Gender: Male Age: 21 Location: N/A
|Introduction: Not my Storie All Credit Goes to Eric Storm|
Don dismounted his horse. He felt Gill at his side, and the two walked forward, leaving their horses in the care of Susan. She knew she wouldn't be of any real use in the coming battle, if there was to be one. Psionics can protect themselves from flying objects; an archer doesn't stand a chance.
The two boys walked steadily forward, sharing sidelong glances. It was just hitting them; this was not a movie. This wasn't Wyatt and Doc on their way to the OK Corral. Whatever happened here, they knew that someone was probably going to get hurt.
"Just keep it cool, Gill," Don said quietly. "Maybe we can talk our way through this."
"Fine with me, man. I don't have any of those nifty powers to protect me."
"I hear you. Just don't piss him off any more than he already is, okay?"
The two walked the remaining way in silence. Don studied Paul's body language, and didn't like what he saw. His former friend was obviously angry, and Don wondered if he wasn't slightly insane. Looking to Carysta, he saw her fade backward a little, and wondered what that meant. The look on her face was more one of worry than anger.
She's worried about Paul? Or worried that we've got the ability to beat them? Which?
Don kept his gaze steady, hoping that his mien was impassive as he approached. He and Gill stopped when they were about twenty feet away from the other two.
For a long moment, no one spoke. There was a tension in the air that no one dared to break. Paul glowered at the others, and Don and Gill looked back at him pensively, wondering what he'd do.
After about a minute or so, Don couldn't stand the silence. He didn't know what to say, but finally, from the recesses of his brain, came a line from a Mel Brooks movie.
"I say, would you mind terribly getting out of the way?" Don asked in his best Robin Hood voice. It was a movie that the boys had watched together a dozen times; he hoped it would break something loose in Paul.
"Yes, actually, I would mind," Paul snarled back. Obviously he didn't care about their past relationship; he wanted - what? Vengeance? For what?
"Look, what the hell's your problem?" Gill demanded. Don put his hand out to stop Gill, who was about to step forward.
"You're my problem, you... sister-fucker! I'm going to kill you for stealing Julie from me!"
Don stepped intentionally in front of Gill. "Actually, Paul, Julie is my girl, not Gill's."
"What the fuck are you doing?" Gill whispered.
"Saving your ass," Don replied in kind. "Now, step back, and go protect the girls!"
"I'll be damned if I'm letting him run me off!" Gill rasped.
"He isn't. I am. Now, move it!"
Reluctantly, Gill backed away. Don needed him gone, because that was the only way that Don could hope to calm Paul enough to let them pass without a fight.
"So, you're the fuck she's sleeping with? God, and I thought you were my friend!"
Don raised his hands in supplication. "Paul, believe what you want, okay? Julie came to me after she gave up on waiting for you. You were ignoring her. What did you want her to do?"
"She's mine, god damn you!" Paul bellowed.
At this point, Don felt a presence at his shoulder. He turned to bark an order at Gill, only to find Julie looking past him at her brother. "I'm not yours. And I never will be yours. What happened to you, Paulie?"
"My name, you little whore, is Paul!" Julie stepped back involuntarily. Don put his body mostly between them, though Julie could still see around him.
"Why did you have to abandon me? I wanted to be with you!" she cried. "But you wouldn't have anything to do with me! So, yes, I went to someone else! It was your fault!" Don turned and hugged her, and she gripped him. It was the wrong thing to do in front of Paul, though it was necessary.
"So, you've brainwashed her into believing I did all this shit to her. Good trick. I suppose that kind of magic can come in handy. You're not likely to be able to use it on me, you piece of shit."
Don leaned down and whispered in Julie's ear. "Go back to the horses. Jules... I love you." He didn't know why he'd said that, or if it had any more significance than simply to comfort her. She looked up and smiled through her tears, and nodded, then ran back to join the others. Don turned to face his now-enemy.
"Like I said. Believe what you want. Obviously, you've already made up your mind. The truth isn't likely to sway you at all. You've always been a little pig-headed. What do I have to do to get you to go away and leave us alone?"
"Die," Paul spat. "That's all. Would you like to kill yourself, or will you allow me the satisfaction?"
"I'm going home, Paul. If that means I have to go through you two to get there, then so be it."
At this point, Don could feel someone new approaching. He turned his head just enough to catch red hair out of the corner of his eye. That told him who it was; Annie was coming to join him. He worried as much about that as he felt grateful for it; she wasn't confident with her skills.
Finally, realizing he couldn't reason with Paul, he turned to Carysta. He asked her, "Why did you turn him against us? What the fuck did we ever do to you?"
"You leave her out of this!" Paul snarled. Don continued to look at Carysta, and he saw his pleading look returned. She doesn't want to be here at all. She'll support him, but she'd just as soon be somewhere else.
"You know what?" Paul growled, "If you want that little cunt, go ahead and have her! She's too stupid for me, anyway."
Don stepped back, his right fist down at his side. It was clenched tightly into a fist. When Don realized that, he consciously relaxed it.
"Fucking slut, is all she is. She's fucked every member of the senior class, far as I can tell. Guess you were the best she could manage, in this place... though I'm surprised she's not flirting with her horse."
Don knew when he was being goaded. He could tell that Paul was trying to taunt him into action. He was getting angry, and he realized his hand was clenching and unclenching rhythmically.
Paul continued. "Hell, I bet she slept with you just to get even with me! Yeah, that sounds like something she'd do. Vindictive, stupid little cow that she is. Spread her legs for anyone to suit her needs."
Don lifted his left hand ever so slightly, and he felt Annie shift beside him. He didn't dare look at her; he was afraid Paul was hoping to catch him off guard.
"But it doesn't matter. I'm not going to let you boss me around anymore. You can have the silly little slut, though." Paul sneered at Don, but then he glanced down. He saw a light shining from Don's clenched fist. As the fist relaxed, he saw a tight ball of crimson energy hidden there. He knew that meant trouble; he had pushed too far now, and if he didn't take the first action, he might not get a chance.
Paul lunged, his attack hurried and disorganized. Still, it caught Don by surprise, since he'd been expecting a continued verbal tirade. Don lifted his left hand, forming a ward-off sign to create a weak shield, and then he brought his right hand up. It wasn't until that point that he even realized there was already a ball of energy in his hand.
Don looked at it for a brief moment, and then, shrugging, decided that he wouldn't worry over why it was there. Looking into Paul's eyes, Don's right hand shot forward, releasing the highly charged ball of magic. He watched as first Paul impacted his shield, which gave way, but didn't break under the strain. Then, the energy spell impacted Paul in the side, throwing him violently sideways, and tossing him to the ground. Paul rolled for a dozen yards, but Don wasn't watching that.
Sensing that she would enter the fight now, Don turned to face Carysta, who was already forming a ball of mental energy. She loosed it just as Don turned. He began to chant a stronger shield spell, but Annie didn't give him time.
Annie knew that Don would be caught unaware, and she had been watching Carysta. As soon as the psionic ball left Carysta's hand, Annie leapt forward. As she moved through the air, she drew the Sword of Hollie from its sheath. As her feet landed lightly, she swiveled and brought her sword around in an arc. The ball of energy was right where she had expected it to be, and her sword cut deeply into it.
Mental energy and magical energy cannot meet without some reaction. In the case of opposing forces, that reaction is most often quick and violent. The ball of energy split in half, then exploded. Annie was hurled off her feet, thrown thirty feet backward by the blast. She barely missed hitting Don, not that she had any control of her flight path.
Don cursed at seeing what had happened, and he turned to go to Annie. He knelt down as she raised up to her elbows, shaking her head to clear it.
"Are you okay?" he asked in deep concern. She nodded, still a little woozy from the landing. She could feel some bruises, but nothing hurt too badly. She turned her head, and saw the attack coming, but had no time to say anything.
Paul had risen from his position in the grass, and he had taken the opportunity of Don's inattentiveness to fire a blast of mind energy at him. Like a particle beam, it lanced through the air and contacted Don's back, throwing him a dozen feet away. Don rolled in the grass, cursing himself and then chanting a spell to protect himself from further attacks.
Paul advanced on Don, but as he came across Annie, struggling to get to her feet, he looked down and scowled. He delivered a kick to her midsection as she tried to rise, and she collapsed back on the ground with a loud whoosh! as the air rushed out of her lungs.
"You stupid bitch. Don't you know you're no match for us? Get in the way like that again, and Carysta will vaporize you! Do you think I'm afraid of you? I know how weak you are. You depend on him! First, I will kill him. Then I will have my fun toying with you, before you d-"
At this point, Paul went flying. A massive burst of unfocused energy washed over him. The rage contained within the blast was enough that Paul could not resist it, and was thrown off his feet. He looked down, as he flew fairly high above the ground, to see Don using both hands in a major attack. He could hear his former friend clearly, however.
"You will not touch her!" he screamed. The energy actually increased, and Paul struggled to get free of the beam. Finally, Don let him loose, and Paul was falling. He tried to right himself, but the blast had disoriented him badly.
Don didn't pay much attention to what happened to Paul after that. Once he released his beam, he ran to Annie's side, kneeling quickly to look at her. She was already struggling to get back to her feet, so he grasped her hand, and hauled her upright. She reached down to grab her sword, and then shook her head to clear away the last of the cobwebs. Only then did the two look for their opponents.
Carysta thought to attack Don as he rushed to his partner's aid, but she was more worried about saving her own mate, who didn't seem to be able to stop his rapid descent toward the ground. She reached out with her mind, and gripped him. It was a struggle; he was falling rapidly. Finally, only twenty feet from impact, she managed to slow his descent so that his landing was nothing more than an unpleasant tumble in the dirt.
The two groups once again faced off, about twenty feet apart. Paul was breathing hard, but Don didn't think it was so much from effort as anger. Annie was rubbing her arm where she'd fallen on it.
"This is pointless," Don called out. "Look, you don't have to do this! You know, we know where Vernior is now! All you've got to do is come with us, and we can all be home in a little while!"
Carysta looked at Paul. This was the thing she feared; would he leave her here, alone again?
Paul looked at him. "Why the fuck would I want to go back home? Home I'm a nobody. The nerds don't like me, the jocks hate me, everyone teases me, and you push me around!"
"I have never pushed you around!" Don spat back.
"Oh, yeah, right. Like this whole thing isn't just your fucking power-trip. No thanks. Here, I have a good life. I've got a girl, I've got some respect, and I've got power. Power I'm about to show you, asswipe, so I'd advise you to say a prayer!"
Don moved closer to Annie, but he wasn't sure if he was protecting her, or if he just wanted someone else close. Annie tightened her grip on her sword, and put her free hand on Don's shoulder. Carysta, Don noticed, stepped away from Paul slightly, as if to give him room to work.
Paul was concentrating, trying to form a ball of mental energy. Don saw this, and quickly weaved his own spell. The spell had little power, but it flashed and popped and twinkled in front of Paul, distracting him. The spell lasted for longer than it took to chant it, and while Paul was confused, dealing with the sparkles, Don formed a more powerful spell. He lanced a shot of lightning from the tip of his finger, heading right for Paul.
Carysta saw this, however. She used her kinetic ability to shove Paul out of the way, and the spell zipped harmlessly past. Paul lifted himself up off the ground, using his power to levitate. Now he zoomed straight at Don, a ball of energy crackling between his hands.
Don was caught by the sight of Paul diving at him, and it took Annie tugging on him to bring him back to reality. "Go right," he told her just loud enough for her to hear. As he shoved her, she dove to the right, rolling along the ground and then running. Don moved to the left. This way, he knew that Paul would have to choose, and he was hoping there would be a moment of hesitation.
Paul was not going to be fooled that easily, however. He swerved, aiming right for Don. Don turned and, at the last moment, swung himself first to the right, and then the left. He spun about just as Paul was trying to correct his flight path, and he put up a magical tripwire in front of the flying teen.
Paul's body contacted the tripwire and went tumbling. He hit the ground hard, and got a face full of mental energy ball. Blasted by his own attack, Paul went rolling along the ground, dazed. He was also extremely angry, and by the time he'd gotten to his feet, it was clear that he was enraged.
Paul paused, and closed his eyes, tilting his head forward and bringing his hands to his temples. Don was worried now; he couldn't easily distract him in his current pose. When he felt Annie at his side, he was more comforted.
Suddenly, before them were three Pauls. Then five, seven... they were multiplying rapidly, forming a circle around the two. Don tried to keep his eyes focused on where he knew Paul to be standing, but then a problem developed. Paul lifted himself and his copies off the ground, and they all started rotating around the two.
Don and Annie stood back to back, not sure of exactly how to deal with this attack. Don raised a shield around both of them just as Paul took his first shot. The mental energy impacted on the magical shield, causing sparks and bright auroral colors in the air for a second or two. Don considered how to beat an enemy he couldn't see.
Well, if I can't see him... no, it's not that I can't see him, it's that I don't know which one is real. Okay, good.
"Annie, can you create a wind, flowing left to right?"
"I'm... I'm not sure."
"Try. Please. I need your help."
"I'll do what I can," she said self-consciously.
"I believe in you, Annie," he said, keeping his eyes on the Pauls in front of him. Annie closed her eyes, and began a chant. He could hear the quaver in her voice as she tried to concentrate. He reached back and grabbed her free hand, the one not involved in the spell. She squeezed his hand very tightly.
Slowly, uncertainly, as if it wasn't really sure it felt like going anywhere, the air began to move across the field, causing a slight wind.
"Heavier, Annie. C'mon, you can do it. I need a stiff breeze."
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the wind speed picked up, until Don could feel it tugging at his clothes.
"Good! Now hold it, keep the wind going!"
Don looked now at the spinning images of Paul before him. The wind was whipping their hair around... but the key was that only one of the images had hair going in the right direction for the wind. Don focused his mind, casting a spell of seeing, and his vision became vastly more acute. He could now tell with a glance which Paul was the real one. He dropped his shield and dumped all of that energy into a beam spell, lancing it out at Paul. The beam connected, because Paul didn't even try to dodge, figuring there was no way Don could correctly guess which one was him.
Paul was thrown violently to the ground. He rolled in the grass in agony. He was outraged that his trick hadn't worked. Still, he wasn't really injured. He pulled himself up off the ground, and looked across the grass.
"Okay, Annie, you can let it go now. You did great." He could feel her whole body trembling as she had struggled to hold it together. As the spell faded, she nearly collapsed. Don had to turn to hold her up. He wasn't paying attention to Paul.
Paul noticed this. A ball of mental energy went sailing, and Don caught it in the small of his back, throwing both himself and Annie to the ground. Don went rolling, tumbling so that he would not land on Annie and hurt her. He got up, dazed and shaken.
Stupid mistake, Don.
Squaring himself, he looked at Paul. Paul was glaring maniacally at him, in a way that made Don really wonder about his sanity. Paul lunged, and once again, the fight was on.
For the next ten minutes, four powerful individuals battled. No one seemed capable of getting the upper hand. Near the end, Annie seemed to retreat from the fighting. Don didn't mind; he was more worried about her getting hurt than needing her help. He focused on the two before him, ducking Paul's next attack. He feinted to the left, flashing a beam of light in that direction. Had it hit Paul, it would have done no more than dazzle him. Paul didn't know this, of course, and he swung right to avoid it. Don was ready for him, and arced a blue laser-like beam from his fingers through the sky. Paul almost ducked it, but the edge caught him in the side. He went spinning through the air, heading straight for a tree.
Carysta screamed in panic, and rushed for Paul. She was throwing every ounce of strength she had at him, to try to slow him down. When she realized that wasn't working, she pushed at him, shoving him off course. She watched, hoping he'd miss-
Annie had been waiting for an opportunity. She knew that she couldn't take Carysta in a head-on fight, but now Carysta wasn't paying attention. Annie summoned up all the psionic power she could, and channeled it along the blade of her sword. It was the only way she knew to point her energies in the right direction, and the blast shot out the tip of her blade, lancing deep into Carysta's body.
The blast was, truly, feeble, and it would not have been more than an annoyance if Carysta had been ready for it. She was, however, watching Paul too intently, and the blast caught her completely by surprise. She crumpled to the ground, rolling in pain.
In the meantime, Paul had crashed to the ground, missing the tree by a good three feet. He struggled to get upright, and shook his head to clear it. The world still seemed to be spinning. Looking over, he wondered why Carysta wasn't occupying the other two's attention so he could recover. At that point, he saw her writhing on the ground, and he ran toward her, his feet barely touching the ground.
When he got closer, he saw the scorch mark on her clothing, and he knew from experience that it was a psionic blast. He leveled his gaze at Annie, and the rage burned within him.
"You stupid cow! How dare you! I will crush your skull!"
As Paul was readying for his attack, he learned why anger is a weapon only for one's enemy. Don saw what was about to happen, but he'd been waiting to see what Paul would do. Now knowing that it was necessary, Don let loose a massive gout of magic flame. When it reached Paul, it not only began to burn his clothes, but it threw him backward... right into the tree Carysta had worked so hard to make him avoid the first time. Paul's body bowed when it hit the tree, his back arching ominously. Don was sure he would have to have something broken. When Don let the fire die away, Paul crumpled to the ground. That's when Don saw the blood oozing from the back of his head. Don's stomach churned as he thought about what might have happened.
By this time, Carysta was getting shakily to her feet, having recovered from the blast. She was about to turn on Annie, but then saw what had happened to her lover.
<Paul!> she screamed in her mind, running to his side. The blood began running more freely from his head, and she pressed her hands against the wound. She sent her energy into him, trying to heal the damage. She managed to stop the bleeding, and she prevented the inevitable swelling, but she couldn't get him to wake up; too many other injuries had occurred.
As she felt a presence near her, she looked up, terrified. Anyone who could do this to a friend...
She looked into Don's gaze, and was confused to see concern. "Is he dead?" Don asked.
<No,> she said, her mental voice a harsh whisper. <Are you going to kill him now?> She thought if he said yes, she would surely die trying to save him.
"I didn't want to fight him in the first place."
<What are you going to do with us?>
Don noticed the total lack of will left in her. "Why did he do this?" Don wanted to know.
Carysta shook her head, crying. <It might have been my fault. I only wanted... it's so lonely here, and he was so like me... I only wanted a companion. But he... changed...>
"We're leaving Zemlia Nov. We're going back home."
Carysta looked up at him. <Are you going to take him away from me?>
Don snorted. "Hell, no. I don't know what we're going home to... we've been gone for like two months or something. I do know that I don't want to put up with him for the rest of my life."
The rest of the group had come over, now that the fight was over. Don could feel Julie pressing behind him, and he turned to let her in, so she could see her brother. She looked down at him, worry creasing her face. She turned to Carysta.
"You'll take care of him?"
Carysta nodded. <I'm sorry. I never wanted to hurt any of you. Least of all, him,> she said, looking down into his unconscious face.
"Maybe things will ease up for him when we're gone," Don said. "Tell him... shit, nothing you tell him that I said is going to be helpful. Just let him know we left, and that we wish him luck."
<Thank you... for sparing me.>
"I didn't want to fight you, either," Don said plainly. "Something tells me that between here and home is something nasty. I didn't need this little battle to wear me out."
"We should be gone by day's end... or at the very latest, tomorrow. Don't let him follow us."
"That's all I ask. C'mon guys, we've got a long way to go yet."
As the group began to walk to their horses, Don held Annie back. When the rest of the team was about twenty feet away, he embraced her. She hugged him tightly, reveling in the feel of him. After a little while, he let her go, and smiled.
"See? I told you we could do it." She grinned at him sheepishly, and blushed. "Are you okay? I mean, really?"
"I'll be all right... but... could I... maybe ride with you for a while? I feel better when I do."
"Okay," he said. He leaned in, and they kissed softly, before finally walking over to Don's horse.
When they were both situated, he looked back. "Everyone ready?"
"Lead on," Gill said.
"Let's go home."
The team rode on for most of the afternoon, and it seemed only slowly that the Siratis Gates grew closer to them. By mid-afternoon, they were wondering if they would make it before nightfall. At a small lake, Don called a halt to their group, to give the horses some rest, as well as to let the blood return to his ass, which had just about fallen asleep completely from the riding.
After getting a drink himself and making sure there were no problems, Don turned to gaze at the immense spires of rock before them. Though they were still untold miles in the distance, he already had to raise his eyes to see the top of them. He stared at them, wondering how something like that could exist, for a long moment before he noticed someone standing beside him.
Turning, he saw Katie looking at the spires, a look of fear and dread on her face. "What's the matter?" he asked, suddenly concerned.
"What's going to happen... when we get home?"
Don cocked his head to one side. "What do you mean, what's going to happen?"
"With us," she said more directly. Don's eyebrows lifted; he hadn't considered the idea of their relationship in the real world.
"I... well, what do you want to happen?" he asked, temporizing.
Katie turned to him and wrapped her arms around him. "I love you, Donny. I don't think I can go without you."
Don wrapped his arms around his sister and hugged her tightly. "Well, then... I guess we'll find a way to see that you don't have to," he said with a comforting tone to his voice. With a chuckle, he said, "I'm kinda gonna miss the wings, though."
When she backed away, Katie was blushing fiercely. "You really like me this way?"
"Katie," he said quickly, "you were beautiful before, but here... here you're a goddess." She leaned in and kissed him strongly as a reward for his compliment. He held onto her for a long time before he sensed someone waiting for them to break it up.
Letting go of Katie, he turned to see Gill smirking at the both of them. "You guys done, or you want us to build you a room right here?"
"Hmmm, a room sounds nice," Don said jokingly. "You in some kind of hurry?"
"It's going to start getting dark soon. I'd like to be out of here as soon as possible."
"Spoil sport," Don said to his sister, who giggled. Don turned and looked at the Gates again. "Okay, I guess we should get going." He noted that Annie was back with Julie, though she smiled and nodded to him. Don turned to Katie and said, "Looks like you got your seat back. What did you threaten her with?"
Katie blushed again, but said nothing. Soon, the group was back on its way toward the Siratis Gates and, they hoped, home.
The next two hours were blessedly uneventful, but it was becoming clearer to them that they might not make it to the Gates before they had to stop for the night.
They didn't know that it wasn't up to them.
Don was in the lead, as usual, when a shadow crossed over him. He looked up just in time to throw himself and Katie off the horse. Dan-Gelmer came down out of the sun, decapitating their horse. Blood spewed everywhere, and Don rolled clear of it. He looked over to his sister, who was already up and running, looking for anything that resembled shelter. Don saw Dan-Gelmer wheeling for another attack.
"Katie, DOWN!" Don screamed.
Without hesitation, Katie disappeared into the tall grass only seconds before Dan-Gelmer came streaking across the grassland, mere feet above the ground. He was angered that he couldn't find his target.
Don, however, was angered at who Dan-Gelmer's target was. He let loose with a magical blast that singed the tip of Dan-Gelmer's tail. The dragon swung around in a tight arc, looking for his assailant. He found Don standing in the open, a look of rage on his face.
"You want to attack somebody, you overgrown dragonfly, you attack me!"
"Very well, human," the dragon replied. A blast of blue fire erupted out of Dan-Gelmer's mouth, heading for Don. Don jumped out of the way, rolling clear and back on his feet. The grass did not burn from the flame; Don was surprised by this, since it would have been a good way to corner them.
By this time, the others had dismounted, and had drawn their weapons. Don felt them coming up beside him. Without looking, he asked Gill, "Where's Julie?"
"Let it fly!"
Susan released the arrow she had in her bow. Don chanted his spell as the arrow flew. Dan-Gelmer swung in the air to avoid it, but he had as much chance of dodging it as a Cessna would have dodging a Sidewinder. The arrow guided its way to its target, thanks to Don's spell, and it embedded deeply in Dan-Gelmer's side. The dragon howled, first with rage, and then with pain, as the secondary spell kicked in, sending jolts of electric energy through the dragon's body.
Don was proud of himself, and he was highly annoyed when someone tackled him from the side. He rolled, ready to beat the crap out of whoever it was, until he saw that it was Annie. He looked at her angrily, until he heard the sizzle of magical energy in the air. He nodded to her as he pushed her off him so he could get up.
A coordinated attack. We should have expected it. He was now faced with the crimson-robed Denonia once again.
"You may have passed the test of the maze, boy, but you cannot defeat me!" Denonia lashed another bolt of energy at him, but this time he was ready for her. A quick defense spell deflected the ball of energy up and away... right toward Dan-Gelmer. Denonia screamed in warning and then in frustration. Dan-Gelmer glared at her from his position in the sky.
"Looks like you've got some pretty bad aim there," Don taunted. Denonia leveled a slender finger at him.
"Don't think you can toy with me, child! You are nothing but a piss-ant!" With that, she loosed a blast of lightning from her finger. Don dodged, but the edge of it still caught him, throwing him to the ground and setting his robe alight. He quickly rolled in the grass to put himself out, and then rose to his knees.
Just then, Dan-Gelmer swooped out of the sky, aiming right for Don. Don rolled onto his back, so he could see the dragon, and lanced a shot straight at the oncoming lizard. Dan-Gelmer dodged and weaved, avoiding each bolt of energy.
Suddenly, a blue bolt of fire zapped straight up at him. He was caught in the side, and screamed in rage. The bolt didn't hurt him much, but it was irritating.
The column of energy Don sent his way had somewhat more impact. Dan-Gelmer was rocked backward, thrown into a spin for a second before he was able to recover. He blessed Annie for the distraction.
As Don rose, he turned to face Denonia again. "Gill, you three take care of him. I'll deal with Denonia."
"You think you can deal with me, you worthless pond slime? I will crush you!"
"Why must bad game characters always talk too goddamn much?" Don asked her. He didn't give her a chance to retort, as he fired a series of fire darts at her. Denonia cried out in pain as several contacted her body. She waved her hands to form a magical shield, and the remainder of the darts bounced harmlessly away.
Behind Don, the rest of the team was facing down Dan-Gelmer. Susan pulled out the largest arrow she had; a hunting arrow designed for bringing down large game, it looked puny compared to Dan-Gelmer's immense size.
"Annie, can you... do anything to it?" Susan asked hurriedly.
Annie nodded, and said, "I'll try. When I say go, fire it."
Susan nocked the arrow and pulled it back as far as she could. Annie closed her eyes and chanted a spell, repeating it over and over as she visualized in her mind. When she felt she had it, she screamed, "GO!"
Susan let loose her arrow, and was nearly thrown backward by the power of the energy coursing through it. The small wooden stick looked more like a laser beam as it lanced speedily toward its target. When it impacted in Dan-Gelmer's shoulder, he was thrown to the ground in pain. He tumbled until he was upright, and then reached back with his mouth to grab the offending object, yanking it free.
"You will all die horrible deaths," Dan-Gelmer promised, advancing on them. Gill shrugged.
"Hey, if I'm gonna die, might as well try to take you with me. Charge!" Gill rushed the dragon, who, in his astonishment, failed to burn Gill to a crisp. When Gill was close enough, he lunged at the beast, swiping at his foreleg, and cutting deeply into it. Dan-Gelmer howled in rage and pain, swinging his tail around to catch Gill, but Gill had already rolled himself into a ball and bounced away from the angry beast.
Annie, seeing an opportunity, let loose another electric blast. Following that, she was able to put together a weak image of a larger dragon. It was transparent, and wouldn't fool anyone, but it had the desired effect of further distracting an already upset animal. Annie drew the Sword of Hollie and rushed in.
Dan-Gelmer was almost fast enough to catch her, but Annie was also able to augment her speed. She was using every trick she'd managed to figure out over the last weeks, and she was inside on the dragon before he could bring his foot down on her. She sliced over his midsection, blood spewing over her head as she went. In a second, she was clear, able to hop and roll over the animal's tail before he could lash her with it.
Dan-Gelmer knew that he couldn't fight this way; he was too clumsy on the ground. He beat his huge wings, and soon he was soaring into the air. The attacks of the humans were mere stings to him, but enough stings can be fatal, too. He rose to five hundred feet, and then dove at them, fire blasting from his mouth.
Even Denonia cringed at Dan-Gelmer's attack, probably because she knew she was very close to his flight path. She ran away from the area quickly. Don, knowing what had to be happening, turned to see the dragon barreling down out of the sky heading toward his friends.
Thinking quickly, Don let loose a burst of bright flashes right in front of Dan-Gelmer. Harmless though they were, they would blind the dragon for a short time, allowing everyone to move. Don ran to where he remembered Katie was; he needed to know she was all right, since he hadn't seen her in a few minutes.
About the time Don reached Katie, Dan-Gelmer crashed into the ground, still dazzled from the bright lights. He wheeled on his opponents, a fierce blast of yellow fire spewing from his mouth. This time, everything it touch withered and died instantly. Luckily, it reached none of his friends. He looked down to see that Katie was shaking, but unhurt. He reached down and pulled her up.
"C'mon," he shouted. "If you stay here like that, you're liable to get trampled by accident!" He ran with her toward where he knew Julie to be hiding, but he never made it there.
Denonia, recovering from her surprise at Dan-Gelmer's reckless charge, saw Don and the Elfling. She fired a rapier-like blast at him. Katie shouted a warning, and Don raised his hands in spell-defense just in the nick of time. The blast dented his shielding, but didn't crack it. He knew she couldn't keep this up forever; it was draining way too much power. He didn't know how much she had, but no one's levels were infinite.
Half an hour later, and the group was really beginning to show signs of wear. They'd been fending off attacks from two directions for too long, and no one can hold up forever. Don continued to ward off Denonia's energy bursts, and throw a few of his own, but he also had to keep an eye out for Dan-Gelmer, as he would periodically make another diving attack, and Don's magic was the only way to prevent that from succeeding. Annie was doing her best, but she simply wasn't up to this level of combat.
Gill and Susan were both beginning to wear out, though they'd had the least to do, other than running away. That alone grated on Gill's nerves and set him on edge, but there was little he could do; he was completely outclassed in this kind of fighting.
On the other side of the battle, Denonia and Dan-Gelmer were both becoming agitated. They had not anticipated a major resistance from this rag-tag group of people. Denonia was growing angry, at herself and at her enemy. Finally, she decided that enough was enough.
Raising her hands high above her head, Denonia chanted loudly and long. Beneath her feet, the ground started to rumble. The others felt it, and they looked fearfully to Don, who was now crouching slightly, to keep his balance and his focus. Whatever was coming, he was sure it would be bad.
He was right in that assessment. Springing forth from the ground came a trio of rock monsters, about seven feet tall, looking very much like The Thing from the Fantastic Four, except not as charming. The creatures lumbered toward the group, arms outstretched in classic monster pose. Gill, finally seeing an enemy he could sink his blade into, actually let out a battle cry.
"Come get some!" Gill screamed as he charged the beasts. Annie, drawing once more the Sword of Hollie, followed her instructor into combat. Don turned to Denonia, who watched with a superior smirk on her face.
"What're you so proud about, bitch? You said you were going to wipe the floor with me, remember? What the hell are you waiting for?" Don leveled a heavy blast of magical energy at Denonia, and she had to dodge it repeatedly, as he kept up firing.
To his left, Gill leapt into the air and plunged his blade deep into a rock monster. To his surprise and horror, the monster kept coming, throwing Gill backward onto the ground. Luckily, he'd managed to keep hold of his blade, or he would have been completely defenseless.
Annie, seeing Gill's failure, tried to think of another tactic. Her thoughtfulness nearly got her killed, as a monster's heavy hand almost caught her on the top of the head. Only a whistle from Susan and a quick ducking motion saved her hide. Instinctively, she raised her sword in an arcing motion, swinging it around the monster's arm, and then down toward its head. The sword struck home, cutting cleanly through the beast's skull. The top of its head slid off and plopped down onto the ground, and the rest of the creature soon followed. It lay limply and unmoving.
"The head, Gill! Go for the head!"
"Right!" he shouted, and lunged again. This time, he was approaching from the side, and as the beast turned to fend him off, Gill swung his sword in a wide arc. The blade went through the beast's neck, and the head rolled off the shoulders. Before it had even managed to hit the ground, the monster's body was crumbling back into dirt.
Don heard the satisfied whoop that Gill let out, and smiled. He didn't have time to look at what was going on, however. Dan-Gelmer had decided he'd had enough of the pesky magician, and he was now diving directly at Don. Denonia had backed off, not wanting to get caught in the attack. Don was glad for that; had they had the brains to coordinate against him, he would not have been able to fight off both of them.
Don focused his mind, and chanted quickly. It took precious seconds, but finally the spell was cast. Crouching, he moved about twenty feet to one side. Dan-Gelmer did not see this, however, as he was fixated on the false image of Don still standing, cowering in the field. Dan-Gelmer loosed more yellow fire at the image, and the grass wilted into nothingness. The image, however, did not fade. Dan-Gelmer's eyes widened in the belief that this magician could fight off his flame, and he charged even faster, angered at the thought.
Don watched in astonishment as Dan-Gelmer collided full force with Don's image... or tried to. He passed right through the illusion, of course, and smacked very hard into the ground. The dragon tumbled for a good quarter mile before coming to a stop, dazed and bruised, but not injured.
The dragon rose to its feet, then flapped itself into the air. It circled, and on again it came.
An hour later, and the team was starting to fall apart. Night had fallen, and only the occasional spell of energy balls lit up the area so they could all see. Gill was unconscious, having taken a nasty blow from a mud cat conjured up by Denonia. Annie had dispatched the beast shortly after, and Julie had made sure that Gill was okay, but he was out of the fighting for the moment. Susan had run completely out of arrows, and Don did not have time to create more for her. He was fending off continuous vicious attacks from Denonia, with the occasional strike from Dan-Gelmer thrown in for good measure.
Do they ever get tired? So far as he could tell, Denonia and Dan-Gelmer were both as fresh as they had started out. At the moment, Dan-Gelmer was chasing Katie around the sky. She couldn't find anywhere to hide, and Don was being kept occupied by Denonia's assaults. He knew they were trying to divide the team, and beat them one by one, but he couldn't find a way out.
Suddenly, Don heard Katie scream. He looked up, taking a blast in the shoulder for his trouble. He saw his sister falling from the sky, unconscious. She'd obviously been hit by some kind of attack from Dan-Gelmer. Don screamed in rage, lancing out a massive strike at Denonia, who dove clear just in the nick of time. This gave Don his chance, and he ran toward where Katie was falling. He was chanting frantically, trying to slow her descent. He could see it was working, but he didn't know if it was working fast enough.
Soon enough, Katie hit the ground with a dull thud. It was no more than if she'd fallen out of bed, but the attack itself had knocked her unconscious. Don knelt beside her, to check on her. He was relieved to see that she was breathing easily, though there was a nasty cut on her chin and a bruise on the right side of her face.
It took a long moment for him to register the frantic shouts of Susan and Annie. When he looked to them, he saw them pointing upward. When he looked up, the sight he saw nearly made him faint. Dan-Gelmer was diving, straight down, right on top of the two siblings.
He can't possibly survive that himself, can he? One thing's for sure, we sure as hell won't!
Don knew there wasn't time to move his sister to safety. He stood up, planting his feet on either side of her prone form. If he wants her, he's going to have to go right through me! Don's fear was that this was precisely what Dan-Gelmer had in mind.
Don saw the licks of crimson flame leaking from Dan-Gelmer's mouth. He didn't know what this color meant, but he didn't really want to find out, either. Just in time, he erected a magical dome of protection over himself and his sister, his left hand raised straight up, holding the dome in place. He felt the impact of Dan-Gelmer's blast physically; the dome actually yielded some three inches before it held away, shakily, the force of the dragon's attack.
Though he was physically still capable of fighting, Don knew that his magic wasn't going to take much more abuse. The dome of protection was already beginning to crack. He knew that he could cast the spell again, and it would hold, again, but with Dan-Gelmer getting ever closer, the dome would eventually give way.
What else can I do?
Some words that Gaphnia had once said to him came back at this moment. 'If the magic is too powerful to resist, then you can either absorb it, or redirect it... or channel it somewhere else. It will take will, and concentration, but as a magical being, magic cannot harm you if you allow it to flow over you, through you, and then beyond you.'
Can I do it? Do I dare try?
Do I dare not try?
Don held his spell together as he began to cast another dome spell. This one, however, he inverted. As he allowed his dome of protection to fade, he replaced it with a dome of gathering. His outstretched left hand now held in it a dome with its open end facing upward. Dan-Gelmer's magical force poured into the dome, and was channeled directly into Don's hand. Don felt the energy pulsing into him. He concentrated on his breathing, allowing the energy to flow over his body, down his legs, into his feet... and into the ground.
As the energy washed over him, the world began to fade away for Don. Actually, this was not true; the world was not so much fading as becoming crisper... or was it twisting about him madly? His vision blurred, and also saw everything clearly, all at once. The world spun, then began to settle, and slowly came to a stop... Don saw everything, not just the battle before him, but he could see all the way to Iamor's castle. He could see Gaphnia, standing, looking surprised out at the darkness. He turned his gaze, and he saw Neiela, staring up at the stars, a strange smile playing across her face. He turned his gaze again, and he saw the place they had arrived in Zemlia Nov; a clearing now filled with a family of deer. His mind whirled and traveled over the length and breadth of Zemlia Nov in instants. He plunged deep into the lakes and soared above the peaks of the Siratis Gates... the way home...
As he rose higher, and his mind's view widened, Don took in the whole of Zemlia Nov. He could see his vision shifting; the colors were no longer the natural colors he was used to, but electric hues of blue, red, and purple began to shimmer here and there. He knew instinctively that these were sources of magic. In a few more seconds, the ground itself took on a dull green glow; the magic existed everywhere.
Suddenly, he was plunged downward, diving deep down a well, and plunging into the water, going well below the ground. Here, in the world beneath the world, Don became aware of the origin of everything. He could feel, at the very edge of his consciousness, as if he could almost read the game code, as if the world was his to manipulate at his whim. He knew, then, that he had only scratched the barest surface of what he had access to. In this world, a magician who truly believed, who acknowledged the magic, gave himself over to it...
Could save his sister from a dragon.
As Don rose from the depths, his mind was filled with other images, knowledge of everything that had ever happened in Zemlia Nov, of everything that was to happen in the near future. He saw the Siratis Gates, up close. He saw a shining light... he also knew why Denonia and Dan-Gelmer were attacking them.
Don's consciousness flowed upward along a different path, a bright crimson path. He could feel the energy washing over him, but he knew now that even this massive outpouring was the merest drop in an ocean of power, waiting for the right person, waiting...
Don emerged back into his own body. He looked up at the dragon, now a mere two hundred feet above him, and dropping fast. Don stared at the creature with disdain.
You poor soul. You don't stand a chance. And you've been lied to from the very beginning. Not that it makes a difference.
Don felt the weight of the energy ball forming in his right hand. He dropped his left hand slightly, still holding the dome of gathering - he still had to protect Katie, after all - and then he forcefully threw his right hand upward. He was startled to see that the ball of energy leaving his hand was a pure golden hue, and intensely bright.
Dan-Gelmer, unaware of the transformation that had just taken place, ignored the attack that was coming. Nothing would sway him from his attack. If he died, he would take this puny human with-
The energy ball contacted Dan-Gelmer just above his heart.
With a massive scream, Dan-Gelmer ceased his flaming attack, and was thrown a thousand feet upward into the sky. Everyone who was conscious screamed in surprise as Dan-Gelmer's body twisted and contorted, wracked in massive waves of pain. Slowly, the skin began to decay, slowly dropping away, exposing the flesh. That too, was already beginning to rot, and everyone stood, transfixed as the dragon slowly disintegrated, its body thrashing about, causing even more damage to itself. Soon, all that was left was a skeleton, and that exploded in a bright cascade of firework lights, showering the sky with brilliance.
Don was stunned at the power that he had unleashed, almost unwittingly. He looked down at his hands, the dome of gathering having evaporated without notice. He suddenly smiled, as the awareness of the full understanding of the purpose and nature of Zemlia Nov returned to him. He looked down at his bruised and battered sister, and he reached his hands out. A golden light spread forth, and he watched as her eyes fluttered open. She looked up at him and smiled the sweetest smile he'd ever seen. He looked down at her with love, knowing now why she had been transformed, knowing that it had been for him.
Don reached out his hands to the others, and the golden light enveloped them as well, healing their injuries and restoring their strength. He watched as they, too, smiled at him, but it wasn't the same, and they didn't really understand.
His therapeutic task complete, his gaze turned to Denonia. The peace that she had seen in his face as he looked at his friends evaporated, now replaced with cold, calculating malice. She backed away; something had happened, and she knew that she was now outclassed. She had been so close, but that was ashes now, and she only hoped that she would not soon follow.
"I have a problem," Don said to her in a voice that was flat and angry. "I want to kill you."
"Please," she began, but Don cut her off.
"Shut the fuck up. I want to, so badly I can taste it. But I can't. You are a necessary part of this land. Dan-Gelmer can be replaced in a decade. You... there isn't another as evil as you in the entirety of this land. Zemlia Nov requires your malignance to function properly. So much as I want you dead, it would cause great harm to this land, and there are too many people hurting already."
"What... are you going to do?" Denonia said, backing up again.
"Why... nothing," Don said with a malevolent grin. "Although when word reaches the dragon kingdom of how you betrayed Dan-Gelmer and left him to his death... well, perhaps the dragons will do to you what I can't."
"You wouldn't!" she screamed. She knew what the dragon guild would do to her.
"I already did," he said. "I imagine they are already swearing a blood oath against you. You might want to find a place to hide."
Denonia turned to run; she knew she had to find shelter immediately. Don's voice stopped her.
"Oh, Denonia, Dear?" he called, mocking her. She turned in terror.
Don's voice returned to its angry self. "Had you just left us the fuck alone, none of this would ever have happened. We weren't out to challenge you. We just wanted to go home!"
Denonia paled - as much as that was possible for someone already as alabaster as she was - at her gross stupidity. I brought this on myself? No! She turned and fled, as much from the outrage of her own idiocy as from fear for her life.
Seeing her depart, Don collapsed right next to his sister. Katie screamed, and bolted upright, leaning over him in terror. The others were soon at their side. Don looked up at all of them.
"I'll be okay," he said quietly. "Anyone got something to drink?"
Annie bent down and pressed her gourd to his lips. Katie looked up at her in infinite gratitude for being there at that moment. Don gulped the liquid; he couldn't have cared if it was cod liver oil at this point, he just needed liquids.
After draining the entire gourd, he sat up, a little shakily. Gill grabbed one arm, and Katie took the other, and they hauled him to his feet. Once they were sure he was steady, they let him go.
"What the hell happened?" Gill asked "We were just about to have our heads handed to us, and Wham-o! Here comes Don the wonder-mage! Why the hell couldn't you have done that an hour and a half ago?"
"I didn't know how," Don said quietly. Gill saw the strange expression on his friend's face.
"What the hell just happened to you, man?"
"I understand, now. I know all about Zemlia Nov. The whole thing. It's not just a game, Gill. This place is real... or as real as anything apparently is..."
"I don't suppose you found a way home?" Gill asked sarcastically.
Don pointed. Suddenly, the Siratis Gates seemed to be a mere thousand yards away. "An illusion. One of Denonia's, actually. We'll be home shortly."
"So, if you know everything now, why the hell were we yanked into this damned place?"
"That... is the one thing I don't know."
"Great. Well, could we leave, then?"
"Might as well walk. We're short a horse."
"Two. He got another one."
"Unsaddle the third and let it loose. We can walk a half-mile."
"Sure, easy for you to say, Mr. 'I know everything now,'" Gill said with a smirk, but he did as he was instructed.
Katie and Don walked together, with Julie and Annie right behind them. Gill and Susan brought up the rear. Gill was wondering if he would ever get into his sister's pants once they were back in the real world.
As the team approached the Siratis Gates, they grew slightly tense. Only Don had confidence that this would go smoothly. On reaching the base of the Gates, they were confronted by a large guard. Don suddenly realized it was a Gork, but one like the one they had met at Iamor's castle, rather than Denonia's variety. The friendly but stupid grin on his face confirmed Don's suspicion.
"We would like to pass through the Gates, please," Don said politely.
"Oh, shit, here we go," Gill said. "Some kind of goddamned quest just to find the Holy Fucking Grail or somesuch-" Don glared at him until he shut up, but he wasn't happy.
"Could you then, perhaps, ask Vernior to come here so that we can get permission?"
The Gork looked at him for a long moment, apparently trying to figure out what he'd just said. After about a minute and a half, the Gork asked, "You wants to see Vernior?"
"Yes," Don said patiently, nodding with a smile.
"You sure?" the Gork asked.
"Yes," Don said firmly, keeping his smile in place.
"Okay," the guard said finally, turning and going inside a small room built into the base of the Gates. Somewhere high above, a bell tolled loudly, ringing musically across the area, and, Don was sure, heard over five miles away, as loud as it was.
The group stood quietly, waiting for Vernior to show himself. When it happened, it came as a surprise. The first surprise was that Vernior approached silently, from behind them.
The second surprise was that the 'dragon' was about five feet tall.
The third, and most shocking surprise was that the dragon was not a he.
"So, you have made it to my home, have you?" Vernior asked. Her voice seemed raspy, but also strong, as well as a mixture of kindness and barely hidden power.
"Yes," Don said, a little flustered.
"Very few ever get this far," Vernior said. She walked around the group, rather than disrupting them by trying to go through them. She stood before the Gates, settling on her hind legs, her small, probably useless wings folded neatly against her body. She looked as if she might be slightly ill.
"It was very difficult," Don said.
"Are you proud of yourself?" Vernior asked. The question seemed more pointed than it first appeared, and it also seemed not meant to be derisive.
Gill, however, didn't take it that way. "Yes, of course we are, now could you just get this shithead out of our fucking way so I can go home?"
"Gill!" Don snapped. Don's voice had a tone that Gill had never heard before, and he backed up two steps. It was clear that Don was pissed.
Don took a deep breath, and settled his nerves before turning back to the dragon. "Please excuse my friend. He gets grumpy when he doesn't have his hot cocoa before bedtime."
Vernior smiled - at least, Don thought she was smiling - at his little joke. "You understand, now," Vernior said.
"I'm not sure," Don said, suddenly uncertain.
Vernior nodded. "Good. Then I think you are ready."
"Ready for what?" Gill snarled again.
Vernior leveled her gaze at him. "You will never be ready. And if you do not wish to end up dinner for my dogs, I'd advise you to watch your mouth."
Gill wisely shut his mouth, and kept his retort to himself. Vernior looked over the group, noting how they all looked to Don for leadership, expecting him to know what to do. She looked at Don, who seemed like he had no clue really what to do, but was doing the best he could, anyway. She nodded.
"Yes, you are ready. Do you wish to go home now?"
"Yes," Don said.
"Wait!" Julie suddenly cried out.
"What is it?" Vernior asked with barely-submerged impatience.
"What about my brother?"
"Your brother has chosen not to return to Earth. I cannot force him to go. Do you wish to remain here to try to convince him?"
Julie wavered for a long moment, but she said tearily, "No. I just... I hope he's okay."
"Carysta is nursing him back to health as we speak," Vernior said. "But Don could have told you this already."
Don was surprised that he did, in fact, already know that. It had simply not occurred to him to tell Julie.
Vernior sighed and said again, "Do you wish to go home now?"
"Yes," Don repeated.
"Very well. Enter the Siratis Gates. On the other side, you will find your homes waiting."
"Thank you," Don said to Vernior.
"Do not thank me until the journey is over, Donald White," Vernior said with an inscrutable look in her dragon eyes, which were a deep, resonant blue. "Go now."
The team walked determinedly into the Gates. Katie clung tightly to Don's hand as they walked into a thick mist. The thick billows flowed around them until they couldn't see each other. Don couldn't even see Katie walking next to him, he could only feel her hand.
He began to panic as soon as he could no longer feel her hand. He raised his hands to his face, and he could see them just fine. He called out to Katie, Annie, and the others, but got no response. He turned himself around, and then around again.
Go forward? Go back? What the fuck is this?
Resolutely, deciding that it made no sense to go back the way he'd come, Don marched forward into the unknown.
Don spun around, lost his balance, and fell to the carpet-covered floor.
Don allowed his mind to settle a little, and he tried to look around. He very slowly was able to bring this new place into focus. He was in what appeared to be a fairly plush library/office, with bookshelves lining every wall, and books filling their ranks. The carpet on which he was lying was soft and luxurious, and a deep navy blue. His eyes wandered up to see a giant mahogany desk. His eyes swept its length, taking in all of its details. His eyes passed over the long silky legs to take in the intricate -
Long, silky legs?
In a moment of clarity, Don remembered a female voice saying, "Welcome."
His eyes returned to the long, silky legs, and began to travel upward. Covering the very tops of the long, silky legs was a short and very tight black cotton miniskirt. Holding it in place was a wide red leather belt, which sat below a black corset that almost revealed more of this lovely creation's body than it concealed. Her breasts were straining to be free of their confines, but Don forced his eyes to continue their way up.
When they did, he was glad they had. Deep, resonant blue eyes stared back at him, above a small, upturned nose and soft, pouting lips. Brown hair flowed gently around the round face, and Don thought he could stare at her forever.
"Welcome," she said again, a smile gracing her lips. "I've been waiting for you."
"Who... who are you? Where am I? Vernior said that we were going home. Where are the others?"
"So many questions. I like that. The others have already been sent home, they are perfectly safe. You have been... redirected, for a moment, so we could talk."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Veronica Melchior. To you, Vernior. I designed the game."
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