This is a short story that will be incorporated into my new novel, The Dragons of Andromeda.
Silandra Oakhollow gathered herbs in the forest near her village. Her brilliant green eyes were set above high, angular cheek bones and a light brown complexion like freshly cut timber. As she knelt among the wild bushes and tall grass, her hazel-colored hair hung from the hood of her cloak. Straightening, she pulled the hood back, revealing long, pointed ears.
A Sylvan, Silandra was related to the Dahl but, while her distant cousins were interested in collecting all forms of knowledge, the Sylva focused their studies on nature and the wild things inhabiting it. Even their psionics centered on woodland animals, communicating with the creatures who knew the forest best.
Silandra packed a handfull of herbs into a pouch hanging from her belt. The woods, dim even when the sun was high, were growing darker now that dusk had arrived. Silandra turned to head home when she heard the noise of fighting and a tumbling crash. Remaining unseen, she crept forward toward the sounds.
In a clearing flanked by a rocky hillside, Katak warriors had cornered a man swinging a sword. The Katak were froglings, primitive by nature, with slimy blue skin and wielding wooden spears with flint tips. The man wore some sort of modern armor, heavily engraved, with a helmet covering his face. Silandra realized he was protecting something partially buried from a rock fall. As she drew closer, she saw it was a robot, lying facedown, with stones covering much of his body.
The knight slashed and lunged at the Katak who were nearly a foot smaller, but outnumbered him five to one. They seemed content to surround him, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
Concentrating, Silandra reached out with her mind into the thoughts of the froglings, casting images of giant snakes slithering out of the shadows. The Katak made loud, chirping noises, glancing at each other until one of them threw down his spear and ran deeper into the woods. The others quickly followed, leaving the man alone with his charge. His sword hanging at his side.
Silandra stepped out of hiding into the clearing.
“Hello,” she said.
Seeing her, the man in armor sheathed his weapon and removed his helmet. Expecting a human, Silandra was surprised that he was something else entirely. His skin was a dark, olive green with bony protrusions running along the line of his chin. She had no idea what he was, but he bowed lavishly in her direction.
“Greetings,” he said. “May I assume you are somehow responsible for these creatures’ hasty retreat?”
Silandra laughed at his formal speech.
“Why, yes you may!” she said, grinning.
“I am Sir Golan of the Cruxians,” he said. “Who might you be?”
“Silandra Oakhollow of the… ah, town of Gowyn I guess…”
“Well met! May I inquire if this town of Gowyn is nearby?”
“It’s about a half hour walk.”
“Good,” Sir Golan said. “I’m afraid my squire has been damaged.”
He motioned toward the robot still buried beneath the loose rocks.
“Never mind me,” the robot said, his voice muffled by the dirt.
Silandra and Golan spent a few minutes freeing the robot. While able to stand, the machine’s right arm was mangled and parts of his chest were dented in several places.
“Thank you so much!” the robot said, trying to dust himself off with his good arm.
“Do you have a name?” Silandra asked.
“Squire,” he said. “My name and function, you might say…”
She laughed again without meaning to.
“Well, let’s get you to Gowyn,” she said. “As luck would have it, I believe there’s a tinker in town.”
Gowyn was a town in the trees, fifty feet up in the forest canopy. Circular platforms were centered around the thick tree trunks with rope bridges spanning the gaps between them. On one of the platforms, hanging above the door of a rustic building, a wooden sign read Bragor’s Tavern. Inside, the lights flickered sporadically, the patrons shouting each time they did. Immediately following, a single but higher pitched voice, no less emphatic, demanded they all “shut up!” That voice belonged to a Gnomi named Mel Freck.
In the backroom of Bragor’s Tavern, just past the kitchen, Mel was working on the power generator with gusto. Only three feet tall, with pointed ears and light pink hair, she could fix all things electronic or mechanical. Focusing her sonic spanner on the generator controls, she heard another chorus of shouts as the light bulb above her twinkled on and off again.
“Stop your bitching!” Mel yelled over her shoulder, then, in a quieter voice directed at the control panel, “Crap on a cracker…”
Bragor, a Sylvan with raven hair and sharp, pointed features, stuck his head into the room.
“How’s it going in here, eh?” he said.
“Fine,” Mel said flatly.
“The folks at the bar are trying to watch the gravbike races but the power keeps turning off the TV…”
“This generator’s a mess,” Mel went on. “You’re lucky to have any power at all!”
“Well, can’t you wait until the races are over?”
“I didn’t come all this way from Technotown to sit around.”
“I’ll pay for your drinks,” Bragor offered.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” she replied, slamming her spanner on top of the control panel.
The two returned to the main room where a teak bar was crowded with Sylans watching a video monitor hanging from the ceiling. Mel noted the brightly colored grav bikes streaking across the screen.
She climbed aboard one of the stools and Bragor brought her a sudsy mug of beer as an advertisement filled the monitor:
DRINK GENUINE GORDIAN FUNGUS BEER
NOW WITH EVEN MORE SMOOTH FUNGUS FLAVOR!
Sisa Oakhollow sat in her room carving a figure out of yew wood. She hadn’t decided what the figure would look like, but in her mind, it was a young Sylvan girl like herself. Like her mother, Sisa had bright, green eyes and high, sharp cheek bones, but both her hair and complexion were darker like dull copper.
Sisa heard a noise from the front of the house. Setting her carving aside, she rose and ran to the door, expecting to see her mother coming home. Instead, she found Silandra in the front room with two strangers, one of them a robot.
“Don’t just stand there, Sisa,” her mother said. “Help me with Mr. Squire.”
“Oh, just Squire is sufficient,” the robot said.
Sisa grabbed one of his arms, putting some of the weight onto her shoulders. The other stranger carried the other arm, burdened as he was with his helmet and armor. She noticed he also had a sword slung on his belt.
The two of them lugged Squire to a chair made from gnarled beech and leather.
“I’m most grateful to you,” the stranger said in a formal tone.
Sisa snickered, not sure why he was talking that way.
“No problem,” she said, smiling.
“This is Sir Golan,” Silandra said. “He’s some kind of knight apparently.”
“Really?” Sisa asked.
“At your service,” Golan replied with a low bow.
Sisa gave a sideways glance to her mother who simply shrugged.
“Perhaps Sir Golan is thirsty,” Silandra suggested.
Sisa nodded and ran to the kitchen to pour some water into a clay mug. When she returned, Golan had also taken a seat, his helmet and sword placed close by his side. Sisa noticed his armor was carved in the same intricate design as the robot’s chest and head.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Katak,” Silandra said.
“These frogmen,” Golan began, “do they cause trouble often?”
“No!” Silandra said. “Not usually, but lately they’ve been acting strangely.”
“Something has them riled up,” Sisa’s mother replied. “I’ve no idea why.”
Squire raised the finger of his good hand.
“Might I inquire about my repairs?” he asked.
“Of course!” Silanda said, slapping her forehead. “Sisa, go to your father’s and see if that Gnomi tinker is still there.”
“It’s getting late…” Sisa replied doubtfully.
The young Sylvan rolled her eyes and, grabbing a wool cloak, hurried out the door.
Mel was downing her third beer when a young Sylvan came charging through the door into Bragor’s Tavern. While smaller than the adults, she was still a few inches taller than Mel herself. This might have bothered her after the first beer, but now Mel’s view of the universe had grown more agreeable. She was even enjoying the gravbike races, although only for the crashes.
The girl ran to Bragor behind the bar and pointed in Mel’s direction. After a short conversation, the two of them approached the tinker.
“Excuse me,” Bragor said, “my daughter Sisa was wondering if you could fix a robot at her mother’s house.”
“But I haven’t finished fixing your generator…” Mel started.
“It can wait until morning,” he replied.
“What kind of robot?” she asked. “It’s not gravitronic, is it?”
“I don’t know what that is,” Sisa said.
“Nothing but trouble…” Mel replied.
Sisa took Mel’s arm and helped her off the stool. Unsteady at first, the Gnomi found her legs and even took a step without the girl.
“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” Bragor said.
“I’m fine!” Mel said and fell face first on the floor.
When Mel regained her senses, she was laying on a couch made from beech wood and straps of leather. His back to her, a robot sat in a nearby chair while a woman appeared from the kitchen carrying a tray full of coffee mugs.
“Where’s the little girl?” Mel asked.
“I sent her to bed,” the woman replied. “I’m Silandra, by the way.”
“Your Bragor’s wife?”
“Oh, we’re not married.”
Feeling suddenly awkward, Mel pointed a thumb at the robot.
“Is this the patient?” she asked.
The robot rotated his head completely around until it faced her.
“A pleasure to meet you,” he said.
“Please don’t do that!” Mel shouted.
“Fair enough!” the robot said cheerfully, turning his head back to the front.
“His name is Squire,” Silandra said. “He’s pretty beaten up.”
“I can see that. Did Sisa bring my tools?”
“Yes, by the door.”
Mel hopped off the couch and, a little wobbly, retrieved the satchel beside the front door. She dropped it again at the robot’s chair and pulled her sonic spanner from the bag.
“This is going to hurt,” she said.
“Really?” Squire asked.
“No, you’re a robot.”
“Oh, yes. Quite right.”
“Definitely not gravitronic,” Mel muttered quietly under her breath.
Into the night, Mel tinkered with Squire’s frame, repairing the damage and tuning his systems. She quickly realized that, although the robot’s exterior was ornate, the interior hardware was woefully outdated.
After a few hours, she straightened her aching back and took a long stretch, her arms reaching for the ceiling. While a software update was downloading from the local nodesphere into Squire’s brain, Mel decided to stretch her legs too by taking a quick tour of the house.
Before going to bed, Silandra had dimmed the lights in most of the rooms, but Mel was able to find her way. The Gnomi had excellent night vision, their ancestors having lived mostly underground.
Down the hall from the living room and kitchen, Mel softly cracked open the door to Silandra’s bedroom. She was sleeping soundly in a single bed.
Apparently Bragor spent his nights somewhere else, Mel thought.
Sisa’s room, next door to her mother’s, was smaller but decorated more extravagantly with paintings and carvings throughout. Mel wondered if the girl had made them all herself.
When Mel reached the final door in the hallway, she noticed a light coming from underneath. Hearing nothing, she tried the doorknob and walked in on a strange man with dark green skin. Bare from the waist up, he sat with his legs crossed and holding a sword in his outstretched hands. Before him, a pair of burning incense sticks were displayed on a small, wooden altar. Mel was about to apologize when she realized the man was ignoring her, perhaps unaware she was even there. She closed the door again and returned to the living room.
Mel checked that the download was complete and reinitialized the robot’s operating system. When Squire came back online, Mel was eager to ask him a few questions.
“Who the hell is that green guy?” she said.
“Sir Golan?” the robot replied.
“He’s my master.”
“I just saw him,” Mel went on. “He acted like he was in a trance.”
Taking a moment to process, Squire replied, “Oh, I suspect he was meditating. Sir Golan is quite dedicated to thinking deeply about things.”
“What kind of things?”
“Well, he’s Cruxian, you know. They live a life of introspection, reflecting on their actions, both past and present.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” Mel confessed.
“Few have, actually,” Squire said. “I suppose because so few of them still exist.”
“Are they dying out or something?”
“By their own hand, I’m afraid.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Many centuries ago,” the robot said, “the Cruxians were a wealthy, enterprising race. They built great structures and expanded their society across their home planet. As Sir Golan would tell you himself, they wanted everything and believed they could achieve whatever they set their minds to. It turns out that their ambitions and, you might say, hubris, got the better of them and it all came crashing down. There was a great war and most of their race, nearly all life on their planet really, was destroyed. Those who survived dedicated their lives to redeeming themselves and, metaphorically, their species. They scattered to the four winds, looking for ways to reclaim their honor.”
“Like how?” Mel asked.
“Wandering from place to place, mostly,” Squire replied, “helping people when they can…”
“Well,” Mel said, “spending all your time helping people can just end up hurting the people closest to you.”
“There is only Sir Golan and myself, Miss Freck.”
Mel closed the lid on Squire’s chest which was filled with the repairs she had spent the last several hours completing.
“How’s that working out for you?” she said.
When Golan was a boy, he remembered training with his master in a temple overlooking the Cruxian capital city. When the sun set, the yellow glow of the horizon would mix with the lights of the city, the colors like paint spilled across a canvas. When the bombs began falling, the only color Golan remembered was the orange of fire and the blackness as all the lights went out.
Deep in meditation, he almost didn’t hear the crash as Katak warriors broke through the window and spilled into the bedroom. Once aware what was happening, the Cruxian knight was instantly on his feet, his sword at the ready. Two of the froglings held spears while the other two carried spiked clubs. The room was small, giving Golan the advantage by preventing the Katak from attacking all at once.
Golan remembered the day his master gave him his sword. It was a single-edge blade with writing down the side, a prayer of forgiveness and fortitude. As a young man, he didn’t fully understand why a weapon of death would be engraved with such an invocation. His master called the sword Rippana.
Golan sliced through the spear, breaking it in half, before whirling around to cut the Katak warrior across the chest. The second frogling died when Rippana carved him down the center of his head, between two bulging eyes. The third warrior raised a spiked club high above until both his arms were separated from his body. The final opponent met his end exiting through the window in which he entered, his last view of the world a glistening blade of steel protruding from his chest, the letters of an unknown language etched across the metal.
Before the bombs fell on the Cruxian capital, Golan’s master finally explained the reason for the prayer on the young knight’s sword. During any conflict, especially in the heat of battle, an honorable knight must remain strong, but must never feel hate or malice toward those he fought. Most of all, he must absolve them of sin so that they might travel to the next life cleansed of whatever led them to leave this one.
In the hallway, Golan rushed toward the sound of fighting. Squire and a tiny woman were struggling with a pair of Katak. The female was kicking a frogling in the leg while Squire was using a chair to hold off the other. Golan made quick work of both enemies, cutting them down with quick lacerations, severing their spines. Golan, Squire, and the small woman stared blankly at each other until a scream drove them back down the hallway. Silandra stood at the door to her daughter’s room. The knight thrust himself past her, but the room was empty except for broken furniture and a shattered window.
“They’ve taken her!” Silandra shouted.
The forest grew brighter as a heavy morning mist hung among the low branches. Sisa Oakhollow, her hands tightly bound, followed the Katak warrior in front of her while several others trailed behind. The leading frogling trudged ahead, his webbed feet making hardly any sound among the leaves and twigs. His back, moist and shiny, reflected dapples of dawn piercing the canopy from above.
“Where are you taking me?” the girl asked, but the front warrior said nothing. None of them had spoken a word since dragging her out of bed and into the night. She could sense the froglings were agitated. They had lost many fighters in the attack.
Sisa reached out with her mind.
“Why are you doing this?” she thought.
The lead Katak stopped. Turning to face her, his throat swelled and he made a loud croaking noise. In her head, Sisa heard him say, “be quiet!”
They started walking again, but after an hour or two, they stopped. The warriors formed a perimeter, a semi-circle, arrayed between the girl and a stand of birch trees.
Sisa heard movement from the trees. Several small humanoids emerged. Each looked like a toadstool, tiny eyes peering out from under a cap of red with white spots. Their arms and legs were short, sprouting from their squat bodies. Like the Katak, they carried spears.
“Sporemen,” Sisa thought.
The froglings chirped excitedly, thrusting their weapons in the air. The sporemen did the same.
“Alright,” Sisa said. “Everybody calm down.”
The lead Katak shook his spear at her, then pointed back at the fungus people.
Sisa formed words in her mind. “What do you want from me?”
“Translate,” he thought back.
“I think you mean interpret, but whatever…”
“What do they want?”
Concentrating, Sisa focused on one of the sporemen. As a fungus, his thoughts were difficult to understand at first, but after a few minutes, Sisa began comprehending the situation.
“You’re trespassing,” she told the frogling telepathically. “They want you to leave.”
“No,” the leader replied. “We must go this way.”
“Well, I don’t think they’re going to let you,” she thought.
“So be it!”
With one of the froglings guarding Sisa, the others rushed into the trees and attacked the sporemen. The two sides squared off, each lunging with spears. Sisa could feel their fury and fear, mixed with her own. She didn’t understand why any of this was happening. Why they kidnapped her or why this was so important that someone had to die because it. Mostly, Sisa just wanted to be home in bed, the smell of her mother’s hotcakes wafting down the hall from the kitchen.
The Katak shouted when they died, croaking their last breath, but the fungus people, gentle in their own way, made no sounds at all. They fell quietly, like the morning fog burning off in the sunshine.
The treetop village was in uproar, the Gowyn townspeople running from one platform to another, looking for their missing Sylvan. From what anyone could tell, only Sisa had been taken. To Silandra, her mother, this made it all much worse.
“Why would they take my daughter?” she asked the others, but their concerned stares held no answers.
Bragor arrived with a few of his usual patrons, all armed with blasters.
“We’ve searched the whole village,” Bragor said. “There’s no sign of her.”
A foot taller than the others, Sir Golan stood at the back of the crowd. Squire was beside him.
“I will find her,” the knight announced.
Everyone turned, their eyes fixed on this stranger that some of them were seeing for the first time. A crescendo of their murmuring voices escalated until Sir Golan spoke again.
“By my sword,” he said grandly, “I shall return her safely.”
Bragor’s mouth was forming a question when Silandra interrupted.
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
“No,” Bragor said. “I should go.”
“I can sense her,” Silandra said, shaking her head. “You can’t.”
Bragor looked at his feet, but said nothing.
Sir Golan and the robot waded through the crowd until they reached the mother. Silandra caught a glimpse of Mel at their heels, her body hidden behind the taller Sylvans.
“Do you have any idea where they might’ve taken Sisa?” the knight asked.
“I don’t know,” Silandra replied. “They’ve never attacked us before. Usually, we have good relations with them.”
“They must have towns somewhere…” Mel said.
“They have settlements in the swamp to the West,” Bragor said. “They’ve sometimes sent traders from that way.”
“Alright then,” Sir Golan said. “That’s where we’ll start.”
“Shouldn’t we send a larger group?” Bragor asked. “Everyone wants to help.”
“If Sisa is a captive,” Squire replied. “It might be better if we didn’t appear overly hostile.”
“Well, I’m going…” Mel said.
“Why?” Sir Golan asked.
“Ah, because your robot might need more repairs,” Mel replied. “I’m very serious about my service plan.”
“Service plan?” Squire said.
“Your money back, guaranteed!” Mel said. “Also, I threw in a few things and I want to make sure they work okay.”
“What kind of things?” the robot asked.
Mel looked off to the side.
“You know,” she said, “upgrades…”
They followed the Katak tracks into the thickening woods. Sir Golan, in full armor, led the search party with Squire behind him. Mel and Silandra walked together. The noises from the town faded into the background.
“Why did you say only you could sense Sisa?” Mel asked.
“Only Sylvan women are psi sensitive,” Silandra replied. “Mothers and their daughters are especially linked.”
“Can you feel her now?”
“But at least that means she’s alive…” Mel said.
“Oh, yes,” Silandra smiled. “If I didn’t sense her at all, I don’t know what I’d do right now.”
“You two must be pretty close,” Mel said.
“Sisa was always independent,” Silandra said. “She doesn’t like how aware I am of her feelings. She calls it spying.”
“I never knew my mom.”
“I was an orphan,” Mel went on. “I never knew either of my parents.”
“But Sisa’s father is still around…”
“Bragor is a good father,” Silandra said. “He loves Sisa very much.”
“It must drive him crazy knowing he can’t understand her the same way as you.”
Silandra laughed softly until it became a sigh.
“It’s not always a blessing,” she said. “When she’s happy, I’m happy, but when she’s sad, I can’t help but feel sad too.”
The search party wound their way between the larger trees, cutting through brush with Sir Golan’s sword. The trail cut by the Katak before them made the going easier and, Mel hoped, faster. The tracks themselves, four-toed feet, slightly webbed, were easy to distinguish from Sisa’s own tiny soles.
“How far are we from Gowyn?” Mel asked the robot.
“My GPS says approximately three miles,” Squire replied.
“Good to hear your satellite tracking is still working.”
“I must admit that Sir Golan is not well-versed in technology,” Squire said. “My capabilities often prove useful to him.”
“Are you saying he can’t use a computer?”
“It’s not that he can’t. He simply chooses not to.”
“Why?” Mel asked.
“He prefers the simplicity of less modern things.”
“But he has you, doesn’t he?”
“He’s not a Luddite, Miss Freck.”
“Sorry,” Mel replied. “I’m sure it’s nice to have you around.”
“One would hope,” Squire said, “but I faithfully endeavor to be useful whenever I can…”
Sir Golan stopped suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Mel asked.
“There’s been a battle,” he replied, pointing Rippana, his sword, at several mounds sticking out of the leaves and grass. Drawing closer, Mel recognized some of the shapes as Katak corpses.
“Sisa!” Silandra started, but stopped herself. “No, she’s not here. I can still sense her elsewhere.”
Among a standof birch, froglings and fungus creatures lay motionless, spears stuck into the ground like poles marking a burial place.
“These are sporemen,” Silandra said. “This is their territory.”
“Perhaps they didn’t approve of trespassers,” the knight said grimly.
Something moved, snapping a fallen branch. Sir Golan was instantly on guard, holding his free arm to protect the others.
In the midday shadows, a large mound with four trunk-like legs moved toward them. At the end of a long neck, a face like a thick flower with four petals turned in their direction. The petals peeled open, revealing a structure like a starfish full of teeth.
“Get back!” Silandra shouted. “It’s a Kamal Maut!”
Sir Golan took a step backwards while Mel hid behind a tree.
“According to my translation,” Squire said, “that means Death Lotus.”
“Thanks,” Mel said. “Very helpful.”
As if ready to roar, the Death Lotus opened its maw even wider, but instead of sound, a cloud came pouring out.
“Those are spores,” Silandra said. “They’re poisonous if you breathe them in…”
“I can’t get close without passing through the cloud,” the knight said.
“Maybe you should’ve brought a gun!” Mel shouted, still behind the tree.
“Didn’t you mention upgrades to my system?” Squire asked.
“Of course!” she replied. “Use the displacement field.”
“I fail to see how that would–” Squire began.
“Just do it!”
A dome of blue energy, with Squire at the center, burst into existence, enveloping the party beneath it.
“Now, walk toward that thing,” Mel said.
The robot started toward the Death Lotus, while Sir Golan remained in between. As Squire got closer, the toxic spores collected against the outside surface of the dome.
“Keep going!” Mel urged. “Just don’t let its mouth puncture the dome…”
The displacement field pushed against the creature, bending inward like a hand pushing against a balloon.
“You can attack it,” Mel told the knight. “The field is one-way.”
Sir Golan took a swipe at the Death Lotus, cutting into its mossy hide. Spurts of blood shot out but, like the spores, soaked only the outside dome.
“Now I have you!” the knight shouted, sending his sword through the barrier and into the creature.
The Death Lotus staggered as its front legs gave out, falling clumsily on its side.
“Neat,” Squire said.
Mel came out, brushing herself off.
“Yeah, well,” she said, “it works against solid objects as long as their mass isn’t too big. I figured it would work in this case…”
“But you weren’t sure?” Sir Golan asked, his eyebrow raised.
“Consider this a field test,” Mel replied.
Sisa felt sick.
The froglings had waded into the sporemen, killing them all while losing several of their own. Sisa wanted to throw up, but the head Katak who had survived kept tugging at her bindings, pulling her along.
The forest floor beneath her feet became damp as the land turned swampy. Also, the daylight began to fade and Sisa found herself tripping over roots lurking in the gloom around her feet, now soaking wet. The noises changed, too, as insects and lesser amphibians filled the air with a cacophony of different cries.
When Sisa saw the first skull, she didn’t recognize it at first. A series of long stakes, each crowned with a skull, led the way into the Katak village where camp fires drew the froglings home like moths. Unlike Gowyn, the huts, made from driftwood and held together with mud, were nestled on bits of land surrounded by pools of water.
The townspeople came out to greet the arriving band of raiders. They gathered around Sisa, peering with wide eyes at her strange appearance. They took her to the center of the village where a large bonfire was burning. On the other side of the flames, from an earthen lodge larger than the surrounding huts, a Katak with black and yellow skin came tottering out. A vest made from dried reeds hung on his chest and he carried a staff with yet another skull on the end. Sisa wondered where they were getting them all.
He swayed back and forth from one webbed foot to the other until he was next to the girl. He looked her up and down, only then giving a loud, approving croak. His breath smelled so rancid, Sisa nearly choked.
“What do you want from me?” she asked, reaching into the old frogling’s mind. Distorted images flooded her thoughts.
“Something’s wrong,” Silandra said.
“What is it?” Mel asked.
“I felt Sisa crying out,” Silandra replied. “Her thoughts were of something horrible, grotesque…”
Sir Golan stopped, both he and Squire looking back.
“Ladies?” the knight inquired.
“I think we should hurry,” Mel said.
“Without question,” Sir Golan replied, “but we’ve lost the trail in this swamp…”
The forest, and the solid ground from which it grew, had turned to doughy mosses and muddy ponds filled with intractable reeds. The webbed footprints ended at the water’s edge.
Silandra focused her mind, her brows furrowed as she stared into the deepening twilight. She pointed.
“That way,” she said.
The knight started off again with Mel and Silandra following, but Squire remained where he stood.
“What is it?” Sir Golan asked, stopping.
“Terribly sorry,” the robot replied. “I appear to be stuck.”
Mel took a look. The robot was in the process of sinking, the mud coming up to his shins and rising.
“This is quite embarrassing,” Squire said.
Mel shook her head at him. “The ground’s too soft.”
“We need to hurry,” Silandra said.
“Well, we can’t just leave him like this!” Mel replied.
“Go on without me,” Squire pleaded. “I’m sure I’ll be perfectly fine here… alone in the dark.”
Sheathing his sword, the knight picked up a fallen branch and wedged it into the muck around the robot’s leg.
“While I press down,” he said, addressing Mel and Silandra, “you two push until we break the suction of the mud.”
The two women glanced at each other and then, together, began pushing on Squire as the knight laid his weight on the log. After a few attempts, the wet ground made an unappetizing sound and the robot came free.
On his back, Squire was emphatically appreciative.
“Thank you so much!” he said. “I was sure this would be my grave, neck deep in a bog.”
“Forget it,” Sir Golan said.
“As you wish. Deleting data file…”
In the mind of the Katak chief, Sisa saw a face, although it was more skull than alive. The skin hung loosely off the bone and the eyes, suspended in the otherwise empty sockets, blazed fiery orange. With no lips, his teeth were bare, grinning a horrific smile. What skin remained was wrapped tightly like paper dried over centuries.
She heard her screams before realizing she was the one screaming. The chief poked her with his staff and she stopped.
The chief spoke to his tribe and the Kataks squawked in apparent approval. Sisa wasn’t sure what he said, but she thought it was something like tribute or maybe gift. Or was it sacrifice? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
The frogling leader who had dragged Sisa halfway from her home to the Katak village became agitated. He grunted and pointed his spear at the girl and then back the way they had come. Sisa got the feeling he wasn’t happy with whatever arrangement had been made. Perhaps the cost of the warriors that died was too high a price to pay, but the chief was having nothing of it. With his staff, he gestured at Sisa and pointed in the other direction, deeper into the swamp. Eventually, the warrior relented, pulling on her bindings again. Along with two other Katak, he led Sisa away.
They walked down another trail away from the village. The natural light gone, one of the froglings lit a torch. Hemmed in by darkness and vegetation, Sisa couldn’t see much beyond the bobbing light. She became aware of shapes looming on either side of the trail. Most were about three feet tall but with smooth curves, making them unnatural in a jungle of jagged edges. They also leaned at odd angles as if a disturbance had pushed them up out of the ground. It was only until the frogling with the torch came closer to one that Sisa saw them for what they were. Like stone ghosts, they were gravestones that had sunk into the marshy ground. They were everywhere. An immense cemetery, countless ages old, that time had flooded and forgotten.
Behind her, coming from the village, an explosion pierced the darkness.
Silandra said the Katak were normally peaceful, but Squire was finding that hard to believe as spears came flying out of the darkness. Up ahead, the bonfires of a village were visible.
“Should I use the displacement field?” Squire asked Mel.
“No!” she said. “It’s too weak. Use your energy shield…”
“My what now?”
“The thing in your arm!”
Surprised, like finding he had an extra elbow, Squire noticed a button on his left arm. He pushed it and a field of translucent energy, three feet tall and two feet wide, materialized. He lifted the shield, deflecting a spear harmlessly into the underbrush.
“Get behind me,” he said and both Mel and Silandra took cover at his back. Meanwhile, Sir Golan remained at the front, diverting incoming spears with his sword.
Mel reached into her satchel and removed a spherical object, slightly larger than her tiny hand.
“What’s that?” Silandra asked.
“A stun grenade,” she replied. “It creates a blast, but shouldn’t hurt anyone.”
Mel chucked the grenade toward the village. A moment later, one of the bonfires exploded in a shower of burning logs. Several froglings fled in a panic, their bodies covered in flames.
“Oops…” Mel said, her eyes widening.
“Let’s go!” Sir Golan shouted, rushing forward.
By the time Squire and the others had reached the knight, Sir Golan had dispatched the defenders and had their chief on the ground, the tip of Rippana at his throat.
“Don’t kill him!” Silandra cried, gripping the knight’s shoulder.
Sisa’s mother knelt beside the elder Katak. The chief murmured a low croak, his eyes glazed by age. Silandra remained still, focusing on the frogling.
“What’s she doing?” Squire asked Mel.
“Talking with him,” she replied.
“I guess so.”
“Can you upgrade me with that?” Squire wondered.
“I don’t think robots can use psionics,” Mel said.
“It would be nice to know what people were thinking.”
Silandra stood, but the old chief was no longer breathing, his eyes still open but lifeless.
“What did he say?” Sir Golan asked.
“There’s an ancient cemetery farther to the West,” Silandra replied. “They’ve taken Sisa there.”
“Did he say why they kidnapped her in the first place?” Mel asked.
“I’m not sure,” the Sylvan went on. “Some kind of offering…”
“To whom?” Mel asked.
“He said a strange, decaying man came to the village one day promising everlasting life if the chief gave him a sacrifice. The chief was old and dying, so he agreed.”
“A lot of good that did him,” Mel said, giving the dead chief a light kick.
“Please, let’s hurry,” Silandra urged. “I sense her fear.”
“Onward!” Sir Golan shouted.
With the warrior in front, Sisa in the middle, and the two other froglings in the back, the group followed a meandering path through the cemetery. Sisa, pulled along by the Katak warrior, kept a telepathic link with him so she could understand what he was thinking.
“Keep moving,” he said in her thoughts.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“The garden of the dead,” he replied.
After a few minutes, they reached a crypt of white marble, tilted slightly, with a pair of torches burning on either side of the entrance. From the interior, multiple creatures appeared through the doorway. Each was humanoid, hunched over, and at times using their hands to steady themselves as they moved. Their skin, where not covered by filthy rags, looked diseased and partially rotted.
“Ghuls,” the warrior said.
“What do they want?” Sisa replied.
Sisa shrank away but the warrior yanked her back.
“No!” she said aloud.
In the distance, in the direction of the village, her mother’s voice cut through the night.
The girl struggled against the Katak warrior, but the other two froglings pushed her from behind.
“No!” Sisa screamed.
The ghuls, three in all, met them just outside the crypt. The warrior chirped something from deep in his throat, handing the girl to the nearest of the creatures.
Sisa screamed again and, in the distance, her mother’s voice began shouting her name. The girl could see a light approaching, but still far off. She kicked at the ghul, but he was surprisingly strong. He dragged her toward the crypt entrance.
“Sisa!” shouted Silandra’s voice.
“Help! Help me!”
Past the threshold, the stench inside the tomb filled Sisa’s nostrils. She made another lunge toward the entrance, but the ghul gripped her arm tightly as the other two tugged at the heavy metal door.
Seeing the warrior still outside, Sisa thrust her thoughts into his.
“Don’t do this!” she yelled.
“It’s already done,” he replied.
She heard her mother still calling her name as the door shut. Then there was only silence and the entombing dark.
When the stranger first arrived at the Katak village, one of the younger froglings went to the chief’s hut and told him the news. Lying in a cot covered with moss and sedges to comfort his tired bones, the chief struggled out of bed, standing with the help of his wooden staff.
“There’s some people here,” the young Katak croaked.
“Alright,” the old frogling said. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
When the chief emerged, most of the villagers had assembled around the main bonfire still smoldering from the night before. On the far side, the stranger waited. He was taller than the Katak or even the Sylvan. He wore brown vestments and carried a tall staff of curved wood, topped with a skull. His skin was gray and chalky like bleached bones, and his eyes blazed like fires from otherwise empty sockets.
The stranger was not alone. Accompanying him were creatures the chief learned later were called ghuls. Like their master, they were somewhere between alive and dead, with rotting skin hanging off their bodies in various stages of decay.
As the chief approached, the stranger reached into his mind.
“Greetings,” the stranger said telepathically.
“Who are you?” the chief thought.
“I am Ghazul of the Necronea.”
“My people live below the ancient cemetery west of here,” Ghazul said.
“What do you want?”
The chief could feel the stranger’s eyes staring through him, examining every fiber of his being.
“You’ve served your village a long time,” Ghazul said, “but now you see the end is coming and you’re afraid.”
“All things die,” the chief replied.
“But do they have to?”
“Of course! What are you suggesting?”
“Life everlasting,” the stranger said. “I’m offering you and your people life without end, and in return, I ask only that you provide us with what we need.”
“Which is what?”
His mouth, without lips, turned up at the corners, baring his teeth in a gruesome smile.
When Sir Golan and the rest of the group arrived at the crypt, the three froglings outside were heading back toward the village. Unlike the rest of the Katak, these warriors showed no interest in fighting.
“Tell them their chief is dead,” the knight said, turning to Silandra.
Silandra focused on the Katak, singling out the apparent leader.
“He says ‘good’,” she replied after a pause. “He says their chief made a deal with the man who lives below the graves. He says they were promised endless life but given only death.”
“What about Sisa?” Mel asked.
“She’s inside the crypt,” Silandra replied.
Sir Golan approached the marble building, giving the door a firm shove.
“It appears to be locked from the inside,” he said, tapping the metal with the tip of his sword. “The door is thick, too. I doubt even Rippana could do more than scratch it.”
Mel reached into her satchel, removing a tool shaped like a small wand.
“What’s that?” the knight asked.
“A plasma torch,” Mel said.
Mel stared at him, her eyebrow raised.
“It’s… really not.”
“Fair enough,” Sir Golan replied, sheathing his sword and crossing his arms.
Sizing up the door, Mel set the torch against it, a brilliant blue light erupting from the tip, and began cutting a long, narrow swath across the metal surface. In less than a minute, a slab fell inward with a loud, echoing crash.
Sir Golan stepped inside first, calling in the rest soon after. The crypt was a single room with a limestone sarcophagus filling most of it. Figures were carved along the sides of the coffin and lid, but the knight did not recognize the creatures depicted.
“What are they?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Silandra replied.
“They’re running from that fellow there,” Squire remarked, pointed at a biped figure with tentacles coming from its face.
“It’s the same person portrayed on top,” Sir Golan said, motioning to the lid.
Sculpted in relief, the humanoid lay facing the ceiling, his arms crossed. A pair of angry eyes glared from beneath heavy, curled brows at the center of a domed head. Instead of a mouth, four tentacles protruded from his lower jaw. Each feeler coiled around itself, reaching out as if to touch Sir Golan and the others.
“This species is not recorded in my database,” Squire said.
“Who cares?” Mel shouted, throwing her arms in the air. “Hasn’t anyone noticed there’s no other exits in this room? Where did Sisa go?”
Sir Golan, realizing she was right, took another look at the coffin lid.
“Help me with this, Squire,” he said.
The Cruxian and the robot pushed against the top of the sarcophagus. At first, the lid remained stubbornly motionless, but after a few more attempts, the limestone gave way, sliding a few feet to the side.
Sir Golan peered over the side.
“It’s empty,” he said.
“How can that be?” Mel asked.
“Except for a staircase,” the knight went on.
Mel clenched both fists and shook them.
“You’re very excitable,” the knight observed.
When Silandra reached the bottom of the staircase, the others had fanned out into a circular chamber lined with blazing torches. Thick roots twisted along the walls and hung from the ceiling. The air smelled dank and rotten.
“There’s tunnels going in every direction,” Mel said, shining a flashlight from her bag down one of the passages.
“The floor is covered in tracks,” Sir Golan noted. “Difficult to tell which ones are fresh.”
“Can you sense your daughter?” Squire asked.
In her mind, Silandra focused her thoughts on Sisa like squinting at a fuzzy object in the distance.
“I think…” she began, “I think she’s in that direction.”
Silandra nodded toward a tunnel no different than the rest.
His sword drawn, Sir Golan cautiously plodded inside with Mel behind him providing light. Silandra followed and Squire, with his energy shield active, protected the rear. The path was serpentine and narrow, everyone except Mel having to crouch at times to avoid hitting their heads.
Scraping the top of his helmet against the tunnel roof, Sir Golan sent a scattering of loose dirt into Mel’s face.
“Watch what you’re doing!” she protested.
“Please forgive me,” the knight replied ceremoniously.
“Why do you talk like that anyway?” she asked.
Sir Golan stopped.
“What is it?” Mel asked.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he said, “shine your light over there.”
The beam of the flashlight landed on an object protruding from the ceiling at an angle. The knight tapped his sword against the it, producing a wooden sound.
“I believe it’s a coffin,” Sir Golan said.
Silandra came closer and noticed the end of the coffin was torn open, the edges splintered.
“It’s empty,” she said.
As they continued, they came across more caskets poking from the dirt, each one broken and empty. A few were scratched along the sides as if by a pair of claws. Silandra became aware of another pattern.
“The tunnel keeps changing direction every time it hits a coffin,” she said.
“Oh, lord,” Mel said. “They’re using the tunnel to access the bodies. I bet all the tunnels are used for that. There must be hundreds of graves in that cemetery.”
“To what end?” Squire asked.
“Hell if I know!” Mel replied.
Squire emerged from the narrow tunnel into a spacious chamber, the others having come out before him. The walls of the domed room were red clay with rocks jutting from between tree roots. Entrances to several more tunnels were visible in the dim light and the roar of flowing water was coming from the far side.
“Sisa’s footprints are going that way,” Sir Golan said, motioning toward the thundering noise.
Mel trained her flashlight in that direction, the beam catching watery mist floating through the air.
“She’s close,” Silandra said anxiously.
“Come on!” Sir Golan shouted, starting to run.
Following his master, Squire and the others quickly caught up with the knight at a wooden bridge on the edge of a cliff. An underground river cascaded below, disappearing into the dark. The other end of the bridge was lost in the gloom.
“Looks kinda rickety,” Mel remarked, scanning the planks with her light.
From somewhere up ahead, a girl’s voice cried out, echoing off the rocks.
“Let me go!”
“Sisa!” Silandra shouted.
Silandra sprinted down the bridge with Sir Golan close behind. Mel looked at Squire for a moment before running after them. The robot, having no one else to look around at, shrugged and followed, his heavy feet clomping against the soft, soggy wood. When he caught up, his master was slashing the arm off a humanoid creature with sickly skin and glazed eyes. Silandra and Sisa, illuminated by Mel’s flashlight, were sharing an embrace. With a stroke of Rippana, Sir Golan sent the creature’s head flying into the water rushing below. The rest of its corpse collapsed against the railing.
“What is that thing?” Mel asked.
“A ghul,” Sisa replied, buried in her mother’s arms.
“Foul monsters,” Sir Golan muttered.
Watching Silandra and her daughter together, Squire regretted his lack of emotional depth. He wondered if Mel could give him an upgrade at some point.
From the darkness, farther down the bridge, sounds started coming closer.
“We should go,” Mel said, turning back the way they had come.
“You go,” Sir Golan relied. “I’ll hold them off while you make your escape.”
“Should I stay too?” Squire asked.
“No need,” the knight said. “Now get going!”
Reluctantly, Squire obeyed his master and followed Mel and the two Sylvans. Before they reached the end of the bridge, Mel stopped abruptly.
“What is it?” the robot asked.
“Look!” Mel replied.
The hulking shape of a man blocked their way. Eight feet tall, the creature was covered in patches of skin, each different but all sewn together in a jigsaw puzzle of flesh. On each patch, an archaic letter was tattooed and glowed with a bluish hue.
“It’s a golem,” Silandra said, “held together with dark psi.”
“Dark psionics?” Mel asked. “I knew someone who used that…”
“It’s an abomination,” Silandra replied.
“He wasn’t so bad…”
The flesh golem planted one of his heavy feet on the bridge. Squire felt the planks shake.
“Without Sir Golan,” the robot said, “I don’t know how to stop this monster.”
“The power comes from the ancient writing on his skin,” Silandra said. “We must destroy that to destroy the golem.”
The creature’s other foot came down hard on the bridge. His eyes were nothing but specks of black like shards of coal.
“Mel,” Squire said, “you didn’t happen to upgrade me with a flamethrower by chance?”
“There wasn’t enough time,” Mel replied.
“That’s a pity.”
“Wait,” Mel said, reaching into her bag. “This’ll do the trick.”
She pulled out a metallic cylinder and, removing a round pin on the top, tossed it at the golem’s feet.
“Stop!” Silandra shouted as the device exploded, engulfing the creature in a fireball.
Covered in sticky, burning napalm, the golem waved his arms and stomped his feet. The bridge swayed and buckled beneath the shifting weight.
“Uh oh,” Mel whispered.
Flames climbed up the golem’s body, consuming patches of flesh as they rose. The strange, mystical lettering turned from blue to orange, and then to nothing as the skin burned to ash.
“Run!” Silandra screamed, grabbing her daughter as they stumbled back down the bridge.
The golem’s massive shape, now nearly completely black, teetered like a thick tree about to fall, and then it did. With a deafening sound as loud as the rushing waters below, the creature landed face first, snapping the wood planks like kindling. The supports under the bridge splintered, sending the whole structure sideways.
Squire felt himself floating in midair, the cavern swirling around him until air became liquid and he was submerged.
When Mel woke, the first thing she noticed was the water pouring out her mouth as she lay on her side. The second thing, as her lungs emptied, was a bluish tinge coloring her hands and the mud around her. She thought in horror that the flesh golem had returned, but rolling over and looking up, she saw only Squire standing beside her and the dome of his displacement field protecting them both.
“Where are we?” she asked, coughing out the last drops of water.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Squire replied, “but I should think we’re somewhere under the bridge.”
Mel sat up. The ground was spongy and covered in shallow puddles. Although her satchel was missing, she still held the flashlight firmly in her tiny hands. She shined the beam on the wall of the displacement field, but saw only darkness beyond it.
“Are we underwater?” she asked.
“Ah, yes,” the robot said. “Did I not mention that?”
“We fell into the water after the bridge collapsed,” Squire explained. “I switched on the displacement field, letting the liquid run out through the one-way membrane.”
“Huh,” Mel said. “That was genius!”
“Oh, thank you so much,” the robot said as if embarrassed by the compliment.
“What about Silandra and Sisa?”
“I’m afraid you were the only one near me. I don’t know where the others are at the moment.”
Mel got to her feet.
“The air in here won’t last long,” she said. “We should find the shore.”
“Technically speaking,” the robot replied, “You’ll suffocate from carbon monoxide poisoning before the oxygen is depleted…”
“Whatever! Let’s go.”
Mel and Squire started walking, the dome moving along with the robot. Mel nearly tripped over the bones of a ribcage sticking out of the river bottom. She wasn’t exactly sure if this was a river at all, but she could vaguely see water running across the surface of the displacement field. Whatever was covering the dome, it seemed to have a fast current. In time, the ground started slanting upward which she took as a good sign. When the top of the dome broke the surface of the water, Mel was no longer sure.
The halo of torchlights shined on the other side of the field. Shapes moved back and forth. Many shapes.
No longer underwater, Squire switched off the dome. Mel, her pink hair dangling damply around her shoulders, looked with wild eyes at the people she saw. Although they appeared similar to the ghuls, with skin discolored and even absent in some places, they wore armor fashioned from bones and carried swords that were hooked like the blades of a scythe. One of them wore brown vestments like a priest and held a curved staff with a skull on the end. Beside him, next to an altar-like stone table, Silandra was visible. Only then did Mel noticed someone else, a girl lying on the table.
She wasn’t moving.
Death is not the end. For those with the power and knowledge, death is only the beginning of everlasting life. No one knew this better than Grand Necromancer Ghazul. His people, the Necronea, were the embodiment of reanimation. As the Spring knows the Winter, they knew death as only the dark before the light.
Ghazul watched the Sylvan woman emerge from the subterranean river, both her and the daughter in her arms soaked to the bone. He reached into her mind and learned the woman’s name, Silandra, and felt the deep sorrow flowing from her heart. She did not understand what Ghazul already knew and he pitied her for that. She saw only death in her daughter’s face where the Grand Necromancer saw hope.
Surrounded by the Necronea, she also felt fear, but Ghazul assured Silandra there was no danger, directing her to lay Sisa’s body onto the stone table. After doing so, she turned to him.
“Why did you steal my daughter?” she asked aloud. “What possible good could come from this?”
Although the blazing eyes in his head could convey no emotion, Ghazul sympathized with the mother’s anger, knowing that she was ignorant of the great honor for which her daughter was intended. He did his best to explain.
“I know this must be strange,” Ghazul said. “For you, life is a precious, finite thing, with a beginning and an end. Or perhaps you believe there’s life after death, a place from which we cannot return.”
“Yes,” Silandra replied, slowly nodding.
“My people believe something quite different,” the necromancer continued. “From the teachings of the Old Gods, we learned that we can, indeed, return. That death is merely a state of matter that, like ice to water, can change if need be.”
“Who are the Old Gods?”
“They were the first to exist since existence began, even before the stars started burning. They lived in the infinite blackness were light was still just a dream.”
“Get to the point!” Silandra shouted. “I don’t care about your religion!”
“You must understand,” Ghazul replied calmly, “for everything there is a price. To keep the Old Gods sated, we must offer a sacrifice of purity. Your daughter Sisa was to be that sacrifice.”
“It’s true that she’s no longer suitable as an offering, but I can assure you she isn’t lost. I am fully capable of restoring Sisa to you.”
In the river, the dark water began changing color, brightening with a bluish glow. An orb of energy broke the river’s surface, slowly rising out of the water. When it was entirely on the shore, the ball of blue disappeared, leaving a small girl and a robot in its place.
Although the Grand Necromancer had lived a very long time, Ghazul found this sudden appearance unprecedented.
Although pleased to be on dry land, Squire was awkwardly aware that he and Mel had walked into a formidable situation. Even with upgrades to his systems, the robot knew that without Sir Golan, he was outmatched by the number of armed Necronea present. Squire had no idea where his master was at the moment, but hoped he was not injured or worse. The thought of Sir Golan drowning or even being killed by the ghul upset the robot’s programming.
“Do you have any weapons?” he asked Mel.
“No,” she replied. “I lost my bag in the river…”
The Necronea quickly surrounded them, forcing both the Gnomi and the robot to join Silandra beside the stone altar. Sisa, her skin a pale blue, lay resting on the table. To Squire, she looked tiny, but her face appeared strangely calm, even graceful.
“What’s going on?” Mel asked.
“This is Ghazul, a necromancer,” Silandra said. “He promises to bring Sisa back from the dead.”
“How is that even possible?” Mel wondered.
“By using dark psi…” Silandra replied.
“She’ll be like we are,” Ghazul said proudly. “As a Necronea, she will live forever and never know death again.”
Mel frowned, her eyes turning serious.
“I knew someone once,” she said. “He died, but they said they could bring him back by downloading his personality into a robot.”
“Fascinating!” Squire said.
“I loved him and I would’ve given anything to get him back, but whoever was inside that robot, wasn’t the Randall that I knew anymore.”
Silandra was silent, her brows furrowed in thought. After a few moments, she turned to the Grand Necromancer.
“Sisa was my only daughter,” she told him. “When you took her away, you stole the most precious thing in my life. As Mel said, I would do anything to bring her back, but that’s not what you’re offering.”
“No?” Ghazul said.
“You were right about her purity,” she went on. “I can’t say I understand how dark psi works, but I know I don’t want you defiling her with it.”
Now it was the necromancer’s turn to be silent.
“As you wish,” he sighed. “You may take her in peace. We will not prevent you.”
“Really?” Mel asked. “You’d just let us walk out of here?”
“No,” he said. “Not you.”
“We still require someone pure to sacrifice or the Old Ones will become angry.”
“Why are you looking at me then?” Mel asked, pointing at herself.
“You are a virgin, correct?”
Mel laughed uncomfortably.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “I’ve been with lots of guys…”
“You’re obviously lying,” the necromancer said.
Squire leaned closer to the Gnomi, whispering in her ear.
“I’m afraid he’s right,” he said. “It is pretty obvious.”
“You’re not helping!” Mel replied.
“The others may leave,” Ghazul told Mel, “but you must pass through the doorway.”
“What doorway?” Mel asked.
The Grand Necromancer waved his staff at the ornate drawing of a doorway carved into the side of a stone wall. Along the outside of the drawing was lettering similar to those on the flesh golem. These letters also began glowing. At the same time, the center of the doorway faded away, its edges falling inward like a waterfall from above.
One of the Necronea grabbed Mel by the arm and forced her toward the portal. She punched and kicked him, but Mel’s small size kept her from landing a solid blow.
“Stop!” a voice shouted.
Much to Squire’s relief, Sir Golan appeared and immediately sent Rippana threw the nearest Necronea. The sword pierced the bone armor, sticking out the other side. Unfazed, the undead fighter struck the knight squarely across the face, launching him backward several feet. The blade still dangling from his chest, the Necronea merely laughed.
“Shining knight, my butt,” Mel remarked.
“Stop this nonsense!” Ghazul shouted. “You cannot harm us and we cannot die! The girl must go through the portal or the Old Ones will enact their vengeance on all living things. What we do here is for your benefit, not ours! We protect you from the terrible power of the Void!”
“You’re saying if I don’t go through, terrible things will happen?” Mel asked doubtfully.
“The end of all things,” Ghazul said.
“He makes a lot of valid points,” Squire said.
“Again,” Mel replied, “not helping!
“You must do this,” Ghazul told her. “It’s the only way.”
Mel stared into the doorway.
“Don’t do it!” Silandra yelled.
“It’s okay,” she replied. “Since Randall died, things haven’t been exactly great.”
“That doesn’t mean—” Silandra started.
“People have been making sacrifices right and left,” Mel stopped her. “Maybe it’s finally my turn.”
The Necronea holding Mel released his grip. Standing on her own, she took one last look at the others and smiled.
Then she disappeared through the doorway.