Artur shrugged. “It’s a good place to be to think,” he admitted. “That’s probably why so few people come here.”
Adriana smiled. “You’d enjoy living here,” she guessed.
Artur shrugged. “I’ve been in worse places,” he grunted. “There hasn’t been anyone living in these parts for generations.”
“The records show that only one of the Stones arrived at the destination planned,” Adriana’s voice was as thin and cold as the air around them. “The others had to be taken elsewhere for safety either before they reached their destination or afterwards. There was a community of magicians who lived to study magic in all its forms. The Sapphire of Truth was sent to them.”
Artur turned around to reply and saw the far-away expression on Adriana’s face. For the second time, he saw her grey eyes had taken on a silver tint. Slowly he reined in his horse.
Adriana jerked as her horse stopped next to Artur’s. Her eyes cleared and she looked at him in surprise. “What is it?” she finally asked when he didn’t speak.
“Nothing,” Artur replied brusquely. “You just looked like you were...somewhere else.”
“Sometimes it happens,” Adriana adjusted her cloak almost in embarrassment. “I’m afraid I’ve been around magic so much that I forget how others might view what happens.”
“It’s eerie,” Artur bluntly told her. “And if you keep doing it while riding, you’re likely to find yourself falling off the edge of the trail.” He indicated the deep gorge to their left with a jerk of his head.
Adriana stared into the gorge then at Artur. “Point taken,” she nodded. “How far are we from the old settlement?”
Artur bristled. “Probably another’s day’s ride assuming we don’t run into an avalanche,” he turned back around and nudged his horse forward. “Assuming there’s anything to find.”
Adriana’s gentle laugh tinkled around them. “I so appreciate your bluntness,” she told him.
Artur glanced over his shoulder in surprise.
“Too many people fear magic and avoid those with it,” Adriana pointed out with a slight smile. “It’s a pleasure to be around someone who speaks his mind.”
“Then this should be the most pleasant journey you’ve ever taken,” he shot back. “We’ll camp here,” Artur pointed towards a nearby cave. He huddled in his jacket as another blast of cold air buffeted them.
Adriana said nothing but she eyed the cave with obvious distaste. She looked around as the howling of a wolf echoed through the thin air. She gratefully dismounted and led her horse into the cave. “Do you think it’s close?” she asked.
“Hard to tell,” Artur admitted. “I haven’t seen any tracks but...” He shrugged and began unsaddling his horse. “Get a fire started,” he told Adriana. “It’s going to get even colder tonight.”
He continued working unsaddling Adriana’s horse as well. He knew Adriana would create a fire with her magic and preferred not to watch. When he finally turned around, he saw Adriana sitting next to the mouth of the cave staring outside. A warm fire was burning halfway between them.
“You’ll freeze if you sit there long enough,” Artur pointed out. He stretched out his hands to the fire as he knelt next to it. He noticed a small pot suspended over the fire and smelled soup beginning to heat. He ignored the fact there was nothing supporting the pot.
Reluctantly, Adriana joined Artur at the fire. “I hate enclosed places,” she muttered glancing towards the mouth of the cave.
“Why?” Artur asked. He smiled to himself when Adriana gave him a startled look.
“I don’t like the idea of being buried alive,” she replied.
“Why?” Artur continued. “Have you ever been buried alive?” To his surprise, the pale witch turned away.
“And you have no fears?” Adriana finally asked.
Artur shrugged. “Everyone’s afraid of something,” he answered. He froze as Adriana suddenly looked at him with cold grey eyes. She looked away after a moment and began unpacking blankets from her saddlebag.
They both looked towards the mouth of the cave as the howling grew louder.
“Just one,” Artur identified. “Not far, either.” After a moment, he looked back at Adriana. “Do you really think Maxen’s Stone is still at that old settlement?”
“Yes,” Adriana slowly nodded looking down at the fire. “The Sapphire reached the settlement. But S’Ten’s Black Knights came searching for it. Eventually, those in the settlement had to flee for their lives.”
Artur frowned noticing how Adriana’s voice had become thin and reedy. Her eyes had taken on a familiar silver tint. The flickering shadows around her seemed to emphasize the presence of those from long ago.
“They could not take the Stone for fear it would be taken from them by S’Ten’s Legions,” Adriana continued. “It was hidden with snow and light...protected by fire and...in view for all to see...but hidden to those who cannot see...”
Artur’s eyes narrowed as he watched her. Slowly, Adriana relaxed and then closed her eyes. Opening them after a few seconds, she looked around almost dazed.
“Are you...” Artur reached out a hand only to see Adriana suddenly pull back.
“I need some air,” Adriana quickly stood and left the cave.
Artur stared at the fire for a minute remembering not only Adriana’s words but her actions. He distrusted anything he couldn’t see or touch. Suddenly he remembered the wolf’s howl and grabbed his sword.
Standing just outside the mouth of the cave, he looked for Adriana. He saw her standing several yards away staring at the nearby mountain peaks. Clutching his sword, he walked in her direction. Fears or not, she needed to be back in the cave.
Almost too late, he heard a deep-throated growl and spun around. Adriana likewise suddenly turned. Artur caught a glimpse of the wolf just as it landed on his shoulders knocking him to the ground.
Grunting, Artur felt his sword slipping from his fingers. He jerked as he felt the wolf’s fangs rip into his jacket. As he struggled to grip his sword, he felt the wolf’s fangs rip his jacket again this time finding the skin beneath.
Artur caught his breath as he felt something hot next to him. The wolf howled and leapt off him. As Artur struggled to bring his sword up, he saw the wolf eyeing Adriana. Before the wolf could leap at her, Artur swung his sword in a wide arc.
The wolf howled as the sword sliced through his ribs. The animal danced away howling in pain. Artur scrambled to his feet wincing as he moved his left arm. This time he saw a ball of fire spring from Adriana’s outstretched hands. This time, the wolf dodged and the ball of fire hissed as it struck a snowbank.
Artur took advantage of the wolf’s distraction and drove his sword deep into the wolf’s side. As he pulled his sword free, the wolf staggered and dropped to its knees.
Artur blinked as the animal seemed to shimmer. He instinctively backed off as the wolf disappeared and a man lay in its place. The man looked up at Artur and snarled baring his teeth in defiance. Then the man turned his head as Adriana approached. Artur quickly started forward as she stood looking down on the man.
“You will die,” the man hissed.
Adriana studied the man coldly. “Think you can foretell my fate better than I?” she calmly asked. “I know what awaits me. And I know what awaits you.” She raised her hand and another ball of fire emerged from her hands to engulf the man.
Artur winced as the man screamed once. He stared at the smoldering remains as Adriana calmly walked past him.
“You need to have that wound tended,” she said as she passed him.
Lucas stared at the charred remains that had once been the gambling hall of Crystal Falls. He ironically approved of the obviously rehearsed story that the fire had been set by a disgruntled gambler. Some persuasion, however, was required before he obtained a description of the disgruntled gambled. He wasn’t surprised that it fit Duncan Lorcan. But the story had Duncan acting alone.
Lucas sighed and sent a messenger to Lord Axter. He could decide what action to take against the village. From the looks of the ruins, Lorcan and his friends probably had about 12 hours’ head start.
He pondered the ruins once again. The obvious way of escape would be across country towards Rhyane. Lucas knew that Josef Rhyane was with Lorcan. Once even close to Rhyane, they would be safe from Lucas’ grasp. Of course, they might try to head northwest towards Woodlands, where Lorcan’s father ruled. It was further and less likely...but it might be what they would try.
“Sir, we’ve found this.” One of Lucas’ men hesitantly interrupted his thoughts.
Lucas absently took the object from the man who quickly backed away. He glanced down and frowned at the wrapped object bearing his name. Gingerly unwrapping it, he saw a topaz which he quickly realized that, while real and costly, bore no magic. He frowned at the printed message.
Too late. Fondest regards - Duncan Lorcan
Lucas crumpled the paper in his hands and called for his horse. Almost without noticing, he crushed the stone as well. He tossed the gemdust to the ground as he mounted.
Starra couldn’t believe she had watched Josef and Duncan actually roll dice to determine which direction they would go. Josef had shrugged and pointed out that Lucas probably couldn’t determine what they’d do if they themselves left it up to chance.
That’s why, against all logic, they were heading due north towards Elhalyn.
She’d argued it was crazy to leave Lucas any message...especially one with a name on it.
Duncan had grinned pointing out it would irritate Lucas, and he wouldn’t think clearly. He declared it had obviously worked because they could find no trace of pursuers.
Levi had nodded and announced he liked the way Duncan thought. Once these unpleasantries were over, perhaps he’d consider a partnership....
“We still need some sort of disguise,” Josef said when they’d stopped for the night. “We’re bound to be observed eventually.”
“There are a lot of refugees making their way across the border to Elhalyn,” Starra recalled. “The part that Christien holds, that is.”
“They just walk across?” Josef frowned.
Starra shook her head. “They have to sneak across,” she admitted. “But if we’re well disguised if we’re caught, we might pass as refugees and nothing more.”
Duncan smiled appreciatively at Starra. “There’s no disguise that can hide your beauty,” he announced.
“Of course there is,” Levi waved his hand. “It wouldn’t be that hard to make her ugly.”
Starra had started to glare at Duncan then turned towards Levi.
“I mean with the magic I possess anything is possible,” Levi quickly edged closer to where Josef was sitting. He peered across the small fire at Starra then at an equally angry Duncan then edged even closer to Josef.
Artur winced as Adriana carefully cleaned the claw marks on his upper arm. “Care to tell me what that was?” he asked jerking his head towards the entrance of the cave.
“One of Lucas’s wizards,” Adriana calmly answered. “Sealed to the Jackal God. He was able to transform himself into a wolf.” She raised her eyes to his. “Obviously, he was looking for us.”
“Obviously,” Artur snorted. “How did he know we were even here?”
Adriana paused and stared at him. “You know the answer as well as I,” she finally answered. “Lucas received that information from someone either at Dedresia, Shi’ar, or Elhalyn.”
Artur’s face contorted. “It didn’t come from either Shi’ar or Elhalyn,” he snapped.
“You will vouch for your people, and I will vouch for mine,” Adriana shrugged as she wound a bandage around his arm. “We solve nothing with this conversation.”
“Who at Dedresia knew?” Artur demanded.
“Eldrin, my grandfather, Evan, and myself,” Adriana answered.
“Evan...” Artur considered. “Leodin’s son....be careful!” he snapped as Adriana jerked on the bandage.
“Evan is not a traitor,” Adriana said coldly. “I trust him with my life and believe in him.”
“I don’t,” Artur snapped jerking his arm away from her.
“Do you believe in anything?” Adriana snapped back.
“My family, my sword, and my horse!” Artur shouted. “And sometimes I question all three!”
“Your arm should heal,” Adriana replied after a moment. “The wound looked clean.” She picked up her blankets and carried them close to the entrance of the cave.
Artur glared at her. “You’ll freeze over there,” he acidly pointed out.
“I doubt it will be colder here than next to you,” Adriana angrily replied curling against the wall of the cave.
Artur started to reply then froze as he heard an ominous rumbling sound. “Get out!” he snapped at Adriana.
Adriana didn’t argue quickly running out of the cave. Artur looked around as he emerged from the cave behind her. He reached out to grab her arm. “Over there,” he pointed.
Adriana took a deep breath as she saw snow cascading down a nearby mountain peak. Even in the dim light, the rolling white snow was clearly visible. After a moment, she resolutely returned to the cave.
Artur watched for a moment glancing up the mountainside over the cave. Then he shrugged and followed. He saw Adriana kneeling next to the fire, her outstretched hands shaking slightly. She looked up as he approached.
“I apologize,” she said softly. “I had no right to say what I did.”
“Why not?” Artur shrugged. “You have a right to your opinion.”
“I had no right to express it that way,” Adriana shook her head.
Artur shrugged again kneeling across the fire from her. “I told you I wasn’t tactful,” he recalled.
Adriana eyes twinkled. “I remember,” she acknowledged.
“Get some sleep,” Artur advised. “I’ll be awake for a while.”
Taking a deep breath, she pulled the blankets around her and lay down next to the fire. “I trust you to protect me,” she said before closing her eyes.
Artur absently frowned staring at the fire for several hours.
Christien tried to shake his head. The dull sour taste of his own blood half-choked him. He finally raised his head struggling against the two men who held him down on his knees.
“How appropriate,” Lucas smirked as he stepped in front of Christien.
Christien closed his eyes then reopened them. “This isn’t real,” he said aloud. “You’re only a nightmare.”
“Life itself is a nightmare,” Lucas smiled. “Who is to say which nightmare is real and which one isn’t?”
“THIS ISN’T REAL!” Christien snarled trying to jerk free.
“Then why are you trying to escape?” Lucas pointedly asked. He raised his head and looked past Christien. “Bring her in.”
Christien jerked his head around to see a struggling Elaina being dragged forward.
“Christien!” Elaina screamed as one of his captors placed a sword at his throat.
Christien’s eyes narrowed as Lucas grabbed Elaina’s wrist. “She’s protected!” he yelled at Lucas. “You can’t hurt her!”
“Now why would I want to hurt her?” Lucas shook his head. “Of course, if she wants to come to me of her own free will...” Lucas laughed as Christien struggled to get free. He turned to Elaina. “They’ll slit his throat if you don’t do what I tell you. Is that what you want?”
Elaina stared at Christien and took a deep breath. “What do you want?” she asked. “The Stones?”
“And more,” Lucas lowered his mouth to Elaina’s neck.
Elaina shivered and moved back. To her surprise, Lucas didn’t try to stop her. Christien grunted, however, as the sword dug into his neck.
“No!” Elaina screamed.
“Don’t, Elaina!” Christien yelled. “This isn’t real! It’s just a nightmare!”
“Is it?” Lucas idly studied Elaina. “Do you want to see his throat slit even in a nightmare?” He reached out and slowly pulled Elaina to him. Carefully, he lowered her to the floor. “Make sure he watches everything,” he said over his shoulder.
Jerking wildly, Christien awoke his hand reaching for the sword next to the bed. Next to him, Elaina stirred restlessly. He glanced around the candlelit room then jerked when he heard Elaina cry out.
“Wake up,” Christien put a hand on Elaina’s shoulder and shook her.
“No!” Elaina screamed as her eyes flew open.
“Look at me!” Christien demanded shaking Elaina again.
“Christien?” Elaina whispered after a moment.
Christien gathered Elaina into his arms and lay back down. “Just a nightmare,” he told her.
Elaina dug her fingers into Christien’s arm and snuggled closer. “Too many nightmares,” she half-sobbed.
“I know,” Christien nodded. Neither of them had managed to get a full night’s sleep for days although he’d managed to keep his own nightmares from Elaina. He gently kissed the top of her head. “Relax,” he murmured. “I’ll keep watch.”
“You have to sleep,” Elaina protested softly.
Christien forced a chuckle. “I will once you’re asleep,” he said. He felt Elaina lean against him and tried to relax. After a moment, his hand strayed to his sword on the trunk next to the bed. Reassured it was close at hand, he resolutely waited for sunrise.
“I can’t stand much more!” Devora sobbed. “All I think about is slitting his lying throat!”
“You must be patient. Killing Stefan will solve nothing.”
“It will make ME feel better!” Devora argued wiping the tears from her face.
“They have all betrayed you. If you kill Stefan, they will kill you in return. Do you want to die?”
“No,” Devora shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to burden you. You’re the only one who cares.”
“You’re not a burden. You’re a treasure. And Stefan’s a fool to throw you away...to choose Careen over you.”
Devora leaned her cheek against the warm hand on her cheek. “You won’t leave me, will you?” she suddenly asked.
“Never. I swear. Your enemies are my enemies. Stefan deserves to be punished, and he will be. But the others are being tricked. Careen has many ways of blinding men...making them do as she wishes. We must help them.”
“I know,” Devora nodded. She trembled slightly as a warm mouth slid across her neck. “I need you,” she whispered.
“And I will always desire you.”
“Father!” Eldrin looked up in genuine surprise as Simon escorted Rik into his chamber. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Sudden decision,” Rik grinned hugging his son. He saw Simon start to leave and turned. “Please stay. I’m hoping you might be able to help.”
Simon exchanged a quick look with Eldrin and closed the door. He sat down at the table across from where Rik and Eldrin were standing. “Is it about Adriana?” he quietly asked.
“No,” Rik assured him quickly. “I’ve heard nothing from them. But I’m sure they’re fine.” He grinned suddenly. “I have the feeling I should be more concerned about Artur than Adriana. When he gets sullen, he can drive a saint to violence.”
Simon smiled slightly although he saw Eldrin’s quickly masked frown.
“Is something wrong?” Eldrin asked smoothing his face.
Rik hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he admitted with another sudden grin. “But since you seem to be a mighty healer, I thought I should come to you.”
“Are you ill?” Eldrin quickly asked although he flushed.
Rik shrugged. “I’m lethargic at times,” he briskly answered. “I’m having trouble concentrating. I find myself daydreaming.”
“Pain?” Eldrin asked with a frown.
Rik hesitated again. “Some,” he finally admitted. “At night. In my hands or legs.” He grinned at Simon. “No offense, but it could just be old age.”
Simon smiled back and waved a hand. “The young know little about growing old,” he wryly acknowledged.
“Sit down, father,” Eldrin requested.
Rik frowned. “I know what you did with Gwen,” he replied. “No such nonsense with me. Do you understand?”
Eldrin smiled. “Yes,” he promised. “I’m just going to scan you to see if there’s anything there that shouldn’t be there.”
Rik nodded and sat down a little uncomfortably.
“How is Gwen?” Simon asked. “I hope she’s recovered.”
“Completely,” Rik nodded. “If the truth were known, she’s the one who actually runs Shi’ar.”
While Rik was talking with Simon, Eldrin lightly touched his hand. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Rik and Simon’s voices faded as he head the steady beat of his father’s heart. Lightly skimming along Rik’s bloodstream, Eldrin allowed the flow of blood to carry him through his father’s body. When he slowly withdrew, he opened his eyes to see Rik staring intently at him.
As Eldrin sat back in his chair blinking his eyes, Rik frowned. “What did you do?” he demanded.
“Nothing, I promise,” Eldrin smiled wearily. “It just takes a great deal of energy.” He saw Rik’s eyes narrowing. “I’m fine, father.”
“Am I?” Rik bluntly asked.
“No,” Eldrin said after a moment. “There’s some sort of poison in your blood.” He glanced at Simon. “Please call Fawn for me.” He glanced at Rik. “She’s really the most gifted of the healers here.”
“Rafael of Elhalyn died from poison,” Rik said flatly.
“You knew something was wrong,” Eldrin stated. “You suspected.”
Rik shrugged. “I know when I don’t feel right,” he admitted. “When Adriana came about searching for the Stone, I had no interest in going. I knew then something was wrong.” He shivered as cool air drifted across his neck.
“Fawn,” Eldrin stood. “I hope you can help. Lord Rik has been poisoned.”
Fawn studied Rik for a moment then smiled. “I can see nothing of its affects,” she admitted. “Perhaps we have caught it in the early stages.”
“How was it administered?” Simon mused. He glanced at Rik. “The Jackal has someone close to you.”
“Impossible!” Rik snapped.
“Not impossible,” Eldrin shook his head. “Unfortunately, it happens.” He exchanged glances with Simon.
“The two of you can ponder that,” Fawn said firmly as she took Rik’s arm. “If you will join me, Lord Rik.”
Rik grinned impishly. “I’m yours to do what you will.”
Fawn chuckled as they left. Eldrin frowned angrily at Simon. “He’s my father,” he muttered. “How dare they to this to me?”
“How dare you assume so much importance?” Simon quickly rebuked him. When Eldrin looked up in surprise, Simon stood. “This isn’t about just you, Eldrin. Others will suffer. Regrettably, some will die.”
“I know,” Eldrin quickly stood and reached out for Simon’s arm. “I apologize.”
“No need,” Simon smiled sadly. “We must make do with what we can do.”
“I’m going to wring that mezle’s worthless neck,” Duncan muttered to Josef. “There was no need to make me a wizened old man.”
“It’s just an illusion,” Josef masked a smile.
“I’m hideous!” Duncan seethed. “He did it on purpose! He just wants to make me look bad in front of Starra!” He glared over his shoulder to where Starra, illusioned to look like a buxom young blonde, held Levi’s hand. Levi had illusioned himself to look like a winsome little boy of three or four.
Josef patted Duncan’s arm. He knew he also looked like an old man. The illusions were good. As long as they didn’t get caught, especially by anyone with magic, they stood a good chance of making it across the border. “If it’s any consolation, Starra’s not happy about how he made her look,” Josef pointed out.
Duncan snorted. “I’m going to wring his little neck,” he promised.
‘I can’t believe any settlement existed here. But the old maps show something did at one time.’ Artur shook his head. If a settlement had ever existed here, it was buried beneath a mountain of snow and ice. He glanced at Adriana. “Are you sure?” he snapped.
Adriana nodded. “I can feel the magic,” she murmured. She ignored Artur’s snort of derision and walked forward. After a few steps, she turned and walked in another direction. To Artur, she reminded him of a bloodhound seeking a scent.
He warily looked around. After the previous attack, he wasn’t taking even the bird flying down in the gorge for granted. He looked back around to see that Adriana had disappeared.
“Adriana!” he shouted automatically drawing his sword. Cursing under his breath, he looked down into the snow and followed her tracks around the rocks. He was startled to find himself suddenly going from standing on snow and in sunlight to standing in what appeared to be a cool grotto. He saw Adriana turn with a look of surprise.
“How did you follow me?” she asked.
“I followed your tracks,” Artur replied looking around. “What is this place?”
“The stone was hidden with snow and light,” Adriana recalled still frowning at him. “An illusion of sorts.” She shook her head. “That still doesn’t explain how you followed me. You shouldn’t have been able to do that. The Stone is hidden from those who do not see.”
Artur irritably shrugged. “Stuff and nonsense,” he decided. “I see very well.”
Adriana studied him for a moment then slowly smiled. “Perhaps you do,” she admitted. “You acknowledge no illusions, do you?”
Artur glared at her. “Is the Stone here?” he impatiently asked.
“I was just about to find out,” Adriana turned back around. She stretched out her arms. Waves of blue and green energy streamed from her fingers towards the back wall of the grotto. Artur nervously clutched the hilt of his sword, his eyes darting back and forth. He glanced at Adriana and saw the grey of her eyes had been replaced by dark silver.
Suddenly a pillar of fire appeared only several feet in front of them from behind a wall of ice. Adriana slowly lowered her arms. Then Artur’s head snapped around as he heard whispers around him.
You’re here...you’re here...at last...who is he?...why is he here?...you’re here...here...
“He is my protector,” Adriana murmured. “Without him I would not be here.”
Artur stepped forward to stand next to Adriana. He glanced at her then at the pillar of fire and repressed a shiver.
“Fire is mine to command now as it ever was,” Adriana pronounced her words echoing in the grotto. “You shall release that which you guard.”
What about him?...he is not like us...he should not be here...let it go...give it to her...we will have peace...
Artur grimaced as the chorus of voices grew louder in their argument. “Tell them to speak one at a time!” he snapped at Adriana.
He hears us...he hears us...he is like us...give it to her...she has come...he must prove himself...they must prove...
Adriana slowly turned her head towards Artur. He forced himself to meet that cold silver gaze without flinching.
They must prove...we must not be tricked...he comes with her...she is truly the one...he could not deceive her...
“Enough!” Adriana shouted suddenly raising her arms. A stream of fire shot from both hands towards the wall of ice.
“Be careful!” Artur snapped glancing at the ceiling. “You’re likely to bury us both!”
A wild laugh escaped Adriana. “Now perhaps you will believe, Artur of Shi’ar,” she promised.
Despite himself, Artur stepped back from the heat generated by Adriana. He eyed the stone wall as it seemed to resist being melted.
Go to it...we believe in you...believe in you...
Grimly, Artur swung his sword against the ice wall just below where Adriana was sending fire against it. He saw it splinter slightly and swung again.
He’s doing it...he must be true...we believe in him...
Artur swung his sword a third time. This time he struck it in the middle of the fire. There was a low rumble and Artur staggered back just as the wall collapsed. He quickly dove to the ground as the pillar of flame shot past him towards Adriana. “Adriana!” he yelled in warning.
Adriana didn’t move. She allowed the fire to engulf her...then smiled in triumph.
Told you he could do it...you were wrong...I was being careful...we couldn’t take the chance...enough both of you...it’s over now...finally over...
Slowly Artur got to his feet staring at Adriana in shock as the flames danced around her...on her...through her.
“It is called witches’ fire.” Adriana’s voice sounded hollow and echoed in the grotto. “It is a cold fire which marks those who cannot control it.” She looked past Artur and pointed. “There is the Stone of Truth. Get it.”
Silently, Artur turned around. He saw the Stone lying on what looked like an altar. He gingerly stepped through the rubble of the ice wall and walked towards it. “What is this place?” he demanded.
“A resting place.” Suddenly Adriana was behind him.
Artur spun around in surprise.
“Take it, Artur of Shi’ar.” Adriana’s eyes blazed with silver light. “Guard it well.”
Slowly Artur took the Stone in his hand. “Who are you?” he demanded as he put the Stone in his pocket.
“I am Adriana,” she replied. “I am Phoenix....wife of Maxen.”
Artur stared at her for a moment. “Phoenix died generations ago.”
“Not exactly.” Phoenix slowly walked to one side staring at the altar. “I managed to save our spirits. But my husband and son had no magic. I had to bring them here. My daughter barely survived so I brought her soon after. Their spirits are the voices you heard. We guarded the Stone once the other magicians fled.”
“And you?” Artur’s eyes narrowed. “What did you do to Adriana?”
Phoenix eyed him curiously. “She was a necessary vessel. I waited very long for such as she to appear.”
“A necessary vessel!” Artur exploded.
Phoenix...leave the man alone...it’s time to leave it to them....come with us...come with us...
Something flickered in Phoenix’s eyes that could have been regret. “They’re right, of course,” she acknowledged. “Guard the Stone well. You will need all you can get to fight the Jackal.”
“I know what needs to be done,” Artur snarled.
Phoenix...don’t hurt the man...be nice...
“He’s arrogant and narrow-minded,” Phoenix’s silver eyes narrowed.
So was I...remember?...it’s time now...it’s been too long...
Phoenix slowly nodded. Artur saw three bright points of light starting to swirl around Phoenix’s head. She smiled gently and murmured something in a gentle voice he couldn’t understand. Then she slowly crumpled to the ground and the lights were gone.
Artur blinked uncertainly. The grotto around him shimmered then disappeared leaving him standing next to an unconscious Adriana and shivering in the cold mountain air.
Fawn smiled fondly at Rik. He was a most cooperative patient not complaining or questioning anything she did. “I wish I had more patients as relaxed as you,” she laughed.
Rik grinned. “I wish I had a healer as pretty as you,” he flirted.
“Better be careful,” Eldrin spoke from the doorway.
They turned to see him lounging in the door with a smile. “The lady is married, Lord Rik,” he warned. “To a very jealous wizard.”
Rik airily waved his hand. “I scoff at such dangers,” he protested with a laugh. “Besides, I’m sure Fawn would protect me.” Both he and Eldrin laughed at her expression.
“What’s wrong with him?” Eldrin said after a moment.
“The poison has already done some damage,” Fawn said slowly. “I’m afraid that damage can’t be reversed.”
Rik stared at her for a moment then waved his hand in dismissal. “And the rest?” he calmly asked.
Eldrin looked away afraid Fawn would see the expression in his eyes.
“As long as you don’t receive any more, you should be fine,” Fawn replied cautiously. “You will always suffer the symptoms you now experience. They may grow worse in time. Any more poison, however, will most surely kill you.”
“So we have to know how the poison is administered?” Eldrin asked.
“Or who,” Fawn nodded.
“I can’t believe any of my people...” Rik shook his head.
“If the Jackal threatened to hurt Gwen, wouldn’t you be tempted to obey?” Fawn asked with a slight smile.
“Tempted, yes,” Rik nodded. “I’d like to think I wouldn’t do it, though.”
Eldrin shrugged uncomfortably. “You need to stay here until we figure this out,” he decided.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rik scoffed getting to his feet. “I can’t run Shi’ar from here.”
“Don’t YOU be ridiculous!” Eldrin suddenly shouted. “What happens to...Shi’ar if you die of poison?”
Fawn curiously glanced from one man to the other. “If you would agree to stay until tomorrow, I can perhaps create something that might mitigate the effects of any future poison of this nature,” she offered. “But it will not protect you completely.”
“Not good enough,” Eldrin quickly interjected.
Rik raised his eyebrows. “That is perfectly acceptable, Fawn,” he replied softly.
Fawn nodded and decided to leave the two men alone.
Rik held up a hand when Eldrin started to speak. “Don’t even try to change my mind,” he warned Eldrin. “You know...or you should know that it’s impossible for me to stay here.”
“Then tell Artur,” Eldrin urged. “Tell Stefan. Let them try to find out who’s doing this.” When Rik hesitated, he continued. “After all, you might not be the only one being poisoned.”
Rik frowned at the thought. “Very well,” he agreed. Then he grinned. “But if you hear a sudden explosion from Shi’ar, it’s either Artur or Stefan.”
“Paolo!” Elaina called looking around the front courtyard. “Paolo!”
“I saw him earlier with Christien,” Mikhail called back.
Elaina waved her thanks and returned to their building. She walked back to the cooking area and began preparing the evening meal. A few minutes later she felt arms slide around her waist and someone kissing her neck.
“Christien,” Elaina smiled. “Not now. Paolo will walk in.” She laughed under her breath as she was pulled back against a hard chest.
“He won’t,” Christien whispered. He slowly turned Elaina in his arms and kissed her. “You smell good.”
Elaina smiled even as Christien’s lips parted hers. She slid her arms around him. “I’ve been working all day,” she teased. “You must have spent the day with the horses if you think I smell good.”
Christien grinned. “You’d be surprised,” he teased before lowering his mouth to her neck.
“Mama! We’re here!” Paolo yelled as the front door opened.
“Elaina?” Christien called from the front room.
Elaina stiffened in surprise and looked up.
“You didn’t even know the difference,” Lucas smiled. “Next time, perhaps we won’t be interrupted.”
Elaina shoved Lucas away and stumbled backwards tipping over a bucket of heated water.
Hearing the crash, Christien darted forward. “Elaina!” he yelled. He stopped in the doorway grabbing Paolo by the arm as the boy tried to scoot past him. “Stay here,” he told Paolo.
He carefully stepped into the room and walked to where Elaina stood next to a table pale and breathing heavily. He quickly picked her up and carried her past Paolo into the next room. “Are you burned?” he demanded as he set her down in a chair.
“No,” Elaina shook her head. “No.” She forced herself to take a deep breath. “I was just startled.”
“I’ll clean it up, Mama,” Paolo volunteered.
“No, that water is almost scalding hot,” Elaina shook her head. “But you can go get some more for me.”
“I can do that!” Paolo grinned. He ran out the door yelling for Mikhail.
“What happened?” Christien asked kneeling in front of Elaina. He carefully took her hands in his, startled at how cold they were.
“He was here,” Elaina whispered. “He looked like you.” She lowered her head. “I thought it was you.”
Christien’s eyes glinted dangerously. He reached out and gently raised Elaina’s head. “Did he hurt you?” he forced his voice to remain even.
Elaina shook her head but couldn’t conceal the shudder running through her.
Of course, if she wants to come to me of her own free will...
Christien blinked hard as he remembered Lucas’ words from his nightmare. He quickly stood as the door opened. He relaxed as he saw Paolo, with Mikhail’s help, carrying another bucket of water.
“Thank you,” Elaina took a deep breath and smiled at Mikhail.
“No problem,” Mikhail’s eyes flickered from Elaina to Christien. “I just opened the door for him.”
“Just sit it there,” Elaina brushed her hands. “I need to clean up that mess. If you’ll excuse me.”
Christien nodded. “Go wash up, Paolo,” he told the boy. To Mikhail, he added in a low voice, “Post extra guards tonight.”
Mikhail nodded waiting for an explanation...one he never received.
GO TO CHAPTER ELEVEN