I guess it isn’t just a story.”

“But this isn’t the dark realm?”

“No, this is the mortal realm,” said Lydia. “I’m from one of the higher realms. Mommy and Daddy say the powers of light are letting us live there because there’s a prophecy that someday we’ll get the Realm of Sauria back and restore the balance.”

“Well, I hope you do,” I said. “You’re a good person – er, dragon. You healed that sun spirit without even thinking about it. And you didn’t even ask for anything in return.”

“Ask for something in return?” replied Lydia, confused. “It was a sun spirit. It was hurt. I could help, so I did. If I hadn’t, they might even have died, and the sun would have been dimmer forever. But I did, so everything’s all right again.”

“Lucky thing it fell to earth right near you,” I said.

“Yes …” she said, pausing. “Lucky …”

As soon as we got back to my apartment, she summoned her door, saying she had to talk to her Mommy and Daddy. She came right back.

“Mommy and Daddy say that there’s still nothing here that can hurt me,” said Lydia. “There might be things in the dark realm that can, but they can’t sense anything here that strong.”

“Even the new thing that the sun spirit said came here from there?” I asked.

“No, it’s nothing,” Lydia said. “Probably just some other vampire. They burn up to less than ashes at the touch of my breath.”

“So how did the forces of darkness conquer Sauria?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I wasn’t there. The story says they used trickery, and there was a traitor.”

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The day wore on slowly. I had gotten the infant Lydia involved in playing with the plushie cuddle critters I had purchased. It tickled me to watch as Lydia had a simple toddler tea party for her plushie guests. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference between how I knew human infants acted, and how my new niece acted. It was incredible. I knew she was a centuries-old dragon, and yet she still behaved like this at times. Dragons apparently did indeed grow up slowly – compared to humans, at least..

A knock came at the door. I turned to answer it, then noticed the glow all around the door. A tingle of trepidation ran up my spine as I went over and looked through the spyhole to see if I could get a glimpse of who it was.

I saw a very well dressed handsome man and an equally well dressed pretty young woman standing on the stoop. I slowly opened the door, of course keeping the security chain hooked, “Yes? How can I help you?”

The man smiled and replied in one of those deep rumbly voices that send chills all through a girl, “Hello. I do hope to have caused you no anxiety, but it has come to our attention that our daughter has met someone of great historical significance. May we come in, and discuss this with you?” He waved his hand towards the chairs and table set up on the porch, “Or, if you would feel more comfortable, we can have a talk here.”

Porch? I lived in an apartment on the 18th floor, and yet there was a porch out there, in the sun, surrounded by a garden. Daughter? I thought to myself as I took the chain off the door, backed into the room, and gestured for the couple to enter. I watched as they came in and sat with fluid grace on the sofa near where Lydia was lost and engrossed in her tea party.

The woman said, in a very soft and pleasant voice, “I know this is going to sound like some kind of fantasy, but my daughter has inadvertently discovered one of the most significant personages of this age.”

The man leaned forward slightly and said, “Don’t be afraid, but you are the one our most ancient prophecies tell shall come and restore Sauren Rule to Sauria.”

A shock ran through me, “M … mm … me? How do you know it’s me?” I pointed off in a random direction. “There are 8.5 billion others out there.”

The man and woman laughed. The sound of their laughter made Lydia look around. She shrieked loudly, “Mommy, Daddy!” then proceeded to get up from the playmat, showing off her ruffles like any other toddler, and rapidly toddled over to the couple. In her haste, she stumbled over the last few steps. The woman caught Lydia and held her in a loving embrace as she kissed her on her neck.

Lydia said with obvious joy in her voice, “Baby so glad ta sees you. Why comes you comeded? I beena good girl, promise.” Then she nodded her head until her ponytails flew in an animated and precious way.

The man replied, “We came because you have made the largest discovery since we found Thermatrax’s talisman.”

Lydia sat back with a puzzled look. “I no founded nuffin buts saveded my bestus fwiend here fwomma nasty vampires.”

The woman nods, “Yes, and she has treated you with the utmost care and kindness. In that interaction, however, the Kyrillian energy her spirit gives off imbued you with small amounts that we detected when you came to see us. From what the ancient Tomes of Thermatrax state, only one within the mortal realm shall come. They shall wield a great power of light and free all Sauria from darkness forever. Upon the Throne of Bone shall she sit and rule with honor and dignity.”

I gasped in pure shock. No, this cannot be. I said with incredulity obvious in my tone, “You have to be mistaken. I have no powers. Why, shoot, I’m about as normal as they come.”

The woman was patting Lydia’s bottom as she replied, “You have yet to open that particular door in your spirit. Trust us when we tell you, you are the one, and yes, you have mighty powers of light. Remember, many candles can be lit from a single flame without diminishing its brilliance.”

The man said softly, “And we have come to ask that we have the honor of teaching you how to activate and use the power as it grows within you.”

“I … what?” I was completely taken aback. “Power? This … this can’t be real. I don’t have time to go insane. I’m a paralegal. It’s the weekend right now, but I have to work in order to keep this small apartment … believe me, it’s a lot more expensive than it looks.”

“Well, there is time,” the man said. “Before we get too far out of your realm of experience, let’s introduce ourselves, shall we? You’ve obviously met our daughter Lydia, and we’re very grateful that you’ve given her a … shall we say a more complete disguise in the realm of humans. This is my wife, Platinadasaki, and I am Chrysopetros – or you could call us Sylvia and Peter.”

I took a deep breath. “Thank you. I feel more normal already. I’m Lila Norrington, and I’m really just happy to still be alive now that I know there are things like vampires and other stuff in this world, which I grew up thinking was so normal. Vampires are supposed to be just stories. Not real. But given that they’re real, I’m glad that dragons are also real and not just stories.”

Peter laughed heartily. “Well, we’re also glad that we dragons still exist – it was touch and go for a few millennia there, but we’ve bounced back a bit.”

“I … really wish I knew more about this, but I’m sure it’s hard to condense all that history into an evening … or maybe even a human life span.”

Sylvia smiled. “We’d be happy to fill you in on the highlights. For now, I suppose Lydia’s told you a few things.”

“Just that there was a realm called Sauria that was ruled by dragons, and then the vampires invaded and wrecked everything, and they’ve been ruling it ever since,” I said. “And you’ve got a temporary home in some higher realm thanks to some higher beings?”

“The vampires, and other monsters such as demons, have their enemies,” said Peter, scowling at mentioning them, “and although the higher powers are forbidden to act directly in the middle realms, some of the less restricted ones found a loophole that allowed them to give us a temporary place to regroup. A few dozen millennia to catch our breath, have families, and make plans.”

Lydia had fallen asleep in her mother’s arms. I looked at her adoringly; she was so cute. “The little angel. Anyway, what’s all this about me taking back Sauria and sitting on the throne? I’m not a dragon. I thought it was a dragon realm.”

“Sauria has been ruled by many beings throughout its long and storied history,” Peter said. “A full history lesson would take a while, but suffice it to say that there have been rulers who have been dragons, humans, unicorns, kirin, shedim, lamassu, fair folk, and a miscellany of others. It has mostly been a realm of dragons, but before it became a dark place it was peacefully inhabited by a mixture of different beings, though dragons were the majority.”

“And … you’re saying this was real?” I asked. “A real place? Like … another dimension?”

“I suppose it’s something like that,” said Sylvia. “Another universe, accessible via manipulation of forces that are unknown to most humans. You’ll be able to do it once you learn the trick.”

“I know I keep saying no,” I said, “but I’ve never seen any sign of any such talent. I do legal research. I know about the law in this state, and I know how to research law that I don’t already know. I’ve been thinking about going for a law degree.”

“Then let me show you this law,” said Peter. “Like Produces Like. Let me see, this device produces light, yes? He reached over and unscrewed the light bulb from my table lamp. It was an LED bulb, so it wasn’t burning hot like an old style bulb, but it was still pretty warm – but it didn’t bother Peter at all. “This makes light, under the right circumstances. Now think about that and hold up your hand. Make a fist. Make it look like this globe. Your hand can make light too. Think about turning on this other device, and turn on your hand.”

I made a fist, held it up, and thought about turning on a bulb. This was ridiculous. But I did it anyway. I imagined turning the switch.

My fist lights up like a light bulb. I shrieked in surprise and fell off my chair. No light was coming from my hand anymore. Peter chuckled. “Surprising?”

“That’s one word, yes …”

“You’ll soon be able to weave light like thread, like fabric, make ropes and sheets of it,” said Sylvia. “It’s all within you. But beware, because the powers of darkness will fear you for this – and rightfully so.”

We talked late into the night, about confusing things that boggled my mind. But I made light again, and slowly I started to feel less terrified of the world I lived in. Maybe I could go out at night. Maybe I did have some strength of my own against these horrible nightmares.

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I finally went to bed. Lydia had gone home with her parents for now. The apartment was quiet and dark and normal. Lying in bed, I felt anticipation instead of dread for the first time in days. Whatever was going to happen, it was going to be interesting – and not necessarily instant death. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep, for once.

It was calm, dreamless sleep for a long while, but then the nightmares started to stir again. Vampires were chasing me down dark streets. I’m sure I was tossing and turning in my sleep. But then the dream changed, and this time I couldn’t breathe. Something was sitting on my chest, and my throat felt constricted, as if something were strangling me. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t even scream. I tried to inhale, but no air came. Was I asleep or awake? I could see it – it was sitting on my chest, weighing me down, throttling my neck with its long fingers. The dark figure had long, shaggy hair, and I caught a glint of reflection from its eyes. Was I really dying, or was I dreaming? I was terrified.

But then I remembered what Peter had taught me. I couldn’t move, but I could still imagine my hand was a light and turn that imaginary light on. A soft glow began to shine from my right hand, then it grew brighter, and it continued to intensify. My lungs ached, because I couldn’t breathe, but the light grew and grew until it was as bright as if I’d turned all the lights on in the apartment. Then it was as bright as a sunny day. Then it was even brighter than that. The creature’s fingers released my throat, and I heard it hiss angrily; as I sucked in air I saw it recoiling from the light.

In the light I could see that it was a humanoid creature, with papery, wrinkled gray skin, black eyes, and long, shaggy hair. Its arms and legs were long and bony, though it was currently hunched over, trying to protect its eyes from the blazing light that continued to grow brighter. The light wasn’t just coming from my hand now; it seemed to be coming from everywhere. I felt strength returning to my body, but this unknown thing terrified me. My only weapon against it was the light that I seemed to wield, so I focused on making it brighter and brighter. It didn’t seem to be harming me, but the thing went from hissing to howling in pain; its voice had an unearthly sound. Finally its form started to emit a black smoke, and with a scream it disappeared.

I got out of bed and looked for it all around the room, brandishing my hand, but I saw no further sign of it. I turned on all the lights and let my inner light, well, return to being inner. I was very tired, but I didn’t want to go back to sleep, because I worried that it might come back. But finally I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I must have fallen asleep, but I remembered no dreams after that.

When I woke up, it was morning. Had it been real, or had I dreamed it? I feared that it had been real – vampires were apparently real, so whatever this had been was likely a real thing too. Maybe I could ask Lydia or her parents the next time I saw them.

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Vladimir arrived at Slideway Alley in a large puff of ebony black smoke. An old drunk was just awake and sober enough to witness it. Vladimir turned towards the frail old man and smiled, showing off his horrid fangs. The old man had only enough time to let out a gasping squeak before Vladimir was on him.

Immediately, the old man was helpless as his body refused to do anything but relax. He felt the sharp sting as long fangs bit deeply into his neck. The most amazing rush intensely ran all through the old man as a pleasant gray fog arose in his mind. The old man died in ecstasy as his heart beat weakly one last time.

Vladimir leaned back with his mouth still covered in the old man’s blood. He felt his strength returning … it had been so long. One more, maybe younger perhaps. Vladimir saw his next victim. The young man had no clue as he practiced his skateboard until the sharp sting in his neck and the rapid but pleasantly euphoric fading of life.

Vladimir leaned back with the young body of his latest victim still in his arms. He wiped his face and mouth on the youth’s shirt, leaving a nasty smear the police forensic labs would freak over for decades, not to mention the two puncture wounds on his neck and the fact that all his blood was drained from his body. What they’d really puzzle over was the fact that, within 100 yards of this, they found another body that had apparently died from massive blood loss in the same manner.

Vladimir tossed the body into a dumpster like a piece of garbage, then brought out the seer. As hard as he peered into the small crystal orb, it revealed nothing … until it finally showed one single iridescent scale. After inspecting it, Vladimir knew beyond any doubt that a young Light Dragon had been there. He forced the seer harder and harder with his will until it became so hot that he had to put it down and allow it to cool. There was nothing else there for him to find, and no trace of the missing minions.

“The Master told me you would be coming,” said a voice, and Vladimir turned to see Fyodor. “What he didn’t say was how late you’d be – and how much of a mess you’d make.”

“I’ve been here longer than you think,” Vladimir replied, “and I already know more than you do.”

“Oh, do please share your brilliant insight,” Fyodor said sarcastically. “What perchance could it be that could destroy our kind instantly without leaving a trace? Magical dragon fire – oh, but wait, the dragons were wiped out thousands of years ago! Oh, but the legends never said that, did they? They said they were driven out, not wiped out. Of course it’s a dragon. Only a ridiculously optimistic fool would believe they’d actually been exterminated.”

“And you have evidence?” Vladimir asked. “You have proof to back up this … supposition? No, I didn’t think so. You’re guessing. Well, I’m not. And I’m going to report what I’ve found to the Master right now, as ordered. I was sent here for a reason, and other than having a few light snacks I see no reason to hang around in this backwater of a world any longer than I have to.” Vladimir was surrounded by a cloud of black smoke once more, and then he was gone.

Fyodor rolled his eyes, then he, too, disappeared into the darkness.

The wind began to blow through the alley, and the rain started to fall. A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the darkness, followed by a roll of thunder. But with another lightning flash, the thunder came simultaneously in Slideway Alley, showing the figure of a huge black dog. It sniffed at the dumpster, then at the corpse of the old man. Then it sniffed at the places where Vladimir and Fyodor had stood and spoken, barely hiding their contempt for each other. It howled at the dark rainy sky, then vanished with the next lightning flash.

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I still didn’t go out at night unless I absolutely had to, and I certainly wasn’t going to take Lydia out at night – not that she couldn’t handle herself; I was probably safer with her around. But it would look unusual for me to be out at night either carrying a baby or walking alongside a toddler, who should be in bed. We wanted people to think she was an ordinary child, and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves.

But sometimes I still did have to go out at night, because I needed to get grocery shopping done. I got a cab and went to the big market uptown. When I was ready to come home, loaded down with bags full of food and other supplies, I noticed that it had gotten dark and started to rain. No cabs were coming by, just endless traffic on the street.

Then a strange shape swooped at me from out of the night. It had dark wings, and for a moment I saw its eyes, huge and glowing red. I screamed and ran from it, but it vanished into the darkness again. I kept running, still looking for a cab I could flag down. I hung onto my grocery bags. To my credit, I didn’t drop a thing. I slowed down to look for cabs again, but the creature came in for another swoop, so I ran again. I made it to a corner, where there was a cab coming on the intersecting street. Jumping out into the street in front of it, I got it to screech to a halt.

“Hey, lady, are you nuts? You coulda gotten killed!” yelled the driver.

“I need a cab, and you’re the only one I’ve seen!” I yelled back. I didn’t tell him about the creature that had been attacking me.

“All right, all right, get in,” he said. “Where to?”

“79th between Sixth and Seventh,” I said, packing my shopping bags into the back seat, followed by myself.

“Got it,” he said. Once the cab was moving, he asked, “You’re outta breath, lady. You all right? Somebody after you?”

“Y – you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Hey, I seen a lotta things nobody would believe,” said the driver.

“Some kind of … human-sized flying thing with giant red eyes?” I asked. “Swooped at me twice out of the storm.”

“Whoa. I ain’t seen that one,” he said, “but I had a fare tell me a story like that once. Years ago. The next day I found out there’d been a gas main explosion right where I’d picked that guy up, just minutes later. It was like something was tryin’ to warn him, get him outta there.”

“Warn him?”

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Just outside the market, where I’d been waiting for a cab to drive by, Vladimir emerged from a cloud of black smoke. He looked at the crystal orb in his hand, then looked around. There were no passers-by, as everyone had fled from the rain. He looked into the crystal and walked in the direction I’d run. Then he vanished into smoke again.

A moment later, the lightning flashed, and the huge black dog was sniffing the ground where Vladimir had stood. It growled, stalked to the spot where the vampire had disappeared, and vanished again in another flash of lightning.

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“Huh,” said Lydia, sitting in her playpen. I’d described the frightening ordeal the other night to her. “Sounds like a Mare, or a Mara,” she told me. “They love to kill people in their sleep. The word nightmare comes from them. Wish I’d been there – I could’ve destroyed it. But it sounds like you did OK.”

I was putting away groceries, after changing into dry clothes. “What about a black flying thing that swoops at you out of the sky and has big red eyes that glow?”

“Well, that could be different things,” she said. “Did it attack you?”

“Kind of?” I thought about it. “It didn’t actually try to bite or claw me or anything. It just swooped. The cab driver said he’d talked to somebody else a few years ago who saw something like that. It was warning him about something.”

“That could be some kind of fetch – though usually those are supposed to look just like the person who sees them,” she said. “Could be something that warns people of danger – which means that it might actually have been something good. Just because it looks scary, that doesn’t mean it’s trying to hurt you.”

“It might be on our side?” I asked.

“Well, not exactly, but at least it saw something bad coming and wanted to save you from it by getting you away from there,” she said. “I wonder what it saw, though. I’m gonna ask Mommy and Daddy about that. If something is trying to hurt you, well, I don’t want it to.”

“Do you want me to let you out of the playpen?” I asked.

“Yes, please,” she said. After I lifted her over the side and set her down on the floor, she said, “I’ll be right back,” and vanished into her world of light through the back of my door.

A moment later, she and her mother came back through. Carrying Lydia, Sylvia looked at me gravely and said, “What Lydia tells me has me worried. Can we do a small ritual in your apartment? It shouldn’t harm anything.”

“Well, sure, OK,” I said.

“She has to take on her dragon form,” Sylvia said, setting Lydia down on the floor.

“OK, Mommy,” Lydia said, and I backed away as she became a six-foot-long winged quadruped. Counting her tail, she was probably more like ten feet long.

Sylvia explained to both of us, “We disturb the mystical environment wherever we go as part of our nature. Somebody using the right magic could use that to follow you. But they’re taking a risk in doing that, because they’re making a connection back to them. So I need you to find out if anybody’s trying to use magic to follow you, and I need you to send them a message. Here’s how you do that.”

“Ready, Mommy,” said Lydia. Her voice sounded the same, even though it came from a dragon’s mouth.

“Imagine your scales,” Sylvia said. “Imagine somebody’s tied a string to one of them. Think of that string. Think of where it leads. And imagine your breath going down that string to the other end.”

Lydia’s eyes were closed as she concentrated. “The other end of the string … I can feel it! It feels like … a piece of stone. A crystal! A scrying crystal!”

“Good, now use your breath!”

“What do I want to do to them at the other end?”

“That’s up to you. Break the crystal, melt it, dissolve it, turn it into a slug, anything.”

“Eww, slugs,” said Lydia with a giggle. “What if I wanna steal the crystal?”

“Bold choice, Dear,” said Sylvia. “That would allow us to find out who was using it and who gave it to them. But you should destroy it after that, because they could trace it.”

“OK!” she said. “That thing’s coming here.” She breathed … something. I didn’t see what it was, because it didn’t happen in my apartment. There was suddenly a chunk of sparkling crystal about the size of a golf ball on my floor. I craned my neck around Lydia’s head and looked at it.

“All right, now let me have a look,” said Sylvia. She muttered some strange words, picked it up, and held it in her hand. “Who held you?” she asked it.

The image of Vladimir appeared in the crystal, along with scenes from where he’d been using it recently. “Hmm. I see. Now, before that?” The image of Nalgrim appeared. “As I suspected. Well, this should be destroyed now, and then I’ll tell you about what I saw.” She set it down on the floor in front of Lydia. Sylvia turned to ask me, “You don’t have an orichalcum furnace, do you?”

“Um, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid not,” I said. I didn’t know what orichalcum even was.

“Hmm, perhaps we should destroy this at our house,” said Sylvia. “We don’t want to burn holes in your host’s floor, Lydia.”

“No, Mommy,” she said. She turned back into a human, and Sylvia picked her up.

“We’ll take care of this thing and be right back,” Sylvia said, carrying her daughter and the crystal through the portal in my door.

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“The seer crystal is what?” demanded Nalgrim.

“Gone, Master,” said Vladimir with angry embarrassment.

“Hey, I didn’t tell him to do it,” said Fyodor. They were both in Fyodor’s abandoned warehouse, where Nalgrim had contacted Vladimir seeking an update. “He didn’t even tell me what he’d found out.”

“Then you are irrelevant!” shouted Nalgrim. “Be silent!” Fyodor turned away and obediently said nothing. “But you!” he addressed Vladimir. “You say it is gone. How?”

“I was looking through it, seeking the dragon, and it vanished from my hand,” Vladimir said.

“You fool!” Nalgrim fumed. “You absolute idiot! Did I order you to scry on the dragon?”

“I … you told me to use it to help me find out what killed Nail and Jack,” Vladimir said. “You didn’t specifically say not to try to scry on it.”

“Because I thought you would know better!” Nalgrim raged. “To scry on a powerful entity is to invite its attention! And its attention you did indeed attract! It was able to conjure the seer to itself, so it certainly now knows that you are after it, it knows your appearance, and it may well even know my part in this. It may even know my location! I will have to move to another sanctum before it comes for me! I would set a trap for it here, but it is not so stupid as to fall for such a thing! Unlike certain underlings of mine whom I could name!”

Lightning flashed outside.

“Vladimir, listen closely, because apparently your listening skills have suffered in recent centuries,” said Nalgrim. “You will use the usual methods to locate the dragon, which you should have used before instead of relying on a magical crutch that I gave you only to get you started. The appearance of a dragon will be noticed. Stop eating mortals for long enough to ascertain whether they’ve seen anything with wings and scales.”

“And you, Fyodor,” Nalgrim went on, and Fyodor turned back toward the Master Vampire Mage’s image, hanging in the air, “you will have your minions search for anything that may indicate the presence of a dragon. Unusual fires and other phenomena. Sightings of strange creatures. I will research what might be the signs of Light Dragons – after I move my sanctum to another location, thanks to your idiot colleague there. Now be about your work, both of you!” The image of Nalgrim faded away.

“That went well,” said Fyodor.

“Shut up,” Vladimir hissed.

“Well, looks like I’m gonna have to call my kids here for a briefing,” Fyodor said. “You do … whatever you do.”

“I shall.” Vladimir vanished into black smoke. Outside, the lightning flashed again.

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“Nalgrim, huh?” I said after Sylvia told me what she’d found. She and Peter were sitting on my couch again, while Lydia played in the playpen.

“Yes,” said Peter. “Master of a number of vampires, including some in this realm, and he knows some magic, too.”

“Does he know where we are?” I asked nervously.

“I think not, dear,” said Sylvia, leaning forward to pat my hand reassuringly. “His minion Vladimir would have come here if he had, and Lydia would have eliminated him instantly. It’s good that the winged entity warned you – it may be that Vladimir was near to finding you.”

“Is that thing gone?” I asked. “Could that Nalgrim use it to find you?”

“It’s been destroyed,” said Peter. “After we learned what we could from it, we crushed it to powder and burned the powder to ashes.”

“And we scattered the ashes over the dark realm as a threat,” Sylvia added. “I don’t know whether Nalgrim noticed, because we weren’t there long, but if he did, it’ll serve as a message to leave us alone.”

“You … can go to the dark realm?” I asked.

“Well, yes,” Peter replied. “It’s not as if we don’t know where it is. It was our home once. But here, show me what you did to that Mara.”

“I, um, I just remembered what you’d showed me …” I wasn’t reacting out of pure terror, so in some ways it was harder, but in other ways it was easier. I made it brighter and brighter. I’m sure the light was streaming out of the windows as if the Sun had come to Earth.

After that, Peter showed me how to summon light from any object, and then from the very air itself, so light came from all directions and there were no shadows. Although the light left my eyes dazzled when I stopped – the apartment looked as dark as night even though the ceiling lights were on – it didn’t seem to affect Peter, Sylvia, or Lydia at all; it was their element.

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I had sort of become used to the idea I had powers. It amazed me to see how I could light things up. One of the more amazing things was something like telekinesis … except there was a faint beam of white light that actually wrapped around or caused an action with a remote object.

I had gone out to a wooded area near my apartment to practice. I didn’t think at the time, although I should have realized, something of darkness was looking for me to do me harm.

I had made myself a sort of bench to sit on with a few rocks and some deadfall I had found that would work as the seat. I even built a small rock fireplace and was practicing starting fires with my new power.

It was, after all, still the middle of the afternoon, and the sun was out. At first, the dimming of the light didn’t register, until the coldest of cold winds began to blow, bringing the horrid smell of brimstone with it.

I stood and turned rapidly to see a horde of the strangest nightmare creatures imaginable. They were about 3 feet tall, ugly and nasty-smelling. They were ebony black, with bright red glowing eyes, and some of the nastiest teeth, fangs and claws I could imagine. Their chittering chatter was super irritating, as well.

I held up the palm of my hand towards the rapidly advancing horde and shouted, “I command you to stop!”

I could feel it as the light beam arced from my arm and hand. What seemed like a clear wall of shimmering bright white light appeared. The horde slammed into it hard. The first several rows, being forced into it by the ones advancing behind, burst into a large greenish flame and gave off horrible brimstone smelling clouds of smoke before sublimating off into nothing.

The survivors didn’t get away without taking damage too. Many of them caught fire and were burning as they vanished. I almost wet my panties when there was a loud rumble of thunder accompanied by a flash of lightning, and a huge dog of some kind appeared for an instant before the next flash of lightning, and the apparition was gone. It didn’t mean the spot where I was standing didn’t smell like an open sewer, but there was no other evidence that anything out of the ordinary had transpired.

I didn’t panic; I took my time, but I didn’t waste it either, and returned home. I took every precaution I could think of to insure I wasn’t being followed. Everything at the apartment was in order; Lydia was playing, stacking her blocks, while Peter read some extremely old-looking book.

I asked cheerily, “Sup, Peter? What’cha reading there? It looks very old … and in another language?”

Peter looked up and smiled. “Welcome home. I do so hope your practice session was productive.”

I acknowledged it had been and explained what had happened. “So, I held up my hand and commanded them to stop. A wall formed that did lots of damage to the horde.”

Peter nodded slowly, “I must admit, I am amazed. You created the Wall of the Seraphim. It’s a shield of light that nothing of darkness, and indeed nothing even vaguely tainted with it, can penetrate. Those were most likely lemures – spirits of the evil dead, returned to cause harm to the living. They were powerful ones, or they wouldn’t have been able to come out in the sunlight, even near sunset. The reason they caught fire was that the darkness was being purged from them. Since that’s all they were …” Peter shrugged, “As for the black dog … I’m not sure. Your guess is as good as mine. It appeared when you defeated the lemures, so it may have been some sort of death spirit or custodian of the dead. It did you no harm, so I’m not sure I’d worry about it.”

“No, I’m not sure it even paid any attention to me,” I said. “Maybe it was there to collect them and return them to … the other side?”

“That’s possible,” Peter said, “but as always there are many possibilities. As for this book, it’s a copy of the Prophecies of Thermatrax. It’s the compendium of how this is going to go.”

I make a puzzled face, “Compendium?”

Peter nods, “Time is but a wheel that turns within bigger wheels. What once was is, what is was once, and what once was, shall be again.”

He opened the antique leather bound volume to a particular page and showed it to me. To my utter shocked amazement, it showed a picture of me dressed in very ornate and regal robes with what looked like a wand of some kind in my right hand and some sort of book in my other. On my head was a crown obviously made of extremely valuable metal and adorned with many rare gemstones. It had a stylized dragon-like appearance, with two large glowing rubies set as its eyes in a very artistic way. I couldn’t believe what I saw.

“What … does this mean?” I asked. “Is that me?”

“I would say rather that it was you, in a previous lifetime,” said Peter. “In a past age of creation. Now, everything won’t happen in exactly the same way, but it will be at least somewhat similar. The problem is that this book isn’t terribly specific about the tiny details.”

“So who was Thermatrax, anyway?” I asked. “I keep hearing that name.”

“The last ruler of the Sauren Empire,” said Peter. “Tens of thousands of years ago the forces of darkness descended on the Empire. Their champion, a demon lord named Drakoll the Slayer, assaulted the dragon armies with his demonic hordes. While that battle raged, Drakoll attacked Thermatrax directly – it’s said that there was a traitor who gave him access to the fortress. But Thermatrax didn’t go down easily – it’s also said that they fought non-stop for three days and nights and that Thermatrax dealt Drakoll a death blow as well. Drakoll had enough strength to drag himself off the battlefield after hanging Thermatrax’s skull above the doorway to the Castle of Honor, whose name the dark forces changed to the Castle of Bone after they redecorated a bit.”

“So Thermatrax was a prophet?” I asked.

“Well, although this is called the Prophecies of Thermatrax, it’s more like research into the ancient past,” said Peter. “He knew more about magic than possibly anyone before or since, and he used it to try to uncover the secrets of the past, because he believed that they held the key to the future. Not many books survived about the founding of the Sauren Empire, and those were fragments, so he used magic to learn more about what had happened back then – dreams and visions, searching for more ancient texts, trying to magically restore torn pages, and so forth. Everything he learned, he wrote down in this book.”

“But because things repeat, the past is the future,” I said.

“Exactly. Now, it takes an awfully long time for things to repeat – it was probably hundreds of thousands of years ago when these events took place. This world was a different place then. But this figure here – apparently you’re either a reincarnation or merely a very similar person – was instrumental in banishing the evil forces from the dark realm and bringing peace back to the cosmos. Temporarily, yes, but in this case ‘temporarily’ means for hundreds of millennia.”

“That’s … not too bad for temporary,” I said. Was I really supposed to do this? I still had to work a job for a living. Did I have enough PTO built up to go save an alternate dimension? “Does it say anything about what opposition I … she … faced?”

“It says a few things, but it’s awfully vague. It says that the minions of the walking dead stood in your way and that the dragons fought by your side. It says more, but what it might mean is unclear.” Peter tapped on the page. “It says that the hunter was sent by his master but was also hunted.”

“I see what you mean,” I said. “That’s not clear at all. Who’s the hunter?”

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On the report of a human he had bribed with what passed for gold in this strange world, Vladimir came to the spot in the forest where I’d been practicing. He sniffed the ground. He looked at some of the dead wood that I’d been setting on fire with laser-like beams from my hands. He closed his eyes and concentrated. “Master,” he said, “I’ve found something.”

“Ah, at last, Vladimir,” said the voice of Nalgrim, whose image appeared in the moonlight. “Speak.”

“There was a battle here,” he said. “The lemures of the human dead crossed over, and they were vanquished.”

“No doubt they were drawn by some powerful force of light,” said Nalgrim. “It could have been the dragon.”

“Whoever it was, they were practicing. This wood here was set up as if it were a target. See these precise holes here.” Vladimir gestured at the branches I’d stuck in the dirt.

“It … could still be a dragon,” said Nalgrim, “but it’s also possible it may be something else. A human mage, perhaps? I thought they’d lost that art.”

“The human who pointed me to this spot said there had been strange sounds and bright lights coming from this place – and a strange clap of thunder. I wonder about that.”

“Thunder? Surely that annoying mutt isn’t still around,” said Nalgrim. “Has he found you already?”

“I haven’t seen him,” said Vladimir. “Could he be in league with the dragon … or mage … somehow?”

“If he is, that would be most unusual,” Nalgrim said. “I’m not sure what he would hope to gain.”

“Do you know what he is? What he wants?” asked Vladimir. “I’ve never understood him.”

“All I can determine is that he’s particularly interested in us vampires,” said Nalgrim. “Perhaps our existence offends him somehow. He may be a manifestation of death, or order. Regardless, do not let him find you.”

“I will not,” said Vladimir. “I will keep moving.”

“So, we may have a human Light Mage, rather than a dragon, to deal with,” said Nalgrim. “It’s also possible that we have both. No matter. I will prepare some amusing surprises for either.”

“I will continue my hunt, Master.” Vladimir bowed.

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What could I do? I continued to work at my job, because I needed money to pay the rent and buy groceries. I kept practicing the magic that Peter and Sylvia were teaching me. I kept taking care of Lydia.

After a few weeks of hard study and practice of my powers, and of course, taking care of the precious Lydia, I had sort of gotten the feel of creating things. I had to remember to weave the light strands into the shape of what it was I wanted ... “Looks like, acts like,” was the law; it worked well and became easier and easier as I did it.

I was in the middle of practicing creating small objects like the plushy doll for Lydia I was making when this really strange sparkly ball of golden light appeared in the middle of the room. When the bright sphere of golden light had dissipated, a very small but very pretty female fairy stood and fluttered her gossamer wings as she smiled at me.

She said in a really cute tinkling voice, “Hi, Imma woodland fairy. I come ta teach ya sompin’ ifs ya wanna.”

I sat back with surprise on my face and asked, “Ok, first off, my name’s Lila, what’s yours?”

The small female giggled pleasantly. “Am named Elida. It means Small Winged One.” She turned slightly and fluttered her gossamer wings at me.

“Pleased to meet you, Elida,” I said. “But … why are you here?”

“What?”

“I mean, to what do I owe the honor? It’s been explained to me that beings of darkness seek me out because they hunger for light and life force like mosquitos thirst for blood, but I don’t understand why I would attract a beautiful being of light such as yourself.”

Elida blushed and smiled. “Oh! Well, light doesn’t only attract darkness. I see bright lights and know they mean magic – good magic, not dark magic. Usually it means others of my kind, because there haven’t been any human wizards for a long time. So when I saw your light, and it wasn’t one of my people, I was fascinated! I had to come see.”

I smiled as I said, “Ok, Elida, what bit of wisdom do you have for me today?”

Elida giggled pleasantly as she fluttered from the floor to my knee. “It has come to be known that you are being hampered in your studies and research by the need for an unnecessary thing – I think humans call it money.”

I replied, “Well, yeah. In this world today it’s necessary to keep this apartment, to buy items for Lydia, and of course, food. It’s a human thing.”

Elida giggled in her tinkling adorable way and replied, “Naw, such mundane things are beneath the Ruling Mage of the land of Sauria. Let me show you.”

With a grand and graceful flourish of her arms and hands, she produced a large pot. I watched as it slowly filled with some kind of yellow coin the size of a silver dollar. I got up from the chair after placing Elida on the side table, went to the pot, and picked up one of the coins. It had weight. To my surprise, it looked and felt like solid gold.

“How … how much gold is in this thing? It’s huge.” I asked.

She replied, “Dunno, but it weighs over a ton without the pot, so … a lot? This is how to do the spell. It’s simple.”

On the coffee table in front of me appeared a scroll in a sparkling twinkle of blue light. For the next several hours, Elida and I went over the arcane chants and hand motions. I created and dissolved many renditions of the gold-filled pot. Only slowly did it dawn on me that I could quit my job. Now I wouldn’t have to worry about something as grubby as money – assuming I could find a way to convert the gold into dollars without causing any trouble. I only hoped no one took overly exceptional notice of how I lived with no visible means of support. And what about the tax people? Well, OK. I’d figure something out.

But that wasn’t all Elida taught me. I learned many things from her, including how to teleport and create wings for myself and fly. She also taught me about the being who had been known as “Drakoll the Slayer.” His name meant Dragon ... so odds were very good that he was some form of saurian, although not a true dragon. Drakoll was an arch-demon of great power, though how he could also be part dragon was unclear.

“So he was half demon and half dragon?” I asked Elida.

“Well, um, sort of?” she replied. “It’s not exactly like that. From what I know about demons, which isn’t a lot, they all have some kind of … aspect. There are bull demons, and boar demons, and worm demons, and so on. Drakoll just happened to be a dragon demon. And he didn’t get the whole Slayer thing until after he killed Thermatrax … and of course, he didn’t live long after that, because of how badly Thermatrax wounded him.”

“So, he’s not going to come looking for me?” I half asked.

“Not him,” said Elida, “but look out for any children or minions or something that he might have had.”

“Do any … vampires work for him?” I wondered.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “All I know is that it’s not unheard of for vampires to work for demon lords and those kinds of people. If they get rewarded with something they want, like power or humans to drink the blood of, most vampires are fine with working for demons.”

“Well, those are all the questions I can think to ask you right now,” I said.

“Oh good, because I have to be getting back home. I have to check on my sisters, especially Idria … she’s always getting distracted by shiny things and wandering off. Use the spell I taught you if you need to talk to me again!”

“What if I just want to talk to you again?” I asked. “Is that OK? I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to about all of this.”

“Oh, sure!” she said with a giggle. “Yeah, I’ll bet humans wouldn’t understand. And with only dragons to talk to … no offense, but they’re all, ‘Must destroy the darkness and retake our realm!’ They need to take a break once in a while.”

“I’ve still got no idea how I’m supposed to conquer a whole realm,” I said.

Elida winked at me. “Don’t worry about it!” she said. “If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. But bye for now!” She waved and turned back into a ball of light.

“Thank you, Elida!” I said. “I’m happy to meet you! Please be careful!” By the time I said this, she had vanished.

“Maybe that’s how it happens,” said a small voice from nearby. It was Lydia. Apparently she’d woken up.

“Huh?” I spun around, confused by what she’d said.

“Maybe your light brings more beings of light. And they talk to you and tell you things like she did.”

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So, boring details happened. I figured out how to report the gold. It was an allowance from a long-lost great-uncle in another country far away. I sold the gold coins on a gold market. I did a bit of mundane research and made them look like a type of ancient coin that had actually been minted in that country centuries ago. I kept records and reported the income to the IRS. That way, as long as they got their share, they’d never bother me. I had money in my bank account, and I didn’t have to go to work anymore.

Now I had even more time to study the books and scrolls that Peter and Sylvia brought me. I’d work my way through some, and they’d take them back to their library and bring me other ones. Elida would bring me things too – though her spells tended to be written on bark or the backs of leaves; only occasionally were they on actual paper scrolls.

When Elida and Peter actually met each other, you could tell that there was some rivalry. “Why, hello there,” said Peter, entering my apartment to find Elida already present. “What could such a beautiful fairy be doing in a place like this?”

“Aww, gosh,” she said. “I’m just … hanging out? Is that the right term? with my friend Lila. We’re just doin’ normal things like practicin’ spells.”

“I’m sure that’s all very fun,” said Peter. “When you’re done, Lila, I’ve brought some more books. These are about positive energy synergies and forming spell conduits.”

“Nnnnn, that sounds so boring!” Elida said. “I showed her how to make holes from here to there.”

But neither of them were showing me the spells that I really needed to learn.

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Lydia had just gone home with her parents for the night so I could sleep. Dragons slept, but they were on a different time schedule from humans – they tended to stay awake for about 57 hours, then sleep for 16. This meant they tended to show up at different times of the day or night and stay for days. But they were polite – they knew that when it was night on Earth, I needed to sleep.

So I was getting ready for bed – I had conjured myself into my pajamas for the night and was dealing with my skin and hair. I hadn’t learned any spells that did deep cleansing and exfoliation. But then suddenly my door popped off its hinges and was thrown to the floor. I shrieked and hid behind the bathroom door, peeking out.

“I know the dragon is here,” said a male voice with a strange accent. “Show yourself.”

“Doesn’t look like there’s any dragon here, Vlad,” said a second male voice that sounded like it was from around here. “You sure your info is right?”

“There are unmistakable sightings of light magic around this particular apartment,” the first voice said. “Look at this! This book is in Middle Draconian!”

“Dragon books, huh? Then again, you might be right.”

Vlad? Wasn’t that the name of the vampire who had had that scrying crystal? Could these two be vampires?

Well, I knew things that vampires didn’t like, like sunlight. I could make light brighter than the sun itself. And I was a lot better at it now. So I just magicked my clothes back to something that I hoped looked a lot more impressive than my bathrobe – a shimmering silver dress would do it – and started infusing light into the very air of my apartment, coming from every direction so they wouldn’t be able to hide in a shadow.

“What the f – is it a trap?” said the one with the local accent. “Let’s get outta here!”

“No, we must find the dragon for the Master!” said the foreign-sounding one. He sounded as if he was in pain. “We – must – aagh!” I was turning the light up higher and higher. But I could still see – this was one of the tricks that Peter and Sylvia had taught me.

I decided to risk stepping out of the bathroom so I could see the intruders. They were shielding their eyes, and their skin was starting to smoke a bit. “Get out,” I said to them.

“What? Who are you?” said the one with the accent. “Aaa! It burns!”

“Quick, use the thing the Master gave us!” said the other one.

The first one grabbed some kind of black orb from his coat pocket and crushed it in his hand. Darkness poured from it, like smoke but thicker, swallowing the light from the room. I increased the light I was pulling from the air, but it just seemed to vanish into this spreading cloud of inky blackness. “Fine,” I said. “If you’d prefer, we can take this outside.” I used a spell Elida had taught me, and suddenly we were on the roof, all three of us. It was raining, but at least the blackness wasn’t here.

I don’t know why I didn’t just put them on the roof. Maybe I wanted to destroy them so they couldn’t tell tales to their Master – probably that Nalgrim character Peter had mentioned. Maybe I didn’t want them out of my sight doing who knew what. Maybe I wanted to get away from the scary black cloud. But there we were on the roof of my apartment building, and although it was night outside, at least I’d moved us away from whatever that cloud of blackness was. I proceed to make this area as bright as day too, and started making it even brighter.

“What – how’d we get up here?” asked the second vampire.

“She must be – a dragon –” said the first one. “Kill her – aaaagh!”

“Easy for you to say” said the second, with a hiss of pain.

“I tire of this,” I said, hoping it sounded impressive, and started blasting at the first one, who was nearer, with an intense ray of light, another spell Peter had taught me. “I’m afraid you won’t be reporting back to your Master.” He screamed in pain and did something – probably some other item Nalgrim had given him. There was a massive explosion of red darkness. Everything smelled like blood. It knocked me off my feet.

“Hey, that’s done it,” said the second vampire. “Why didn’t you do that before?”

“Because I have only one of those, and I had hoped not to have to use it. Save my arm, you idiot, and give me a hand up.”

I tried to summon more light, but it was hard to do – that had hurt, and it felt like it had left a residue of some kind all over me and everything nearby. They were both on their feet again, and they were coming toward me. At least I got things back to about the level of full moonlight, but it was still night, and it was still raining. Maybe that would wash the residue away. But if so, it wasn’t doing it fast enough.

“Look, here she is,” the second vampire said. “I’ll just kill her, and we’ll be done with it. Hey, Sweetheart, no hard feelings, we just can’t have you burning us to death all the time.”

Then lightning struck the roof, and there was that huge black dog with its pale glowing eyes. It was standing to one side, not defending me, but growling at the two vampires. It was ignoring me completely.

“Oh hey, look, it’s your friend, that black mutt,” said the second vampire to the first. “You deal with it, and I’ll just – ugh!” The huge dog had just leapt at him and was savagely clawing and biting at him.

I took the opportunity to regroup. I conjured the wings that Elida had taught me to summon and flew a few yards into the air above this scene. I was feeling better, now that I was in the air. The rain was lashing at me, but it was just water, and it was scouring away whatever that explosion had left on me. I raised the level of light around myself but didn’t want to interfere with whatever the dog was doing, which looked like trying to devour the vampires.

The first vampire had lost an arm. My ray had apparently sliced it clean off his body. He was carrying the severed arm in his other hand, but the wound wasn’t bleeding – either I’d cauterized it, or vampires didn’t bleed. The second vampire was getting chunks torn out of him by the huge black hound. Well, I didn’t know whether vampires could fly, but I didn’t want them coming back, so I shot at the first one with another ray, hoping I could do him more damage. He shrieked and tried to get away … but light is awfully hard to dodge. Finally, he just vanished in a cloud of black smoke.

“Vlad? Vlad!” called the second vampire as he tried to fend off the dog’s vicious attacks. “Oh, great – of course he leaves me in my time of need.” He made grunting noises as the dog’s huge teeth closed on his forearm and clamped on. He had retreated to the edge of the roof, though, and when he reached it he threw himself over, and suddenly he wasn’t there. Instead, a bat flew off into the night and the rain. The dog started falling for a second, but then there was another flash of lightning, and it too was gone. There were other flashes of lightning in the air, farther and farther away; the dog wasn’t giving up.

I sighed. They’d gotten away. Now they knew where I lived. And there might still be a cloud of awful darkness in my home. I teleported myself back to my apartment, where the darkness had spread but was starting to dissipate; I was able to purge it with time. And it took effort, but I was able to fix my door.

And then I started doing something I’d been reading about but hadn’t really practiced. I needed another place. I picked a spot of blank wall and drew a door there, then opened it up. Beyond was a plain white void, featureless and blank. One of the books Peter had brought me had mentioned this, calling it an “ideationally-defined subrealm.” I started filling it in with details – a nice open space with a high ceiling, marble floors, a fountain, a multiple-story well with stairs and rooms all around it … I imagined myself a palace. I suppose I could’ve been more creative, but I was tired.

I moved Lydia’s baby things into the nursery I’d built for her. I hoped she’d like it. I teleported my bed into the bedroom I’d built for myself. I took a shower in my regular bathroom; I’d figure out how to make the plumbing work in the morning. Returning to my conjured palace, I closed the door, went to my new bedroom, and went to sleep.

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I woke up when my phone’s alarm went off, the same as every other morning. But then I opened my eyes and realized that things were different. White marble walls, ceilings, columns, all chased in gold trim – that’s right, I’d imagined a space that exuded powerful positive energy. But it didn’t have running water – yet, at least. Or a kitchen. I conjured my bathrobe over my pajamas and carefully opened the door.

Right in front of the door I found Lydia looking up at me. “Hi!” she said. “You made a door thingie!”

“Yeah, those vampires came last night and made trouble,” I said. “So I made a safe place.”

Her eyes lit up. “Ooo, you made a thing? Can I see?”

“Sure,” I said. I stood to one side so she could come in. She started running around enthusiastically, looking at everything.

She gasped when she found the nursery. “Ohhhhh wow! Is this for me? It must be, ‘cause you put all my stuff in here!”

I caught up with her and replied, “Yeah, I wanted you to be safe too. I was getting really tired and didn’t do all the details.” Indeed, the nursery space was the same gold-trimmed marble walls, floor, and ceiling, with some cute dragon posters on the walls that I remembered seeing online.

“I’m gonna put my doorway to home in here!” she said. “Oh, and maybe you should make this an overlay on top of your old house.”

“I … don’t know how to do that,” I said, embarrassed. I’d never heard of that before.

“Oh, Mommy and Daddy can show you,” she said. “If you can do all this, then you can do that easy.”

“OK, that would be great,” I said. “I’m just going to … get some breakfast and stuff.”

Sure enough, later on Sylvia came to visit, as Peter was busy with some dragon business of some kind or other, and marveled at what I’d made on such short notice. She was concerned about my tale of the vampires coming to my apartment, but she said, “You did the right thing. This is much safer now that they know where to come find you. You could just live here all the time, I suppose, but your world provides things like water and electricity that you seem to like using, and you need an address for the town records … I understand. Here, let me show you something.”

She picked up the door to my magical palace, and moved it to my apartment door. That’s the best way I can describe it. Then she helped me rearrange things so that my palace was just basically an overlay on top of the apartment. Everything in the apartment was there, but now the walls were made of white marble, and the ceilings were higher. And the windows looked out onto an empty white void. She said I could fix that, and I did; they showed what I’d see looking out the windows of my apartment.

“There,” said Sylvia, wiping her hands together as if clapping the dust off them. “Those vampires won’t be able to knock the door down if they come back. They’ll be surprised – or maybe not, considering you … did you say you cut one of their arms off with a light beam?”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged. “Though he took it with him. Can vampires heal something like that?”

“They can,” said Sylvia, “though it will take time and effort, and blood. If they come back, it won’t be right away. But they might bring more nasty tricks, after they report back to that nasty Nalgrim. But the spells I’ve shown you to secure the door will help, and I can show you some more traps that you can set to affect only creatures of darkness.” She held out her hands and conjured another large tome. “Here, this can be your next book to study.” She gestured at it, and the title translated itself from Dragonian into English: “Fortifying Your Demesnes Against the Dark Powers.”

“I’ll start working on it right away! Thanks, Sylvia,” I said, taking the book. It was heavy – like all the others. They didn’t make this stuff in e-book format, though.

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In a place that most humans would swear didn’t exist, a rather large man lay on a cold stone slab and complained loudly as several others reattached his arm and gave him blood to drink between his complaining and howls of pain. There was a distant sound of dripping water and a smell of mildew.

One of the several very pretty female vampires dressed in a see-through gossamer gown said, “If you weren’t out there trying to be a hero, this wouldn’t have happened. You knew a dragon had to be near. We both know humans haven’t had a real mage in centuries.”

Vladimir grumbled as the last remaining spell was cast. The blood wasn’t fresh, but it was human, and it did revive him.

One of the other even younger-looking women said, “It might hurt a bit for a day or so, but it’s yours again and will heal. Remember, the more fresh warm blood you can hunt down, the faster it will heal.”

Vlad got off the slab and held his arm up. The nasty scar where his arm had been severed was a fiery red and slightly swollen. He said, “I would like to thank you, Bella. It would have taken months to regrow it without your expert skills.”

The woman in transparent gossamer lingerie came over to Vladimir and wrapped her arms around his neck. Before he could react, she had her fangs out and had sunk them deeply into his neck. Vladimir smiled as she backed off and said, “Thanks. Now, I have just offered.”

Vladimir took the woman bodily into his arms, brought out his fangs, and bit her neck deeply. A look of sheer surprise crossed her pretty young features, followed by ecstasy.

“I accept.” replied Vladimir. “You belong to me now. Allow no other; you’re my property.”

She giggled happily as she began to dance around the dank room, “I have awaited a master for centuries. I am so glad you accepted.”

Vladimir replied, “I was going to take you soon anyway. This just made it official sooner.”

The woman wandered off in what looked like a lovesick daze. The other women in the group all huddled together and giggled. Vladimir glanced at them before he put his robe back on and tied the sash. He smiled to himself as he left the room. Before the next century, he was going to ensure that each and every one of them was his.

Vladimir entered the vampire hall of knowledge. Many smelly sconces provided light throughout the huge archive vault. He whipped out his trusty wand and wished for a particular scroll. Way off and high up, a sparkling light appeared, then raced quickly towards him, leaving a sparkling trail of magic dust in its passing.

Vladimir reached out and caught the scroll. His eyebrows went up at the thickness of the roll and its weight. He removed it from its case and began unrolling it from the spindle. It was titled, “The Return of the Empress of Sauria.”

Directly beneath that was the very image of the girl that had cut his arm off, except in this picture, she had on a regal gown and the Dragon Crown upon her head. Vladimir felt something he hadn’t felt in so many centuries he had forgotten it … fear.

He rubbed the place where his arm had been reattached as he contemplated everything. The more he read the more worried he became. This future Dragon Empress had to be stopped … but if this was prophesied, then her victory was preordained and couldn’t be averted.

The scroll kept referring to some sort of Compendium. Vladimir knew that particular tome had been taken somewhere by the dragons and hidden away even before Thermatrax had been killed. It was also something he had to read, because it told the account of the last time the great wheel of time had turned this way.

Vladimir sat at his conjuring table and lit the magical black and red candles before placing the crystal crucible between them on its ornately carved pedestal of solid ebony. Carefully, Vladimir added many different arcane ingredients. He had to find the Dragon’s compendium. He had to know. He couldn’t allow himself to go back to his master, Nalgrim, empty-handed.

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In the dark realm, Nalgrim was reading as well. He got up from the table in his library, waved his hand, and the scroll he’d been reading quickly rolled itself up and vanished back to its shelf. It was time for a meeting he didn’t relish.

No sooner had he entered his greeting chamber than a shadow appeared on the wall. “So, Nalgrim,” said a raspy, rumbling voice, “what is this I hear about your sudden interest in the realm of the humans?”

“It is but an abundance of caution, My Lord,” he said. “You know I have a subordinate there. Two of his minions were defeated. The circumstances were suspicious. I sent Vladimir to investigate.”

“And what has he found?” asked the shadow. “You do realize that I already know, of course. I just want to know your thoughts on it.”

“Of course, My Lord,” Nalgrim said. “He has evidence that there may be a dragon there, a dragon of light – or at least that there was one there briefly, long enough to encounter the minions and destroy them.”

“So,” rumbled the voice, “you think there may be other dragons yet alive?”

“I don’t think that any of us doubted that there were still some of them around somewhere, My Lord,” said Nalgrim. “After all, the great wheel of destiny predicts that they will one day rule again. That can’t happen if they’re extinct.”

“Although this is true,” the shadow rasped, “it does not prevent us from exterminating the ones who cause trouble for us … nor does it mean that the time for their return is anywhere near.”

“I am aware of all of this, My Lord,” Nalgrim said, allowing a small amount of his irritation to show. “Vladimir continues to hunt this dragon in the human realm. What would you have me do?”

“What is Fyodor doing during this time?” asked the shadow. “Should he not be searching as well? His minions were the ones killed, were they not?”

“I have ordered him to assist Vladimir,” said Nalgrim. “He is doing just that.”

“I sense that he is allowing his rivalry with Vladimir to impede his usefulness,” said the shadow. “Have him brought before me, that I may teach him a lesson in obedience.”

Glad that he wasn’t the one on the hot seat, Nalgrim replied, “At once, My Lord.” The shadowy presence faded for now. Nalgrim turned to his scrying font and started the spell.

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There was a thunderclap and a howl not far away. Fyodor looked around the corner of a building then turned and ran fearfully down an alleyway. Suddenly he heard Nalgrim’s voice in his mind. “Fyodor,” it said, “you have been summoned by my Lord – what the devil are you doing?”

“That would be running for my life, Master,” Fyodor said. There was another thunderclap, not far away at all. “This black mutt is on my trail and will not give up.”

“Is that all?” Nalgrim’s voice asked. “Well, you’ve been summoned. You’d better come. That should lose it.”

“To see Necromos? I’d almost rather let the mutt catch me,” said Fyodor. “Almost.” The dog rounded a corner and snarled at him, its fangs slavering. It lunged at him …

… and its jaws closed on empty air. Fyodor was gone from the human realm, and the dog had no scent to follow. It howled, there was a flash of lightning, and it was gone before the thunderclap sounded.

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Meanwhile, I’d been doing some moving and redecorating. To any onlooker, it would seem as if I’d moved out of my apartment – I’d still be paying the rent, but if someone looked in the windows or broke in, it would look as if the place was empty. But to someone who knew how to open the door correctly – and who would be admitted by the very selective entrance spell – it led to my new pocket dimension. Peter had shown me how to make it semi-permanent, and Sylvia and her book had shown me how to make water, electricity, and even internet work, connecting them to the human realm’s utility lines. I had a working bathroom, a working kitchen, and even working wireless networking.

“I don’t know what those vampires think you are,” said Peter, “but I have to warn you that they probably think you’re a dragon. I apologize. I’m not trying to use you as a stalking-horse or any such thing. I think they’re just not that bright.”

“Well, didn’t you tell me that there hasn’t been a human mage for centuries?” I asked.

“It’s true,” Peter said. Lydia built towers with blocks as we talked, but now she did it in dragon form, and they were 200-pound marble blocks; my place’s central atrium had a ceiling hundreds of feet high. “I don’t study human history, but the last time we dragons heard of a human mage, it was … about 1500 years ago? His name was … Merlin, I think?”

“He was real?” I asked. “I mean, there are legends about him, but a lot of legends are made up.”

“Indeed, many are,” said Peter, “and there may in fact be many legends about Merlin that are fictional, but he himself truly existed.”

“Did he have to fight vampires?”

“I haven’t heard that he did,” said Peter.

“I shot the arm off one of them, but I didn’t know where to aim,” I lamented. “Where do you zap a vampire to kill it?”

“Yes, it would be good for you to know this, as they will no doubt continue to be an issue,” said Peter. “For us dragons, the best way to kill a vampire is by immolation – because fire is always available to us. As a light mage, you are able to evoke various forms of light energy at any level of brightness you wish, so immolation is also available to you – let me show you the precise wavelength that is most effective. I should also note that with your ability to slice off a vampire’s limb, decapitation can be a useful avenue for you as well, as it also immediately kills a vampire.”

“What about a beam through the heart?” I asked.

“Their hearts are cold and dead,” said Peter, looking through a tome he had conjured to show me. “A wooden stake in them will work, because of the magical symbolism of forcibly reconnecting them with the grave they’ve rejected, but not a beam of light. Not unless you absolutely burn them to ashes with light, and … here it is … this is the form of light that’s most effective.”

He showed me the pages, and from what it described … “That’s … ultraviolet,” I said. “It says that ‘it is light the human eye cannot see, as it is in the darkness beyond the color blue.’ You know … sunlight contains a lot of ultraviolet.”

“Ah, does it now?” asked Peter. “That explains why sunlight is so effective on them and why they avoid it. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.”

“How can I practice making ultraviolet when I can’t see it – oh! I’ll just get something that reacts to ultraviolet.” I went online and ordered some blacklight reactive paint. I could’ve tried to conjure some, I guess, but that’s hard to do when I don’t have any around and didn’t come into contact with it every day. I could conjure white paint or even marble – the building where I used to work had lots of marble – but I didn’t see a lot of paint like this on a regular basis. I just knew it existed.

“This will help?” asked Peter.

“Sure, I’ll just paint a wall with it, then if I can make a beam I can’t see that lights this paint up, I’ll know I’m doing it right. We’ll just have to wait until tomorrow for it to get here – I can order fast delivery, but there are limits to what they can do.”

“Very well, then,” Peter said. “In some ways, you know more about your magic than I do. And that’s as it should be. I’m a dragon mage, not a human mage.”

“Can you conjure ultraviolet?”

“Certainly, but I know my way of doing it. I don’t know how you would go about it, as a human. But I strongly suspect you’ll learn tomorrow.”

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Fyodor knelt limply on the cold stone floor, his eyes wide and glazed over in fear. “So, Nalgrim, we have learned,” said the rumbling voice of the shadow of Necromos. “The dragon is indeed a mage of light. She is already quite powerful. She may not be alone. And there is a spirit of death in the human realm that relentlessly pursues our kind in revenge for flouting it.”

“I’ve been in touch with Vladimir,” said Nalgrim. “He’s gotten that arm reattached – got some help from a few of his more useful minions, it seems. He thinks this is the one from the prophesy.”

“I refuse to believe that the preordained time has come,” said Necromos. “This may be an illusion or stratagem. Do not be fooled.”

“B-burned,” mumbled Fyodor. “Burned by light.”

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Fyodor sat in a very dark, damp, and moldy place hidden away in fear. Now, he not only had a hellhound on his scent, he had two high level bosses upset with him. At least Necromos hadn’t ripped his undead spirit from this flesh and tossed it into the fiery pit of waste. None ever returned from that fate, and it was thought by all the undead that it was the true death, final judgment.

Fyodor finally managed to gather enough bravery in his trembling flesh to leave his hidey hole. He had never known fear before, and this was not only an entirely new sensation, it was a most unwelcome one. It somehow robbed him of a vital essence and left his body weak.

He went from there up a long set of winding stairs to a heavy iron-bound door. He removed his skeleton key from the pocket in his robe and unlocked the skull-shaped lock. He entered and looked around. This was actually his favorite place, although he had quickly learned over the centuries that many of the scrolls of knowledge were unavailable to him … his skills simply weren’t honed to the high level required to even comprehend them.

He came to a comfortable alcove, sat at the altar table, and lit the red and black candles. He took several pouches from his belt placed a measured amount of differing magical powders within the crystal crucible, and lit the small oil lamp beneath before pouring a small quantity of thistlebane sap on top.

An acrid smoke began to rise from the crucible as Fyodor leaned over and inhaled deeply. He could feel it as the severely pleasant rush ran straight to his head. Fear vanished as a small voice said, “Upon the altar of Wisdom do I stand. All knowledge is mine to command. Of which Chalice shall you drink? A draft so deep as to make all ignorance shrink.”

Fyodor laughed. “Wow, a really cheesy rhyme for my dime.”

The voice in his head chuckled. “Fair enough. What choice tidbit of wisdom do you seek, my friend?”

Fyodor sat back in the armchair and made himself comfy. “What can you tell me about getting rid of a Hell Hound?”

The voice replied, “Ah, so the black hunting hound of the Reaper has your scent. Technically he isn’t a Hell Hound, hellish though he may be. To the best of all knowledge at my disposal, once your name appears on his list of collections, there’s nothing known that can remove it other than an edict of reprieve from the Creator. Sorry, no way out. He must collect you, because you were technically killed, although you didn’t die. Now, your soul, living or undead, is required.”

Fyodor replied, “is there nothing that can be done?”

Suddenly, the voice was very far away as the candles on the altar went out. “A soul for a soul, and the debt is paid,” it said faintly. “... must be done for … hound to see.” Then there was silence.

Fyodor once again felt the horrible fingers of fear as they clawed at his innermost self. He didn’t like this feeling, nor did he like what he had just learned. Now he had two options – surrender to the pooch, or break a law of the undead and lead one of his own to their doom. Neither of these options appealed to him in any way. The repercussions of either choice were horrible.

“What are you doing, O wayward child of mine?” asked Nalgrim, entering the library. “I smell thistlebane. Asking a boon of wisdom, are we?”

“Hey, I’m the first one to admit that there’s things I don’t know,” Fyodor said. “I never faced a dragon, for instance.”

“That is true,” said Nalgrim. “You’ve only been one of us for … what is it, 200 years?”

“213,” Fyodor said quickly.

Nagrim went on as if he hadn’t heard. “A dragon is a fearsome foe for our kind – breathing magical flame that can burn all ordinary matter and boil water to steam. As susceptible as we are to fire, they are almost our antithesis. And with scales impervious to ordinary weapons, they are very difficult to even harm, let alone kill.”

“So we need magical protection and magic weapons, then,” said Fyodor. “Got it.”

“Correct, my disciple. But true magical armor and weaponry are difficult to come by – they are rare and much prized, and the art of creating such things is lost to most. This is why we have warding spells to imbue ordinary raiment with protective power – temporarily, more’s the pity. And, likewise, to enable ordinary points and blades to pierce the unpierceable.” Nalgrim gestured, and scrolls of power floated down from high shelves and unrolled themselves on the table before him.

“Uh, even if I’ve got a magical suit of armor on, fire can still get through the eye holes and whatever, right?” Fyodor asked.

“You see, all you needed was a bit more focus,” said Nalgrim, “for you are correct. You will need armor, helm, and shield, and the best weapon would be the longbow with arrows – or whatever that human realm has to make sharp enchanted points fly far and fast.”

“They’ve got these things called guns now,” said Fyodor. “They use gunpowder. Like with fireworks, but a lot more precise, you know?”

“Interesting,” Nalgrim said. “Ineffective here in the dark realm, but if the fight is in the human world, use the tools of the human world. But you must first prepare. Read this carefully.”

Fyodor began to read. And for the first time in days, he started to think he might have a chance – maybe not against the black dog, but at least against a dragon. Of course, he still hadn’t faced a dragon himself, he didn’t know what kind of dragon Lydia was, and he still didn’t know he was facing a human mage. If he had known, he might not have been so confident.

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Meanwhile, there were still other threats. I dressed in some more durable clothing like thick denim and a leather jacket, and I took Lydia out for a walk at night, because I’d learned how to sense the presence of vampires, and I could feel them creeping around, hunting humans. That had to stop. Sylvia and Peter knew their baby had nothing to fear from vampires.

“Hey, that jacket looks pretty expensive,” said a mugger who tried to pull a knife on me. “Why d – ugh!” He was cut short by a blinding flash of light and thrown back hard against a brick wall. I checked. He was still breathing.

“Make better life choices,” Lydia said to him, but he didn’t hear.

We continued haunting the back alleys of the city, mostly filthy rat-infested places, but that’s where I could tell the vampires were, though I hadn’t seen any yet – wait, I spoke too soon. A figure was bending down over one of the city’s resident druggies, passed out behind a dumpster. There was a definite dark aura around the one who wasn’t passed out, though.

I looked down at Lydia, and she looked up at me. She could take care of him if this didn’t work, but she’d probably obliterate the drug addict too. I’d just give him a sunburn.

“Hey,” I said. “Why don’t you pick on someone who’s conscious?”

“Huh?” said the vampire, a tall, very young pale woman with dark circles around her eyes. She stood up and turned toward me. “What’s this about?”

My right fist was already glowing. I held it out and, well, did the thing I’d practiced. There was a flash of light brighter than the sun for a brief instant, like a super-bright flash photo. Or a supernova.

Her semi-transparent clothing collapsed to the ground as her flesh turned to ash, her bones following just a moment after. There was a pile of dust interspersed with a bunch of now dirty rags. The drug addict stayed passed out on the ground. There wasn’t much I could do for him, but at least he wasn’t dead.

“Yay! That was good!” said Lydia. We walked on.

“One point for us, zero for the vampires,” I said. “Now –”

We turned a corner, and a mugger put a gun to my head. “Your money,” he said. “Now.”

I sighed. “How about no?” There was first a magical field around the gun; it wouldn’t be firing. Then the same blinding flash right in his eyes and the same forcible throw against the nearest wall. He grunted and was unconscious. I could do all of this with just a thought and barely a gesture now. I wouldn’t do this kind of thing to anybody who didn’t wish me harm, but pulling out guns or knives pretty much gave me the right to defend myself, I figured. There were self-defense laws in this state, although they certainly didn’t mention magic, but even if there had been witnesses, I wouldn’t have been charged with a crime.

“That’s two robbers and only one vampire,” said Lydia. “Are there more bad humans than vampires?”

“Well, we’re going into the worst places, and vampires are supposed to be rare.” I followed my senses, though, to an abandoned building, where I opened a mostly-broken door. Supposedly there were a few of them here.

“Well well, what do we have here?” Flash. No more cliches from that one.

“Holy sh –” said another one, who had been around a corner; I heard running footsteps. This was a problem. I couldn’t see this one.

But I could sense them. I guess you could say I teleported. I stepped through the air to a place in front of them and hit them with a nova to the face. That was that. I didn’t sense any other vampires in the building.

“W-what was that?” asked a terrified voice. Lydia entered the area, and together we saw a derelict old man wearing rags, who was apparently squatting in the building. He’d seen. “Who are you?”

“Just people,” I said. “Those were vampires.”

“What? They coudla got me?” he said. “Thank you. They’re all over the place these days. What’s the world coming to?”

“Something better, I hope,” I said. “There are a few less of them now. And I don’t sense any of them anywhere near at the moment.”

“You mean you’re a … vampire hunter?”

“Not exactly, but they’ve been after me, so I thought I’d take the fight to them.”

“Finally, some young people doing the right thing,” he said. “Bless you.”

“Look, I don’t want you to be out on the street,” I said to him, “but if I give you money, you’ll probably just get robbed. There are a lot of those around too. But I want to help somehow …”

Lydia gestured to me, so I bent down so she could whisper in my ear.

“Oh, right,” I said. “There is something I can do for you, but it might take a little while to work.” And with a gesture I cast a luck spell on him. Holding out my hand, I gave him a hand up, and he stood up, looking a bit less old than he had before. “Just a bit of a prayer for your good health and good fortune,” I said. “May you be well.”

“I … already feel well. Thank you, young lady, and thank the Lord for sending you.” He turned. “I have an odd feeling that I should go … to church. Not just any church – St. Francis, on 48th Street.”

“Can’t hurt,” I said. “Goodnight, Sir.” We parted ways, and I didn’t learn his name.

Lydia and I couldn’t find any more vampires that night, and only one other would-be mugger. He and the others probably woke up later with terrible headaches and fewer possessions on them than they started with. They were pursuing a risky line of work in a bad part of town. Anyway, we went home.

My apartment door opened onto the opulent vestibule of my otherworldly palace. I expected all of this to fall apart somehow, because it was as if I was living some kind of dream. Lydia ran to her playroom. “Yay, that was fun, but now I wanna play with the tiny human dolls you got me!”

“OK, Lydia,” I said, locking the door behind me, and went to take a shower. Things had really changed. Ordinary human criminals and even base-level vampires were nothing to fear anymore. I thought I had just changed a man’s life, hopefully for the better, though that luck spell had taken a lot out of me. I hoped I hadn’t overdone it.

It turned out that there had been an addicts’ therapy group going on at that church that night, and they’d accepted him, and he’d met a good sponsor who helped him turn his life around. He got a good job and is still in good health and working. There was one time later on, when … but I’m getting ahead of myself. As for me, after my shower, I empowered my sanctuary and went to bed. It was late.

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In a council chamber lit only by the sputtering , smelly, smoky sconces adorning the walls of the large grotto, 26 vampires of the ruling council of this local nest stood solemnly. There were 13 males on one side of a semicircle and 13 females on the other.

A large group of other vampires and their familiars were gathered around the raised column of rock on which the council stood, looking on. A quiet murmur of fear and serious concerns could be heard coming from the large crowd.

The large, ornately carved ebony crucible in the middle of the council burst out with a billowing cloud of the blackest of black smoke, followed by the horrid and intense smell of brimstone. The image of Nalgrim appeared within the miasma. The Council and all the others gathered knelt. Everyone softly and solemnly intoned, “Master.”

Nalgrim’s image looked over this scene for several seconds, then, in a rumbling voice that rattled everything, he said, “My subjects, a very grave and serious matter has come to light that we must deal with immediately.” The image turned, and one of the council began to glow. “I choose Vladimir to explain what has transpired.”

The individual stood and threw back the black hood of his robe. Vladimir said in a strong voice, “It appears we have an ancient foe within the human hunting grounds.” A round of murmurs filled the area momentarily before Vladimir continued, “It also appears that our worst fears are realized.”

He held up a small crystal vial containing the light dragon scale. It radiated bright white within the dusky confines of the grotto. Many of the assembled vampires shied away until they realized the light emanations were being obstructed by the crystal tube and would not harm them.

Master Fyodor spoke up. “We not only have a dragon to contend with. Apparently the Death Hound has tracked many of us, and we are on his collections list.”

Another round of murmurs filled the grotto momentarily, much louder than the first, as an obvious fear filled the room.

Vladimir brought out a large scroll container and opened it. With a simple levitation spell he had the scroll float and unroll enough to show a very colorful picture of Lila, dressed as the Emperess of all Sauria.

Another loud murmur of voices filled the cavern as a voice from the gathering asked, “Who is that, and why do we have to worry about her?”

Vladimir replied, “Why we have to worry over her, my friend, is that she’s the one who did this to me.” He raised the sleeve of his ornate jet black robe and revealed the scar where his arm had been severed and showed it, still bright red, to the gathering.

Nalgrim’s image looked at Vladimir and said in its rumbly voice, “Are you saying that the Emperess has returned? If so, does she know of and have full access to her abilities yet?”

Vladimir bowed humbly as he replied, “I do say the Emperess has returned. I am unable to locate or obtain the Compendium the dragons have hidden away to make sure, however. I have confronted her, and she has enough control over her powers to injure and kill us.”

Master Fyodor spoke up, “I also must tell everyone that there are several of my subjects,” and at this he turned and indicated Vladimir, “and someone very special to you, who have simply … vanished from this realm of existence. The only possibilities are that the Death Hound found and collected them, which the scryings say did not happen, or that they were removed from this realm by a power of light, quite likely the returned Emperess. In either case, we are being hunted now and are not simply the hunters.”

A round of loud concerned murmurings filled the large grotto for a few minutes. Nalgrim’s image spoke in its deep rumbling voice, “My children, it is true that we have not faced any type of serious opposition in the centuries since the Sauren Empire was overthrown and Drakoll the Slayer sat upon the Throne of Bone. However, it would be a fallacy for any of us to think that we had completely eradicated the Dragons. The Great Cycle turns again – but perhaps not today. One particular area of concern that we must investigate immediately is the location and possible destruction of this being, who may or may not be the Emperess.”

Vladimir interjected as he held up the magical crystal tube that contained the light dragon scale, “This scale came from a very young dragon. From what our investigations have revealed, it is actually still an infant. There are ways to deal with an infant light dragon. The larger problem we face is the prophesied return of the Emperess.” He looked over the many concerned faces of his vampire nest. A feeling of deep pride rushed through him at the many faces. “I am in search of the Compendium the dragons have hidden away in a secret place. If this woman is the Emperess foretold in the Prophecy, the Compendium will remove all doubt.”

A voice from one of the lesser vampires rang out loud and clear, “From what I know of prophecies, if this truly is this cycle’s reincarnation of the Emperess, we must find a place to reside beyond her reach as quickly as possible.”

Another very loud round of concerned voices could be heard.

Master Fyodor spoke up, “We need to be united in what we do from this day forward. I want you 13,” and he pointed to a group of vampires off to his left, “to form a coven nest and begin the incantations to open a portal to Nethertial. That is a prearranged realm for us to hide in case of this sort of event.” He pointed to a group of 26 and told them, “I want you to form a double coven and begin to search out and attempt to hinder, maim, or even feed on this Emperess and her upstart supporters, whomever they should happen to be.” Then he looked at one of the human familiars, Tomas Sindor, and smiled. Fyodor had special plans for this one to take his place on the Death Hound’s collection list. He pointed to Tomas and said, “And as for you, I have a special mission. See me after this gathering, and I’ll point you in the right direction.”

Master Vladimir said, “Heed well, my subjects, for it is a hard-earned wisdom; From one candle’s single flame, many can be lit without diminishing the original in any way. Light Dragons, and indeed the reincarnation of the Emperess, do have the ability to infuse their light to others for a short time. From what we know, it in no wise weakens or infringes upon the original wielder.”

With this, the dark ebony cloud vanished, leaving behind only the horrid smell of brimstone. Many murmuring voices echoed loudly throughout the grotto as the large gathering slowly left in an orderly manner.

Master Fyodor put his arm around the shoulder of his selected replacement and asked in a friendly manner, “What’s your name? I don’t want to bring someone with me on a mission as important as this without knowing their name.”

The young man threw back the hood to his robe as replied, “My name is Tomas, Tomas Sindor. Glad to know you have enough faith in me to aid in this mission. I know I’m only 25 years old.”

Fyodor replied as the two of them walked from the grotto, “Glad to meet you. I know you already know who I am, but my name is Fyodor. We need to go to my chambers and perform a ritual before we leave.”

The two men walked through the long maze of tunnels and climbed the winding staircases until Fyodor came to a large, iron bound door. He removed a key with a skull-shaped shank from his robe and unlocked the door. The two men entered the room. Immediately small sparks ignited many thousands of sconces throughout the huge area with small pops, lighting it almost bright as day.

The room they were in could pass for someone’s den, perhaps, including many large racks of scrolls. There were several scrying altars and several other sacrificial tables, with their equipment laid neatly out, along with several large sofas and some very comfortable looking armchairs. Fyodor led Tomas to his conjuring table.

While the young man looked around, Fyodor added many magical herbs and powders to the small pot sitting on the firestand. Next, he poured some foul-smelling black goop into the small pot before lighting an ebony black candle beneath it and starting to slowly stir it with a wooden rod of some kind. The mixture took on a strange bubbly glittery blue.

Fyodor poured this mixture into a flask and hung it on his belt. He took Tomas by his shoulder and said the magical intonations to teleport them. They appeared in the middle of an abandoned cemetery. The flashes of lightning showed an old dilapidated and neglected church.

Under normal circumstances, they would have been unable to walk upon the hallowed church grounds, but this one had been desecrated and abandoned for several hundred years. There was still enough residual consecration to make the area extremely unpleasant for creatures of darkness, but not so much as to be fatal or detrimental.

Tomas followed Fyodor into the church up to what used to be the altar within the sanctuary. He asked with a slight tremor of fear in his voice, “What could we possibly accomplish here? This place makes me feel ... horrible.”

Fyodor smiled evilly as he removed the flask from his belt, “It is here, I am told, that a swap is the most easy to make unobserved by our kind.”

Tomas looked at Fyodor with narrowed eyes, “Swap? What kind of swap?”

A flash of lightning, and a huge and demonic looking black doglike creature with slavering fangs appeared just before a room-shaking thunderclap.

Fyodor removed the top of his flask and said loudly, “One for one, and the scales are balanced.” With this, he tossed the contents of the flask on Tomas.

Faster than a flash, the dog sprang on Tomas. The claws on its forepaws ripped Tomas from head to crotch. As the flesh fell away in two large slabs of meat, a glowing skeletal figure arose from the midst of the pile. The dog moved like lightning and instantly had that creature clamped firmly in its muscular jaws with its fierce teeth and fangs.

The skeletal creature’s cry of soul wrenching pain and horror were cut short when the dog vanished amid a large flash of lightning and a building shaking roar of thunder.

Fyodor felt it as his black soul was removed from the final judgment death collection roster and he was set free. Now, Fyodor had even larger issues. He had caused the final death and eternal damnation judgment of one of his own familiars. Fyodor truly hoped this massive betrayal of trust wouldn’t be discovered. He knew he would be tossed live into the fiery pit of waste to his eternal damnation if word got out.

When Fyodor arrived back at the Nest Grotto, the place was in total uproar. Apparently, the Hound had managed to collect several of the scouts Vladimir had sent out in search of information on the possible location of the hidden Compendium. Also, one of the top familiars, Tomas, had seemingly also been collected, at least as best the scrying stones could tell, which was a most peculiar thing, since a familiar had not yet died and should never have been taken alive.

Immediately upon arrival, Vladimir and several of his close and trusted inner circle approached Fyodor. Vladimir looked Fyodor over and appeared to examine him with close scrutiny. Vladimir asked with obvious suspicion in his tone, “Have you seen your familiar Tomas? It seems something dreadful has happened to him.”

One of the other vampires with Vladimir stated, “Yeah, I heard you tell him there was some sort of mission you were sending him on, and we saw you leave the grotto with him.”

Vladimir said with obvious contempt, “Well? Tell us what that special mission was and where you sent Tomas.”

Fyodor felt a serious rush of fear run through him as he replied, “I sent him to the last known resting place of the Compendium, according to the records in the Hall of Knowledge. A church that had been desecrated and destroyed.”

The group surrounding Vladimir started a low discussion that Fyodor couldn’t hear. Vladimir turned towards Fyodor and said, “It is also a location our dark powers cannot see. There is enough residual consecration as to render our scryings blind.” Vladimir looked directly into Fyodor’s eyes, “Although we did see enough to want to know why you mixed the essence of transfer before you left.”

A small female vampire moved gracefully over to Fyodor and touched him, “Yes, and why is it that your spirit, as dark as it is, seems to be more unburdened. All of our undead souls are on the Hound’s list of collections for transport to eternal damnation and carry the eternal burden which you no longer seem to bear.”

Valdimir pointed to Fyodor and said sternly, “Come with us. Nalgrim has summoned you to his court. He has some rather pointed questions for you.”

Fyodor found himself being escorted to the personal chambers of the ruler of their particular nest. If he had been discovered, these were the last few minutes remaining to him before Nalgrim tossed him into the fiery pit of waste and his own eternal damnation. But he also knew as he walked among the many escorts that they had to have far more evidence against him before such a judgment happened. Then another thought came to Fyodor. Nalgrim required no such evidence to toss one into the pit. He was the ruling Vampire Mage of this nest and could do it for most any reason he chose.

Fyodor would have to make a decision, and he would have to make it soon.

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Meanwhile, I knew exactly where the Compendium was, because I was reading it. Peter and Sylvia had seen fit to escort me to their reading room. “So, the Hunter was sent by his Master, but was also hunted – that’s the one whose arm I detached, right? But there was another one. The Betrayer will save his own soul by sacrificing another and will not be hunted, alone among his people, and will be the last of them. Was he the other one?”

“They are relying on scrying far too much,” said Sylvia. “The Hunter is Vladimir. Nalgrim sent him to find out what had killed some of his vampire descendants. The Betrayer is Fyodor. He was already here in the city, in charge of the vampire nest. That black dog is an agent of Death, but Death is not to be feared, unless you try to flout it. It’s coming for the vampires. But Fyodor did something – they suspect he did the old switcheroo between his soul and the soul of someone living. The dog’s coming for all the other vampires, but not Fyodor. Remember, if this cycle repeats every few hundred millennia, at least one vampire has to survive.”

“Just as the forces of darkness can’t exterminate all the dragons,” I said. “But … what if the dog gets all the vampires and Fyodor goes into hiding? Does that mean it’s easy from now on?”

“Hardly!” said Peter with a chuckle. “The Dark Realm is overrun with demons and their minions. We’re going to have to purge that place with pure light. But there’s no timetable here. All we know is that you’re going to be heavily involved – you’ll do a lot of the smiting, alongside us dragons. But first we’ll have to make sure you get better at smiting. I can only suggest using vampires as target practice.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they’re highly susceptible to light, and because they’re here, so you don’t have to go to the Dark Realm to find some,” Peter replied. “But you might have to look pretty hard for them – oh wait, feel that?” I did feel some kind of a tingle in my spine, like I was being watched.

“What’s that?” I said, looking around.

“They’re scrying again,” said Peter. “Here, let’s see what we can get from it.” He raised his arms and intoned a few arcane syllables. “I need a map of the city.”

“No problem,” I said, gesturing. The folding paper map that we’d been using, a relic of a bygone age before mobile phones, unfolded itself and flattened out on the floor at my direction.

“The scryer is a vampire and is … there,” said Peter, throwing a handful of rune stones onto the map, where they encircled a building. “They must know that whenever they scry on us, we get to learn about them … don’t they?”

“I’m not sure they do,” said Sylvia. “They keep doing it.”

I was already casting my wards and making the portal. When I emerged, there was indeed a vampire, a female one, gazing into a glittering crystal – surrounded by twelve others. But as soon as I came out, I triggered the spell I had ready, which filled the rooftop they were gathered on with blazing light that outshone the sun. I could see fine, because of spells I had cast upon myself beforehand, but they couldn’t, and it was burning them. The one with the scrying stone took out one of those darkness bombs that Vladimir had thrown at me, but I had a warding spell ready, and as soon as it left her hand it imploded into nothingness.

Clearly the one with the stone and the bomb was this coven’s leader, so I focused my concentrated beams upon her, one from each finger and two from my eyes. She wasn’t as accomplished as Vladimir in the ways of darkness. She was sliced to ribbons. It was nothing like the earlier fight. Now that only 12 were left, it was simplicity to burn the rest to ash. The scrying stone I could deal with; Peter had taught me a spell that would neutralize it, returning it to the ordinary rock it had originally been. There was nothing left now, not even ash. I portaled away to a distant hill overlooking the city, and as soon as I’d stepped through and the portal closed, the blazing light I’d made winked out, leaving nothing but dry ash and a nondescript rock to show that the vampires had ever been there.

From that spot I teleported back to my sanctum and from there returned to Peter and Sylvia.

“Not bad,” Peter said. “High marks on leaving them nothing to go on. They might still think it was a dragon. Points for untraceability as well – multiple steps on the way back here means they probably still don’t know where you went. However … it wasn’t exactly subtle. The beacon of light on top of the building was clearly visible for miles around. The mortal authorities won’t know what to make of it, but every vampire will know without any scrying that the target they seek struck, and struck hard.”

“Hmm, yes, perhaps I should have limited the light’s area of effect,” I said. There were ways to do that. Sometimes they could make the light itself even stronger, because it was confined to a smaller area.

“Did you feel any scrying while you were out there?” asked Sylvia.

“No, I didn’t get that tingly feeling,” I replied.

“Good; they probably didn’t have time to focus on you,” she said.

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Once again, within the deep grotto of Nalgrim the large vampire nest had gathered. This time, Nalgrim was physically present as the many vampires and their familiars loudly voiced their fear and concern over the most powerful coven of vampires to suddenly vanish and the reports of the means in which they had.

Nalgrim raised his ams and said loudly in that deep ethereal voice he had that vibrated through the grotto, “Silence, my children.” The grotto became silent except for the echoing sound of distant dripping water. “It is true, the entire coven has been destroyed. From what some of our hunters reported, it must have been done by a dragon of light, for no other could wield the power with the precision necessary to counter the Erebus Sphere the head vampire witch carried.” A loud, very fearful, and upset murmur filled the grotto for a moment as Nagrim allowed time for it to pass. “It is fortunate that the passage to the realm for us to escape to was opened prior to this loss.”

Vladimir said, “Several of our hunters witnessed the flash that ended the coven from a distance, and state quite plainly that even the scrying crystal was destroyed, and there was no detectable means to track whoever did this deed.”

More loud and fearful discussions raged for a space before a voice was heard from among the familiars, “What of Tomas? What happened to him, and how did it come to pass that he was collected? I thought only the dead and wandering souls were dealt with in that manner.”

Vladimir replied, as he gave Fyodor a very nasty and poignant look, “That issue is being investigated as we speak. Rest assured, the Hound does not arbitrarily collect a living soul. Only those who have died but have yet to return for their punishment.”

Another voice rang out and asked, “What of the Compendium? Is it factual that the Emperess has returned?’

Vladimir replied, “I am positive that she has returned and is every bit as powerful as the legends say.” With this, he raised his arm, pulled back the sleeve of his ornate robe, and showed again the still visible scar where his arm had been reattached.

A much louder and fear-filled discussion began among the gathered nest of vampires.

Nalgrim said in that voice that shook the entire grotto, “My children, listen. If the Emperess has returned, the coven of 13 managed to open a passage to safety before they were destroyed. What we need now are the bravest among you to go on a single mission. Kill the Emperess, the dragon, or both if possible.”

For the briefest minutes the entire grotto filled with screaming screeching swiftly moving and very large vampire bats. When only the sound of dripping water was left, Nalgrim turned and looked at Fyodor. An anger flared in his breast at the realization that Fyodor would be the only survivor in the end. It did raise his mood some as he recalled the legends and realized Fyodor’s final fate at the hands of a young light dragon, and the eternal damnation that would await Fyodor after he brought back the nest.

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We didn’t yet know about the portal that had been opened, but I’m not sure it would’ve mattered if we had. Just as the dragons had survived in another realm so the cycle could begin again, the vampires would do the same – or at least one. If the cycle didn’t repeat, every book said, all of time and every realm in existence might fall to ruin. I wasn’t about to take the risk that beings who had studied magic and time for thousands of years were wrong. The cycle said the forces of darkness would lose this time around. I wasn’t so arrogant as to believe that I knew better. I’d only just started learning about this stuff a few months earlier.

And then I got a visitor. Or a lot of visitors. Possibly an unimaginable number of visitors.

“I’m not sensing anybody scrying on me,” I said to Lydia, “so I’m just going to go out and see what I can see. See if I feel any signs of darkness.”

“‘Cept for regular night time,” said Lydia. She stood up from her playing. “Can I come too? Maybe we can look at the stars.”

On the roof of the building, we could see a few stars – the sky was clear, but we were still in a city. There was all kinds of light pollution. The brightest stars were the only ones we could see. “Well, we can look at those, anyway,” I said, looking up.

“They’re still pretty,” Lydia said.

“Do they all have their spirits, like the Sun spirit from before?” I asked.

“Yeah, every one of ‘em,” answered Lydia. “They’re … whoa.”

“What?” I looked up. The stars were brighter. All of them. They shone as if we weren’t in a city. The arc of the Milky Way stretched across the sky. Distant galaxies too faint to be seen without telescopes were now bright pinpricks of radiance. They all kept getting brighter until the entire sky was ablaze from horizon to horizon in all directions.

“Are we really seeing this?” I asked. I looked down. Traffic was moving as normal.

“I don’t think so,” said Lydia. “Nobody but us. I think somebody wants to talk to us.”

From the sky descended a thin thread of light, and where it landed a figure appeared, a woman with glittering golden hair and a long dress that was black but adorned with sparkling stars. Another appeared, a tall, large man with fiery red hair and beard, with a robe that was a similar star-studded black. And more and more, all sizes, all colors – all around us.

“Forgive us for intruding,” said the first woman who had appeared. “We speak for the stars.”

“It’s no intrusion, especially if there are important things to talk about,” I said. “And in times like these, I’m guessing there are. You … speak for the stars? All of the stars? Aren’t there … a lot of them?”

“Yes,” said the large man. “Counting them would have no meaning. That is why there are so few of us here – some of us have been chosen by the rest to come here with this message for you.”

“So … few?” I felt, more than saw, the presence of more than thousands around us. There were thousands of times that. And thousands of times that. They may not have been physically there, but they were present, observing and waiting.

“Our numbers exceed even our ability to express,” said the woman. “I am a spirit of the star known to you as Alpha Centauri, chosen to represent our galaxy because I am one of your nearest neighbors.”

“And I am a spirit of a star so far away from you that my light will never reach you,” said the man. “But we all have a message.”

“V-very well,” I said. “What is that message?”

“It is a message,” said Alpha Centauri, “from you.”

“From … me?” I asked. “From the stars?”

“From your previous selves, in past cycles,” Alpha Centauri explained. “Each time, you sent a message to the stars. Each time, we listened. But never before have we decided to bring it to you. Each cycle of time, things have happened in much the same way. But this time, things are different.”

“Is not in the Prophecies of Thermatrax,” said Lydia. “It gots nothin’ about the stars comin’ down.”

“Because it has never happened before,” said the man. “We beseech you, read your message to yourself. You must put an end to the cycle. You must free the universe. And only you can do so.”

“I … don’t know how,” I said.

“Read your message,” said Alpha Centauri. “And we will help you.” They produced a glowing magical scroll. It unrolled and was written … in a language I didn’t recognize. But I had learned a translation spell …

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So now I knew the truth. The cycle didn’t repeat exactly. The previous Queen didn’t look exactly like me, just very similar. My previous self hadn’t spoken English, but rather a language of the time and place where she had lived – but it had been a functional, living language. The dragons who survived from one cycle to another weren’t the same dragons. There was always just one vampire who survived each cycle to continue, but it wasn’t always the same one. Several demons survived to the next cycle, but never the same ones.

Except for one.

Drakoll the Slayer, eternal enemy of light. He was the only being who remained through cycle after cycle. Always victorious, always graciously retreating when his time was over, knowing that he would be victorious once more. He was powerful enough that he could have ensured eternal victory for the forces of darkness if he wanted. Instead he toyed with the cycle, letting it repeat over and over for purposes of his own.

“He must be stopped,” said Alpha Centauri. “You have said so many times. You have beseeched the universe for help. We are now here. We cannot use our full power upon him on this world, this planet in this realm, because we would destroy it utterly. But at the right time, we can lend our aid to end his darkness forever.”

“And that won’t … destroy the balance of space and time or anything like that?”

“It will free the universe,” said the red-bearded star spirit. “When the cycle repeats, time returns for us as well. We do not know what our destinies hold. We remember the cycles that have gone before. We want … to have a future.”

“Well, my previous selves, or people like me who’d learned a lot, thought it would be a good thing,” I said.

“In all the cycles, all the Dragons got killed or had to run away,” said Lydia. “What if we didn’t hafta do that?”

“What if there were no prophecy that stated how things had to be?” asked Alpha Centauri.

“I … can’t say what that would be like,” I replied. “And I guess … that’s the point.”

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“End the cycle?” asked Peter. “Is that even possible? Even the legendary Thermatrax didn’t think so.”

“Neither did the last emperor before him, or the one before that, or the one before that,” I said. “Look at these.” I showed him the scrolls. There weren’t just one or two of them. There were 12. “Time has been repeating for who knows how many cycles of who knows how many hundreds of millennia, and all because of one demon prince. It’s his fault. It’s his will. He must be stopped.”

“But … how?” Peter wondered aloud. “His role in the legends starts and ends with the defeat of Thermatrax. We don’t know what happened to him afterward. We don’t know what he did before that. Best we can tell from the old writings he was supposed to have died of his battle wounds, but now we find he didn’t.”

“We’ll have to find him and stop him,” I said. “The bad news is that he’s got a plan that’s worked who knows how many times. The good news is that nobody’s ever tried to stop him before, so he won’t be expecting it. And if he wants his plan to work … he won’t want to kill me.”

“I think we’ll need to find you some more help,” Peter said. “If this is really going to happen, we need to prepare you as well as we possibly can.”

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I studied everything I could find. Sylvia and Peter kept bringing me more books to read. I had gotten really good with my powers, too, and could do some fairly amazing things that didn't involve killing vampires and returning them to the pit for their eternal damnation.

It really concerned me that in all the notes I had left for myself over the centuries, I had left myself no clues as to what the origin of Drakoll the Slayer was. He was supposed to have been a demon that looked like a dragon … wait a minute, I thought, he looked like a dragon. That meant he looked like one but wasn’t.

Another thing I learned as I continued to read my notes to myself was that demons could be shapeshifters too, same as dragons. Ah ha ... a real lead. So now what I had to do was discover how to track a demon who had shapeshifted. As I read more about demons I also discovered they could possess an individual. This would provide them with very good camouflage. So now I had to find a demon who could be shapeshifted into anything or possess anyone.

Without warning, a manuscript appeared in front of me and unrolled off its spindle. It was different than any scroll I had ever seen. It was made of … some kind of skin from a creature I had never before seen. The words written on it were strange squiggles, dashes, and a few geometric shapes. They seemed to slightly wiggle on the document as if they were alive. I didn’t know who might have sent me this clue, but I didn’t like it. Still, it was something to take into account.

I used my translation spell, the only way I could hope to read the unknown script. What it told me was of a man who lived in the lap of luxury, and it gave a very good description. Wait – I knew who the man was. In fact, he was the owner of a local research facility in this city, one Mr. Nomed – and I quickly realized that his very name spelled backwards was demon.

I squinted my eyes as I focused my inner eye on this individual’s aura – I knew I wouldn’t get much detail, as I’d never laid eyes on this man before. I was truly amazed; this person was definitely demonic in origin, but from what I was seeing the body was his and not possessed. If this was in fact the demon I sought, he was indeed well camouflaged, and now I knew why no one had ever discovered him. Now the thing I had to do was figure out how to kill him.

I did a little more studying and discovered how Drakoll managed to show up as a living human instead of a possed one. Apparently Drakoll had found the body he now wore on the very brink of death. At the exact moment the body's true soul was taken, Drakoll assumed the location within and became the actual living soul of the body. A very tricky operation, and risky, but it had worked.

This in no wise made Drakol mortal, but it afforded him all the protections and immunities from the things other demons shared that harmed specifically them, thus allowing him to survive whatever the cataclysm to demons brought, so it destroyed them all except him – the single demon that brought darkness back every time the wheel of time turned.

One thing I had to remember: not to confuse a system that was merely working for one that was working well and properly … such mistakes could cost a lot of lives. I dove back into the books, searching for anything I could find on how to correctly use my powers. I knew I had to not just be managing to accomplish a deed, but accomplishing the deed properly.

I thought I was alone as I constructed and deconstructed many objects and weird fantasy creatures as I practiced. These were energy constructs that I was weaving out of light – magic taking solid form. I had done my very best to create a stylized bird thing. It was extremely pretty, although obviously something out of fantasy. When I dematerialized it, I heard loud clapping from across the huge room. Turning, I saw six large men accompanied by six large women, standing and clapping their hands.

Slightly surprised, I asked, “Who are you?” I looked around and saw no others, “Is there something I might be able to do for you?”

One of the males formally bowed. When he stood back up, he replied, “We are your … let us say, instructors?”

A woman dressed in what looked like a fine silk gown covered in many diamonds spoke up and said, “From what we just observed, one might say that you are instructing us.”

A soft twitter of laughter, then the individual who had first spoken said, “My name is Bolide. I’m a light dragon from Thermatrax’s family tree.” He waved his hand at the others. “The others make up the Light Dragon School of Light Magic.” All the males formally bowed, and the females formally curtsied. Then Bolide continued, “We are here to instruct the future Empress of Sauria – that’s you – in the proper means to wield perhaps the mightiest power within the realm, and to teach her the proper decorum for being in the Saurian court.”

The woman in the diamond-studded silk gown said, “And my name is Adamant. There’s no reason to fight it – until this cycle is broken and the cosmos set free, you are the next empress to sit on the throne of bone and rule the land of Sauria. It has fallen to us to teach you all we dragons know of the power of light. From your little demonstration, it would appear you are a far advanced student – Chrysopetros and Platinadasaki have given you a running start. This will make it much easier and faster.”

“Oh yes – they said the dragons would be sending me more help,” I said, standing up. “They must have meant you.” I bowed, as I was wearing pants. “Honored to make your acquaintance. I must say, however, that I’ve had one other teacher – her name is Elida.”

“Elida?” said Bolida. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a dragon with that name.”

“She isn’t a dragon,” I said. “She’s a woodland fairy.”

The twelve of them looked at each other in some confusion. “But … nothing in the prophecy says anything about the Empress learning fairy magic,” said Adamant.

“This could be a sign that the circle is unraveling, that the prophecy is crumbling,” said Bolide. “But it does mean that you will need further instruction from this Elida as well – wild fairy magic is quite different from our disciplined arts. In my opinion, having more tools to fight the darkness is no bad thing, but you will need both tools to be strong. It does no good to have a steel sword and a paper dagger.”

“Well, then, I’ll try to get in touch with Elida,” I said, “but for now, is there a plan?”

“Yes,” said Bolide. “Let’s start with evaluating where you are. Can you show me your basic light conjuration?”

I filled the room with light, and thus began an intense session of training. They gave me tips and pointers that no human had learned in thousands of years, I was sure. By the time they sensed how tired I was, I was ready to drop from exhaustion.

Bolide said, “Well, as we know, dragons can keep going for days, but humans are another story – more intense, but not as much stamina, as I’ve read. You should rest, and we’ll return tomorrow. Well done, Lila!”

The twelve of them bowed and curtsied, and I bowed as best I could. I made my way to bed after they quietly vanished through the Dragon Refuge door.

As I slept, I dreamed. I was in a primordial forest, dew twinkling from every leaf like starlight. The air was warm, and it felt like the sun was either just about to rise or had just set. The sky was a warm blue overhead, and a few stars shone. I walked among ancient trees. There were no paths.

But I came to a clearing with a ring of mushrooms in its center, and standing within it was Elida. “You seem tired,” she said. “So I came to talk to you in your sleep.”

“You knew I wanted to talk to you?” I asked.

“Of course – you said my name,” she replied. “Well, part of it. Enough of it that I could feel it. So what’s up?”

“Well, you probably know the whole thing about the prophecy and how time is a wheel that turns, and all of that,” I said.

“Oh – right,” said Elida. “Well, the fact is that it’s that Drakoll guy who keeps that going. The dragons kind of do too, without realizing it. They think it’s the way things are supposed to be. But they don’t have to be. Drakoll is way older than they are. But some of us remember how it was before he came along.”

“And … how was it?” I asked.

“Better in some ways, worse in others,” said Elida. “And when you confront Drakoll, he’ll try to convince you to leave things as they are – this way, the Light rules half the time, and the Dark the other half. It’s not great for the Light side when the Dark is in charge, and vice versa, but at least you only have to wait a while before things change.”

“You have to wait hundreds of millennia, though,” I said.

“A little while, like I said,” Elida replied with a giggle. “But if that stops, well, what if the Dark wins? Maybe they’ll rule the universe forever. Not great for us Light folks.”

“Well, then we’ll just have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“I knew I liked you,” said Elida. “I’m guessing you’ve come for some more training. Well, catch!” She suddenly had a ball of energy in her hand and threw it – not to me, but off in another direction.

“What?” I said before realizing that the training had already begun. I teleported to where the ball was going and caught it. It burned in my hands a bit.

“Very good! But you can’t hold onto it!” said Elida. Then her voice was coming from another direction. “The longer you hold it, the more it burns. Hot potato! Toss it back!” I tossed it toward where she now was.

This game went on for a while, until I began to feel where she was going before she went there and where she would toss the ball before she did it. She was tricky – sometimes she tossed a fake ball in another direction, and I had to sense which one was real. And I started tossing fake ones too, which made her extremely happy.

“You would’ve made a good fairy!” said Elida. “Such a pity you were born a human. Ever think about switching sides?”

“You can do that?” I asked.

“Well, sort of,” she said. “You have to be reincarnated. Which means you have to die first. We’ll think about that later.”

“Later, like when I die?”

“Yeah, then. But for now, we’ll play another game.” And by the time I woke up, it felt like I’d been playing magical games with Elida in the ancient forest for hundreds of years. Maybe I had – time flows strangely in dreams.

The next day, Bolide arrived with his companions, and we worked on the next level some more – formal banishments and direct attacks that would serve me well in confronting vampires and demons. “Your magical intuition is amazing,” said Adamant. “It’s as if you know what we’re going to say before we say it.”

“That … might have to do with fairy magic,” I replied. “I did contact Elida. Or, she contacted me.”

“Well, that kind of thing will serve you well,” said Bolide. “Perhaps we dragons have become too … orderly, standing on ceremony too much.”

“It’s surprising for you to admit it,” I said. “Humans who get set in their ways are difficult to jolt out of their ruts.”

“It’s true that it isn’t easy to seek out new paths when one’s been used to the old ones,” said Adamant. “But being flexible is how we’ve survived. We’ve had to learn it the hard way.”

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“You’ve found Drakoll the Slayer?” asked Sylvia in astonishment when I told them.

“Yeah, I guess I’ve always been able to; I just had to learn enough.” I explained where he was now. “So as soon as the guy died, his soul went to … wherever they go, the afterlife, and Drakoll just kind of moved in. His lifespan is probably limited to the lifespan of the body, I guess.”

“Most likely,” said Peter, “but this presents a problem.”

“Problem?”

“We’re all onna side of light,” said little Lydia. “He gotsa alive body. We’re not sposedta kill.”

“Oh.”

“Vampires are already dead, so there’s no issue with destroying them,” said Peter. “Demons are … well, their bodies are supernatural, not made of living flesh but rather of the stuff of other planes. But Drakoll’s current body is that of a human, regardless of that which dwells within.”

“We may neither kill the living nor aid in their death,” said Sylvia. “By this pact we increase our power in the light, but we must not waver from this path, lest we lose our favor.”

“So we can’t kill him?” I asked, disappointed in a way.

“Absolutely not,” said Peter.

“Can’t even hurt him on purpose,” said Lydia.

“What if he’s coming at me with a knife?” I asked.

“Well, then you can do something to prevent him from wounding you,” Sylvia replied, “but you are judged based on your abilities. You have ways to prevent a dagger from cutting you without harming its wielder in any way. Several ways.”

I thought. Yes; I could manifest a shield that a knife couldn’t cut through; I could teleport the knife hundreds of miles away; I could transform the knife into sand; I could teleport myself away as well. Any of these things would prevent injury to myself without harming Drakoll in any way, so if I did harm him, it’d be because I’d chosen to.

“I’m gonna need to do more research,” I said.

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“So I’ve discovered that since Drakoll’s in a human body, he’s susceptible to a vampire’s powers and lust for blood.” I pointed to several passages, and Bolide read them, then nodded.

“It seems you’re correct,” he said. “So, you can’t harm him, but a vampire can – though you still can’t lure the vampires to him. But Light Dragons aren’t exactly under as strict limitations as humans are. I’m impressed that a mage as powerful in light magic as you are could think of such a devious strategy.

Now that Bolide knew that there could be a way to finally rid the wheel of time of the last demon who perpetrated the cycle, it spread like a wildfire in dry grass in a high wind. Since I technically had no part in the spread of this information, it left the dragons free to implement it howsoever they chose. Volunteers seemed to come from the woodwork and offer their services in aiding such a thing to happen.

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In the guise of Mr. Nomed, Drakoll sat at his desk within the comfortable confines of his armchair and placed his hands behind his head. He was so glad that he had discovered the means to escape the destruction that light would shortly bring to the rest of darkness. It also pleased him to know that shortly thereafter, at least in a demon’s way of looking at things, he would be able to reseed demonkind.

Finding those with darkness in their hearts was easy among mankind, and they would be helpless to hinder or stop the transformation in any way. He knew this from countless cycles of time. It was so much fun, too.

As he sat and remade plans within his dark soul, his phone rang. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. He had left explicit instructions that he was not to be disturbed. “Yes? This is Mr. Nomed. How may I help you?”

He instantly recognized the voice as someone high level, and to top it off they said, “Well, good day to you, Mr. Nomed, or should I call you Drakoll?”

Fear ran down his spine for the first time he could remember. “OK, and who are you?”

The voice replied, “Let us say I’m your worst nightmare. I’m going to expose who you are and what you’ve been doing all these centuries. I’m going to do the revelation incantation at this abandoned church.” A very clear image of the church and its location actually entered Drakoll’s mind. “It has been desecrated, but since it once was consecrated ground, scryers of darkness cannot look. They can come watch in person, though, and I have invited the highest ranking of them all to come hear. “ The line went dead.

Instantly, Drakoll hung up the phone and hit the intercom, “Yes, Mr. Nomed?”

“Cancel all my appointments. Notify Driscoll he’s in charge until I return. He has full executive power and privileges.”

“As you wish, sir. What termination date and time should I enter into the record, Sir?”

“Termination time and date is upon my return.”

“It is done as you ordered. Notifying Driscoll of his promotion now.”

Drakoll swore under his breath as he hurried from his office to his personal BMW roadster. Until he was able to become his normal self again, he was forced to use mortal transport. He left the parking area in a large cloud of smoke and squealing tires. He knew it would only be a few minutes until he would be able to kill whomever that had been as he fumbled through the many very powerful talismans he carried in a small satchel for just such an emergency.

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In a large deep grotto, lit only by the smelly sputtering oil sconces that lined the area, a very large ebony cloud boiled up from the terminus crucible. Within its inky black depth, a sphere of light began to form, with an image within it.

Many of the vampires gathered around as they watched a succulent human arrive in a BMW and exit the vehicle. One young-looking female vampire in a black see-through gossamer gown pointed and said in a small voice, “He’s mine. I haven’t fed in many years.”

Vladimir said, “Go, then, Drucilla. Feed. From what I can see, his blood pumps warmly from a very strong heart. Should give you much ecstasy.”

The young vampire woman vanished in a puff of ebony smoke. Where she had been, a large bat with similar characteristics appeared and rapidly flew off to hunt this excellent prey. She was so hungry.

Drakoll entered the destroyed church. He slowly looked around as he held out the soul stealer talisman. He intended to keep this person’s soul in perdition for all eternity. Without warning, Drakoll felt his body … become totally compliant. A very beautiful young woman in a transparent black gown appeared. Drakoll realized he was totally helpless as the girl opened her mouth and her very sharp fangs appeared.

NO!!! Drakoll screamed within his mind. This cannot happen; it just …

He felt the sharp sting as the fangs penetrated his neck. He felt the most erotic and euphoric rush all through his body to his deepest reaches. Drakoll now knew what death was as his heart pumped weakly one last time. His body died as Drakoll experienced the most sensual and erotic sensation he had ever felt as a serious black fog rose in his mind and oblivion beckoned. The girl reared back and screeched as the warm blood filled her with renewed strength. Drakoll had only one chance to survive in any way …

As the middle-aged businessman’s body slumped to the ground, devoid of blood, the vampire who had drained him reached down, picked up the talisman in the man’s hand, and went through his pockets, coming up with his wallet and car keys. Going to his car, she quickly found a black cloth drawstring bag, dropped the talisman within, and took the bag.

“Ah, Drucilla,” said Vladimir, “have you fed well? I sense that your strength is replenished – wait. You are not Drucilla.”

“Not exactly,” she said, still in her tiny voice. “She’s gone to her eternal reward. But I know all the ins and outs of vampires, since I invented them, after all.”

“What?” Vladimir was taken aback. “You are Drakoll? That man was –”

“My vessel, yes,” said the petite vampire. “Now this body serves, for now. It is not ideal.”

“M-my deepest apologies for not stopping her, my Lord,” said Vladimir, bowing in desperate hope of not being instantly destroyed.

“How were you to know?” asked Drakoll. “No, my wrath is reserved for whomever lured me here under false pretenses.”

“Allow me to lead the hunt for the perpetrator of this outrage, my Lord,” Vladimir begged.

“Now, now, we should do things properly,” said Drakoll. “I must speak with my creation, and he with his, and then, finally, you will get your orders.” The tiny female vampire put on a talisman that Drakoll had once made as a gift for one of his minions, making whatever vampire wore it the most powerful vampire in all of creation, but she had need of it now. Dark fire crackled behind her eyes. “The cycle must continue.”

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Of course, I knew nothing about any of this. I couldn’t be involved. Neither the dragons nor I knew anything about Drakoll’s minions, as they were different every cycle and had avoided mention in the Compendium by staying hidden. All we knew was that he undoubtedly had minions of some kind somewhere.

The spell I’d cast told me to go to the city’s largest newspaper online, though. The top story was about local businessman Lockard Nomed and how his body had been found near an abandoned church, seemingly drained of blood. Police were investigating what seemed very much like a cult-related murder. “Oh my … did it work? Is he dead?” I did what I’d done earlier – closed my eyes and sensed darkness and evil.

I wasn’t sure. I still felt his presence; it felt just like him – but I couldn’t understand what else I felt. It didn’t make sense. This was because I didn’t yet realize what had happened. I went to talk to a dragon. The closest one was Lydia, of course, who was in her playroom making a little city with her blocks and dolls.

“Lydia …” I said, “Looks like a vampire got Mr. Nomed.”

“Yay!” she said. “I know it’s not nice to be happy when somebody’s dead. But he’s a demon. Not just any demon, either. Probably the worstest one ever.”

“But I can still feel the presence of Drakoll, somewhere. He feels … different, though. Something’s not the same as before.”

“Aww, that probably means he gotted away,” Lydia said, frowning.

“Got … away?” I asked. “Like, he left the body just before it died?”

“Yeah … I guess if he can jump into a body right before it dies, he can jump out too.”

“OK, so what did he jump into?” I asked.

“Dunno,” she said. “Maybe he just jumpeded out and is being a demon again. Maybe he went into an animal to hide. Or maybe he went into a thing, like a car or something. I dunno if he can do that, but maybe. Or maybe into the vampire that sucked out all his blood. He can probably do that.”

“Hmm, so lots of possibilities,” I said.

“Yeah. Maybe you should talk to Mommy or Daddy. Or onna the other dragons. I like that Bolide guy. He’s good lookin’.”

“You’re probably right,” I said. “But thanks, Lydia!”

“Welcome!” She smiled at me and went back to playing.

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Drakoll had a very serious problem now. A living corporeal body he could commandeer at the instant of death was extremely hard to come by. Most were either mutilated, seriously broken and damaged, or had some fatal disease or some such thing. Finding the exact perfect one was difficult at best even when he knew where to find it like the one that was just killed.

Another issue that was fast approaching that made finding one paramount, was the impending eradication of the vampires by the powers of light. He knew he was totally susceptible to all the same hazards other vampires were, except for maybe having that cursed Hound chasing after him.

Then it dawned on him in a flash, whomever it was that would be the survivor of all this had to already be here. He looked around. There were many male and female vampires throughout the large grotto.

Being a demon instead of a real vampire, he could tell the ones that had been placed on the collections list. All those whom his eyes fell on here were on the list. He knew there had to be one other, and he now planned to remove that obstacle and assume their place. Time was very short, and he had to hurry.

There was a large puff of ebony black, and where the very beautiful female vampire Drucilla had stood in the black sheer gown, a very large bat with some strikingly familiar features appeared. It quickly flew off looking for the one who he already knew was here … somewhere.

Of course, Fyodor had made sure to be well hidden and laying very low. He didn’t want anyone to discover his base betrayal. Fyodor had hidden deeply in his inner sanctum, as far as he could from scrying and prying eyes that might stumble upon him.

Without warning, the very thick ironbound door to his hiding place shattered as if it had been made of thin ice. A large black bat entered and transformed amid an ebony black puff of ethereal mist.

At first, Fyodor was terrified, until he recognized Drucilla. He came from the dark side room and said, “Well, beautiful, what brings you to my …?”

He never got to finish, as the extremely pretty young woman sprang on him, and with a strength Fyodor was no match for, held him and restrained him. Fyodor screamed in terror as he felt the sharp sting in the back of his neck as the woman’s fangs bit deeply into his spine.

An incredibly erotic rush filled Fyodor’s body and over powered his mind as darkness took him at first, then the open pits of fire as his damned soul fell into perdition for the remainder of eternity. His entire being was searing agony, without the capacity to even sense the passing of time.

Drakoll leaned back and wiped the black goo from his face. He had now officially taken Fyodor’s place in what he thought was going to be another continuation of this cycle.

Little did he know that things had been set into motion beyond what Drakoll had ever thought could be possible.

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I had brought the question to a group of dragons that included many of my tutors as well as a few others. “So, his human shell is no more?” asked one. “Well, that’s a big advantage taken away from him. He’ll be vulnerable when the attack begins.”

“But where is he?” asked another. “He can still manipulate things via his minions as long as he has his miserable life.”

“You can’t sense where he is?” a third asked.

“Well, remember,” said Bolide, “if she uses actual scrying magic, she opens herself up to detection. It works both ways. But not if she just has a sense or a feeling.”

“Now, let’s think,” said Peter. “He was slain by a vampire. That means the closest animate thing to him at his moment of death was that vampire who slew him. It’s most likely that he possessed that vampire’s body.”

“But wouldn’t that make him vulnerable to light magic of all kinds?” asked someone.

“Yes …" said Peter, “but he’d know that, so he’d try to find a way around it …”

“The survivor,” said another dragon. “One vampire, demon, or other minion of darkness survives. If Drakoll can take their place, he could survive to the next cycle and ensure things happen again.”

“Of course!” said Bolide. “He’s no fool. He would set himself up to be that sole survivor. Before this, that would have been someone else. But now, he’d take that one’s place.”

“Where is that one?” I asked.

“Well, if we knew, we’d have already destroyed him,” said Peter. “It’s going to be someplace untouched by the upcoming assault on Sauria. But that could be a lot of places, on a lot of planes.”

“But we’re doing things differently this time,” said another dragon. “We want the cycle broken.”

“What if the first thing we do is go hunting vampires?” I asked. “You can sense them, and so can I. But wouldn’t he know that?”

“He would indeed,” Bolide said thoughtfully. “Therefore he’d try to find some way to evade that sense.”

“How could he do that?” I asked.

“Well, our sense doesn’t work between planes,” said Peter, “so he might pick a plane that we’re unlikely to go to. A nether realm, perhaps.”

“But there are so many of those,” said one of the others. “It would take an eternity to search them all.”

“Ah, but we wouldn’t have to search, would we?” said Adamant. “It would be enough to step inside and sense.”

So that was how, after a bit more planning and discussion, I ended up riding on the neck of a huge dragon as we visited hellscape after hellscape.

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“This doesn’t seem very hellish,” I said. We were high in the air above a landscape of skyscrapers, as far as the eye could see. I was riding on Sylvia’s neck. I hadn’t seen her dragon form before, so I hadn’t been prepared for just how huge she was. I was smaller than one of her toenails. They’d fashioned a sort of gondola for me to ride in, strapped down for safety, and she wore the thing like we’d wear one of those tiny little backpacks, only even smaller, and humans don’t have so many platinum back ridges..

“I don’t know if you can see from this high up,” came Sylvia’s voice in my mind, “but none of those buildings have any windows. And they’re all fully occupied. I think one of you humans wrote that hell is other people. This is a place where no one is ever alone, not even for a moment. They never leave those buildings. They can’t even see out. But anyway, can you sense Drakoll?”

I reached out with the senses I’d developed while training. “I can sense … many dark presences.”

“Demons of some kind or another, certainly,” said Sylvia.

“But … no, I know what Drakoll feels like now, and I don’t feel him here.” I opened my eyes. The sky was as dim as a darkly overcast afternoon back home, but there was no sun, and no sign of where the light was coming from.

“Very well then, on to the next one,” Sylvia said. She summoned a portal and swooped, I held on, and we were in another place.

“This looks more like it,” I said. The sky glowed a dim red, but the sulfurous air was lit mostly from below, where charred stone was broken here and there with cracks showing glowing red magma beneath. “Now this is a hellscape.”

“Lots of burning chasms in this one,” said Sylvia, “perfect for people to push others into.”

I tried to relax and reach out with my newly-learned mystic senses. “I’m not feeling him here either.”

“Very well,” Sylvia said. “There are a lot of these, so this could take a while. Tell me when you need a break and we can go home, rest, and do some more.”

“I’m OK for now. How are you keeping track?” I asked.

“I’m in contact with Peter,” Sylvia said. “He’s made a big list, and he’s checking them off as we go. He says the next one doesn’t have any oxygen, so use the breathing mask.”

“Oh! OK,” I said. I strapped on the glass, metal and rubber thing that I’d bought at a mountain-climbing supply site. Sylvia went through another portal, and we were in a huge empty space, mostly dark, with occasional tiny floating black cubicles drifting along. “Do I want to know what this place is like?”

“Each of those things is a tiny room,” said Sylvia. “There’s no way out, and everyone is trapped with just a few others that they’re doomed to spend eternity with.”

“Wow. How do they not kill each other?”

“Oh, they do. But they always wake up again a little while later in the same tiny box with the same people.”

“Ugh. OK, trying to find Drakoll … no. I don’t feel anything like him here at all.”

“Very well. Next one, then.” Sylvia wheeled around and portaled us to another plane. “You can take the mask off here.” I did so.

We were high above, but the ground here appeared to be on fire. Or rather, it appeared to be fire. The sky was black; all light came from below. I could just make out tiny black shapes in the fire. “Are those … people down there?”

“Well, they’re the souls of those who agreed to be sent here when they met their demise,” said Sylvia.

“Souls? How can they burn?”

“They can’t, strictly speaking, but they can feel pain, and this place never stops burning.”

“Why would anyone agree to be here?”

“One of those literal deals with the devil,” said Sylvia. “They got immortality or some other benefit while they were alive – or undead, in some cases. This is where vampires go when their bodies are finally destroyed, among others. This is what they signed up for when they became vampires.”

“Ouch,” I said. “Well, let’s see if I can sense Drakoll … whoa! No, no Drakoll, but wait, there’s that one guy the black dog went after when he attacked me. Not the one whose arm I burned off; the one the dog chased away.”

“Interesting,” said Sylvia. “Perhaps the black hound finally caught up with him.”

“There’s something … strange about him too,” I said. “Similar to what I felt around Drakoll.”

“Should we question him?” asked Sylvia. “Do you know the soul vessel spell?”

“Well, I do, but I need a chunk of crystal to serve as a vessel … oh wait, I also know the spell that conjures basic materials.” It had really been quite a crash course, learning all this magic stuff.

“Very good,” said Sylvia. As covertly as I could, I conjured a piece of solid quartz crystal the size of a softball. “In most cases imprisoning a soul inside a crystal isn’t considered a good act, but it’s pretty obviously better than where he is now.”

Then I reached out to the soul I had sensed. “Can you get closer? I’m trying to show you where I’m sensing him with my thoughts. Does that work?”

“It does,” Sylvia said. “I’m going in … this is risky, so be ready, because we may have to leave quickly.”

“Right,” I said. I started chanting the words to the spell, which should grab the soul and put it in the crystal vessel, giving it a body of sorts. I stopped at a convenient pausing point as Sylvia approached the ground. It was getting noticeably hotter. Suddenly I felt as if we were close enough. “Now!” I said. “We’re in range!”

“OK, holding here, but hurry,” she replied, beating her colossal wings and hovering. The flames below flickered with the massive downdraft. I picked up the spell where I’d left off, chanting the words carefully and holding the crystal in both hands. An ethereal streamer of energy wafted up from below and entered the crystal. It was almost done.

There was a nasty shrieking sound, and a large flying creature made of flame started flying toward us. “You may want to finish up,” said Sylvia. “I don’t think they like us here.” Another one started approaching from farther away. Sylvia could probably take these two pretty easily, but I was along for the ride, and I didn’t know how many of them were around to join the fight.

I was chanting, but I managed to get the thought across, “OK, we don’t have to stay in one place anymore! I have to finish the spell, but I’ve got him.” I finished the part about the soul in the crystal embodied, as Sylvia flew away from the creatures, which I took to be some sort of airborne flame demons.

Finally I got to the part about letting the crystal be closed and the spell be complete. “OK, Sylvia, it’s done! Let’s go!” We were suddenly high above the city back on Earth – for just a moment. Then I teleported myself to my apartment sanctum with the crystal, and a moment later, Sylvia walked in through the door in human form.

I set the crystal on a table I conjured and pulled up a couple of chairs. Sylvia and I got comfortable. “Hello there,” I said to the crystal. “Fyodor, was it?” I saw a familiar spectral face gazing out at me from within the transparent faceted polyhedron. He looked around apprehensively.

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Fyodor suddenly found himself removed from a totally mind destroying fiery torment to … wherever it was he found himself. He felt very cramped, but this was a heck of lot better than the place he had been for ... however long he had been there. Last thing Fyodor remembered before the massively horrid torment was the extremely beautiful and shapely Drucilla biting him on his spine and removing him from his flesh.

He heard a voice that said “Hi, there,” and called him by name. Fyodor wasn’t sure how or why, but there seemed to be some kind of portal or window or something there. He stood up from whatever he had been sitting on and looked out. He saw the face … and was shocked. It was the face of the Empress of White Magic who would remove all darkness from the realm of Sauria. There was someone else with her, possibly another dragon. He was supposed to be the only one to survive the coming turning of the ages, but now, he had no idea what his role was to be. He knew he had already not survived.

He responded, “Yes? I’m Fyodor. What have you brought me here for?” He looked around at the very small and strangely shaped room he was in. “I do want to thank you for rescuing me from that torment I was trapped in.”

I gazed into the crystal, laughed, and replied, “Unfortunately for you, this isn’t a rescue. It’s more of a fact-finding reprieve.”

Fyodor asked, “What does that mean, O Empress of Sauria?”

I sat back for a bit and thought about him calling me the Empress before I replied, “It’s like this, Fyodor. When you were made into a vampire and accepted your first kill, the most high authority passed judgment on you – but you know all that, of course. No power in all of creation can undo it, except of course for that most high authority itself, although how likely is that? You, for the rest of eternity, will live in that hellish torment. The only reason you’re here is because you might be able to help me.”

“Help you?”

“There are things you know that I don’t,” I said. Now, I’m sure he was thinking that as soon as he told me anything meaningful I’d throw him back into the fire, and if he kept thinking that, he wouldn’t tell me anything. “If you’re helpful, I can keep you out of the fire for as long as I live – which is but an instant compared to eternity, of course, but I don’t have the power to postpone your judgment for any longer than my own life.”

“Well, I suppose that’s true,” said Fyodor.

“There’s one other thing you should know. It seems that you’ve been even naughtier than usual for a vampire. The individual whose soul you traded to the Black Shuck is the person you’re now assigned to spend the rest of eternity at the mercy of. You do need to know … he isn’t happy, nor will he be helpless. From what I’ve learned, he’ll have all the power and authority to make your eternity even more horrible than just the fiery pit of perdition.”

Fyodor fell to his knees and began to cry hysterically, “Y .. you .. c-c-c-can’t leave me in that place. You just can’t.”

I shrugged and replied, “I have no authority in that matter. But I do have this authority over you. I am the High Mage of the power of Light.” I waved my hand over the top of the jewel. “You are required to answer all my questions truthfully. You will find that you have no choice.” He could, of course, answer truthfully without telling me the whole truth. That was why I needed to give him hope. “And of course, the longer you’re on my shelf and out of the pits of perdition, the more chances you’ll have to redeem yourself. Not that it’ll be easy – especially from inside a soul crystal.”

Fyodor felt it as the Light of Truth took hold of him and forced him to become completely compliant. He struggled within himself, but it hurt badly enough to have light inside him without trying to fight against it. Fyodor bowed until his face was on the ground, “OK, Empress, ask your questions. I’ll answer.”

I asked, “I know you were to be the last vampire and to spawn the next cycle of your kind. Who was it that managed to take your place?”

Fyodor found he was compelled to tell. He couldn’t embellish nor leave anything out. “It … was … Drucilla. But … but … it wasn’t her. Her body, but not her.”

Sylvia said to me, “So that must be it, then. Drakoll possessed Drucilla’s body when she fed on his acquired body, just before it died.”

I replied, “Yeah, we all sort of figured something like that, but now we know whose shell Drakoll occupies now.”

“Drakoll!” Fyodor exclaimed. “How the …? Drakoll was supposedly in a safe location, all ready to survive the purge. But I don’t know where he was – that was kept secret – or how he came to be inside Drucilla’s body. That must’ve happened while I was hiding.”

Sylvia asked Fyodor, “Do you remember anything else about your experience?”

Fyodor replied, “All I know is the woman who sent me to the final judgment wasn’t Drucilla. I don’t know who it actually was. You’re saying it was Drakoll, and that’s news to me. I was removed from my body and thrown into the fire too quickly for me to see any more.”

I withdrew my light truth spell and said, “Okie Dokies. I guess that’s all we needed. Enjoy the eternity you chose.”

“No, no, wait! Let me think!” shrieked Fyodor.

“Take your time,” I said.

“Let … me … I remember an … amulet or something she was wearing. Drucilla. It looked like … OK, I’ve been studying some magic Nalgrim was showing me, along with some stuff I wasn’t supposed to see. It looked like the Greater Sign of the Nether Void, only with some kind of Mnelurin influence, like the way the Glyph of Inner Hellfire is sorta like the regular Glyph of Fire but with some changes?”

Sylvia raised an eyebrow. She took a pad of paper and sketched something with a pencil. “Like this?” she said, holding it up.

“Yeah, like that, kind of … those curves on the right side, turn them up like this.” He gestured within the crystal with spectral fingers.

“So more like this?” said Sylvia, altering the drawing and looking at it. “I don’t like the looks of this.”

“Yeah, that’s the symbol I remember seeing on it.”

“It was engraved? In bronze?” asked Sylvia.

“No, I think it was inlaid. I’m pretty sure the pendant was made of gold, but the inlay was black.”

“Like black lead?”

“Yeah, though just a bit reddish. I think there was blood involved. Vampires can sense blood, of course.”

“Of course,” said Sylvia, touching her chin in thought. “You’re going to want to look in the Tome of Dire Warnings to confirm,” she said to me, “but I think you’ll find that he’s describing a Talisman of Ultimate Vampiric Might, of either the first or second degree.”

“Oh, of course he had one of those,” said Fyodor in disgust. “He’s Drakoll. I’m sure he knows how to make ‘em. I should’ve realized.”

“That’s going to make him … very difficult to defeat,” I said.

“But now that we know he has the talisman,” said Sylvia, “we can target it. Destroy it, or even just separate it from him, and he’s just a vampire.”

“Thank you, Fyodor, you’ve been very helpful,” I said to him. “We have some work to do, so we’ll just talk to you later. This may be a boring sort of confinement, but I think you’ll agree that it’s better than the fires of perdition.” I placed him in a warded coffer I’d conjured, set to open only to the touch of my hand.

“I can –” Fyodor started saying, but it was already dark. The vessel he was imprisoned within was now itself contained. He found that his eyes weren’t adjusting to the darkness, most likely because he didn’t technically have eyes. So, he was now in a soul crystal in the treasure hoard of a Light Dragon Mage. And as soon as she died, it would be back to fiery eternal torment for him – with the added bonus of being under the power and authority of the soul of Tomas Sindor, whom he had doomed to death.

He was definitely interested in keeping this Empress alive by any means – there wasn’t much he could do, but he’d have a lot of time to think about it, and not much else to do.

Meanwhile I locked his coffer in my vault and went to look at the tome that Sylvia suggested. I had some ideas, but I had to know more about the thing.

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I sat back from studying the hugely thick and extremely ancient volume and rubbed my tired eyes. From what I was seeing, the talisman was actually created by one of the Dark Lord Demons for his favorite female vampire. It basically enhanced all the vampiric abilities but also gave the vampire wearing it the ability to be a day walker for a short time.

There were stipulations to being in the sunlight, though. Many of the enhanced abilities were disabled due to the contamination of its darkness with light. The light was unable to overcome the talisman immediately, but everyone knows, when one lights a candle the darkness flees from its soft glow.

Then a phrase came to my mind that Sylvia had mentioned when we had first met. A single candle can light many others without diminishing its own light. I began to wonder about just what that truly referred to. At the time it seemed slightly out of context with the rest of the conversation.

In the midst of my musings, a familiar ball of light appeared on the table in front of me, and lo and behold, the very adorable Elida appeared and fluttered her wings. “Hi, I’m … of the understanding that you are in need of instruction in a fundamental function of light magic.”

I sighed and nodded, “I’m sure I’m in need of a whole lot more than that.” I pointed to the large book on the table. “From what this says, even in the light of day when the vampire and talisman are at their weakest, they’re still more powerful than a normal run-of-the-mill vampire.”

Elida giggled adorably as she flitted up to right in front of me, “Well, this isn’t just any run-of-the-mill vampire either, from what I was told. It seems somehow Drakoll managed to get himself … eaten by a vampire, so Drakoll stole her body before his vessel body died? Do I have that right?”

“Yeah.” I sighed once again as I took a long drink from the very nice cup of tea and honey I had, “The biggest issue is that, although we know the name of the vampiress he took, he immediately went into hiding. We looked in a great many of the nether hellscapes, but the only thing we found was the original vampiric survivor, Fyodor. Drakoll killed him and took his place as the sole surviving vampire, and sole surviving demon in this next cycle.”

Elidia looked at me with big eyes as she said, “Oh my. If that’s true, that means the cycle hasn’t quite been broken, but has been altered seriously enough that it can be broken.”

I sat up in my chair and asked excitedly, “Tell me more. I really want to break this time loop.”

Elida said in her tinkly voice, “You are the Empress of this cycle. And that is according to the dragons’ Compendium. Now this is important. The Compendium now states one action transpired over and over each time the circle of time came back to this point. Currently, that isn’t what’s happening, so the Compendium has now been rendered useless trash, for it no longer tells what’s going to happen. From this cycle on, a new Compendium will have to be created to follow the line on which the cycle will run, unless the circle is totally broken.”

I said, “My intent is to break the cycle and allow time to run its natural random course.”

Elida replied, “You have the ability to imbue other creatures with your light power for a short time. It would seem to me that doing that and increasing the number of creatures with the ability to search hellscapes and be immune to the darkness will aid tremendously.”

Ohh, so I’m the metaphorical single candle; that’s what Sylvia meant. As a test, I looked out the window to a small park across the street, pointed my finger at one of the squirrels I could see there, and imagined I was igniting its ... candle. Immediately, the squirrel began to glow brilliantly with bright white light. It scurried about in confusion. “Oh my … This means I can have many, many helpers, all looking for Drakoll at the same time! Thank you, Elida!”

“My pleasure,” she said, smiling and doing a tiny curtsey in the air. “Dragons of light are already naturally imbued with light, so they don’t need your blessing, but if you can find others who are willing to help you search, you can make them just as immune to the dark energies of the nether planes. I can’t imagine whom you might ask, though,” she added, in a tone dripping with playful sarcasm.

“Elida, are you interested in helping me out?” I asked with a grin.

“Thought you’d never ask,” she said. “Now, one thing I don’t know is how long the thing lasts.”

I looked out the window at the squirrel. It was still glowing. “Might want to test that before jumping into a hellscape with both feet, so to speak.”

“Yes; I’m sure you don’t want to endanger your allies.” I concentrated and touched Elida lightly on the head. A wave of magical light passed through her and left her glowing with an aura around her small body. “Ooo! I’m all lit up! Well, I suppose now we wait for it to wear off, then we’ll have some idea how long I’ll be protected for – and some idea how long it’ll work on others, too.”

“OK, good,” I said. “In the meantime, I’ll look into this talisman. There’s got to be a way to destroy it.”

Looking at the drawing of it in the book, Elida said, “Well, they say a chain’s only as strong as its weakest link.”

“Yes, but what’s the chain here?” I wondered. “The amulet’s probably pretty strong, and Drakoll’s certainly strong …. but wait! The chain, that’s what you meant. Wonder what it’s made of?”

“Oh, some special alloy or other,” said Elida, glowing. “I don’t know a lot about stuff like that.” Well, why would she? She was a woodland fairy, not a fairy of mining or crafting.

“Any ideas who would?” I asked.

“Well, Drakoll likely made whatever it’s hanging from himself,” said Elida, “but we could at least get an opinion from a crafter of magical artifacts – I’ve got a friend who does that. Maybe he’ll know what Drakoll was likely to use.”

“OK, do we go visiting him, or send him a letter, or …?”

“He lives in the woods,” said Elida. “Here, I’ll just take us to him. One thing, though; you’re kind of too big for his house.”

“Oh – well I did run across a spell for that,” I said. I recited some words and did a gesture, and I was Elida’s size. I didn’t see Elida, though – just the gigantic leg of the chair I’d been sitting in. It looked like a tree trunk.

“What are you doing way down there?” Elida called down to me from above, giggling and fluttering her way down to the floor.

“Well, I’m not really the flying sort,” I said, “not without an extra spell, anyway.” It was strange seeing Elida the same size as I was.

“It’s fine,” she said. “Now we’ll just go knock on his door.” She took my hand, and I felt a pulse of teleportation magic – quite familiar, as I’d done it myself, and learned it from her. Then we were in a wooded glade, dappled with afternoon sunlight filtered through leaves high overhead. The grass and flowers towered above me. “This way!” she said. “It might be easier to fly.”

“You know, that makes a lot of sense,” I said, and cast a flight spell on myself. I rose from the ground and followed Elida to a tree that had a neatly-carved wooden door in it, and a path made of stones leading to that door. She landed on the doorstep and knocked with the metal knocker.

“Now, who would come a-knocking on my door in the middle of the afternoon, just before tea-time?” came a grumpy-sounding male voice from within the tree. “Just a moment, just a moment.” The door opened, and I saw a large – to us, anyway – white-bearded man with a bald head. His trousers and boots were brown, but his shirt was bright blue. “Oh – Elida, pleasure to see you! What have you been doing with yourself? And who’s your friend?”

“Long story,” Elida said, “but the short version is, this is Lila, and Lila, this is Eliazer. He’s a gnome. And one of the best talisman crafters I’ve ever met.”

“Well, now, I don’t know about all of that, but pleased to meetcha,” he said. “Come in, won’tcha? I’ve just put the kettle on. Have a spot of tea, and a bit of talk.”

He was a gracious host, though his home was a terrible pile of clutter. His kitchen table was clear, though, and he pulled up some chairs for us and offered us tea and biscuits, which we gratefully accepted.

“So, don’t get many humans visiting me,” Eliazer said after we’d explained a bit. “Most of ‘em aren’t gracious enough to make themselves the right size for shakin’ hands. What can I do for ya, Lila?”

“Well, you know how Elida was saying all that about the Saurian Empress and the cycle of time and all that,” I said. “I think Drakoll has this talisman, and I’m going to have to fight him, and I want to know how to break it – or at least break its chain. To separate it from him, so he’ll just be as powerful as a regular vampire.” I summoned the Tome of Dire Warnings, which appeared at an appropriate size for us to manage.

He put on his spectacles and looked at the page. “Oh, my. This is a thing of pure vile darkness, it is. Don’t work with absolute evil myself. But if I were to do so, I’d make the thing out of gold, but inlay the engraving in black lead imbued with blood. But it’d be a distasteful business. Luckily you’re not asking me to make one, because I’d refuse.”

“No, we’re certainly not,” I said.

“And as for what to wear it on, its magic wouldn’t flow without something that can conduct it,” he went on. “If I were making a talisman of starlight, letting you see in the dark, you understand, that would have to be a chain of the purest truesilver, so the magic would flow right. For something like this … we’re either talking about leather made from the hide of a demon, or a cord woven from the unmentionable hair of, again, a demon, or, most likely, base iron. Hot forged. The magic would flow best.”

“Not steel?” I asked.

“No. That’s probably your saving grace here,” said Eliazer. “That chain is going to be soft iron – you have to anneal it. You quench it or alloy it and you’ll mess up its magical properties.”

“And it was originally made for a lady vampire,” said Elida. “Small links, more delicate.”

“Tiny links made of annealed iron?” asked Eliazer. “Impractical. It’d break too easily. You’d have to be an idiot to make it like that. Or you’d reinforce it by threading something tougher through the links, like a braided steel cable. Couldn’t be a big cable, though.”

“Fyodor saw it,” I said. “I can ask him to try to remember what it looked like. That truth spell seems to work on him.”

“And he seems to want to stay out of that hellfire for as long as possible, too,” said Elida.

“Hellfire?” asked Eliazer. “No, I don’t want to know. You ladies have gotten yourselves into some really dark stuff. I’d recommend staying clear, but sometimes you just can’t do that.”

“No, sadly I can’t,” I said. “That’s not my fate. But I hope my fate is to defeat Drakoll and help everybody.”

“This Drakoll fella is bad news,” Eliazer said. “I hope you do beat him. Better off without him.”

“My thoughts exactly,” I said. “This is really some excellent tea.”

“Like it? I make it myself, getting the leaves of the …” He went into detail about exactly the right season to harvest the leaves for drying. We also talked about the best way to cut that chain, and the best way to get the talisman off Drakoll once it was cut. Eliazer knew a lot, it was clear. If I ever wanted to make a talisman that wasn’t a conduit for pure evil, I knew whom to ask.

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I was surprised at how many of the fairy folk there were and how many willing to aid in the hunt. I even discovered a Gnome or two who had fought Drucilla in the past and had several artifacts that held her traceable essence. They, too, and many of their elite begged to aid in the hunt.

It amazed me as I infused the huge gathering with the power of light before they all vanished into their own version of a portal. It was true – after all those, my powers hadn’t diminished in the least.

Sylvia had brought me a very pretty little thing that looked like a jewel-encrusted 22-inch flatscreen monitor and placed it on a table in front of me.

She patted me gently on the head and said softly, “Now, before I teach you how to use the illuminator, I have something to give you.”

I looked around. Sylvia was standing behind me in her human form, with several others. There were many creatures from Sauria, and they were dressed in regal robes.

A really cute little elven guy held in his hands a plush purple velvet cushion with what looked for the world like braiding made of pure gold. The adorably cute Elfette standing next to him held a very thick volume in her arms. I noticed what rested on the cushion, then looked at Sylvia.

I asked, “What’s this, Sylvia? Am I graduating or something?”

Sylvia picked up the artistically bejeweled crown. It was shaped like a wonderfully stylized dragon, with what looked like rubies for eyes and mouth. “I suppose you could say that,” she said. Everyone knelt as she intoned, “Oh High Mage, Wielder of the light, Empress of all Sauria.”

A soft murmur rounded the room then, and the Elfette with the large book stood up and opened it. In the most wonderful voice I had ever heard, she sang. I didn’t know the words, but motes of light tinkled and twinkled all around like fireflies. The one with the cushion approached me, alongside another individual who looked for the world like some sort of salamander, only wearing regal robes.

The salamander person picked up the crown delicately from Sylvia’s fingertips as he intoned, “By the power invested in me since the dawn of this age, by all the realm’s highborn agreement, and the selection of time, I crown you …” He placed the crown on my head and continued, “Emperess of all Sauria and the realms pertaining to their holdings. All the power and due authority is now yours.”

As soon as the crown was on my head, I felt a huge surge of energy run all through me. I began to glow brightly white. Once again, everyone bowed and intoned at the same time, “Long Live Empress Lila.”

I sat with my mouth open in total shock. I mean, I’d sort of known it was going to happen, I suppose, but to actually have it happen … that was another ball of wax.

Sylvia stood, came over to me, and said, “Now, this is how this thingamabob works.” I watched as she touched the jewel-encrusted rectangle and brought up pictures of each of the volunteers I had infused as they searched through the realms for Drakoll.

“No sign of him here,” said a tall, slender, bald-headed male fairy in an orange robe. “Portaling to the next realm on my list.” His background shifted, and he began searching in what looked like a mountainous region.

A short, stocky, red-headed female elf in green overalls held up a crystalline vial, which sparkled in the light, but she said, “No, the essence isn’t reacting at all. He’s not in this realm. Guess I’ll check Algia.” There was a flash, and she was in a different place that looked to be entirely made of blades.

“We … did check this realm, right?” I asked. I held up one of the vials of essence. It didn’t react. “Just checking,” I said.

“Worth a try,” said Sylvia, nodding.

On the screen, a fuzzy individual with the face and long ears of a hare but wearing a leather jerkin and a Robin Hood-style hat was in a land of monsters of the worst description, all of them ignoring him, probably because of the protection of the light that I’d given him. He also had a vial of essence and said, “No sign of him here. The next realm to search is … Abysmia.”

There was a flash, and he was in a dark place. It was a cavern – I could see a stalagmite behind him and could hear dripping water – but if anyone lived there at all, they weren’t visible. He held up the vial. It glowed slightly, a green, flickering light.

“Abysmia!” I said. “The essence reacted there! He must be there!”

“I’ll send the message out,” said Elida. “We’ll have everyone focus their search there – it may be one realm, but it’s still a big place.”

“I’ll go there!” I said. “If he’s there, we’ll need all the power we can get!”

“But don’t go charging in,” said Sylvia. “You need a plan.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “What’s this place like?”

Peter had arrived, bringing with him a book on the place. “Abysmia is a realm of caverns,” he said, opening the book to the chapter on the realm of Abysmia. “Not all explored. But if Drakoll is indeed there, it’d be best to search for him in a small flying form – and in a way that doesn’t call attention to yourself.”

“Let’s figure something out,” said Elida. Sylvia nodded.

Once again I was in a small, flying form, as when I’d visited Eliazer. I had a night-vision spell rather than something that put out a lot of light – we didn’t want Drakoll to realize he’d been found and bolt for another realm; we’d have to start the search all over again. I’d have to make my first attack count, but I’d been practicing combat magic, knowing this moment would come.

“Go straight ahead,” came Sylvia’s voice in my head, silently guiding me. I drifted silently onward through the darkness, my eyes enhanced with night vision. “The essence is the strongest that way.”

I kept going but soon reached a dead end. “Must be beyond that wall – teleport to this spot,” said Sylvia, showing me the image of the map she was looking at in my mind. I knew there were many allies waiting to come to my aid the moment I needed them. I teleported to the point Sylvia indicated, another approach that led to one place that was beyond the wall I’d run into. But would it be the right place, or was Drakoll farther along than that? Maybe there was a way to triangulate?

“There can be,” replied Sylvia. “Go down this corridor, and we’ll see how the essence reacts.”

I flew down the tunnel, avoiding the stalactites. The essence was reacting more strongly as I quietly went on. “Try here,” Syvia said, and I teleported to another location. I could tell now that she was triangulating using the map and the readings – “Yeah, he’s somewhere around here,” she said, pointing at a spot on the map that had no caverns connecting to it, “but unfortunately we don’t know how to get there.”

“He’s still a vampire,” said Elida, back at HQ with Sylvia, “so he’s going to need blood – either victims or fresh blood in containers.”

So I listened for the voices or heartbeats of living beings with magically enhanced hearing and tried to smell blood with a magically enhanced sense of smell. And I tried coming up from below.

There wasn’t a light, but there was a smell of blood. His minions had brought him containers, then. “I think you’ve found him,” said Sylvia in my mind. “Just say the word, and we’ll jump in to help. Or think it, anyway.”

I wanted to make sure it was really him. The essence was practically pulling me along. I focused on making myself undetectable. I flew upward through natural caverns but found myself in an area that was clearly artificial; there were carved stone columns and a grand entrance, all in total darkness.

I entered the huge archway. There he was, sitting at a table in a vast library, reading a book of prophecy in total darkness, using vampiric sight. He was still in the body of that pretty young-looking vampire Drucilla, and between her breasts hung that evil talisman. I thought of a dozen spells I could use to attack the chain that supported it, but I knew that anything I did would betray my location.

Time for the plan. I thought, “Now.”

This time I let everyone else light the place up. Drakoll’s sanctum was suddenly full of Light Dragons, ablaze with brilliance. They could fit into this massive cavern in their natural forms. Talisman or no, this was going to be one huge distraction. Still concentrating on being undetected, I returned to normal size and took out my secret weapon – a pair of wire cutters. Teleporting right next to him, I snipped through the chain and pulled the talisman away as Drakoll was still hissing and shrieking at the light. Even the chain burned at my fingertips, so I threw it through a portal into an insulated glass jar I’d made ready beforehand and closed that portal tight.

Without the talisman’s protection, Drakoll was even more vulnerable to the brilliance around him, and I soon added my own. “Curse you – dragons –” he said with difficulty, his voice grating. I could tell he was trying to get away, and the others could too, breathing dragonfire at him to damage his body and prevent him from casting spells. I sliced at his body with intense beams; I could actually hear them as they seared through his vampiric flesh.

And then apparently he decided that this body was done. He left it and formed into his natural demonic form – or tried to, at any rate. There was still the matter of multiple Light Dragons all breathing brilliant fire at him, along with the blinding brilliance that I was adding to the room. His demonic form was that of a gigantic charcoal-gray dragon with glowing red eyes and huge wings, but he was also under attack by multiple enemies. I had to wonder whether he had any more tricks up his sleeve.

I’d been told that demons weren’t as vulnerable to light as vampires were, and that seemed to be borne out as the light itself wasn’t burning him, but the dragons’ fire was certainly proving harmful. And then more allies appeared; Elida and her fae folk friends started combining their magic to attack him. “ENOUGH!” he yelled, a common trick that bad guys seem to always think will stop their foes from attacking, which is ridiculous; why would we listen to him? We kept right on attacking. He was summoning arcane disks of black energy to try to block us, but there were many of us and only one of him. Peter and Sylvia were on opposite sides of him, steadily blasting him with gouts of white-hot purifying fire.

And then he did something I’d never seen before. He fixed his eyes on Sylvia’s, and a red energy flashed between them. I instantly realized that he was trying to do something that I’d been told was impossible: he was trying to turn her into a vampire using the last of his demonic energy. “Not today, Drakoll!” I said, and simply blocked his view by conjuring a stone wall between them. Sylvia’s eyes flickered red before the natural white fire returned to burn the red away, and Drakoll cursed again. He kept trying to dodge and block the dragonfire that kept assaulting him from every direction.

And finally I saw an opening. Perhaps he was tiring or weakening. But I used all the combat magic I’d been taught and speared him through his black heart with a lance of pure light. At that moment, every other attack from everyone else also began to hit; he was no longer able to dodge or block. He was quickly torn to shreds, his demonic flesh burning to ashes and foul-smelling smoke by the dragonfire.

Peter immediately joined Sylvia. “Was that what I thought it was?” he asked her. “Was he trying to forcibly vampirize you?”

“That he was,” Sylvia replied. “It was most unpleasant, but he needed more time than he had. It was a desperate move. Still … if he had that ability … it’s unheard of …”

“Yes,” said Peter. “We’ve never understood how he always managed to find a traitor within the Imperial Palace every time. It seems that, rather than finding one, he made one. I wonder how many vampiric dragons there are out there, in hiding.”

“Is that … it, then?” I asked. “Is the cycle broken? I mean, I’m sure there’s lots more to do, but have we done what we came here for today?”

Elida flew up to me. “One moment,” she said, holding her hands out in front of her, fingers spread wide. Something appeared in front of her momentarily, something like a vast interconnected web of fine threads. “It seems to me that the chance of the cycle continuing has dropped dramatically – but it still isn’t zero. There’s still a chance that it could be reestablished – but I’m not sure by whom.”

“Perhaps Drakoll still has powerful minions who could take his place,” said Peter. “If so, we should find and destroy them as soon as we can, before they grow stronger.”

“Agreed,” said Elida. “But first, let’s go home. I think we can celebrate a little – and this isn’t the best place to make plans, anyway.”

“Yes, let’s get out of here,” I said. I made a portal. We all returned to Earth.

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I knew the people who lived on this current version of Earth had no idea of the major conflict that had just begun to rage. Only the merest of ephemeral energies separated them from realms that could drive many insane.

I watched the Illuminator’s magical screen as it showed me where a major battle was about to take place. I wasn’t privy to how it was discovered, but the main grotto the vampires used as their base was now being attacked.

I watched as hordes upon hordes of the undead in many of their conjured forms responded to the invasion of light. I was amazed at their resilience to the burning fatality of the light. They might have lost thousands in that first wave of the assault, but something I hadn’t taken into consideration was the many hordes of minions who weren’t affected by the purifying light. They had human and animal minions both, and they weren’t bothered. Even some demons weren’t particularly affected by light.

This didn’t mean we were helpless; it just made it a lot more messy. Massive detonations of white light exploded through the dimness of the grotto. Detritus and debris splatted everywhere amid the thick crowd of minions.

They too attacked using some of the basest and darkest magic a demon could teach a mortal and not have it kill him. The explosions of dark magics amid the troops of light did considerable damage, although we had abilities to heal and recover that they didn’t share.

As the troops of light advanced deeper into the darkness of the massive grotto, the more many of them felt total disgust. They waded through all the dead and dismembered, and the loose shreds of the bodies of those unfortunates to have been caught in a light bomb blast.

It was well known among the vampires that mass killing and bloodshed were anathema to a wielder of light – or that’s what they thought. What the minions weren’t told was that there were certain instances where such things are ignored … like completing the Dragon’s Compendium Cycle for the return of the Emperess of Sauria. Wielders of light were permitted to kill when they were directly fighting the forces of darkness.

The battle raged on. I was impressed at the abilities given to a mere minion. Made them a true adversary, although darkness might put up a good fight at first, the overwhelming power of light eventually prevailed.

The grotto sustained more and more damage and looked like some sort of charnel house on steroids by the time the forward team came to a large, very thick wooden door bound with heavy iron bands.

The largest of the Photonic Knights came to the door and said sarcastically, “Should I knock, or just barge in?”

There was laughter as a voice replied, “Best have manners. Knock first. Let them know their worst nightmare is here.”

The Photonic Knight snorted a laugh as he took his mailed fist and slammed it against the wooden planks the door was constructed of. A loud smashing crash as the incredibly thick door shattered. Its debris flew off into the room beyond.

Nalgrim turned. He was wearing his very ornately embroidered full Master Sorcerer's Robe. He held in one hand the Orb of the Abyss and his wand in the other. “Light against dark, is it? From what I know of the Dragon’s Compendium …”

Nalgrim never got to finish, as the Photonic Knight who had bashed the door in cut him off, “Right. The Compendium is nothing but garbage now. Drakoll is dead, and his cursed soul is in the fiery pits for his eternal reward.”

Another of the knights said, “Yes, from what I understand, the cycle we have been caught in these many centuries is about to be broken by the new Empress.” He pointed toward Nalgrim and said, “and we are here to see that it finally is. The one vampire who was to survive has been killed. The demon who has actually been restarting the cycle each time has been killed, and now, it’s your turn.”

There was a tremendous explosion of light where Nalgrim had been standing. The entire sanctum was basically destroyed or seriously damaged in the overpressure of the blast. When all the dust had cleared and light levels returned to normal, Nalgrim was still standing, with the orb held out in front of him.

OMG! Now I knew who the other demon was; it was Nalgrim. He was literally a vampire Demon. Not like the others. I was almost sure this was the demon who really did always start the cycle over. He was both demon and vampire and started the cycle all over by recreating vampires and demons once again. Had Drakoll just been an underling who had been allowed to seem like he was in charge for all these centuries?

It would make sense, but I had to know. I stood up and prepared to teleport there. “No!” said Elida. “You have to stay here! If you go there, you’ll be in danger, and so will the whole plan!”

“But … Nalgrim! He’s supposed to just be a vampire, and he took all of that light without a scratch!”

“He’s got the Orb of the Abyss,” Sylvia said. “I recognize it. It was supposed to have been lost.”

“Some sneaky plan is in play,” agreed Peter.

“But Nalgrim – he could be the real demon!” I said.

“Or he could just be a vampire with a super powerful artifact,” said Elida, holding my hand. “Let the Photonic Knights and the others handle it.”

“It’ll be your turn soon,” Sylvia said.

I sighed. “OK, but I think people are going to get hurt. Who are the Photonic Knights anyway?”

“In the realm of Elysia, the greatest champions of honor and justice are gathered once their time on Earth has passed,” explained Peter. “Imbued with the raw Light and gifted with armor and weapons crafted from the purest noble metals, they await the time when the cycle calls for them.”

“I see.”

Nalgrim’s image on the Illuminator spoke. “You seem surprised,” he said to the Knights. “Can it be that the famed Photonic Knights are at a loss for words?” He incanted a phrase, then the Orb began to pulse insistently with blackness.

“It’s – it’s drawing us in!” said the Knight who had been first to enter the room.

“Charge!” called the second one. Their armor shone like the Sun as they stormed Nalgrim’s chamber, but they found neither the two leaders nor Nalgrim.

“Darius? Christoph?” said the squadron leader. “What has happened to them? Search the sanctum!” The Knights and their other troops left no stone unturned and disassembled the vampires’ secret lair, but there was no sign of them, or Nalgrim.

Frankly I still have no idea where Nalgrim went to hide, or where he met with the surviving vampires, demons, and minions. They must have had a place to retreat to, just in case.

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“Orb of the Abyss?” Fyodor’s spirit said when I brought him out and questioned him about it later. “I read about it in a book, but I thought it was a thing of the past, something that was lost a long time ago. Guess I was wrong.”

“Well, that’s not as important as why Nalgrim, not Drakoll, had it,” I said. “Who is Nalgrim? Is he more than he seems?”

“He’s a big shot in the vampire world; that’s for sure,” said Fyodor. He looked as if he were pacing around inside the crystal as he talked. “I don’t know how long ago he was made into a vampire. Turned me at the beginning of the 19th century, and Vladimir was already one of his brood. He might know more, but getting him to tell you anything would be a feat. But no … I know who made Nalgrim into a vampire, but I don’t know when.”

“Oh? You know who Nalgrim’s vampiric master is?” I asked.

“Yeah.” Fyodor gulped. “About that. It’s supposed to be a big secret. I’m supposed to suffer all kinds of horrible torments if I talk about that. But … hey, I’m already dead. OK. There’s this guy named Necromos. He’s Nalgrim’s master. Super scary. I think he’s a vampire dragon.”

“But that’s not supposed to be possible,” I said.

“Well, a vampire can’t make a dragon into a vampire, that’s for sure,” said Fyodor. “But a vampire didn’t do it. It was Drakoll himself. Subdued a dragon on the imperial court, they say, killed him, and used his demonic power to raise him as a vampire under Drakoll’s command.”

“Necromos is a vampire dragon? So why give Nalgrim the Orb of the Abyss? Why didn’t Drakoll have it, for that matter, if it’s so powerful?”

“That I don’t know, except that we all keep secrets from each other,” said Fyodor with a shrug. “Maybe he searched for it for centuries, finally found it, and kept it quiet, as a sort of ace in the hole. Pretty sure Necromos would love to have it. And he could make Nalgrim give it to him, too – if he knew about it. So I don’t think he does.”

“OK, that is actually some useful information there,” I said. “That knowledge could cause strife. I’m perfectly fine with there being strife among the enemies of all life.”

“Oh yeah?” asked Fyodor. “Be careful. Necromos has things up his sleeve too.”

“How do you destroy an Orb of the Abyss?” I asked.

“Considering that it’s basically a black hole without gravity and that you could pour all the universe’s light into it without filling it up, I think the only thing that can do it would be some kind of artifact dismantler.”

“Dismantler,” I said.

“Yeah, nobody’s seen one of those things for a long time either,” said Fyodor. “Unless one of you guys has one. I didn’t think so. There are spells, rituals really, but they take weeks. I guess you could do the last word trick.

“You mean the trick where you do the ritual all but the last word?” I asked. “Leave the spell hanging in the air until you need it? I mean, others can sense it hanging there, but maybe they don’t know what it is.”

“It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what spells you’ve got set up,” Fyodor said.

“I’ll have to think about this.”

“Yeah, of course.” I locked him in his box again.

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“So there is a vampire dragon,” said Peter with a scowl at the next meeting. “We’ve always thought that was impossible – that our souls were immune to that corruption. But when you have the power of a Demon Lord, maybe a dragon’s immunity is no protection.”

“This Necromos is the link between Drakoll and Nalgrim,” said Sylvia. “He’s going to be trouble. And we still have to defeat Nalgrim, and rescue Christoph and Darius if we can. Likely they were pulled into the Orb.”

“We have to cancel out that orb somehow,” I said. “I’m going to have to do some research. There has to be a spell or ritual that can dismantle it as an artifact.”

“Yes,” said Bolide. “There is the Ritual of Disseverance. It takes a week to perform all the steps. I’ve never done it, but it’s described in Analexis’ Codex of Rites.”

“Good,” I said. “That’s what we need. That thing makes Nalgrim very dangerous. We have to take it out. Since I’m being kept off the battlefield for some reason …”

“You’re far too important to risk, Your Majesty!” said Peter.

“Then I will devote myself to learning and performing this ritual so we can use it to take away one of the enemy’s most powerful weapons and possibly rescue those two Photonic Knights.”

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I found a secluded place with a comfy arm chair and decent access to the fridge in the kitchen. Light wasn’t an issue, as I created my own. Before I started work on the ritual … something was bothering me about the Compendium and the current cycle of time.

I was surprised to find that the Dragon’s Compendium had somehow changed. The words that told of events that the current timeline could no longer lead to along its course were faded and looked very light and gray. The part about Drakoll the Slayer having been the one who killed Thermatrax was still clear, but the mentions of him in the future were fading out. The part about there being vampires in the army of darkness were fading, but the fact that there was still a horde of dark warriors waiting to take the realm back again was not fading at all. The book had changed to fit what had changed in reality.

Nalgrim and Necromos … well there hadn’t been mentions of them to begin with, Nalgrim because there would be a high-ranking vampire minion no matter which cycle it was, and Necromos because Drakoll had kept him a carefully-guarded secret. But when I turned the page …

I looked at the picture that showed the past and future me, all dressed in my Royal Empress regalia. I was still mind-blown over actually being the one … and it was like a light came on. All the words and pictures were gray when they were about the part of the cycle that now couldn’t happen due to the major changes we’d made, including the fact that several of the people necessary for it to continue along that path were dead, gone, or otherwise dealt with.

But the part of the Compendium that was about me was bright and clear. None of those words or pictures had in any way faded, nor had the pictures lost their sharpness. I read through what appeared to be current events, only they took place in the last time cycle. And the future … was still another cycle. It still continued forever. The part that was bright and clear was now … myself. Time was still doomed to loop forever, and I appeared set to make sure it did.

It wasn’t fair. I didn’t want this role for eternity. I wanted people to do what they wanted to do. I wanted there to be free will. But here I sat, a symbol of the inevitability of fate.

Unless …

I summoned a large page of paper and a quill pen. I wrote out my intentions in my best handwriting signed my name. I added the date in the human world, because I used to be a paralegal for a living, and that’s just how it was done. Then I rolled the page up, sealed it with a ribbon, and sealed it again with a spell. It wouldn’t open until I unsealed it, or until I died. It was my last will and testament – my final order as Empress. It vanished from sight once the sealing was done, stored away until the right moment.

I looked around the huge room I had created. I saw Lydia off in the distance on her thick play mat with her ruffled bottom in the air as she pushed a small squeaking car with roly poly eyes along. I knew the eradication of the vampires was rolling along smoothly. None of them so far could stand against the large army led by the Dragons of Light.

But there were still Nalgrim, this Necromos person, and whatever demon and vampire minions they had left. They could still cause problems.

It was time to begin the ritual.

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Fortunately it was rather straightforward. I had to collect some exotic materials, but as Empress it wasn’t hard to have them collected. The dragons and other magical folk all agreed that the Orb was an artifact of darkness that needed to be dismantled for the good of the entire universe.

So I created the magical space with painstaking attention to detail. I made the marble floor with the gold-inlaid symbols, interlaced with a single hair from a kirin’s mane. I made the inverted mallet and chisel, seemingly impossible. I practiced the chants and then performed them at the appointed times, striking the truesilver bells in time. And after a week of this … I stopped short of the final word.

The spell hung there, nearly finished. I could feel it. I had no doubt that anyone with any magical ability could feel it too. They wouldn’t know what spell it was, but they’d know it was there.

And while I was at it, I did the same with a few other spells. That way, they wouldn’t know which ones I’d used and which ones I hadn’t. I had no experience with magical duels. I just wanted to have a few tricks up my sleeve, since Necromos and Nalgrim would certainly have some of their own.

Then it was time for the next meeting with the council.

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“I’m ready,” I said.

“Ready?” asked Bolide. “You’ve researched the ritual?”

“More than that, I’ve done it.”

“Done it?” Peter asked. “We don’t have the Orb. What could you have performed the ritual upon?”

“To clarify, I’ve performed the ritual all except for the last word,” I explained.

“Oh, I see, the last word trick,” said Elida with a grin. “Sneaky. I can tell you’ve got several of those ready to go.”

Sylvia broke in. “But you’re not going out there to face them in battle – it’s too risky, unless … it’s …”

“Exactly,” I said, finishing her sentence with, “unless it’s absolutely necessary. How many more troops has Nalgrim simply vanished with that Orb of his?”

“Several, and more than that,” said Peter, “this Necromos character came out of the woodwork the other day and made the battlefield erupt in chaos. We don’t know how he’s doing it.”

“Though we have a few ideas,” Bolide said.

“Still, we need a plan to get me in front of Nalgrim while he’s got the Orb,” I said. “He doesn’t have to be actually using it. It just has to be there.”

“We’ve got an upcoming assault on the Vaults of Gron,” said Adamant. “It’s one of the last surviving vampire holdouts on Earth.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Nalgrim will want to be there. He won’t want to lose what could be his last Earth foothold. Let me be there, and I’ll unleash the ritual’s power on his Orb. It’ll get pulled apart.”

“Well,” said Sylvia, “it’ll certainly reduce the threat he poses.”

“Three hours,” said Peter. “That’s when we attack.”

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If it had only been Nalgrim, it would’ve been easy. The dragons easily cleaned up the vampiric minions, some of whom had been converted from humans just days ago. And their souls went to burn in the fires of perdition nonetheless. We had to stop this; Nalgrim and Vladimir were still convincing people to let them do this to their souls for all eternity. But the Vaults of Gron were deep, dark caverns, and the going was treacherous, even though we had all the light spells in the entire magical repertoire to light our way.

I held back at the rear of the advancing army. “Don’t worry,” said Sylvia. “I may have my reservations about this plan, but everyone knows that the orders are to tell you immediately once anyone lays eyes on Nalgrim.”

“But I want Necromos,” said Peter. “A vampiric dragon … such a thing is an abomination. He must be ended.”

And then the world turned inside out.

I don’t know how else to describe it. What was once left became right, what was once together came apart, and what was once apart became together. Dragons on the battlefield found themselves facing each other with demons and vampires surrounding them. This must have been the chaos effect that those who’d faced Necromos had described. But even the forces of darkness weren’t immune; demons who had just been about to deal blows to the Photonic Knights found themselves swinging their axes and swords at one another.

And I found myself suddenly in the same room with Necromos.

He was a huge, gray dragon with tattered wings and some exposed bone showing through his stretched skin, which was held together with metal staples, and one of his claws was seemingly held on by a metal ring. He was truly horrific to behold, but there was also his presence. He was just fear incarnate. Waves of it radiated from him. My resolve started to waver. I didn’t see any of my allies anywhere. “Ah, the Empress graces us with her presence,” he said, and his voice was like an echo in a tomb. I felt the aura of light around myself dimming as he approached. Could I teleport out? I wasn’t sure. With the confusing chaos magic swirling around the battlefield, I couldn’t tell where anything was. What if I ended up inside a rock?

“The cycle of time is threatened,” he said. “I understand that this is something you strive for. But have you considered that you may not emerge victorious? Your victory was guaranteed – and now there is no such guarantee. All falls to chaos and ruin, and so it shall be forever, now that there is no way to start anew. Let us see whether chaos will choose to tear you limb from limb … or merely turn your flesh inside out.” He reached for me with that terrible decayed claw, held on by the metal ring.

Wait. That ring. That metal ring. It had a flow of muted colors within it, like oil on a puddle, constantly changing. I could feel its magic. The ring was pure chaos magic, and he was about to focus it on me. And no one could come to my aid. But it was an artifact, and I knew one thing that would put an end to it.

“Dissevera,” I croaked out. And the force of the week-long ritual was expended upon that ring. I would later learn that it was in fact the Ring of Catharandamus, creation of an evil fallen dragon of antiquity. But now it was no more. The ring collapsed, becoming ingots of iron, a pool of quicksilver, various dusts and powders, and an amorphous laughing blob that was probably a chaos spirit, who promptly departed for other planes leaving only the echo of its giggle in the caverns.

“WHAT?” thundered Necromos, dismayed, and I regained some of my composure. I focused my aura and lit the cavern up brightly again. The beams from my fingers carved burns into his decayed flesh. “What have you done?” he demanded.

“We’ll just have to think of a Plan B, I guess,” I said, letting him figure out what I meant. Maybe there would be another chance to destroy the Orb, or maybe there was another way to defeat Nalgrim, but now Necromos was lacking a powerful artifact that he’d been counting on, so that was at least something. “Peter! Can you hear me? I’m with Necromos!” I used a messaging spell that I’d used several times before, and it had a much better chance of working now that the strange chaos magic was no longer in effect.

It took Peter less than a second to teleport his way to where we were. He appeared in human form – probably because it was easier to find space to teleport into that wasn’t taken up by rock formations in this irregularly shaped cavern – and then quickly took on his dragon form, which was larger than Necromos, and, well, still alive.

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

Once Peter had transformed into his Dragon form, Necromos basically stood with his fiery red eyes wide and full of fire and his mouth open with long tendrils of smoke rolling out. Necromos pointed one of his gnarled and rotting clawed fingers at Peter and said in a rumbling loud voice, “No, it cannot be. I saw you slain, and you miserable skull hung on the door of the Castle of Bone.”

I, too, looked at Peter with big amazed eyes as he replied, “I am now as I was, and as I shall always be. I am the Dragon of Light then, now, and tomorrow. That which I am is not bound by flesh, nor is it contained nor hampered by the powers of darkness. This day, the vile cycle of repetition you and those under you have created will be broken.” Peter began to glow brightly with the purest white light I had ever seen.

Necromos had taken major damage to his rotting flesh by this time. A demon, or a vampire, is only as powerful as that which gives him his power. Peter had, at this point, severed the link between Necromos and whatever his source was by means of the ever-expanding very bright pure white light emanating from his very presence.

Necromos leaned his head back as he stood to his complete height. He was by no means a small dragon, although it was quite plain that Peter was mightier. The battle began with a huge explosion of what looked to me like black fire. That was followed closely by another bright blindingly white explosion of the purest light. Unlike the assault against Peter by the power of darkness, the power of light ripped several strips from the rotting flesh of Necromos and set several places around his huge body on fire.

Necromos howled in pain has he took a huge swing with his long and razor-sharp claws. It raked across the golden shiny scales on Peter’s chest and actually left bleeding slashes where it had penetrated the thick armored scales.

At this point Peter reared back, and I could hear him taking a huge breath, and then another. Necromos shouted, “NO! You cannot have both fire and ice lungs. No Dragon of Light has both.”

Peter narrowed his eyes, and let go a gout of flame the like of which I can hardly describe. It was ... alive. It was a frozen, yet nova-hot burning fire. Necromos screamed in tormented pain as he both froze and burned in the purity of the frozen white fire.

Suddenly, two inky black clouds that seemed to swallow the light around them appeared. Nalgrim appeared to one side with the Orb of the Abyss in his hand and Drakoll on the other with yet another type of dark artifact. I was surprised to see Drakoll, as I’d thought we’d seen the last of him, but it made sense that he was still alive, as he’d been the one who had made Necromos into a vampire, and he had in turn made Nalgrim, and the two of them were still standing.

In the back of my head I remembered something I had read in one of the many ancient tomes. The final confrontation between Thermatrax and Drakoll suddenly played out. OMG! This was it, the final battle that started this particular cycle all over again. No! I refused to allow it to happen again.

With all that was in me, I created the tightest and most powerful beam of holy white light I had ever created. It burned to my deepest soul and crawled up my arm before it leapt from my finger tip and impacted on the arm with which Drakoll held his artifact. His arm fell to the floor of the cavern and lay there twitching as Drakoll screamed in mortal pain. He bled black goo profusely all over.

Without missing a beat, I fired one more at Nalgrim, hitting his arm just behind his wrist. It was sliced clean off, and it too fell to the cavern floor. The artifacts … I had to reach them before … They vanished in a sparkle of tinkling blue white light.

The fae folk had added their assistance in ridding the battlefield of those items. They hadn’t been destroyed, but now what the Compendium had to say about this particular battle could no longer happen unless those artifacts somehow managed to return here.

I was only distracted for a moment, but that was long enough, as a huge, very painful explosion of darkness impacted me and tossed me several yards away, where I landed heavily. I realized that Drakoll was suddenly standing over me with a very nasty jagged bladed knife in his remaining hand. I knew I was about to get stabbed in the chest, and there was little I could do to prevent it.

Without warning, a blue-white ball of light appeared around Drakoll’s hand and the large knife. Both began to glow many colors before the knife vanished and sublimated to nothing, along with Drakoll’s other hand.

This time, a dragon I hadn’t yet met took a hard swipe at Drakoll, knocking him across the cavern and slamming him into the far wall. It seemed the cavalry had arrived. Drakoll’s limp, broken, and badly bleeding body slumped to the floor before vanishing in a brimstone-smelling ebony cloud.

I stood. Almost every bone in my body screamed in pain. I shook my head to clear it. I could see that the battle was almost over and the powers of light were going to be victorious. I have no clue why I did what I did, or how I did it. I held out my arms wide and intoned softly, although the words boomed out and shook the entire grotto, “By the powers of light granted to me I implore the cosmos to our aid. In our hour of need, we beseech your help in banishing darkness and setting all creation free once again.”

It was as if the whole realm was suddenly full of … beings. Huge and extremely powerful beings. They wore armor and dour expressions, and they had wings and weapons. I’d say they were angels, but they were more likely the beings on whom human legends of angels were based. I learned more about what they were later. At the same time, there was a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. There stood a huge black demonic-looking dog, though by now I knew he was not a demon but rather the representation of the neutral force of death, which comes to all living things and does not care for undead mockeries of life such as vampires. The remainder of the vampires fled, although not quite fast enough to get away.

Now, the thing is, that since there were still vampires, I knew that Drakoll, Necromos, and Nalgrim still existed. We still hadn’t managed to destroy any of them yet. Drakoll the demon had used his dark power to create Necromos, who had made Nalgrim and I suppose some others, but Nalgrim was responsible for making most of the vampires that still existed. So although the huge black hound that some call the Black Shuck was rapidly chasing down and devouring one vampire after another, the fact that there was anything for him to devour meant that we still had work to do. I got up, dusted myself off, and took in the situation.

Peter and Necromos were still locked in mortal combat, but it looked as if Peter had gotten the upper … claw, or however you put it for dragons. Subordinate vampires exist for a very good reason, and that’s to feed stolen life force to their masters … and the number of subordinate vampires was rapidly diminishing at this point. I didn’t see Drakoll, but he had to still exist somewhere. Nalgrim was … what was he doing? He was picking up his severed arm and … taking the black glove off its hand? It had come off inside out, and now he was struggling to get it onto his other hand, not easy with only one hand …

Wait. Why would he be worried about some glove in the middle of a battle? That glove was something special. He could not be allowed to get that thing on, whatever it did. I lit up with my full illumination, turned my light into armor, and … felt something. I looked up at one of the giant winged and armored beings, who was looking down at me. They nodded, as if telling me that what I was doing was the correct choice. I felt bolstered by certainty and made a sword of light for myself. It blazed with white fire in my hand as I strode across the battlefield toward Nalgrim. Vampires ran for their lives from the black hound. Dragons saw me moving and got out of my way.

But Nalgrim managed to pull the glove onto his hand with his teeth and let out the most sinister giggle of glee I’ve ever heard. “You’re too late!” he said. “Behold!” And he held his hand up and summoned that Orb of the Abyss back from wherever the fae had transported it. Did that glove allow him to control it? “And now you, Empress, will join your friends in the Abyss!” He gestured toward me, and the black Orb started pulsing. I could feel it pulling at my soul.

I wasn’t going to waste time talking. I sliced at his arm with my sword of light. He tried to block with the Orb, but the sword and Orb passed through each other. His wrist was quickly severed. The Orb stopped pulsing, and its pull ceased.

I grabbed his fallen hand and pulled the glove off. On an impulse I put it on my own hand as Nalgrim cried out, “Noooooooo!” Suddenly I could feel everything that had been sucked into that Orb. Things that were still alive were gradually being torn apart, their energies given to the wielder of the glove to bolster their power. But I had command of it. I ordered it to expel everything inside it that I thought should live – the Photonic Knights it had absorbed, any other forces of light, any unfortunate bystanders, various artifacts of light, and so forth. Artifacts of darkness I left in there.

But then I thought that the Orb didn’t need to continue to exist. I ordered it to swallow itself. I wasn’t sure this would work, and at the last moment I wasn’t sure it was exactly safe to be nearby if it did and put a bubble of shielding energy around it. And then … the Orb popped. The bubble shook as a tremendous explosion took place inside it. I decided to leave the bubble up for a while; the gas and debris inside it were extremely hot.

“No,” said Nalgrim in despair.

“Sorry, no Orb for you,” I said.

“You’ll never know … the lengths I went to …”

“To get that thing, and to hide it from your boss?” I said. “Yeah, and I don’t really want to know. By the way, Necromos, you did know that Nalgrim had the Orb of the Abyss, right?” I directed that at the undead dragon, still fighting what looked like a losing battle against Peter, who showed no sign of tiring. Right then I don’t think Necromos cared.

“I’ll kill you!” shrieked Nalgrim. “I … don’t know how! But I will! Argh!” He leapt at me and started trying to bite at me with his bloody fangs. I directed my light through my sword and fended him off with pure white beams sprouting in all directions from the point of the blade.

And then the Black Shuck came. Its jaws closed on Nalgrim’s head. I didn’t think he was coming back from that one. The dog’s eyes gleamed at me as if to say, “You, one day,” and I nodded as if to say, “Yes, one day, but not today.” He nodded almost imperceptibly and continued his rampage as Nalgrim’s headless body slumped to the floor.

But the dog didn’t have much left to do. Most of the remaining vampires had been made by Nalgrim or his descendants, and with him gone, they were quickly crumbling to bones, and the bones to dust. Vladimir was somewhere on the battlefield, and he must have fallen too. Nobody’s seen him since, and he was one of Nalgrim’s.

“Nooooooo!” rumbled Necromos as Nalgrim’s power was taken from him, and with it the power of nearly all the remaining vampires. The black dog was hunting the few who were left, but there weren’t many. Necromos was almost the last vampire in existence now, in any of the realms.

And the huge, angelic beings stood around watching, refusing to interfere, as Peter took Necromos down one breath at a time, one claw and one bite and one tail sweep at a time. It was clear that Necromos didn’t have long. The huge black dog came to watch, too, waiting to take Necromos’ soul to his damnation but refusing to interfere until the end.

One question remained: where was Drakoll? I had no idea. I wondered how to find out, but then I realized that a lot of his blood, or demonic ichor, or whatever one might call it, was still lying in a noisome black puddle on the floor, still smoking. Magically, it was still part of him, so I dipped the finger of the black glove in it and cast a location spell on it. As if I was going to touch it with my own skin. Come on.

But I immediately got a sense of where he was – and it wasn’t far. He hadn’t had enough power left to get far away. He’d changed form. He was … he was …

I looked up. One of the tall angelic beings didn’t feel right to my senses. There was the one who had nodded to me, and next to that one was another one with … black eyes. No, no, that wouldn’t do. I ran over to that figure’s feet and touched them with the bloody finger, drawing a symbol of true form. And the huge being vanished.

In its place was a wounded Drakoll, his arms growing back out already but still tiny, almost comical, versions of their former selves. “You cannot kill me,” he said to me haughtily. “I am a Demon Lord. Your light magic may slay vampires, but I am no vampire. I am the creator of vampires.”

“What vampires?” I said to him. And indeed, at that moment, Peter’s mighty jaws finally closed on Necromos’ neck, snapping his head off. And the black dog’s eyes glinted as it took the undead dragon’s soul, then reared back its head in a bone-chilling howl. There was a bolt of lightning, and it vanished with a thunderclap, its mission complete. Necromos’ body began turning to dust.

“A once-proud dragon, brought low by … you,” said Peter, turning his head toward Drakoll.

“And what will you do now?” asked Drakoll. “You cannot kill me. I am the dark balance to your light. There must always be balance. I must always exist. I must …”

“NO.” The mighty voice echoed through the great cavern. I realized it was coming from the huge winged beings who stood around us, watching. “YOU ARE NO LONGER REQUIRED.”

One of the gigantic beings speared Drakoll with its sword, moving faster than I’d thought anything that large could. Clearly this was out of our hands. I was glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of that. He was obliterated. He didn’t boil away into dark smoke or any such thing. He just lay there and bled out, from a wound that was basically the size of his entire torso. It seemed rather anticlimactic before I realized that we’d actually already killed him – twice, in fact. He’d just kept escaping. But not this time.

“YOU HAVE A DECISION TO MAKE, EMPRESS,” said the beings. I realized they were talking to me. And then they vanished.

“I’ve already made one,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked.

I explained, “There’s still one piece of the cycle remaining. One thing that’s the same every time. One element that can still cause everything to repeat all over again.”

“And what piece is that?” he asked.

“Me,” I said. “I’m Empress of Sauria, even though I’ve technically never been there. And if I go there, if I set foot in Sauria as its Empress, that’s the Compendium all over again. The cycle begins anew.”

Sylvia was nodding. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, you’re right. So what are you going to do?”

“This,” I said, summoning the scroll I’d made and sealed away. “My last proclamation as Empress.” I untied the ribbon and gave it to Sylvia, who read it aloud.

“I, Lila Norrington, Empress of Sauria, hereby abdicate my throne,” she read, and everyone gasped in shock. “As my final act I designate the Dragon Princess, Klimakalydia, my successor, advising her parents, Platinadasaki and Chrysopetros, to choose such advisors for her as they see fit until she comes of age. It is still my wish to serve the Saurian Empire in any way I am able, but I regret that I cannot serve it as Empress, lest the cycle of time resume and trap us all within it once again. By my hand, and it is signed with Lila’s signature and seal.”

All eyes were on me. “I do this for all of us,” I said. “Thank you for all your support. I hope to repay you by offering you mine, for as long as I live.”

There was applause then, and shouts of exultation. We’d won. The Photonic Knights cheered and high-fived each other, especially the ones who’d been to the Abyss and had been released. The dragons roared thunderously. The fae danced in the air. Oh, there was a better organized party later, but the gladness was sharpest and realest in that moment.

When we finally returned to my home, Peter showed me that the Compendium was … empty. A blank slate on which we would write our own future. I realized that this meant he would also not return to the throne as Thermatrax. He’d no doubt have a position of honor, but he wouldn’t be Emperor again. But he smiled. “I doubt our adventures are over, either of us,” he said.

“Well, the powers of darkness do still exist,” I replied. “And for me, there’s a lot of magic left to learn.”

“For me as well,” he said. “There’s always more to learn, no matter how long you live.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, “I don’t know what to do with this guy.” I took down the coffer containing Fyodor, his soul still trapped in a crystal. “I mean, his advice did help us. But if I let him out, it’s back to eternal punishment in the fires of perdition. That doesn’t seem right.”

Peter said, “Well, it’s a greater power than mine who makes those decisions. It’s unclear what his ultimate fate is. Perhaps one day he’ll redeem himself yet, but I’ll wager he has a long way to go before that happens.”

“No bet,” I replied, setting the coffer back on its shelf. But then the coffer burst open. The crystal cracked and changed form. Tiny arms and legs sprouted from it and quickly grew.

“What? What’s this? What’s going on?” asked Fyodor. But soon there was a tiny crystal figurine standing there on the shelf, looking around in panic.

“I didn’t do that,” I said.

“Neither did I,” said Peter.

“I … what? What happened?” Fyodor looked around, held up his hands, and almost fell off the shelf. “What the … What am I?”

“You are a golem, though a small one,” Peter said. “Someone has seen fit to give you a body.”

“Pretty tiny body, though,” I said. “Still, better than being stuck inside a crystal, only able to talk, and then only when I let you out of your box.”

“This is so, so much better than that,” Fyodor agreed. “Uh, thank you, Powers that Be, wherever you are.” He looked around, not knowing whom to address.

“Well,” I said, “you wanna work for me? Help me out? I’m sure I’m not just going to retire and live in luxury. Trouble seems to come looking for me.”

“I have it on good authority that they’re going to make you the Imperial Sorceress and Counselor,” Peter said to me. “Trust me, you’ll be kept busy.”

“I’ll make you a room to live in,” I told Fyodor. “Doesn’t need to be that big, objectively speaking.”

“You know what? I accept,” said Fyodor. “Don’t know what else to do with myself. Better than burning in eternal fire.”

“And you did in fact kill quite a lot of people, and knowingly consign a lot of other people’s souls to eternal damnation for your own empowerment,” Peter added, “and one simply for your convenience.”

“Uhhhh, yeah, there’s that part too,” Fyodor said. “Th-there’s probably some way to atone for that, right?”

“Let’s just say that you’ve now got two arms, two legs, and a way to start,” I said. “We’ll see if you can impress the Powers that Be with what you do with them.”

“Yeah … let me just get on that,” he said. So I created a room for him, down the hallway that I created, because I didn’t want him living in the same place I did. He could ring the doorbell if he needed something.

“Well, it’s time,” said Peter as the doorway to their home lit up.

Sylvia came through the door, went to the playroom, and picked Lydia up. “Ready to go?”

The gateway to Sauria awaited. “I’m ready.” To a giggling Lydia, I said, “Let’s go to Sauria, Empress!” If all it took to banish the darkness was to be one small candle, why be the bonfire?

Sylvia smiled. One small candle to light many … The power of light had prevailed.

----------------------------------------- THE END -----------------------------------------
Sunshine & rainbows,
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