World's of Ash: A Fantasy Tale

(hardbacks, and paperbacks, found here: https://www.austinmacauley.com/us/author/rutan-jonathan-lee)

Chapter Forty-Seven

She had to be traveling. Yet it wasn’t like stepping through water or panes of glass, and never once did Ash think she might dream. She hurt too much to dream.

The world got small—crumpled into a tight ball of agony—as the pulling got worse. The sensation was…odd, strange, exciting, great—so many words choked Ash’s throat. She almost screamed.

But then the light pouring through the Centaur Woods vanished into a black that, in turn, exploded rather quick, right back into brilliant rays of red and orange. Ash was thrown to the ground.

There was no gentle tug at her ankles or a nice and easy push at her feet. There was only a shove, one that came at her back. She was sent sprawling onto leaves and the tangled undergrowth of many roots.

For one crazy second, Ash thought she was still next to the SpellMaker’s home. But she had to have traveled. Ash knew it, for sure, as soon as she stood.

No large encompassing circle of trees was nearby, a nice brown pine growing tight into an oak or a dogwood. There was no balcony either which had recently been built to run the length of the SpellMaker’s home. Instead, Ash saw the Centaur Woods as she’d never thought any forest could ever be.

There were still trees here, tons of them, but each was separate and unique—and each was as tall as the trees in Spell. Also, each was ablaze with light. Windows—too many to count—were all over their trunks, and all were on fire with the radiant gleam of whatever it was the Elves had hung up to illuminate their homes.

The light was the source of the reds and the oranges which had exploded before Ash had fallen to the ground. The light was also coming from places not magically put inside some far away branch, but rather places that had grown with the wood. Ash couldn’t see much inside any of these windows, but what she could get a glimpse of were homes so strange she couldn’t help but to be fascinated.

The trees in Athren carried large gnarled bumps, ancient and twisted knots, the size of two to three-story houses. Elves were inside each. Hundreds were at the windows, or they were at large open doors. They were running back and forth, carrying swords or shooting arrows, as an evil tide of gray beasts flowed throughout the forest.

“Athren,” Nawthen said. He was already running towards a tree that held some of the largest conglomeration of bumps and knots. “No!”

Ash looked everywhere, Carolyn suddenly at her side and taking her hand. They were in the center of the city. The way each tree was positioned—as if all had been specifically planted at a distance from where she stood—she could be nowhere else.

Trees a bit further on were connected to each other by an unending highway of rope bridges. They had to allow for any Elf to go anywhere without stepping one foot on the ground, yet right around her, there was nothing except a few stone seats. It reminded Ash of something Casten had mentioned when they’d ben riding across the Kawshun, something about a Theater, and if that was the case, then any last, lingering doubt was gone. She was in Athren’s center.

“What happened?” Ash asked. Her stomach rolled and her legs wobbled, but she couldn’t stop a sudden giddiness too. What was making her so sick yet so happy all at once?

“He,” Carolyn said. Thankfully, she was there. Ash couldn’t have stayed steady without her. “He bent us. Somehow, the SpellMaker…he bent light. I didn’t…that deep into the Centaur Woods…and right outside of Spell…something like that should have taken every Attendant working together, but he…all alone and encompassing such a crowd…I didn’t think it possible.”

An Errun rushed towards them. So far, their arrival had gone unnoticed. The main fighting was taking place on the edges of town with the center of Athren virtually unmolested, but then one gray monster charged.

Instantly, a bolt of red flew from the SpellMaker’s hand as an angry “Kaio” roared from his lips. It was the first mad yell Ash had heard from any Elf besides Lady Mist or Nawthen, and the red it created burned the charging Errun to cinders.

“Is he okay?” Ash asked. Queen Eugin, Amalin, Yorgeth, Warven, and Mythus were with the SpellMaker. The red had driven him to his knees. “Was it the trip? I don’t feel right either.”

They were the only ones. Ash looked to see if her Poppa Henry was still in her mirror, but he wasn’t there. Out of all the people who’d been on the forest floor of Spell, just Carolyn and those five, seven including the already far away Nawthen, had been taken. Counting the SpellMaker and herself, that made a grand total of nine, and though that didn’t seem all that big, Ash supposed it could be quite substantial. If in a place where great magic had a hard time working, maybe bending light around nine folks was like making a mountain walk or turning silver into gold.

“It couldn’t be the trip,” Carolyn said, “the sick feeling…even this weird happy…do you feel happy?”

Ash quickly nodded. “Yeah, what is that?”

Carolyn shrugged. “Don’t know,” she sighed, “but…just anything you could ever feel goes away the more times you bend, and the SpellMaker has bent light way more than any of us. It couldn’t even be the Kaio because creating fire isn’t that hard. He must be weak because…I mean…the amount he took when he bent…I didn’t think it possible.”

The SpellMaker got up, grabbing only Amalin’s hand and shooing everyone else away. He turned to face Eugin.

“Go to your Council,” he said before confirming what Ash already knew. “I bent us into the Theater—your throne room is close. Your Council is there trying to defend your seat from a horde of Errun who decided not to stay in the Cell Room with Pride Syndon. Go to them.”

Eugin stood to her full height, her complete royal authority shining so bright many an Elf paused to hail her. “No,” she said, “if Pride Syndon sent this force, then he must…”

“My Queen,” the SpellMaker said, the first time Ash had heard him call her Queen. “Please, listen to me.”

All the Elves that had hailed Eugin jumped from the trees they were on. None of her guards had been taken when the SpellMaker had bent light, and when she was seen, the Elves either finished with whatever Errun they were with or they simply leapt to the ground and ran to her side.

But the most impressive thing was in how some of them did that. The Elves either rolled when they hit the forest floor, or they cast quick spells not unlike what Mythus had done when he’d gently floated Ash and Carolyn out of the SpellMakers home. But these Elves didn’t surround themselves in anything. Instead, they sent quick bursts of purple to their feet which slowed their descent and made it so when they touched down, they were hardly falling.

“My Queen,” one of the Elves said as he reached Eugin. “Are you injured?”

He had two swords in his hands, both covered in thick gray blood which he made sure didn’t drip anywhere near to Eugin. “I’m fine,” Eugin said, “where am I needed most?”

“The throne room,” the Elf said. He nodded behind him to the largest and most knot and bump-covered tree. It was the one Nawthen had already rushed towards. “We tried to keep the Errun out, but there are too many, and…the Council could fall.”

Eugin sighed. “You are right, SpellMaker.” She reached for the hilt of her sword. “I am not needed with you. However, for a supposedly small attack, this is quite a large Band. Maybe Nawthen is also right, maybe you have ruined us.”

“Nawthen is a fool,” the SpellMaker said. He leaned on Amalin as he spoke. “If you want to be one too, my Queen, go ahead. Or you can listen to the last parts of my last dream.”

Eugin yanked out her sword, a startlingly white weapon that glowed. It lit up the clearing which was already quite bright.

“Your dream,” Eugin said.

“My dream.”

“And it will save my city?”

“It will.”

“Then what must I do?”

“Go to your throne,” the SpellMaker said. He pointed again to the largest tree around, one that was an ancient pine almost as big as the oak that held his Greeting Room. “And take these newly arrived Elves with you. Most everyone else will follow me to the cells.”

Eugin took off. With no more complaints to make, she whipped around, those who’d jumped to her side quickly chasing after.

“The Cell Room is over here,” Mythus said. He nodded behind them. A dead and fallen tree was all that Ash could see. It lay past every nearby stone seat and was on the other side of where she stood. A dark opening was also at its center, and almost as many that were fighting around the pine were fighting there, most too busy trying to kill one another to notice the small group looking their way. “I can lead us…just need to find a weapon.”

Mythus looked at every dead body just outside the Theater, most still holding some sort of bow or blade, until he spied what he wanted. He rushed over to it, and as he did, Ash let go of Carolyn and pulled out Justice. It had been begging for her to do that for quite some time, its presence in her mind now something that could yell even when she didn’t have it in her hands.

“Not you,” the SpellMaker said. Amalin helped him as they walked past Ash and started to head to the dead tree. They went with Yorgeth and Warven right at their heels, both silent yet ready to fight. “Mythus, you will go to where Eugin has already gone. I want you to find Nawthen.”

“What?” Mythus said. He whirled away from the body of some Elf he’d yanked a very nice sword from. “I’m going with you. I’m going with my daughter.”

“No, my Attendant will stay with me, but you should help your friend,” the SpellMaker said, the authority in his voice letting it be known he couldn’t be denied. “Nawthen rushed off to save the Council—you should do the same.”

“More of your dream?” Mythus asked.

“Yes, and I am sorry, but Athren won’t survive unless you go.”

“Then I will do what I must,” Mythus said. He threw the sword he’d taken to Carolyn. She held it as if it were more of a danger than a protection. “Just be careful, my dear.”

“I…I will. But…but make sure you’re careful too.”

Mythus was searching the ground again. He looked for another perfect weapon and found it in seconds. It was a long blade, a gleaming silver sword pulled from the hand of an Elf already done with any fight he could ever give. Mythus held it up as Ash saw something she hadn’t expected. She saw Yorgeth grab each axe at his back before he hurled them into the ground. He walked towards a tiny Elf whose bright yellow hair Ash couldn’t believe she hadn’t yet spotted.

Though the Elf was just outside the Theater, Ash could tell she was younger than Carolyn, she was only a Little that had been left halfway buried under a pile of leaves and roots. When Yorgeth reached her, he knelt. He paused to cup her cheek and close her still and open eyes before he took what she was carrying.

“For this fight,” he said.

Ash had to blink back surprise. His voice was so low. She’d heard him laugh, it had been brief and in her school library, but still, she’d heard him. His laugh had been a gruff thing, yet his voice was a twisted growl. It was something she would have found normal coming from another talking dog—maybe a sick talking dog. Yorgeth sounded wrong.

“I will use an Elf blade,” he continued. The moment was solemn, quite reverent, yet Ash wanted to cringe. She had it now, a perfect picture in her mind. Yorgeth’s voice was rusted nails grinding against shards of jagged glass. “Today, a Dwarf will make the Errun bleed with Elvish steel.”

“As will I,” Mythus added. He turned to Carolyn. Ash, too, looked Carolyn’s way—Yorgeth wasn’t speaking anymore, that was such a blessing. “I will be fine, my dear, I have to talk to you later, and you know I can’t die until I do that.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

The fighting grew louder as Ash neared the dead tree. The group she was with…why were they walking instead of running? And why hadn’t they been seen—like really seen—by more than just the few who had either attacked or gone off with Eugin?

Ash passed by an Elf and an Errun in vicious combat. They each paid her no mind, and with no danger rushing her way, Justice started to overload her with all the mistakes the Elf was making.

How he should have turned his blade this way instead of that. How he’d missed a great opportunity to jump behind the Errun and spear it in the back. Ash couldn’t stop hearing the constant chatter of “he did that wrong,” and “oh, that was so bad.” She was amazed this Elf was still alive.

Yorgeth shook his head and swung his newly found weapon at the Errun’s knees. Ash caught that too—Justice let her know that here, finally, was someone who knew how to use a sword. Such a sight even allowed her to make a guess about what was going on.

Magic had to be in play. Deep magic that made those she was with walk instead of run and also made everyone around her not visible until they made a hurried movement.

When the Errun was down, one of its legs a sudden stump, the Elf saw her. Ash realized as well that when that other Errun had attacked and when those other Elves had seen Queen Eugin, they’d only done so after Nawthen had run away and after Eugin had risen to her full royal height. Unless someone in the group did something drastic, they were ignored. It didn’t answer the whole “why are we walking,” but it did sum up why they’d been left so alone.

“How?” the Elf who’d been fighting asked.

He was another Little that had to be of an age Carolyn had long since passed. Though she did appear youthful, her ever-changing hair and eyes still filled with an emotion that many an Elf had gotten rid of long ago, Carolyn held a maturity Ash didn’t yet possess. Not much, more of a wisdom that some fifteen or sixteen-year-old could have, possibly a way too immature seventeen or eighteen to Ash’s mere thirteen years of age. Carolyn could never hide how young she was in comparison to all the other Elves, but she also couldn’t hide how old she was either.

But the Little who’d been forced to his knees didn’t look young, he was young. It was in his blond hair and around his wide brown eyes. Only the dead female Elf, the one Yorgeth had taken his sword from, seemed like him.

Ash made yet another guess. This Elf had to be under fifty, way under it. And that had to mean the dead girl had been the same.

“It was magic,” Carolyn said.

She took the Elf’s hand. With her help, the Little rose to his feet as Yorgeth finished off the injured Errun with another quick strike of his sword. Ash, too, moved. Her giddiness, all that happy she’d been feeling ever since she’d been taken from Spell, increased. She just wanted to be at this Elf’s side.

“Who,” the young Elf said, “are you?”

“Why aren’t you in Class?” Carolyn asked. She ignored his question as she, too, looked him up and down. “Littles of your age should be in Class, where is the Teacher?”

The Elf turned. He released his hand from Carolyn, yet, oddly, he did what Ash had been doing to him. He stared at her as if nothing else in the world mattered.

“Hi,” Ash said. Her face went hot. She didn’t understand. Why did she like and hate how this Elf looked at her?

“Am I dead?” the boy asked. Carolyn flicked her head from him to Ash. “Are you an Ongell?”

Carolyn sighed harshly and stepped over so she blocked Ash. “We don’t have time for this, where is the Teacher?”

The boy moved so he could still see Ash, but he also pointed behind, past many of the trees—way out into the Centaur Woods. “We were on an Exploration,” he said, “they attacked there and…and up from the Cell Room. It…or…or they…they were everywhere. I…I didn’t have my Trainer like the others, so I ran, but when the Teacher fell, I snuck back and took her sword. I tried to help.”

Ash smiled. “You did well.” There was still something about him.

“Really,” the young Elf asked, “are you an Ongell?”

Ash shook her head. “I’m Ash, and this is Carolyn, and you?”

The SpellMaker was suddenly at the Elf’s side. “He is Sillan,” the SpellMaker said.

Sillan jumped. It was as if he could not believe who was before him.

“Spell-SpellMaker,” he said. “It…you did use magic.”

“A simple Illusory,” the SpellMaker said. He grabbed onto Amalin’s arm even more as he swayed on his feet. “A Nihiloum one I’m afraid I’m not handling very well. It should have kept us invisible no matter who looked our way, but I believe traveling here has weakened me more than I expected. Sudden movements attract attention, and since a few of us are going to be making many more of those in the Cell Room, I might as well drop the whole thing.”

The SpellMaker let go of Amalin’s hand and turned to her. He was about to say something, maybe something important, but Sillan stopped him. The young Elf grabbed the SpellMaker’s arm.

“Not the Cell Room,” he said. “The Errun—when they came, they really did storm out of the woods or they rushed up from there. If you’re weak, you shouldn’t…”

The SpellMaker pried the boy off. “Do not worry, Sillan, it will be alright.”

“You keep saying my name,” Sillan said. He stepped back as he held his sword high. “Was I in one of your dreams?”

“Yes.”

“Then…I can’t let you go down there.”

The SpellMaker smiled. “You know of my dreams, that is good.”

It didn’t seem good. Ash saw how Yorgeth and Amalin were impatient at the SpellMaker’s side. Yorgeth kept up the shake of his head, but he wasn’t alone in his strange behavior. Amalin was flicking her eyes about—over there, over here—as if trying to always spot some hidden prey, while Warven was growling with his haunch up as he every so often nipped at the air, his teeth looking like they were trying to take hold of something just outside his grasp.

The SpellMaker smiled brighter. It was as if he alone was in a serene day, all the nearby dying and strange not important in the slightest.

“If you were in one of my dreams,” the SpellMaker continued. His voice brought Ash back to the moment. “It makes you necessary. So I will let you in on a secret, Sillan, you were not only in one of my dreams—you were in the best one I ever had.”

“I was?”

“Yes,” the SpellMaker said. “It was one in which all of Athren was saved from a great threat, and I have to ask you only one thing.”

“What?”

“Will you stay at my side? Will you stand right where you are and not move unless I move, even if it means you will face Pride Syndon down in those cells?”

“It…Syndon,” Sillan said. He was already nodding his head in agreement as he turned and faced the fallen tree. “But isn’t Syndon…I thought he was dead?”

“You are brave,” the SpellMaker said. “Little or not, you are brave, but I fear it is one of our greatest foes that will be down there, and I have to know, can you handle that?”

“I—” Sillan said. He looked from the sword he held to the SpellMaker. “I will try.”

The SpellMaker continued to smile. “I know you will.” He reached out and patted Sillan on the head. “You are courageous. You and Carolyn are both that way, and it makes me happy…perhaps a touch too happy.” He stopped and sighed. “Maybe in my age and weak from bending…maybe some of my bliss has slipped—infected the Illusory I cast? Maybe I have made all of you feel giddy?”

The SpellMaker looked around. Warven didn’t look blissed out, he was still only growling, and Yorgeth and Amalin probably couldn’t have faked happy if they tried. However, Ash was ready to raise her hand high in the affirmative.

Here was an answer. It had happened before in Penthya, and sure, Carolyn—and Sillan—had already made mention of magic being in play, but this was from the SpellMaker. Who knew when next an answer this absolute would arrive?

But, and Ash hated this part, the SpellMaker had also said infected. It made her wonder. Could magic do strange things—force slow walks instead of running or make her face go hot over some Elf—if it wasn’t worked proper?

Ash never got a chance to ask that aloud. She never even had an opportunity to raise her hand.

“Never mind,” the SpellMaker, again, sighed. “Never mind my age or what has slipped. I can fix everything. Let me give a Blessing.”

It was a gesture so sad. His light touch upon Sillan—a quick running of fingers through the young Elf’s short blond locks—was almost paternal and regretful instead of anything endearing. It was a touch that Ash had only ever seen once before. Back when her brother had gotten hurt from a fall down a tree he’d been climbing in their back yard.

Peter had broken a leg, and later, in a hospital when a doctor had said he would need to set some bones, it was then that Ash had seen her father do exactly as the SpellMaker was doing. He’d smiled and had patted Peter’s head as if he was sure something awful was about to happen.

“Stand closer to me, Ash,” the SpellMaker said. “You too Carolyn, but Sillan, you need to stay exactly where you are. Let me get rid of our covering of happy and invisibility.”

His Blessing upon Sillan, maybe a Blessing upon Carolyn, too, as he took her hand, had already happened, and Ash hadn’t seen a thing. There wasn’t any light; there still wasn’t any light. There wasn’t even a loud pronouncement of special words. She might have caught a quick whisper, but that was all. Ash didn’t know what she’d missed.

She walked over, Carolyn already with the SpellMaker. The knowledge that the Illusory was going to last a little longer was nice. It let Ash take in the battle under a new light.

Most of the Theater had already been crossed—the dead tree was now right in front of her. It had thick and heavy limbs, many of them a dried brown pointing to the east as upturned roots lay off to the west. A hole had been made back at those roots when the tree had fallen, chunks of clay and assorted bits of grass lay at its bottom, but that wasn’t enough to fill a wide chasm that the Errun were herding a good portion of the Elves towards.

There was a second hole too, one Ash had noticed from far away—one that, really, was in the middle of everything. Dug into the earth—and taking up much of the dead tree—that hole slowly went down. It had enough space, so Ash was sure no one would have to stoop to enter it, and it was also so steep that when it began, she would be beyond the tree, and mostly underneath, before whatever was above was reached.

Something else caught Ash’s attention. The cells were located across from the largest tree in Athren—the one that Queen Eugin, Mythus, and Nawthen had gone to, the one that also had so many still fighting all over it.

Anyone outside of that tree would see her in a second. The Theater had only those stone seats, it didn’t offer any cover. And while the Illusory did keep most eyes away, when it was gone, Ash didn’t know what would happen. She had no doubts about being able to enter the Cell Room, but she could only fret about how it would be when she made it into the dead tree only to find that her way out was blocked by a renewed horde who’d seen that their leader was about to be attacked.

Nihiloum arresk,” the SpellMaker said. He held on to Carolyn as he reached down for Ash. He ignored Sillan completely. “Dioses.”

Nothing happened, at least nothing Ash could see or feel, but she knew that things were different. The shock on one Errun who’d been fighting while facing their way let her know they were visible.

But Yorgeth, Amalin, and Warven didn’t need any confirmation. They didn’t need to see that Errun get pierced through the gut as his shock caused him to be defeated by the Elf he was fighting. As soon as the SpellMaker began to speak, gone were the headshakes and the nips at the air. Those three rushed to everyone being forced towards the upturned roots.

“Blood for blood,” Yorgeth said. It was a scream that sounded like all the jagged had torn something vital in his throat.

“Less talking, more fighting,” Warven growled.

In the space of a few seconds, everyone who’d left the SpellMaker’s side was fighting so amazingly. Ash couldn’t believe her eyes. Amalin held her piece of wood as it grew and grew. It lengthened beyond the size of her old staff to become a long piece of wood she used to pummel and break any Errun she met while Warven and Yorgeth tore and mauled a good many at her side. They broke into the line of Errun without difficulty, their presence already turning the tide and making it so the Elves heading for their doom regained their ground. Ash’s fears about being trapped in the cells started to seem pointless.

She saw Sillan. Somehow knowing he’d been in the mind of the SpellMaker had made her think him important. Maybe that her sudden feelings had significance—that would have been so nice—even if those feelings had been amped by errant magic.

And hadn’t they just saved his life—he had to be special. But, when Ash saw him, only a foot or so away, on the ground with an arrow jammed into his eye, she couldn’t believe it. She had thought everything was going their way, but Sillan was dead. It didn’t seem right.

“A good boy,” the SpellMaker said, “it’s a pity he was struck down by a weapon of the Errun. Later on, that will make things difficult.”

Ash stared at him. Later on?

“What…how…” she began to say.

The SpellMaker smiled. “Not now. Now we must do this.”

He let go of her and held out his palm as he began to whisper “Nari.” But the purple that flowed didn’t encircle him or Ash. It didn’t touch Carolyn either. Instead, it flew over and took hold of the few Errun and Elves that were in front of the hole in the center of the dead tree. The purple lifted them into the air as four jets separated from the main to encapsulate them all.

The SpellMaker looked only at an Elf who hung nearest to him. “Sorry about this,” he said, “but don’t you worry about those Errun, I’m flinging them further off than you. All you need to remember is that when you get back on your feet, you make sure you go help everyone who is over by those roots. This spell is weakening me more than I should have let it, and I can’t do another for them—I can’t even give a second to limit this spell so only the Errun are taken and you can stay. Just…just get back on your feet and come back here as soon as you can.”

With that, he flicked his palm, the jets of purple flying out and to his left as they sent every floating body deep into the Centaur Woods. The path to the second hole was clear.

The SpellMaker smiled, he was still so happy. But suddenly, before he took a step, he turned to Ash.

“Let me have your hand again,” the SpellMaker said, already taking Ash’s fingers into his own. “I don’t care if it wasn’t in my dream…let me Bless you as well.”

Chapter Forty-Nine

There were wooden steps. That wasn’t a surprise—there had to be some way to get to the bottom of this tree. The surprise was in how perfect those steps looked.

They’d been sanded and buffed to such a degree Ash knew no splinter would assault her if ever she were to walk down without any shoes. It was a stark contrast to what hung over her head. That wood was ancient and gray, its fragile bark floating free whenever a harsh yell filled the air.

However, Ash didn’t have to worry about that for long. The stairs curved lower and to the left, in a continuous spiral making it so that after two were taken, with a third coming up, she had already gone so far she could only reach what was above if she stood on her tiptoes.

Everything else was way too close. It was something Ash hadn’t thought of, that the cells—and the stairs allowing her access to them—would be confining. The nearby walls—slick red brick that was grimy and dank—crowded in. They absorbed all the light as darkness grew ever thicker. Ash had an idea that the walls kept the very ground from collapsing in upon her, but she couldn’t help but to also take in their oppressive nature. With them so near, she found it hard to breath, only the vague sight of Carolyn keeping her calm. She wasn’t alone.

The SpellMaker had taken the lead. Shaking free of Ash’s fingers once he’d spoken some words she still hadn’t understood—no surprise there—he’d ignored the protests of both Ash and Carolyn who’d wanted him to stay back. He’d finally gone into the center of the tree, Carolyn, of course, staying a step behind.

She’d said that as an Attendant, it was her right to go next, and that left Ash in the rear. It left her a little too far in the rear, for she’d paused to look again at Sillan before she tried to catch up.

She took the steps two at a time, hoping her feet weren’t making too much of a ruckus as she lightly bounded down. Each leap was a success, yet it was also a failure. Carolyn remained just a wisp of now red hair that was always vanishing around yet another corner.

“What,” Ash whispered. Carolyn had stopped. “Are we there?”

There was noise, the sound of metal striking metal with a terrible urgency. Such sound covered anything Ash could ever say or do with her feet, but still, she wanted to keep everything low. The many Errun that had stayed down here, they had to be close, and as Ash also came to a stop, she hoped that only Carolyn and the SpellMaker could hear her.

No one responded. Carolyn kept her back to her as Ash looked over at the SpellMaker who didn’t acknowledge her either. Instead, he peered down towards the last turn of the stairs. A light was there, as if in wait for him to step into it—a beam so strong Ash knew there had to be something, a burning star, perhaps a row of floodlights, maybe even magic (again) was the source of such illumination, but whatever it was, the danger of the glow was apparent. Though it would have been nice to be able to see, Ash’s eyes were now so accustomed to the dark that a walk into bright would blind her.

“I can hear you,” the SpellMaker said. Or, really, his voice was in Ash’s mind, entering gently into her thoughts before she could ask anything else. “Don’t talk. All you have to do is think.”

Ash blinked and took a step back. “You’re in my head,” she thought. “How is that possible?”

“Another spell,” Carolyn said. Her voice also came like the SpellMaker’s, inside Ash without any sound needed to form the words she was saying. “Anybody can learn how to Mind Talk as soon as they begin their lessons in the Bright. Of course, if you’re already hearing us this well, then I am impressed. For most, a Mind Talk starts off like a faraway echo. You really do have a natural talent for magic.”

“She does,” the SpellMaker agreed. His words were not backed up by any emotion, yet somehow, Ash could still feel a surprising measure of pride coming from the old Elf. It made her blush. “But now it isn’t her magic that is needed. Around this next corner are Errun, many of them, they stand over the threshold of the Cell Room and are beyond the Radiant Guard which blinds all who aren’t welcome.

“I need for you, Carolyn, to let Ash take the lead once we are down. When I cast my spell to reverse the Guard, you stay behind her. Justice will keep her safe, and I want you next to her for support. You get the few Errun she won’t be able to take care of.”

“But,” Carolyn said, “shouldn’t I—”

“No,” the SpellMaker said, a strict and commanding bit of words that made Ash wince. It was like a sharp dagger had stuck itself behind her eyes. “I will be fine. Stay with Ash, and do not come to me unless I have my hand outstretched for you. If that happens, you can get close.”

Carolyn may have said a “Yes, SpellMaker,” or a “Yes, Master,” but Ash wasn’t sure. As quickly as the Mind Talk had arrived, it vanished. Everything became the vague echo that Carolyn had said it should have been all along.

Yet Ash didn’t really think it was the end of the Mind Talk which made her miss each word. It was another spell, one the SpellMaker sent to reverse the direction of the light around the last turn of the stairs, which did it.

The light was amazing—a huge ray of white. Though Ash had already come up with an image of a giant star or a floating ball of fire, she was nowhere near to the truth.

The Radiant Guard was a tear in the sky. At least it looked that way to Ash. Staring at it from the back, she saw a jagged line of dark hanging above the SpellMaker’s head, a line blacker than every shadow—one opening into the strongest light imaginable that was now their spotlight forward.

The SpellMaker rushed on, Carolyn right behind with Ash still a step or two in the rear. They entered a wide and open room lit so fully Ash had no trouble seeing just about all of it. The Radiant Guard didn’t pour over everything, the room was large enough so its glow didn’t reach to every far-off corner or towards one tightly closed and highly polished bronze door, but there were enough fiery torches set upon the walls to cover what it missed.

The Cell Room held a long corridor, a huge cobble stone floor which stretched for over a mile. It didn’t take long for Ash to realize where, exactly, her parents were.

Also she was surrounded by more red brick. However, along every bit of this brick, quaint arches had been cut to give access into large rooms—some large enough for second floors. These rooms had fireplaces, comfortable looking chairs, a few thick throw rugs, and some quilt-covered beds stationed discreetly behind curtains which allowed for anyone to have their privacy. They lined either side of where Ash stood—seven arches were down the length of the wall to her left, while another seven ran along the wall to her right.

And the rooms inside those arches, they had to be the cells, but they were so nice. There were rows of books on some of the second floors, and try as she might, Ash couldn’t truly think of them as belonging to any prison. If it hadn’t been for the Errun, a good twenty or more still alive, another fifteen dead and littering the stone corridor along with the bodies of many Elves, Ash would have thought the Cell Room rather quaint.

The torches on the walls were real fire too, a blaze that didn’t seem to be fed by any magic. They gave the red brick a soft glow—a kind of peaceful rosy hue that made Ash not want to fight. Instead, she only wanted to lay down her sword and step through one of those arches, just walk inside a cell and sit before a fireplace so she could read any book she could find.

However, there were flowing red lines as well, an occasional burning grid of crimson that flashed off and on in front of each arch. Anytime Ash wanted to walk into a room, that red came back to remind her she shouldn’t.

Ash shook her head. Something was invading her, surrounding her, it made her want to set Justice down and simply accept the inevitable, that fighting wasn’t right, that she should gladly take imprisonment and get used to her new life behind flashing bars of crimson. Ash felt like Yorgeth, trying hard to flick away an annoyance, as she faced the first Errun to reach her.

It was difficult. As Ash moved to the right of the SpellMaker, letting him charge down the center of the stone corridor while she went to his side, she couldn’t help but to think that without the desire to drop Justice, things might have gone smoother.

She blocked the Errun’s heavy blow before jamming Justice through its chest, but as she did, she had to think one thing repeatedly. “I must fight, I have to,” it was what she kept saying with every quick shake of her head. “I must fight, I have to,” if she hadn’t thought that, she would have dropped her sword.

However, the funniest thing of all was what this magic was doing to her parents. She’d seen them the second she’d stepped into the Cell Room. The Radiant Guard didn’t reach to where they were, but torches far down on the right clearly showed that most of the Errun were surrounding one cell she could just about peek inside of.

The group, a good nine with swords drawn and fangs barred, kept striking at red crimson lines—banging their metal blades against the flashing grid in a drumbeat Ash could hear well. Her parents should have been terrified, they should have been screaming with all they had, yet Ash could see that her father was sitting on one of the chairs inside, her mother standing right next to him. They both were wearing the most pleasant expressions, as they sometimes looked over and watched horrible creatures go about their work.

Another Errun reached her as one of the blinded few—who’d been near to the stairwell—stumbled into Carolyn. She’d done as the SpellMaker had asked. She was right next to Ash.

Ash gave an ear to Justice. It was still hard—her arm felt heavy, and she couldn’t stop wanting to lie down—but she shook her head once more and listened. Justice told her how to parry a certain thrust. Then it let her know how she could finish the Errun off.

Carolyn, too, was victorious, it took a bit longer, but the poor creature’s blindness helped. It groped and slashed wildly, and after a while, the unfamiliar feel of her weapon stopped being a hindrance. Carolyn sent a blow that pierced a heart.

Ash took a step to her rear. Carolyn and she were back to back, their swords held out in front of their faces as more and more Errun rushed their way.

“What am I feeling?” Ash asked. Only a few Errun stayed near to the cell that housed her parents. “What magic is here?”

Carolyn quickly turned and put a hand on the back of Ash’s head. “Atholus,” she said, her words instantly ending all but Justice’s murmurings. “Is that better?”

“Yes.”

Ash had no time for more. She understood how it must have been. Somehow, the Errun had appeared in this room. With numbers that had to have been near a hundred, they’d probably surprised every Elf down here and had easily won. Then they’d taken control before rushing out into Athren proper, placing only a few guards right before the stairwell in case anyone wandered back down.

Yet they’d found their plans being ruined. Only three Errun were close enough to be fully blinded by the sudden attack of the Radiant Guard, but the surprise of that act had frozen the rest. Ash, Carolyn, and the SpellMaker had rushed into their midst with almost no resistance being found.

But now, there was resistance. Ash dispatched two more Errun while Carolyn took care of a third. The SpellMaker lifted a hand. He seemed ready to launch another charm that would probably eliminate all who were nearby.

The creatures around him paused. They were prepared for anything devious, yet what the SpellMaker did, there was no way they could have prepared for that.

He flung himself at an Errun close to where he stood. He wasn’t using magic; as Ash confronted another gray beast, she saw the old Elf refusing to speak any words of power. He fought—still dressed in robes of white which he hadn’t taken off—he was fighting rather well. Ash was amazed by how well he was doing.

First, he snatched the curved blade right out of the hands of the Errun he’d lunged for. The creature didn’t even know its weapon was gone until the SpellMaker flipped it, took hold of its leather-wrapped wooden hilt, and used it to slice that Errun clean in half.

As the beast fell to the cobbled stone floor, Ash heard it grunt—a surprised and mournful wail encompassing all the confusion and despair it had. It just couldn’t comprehend how it had died.

But once it was down, the other Errun had no problem understanding the new situation they were in. The SpellMaker wasn’t using magic, and they could handle that, Ash only wondering how they’d recognized his face?

She was new to this world, but shouldn’t the SpellMaker be older than they? Shouldn’t this group be too young to know such a man by sight? His name, yes, they would instantly recognize that, but the Errun had paused when he’d lifted a hand. To her, it had looked as if they’d been expecting to sooner or later run into him. How was that possible?

Ash let such thoughts go. Justice was a blur, the murmur it was sending to her, dodge this, cut into that, constant and vivid. She didn’t have to try and follow them, she only had to relax—let go of her body.

It was as if she wasn’t even there. Justice was in such control she felt more as if she was in a dream or seated in the most advanced theater ever where the screen of some film wasn’t up on a distant wall but was in her own eyes. All Ash had to do was spot any potential threat and Justice would take care of the rest.

It was that which let her see Syndon. Like he’d been back at her school, he was still a large gray monster with wide, unblinking black eyes, with slits on his face instead of a nose, and a mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth which he bared each time he snarled. He stood next to her parent’s cell, just a bit behind the few Errun who’d stayed to continue their assault on the red grid that prevented them from entering.

He had the same huge four-fingered hands, the same three-toed and un-shoed feet. He even had on the same clothing as all the Errun around him, a dirty and barely hanging together loincloth that looked to have long ago been the hide of some animal. But Syndon was so much larger than the other Errun. Ash couldn’t begin to fathom how she could have missed him for as long as she had.

She noticed something else. The door behind Syndon, the highly polished bronze one at the end of the Cell Room, was open. A thin and pale man, one almost as pale as any Kawshun horse, stood before it, and behind him was black—a whirlwind of dark that moved around and around before the pale man shut the bronze door and stepped further inside.

The bronze vanished. It swirled and left behind only a red brick wall kept together by the same faded lines of mortar that held the rest of the walls in the Cell Room in place.

It had been created; a door spoken into existence just as Ash had done back in Spell. Syndon and the pale man must have come through it, and that could only mean the SpellMaker had been wrong. Pride Syndon hadn’t been waiting in the Cell Room—in fact, neither he nor the pale man had been anywhere near to her parent’s cell when first she’d stepped onto the cobbled stone corridor, they probably hadn’t even been anywhere near to any part of Athren. They’d merely sent their army on ahead, let them die with only vague warnings and a description of some old Elf they should be on the lookout for.

Syndon nodded at the Errun he stood next to. “Keep hitting it,” he said. “Weaken the lines before I attempt my magic.”

The Errun gave their compliance by the steady beat of their swords. The front of her parent’s cell would be clear of everything, but, then, another dirty blade would slice through the air to hit a patchwork of hot red as another dull throb reverberated throughout the room.

Ash took care of an Errun near to her, and still the sound, the harsh tone of what those Errun were doing, could not be ignored. It rang out, again and again, as she kept fighting, as Carolyn did the same, and as the SpellMaker dispatched a few of his own.

In fact, the SpellMaker was doing so good Ash couldn’t stop staring his way. How the old Elf fluidly moved, a ballet of violence making it seem as if he knew where each strike would land long before it came. His feet were always in the one spot the remaining Errun hadn’t aimed for—their swords sending waves of sparks as they missed him and hit only floor.

The SpellMaker twirled. Soon the creatures around him were down to two, those near to Ash were whittled to one, and Carolyn had only bodies at her feet. Syndon’s men were dying, and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Will you not lift a hand?” he asked.

Syndon was turned towards the pale man as he howled, his noise causing everyone to pause and look his way. But the anger he had wasn’t true. The fear on his face, the sudden blink of his eyes—the first blink Ash had seen any Errun do—let everyone catch his worry.

“The SpellMaker is slaughtering our army,” Syndon continued.

The pale man smiled. It was an evil grin that made his face more dead than alive. “Your army,” he said. His voice was raspy and dry, like the voices of the Riders of the Kawshun. “I advise and give you strength. I have passed you, old friend, and the SpellMaker insults you, not me, when he refuses to use his magic. I’ll gladly stand back and let you deal with him.”

“Me?” Syndon asked.

“Of course, just like when my master and I gave you the knowledge to attack those in that other world, we now give you the chance to go and take care of him. Deal with the SpellMaker, show him the magic he must think no Errun could ever have.”

Syndon growled and spun. The one Errun near to Ash backed away as the others around the SpellMaker did the same. They were quite content to let someone else finish this fight.

“I have no magic, Chood,” the SpellMaker said. He let one last grin hold court upon his face, something of finality that broke Ash’s heart. For an old Elf who’d shown only brief flashes of emotion, he still created something of such sorrow Ash could barely stand to look at him. “Or should I rather call you by the name most Errun have mourned ever since you were struck down by Ophallo’s recklessness when he took the Silver Throne. You stole a new body so you wouldn’t have to face the death you earned, so should I call you Syndon and let the Errun around you understand the crime you committed?”

“Shut your mouth!” Syndon said.

The SpellMaker’s smile grew. “Most Bands have rules about murder, don’t they?” He let the sword he held drop to the ground as he motioned for Ash and Carolyn to stay behind him. He began to walk forward. “Something about challenges and fair fights in the Ring, right? But I’ve never heard what the rules say when someone kills their own son when that son thinks he is just talking to a caring father? What do Errun codes of conduct say about that?”

“I said shut up,” Syndon yelled. His hand shot out a purple stream of magic as he mumbled the word “Nari.”

The stream split. It flew in three different directions, two streams first grabbing up Ash and Carolyn. It threw them back towards the stairwell. Ash hit on one side of it as Carolyn sailed right on through and up to the first turn where she struck hard and fell onto a few wooden steps.

Ash collapsed to her knees as the SpellMaker was taken by the last purple stream and was flung back as well. All the walking he’d done to get close to Syndon was for nothing. He struck the other side of the stairs and slid to the floor.

“You Elves are all alike,” Syndon said, the light at his hand fading, “you think we Errun are nothing but beasts, mindless creatures who could never attain any mastery of magic! But I just sent you flying without taxing myself too greatly! What do you say to that, SpellMaker? What do you say to any Errun who controls magic as you do?”

The SpellMaker didn’t reply. He merely turned his head towards the pale man at the far end of the Cell Room. “Why don’t you answer him, Ophallo,” he said. “I know it is you just as I know who it is you have found to be your master. You’ve gone so dark just so you could become powerful, so why don’t you tell Syndon why I act the way that I do? It isn’t because I despise the Errun that I refuse to use my magic, it’s because I know how you both have perverted the Bright into the Black so that what you use, the magic you both cast, can never be as strong as any spell I make.”

The pale man, Ophallo, laughed. To Ash, it sounded worse than when he talked.

“You and your dreams,” Ophallo said. He began to walk past all the other Errun who were mumbling amongst themselves down by the cell that housed Ash’s parents. “You saw this, didn’t you? Me alive, this attack on Athren, you saw it all before it ever happened.”

“Of course,” the SpellMaker said. His smile finally dropped from his face. “I also saw how greedily you will respond to what I tell you next.”

“And that is?” Ophallo asked. He moved past Syndon as well. He stopped only when he was close enough to lean over and put his face mere inches from the SpellMaker.

“That that girl is Amanda Jane Ash,” the SpellMaker said, nodding Ash’s way, “I know you can feel that many kin to Henry Ash are near, so here is one. I brought her to you.”