Shadowed By Demons

Shadowed By Demons

Jim Melvin

May 2013 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61184-287-3

Book Three of The Death Wizard Chronicles

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"Many things roam the streets in the darkness, and some are not human. Creatures lurk in the crannies and alleyways, pouncing on their victims with murderous intent. It is not unusual to be awoken from sleep by screams, but most of us just check the latches on the shutters and press our pillows against our ears, hoping the horrors of the night don’t find their way into our own bedchambers."

Demons roam unchecked as the evil sorcerer, Invictus, tightens his grip on the world . . .

Hounded by Invictus' minions, Torg and Laylah escape into the northern wilds of Triken where the wizard, sorceress, and a handful of loyal companions encounter a menagerie of hideous monsters.

Even worse, the demon Vedana manipulates their every move from her black realm, wielding her wicked magic like a diabolical chess-master.

Against such evil, what hope have they to reach the safety of the White City?

Jim Melvin is the author of the six-book epic fantasy The Death Wizard Chronicles. He was an award-winning journalist at the St. Petersburg Times for twenty-five years.As a reporter, he specialized in science, nature, health and fitness, and he wrote about everything from childhood drowning to erupting volcanoes. Jim is a student of Eastern philosophy and mindfulness meditation, both of which he weaves extensively into his work. Jim lives in Upstate South Carolina in the foothills of the mountains.He’s married and has five daughters. Visit him and


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WHEN SHE RAN like this, all she knew was joy. Her hooves thundered, her white mane fluttered, her green eyes glowed with delight. The Faerie called Bhojja, Jord, and Sakuna, among other names, galloped eastward faster than the wind.

During Triken’s long winter, Vijjaadharaa(which means Faerie in the ancient tongue) had strayed from the mortal world. After removing the demon’s poison from Torg beneath the magical pine trees in the frozen wilderness, she had wandered far in the north, shape-shifting between horse, eagle, woman, and lesser creatures. However, spring had arrived, and now she was needed again.

Like the ghost-child Peta and the demon Vedana, the Faerie had the gift of foreknowledge, though not as superbly developed. However, her superiors kept her informed in ways that were almost as efficient. They were always alert, always watching. And when they saw things that concerned them, they took steps to correct the problem.

The Faerie heeded their call. In the form of Bhojja, she galloped across the Gray Plains and was fewer than ten leagues north of the Golden Wall that encircled Avici and Kilesa. Avici is where the evil sorcerer dwelled. Could Invictus sense her out here, so close to his stronghold? If so, he issued no challenge.

When Bhojja passed farther eastward and eventually reached the foothills of Okkanti, she came to a halt and rested. In two days she had galloped two hundred leagues. Now she fed on sprigs of rye and drank from crystal streams as cold as the cosmos. Bony mountains towered before her. Somewhere in their treacherous heights lay Triken’s salvation.

After her strength returned, Bhojja transformed into Sakuna and took flight, rising toward the peak of a mountain several thousand cubits taller than Asubha, its sides sheer and slippery. The eagle was at home in the heights, taking pleasure in the vertiginous surroundings. Finally she landed on a narrow ledge near the summit and waited there, instinctively comfortable in her choice of location. Though it was early spring, falling snow gathered on her plumage. She plucked out several enormous feathers with her beak and laid them gently on the icy stone. Then she changed into Jord, the green-eyed, white-haired woman, and used the feathers as a blanket.

The first snow giant approached within ten paces before Jord even saw her. Jord had existed on Triken in her current forms for more than ninety millennia, but amazingly this was the first time she had journeyed to Okkanti and seen a snow giant. The creature’s elegant beauty amazed Jord. Like her own Faerie eyes, the snow giant’s were green—but a richer, more luxuriant shade—and her mane was white. This female stood nine cubits tall, slightly shorter than a male. A surprisingly thin coat of fur covered her thick gray hide. Regardless, the cold did not seem to affect the huge beast.

"Are you a sorceress?” the snow giant asked curiously. "We watched from afar as you changed from eagle to human—and were impressed.”


"Others of my kind are nearby. But neither they nor I will harm you. I sense no evil in your nature.”

"Nor I in yours,” Jord said. "And I have certainly not come to assault you. Quite the contrary: I am here to beg your aid. Before I say more, allow me to introduce myself. I am known as Jord.” She held out her hand, and the snow giant smiled tenderly. Long fangs were exposed, but Jord did not find them threatening.

"I am Yama-Bhari, wife to Yama-Utu.”

"Could you ask the others to join us?” Jord said. "Time is of the essence, and I would prefer to not have to repeat myself.”

"You have aroused my curiosity,” Bhari said. "There is rarely harm in listening.”

The snow giant raised her massive arms and let out a howl that echoed eerily among the frozen peaks. Immediately, seven other snow giants appeared. Most of them had been standing nearby, but their colorings blended so well with the ice and stone, it was as if they had been invisible. Even to Jord.

They sat in a circle around her, and though Jord remained standing, they still looked down upon her. One by one, they introduced themselves, including Yama-Utu, who proudly announced that he was the brother of Yama-Deva, the wanderer.

"Have you seen my brother?” Utu said with pleading eyes. "He has been missing for many years, and I have begun to worry. Is it possible he has found mountains even colder and more beautiful than these?”

Jord was stunned. Were these creatures unaware that Yama-Deva had become perverted by Invictus into a creature of malice and was now known as Mala? Then Jord noticed Bhari’s green eyes welling with tears.

"It’s not enough that we’ve lost Yama-Deva to the Sun God,” she wailed. "Now we are losing my husband, Yama-Utu, as well. His grief ruins his mind, and he forgets about his brother’s terrible transformation. Do you wield enough magic to heal Utu?”

"I am a healer,” Jord said, "but I have not that level of strength. Perhaps not even the Death-Knower, known as The Torgon, could perform such a feat.”

"Maranavidu (Death-Knower)...” Bhari said in a tone of awe. "Can you bring Torg to us? We would be most grateful.”

"I cannot,” Jord said regretfully. "At the moment, I’m not even certain where he is. But I can offer you something else. An opportunity for revenge. If you would come with me, you could strike a blow against the sorcerer who has caused your kind so much torment.”

Bhari arched a bushy eyebrow. "And this revenge you offer would heal my husband and his brother?”

"I cannot make such a promise,” Jord said. "But what I have to offer would be well worth the effort, I promise you.”

Bhari sighed and then slowly lowered her huge head. Tears slipped from her eyes, freezing as they fell and clicking against the stone like fallen baubles.

"You do not comprehend us...” the snow giant whispered. "Mayhem is not in our nature. We are not capable of it. Nothing can result from violence but more violence. If you are asking us to fight on your behalf, then our answer is no. Besides, if we left these mountains, we could not survive for more than a few months. Of all our kind, only Yama-Deva strayed from the peaks, and even he never left the foothills—until the day Invictus stole him from us forever.”

"If you do not help me, the world as you know it will fall,” Jord said. "And the evil that destroyed Yama-Deva will rejoice. I admire your pacifism, but it’s obvious you also possess great strength. Will you not wield it?”

"Violence begets violence,” Bhari said. "This is the law... immutable. All of my kind would prefer to perish than to live with another’s blood on our hands.”

Jord grunted. Her superiors had sent her to enlist help for the forces of good, but she saw no help here. What did the Vijjaadharaa know that she did not?

"Do you need food... or a place to rest?” Bhari said. "We can provide comfort, if nothing else.”

"I have neither the need nor the time. My mission is urgent. If you cannot help me, then we must part ways now.”

"We cannot help you,” Bhari said.

Soon after, the snow giants vanished into their surroundings. But when Jord stepped to the edge of the ledge and prepared to transform back into an eagle, a massive hand grasped her thin shoulder. She turned and looked up into the broad face of Yama-Utu.

"I will come with you,” the snow giant said, his voice as resonant as tumbling boulders. Apparently, his earlier confusion had been short-lived. "My wife fears my madness, but in truth I have never been saner. You offer revenge? I thirst for it. I want to destroy the thing that Yama-Deva has become. Will you help me find Mala?”

"I know those who can,” Jord said. "And I will take you to them.”

Utu smiled, but not nearly as pleasantly as his wife. Now the fangs looked deadly.

"Climb onto my back, and I will carry you down,” he said. "We will journey together. And when the need for violence arises, I will be more than equal to the task.”

ON THE SAME day that Jord first met the snow giants, the brother of Yama-Utu—now known as the monster Mala—lay shivering and incoherent in a cave behind a waterfall. It was the morning after his vicious battle with the great dragon Bhayatupa, and Mala was near death.

But he would not succumb on this day. Invictus would see to that.

A band of Mogol warriors found Mala and began his rescue. Blood as foul as poison oozed from a gash on the side of his head and from a dozen other places on his huge frame. His chain glowed sporadically, spewing globules of molten liquid that killed several Mogols trying to rescue him. But the warriors were not deterred, for Invictus had given them orders, and they knew he was watching them even now. They finally managed to drag Mala through a tunnel that led out the back of the cave. Afterward, they built a great litter. It took ten men to hoist him onto it.

Bhayatupa had slaughtered the dracools and the Sampati that had been summoned to aid Mala during his search for Torg and Laylah, but several hundred ravens had survived the assault. Some of these had returned to Avici and alerted Invictus of his general’s dire situation. Some flew back and forth, reporting all that they saw from the skies.

The rescue of Mala was slow, even with a team of wolves dragging the litter. All the rest of that day and night, they managed only two leagues. At that rate, Mala would be long dead before they reached the Golden City. But the next day around noon, another Sampati and a dracool landed nearby. Invictus climbed off the dracool. A thin, muscular pilot leapt off the crossbred condor and quickly roped one of its massive legs to the stump of a tree.

As Invictus approached, the Mogols fell to the ground and buried their faces in the grass, not daring to move. A happy band of crickets stopped chirping, a bubbling spring slowed to a crawl, and a frisky breeze lost its way, no longer rustling the spring leaves, as if Invictus’ mere presence turned off even nature’s sound effects.

With surprising tenderness, Invictus climbed onto the litter and placed his hand on Mala’s boulder-sized forehead. "My dear, loyal pet. I’m sorry you’ve been through so much and that it took me so long to come to you. But do not doubt that I will avenge you. Bhayatupa will become my puppet, before all is said and done.”

The Chain Man moaned but did not open his eyes.

Invictus turned to the Mogols. "You have done well, and you will be rewarded. But you are no longer needed here. Return to Avici and await further orders.”

As if in relief, the wolves and Mogols fled. Only the dracool, the Sampati, and the pilot remained. The man came forward, his wiry limbs trembling.

"Do you wish me to leave?”

"I have need of you,” Invictus said. "Come here now.”

"My liege?”

"I have need of you.”

The pilot hesitated. "I should stay near the Sampati, my liege. It has a wild temperament.”

"Do you disobey me?”

"No, my liege. I would never dare such a thing. It’s just that...”

"Come here.”

"Yes, my liege.”

The pilot stumbled forward, finally clambering onto the litter and staring into Invictus’ brown eyes.

"Give me your hand,” Invictus said.

"Yes, my liege.” The pilot held out his right arm.

"You must have misunderstood my command,” Invictus said. "Must I repeat it?”

"My liege?”

Invictus sighed. Then he grabbed the pilot’s forearm and spat a ball of yellow mucus onto his wrist. The flesh sizzled, and the hand fell onto Mala’s chest, its fingers still wiggling.

While the pilot howled in agony, Invictus calmly said, "If you wish to live, give me your hand.”

"Yes... yes...” the pilot managed to mumble. He reached down with his remaining hand, picked up the severed one, and gave it to Invictus.

"Very good,” Invictus said. "Now you are free to go.”

The pilot scrambled off the litter and ran, disappearing into the woods. Invictus could hear him emptying the contents of his stomach somewhere beyond the trees. He returned his attention to his prized servant.

"Everything’s going to be all right, my general. You saved my life. Now I’ll save yours.”

Invictus’ body glowed. In a slow and controlled fashion, the severed hand began to melt, dripping liquid globs of flesh, blood, and bone. Invictus held it over Mala, allowing the steamy goo to ooze into the Chain Man’s wounds.

"My most loyal servant deserves nothing but the best,” Invictus whispered tenderly.

Mala groaned, and his eyelids fluttered. Suddenly the ruined snow giant tore away the restraints that bound him to the litter and sat upright. Even in a seated position, he towered over Invictus.

"Where am I? What’s happening?”

"You are with me. I am healing you.”

Deep within Mala’s tortured subconscious, did Yama-Deva briefly emerge? The once-beautiful creature looked down at Invictus and seemed to recoil. Then tears sprang from his eyes.

Invictus didn’t care. "Tears of joy, my general? Yes, I have healed you. You and I have much to celebrate.”

The Chain Man smiled broadly, his blood-red fangs glistening in the sunlight, his black tongue stabbing the air like a serpent’s. "My king. You have not forsaken me. I feared you would be angry over my failure.”

"Angry? Never. I love you. You did your best, my pet. Rejoice! Your dreams will come true, I promise you.”

Mala stood shakily.

Invictus reached up and clasped one of the Chain Man’s fingers. Like a tiny father with a colossus for a son, they walked through the field toward their mounts. The Chain Man climbed aboard the Sampati, Invictus the dracool, and side by side they flew back to Avici.



Laylah’s Recovery


IN HER LONG life, Laylah had known a lot of pain. But nothing compared to this.

With methodical precision, a million tiny mouths devoured her body with thorny teeth. She felt as if she were being skinned alive, but it was her essence being peeled away, not her flesh.

The only thing that kept her sane was the man who held her close. Where his body touched hers, she experienced a semblance of relief. Through the hysteria of her agony, she could sense his strength providing just enough succor for her to survive one more moment.

And another... another... another...

Laylah’s back arched. White flames sprang from every pore, flaring inside the cramped chamber. She cried out. He screamed in response. She was hurting him, and she cursed herself. In such a short time, she had grown to love him. She wanted to give him pleasure, not pain. She tried to push him away, but her arms lacked the strength. He was strapped to her like a chain. For better or worse, they would endure this nightmare together.

In some ways her senses were blunted. When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but white. When she tried to listen, she heard nothing but dissonance. She could barely feel the sweat on her skin. Or the blanket on which she lay.

In other ways her senses were heightened. She could smell Torg’s sweet breath and feel the beating of his heart. And somehow, when her eyes were closed, she could see through the stone to where Lucius and the others lay sobbing outside the cave. She wanted to tell them that the pain belonged to her alone. But she didn’t know how.

Laylah’s body went into a spasm, her legs kicking like a pair of insane scissors, her arms flailing against the stone floor with wicked thuds, her eyes opening and closing frenetically, casting beams of molten light that smote the walls and ceiling. In the midst of this chaos, the efrit slept peacefully within her abdomen, perceiving no threat.

She felt Torg hold her even tighter, attempting to corral her white rages with his blue-green might. Part of her wanted to embrace his magic, part of her expel it. But he did not ask for permission. Instead, he rode her waves of agony like a leaf on the surface of a raging river. The worst of her pain went on for almost half the night. Without him, she would have perished.

Just before dawn, the pain finally lessened, allowing her to regain full consciousness and to realize where she lay. Now she could feel the sweat on her body and the chill of the stone. When she opened her eyes, she was relieved to see darkness; the all-consuming white had fled. Even better, the voracious mouths that had tormented her seemed to have lost their hunger and blessedly departed. She shivered in her nakedness. In response, large arms held her. It had not been just a dream amid nightmare. Torg was truly here.

"The tide has turned,” she heard him whisper.

She tried to respond but could manage nothing intelligible.

"Shhhhh... quiet now,” he soothed. "Try to sleep. You need to rebuild your strength. And when you wake, we’ll try a sip of water.”

In the silence of the cave, they lay entwined.

And for a time she knew no more.

WHEN THE FINAL shreds of the murky shroud slipped off the surface of the moon, the explosions of light emanating from the cave ceased. One last puff of smoke issued from the maw, as if the den were burping after a spicy meal. Lucius sat up, wiped tears from his eyes, and stared at the narrow entrance distrustfully, not allowing himself to believe that the dreadful cacophony had ended.

He turned to his companions and was surprised to see that all had fallen asleep. Just a moment before, they had been sobbing and moaning, but now Ugga, Bard, Rathburt, and Elu slept beneath the setting moon as silently as corpses. Even their usual harmonic cascade of snoring was surprisingly absent. But nature’s chorus returned from its temporary absence. Lucius could hear the songs of crickets and the hooting of an owl.

On hands and knees, he crawled to the mouth of the cave and peered inside. He could see only darkness, but could smell the wispy remnants of smoke swirling in the air. For reasons he could not define, his heart pounded like a frightened child’s. Part of him wanted to scramble into the cave and rush to Laylah’s side. But another part knew that she no longer belonged to him, if she ever had. The sorceress was beyond him, in power and scope. Denying this would only cause more anguish.

While the owl continued its lonesome call, Lucius sat outside the cave, his face flushed and swollen. He felt disoriented, as if his body were not his own. He stayed there as the moon plunged hurriedly behind a line of trees.

Even as dawn took hold of the day, the cave remained silent. But it beckoned him, nonetheless. The realization that Laylah was lost to him did not lessen his feelings for her. If he could not be her lover, he still could protect her as a friend. That wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, considering he was little more than a freak born of a madman, being Laylah’s friend was more than he deserved.

With the onset of morning, the tunnel leading to the interior of the cave became partially illuminated, but darkness still obscured Torg and Laylah’s whereabouts. If Lucius were to find the courage to crawl inside, he would need to bring a torch of some kind with him.

"Elu made this for you,” a high-pitched voice proclaimed.

Lucius yelped and sprang to his feet so fast he grew dizzy, staggering sideways against a boulder that fronted the cave. Elu stood nearby, holding a torch—not yet lighted—that he had constructed using bark stripped from a birch tree and rolled into a tube.

"Elu, you scared me half to death,” Lucius said, his cheeks stained with crimson shame.

Rathburt sat up and rubbed his eyes. "What’s all the shouting about? Isn’t it a little early for fussing?”

Bard and Ugga continued to sleep, but now they snored loudly.

"Well, I can see everything has returned to normal around here,” Lucius huffed.

Elu shook his head. "Not yet,” the Svakaran said, handing him the torch. "You must go to the great one and his pretty lady.”

"Imust go?” Lucius said. "What’s so special about me? Why don’t you go? You can squeeze in there better than I. Or how about Master Rathburt? He’s the only one of us out here who wields any magic to speak of. I have no desire to go in there, believe me.”

"Elu does not believe you. We all know that you love the pretty lady. And you are stronger than you look. Go to them. They need you.”

Groaning, Rathburt stood and walked to Lucius’ side. "For once Elu is right. Someone needs to go inside, and you make the most sense. But hurry up. As much as The Torgon annoys me, I have to admit that I’m worried about him... and your sweetling, too.”

"She’s not mine,” Lucius said, motioning toward the cave. "She belongs to him.”

"This is hard enough on all of us without you causing more problems,” Elu said to Rathburt. Then the Svakaran swung toward Lucius. "There are many ways to love someone—and be loved. She might be lost to you in the way you most desire. But she does not have to be lost to you entirely.”

Elu pulled a sliver of flint from a pouch tied to his breeches and held it close to the torch, striking it against the blade of his Tugarian dagger. Instantly the birch bark caught fire.

"Beyond belief, Elu is right twice in the same day,” Rathburt said, but this time his voice was kind rather than derisive. "Lucius, you must go to her... to them. You are connected to her in ways that we are not. And you say I have magic? Maybe so. But I don’t have your courage or strength.”

Lucius didn’t feel the least bit courageous, but it was obvious that none of his companions were in the mood to make things easy for him. Finally, his love for Laylah—along with an ever-growing curiosity—compelled him to slither inside the mouth of the cave. Elu and Rathburt huddled by the opening, while Bard and Ugga continued to snore, heedless of anything but their dreams.

Lucius crawled deeper into the tunnel, sliding the torch along the floor of the cave with his left hand. The flames crackled merrily, but cast only enough light to see about two body lengths ahead. Again Lucius’ heart pounded erratically. He could not pinpoint why he was so frightened, but he felt as if he were on the verge of entering a place he did not belong, interrupting the reverie of a pair of divine beings who might smite him for his insolence. After the previous night’s display of power, Laylah no longer seemed like a mortal. Instead, she felt more like a creature of supernatural magnificence—and not necessarily safe for someone lesser to be around.

Suddenly the chamber before him was illuminated, revealing a pale mass pressed against the stone. His first glimpse of flesh did not look human, resembling a grotesque blob. Had Laylah blown herself and Torg to pieces?

Lucius gasped. But then he realized that what he had seen was a trick of perception. The longer he stared, the more he began to recognize the sorceress and wizard, wrapped in each other’s arms, naked and shivering. Obhasa lay next to them, glowing ever so slightly. Amid his fear and confusion, Lucius felt a surge of jealousy. Then he heard Torg’s voice.

"Lucius...” the wizard whispered. "Bring... bring our clothes. I tossed them out there... somewhere. And get the rest of the blankets. Now that it’s over, she’s... so... cold.”

For a treacherous moment, Lucius considered sneaking over to Torg and throttling him. He could not match the Death-Knower under ordinary circumstances, but with the wizard so weak, could Lucius kill him now? The fantasy was fleeting. Instead of attempting murder, he found himself obeying the wizard’s commands. He leaned the torch against the wall near Torg and hustled back out, barking orders to Elu and Rathburt.

The Svakaran gathered their clothes and blankets while Rathburt rushed to Ugga and nudged him with his staff. The giant crossbreed, who had been sleeping with the Silver Sword protectively at his side, leapt up and waved the weapon in front of him, unsteady on his feet but determined to fight. The commotion woke Bard, who screamed like a jittery child. Despite his own distress, Lucius couldn’t help but chuckle. For the first time, he realized that he considered his companions to be friends.

"Get up, you sleepyheads!” he heard Rathburt saying. "Torg and Laylah are still alive, but they need our help. Do you expect me to do everything?”

"Master Hah-nah is alive? And the pretty lady too?” said Ugga, his deep voice still raspy. "That is very great news! I loves them so much.”

"If you love them so much, then start a fire and make them—and us—something to warm our bellies,” Rathburt said. "Can’t you see that I’m busy with more important matters?”

Ugga and Bard complied, hastily arranging a pile of deadwood. Elu handed Lucius several blankets, along with Laylah’s shawls and Torg’s tunic and breeches. Lucius crawled back inside the cave and returned to the chamber, where he found the wizard cradling Laylah. Though she appeared to be deeply asleep, she continued to shiver. Both were filthy, as if they had rolled in ashes. The chamber smelled like a hearth gone cold.

"I believe she’s going to survive,” Torg whispered. The wizard wrapped Laylah in her shawls before dressing himself. "She was near death last night, but she fought so hard.” He paused, and then said, "Are the rest of you all right?”

Lucius was amazed that Torg would even ask.

"Other than being worried, we’re fine,” he said, also in a whisper. "Ugga and Bard are starting a fire. I’m sure Elu will prepare a nice breakfast. Are you hungry? Will Laylah be able to eat? When will she wake up?”

Torg chuckled. "You always ask a lot of questions, though I’m beginning to find them endearing. Am I hungry? Famished is a better word. Will Laylah be able to eat? Probably not for another day or so, but we need to force her to drink some water. When will she wake up? As my Vasi master used to say, ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ And allow me to answer your next question before you even ask it. Is she healed? She’ll be weak for a while, but otherwise healthy, I believe. The worst is over, my friend.”

Despite his envy, Lucius was touched. "I’ll get water,” he said softly.

"Let me get it,” Torg said. "I need to stretch my limbs and breathe some fresh air. Will you stay with her for a short while?”

At first Lucius wasn’t sure what to say. He was no longer frightened, but he felt even more like an outsider. Still, an opportunity to be alone with Laylah was too precious to decline.

"I’d be honored.”

When Torg was gone, Lucius crawled next to Laylah, wrapped the blankets more securely, and took her in his arms. The side of her face pressed against the fabric of his tunic near his heart. She breathed slowly but with occasional gasps, as if something in her dreams startled her. He stroked her cheek. Her skin felt clammy, and there were lines of dirt encrusted on her lips. He wet his index finger with his own saliva and wiped some of the dirt away, then continued to cleanse her with his tears. Since his encounter with the Hornbeam, he seemed able to cry at a moment’s notice. Was he losing his mind? Did he even have a mind?

One of Laylah’s legs jerked.

Lucius stroked her face again and tried to soothe her by humming, though he wasn’t much of a singer. His love for her filled him with bittersweet pain. If Laylah could not be his, it was better to learn it sooner than later. His mind pondered a life without her as his wife, and an entirely new future was unveiled. If Invictus were somehow defeated and they were all made safe, who was to say that he could not find a love of his own?

"How’s she doing?”

Lucius jumped.

"I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Torg said.

"I scare easily nowadays. And I can’t seem to stop crying.”

Torg chuckled wearily. "Ah, Lucius... I know what you mean. I’ve been the same way. For so-called fighting men, we must appear rather fragile.”

Lucius grunted. Then he stared hard at Laylah’s lovely face. "I’ve known her for more than seventy years. I’ve grown to love her so much. It’s... have to let her go.”

Without warning, Laylah flailed her arm. Both Lucius and Torg squealed. Afterward they laughed.

"Then again, if she moves around like that in her sleep, maybe I don’t want to be with her,” Lucius said.

They laughed even louder.

The sorceress lay still, as if silently pleased to witness the beginning of a friendship.

With tenderness, Lucius relinquished his hold on Laylah and allowed Torg to take her back. The wizard sat next to her and rested her head in his lap. He had brought a skin filled with water, which he drizzled onto her lips. Though she never opened her eyes, she managed to take some in her mouth and swallow. Torg gave her more. She swallowed again.

"A good sign,” he said to Lucius.

They sat for a while without speaking. Lucius was the first to break the silence.

"What was it like being in here with her last night? From outside the cave, it looked like a volcano. How did you manage to survive? I tried to crawl inside, but was nearly burned alive. And why was the eclipse so painful to her?”

"There you go again with your questions, Lucius. As for how I was able to survive? I am a Tugar by birth, and my body is not easily damaged. But the powers that I wield as a Death-Knower are what truly protected me. Your describing what happened in here as resembling a volcano is not so off the mark. Indeed, the white fire that burst from Laylah during her distress was every bit as lethal as an eruption. Still, I was able to contain it, with minimal damage to us—andthe interior of the cave—though Obhasa and I were sorely tested.

"As to why the eclipse was so painful to her? I can only guess. There must have been dozens of times in her life when the moon became enshrouded with shadow, and it’s obvious she survived those occurrences with little harm. But this was the first time that a lunar eclipse followed a total eclipse of the sun. The two together proved too much... almost.”

Torg looked down at Laylah’s face and smiled. "Despite the near disaster, I am hopeful. Invictus was also weakened, which proves that the sorcerer is not impervious to harm. Perhaps, before all is said and done, we can devise a way to defeat him.”

A voice from outside interrupted their conversation.

"Breakfast is ready,” Ugga shouted. "Little Elu has cooked up a dee-lish-us stew! Is the pretty lady hungry?”

The wizard and Lucius laughed heartily.

But then Torg grew serious again. "I would take Laylah outside, but I’m not sure how she’ll react to the sunlight. And right now, she’s too fragile to take unnecessary risks. Go and eat, Lucius—and when you’re finished, please bring a little for me.”

Once again, Lucius didn’t argue.

AFTER LUCIUS left the cave, Torg grasped the thick ivory shaft of Obhasa and positioned its round head a finger-length above Laylah’s eyes. A sheet of blue-green flame fell upon her face, tenderly cleansing her skin and working its way into her hair, ruffling it like a warm breeze as it subtly vaporized filth and oils. Then Torg slid Obhasa downward, cleansing her breasts, underarms, abdomen, and legs. He gently rolled her onto her stomach and swept the staff along her back and buttocks. Eventually she was as clean as if she had taken a soapy bath. 

"I adore you, my love,” he whispered. "If it is within my power, you and I will never be parted. Do you doubt it?”

She moaned in response, but did not awaken. For the rest of that day and night, she slept soundly. The others remained outside. Bard and Ugga scouted the surrounding terrain, searching for signs of the enemy. Finally Elu dared an appearance in the chamber, and when that went well, Rathburt came next. When Bard and Ugga returned, each also squeezed in for separate visits. Torg gave Laylah more water, and she even swallowed a sip of wine and a bit of broth from the stew.

Early the next morning, the sorceress finally opened her eyes. At first, Torg didn’t believe what he was seeing, but then a pale light emanated from her pupils.

"Beloved,” he heard her say, "is this another dream?”

"Laylah, Laylah, Laylah,” was all he could manage. She closed her eyes again and slept. Around noon she sprang awake and announced she was hungry.

Torg called for Elu, and the Svakaran reacted quickly with a bowl of soup made from wild onions and chitterlings.

Laylah managed a few spoonfuls and then fell asleep again, as if drugged. When she woke later that afternoon, she became eager to leave the cave, needing to relieve herself somewhere in private. She managed to crawl shakily through the tunnel without aid. When she emerged, Lucius and the others applauded.

Luckily, the sky was heavily overcast, so bright sunlight wasn’t a problem. Torg led Laylah to a nearby copse and left her there alone except for Obhasa, which thrummed and glowed as if pleased to assist her. Eventually she emerged on her own, using the staff as a walking stick. A cool breeze swirled through her silky hair. Her beauty nearly caused Torg to swoon.

"You’re all staring at me like I’m an invalid,” Laylah said. But then she laughed. And they laughed with her.

"Elu’s soup was good, but I didn’t get nearly enough. What else is there to eat? I’m starving.”

As it turned out, there was plenty. Bard had slain a pair of geese with Mogol arrows loosed from Jord’s bow, and their bare carcasses were already roasting over a fire. They also had berries, nuts, and edible leaves and roots, which they found in abundance near the camp. When evening came, they sat together and feasted like royalty. For the first time in days, the rising of the moon did not seem to perturb Laylah, though she never released her grip on Obhasa.

By the time they finished their meal, the sky had cleared. Laylah wandered from their camp, all the while staring at the moon. Torg nestled beside her. She wrapped an arm around his waist.

"I was hoping you’d join me, beloved.”

"You’re not worried about Lucius?”

"When you’re with me, I don’t worry about anything.”

Torg squeezed her shoulder. "What do you feel?”

"Hmmm? I don’t understand.”

"When you look at the moon... what do you feel?”

"Aaaah. I thought you were asking how I felt about you. But that’s obvious, isn’t it?” She laughed softly. "As for the moon, the wrongness is gone. It feels friendly to me. Replenishing. Like it used to.”

"I’m so pleased. Do you remember anything that happened the night of the eclipse?”

"Not much, I’m afraid. But somehow I knew you were there. You saved my life.”

"You saved yourself. I was humbled by your strength.”

"Don’t be foolish, Torgon. I’m the one who’s humbled. I’ve done nothing in my life to deserve you.”

"Now whose words are foolish? Let’s not waste our time on such talk. Instead, let’s discuss our future. If we’re to spend it together, we must find a way to survive the present. Though we’ve evaded the enemy for now, we remain in danger. The worst thing we can do is stay in one place too long. We’ve risked much with all these cook-fires. I hate to ask you this so soon, but I must. Do you feel strong enough to travel?”

"To be honest, I’m looking forward to doing some walking, especially if you allow me to carry Obhasa. Just don’t be in too much of a hurry and leave me behind.”

"Invictus himself could not force me to do that. What you really need is a month’s worth of pampering, but sadly we are not permitted such luxury. Let’s tell the others that it’s time to move on.”

Lucius was incensed. "Are you insane? She’s barely able to stand, much less walk. How can you expect her to trek through these mountains in the dark? It’s too much to ask of a person who is well, much less Laylah, who’s barely recovered from her ordeal.”

"Nonetheless, it must be done,” Torg said. "Thanks to Rathburt and Laylah, we escaped Mala and the wolves. But Invictus will not rest until we are captured. These mountains will soon be swarming with his minions. We must pass north of Duccarita and reach Dhutanga as soon as possible. Once there, we can decide whether to skirt the forest or venture on to Cariya. Either way leads to the White City.”

"And if she drops dead of exhaustion?”

Torg was about to say more, but Laylah interrupted. "Torg is not forcing me,” she said. "But I will do whatever he asks, without question. Against the threat of Invictus, he is my only hope—our only hope. For my sake and yours, you need to stop arguing with Torg and start doing what he says. He wants the best for all of us. Surely you can see that by now. He loves us.”

"And we love ya too, Master Ogre... er... Hah-nah... er... what do we call ya, again?” Ugga said. "I gets confused.”

"Call him Master Showoff,” Rathburt said.

They laughed, loud and hard.

Even Lucius.



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