A warrior, healer, wise woman, and wizard must save an ancient world from destruction.
The king knelt beside the woman’s bedside.
“How is that?” He asked and the woman closed her eyes for a moment.
“Four must go into the mountains,” she finally said, “they must find the stone of power and bring back.”
“Who are these four?” The king asked, and slowly the old woman brought her hand up to point at the dark-haired woman standing in the shadows.
“She is the first,” the woman said, “there others will reveal themselves.”
The king’s startled gaze went to his daughter, the woman she had pointed at.
“No,” he said shaking his head, “it can’t be Zara. She is the princess of Rance. She can’t go on a dangerous quest like this.”
“She is the first,” the old woman said again, “but she must beware, the way is fraught with danger. We are not the only ones seeking the stone.”
With those words, the woman closed her eyes and the king knew she had fallen back into the cationic state she had been in.
The king rose and walked to where his daughter stood.
“I must do this father,” she said.
“But what of the danger?” He protested and she shook her head.
“Our world is dying,” she said, echoing the woman’s words. “If I can save it, then I must.”
She turned and walked outside the small hovel, where the woman lived.
“How will you know the others?” The king asked, as he followed her outside.
“I know not,” Zara admitted, “but it will be revealed to me.”
The king looked up at the darkening sky and felt the slight tremor of the earth.
“Time is of all haste,” he said, “I know not how much longer we have.”
“I will seek out my companions,” she said, and turned, walking away from her father.
Neither were aware of the hooded figure standing in the shadow, listening to their conversation. When Zara walked off, the figure waited until the king had moved in the opposite direction, then he began to follow the princess.
Zara became aware of someone following her, after a few minutes. She slowly unsheathed her dagger, then stepped into an alley, waiting for the figure to pass by.
As soon as he did, she grasped the edge of his cloak and swung him around. She backed him against the alley wall, and put her dagger to his throat.
“Who are you?” She hissed. “Why do you follow me?”
“I am one of the three that will help you on your quest.” He said quietly.
Zara stepped back, “show yourself” she said.
The man pulled back his hood. He was a handsome man, with long brown hair. But that wasn’t what Zara noticed at first. He had a tattoo of a dragon on his forehead and Zara stepped farther back in awe.
“You are a guardian,” she said.
“I am the descendant of the great wizard Sloan,” he said, “I had a vision that I am to help you with your quest.”
“How do I know that I can trust you?” Zara asked, “I was told that others seek the stone.”
The man looked her in the eye.
“I give you my oath as a guardian,” he said. “And as you know, a guardian’s oath is binding.”
Zara nodded, and sheathed her dagger, before they stepped out into the street, she stopped.
“What is your name?” She asked.
“I am called Merlin,” he said, then he stepped out of the alley, with Zara following close behind.
“The third one is close,” Merlin said, “I can feel her.”
Zara looked around doubtfully, they had reached the poor section of town, and all she could see were shacks that looked like a good wind would bring them down.
“Here?” She asked with dubiety.
Merlin turned and looked at her.
“Just because someone is poor, doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to save the world.” He said quietly, then turned and continued down the street.
Feeling ashamed of her assumption, Zara followed Merlin.
They walked down the dirty street, until they came to a small shack. Merlin lightly tapped on the door, and a stooped woman, with long red hair, answered.
Her eyes widened when she saw Merlin, then she knelt on the floor in front of him.
“I knew you would come eventually,” she murmured, “but as you can see, I’m too old to make a quest now.”
Merlin knelt beside the woman, and put his hands on her shoulders.
“I know,” he said kindly, “you were a great help to my father. I didn’t come for you, old mother, but your daughter.”
“Ilana?” The woman whispered, and Merlin nodded.
“Her healing skills are needed,” he said, “for the quest we depart on is a dangerous one.”
Merlin stood and gently helped the woman to her feet.
“She is at the hospice,” the woman said, “it seems that her healing skills are needed more then ever.”
“Thank you old mother,” Merlin said, then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a glowing acorn.
“This will help your fortunes,” he said, handing it to the woman.
The woman looked at the acorn in her hand with speechless delight, as Merlin lightly grasped Zara’s arm and guided her out the door.
“What did you give her back there?” Zara asked, as they walked toward the hospice.
“Just a small spell, of peace and prosperity.” Merlin said, “I felt like it was needed.”
He continued to walk down the street, with Zara following close behind.
They reached the hospice, and Merlin quickly led the way toward a large room. Ilana knelt next to the bed of a small child, bathing him with cool water.
“Ilana er Mathis?” Merlin asked quietly and she looked up at them.
She was a lovely woman, despite the fact that her red hair was pulled back in an untidy bun.
“Yes,” she said, “can I help you?”
“I am Merlin er Vito,” he said, “and this is my companion, Zara er Jude. Is there somewhere we, can speak in private?”
Ilana nodded, and stood, then led them to a small room off to the side. She closed the door behind them, then stared at Merlin curiously.
“My mother spoke of Vito often” she said quietly, “she said your father was a brave wizard, who saved her life numerous times.”
Merlin nodded, “and as your mother is, you are a great healer.” He said quietly, “we are about to venture on a dangerous quest, and your healing skills will be needed.”
Ilana nodded, “I will be glad to give aid.” She said, “my healing skills are yours.”
They left the room, and Ilana went to the chief healer. Before she could say anything to him, Merlin gave the man a flask filled with amber liquid.
“This will help greatly,” he said, “a small token for taking away your healer for the time she is needed.”
The healer looked at the flask in awe, then he smiled and hurried off.
“What did you give him?” Zara asked, and Merlin looked at her.
“Something that will heal the sickness that is in this place.” He said, “now. We have one more companion to find.”
He turned and hurried out of the hospice, with Zara and Ilana following close behind.
They walked for miles, leaving the outskirts of the city and entering the countryside.
“Where are we going?” Zara finally asked, and Merlin pointed toward a small settlement in the distance.
“Warrior camp,” he said, “that is where we find the fourth.”
Zara nodded, then followed Merlin as they slowly approached the colony.
“Who goes there?” A voice called, when they had reached the gates.
“Merlin er Vito,” he said, “I come with two companions to seek the fourth of us.”
The gate slowly creaked open, and Merlin entered, followed by Zara and Ilana.
“Who is it you seek?” The guard asked, and for a moment Merlin looked around the settlement without speaking.
“You are the one we seek,” he finally said.
The guard took off his helmet, revealing a handsome face, framed by curly brown hair.
“Your father is Liam er Ring,” Merlin said, “the greatest warrior to ever walk our world.”
The guard nodded proudly.
“You are going to be greater, Aban er Liam.” Merlin said, “for you have been chosen by the fates. You are going to help us save Rance.”
“I will gladly offer my sword,” Aban said.
Merlin smiled slightly, “good,” he said, “stay here.”
He turned and walked toward a large building in the center of the settlement. He pushed past the sentries and entered the office of Aban’s commanding officer.
“I need to take young Aban er Liam,” he said, “I think this will be worth the trouble of losing such a fine warrior.”
He reached into his cloak and withdrew a long dagger.
“This was enchanted by Sloan himself,” Merlin said, placing it into the commander’s hand. “It glows when the enemy is near.”
The commander stared at the dagger in awe, then smiled broadly.
“You may take Aban with my blessing,” he said, and Merlin smiled.
He turned, walking out of the office, and returned to his companions.
“We are ready,” he said, then he turned and walked out of the settlement gates.
“The stone lies in the midst of treacherous territory,” Merlin told the others as they made camp.
“The mountains are home of many evil things. But the most malevolent danger of all, is the man who also hunts the stone.”
“Who is that?” Ilana asked, and Merlin turned to look at her.
“His name is Lustin,” he told her, “my father was his mentor. But Lustin soon turned his back on my father’s teachings, choosing instead to embrace the dark arts.”
“Why does he want the stone?” Zara asked.
“Because the stone holds more then the power of saving our world,” Merlin said, giving her an unreadable look. “It also holds the power of life and death.”
“Immortality,” Zara whispered and Merlin nodded.
“If a mortal wears the stone,” he said, “he becomes immortal.”
Later Zara went down to the river to gather water. A soft shuffling footstep made her jump and she whirled around to find Merlin standing behind her.
“You scared me,” she said.
Merlin smiled, “I’m sorry,” he said, “that wasn’t my intention.”
Zara blushed at the look in his eyes and turned around, kneeling by the river.
“Let me help you with that,” he said, kneeling beside her.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
He was kneeling so close that if she turned her head, their lips would touch.
Slowly he pulled the waterskin she was holding out of her hand, then turned her so she was facing him.
When I had the vision,” he said softly, “I had no idea that I would find more than someone who needed my magic.”
“What are you saying?” Zara asked, leaning closer to him.
He closed the small gap between them, and kissed her lightly on the lips.
“I find myself greatly attracted to you, Zara er Jude.” He said, pulling away.
“I feel the same,” Zara said softly, “from the moment I first saw you.”
Merlin stood up and pulled Zara with him.
“Emotions like this,” he said, holding her softly, “complicate things. But I can’t seem to help myself.”
“This won’t endanger the quest,” Zara said, “neither of us will allow it.”
Merlin pulled away, and smiled at her. Then he hugged her again, as if he was afraid to let her go.
“We venture into the mountains today,” Merlin said, the group had traveled for three days, now they were at the foot of the Xanthippe mountains.
He stopped for a moment and looked at the small group.
“When we first enter the mountains,” he warned, “we are in ghoul territory. But things get bigger and meaner, the farther we travel. There is no safe place in these mountains, we must watch every step we take.”
With those words, he turned and led the small party into the mountains. As soon as they cleared the first jagged stones, it seemed as if the sun had vanished, and everything dimmed considerably.
Zara shivered, and pulled her cloak closer around her. It was not only getting darker, but colder as well.
The mountains were quiet, but Zara got the feeling that they were being watched.
“Merlin,” she said quietly and he nodded.
“I feel it too,” he said, and unsheathed his sword, letting it hang loosely at his side.
Suddenly the bushes parted and the ugliest creatures that Zara had ever seen appeared.
“Solider ghouls,” Aban said, unsheathing his sword. “We’re surrounded.”
Zara tensed up, preparing for a fight. But the ghouls stood there, unmoving.
Finally the parted, and a tall figure in a cape appeared.
The figure stopped in front of Merlin, who tightened his grip on his sword, and raised it.
“Hello Merlin er Vito,” the figure said, then lowered his hood.
Before them stood a man with long blonde hair. He was very handsome, but when Zara looked at him all she felt was revulsion.
“Lustin,” Merlin snarled, looking at the man with hatred.
“Ah,” Lustin said, smiling slightly, “I see you remember me.”
“I remember that you murdered my father.” Merlin said angrily, “you pretended to be his friend, then turned on him.”
“Your father was a fool,” Lustin hissed. “I tried to get him to turn to the dark arts as I had, but he refused. He was so intent on saving me that he didn’t see the trap I had set. Not until it was too late.”
Merlin yelled in fury and lunged at Lustin, but the wizard muttered a few words and sent him crumpling to the ground, writhing in pain.
With a cry of dismay, Zara fell to her knees beside Merlin, gathering him into her arms.
“Release him,” she demanded, glaring up at Lustin.
Lustin looked down at her in amusement, the moved his hand, releasing Merlin from the spell.
“Zara er Jude,” he said quietly, “you are as beautiful as they say and as impetuous. This will be very interesting indeed.”
He turned toward the ghouls.
“Take them,” he said and moved away as they swarmed quickly.
Before Aban could do anything, his sword was taken away and he was tied to Ilana. Zara and Merlin were roughly yanked off the ground and treated the same. Then the four were shoved up the path through the trees that Lustin had taken.
Finally the reached the ghoul’s village and one of the ghouls cut the ropes binding their hands. They were then shoved into a small windowless building and locked in.
Zara quickly lowered Merlin, who was still weak from Lustin’s attack, onto the floor. Ilana quickly knelt beside him and examined him.
“The spell has drained his magic,” she told Zara. “But it is temporary, he will be all right.”
Zara breathed a sigh of relief, then looked up at Aban who was slowly pacing the building.
“There has to be a way out of here,” he muttered, “we have to get that stone. After seeing what Lustin is capable of, I don’t want him getting it.”
Suddenly the door opened and five of the ghouls came inside.
“The master wants a word with you two,” one of them said in a raspy voice.
Aban lunged at one of the ghouls, but he was quickly thrown backwards against the wall. Zara and Merlin were hauled to their feet and dragged out of the building.
They were brought to a large building, where Lustin was waiting for them.
“It seems we’re after the same thing,” he said, when Zara and Merlin were on their knees before him. “And I’m feeling nice enough to offer you a deal.”
Merlin just glared at him, not saying a word.
“I will help you find the stone,” he continued, ignoring Merlin’s glare. “And help you save Rance.”
“And what do you want in exchange?” Zara asked coldly.
“After the stone has done its job, and given Rance the power it needs to survive, I get to take the stone back.”
He paused for a moment and stared at both Merlin and Zara.
“In addition,” he continued. “I get to marry you my beauty, so that I can be the next ruler of Rance. King forever.”
“No!” Merlin shouted, rising unsteadily to his feet.
“Take this,” he continued, holding out the amulet he wore around his neck. “This contains every drop of my father’s power, take this and let us leave in peace.”
“The stone will give me all the power I crave,” Lustin said, sneering at the amulet. “It will make your father’s paltry in comparison.”
He stared at Zara for a moment, the lust evident in his eyes.
“What I want is more then mere power,” he said, “much more.”
Zara stood up and stared defiantly at Lustin.
“I won’t marry you,” she said, “not even for the stone.”
“Then I will kill Merlin,” he hissed, “and take the stone for myself. I care not if Rance dies, there are other dimensions I can flee to, I will survive.”
He glared at Zara for a moment.
“You are a fool not to marry me bitch,” he growled. “But after the wizard is dead, I will have you anyway.”
He turned to the ghouls who were standing at attention.
“Bind him,” he ordered.
“NO!” Zara screamed, rushing at the ghouls who were tying up Merlin.
One of the ghouls grabbed at her, but suddenly he flew backwards, as if hitting an invisible shield.
“You have magic as well,” Lustin said in astonishment.
Zara slowly walked toward the ghouls who were restraining Merlin. They backed up at the sight of the fury on her face, afraid of her now obvious power.
She freed Merlin from his bonds, then turned toward Lustin.
“You can’t stop us,” she said softly, “I am more powerful then you.”
“Who are you?” Lustin asked.
“I am the daughter of Noemi,” Zara said and Lustin gasped.
Zara turned to Merlin.
“Gather all the weapons,” she told him, “I’ll hold them back.”
He nodded and hurried toward where their weapons had been laid.
Zara turned toward the crowd of ghouls, who stepped back in awe and fear.
“I am the daughter of Noemi,” she said slowly, “the great witch of Rance. Any one of you who dares follow us, will face me fury and my magic.”
She turned and glared at Lustin.
“That includes you,” she said, and he snarled.
“This isn’t over,” he said, “I’ll have the power of the stone.”
He stopped and sneered.
“And you my beauty,” he said coldly, “I’ll have you at my feet.”
“Let’s go,” she said to Merlin who had come up beside her.
After they left the building Zara moved her hand, freezing the doorway so that no one could come out, they then crossed to the small shack where their friends were being held.
One of the guarding ghouls came at them, and Merlin stabbed him in the belly with a sword. The other ghouls stood back cautiously, watching the two warily.
“Just let us go and we won’t harm you,” Zara said.
Quickly they opened the door, and gestured for their friends to emerge.
“We must hurry,” Zara said, “I don’t know how long my spell will hold one as powerful as Lustin.”
They hurried out of the village, then Zara masked their departure with a false trail.
“Let’s hope that this gives us enough time to find the stone,” she said.
Merlin nodded, and they started through the forest toward the mountain that held the stone.
“We will stop and rest here,” Merlin said, after they had traveled for hours.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Zara asked with a worried expression on her face.
“It doesn’t matter,” Merlin said, “everyone needs rest, and we need to talk.”
Zara nodded warily, knowing that he would have questions for her, questions she wasn’t sure if she could answer.
He drew her away from the others, moving a safe distance, where they could speak without being overheard.
“Why didn’t you tell me your mother was the Witch of Rance?” Merlin asked quietly.
“I thought you knew,” Zara said, knowing the excuse sounded lame.
“I’m a wizard,” Merlin said, “not a mind reader. This is obviously something you’ve kept hidden.”
Zara looked toward the mountains they still had to cross, before answering.
“Yes my mother was Noemi,” she began, “she met my father when he came to her village seeking aid from an enemy. They fell in love, and even though it was forbidden for my mother to ever marry, they eloped. My father took her back to his home and soon she became pregnant with me. But there was a reason she was never supposed to wed or have children. When she gave birth, all her power transferred itself into my body. As you know, no which can survive without her magic, so she died.”
She looked at Merlin with tears in her eyes.
“But because she mated with a non-magical human. All the power she gave me, is usually dormant. The only time I can use it, is when I get angry. Then it comes to the surface.”
Merlin took her hands into his.
“This is why I couldn’t sense magic in you,” he said softly, “but why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because my father asked me to not tell anyone,” she said. “He’s afraid that if someone finds out about my heritage, that they’ll use it against me.”
Merlin pulled her into his arms, and lightly brushed her tears away.
“You can always trust me,” he said, “I’ll never hurt you.”
They began to kiss, when Aban’s voice intruded.
“Merlin, Zara,” he shouted, “riders coming.”
Quickly Merlin unsheathed his sword and grabbed Zara’s hand. They ran quickly back to where the others were.
“We’ll wait to see if its friend or foe,” Merlin said. “But considering where we are, it’s most likely a foe.”
Merlin and Aban stood in front of the women, their swords drawn, as the sound of thundering hooves drew closer and closer.
Zara grasped Ilana’s hand tightly, and unsheathed her dagger with the other hand.
A large group of horsemen finally appeared, they were all wearing smoky black armor, and Merlin’s eyes widened.
“Shadow riders,” he said quietly.
“I thought they didn’t exist,” Aban said.
“Apparently they do,” Merlin said as the group stopped in front of them.
The leader dismounted from his horse, and approached the four.
“Who are you that dares enter the territory of the shadow people?” He asked in a thundering voice.
Merlin stepped forward and looked him in the eye.
“My name is Merlin,” he said, bowing his head. “These are my companions, Aban the warrior, Ilana the healer, and Zara the wise. We are on a quest of the upmost importance.”
“And what would that be?” The man asked warily.
“We seek the stone,” Merlin said quietly and the man gasped. “I know that your people are magical as mine are. You have felt Rance slowly dying, you can hear her cries of pain.”
The man looked at his companions, then nodded.
“Aye,” he said, “we have. But we didn’t know how to stop it.”
“The only way is to take the stone out of the mountains and use it’s power.” Merlin said, and again the man nodded.
“My name is Wouter,” he said, “I am the leader of the shadow people and I pledge our aid for your quest.”
He looked at the patch of sky that was visible through the trees.
“The hour grows late,” he said, “there can be no more traveling tonight. I ask that you accept the hospitality of my people and spend the night in our village.”
Merlin looked toward his companions, they nodded.
“We would be happy to accept your offer,” he said with a smile. “And we thank you.”
After they arrived in the village, and the others had gone to sleep. Merlin walked out onto the front porch and sat, staring into the dark and quiet forest.
“You seem troubled,” came a voice out of the darkness, and Merlin turned.
Wouter appeared, he had taken off the armor and now wore breeches and a soft black linen shirt, his black hair was pulled back from his face.
“I wonder if the quest will succeed,” Merlin said quietly.
“It will,” Wouter said with confidence, “after all, you are leading it and you are just like your father.”
Merlin looked at him in surprise.
“Yes,” Wouter said, “I knew your father.”
“How did you know him?” Merlin asked and Wouter smiled slightly.
“He was traveling through the forest,” Wouter said, “and he came upon a pack of wolves. They had cornered my daughter in a tree. Sloan saved her life and brought her back to the village. If it hadn’t been for him, I would’ve lost her that day.”
He looked at Merlin, “your father earned my gratitude, he was a brave man who didn’t deserve to die the way he did.”
He looked at the amulet that Merlin wore around his neck.
“Why do you not use your father’s magic to obtain the stone?” Wouter asked.
“Because I cannot,” Merlin said, “I have not reached the level of power needed to control such strong magic.”
“My men and I will accompany you, when you depart tomorrow.” Wouter said, “the stone is three days from here, in the midst of giant territory. You will need our swords.”
Merlin nodded and stood up to go back into the house.
“Merlin,” Wouter said, and he turned to look at him. “Sometimes the path we need to follow, is the one we don’t want to take.”
With those words Wouter turned and melted back into the darkness, leaving Merlin to ponder what he had just said.
The next morning, they continued their journey to obtain the stone. This time they had the accompaniment of ten horsemen, including Wouter.
Merlin had Zara, who had never ridden a horse before, mounted in front of him. He was having a hard time concentrating on anything but the sweet smell of her hair.
They plunged into the forest, and Zara noticed the deeper they got into the trees, the darker and more quiet it got.
She looked around, and saw that the trees weren’t like any she had seen before. They were pure white, and growing so closely together, that they formed a canopy of leaves.
Suddenly the eerie quiet was broken by an unhuman growl. It was so loud that some of the horses reared in panic, before being quieted by their riders.
Quickly the riders, bunched together, ready for an attack.
Zara looked around, but because of the dim light, she couldn’t see anything.
More growls came from the dense underbrush and she felt a shiver go down her spine.
“What is it?” She asked Merlin, who had unsheathed his sword.
“Werepeople,” he said, and she felt the shiver again.
Werepeople were more animal then human and very territorial.
She heard Ilana gasp in horror as red eyes began to appear through the trees, and she quickly unsheathed her dagger.
One of the werepeople burst out of the underbrush and launched itself at Wouter. It’s hard muscled body slammed into him hard, knocking him off his horse.
“Stay with the horse,” Merlin said, as other werepeople poured out of the trees. “If anything happens to me, ride back to the village, quickly.”
Zara nodded, and watched as Merlin vaulted off the horse and disappeared in the teeming mass of the battle. She nervously tried to control the horse, but the smell of blood made the already jittery horse rear and she was dumped hard on the ground.
She felt a searing pain as her ankle twisted under her when she fell, and she was afraid it might be broken.
One of the werepeople, spotted her and smiled ferally when he realized she was helpless. Zara tried to scramble to her feet, but collapsed in agony when she put her weight on her ankle.
The wereperson began to stalk her, and in horror, Zara realized she had dropped her dagger when she fell. She scuttled backwards, until her back hit a tree, and then she closed her eyes, waiting for the attack. Suddenly she heard a yelping noise, and she opened her eyes. Merlin was throwing the lifeless body of the wereperson aside, then he turned and swept her up in his strong arms. Quickly he turned and fought his way through the fray, he carried her to a fallen log where Ilana stood and set her gently down.
“Are you all right?” He asked in concern when he saw the lines of pain around her mouth.
“My ankle,” she said, and Ilana quickly moved to examine it.
“It’s not broken,” she said, “but it is badly sprained.”
She put her hand on it and Zara realized in amazement that the pain immedately ceased.
Aban rushed up, his sword red with blood.
“Their retreating,” he told Merlin.
“Good,” he said, “any deaths?”
Aban shook his head.
“Just werepeople,” he said, “all ours survived.”
“What about Wouter?” Zara asked in concern.
“He’s fine,” Aban assured her, “he decapitated the beast that attacked him, quickly.
“Are you ok?” Abner asked her and she nodded.
Merlin helped her stand, and to her astonishment she could walk on her ankle with no problem.
“You truly do have the healing touch,” she told Ilana.
They all walked back to the clearing, where all the horses had been gathered after the battle.
Zara eyed the horse that had thrown her with fear, but Merlin mounted quickly and held out a hand.
“You need to get right back on,” he told her, “otherwise your fear will rule you forever.”
Zara nodded, knowing this was the fastest way to travel to the stone. She placed her hand in Merlin’s and he helped her up onto the saddle.
“We will travel more before stopping for the night,” Wouter told Merlin. “This place reeks of death and there are more of those beasts out there. I want to get out of their territory first.”
Merlin nodded, and Wouter kicked his horse into a gallop, with the rest following close behind.
Finally they reached the boundary of the were territory, and Wouter halted the weary travelers for the night.
“How far are we from the stone?” Zara asked Wouter.
“It took us longer to travel out of were territory,” he told her, “the stone isn’t far. About a day’s ride from here.”
He pointed toward a large mountain, just visible in the distance.
“That is where the stone lies,” he said, “and where the danger is the worst.”
She nodded, then walked toward the river that ran through the woods. She knelt beside its cool waters, needing time to be alone.
She had knelt there for a time, then stood up, preparing to return to camp. Suddenly she felt a presence behind her and she whirled around, reaching instinctively for the dagger she always kept on her hip. She realized that she had lost it in the battle, then relaxed when Merlin appeared before her.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone,” he said, drawing her into his arms. “Lustin is out there somewhere, and I don’t want you to fall into his hands.”
“I was withing hearing distance of the camp,” Zara said quietly, “I just needed some time alone.”
“I just hate the thought of anything happening to you,” Merlin said. “When I saw you get thrown off the horse, then that wereperson attack you. I almost couldn’t stand it, I want you to be safe.”
“None of us is truly safe Merlin,” Zara said, “we are facing great danger and any of us could die at any second.”
“Then we have to make good use of the time we do have,” he said huskily, then kissed her hard on the lips.
Zara brought her hands up and buried them in his thick hair, as his lips moved hungrily over hers.
Finally they broke apart, and Merlin buried his face in her hair.
“I love you,” he murmured softly, then held her closer as if he never wanted to let her go.
They rose early the next morning, and rode toward the mountain quickly. Finally they arrived at it in the late afternoon.
“Everyone can’t go in,” Merlin told Wouter who nodded.
“My riders will stay here,” he said, “only the original four and I will go into the cavern.”
He turned toward his men who were awaiting their orders.
“Stay here and guard,” he told them, “expect anything.”
They nodded and unsheathed their swords.
Merlin entered the cavern carefully, watching for traps. When he was satisfied that it was safe he motioned the others to enter. Slowly, single file, they traversed the path that wended its way upward.
Zara became aware of a loud wailing noise, then they reached the end of the path. There was a huge chasm in front of them, with only a small rickety looking bridge as the way to get to the other side.
Zara could see the stone laying on a large altar, and she stepped forward.
Merlin put a restraining hand on her, and shook his head.
“The bridge may be booby-trapped,” he told her.
He got a stone, and threw it on the bridge, nothing happened.
“That bridge doesn’t seem like it would hold much weight.” Wouter said, “only two of us should go.”
“I’ll go,” Zara said, “I’m light and I should be able to pass over easily.”
Ilana started to volunteer but Merlin shook his head.
“I’ll be the second,” he said, then turned to Zara, “I’m not going to let you do this alone.”
She looked at him in the eyes for a second, then nodded her head.
Quickly they took off anything that would weigh them down, and handed it to the others.
“Do it quickly,” Wouter said, “that bridge doesn’t look like it’ll hold for long.”
Merlin nodded, then followed Zara as she made her way to the bridge. Slowly she stepped on it, expecting it to crumble under her weight, but it held. They made their way across as quick as they could, but they had to move carefully, because of the swaying of the bridge.
Finally they made it across, and Merlin began to step off, but then he noticed the cracks on the floor.
“Don’t step on those,” he said pointing, “I think their a trap.”
Carefully Merlin and Zara made their way toward the stone, moving slowly in order not to step on any of the cracks on the floor.
They finally reached the altar, and Zara started to pick up the stone. She hesitated, her hand inches from it and looked at Merlin.
“What if this is a trap?” She asked.
“We’ll have to take that chance,” he said, “we’ll just grab it and move quickly.”
Zara grabbed the stone by its chain and they both waited for a second, but nothing happened.
Merlin grabbed her hand and they made their way carefully back to the bridge.
Zara suddenly stumbled, then froze as her foot slid over one of the cracks.
A rumbling sound suddenly came from the bowels of the cavern and the earth around them began to shake as it transformed.
Merlin and Zara began to run, but then she was thrown in the air, and the stone slipped from her grasp. It slid across the floor, falling into a crevice that had just opened up.
Zara ran and fell on her stomach and grabbed at the stone, just grasping it, when the earth shifted again. With a scream she felt herself fall over the edge, clinging to it with her free hand.
Merlin managed to get over to her quickly, and behind him he dimly heard shouts as Aban and Wouter came to their rescue.
Merlin grabbed Zara’s free hand, but knew he couldn’t hold onto her long.
“You need to drop the stone Zara,” he said, “I can’t hold onto you.”
Zara shook her head stubbornly.
“It’s not worth it,” he said desperately, as her hand slipped another inch.
Zara brought her other hand up and Merlin reached his out, to grasp it.
She threw the stone at him, the chain hooking itself around his wrist.
Merlin grabbed at her other hand, but missed, and she looked him in the eyes.
“I love you,” she whispered, then her hand slipped out of his grasp and she plummeted into the chasm.
A long wail of grief ripped out of his throat, as he watched her disappear from view and he clutched the stone tightly in his hand.
Suddenly he felt hands on his shoulders, as someone tried to lift him up, but he shrugged them away.
“I won’t leave without her,” he cried, as tears ran down his cheeks.
“Merlin,” Wouter’s voice cut through his grief, “dying won’t help. Sacrificing yourself won’t bring her back.”
Merlin realized that he was right, and he numbly let Aban pick him up. The three men, quickly crossed the shifting ground to the bridge. As quickly as they could, they raced over it, just as they were safe, the bridge snapped and fell into the chasm below.
They started back down the path toward the entrance of the cavern, when they way was blocked by Lustin and his men.
“So you saved me the trouble of getting the stone,” Lustin said.
He held out his hand and smirked.
“I’ll be taking it now,” he said gleefully.
Merlin glared at him, his grief now changing into rage.
“And what will you do if I don’t give you the stone?” He asked coldly.
“I have enough ghouls, that they’ve outnumbered your men.” Lustin said, “I just give the word and they kill you all.”
He looked around at his men and smirked again.
“It’s really a shame about beauty though,” he continued, “she would’ve been my queen. In whatever world I chose to rule. I guess I’ll just have to console myself with the stone.”
With a growl of anger and grief, Merlin threw himself at Lustin. They stumbled backwards together and Lustin’s foot crossed a hidden crack.
Wouter jumped forward with a curse and grabbed Merlin’s shirt, pulling him backwards, just as a spiked gate came swinging down. It threw Lustin back against the wall and impaled him to it.
Lustin gurgled and shuddered, as blood ran out of his mouth, then his head slumped forward as he died.
The ghouls inside looked at their dead master, and fled from the cave, howling in fear. Merlin looked at Lustin’s dead body, and he felt the burden he had carried for years melt away.
“You are avenged father,” he whispered raggedly, as he fell to his knees.
“We must hurry,” Wouter said, as he helped Merlin to his feet.
Quickly they hurried out of the cave. The ghouls had fled and only Wouter’s men remained.
“The stone is ours!” Wouter yelled and his men cheered.
He helped Merlin mount his horse, then mounted his own. The group quickly rode away from the cavern and started the long journey back to Rance.
Merlin stood outside, as the ceremony for the stone and mourning Zara’s passing was completed. He had chosen not to take part, wanting instead to mourn his beloved on his own.
He heard the shuffling of feet, but didn’t turn, knowing who was behind him.
“The ceremony is done,” Aban said, and Merlin finally turned his head to look at the warrior.
“The stone is in place?” He asked and Aban nodded.
Merlin closed his eyes, and felt great serenity instead of the turmoil of the past few weeks.
“Rance is at peace,” he murmured and again wished Zara was there to enjoy this moment.
“What will you do now?” He asked Aban, “where will you go?”
“The king has chosen me for chief of his personal guards,” Aban said, “and since Ilana will be heading the healing center here, I decided to accept the position.”
Merlin looked at him in surprise.
“You and Ilana?” He asked, and Aban smiled.
“On the journey back, it just sort of happened.” He said, “now I can’t imagine life without her.”
Merlin felt a pain go through his heart and he just nodded.
“What will you do?” Aban asked in a concerned voice.
“I don’t know,” Merlin said, “there’s nothing left here for me.”
He looked toward the mountains, where Zara’s body still lay.
“I might go travel the dimensions,” he continued. “There’s a new one that they just opened up. It’s a young world, that’s only been around for few thousand years.”
Aban looked at him in interest.
“What is this world called?” He asked.
“It’s called Earth,” Merlin answered, “and from what I understand is its inhabitants are always having wars and such. There is much need in a world like this for a peace maker.”
“Are you sure, this is where you’re meant to be?” Aban asked.
Again Merlin looked toward the mountains.
“Wouter told me once,” he began, “that sometimes the path we need to follow, is the one we don’t want to take. I think I understand what he means by it now.”
“May the fates bless your journey,” Aban said, clasping Merlin’s shoulder.
Then the two friends parted ways, each going a different path that their lives were to take.