[tsat home] [#16] [stories]

by Joseph Jones
©2001 Joseph Jones -- all rights reserved

The cruel night pressed hard about the desperate girl. She didn't know who was chasing her, only that it wanted her innocence. She ran down the back alleys of Meridian City, the section the people who lived and worked there disparagingly called "The Maze." Her long elegant gown, marking her as a woman of means, was ragged and torn, an indication of the intentions of her attackers.

Truly a maze it was. If she had been casually strolling home she would have had no problem navigating the confusing twists and turns. Now however, panicky and on the run from a demonic force, she was hopelessly entangled in the alleys that all looked the same in the gloom.

Breathing hard, she chanced a glimpse behind her. Not seeing the shadowy figure that pursued her, she forced herself to calm long enough to stop and get her bearings.

She fearfully scrutinized her surroundings like the hunted animal she was. Finding a familiar landmark, she was off, but with more cautious steps, in the direction of the Golden Mermaid, knowing her old friend Barcook would give her shelter.

An unexpected sound and her cautious steps turned once again to full-blown flight, only to find herself ensnared in the dark arms of a demonic force. She struggled and tried to scream but something snaked its way down her throat, choking her. Her eyes wide with fright, she noticed her attacker was naught but shadow, yet its substance was choking off the sound in her throat as it expanded to encompass her entire body.

Strange noises and even stranger smells emanated from all about the chamber. Viscous liquids of unnamable colors filled various beakers and arcane devices stretched along the walls of the chamber. Yet, they had a strange symmetry to them, an order that underlay the apparent chaos of the room.

In the center of it all an old man stood with military rigidity, wisdom etched in every line of his face and more hair on the back of his head and face than on the top of it, making him appear even more the wise old man. He scowled in deep concentration at a scrying pool, watching the events as they unfolded therein.

"This is unexpected. The dark ones have made their move sooner than they should have," he muttered to himself.

Finally turning from the pool, he stroked his chin in contemplation. He had no stomach to watch the violation of the poor young girl. Contemplation soon gave way to plans and plans would now have to give way to action.

"Pain! Angst!" he bellowed, his basso voice echoing wildly off the walls of every chamber and hall in the old castle.

Patience wearing thin, he finally heard the footfalls of his two servants approaching. His smile of anticipation that the campaign could now begin quickly disappeared when he heard the two Imps trip over themselves. Ragnar rubbed his temples and sighed fatalistically, reminding himself that he had little choice. Time was precious and he did not have the energy to forge any other ethereal or earthly agents.

Pain and Angst finally gathered themselves, opened the door and stepped into the chamber. "You called Master Ragnar?" Angst asked weakly.

The wizard gathered his robes around himself as his steely eyes bore into the inept duo. Their clothes were disheveled and they had not trimmed their bushy beards in months. Pain was the taller of the two and definitely the brains. That's why he allowed his companion to speak for the both of them, knowing the master took pity on Angst because he was slow. Angst was nervously wringing his chubby little hands in anticipation of some terrible punishment; his round face the personification of his namesake. The two imps were visibly terrified as they awaited the commands of their master.

"I have a job for you two. It needs be carried out immediately."

The two immediately stood at attention, ready and eager to carry out their orders. Angst made to salute and bumped Pain in the stomach forcing him to double over. In retaliation, Pain grabbed the other's nose between his index and middle fingers and yanked down as hard as he could. The shorter imp made to poke Pain in the eyes but was blocked. Then, Pain slapped Angst who slapped him in kind. It degenerated into a wrestling match from there.

At his wit's end, Ragnar began to rub his temples again. "Enough!" he roared. "Both of you!"

They heedlessly continued rolling about, bumping into tables and knocking over flasks until the Wizard pointed his finger at them and a bolt of energy leapt from it. It split in two, striking each imp in the posterior. Bleating in shock, they immediately stopped and scrambled to stand. "I should have let the Council have its way and turn you into statues to adorn their lavatories," the exasperated magician sighed. "How many times have I told you to stay away from my scrying pool?"

"But them guys is funny," Angst stated in his squeaky, nasally voice.

Pain lowered his head and looked embarrassed as he tried, none too subtly, to distance himself from ground zero -- but the expected shock never came.

"Listen. I need you to deliver this to a young lady." From nowhere the wizard produced an ornate charm attached to an intricately worked gold chain. The charm was shaped as a heart with a similarly shaped red jewel set in the middle.

The two imps practically drooled over the jewel until the wizard cleared his throat and covered the necklace with a scroll he produced from thin air.

"You will offer this to her. You will not be able to force her to take it, for she must choose her destiny. You will be able to tell her this will restore her innocence in a way, but you must also warn her that there will be a heavy cost -- a permanent consequence."

He handed them the necklace, which they fought over. Eventually Pain pulled it from Angst's toes and secured it in his pouch. Angst stuck his tongue out at Pain, which prompted another zap from Ragnar. The smaller Imp yanked his tongue back into his mouth with a pained expression.

"Once she accepts, you will give her the charm and read from this scroll. It is very important that you read the incantation at the end of the proclamation."

"Then can we go free?" Pain asked.

"No. You do recall you were sentenced to work for me until such time as the Council of Enlightenment feels you have been reformed? I cannot reverse the Council's decision. However, I could speak on your behalf."

"You would do that for us?" Angst asked hopefully.

"This mission is of vital importance. The Age of Enlightenment depends upon you."

"Then we're all in trouble," Pain asserted.

"I would say so, but you are all I have at the moment. You must follow this quest to the end and be my voice. I will speak to you when you need guidance."

The wizard could see, and practically hear, the gears turning in the minds of the two Imps and he quickly put a stop to it. "Oh, and should you be plotting your escape, do remember the geis you are under."

As innocently as he could, Angst asked, "What geis?"

"Need I remind you what happens if you stray beyond the castle walls for too long?" Ragnar asked and pointed a finger towards the duo.

They both held their hands up defensively. "No, no, no!" they cried simultaneously. "We'll be good."

"Excellent. Because this journey will be difficult and long, I will extend and change the spell that binds you to the castle," Ragnar said and began chanting and tracing mystical symbols in the air with his fingers. When he finished the two stood before him dumbfounded and seemingly unaffected.

"There. Now you have several days before the change overtakes you. The time will reset once you reach the girl. Be on your best behavior or you will receive small reminders of your curses. Now be off with you."

They jumped at that and made for the door. For once, they made it through without getting stuck.

A hopeful sign, the wizard thought. "Speed of El and fortune of Isar be with you my servants," Ragnar muttered at the now empty doorway.

Barcook was beside himself with grief as he helped the young girl into his private room at the inn. Anger soon began to replace grief as he overlooked the damage done to the lovely young daughter of his Captain.

Her lip was bleeding and swollen. Her eyes were streaked with red lightning bolts from her tears. He dared not examine the young woman under the tattered remnants of her dress for fear of doing more damage, but he was sure of the bruises and abrasions that lay beneath.

She requested a bath and no company for the duration of the night, and he was all too happy to provide that. His duty was now to alert her father and hunt down the foul thing that had done this to his Niene. He was her Padrin and would not allow this disgrace to go unanswered, especially since the gauntlet was thrown mere meters from his Inn.

"There, there, young Dawn. It will be all right come morning," he lied knowing that he could not heal with his words.

She did not answer, silently slipping into the bath tattered dress and all. Barcook turned and left closing and barring the door. He had made sure there was nothing she could harm herself with in the room, but he could not police the entire inn; still, better safe than sorry.

Angrily, he resettled his warrior's cap upon his bald head and straightened his tunic. Then, he hurried off, nodding to the barkeep as he passed through the tavern on the way to the door; the memory of Dawn's sobbing indelibly etched into his mind.

Dawn lost all sense of time as she floated in the water. Soon she began to rub idly over her arms. It soon turned to furious scrubbing, desperately trying to clean the feeling of that vile creature from her.

Exhausted, she finally pulled herself from the tub. She had contemplated ending her life, but if being the daughter of the Captain of the Elite Guard had taught her anything, it was not to give in to despair.

She curled into a fetal position on the down mattress Barcook usually reserved for his high paying customers. The hours slowly passed, her mind swimming. The memories of her violation did not fade as she prayed to El they would. At some point, she passed into sleep.

"By the moons of Isar, I will see a million hellspawn suffer for this outrage," The burly man bellowed. Captain Furlen Phalanx's thick red beard quivered as he furiously snarled at Barcook. "Where is the dog that dared perpetrate this crime against me?"

"It slithered off somewhere. I scouted the area before I came, but there was no trace of the Ink to be found Captain."

"Very good Jolon. You do me proud and prove you can never truly retire a good soldier."

"Sir," Barcook replied smartly.

"Now take me to my daughter. I would try to comfort her. Let no news of this pass to the Lady Phalanx. We will gather Foron Aegis and Yorbo Glaive on the way."

"Sir is that wise?" Barcook asked.

"You mean because I intend to use Foron as protectorate for my daughter?"

"Among other things."

Furlen had an amused expression on his face. "Despite his - ahem -- well intentioned bumbling, he still has love for my daughter and would protect her unto death. Besides, would you have him there or holding your flank in battle with demons?"

Barcook smiled. "Ever the tactician my Captain."

Dawn was awakened slightly by the slightest of tingling in her toes. Her weary and tear soaked eyes opened slightly to see a strange speck of energy floating around the room like a firefly on the breeze.

She could feel the magical vibrations of the fairy light. It felt wonderful to her and for a moment she forgot the night's events as she watched, with a child's amusement and innocence, as it grew bigger and brighter. She almost laughed as two oafish Imps fell upon each other as the gate spat them out.

"Get off me you moron!" Pain cried out as he struggled to push the smaller Imp off him. "I feel like an elephant stepped on me."

"Cut it out!" Angst cried. "I told you I should go first, but noooooo! You had to have your way."

"You fat porcupine, why I oughtta..." Pain started, but he was cut short by a poorly stifled giggle.

"Geez! The mission!" Pain and Angst shouted as they turned to each other.

"Who are you?" Dawn asked.

"We are Pain..." the larger Imp bowed formally.

"And Angst," the smaller Imp saluted, just missing as his companion shifted to protect his stomach. They glared at each other for a moment before turning back to the girl.

"We serve Master Ragnar," they said in unison and bowed to her.

"That crazy old hermit who claims to be a Sorcerer?"

Pain and Angst looked nervously about the room. "Shh," Pain cautioned her. "He has eyes in the walls."

"Yes, yes and the ceilings have ears and pigs fly," she said mockingly.

"You don't believe in magic young one?" Angst asked her in disbelief.

"As a matter of fact I don't. They are explaining more and more marvelous things with the Alchemical Sciences. Things that make more sense than all the mumbo jumbo your Master espouses."

"Oh, before the day has truly begun, you will believe my Lady Dawn." Angst chuckled.

"Oh? And how will that small miracle be accomplished?"

"With an offer," Pain responded.

"An offer of what?"

"Your innocence. It will be restored to you."

All of the wonder ceased and she became once more subject to her emotions. She began to sob, and burying her head in her arm as she sunk to the bed as the night's events once more returned to her focus. Her other arm pointed sharply towards the door. "Get out of here you cruel and heartless Imps. Don't you understand what has happened?"

The two Imps looked at each other sorrowfully. "We know that the Forces of Darkness have taken from you that which should never be taken from a child."

"Why me?" The young flame haired girl sobbed.

"That's hard to explain, and if we did you wouldn't understand."

"I'm not an idiot," she protested.

"No. Not in that way," Pain sighed heavily and elaborated. "You are a game bit, a representative piece on a game board. The game is being played by Lord Wisdom and Lord Chaos." Pain knew the explanation was harsh but he knew that it couldn't be helped. Time was short.

"Is that all this is? A game?" she protested. Even through the hair clinging to her face, the Imps could see the fire building behind her jade eyes. "How dare you!" she screamed.

"I know..." Angst started gently.

"You know nothing. I have dishonored my family. I should kill myself and end the misery for me and my Clan."

Pain was visibly angered by her outburst. "How dare you?"


"How dare you blame yourself for this? How dare you casually throw away that which El and Isar have granted you?"

She stopped, almost incredulous at the Imp's audacity.

"For whatever the reason, the fault was not yours. 'Twas that Ink which sullied the name of your Clan and it is the thing and his Masters who should pay that."


"But nothing. We offer you a new chance. A hope to reclaim that which was stolen from you. To preserve this Age of Enlightenment that allows you the freedom to dismiss the very magic that will save it. Not only reclaim the honor of you Clan, but to remember your name to future generations; those who will sing of your legend and tell tales to their children."

She was silent. Whether it was in contemplation, or whether it was in shock, Pain could not tell, but for the first time, he hoped. He had spoken the words to convince himself as much as to convince her. Interestingly, he could tell that even Angst was inspired by them.

"I would be honored," she finally said.

"I am compelled to warn you my dear. This course of action has a permanent consequence. Should you accept, you will never again be the same. But this cannot be forced. You must choose to make this sacrifice."

That stopped her in her tracks. Something in her heart told her to believe the Imps and the words "permanent consequence" echoed in her thoughts, yet her decision was clear.

"What would you have me do?" she asked, realizing that as the daughter of the Captain and heir to the name Phalanx, she could do no less than her father would do to protect the Gilded Kingdom.

The Imp smiled and handed her the charm. She marveled at the gem and the intricacy of its workmanship. It befitted one of royalty, she thought, which begged her next question.

"Why didn't you take the jewel? I thought imps were notorious for hoarding jewels."

"Not from lack of trying," Angst muttered, earning him a jab in the ribs from Pain.

She fastened the clasp behind her neck then looked towards the Imps. "So what now?"

The two Imps stood there looking pleased with themselves for a moment, but said nothing. This time Pain got a ribbing.

"Oh, right. The scroll!" The gentle prompt reminded and he pulled the parchment from the pouch in which he had secreted it. Breaking the wax seal, he unfurled the intricate and ornate parchment.

Thank you Dawn, for your selfless sacrifice. I thank El and Isar that you have chosen to fulfill your role in the new Age of Enlightenment. My name is Ragnar, and despite what you may believe of me, I have nothing but the well being of all in our world in mind.

The Signs and Omens must be fulfilled. One Sign has come to pass and the son of a nobleman has fallen ill. He will become the nemesis when the bright embers gather in the land of perpetual dusk. Should the Omen be allowed to, he will open the gateway for the Dark One. However, the Signs must come to pass or the Dark One will come again to draw the curtain of night over us all.

I have kept my eye on you for some time and I needed you to be the hero of the Enlightenment. This, unfortunately, is why the Dark Forces felt the need to remove you from the prophecy. I have a way to foil their machinations, but it now requires two others to assist you. You will know the Signs as they come to pass. You will not travel far before the first Sign will come to pass and your first assistant comes to you.

Now comes the difficult part. To accomplish this task, you and the others must alter yourselves. I know you have accepted this or you would not be hearing the contents of this scroll, but you and the others have to be certain for these changes will be permanent. Should you want to back out, tell Pain now, before he reads the incantation that follows this.

I would plead for you to act as your father has taught you, consider the good of all the world and choose the path of the hero. I believe you will make the correct choice.

Be wary. While you must abide by the code of justice, the Forces of the Dark One are under no such compunction. Demons and creatures under thrall to darkness will try to stop you. It will take courage, honor, hope and heart to overcome the Omen before he opens the Gate. I believe in you, as do El and Isar, or they would not have chosen you.

Speed of El Be With You

Pain stopped reading and awaited a response from Dawn, but she just stared blankly at the wall as she tried to absorb all she heard. Her mind reeled at the word permanent. She had made up her mind, but she knew she truly had no choice.

"Do what must be done," she said somberly.

Pain smiled and carefully read the incantation. Slowly, a breeze swirled about the two Imps and their new acquaintance. The breeze quickly grew into a hurricane of blue ethereal energy and lights. It wound its way about the helpless girl, strangely soothing her while her brain told her she should be terrified. The light through a small window seemed to dim and the few candles flickered and died.

The tempest raged as the door opened and Barcook as well as her father entered the room. "By El there be sorcery here!" Barcook cried.

Captain Phalanx put his hand to his sword and spotted the Imp with the scroll. "'Tis the imps!" he shouted, unsheathing his blade.

"The fate of the world hinges upon the events here Captain," Pain called out. "The magic must continue its work."

"Nay! Belay your machinations Imp!" Barcook shouted back and grabbed Pain by the front of his tunic, lifting him from the floor.

Angst rushed forward to save his friend and bit into Barcook's calf. In a fury, the tall bearded man backhanded the second Imp sending him crashing into the wall.

"Angst!" Pain cried. His eyes filled with murder. Bringing his index and middle finger to bear, he buried them in Barcook's eyes and growled, "Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk."

The large man screamed in agony and dropped Pain, who retrieved the dagger hidden in his tunic and made ready to carve out the man's heart. Still, blinded, but fearing the worst, Barcook slipped his sword from its scabbard and swung wildly where he thought the Imp was.

"Hold your sword Jolon," Phalanx shouted.

"But Captain..."

"I said hold your sword!" he shouted impatiently. "I have seen this before. This is the work of Lord Ragnar. If she had not agreed to it, the magic would not have affected her."

The magic had subsided but his daughter remained floating above the floor. The candles slowly returned to life.

Pain looked at the Captain with confusion. "You can read the skeins?"

"I have a small talent for it. It aids me in my efforts to stop the many mystical plots against the citizens of Meridia and has assured my position. I have also had a few dealings with Ragnar. He is not my favorite person."

"Well he's not ours either," Angst agreed as he slowly pulled himself up with the aid of Pain.

"Mother, what hit me?"

"My overeager companion I'm afraid. What business does Ragnar have with my daughter?"

"We don't have the time to explain it, but all the world and the Age of Knowledge is at stake."

"Again, how does it concern my daughter?"

"She and two others are needed to bring about the prophecy."

"What is her role in this?"

"Sir I know not what the Master intends, but hers is the key role."

The stout Captain mulled that over as his daughter slowly lowered to the ground and slowly opened her eyes. It was then he noticed the glowing eight-point star on her forehead. It was ornate and exotic, beautiful and seductive. It drew everyone's attention, nearly hypnotizing them.

"If she has chosen this fate, I would lend my support to her cause. Can you assure me the cause is just?" the Captain asked.

Pain responded, "Yes I can. I know the world would change forever should the Omen be not stopped."

"I have dealt with your Master before Imp. He does not always have the best interests of our land at heart."

"It may not seem that way, but I know Ragnar has no love of the Dark One."

"To be safe, Barcook and one other will accompany you."

Dawn protested. "Father I am of age. I can handle whatever destiny demands."

"I am assured of that bright one. I would feel better if someone I trust were there to help you. Barcook, I commend my daughter to your capable sword arm."

"As if you needed to ask my Captain."

Captain Phalanx smiled. "Aegis. Glaive. Front and Center."

The two Guardsmen entered the room and saluted smartly. Dawn recognized Foron immediately. She thought he was cute, but as a mere enlisted man, she knew her father would never agree to their courtship.

That didn't stop him from trying though. Foron was the son of a Swordsmith, reputed to be the finest in Meridia, perhaps even the Seven Kingdoms. The Captain's own sword was forged by the man, as a gift, when his son was accepted to the Elite Guard. Swordsmiths, however, were not well compensated. As famous as they could become, their craft was considered artistry. As such, they had patrons and their best swords were to be granted as gifts. Therefore, unless Foron earned a title from war, he would never be considered noble enough for her.

Yorbo was another matter. The son of a prestigious Lawgiver, he rose through the ranks quickly, his status being halted only by his being forced on the Elite Guard. Captain Phalanx was the only man the Lawgiver could not buy or intimidate, as his position was virtual royalty. The Captain knew the boy did not deserve his position, but he could hold him back until he was sufficiently seasoned to earn his rank.

"Foron, step forward," the Captain commanded.

"Yes sir," he snapped back sharply, his polished armor gleaming but otherwise drawing no attention to itself. It looked to all the world to be simple black leather and silver chain mail, but was deceptively light and strong. It also protected against the magical threats that were the reason for being of the Elite Guard. The main difference between the two Guardsmen and the Captain was his cape and his shield of office emblazoned on the surface of his armor.

As he stepped forward, the earth shook. Then, the light once again dimmed and the candles again extinguished. Shadow demons filled the room, their bodies absorbing what little light infiltrated the room. The room was eerily dark and the warriors had their weapons at the ready for the attack they knew was coming.

It was a stand off. The soldiers tensed, finding it hard to not wade into the thick of things, but they remained steady, awaiting the strategy and order from their captain. Phalanx was a tactical genius and they trusted in him to see them through this.

"On my mark gentlemen. Flash and hack," the Captain calmly ordered.

The two Guardsmen nodded in assent and prepared their spells. They summoned the energy and chanted the words waiting for the signal from their leader.

They didn't have to wait long. He raised his sword and unleashed a Pure Light attack against the demons of the Dark. Instantaneously, his two Guardsmen followed with their attack. The light forced squeals from the hideous shadows, which seemed to solidify briefly. Seizing that moment, the warriors struck, cleaving the shadows in two. This elicited screams from the shadow demons before they dissipated in a cloud of foul smoke.

The guardsmen failed to correctly analyze the number of demons in the room, however. They had taken out a score of the foul creatures, yet the room was still flooded with their foul presence. The shadow demons gathered at one point and two small groups broke off from the main force and engaged the Captain and Yorbo. The main thrust of the force went after Foron.

The Captain noticed the odds, but could do nothing for his junior Guardsman until he saved himself. Foron steeled himself for the inevitable. Mustering as much power as he could, he again unleashed his light spell on the demons attacking him.

They howled in pain as the light exposed them to certain death -- a death that never came. Foron instead unleashed wave after wave of light upon the unsuspecting demons.

In anger they gathered and rushed the warrior with their full might seeking to rend him in two. This time it was they who failed to analyze the threat correctly. As they reached the young Guardsman, they screamed in agony as they were cut apart from two sides. The delay had given the Captain and Yorbo time to dispatch their foes and were attacking the now vulnerable demons from their flanks. Foron now leapt into the fray as well, sending several more hellspawn back to their masters.

Finally, the room was once again lit by the small window in the wall. The candles, however, remained extinguished.

"Very good my boy," The Captain congratulated him. He emphasized his reward by patting Foron on the back. "That was a ploy worthy of me."

"Aye Captain, I agree," Barcook rang in as well. "Those demons were so overconfident they didn't realize the lad was performing a holding action to give you and Yorbo time to come to his aid."

While they were congratulating him, something occurred to Dawn. She wasn't too sure but Ragnar said she would know the signs.

"Father! He's the one!" she shouted excitedly.

"He's the one what?"

"Ragnar said I would know the signs indicating the two others who would help me."

"And he's one of them?"

"Don't you see? The earth shook when you called him forth. The demons attacked only him, and they were the same type of demon that attacked me."

The Captain was dubious. He knew of his daughter's friendship with the young Foron and wondered if she was not trying to raise his status. Foron was young and mostly unproven. Still, he knew of Foron's feelings for his daughter and he had proved himself capable this very day. He would not be an unwelcome protector.

"Hmm. I see your point," the Captain said reluctantly. "Very well Foron. You will accompany my daughter wherever she needs to go. You will lay down your life for her if need be."

"Sir, yes sir. Gladly would I give my life to protect your daughter. If the world does depend on her, I will smile as the blade pierces my heart."

"Let's not go that far. You are of no use to her if you are reckless. Master at Arms Barcook will be in charge. Follow his orders as they were mine."

"Sir, Yes sir," Foron snapped smartly again then smiled.

Yorbo fumed and seethed, knowing that somehow Foron had just cheated him out of the assignment that Captain Phalanx undoubtedly had intended for him. How dare that low caste slug deprive me of the glory that rightfully belongs to me, Yorbo thought, but he knew that the Captain was against him and making a protest now would just belittle him further in the eyes of Phalanx. He held his tongue. He would await his opportunity.

Dawn ran to Foron and hugged him tightly. A strange sensation ran through him. His body felt on fire and Foron knew that magic was flowing through him. The Captain saw the skeins pass from his daughter to Foron and that made him nervous. He wanted to dismiss it as the imaginings of an over protective father, but he knew better.

"Damn that Wizard," the Captain muttered. "Very well. I shall equip you with provisions, horses and an escort to Gorlon Forest, at the least. You will leave tomorrow."

"Sorry Captain, but time is of import here. We will need to leave tonight," Pain interjected.

"I'll not have my daughter traveling under these circumstances. She needs time to rest. Mere hours ago she was attacked and now she must rush out to save the world?"

"I am fine father. I will grieve my lost innocence later. Would you expect less of your daughter than to put duty first?"

Captain Phalanx smiled proudly at his daughter. "Very well. I will see that you are able to leave this evening."

Barcook looked a little uncomfortable with this but would not disappoint his Captain. Yorbo was now visibly seething and this did not escape the notice of the Captain who then ignored the spoiled youth.

"The fever has yet to break my lord," the bearded healer whispered to his patron.

"What fever is it? Can you not do something? You are reputed to be the greatest healer in the seven kingdoms," King Doreh pleaded.

"My lord this is not a disease that a healer can fight. It is strong magic that afflicts your son. This is destiny he is fighting, not an infection."

"How do you know this?" the king asked. His kindly face was distraught and decimated with worry and lack of sleep.

"'Tis the prophecy my lord. It has begun with your progeny."

"Utter nonsense. I do not subscribe to such beliefs."

"Believe it or not my liege, so it has been decreed. 'When a son of the Nobles of the Southern Stars falls ill, north he must travel to cure his ailment and his destiny fulfill.'"

"Yes. 'And become the Omen, his fate to open Dark One's gate. If he succeeds or if he fails will come on the whims of fate,'" the regent repeated from memory. He rolled his eyes and said, "You cannot even begin to think that Corus will become the Omen?"

"Sir, I have it from your Council of Magic that your son has repeatedly ignored their pleas to give up the dark path of magic, but never has he headed them."

"He is willful I give you that, but he cannot be the Omen. He is my only heir. I am Lord of the Southern Kingdom and I shall not allow this to pass for my son."

"Sire, he has found the key to the gate and must pay the price. It is out of our hands now."

Corus started to convulse and pitch in the throes of the fever. The healer left the room as the Doreh dropped to his knees beside his son's bed and prayed to El and Isar.

"Tell me more of this prophecy," Dawn requested of Pain as they rode, quickly as they could, towards Gorlon Forest. They were close, needing only to cross the final stretch of plain between Meridian City and the woods.

"I memorized the Prophecy of the Dark One when I was but a little Imp," he stated with a smile.

She winked back at him and scrunched her face slightly at the joke of this already small creature being smaller still.

"From whence did it come?" she asked.

"It was handed down from generation to generation by magician to magician and El's Priests to Isar's Priestesses and back again. Its origins are murky but they say the original was given by none other than Comus."

"The Seraph of Poetry?" she inquired, her mouth an "O" of amazement.

"The very same milady. It was said the angel was granted a vision of the future by El and Isar to prepare the world for the coming of the Dark One Who Lies In Wait, never far from the souls of men."

The age of the prophecy was sobering for the young woman and her bodyguard who never left earshot of the conversation, not that he wanted to, this interested him as well.

"What is the prophecy?" Foron eagerly inquired.

"What do they teach you human pups these days?" the Imp asked feigning some shock. "Why I remember a time they made everyone learn that prophecy backwards and forwards."

Foron thought about that a moment then replied, "Maybe that's why the Dark One chose this time to return."

Pain and Angst looked at each other in amazement. They hadn't thought about it and began to wonder if even their learned master had come across such a notion. Then they shrugged, counted to three and launched into verse.

In the age of enlightenment when power has wisdom become,
The signs will be revealed and must be allowed to pass, not undone.

When a son of the Nobles of the Southern Stars falls ill,
North he must travel to cure his ailment and his destiny fulfill.

Become the omen is his fate, to open Dark One's gate,
If he succeeds or if he fails will come on the whims of fate.

Become the Nemesis when the bright embers gather in the land of perpetual dusk,
The body of the unfortunate soul will be left as nothing but a husk.

Three are called to face the challenge that destiny does pose,
All alone, they make their stand to keep the Dark One's repose.

The first comes the young maiden so pure and full of promise,
She wields the bolts of magic to deliver unto the world justice.

The second is the unicorn, full of might and so prideful,
His stately horn pierces with light the veil of the hateful.

The third will come in the form one associates with evil,
A flock of bats will show the way and then betray the devil.

The first will know at once that she's needed desperately,
When the shadows crawl and stalk the night willful and boldly.

The second when the earth does shake and demons drown the day,
Light prevails through force of might and starts them on their way.

The third will come to find them middle of the path,
For being evil's servant shall come to feel light's wrath.

When all three do become as one the warrior will appear,
To destroy the Omen's dark form the warrior must be clear.

Unicorn's powers are needed to seal the gate forever,
The young maiden's sorcery shall overcome the Omen's fervor.

The bat's assets shall give the warrior an equal chance,
The Omen will surprise all with size, form and stance.

Destiny is a mistress harsh and cruel for certain,
Good luck and Godspeed for our heroes in piercing evil's curtain.

  When they finished they solemnly bowed their heads. Something came over the group, forcing them to clap. They felt joyful at having heard the rendition of the poem of prophecy.

"We get that a lot," Angst said with a smile.

"What was that? I couldn't help myself," Dawn asked amazed.

"That proves that the prophecy was penned by none other than the Angel of legend."

"But it no longer applies to me," Dawn said trying to stop herself from crying.

"No, I'm afraid it doesn't," Angst said sorrowfully.

Foron was frustrated, "But that means there is nothing we can do to stop the Dark One."

"Not true, the forces of the Dark One were to appear as one of the signs. They were not to interfere with the prophecy, it was against the rules," Pain stated.

"But they did it anyway!" Dawn spat coldly.

Pain looked away from Dawn and responded, "One can always count on evil to cheat. That is the nature of the beast, but there is still hope."

"Hope?" Foron asked dejectedly. "Hope for what?"

"Ragnar has altered the plan slightly. It will still conform to the prophecy, but things will be..."

"Yes?" Dawn and Foron encouraged.

"Slightly uncomfortable," Pain finished for Angst.

"For who?" Foron asked. Pain knew the young man's patience was wearing thin. "I'm not going to grow bat wings or something am I?"

"Oh no, you'll grow two other things," Angst muttered. He fought hard to suppress the laugh that was fighting to get out. Pain elbowed him in the stomach.

"Your destiny will reveal itself in time. That is if the Master is right about your virtue."

"You dare question my honor?" Foron growled. He unconsciously grabbed for his sword.

"Not your honor, your virtue. As in maidenly," Pain said with a smile. Angst and Pain broke out laughing hysterically. They couldn't help themselves, despite the growing anger in Foron's eyes.

"Be silent Imps or I'll carve out your tongues!" Foron shouted, eliciting even more guffaws from the pair. "I'll have you know I've bedded many a wench!"

"Sure you have."

"Why you..!" Foron roared and goaded his steed rapidly in the direction of the Imps and their mounts. Pain and Angst panicked and tried to flee, but their donkey was no match for the powerful war steed.

Foron didn't realize that even he didn't know what he would do when he caught the Imps. That revelation crossed his mind seconds after he passed them, leaving them unscathed as he cruised beyond them.

His steed reared back as he brought it to an abrupt halt and he came around, ready to make another attack when a shadow passed over him. The Imps looked up, screamed in terror, and dove under their mount.

Foron looked up to see the sharp barbed tail of a large flying predator. Sheathing his sword, he grabbed for his crossbow. Barcook and his fellow Guardsmen also grabbed for their crossbows.

Aiming for the skies, they awaited the return of the creature. "Amog!" Barcook cried.

Foron acknowledged with a salute just as the creature made its return. The sheer size of the Air Demon was intimidating enough without the fact that it could only be killed by a well-placed shot into its one beady eye and through that to its tiny brain, not an easy task with the eye spitting venomous blood and a poisonous barbed tail lashing about. The creature resembled a huge, flexible leather kite.

Foron took aim with his crossbow as the beast focused in on him. It shot two viscous blobs of plasma that landed just short of their target.

Foron did his best to steady his horse and not wreck his aim. Nothing else existed to Foron, except his bow and its target. He allowed his finger to calmly pull the release and the bolt flew through the air, narrowly missing the Amog who dipped slightly to avoid it.

Barcook shouted in anger, "I knew it!" He motioned for the Guardsmen to move into position to grab the creature's attention. One guard tackled Dawn and held her fast beneath her mount.

Foron cursed himself. He had never failed to make that shot in his life. It was as if something were missing. He strained to load another bolt and thought it much harder than it had been before. If he couldn't crank it at least one more notch, he would have to be dangerously close to the Amog to make the shot.

One of the Guardsmen put a little magical punch in his bolt and shot at the creature. It pierced the creature's wing eliciting a bloodcurdling scream of pain from the creature, which swooped and dove for the man who became flustered as he tried to load another. The creature caught the hapless soldier in the two pincers that protruded from just below its eye. The struggling Guardsman screamed as he tried to free himself from the pincers that had pierced his sides. He kept screaming until he received a face full of the creature's poisonous fluids. Barcook shook his head hoping the end was swift.

Dawn struggled against the soldier who was gruffly holding her. She wanted to help in whatever way she could. She screamed for Foron, but knew he couldn't hear her. The star on her head began to glow furiously. Energy flowed from her into the guard, pushing him off her and throwing him back quite a few feet.

Dawn scrambled towards Foron. She didn't know what she would do when she reached him, but some instinct forced her to his side. Foron screamed something at her, but she couldn't make out what he was saying.

She found out the hard way as the creature's tail raced for her. Dawn put her hands up to shield herself knowing that such a flimsy shield would be useless. Again, her new ornamentation glowed, projecting mystical energy, which completely took the Amog by surprise. Instead of the pleasing feel of its tail colliding with a victim, it passed through empty space. With a banshee-like screech of frustration, the creature sought altitude for another pass.

Foron was dumbstruck by what he had just witnessed. He was so confused; he barely noticed that Dawn had somehow appeared from thin air next to his steed.

The creature sensed her too and furiously manipulated itself for another pass at the duo causing it so much frustration. Foron lifted Dawn onto the saddle just behind him then urged his steed forward. The creature spat at them once more, missing the steed's hooves by only a hair's breadth. Amog howled and made after them, flying even faster.

Foron was desperate; he knew it was only a matter of time before the creature caught them. He raced past the Guardsmen who fired bolts at the creature, which missed that single most important target. Most of them ducked in time as the creature, now mere meters from the ground, swooped down ignoring them. One man however wasn't so lucky. He was almost off his horse when the razor edge of the creature's wing clipped the top of his head neatly halving it.

Foron reached into his mind for a way to stop the creature. Then it came to him. He began mustering energy for a spell. He didn't notice the star on Dawn's forehead glowing and pulsing in rhythm to his energy gathering.

Giving his spell everything he had, he launched it at the creature. His pure light spell took Amog by surprise, blinding it, and it crashed gracelessly into the ground.

The young Guardsman turned back towards the creature as he slowed his horse to a stop. Dismounting, he and then helped Dawn to the ground. They carefully approached the creature even as they heard shouts from the fast approaching Guardsmen.

Dawn gasped in horror and Foron almost choked on his own bile as they approached what was left of the creature. The once proud and graceful air demon was now little more than a quivering bag of flesh and bone. The feature that horrified the pair the most was that a good portion of the creature's face was burned beyond recognition.

"I guess I must be more powerful than I thought. That's desperation for you."

"How can you say that? This poor creature is suffering," Dawn lashed out in disgust.

"Not for long milady," Foron said and drove his sword into the creature while Dawn turned away. She whispered a silent prayer to El and wished his mercy on the poor thing while Foron turned towards the Guardsmen who had nearly arrived and made his way to them. Dawn sighed and made towards her "protectors."

Out of the corner of his eye, Foron saw something twitch. He turned to warn Dawn and tried to push her out of the way, but another figure leapt to her defense, tackling her and swinging his sword to sever the creature's tail. It twitched one last time as it plopped to the ground with a wet thud.

"Aegis you fool!" Yorbo shouted. Foron could see skeins transfer themselves from Dawn to Yorbo as he tried to help her up. He brushed himself off and continued his tongue lashing, "You should know that the Amog's final reflex is to sting the nearest living thing."

"I know, I know, to kill whatever killed it," Aegis shouted back.

"Barcook? Is this really the man you want guarding your Niene?"

"At ease Lieutenant!" Barcook shouted.

"But Sir..."

Barcook cut him off, "You deaf? Or do you just not know what an order is? I said at ease!"

"Yes sir," he muttered weakly.

"I can't hear you."

"Sir! Yes Sir!"

"That's better," the burly man said in a better mood. "Despite what you think of Armsmaster Aegis, he is the one who brought down that beast in the first place."

Barcook smiled slightly. He loved putting Yorbo on the spot. Regaining his composure, Barcook turned to Foron next. "Foron, watch it. You have the makings of a fine soldier but you can't ignore what you know."

"Yes sir, it won't happen again."

"You are damned straight it won't -- because Yorbo is now assigned to protect both of you."

"What?" All three said at the same time.

"You heard me. It will be Yorbo who watches the watchers. I will deal with your abandonment of your post when you return. If you return. It's the least I can do for the man who saved my Niene's life. Now fall in and let's get moving. I want to make Gorlon by mid-afternoon."

As they prepared to set off again, Yorbo bristled at the thought of guarding Aegis. Why should he, of the noble caste, be given the task of guarding that low caste scum? He sighed and reminded himself his duty was to protect Dawn.

When they had all mounted their steeds and made sure the way was once again completely clear they set off across the Gorlon Plain. "He's the third of the prophecy," Dawn whispered to Foron.

"How can you be sure?" Foron asked her.

"We are almost halfway to Dark Keep, the land of perpetual dusk. He just joined our party. It fits the prophecy."

"It was suspicious that he would abandon his duties in Meridia."

"Yes, that combined with the prophecy worries me. 'For being evil's servant shall come to feel light's wrath.'"

"I thought you didn't believe in the Prophecy and Magic," Foron snickered.

"There are still many unexplained things in this world. Alchemy has only explained some things but makes me believe it will explain almost everything. I know the lore and so far, the prophecy has been right. What should I believe?" Dawn asked him.

"Believe in us," Foron smiled.

Screaming echoed through the corridors of Hillthorn Castle. King Doreh, followed by his advisors, rushed to his son's room. They burst through the doors to find the young man awake, his nurse screaming and cowering in fear in the corner.

"What is it Rajan?" the king demanded of the woman.

"S-s-see for yourself my lord," Rajan stammered unwilling to leave the perceived safety of her corner.

The King and his advisors followed her gaze and gasped as they looked upon the prince. "El preserve us!" they cried, making warding signs with their hands.

The King's Guard made to protect him as the young man sat up. His skin was a sickly green and covered with scales. He looked upon them with two flaming red eyes that struck terror in their souls.

"What no hug for your beloved sssson?" Corus asked, his now forked tongue flicking out and extending his esses.

"By the sacred texts of Isar, why Corus? Why didn't you listen to my mages?"

"It is my destiny father. In a world where the only constant is change, I did my part."

"You must stop this. Did I not give you everything?" Doreh asked him with a heavy heart.

"You gave me a castle," Corus said waving his hands about to emphasize his point. For the first time Doreh noticed the claws that tipped his son's fingers. "You gave me food, drink, playmates, teachers, every physical desire a boy could want -- but not what he really needed."

"I gave you what was my duty to give you," The King proclaimed angrily.

"What about your duty to your son?" Corus shouted back. The King's advisors, spooked by the fires in the prince's eyes, fled. The guards stepped between them. "There, my point is made. There was always something between us. Your guards, your walls, our duties."

"What is it that you want? How can I stop this?"

"You can't," Corus said bowing his head. "You can't give me what I want, what I need." He smiled wickedly. "I have a new father now. Two even! Destiny and the Dark One have given me everything you could not. I am theirs to command. I will be power unleashed."

The King wept as he fled his son's room. He blamed himself, but knew that his son had to walk his own path. With grief in his heart and a health distance between them, he bid his son a final farewell.

Dawn was staring at Foron. The Guardsman noticed and started to become uncomfortable. She noticed and turned away. But still, she wondered -- there was something different about him.

Although she could sense it more than she could see it, it was still there. Of course, some strange things had happened to her as well. There was the itching all over her body for one. It had started when she used the teleportation power that she never knew she possessed. The itching was especially prevalent on her forehead where she noticed some sort of bump just under the skin.

They were sitting about a campfire now. Dawn should have been sleeping but she couldn't. She felt strangely calm and confident, but her mind was still trying to puzzle together the situation she had found herself.

They camped just outside of Gorlon Forest and Dawn found herself musing on the origins of the ancient wood. Gorlon was a ring of woods that surrounded Meridian City on all sides. Legend had it that the forest was alive and protected the citizens of Meridian City from all threats. A great hero from Meridia once saved the forest from a terrible evil perpetrated against it by the Dark One. That same hero went on to seal the Dark One away behind the gates. Now the forest protected those who travel its paths for noble purposes. It was said the forest could grow or shrink to hide and protect Meridian City when it was threatened. Not that Meridian City needed protection. It had one of the finest armies in all of the Seven Kingdoms. An invading army would have to face Gorlon woods, then the forces of Meridia. Out of respect for the living barrier that protected them, no one ever made camp within the forest. No one really ever needed to though as the journey would only take a few hours, unless the forest disliked you. Then it could take the better part of a day.

Dawn let sleep claim her with only a few hours left until sunrise. Barcook was a good man and would let nothing happen to her but she was still concerned about Yorbo and the prophecy. She idly wondered about how the prophecy would affect her relationship with Foron.

Foron too wondered about the prophecy, how it would affect his relationship with Dawn. He also let his imagination run wild about what was happening to him. Am I turning into a unicorn or a bat, he wondered, or a frog for that matter. He had learned magic as a matter of course in his training for his position in the elite guard, but he hated it; especially when someone else used it against him.

He had always wanted to be Gorlon, the legendary hero. However, it seemed his station in life would not allow him that. He had worked hard every day of his life to get to where he was now. If it had not been for a fortuitous meeting with Dawn in the education center, his position would still have prevented their relationship. He was fortuitous to have her as a friend though he wished for much more. He didn't know if it was the hormones that raged through his 18 year-old body, or his youthful fantasies, but he wanted to be with her for all time. He wondered how she felt about him and if he should risk ruining their friendship to state his feelings for her.

Night did not pass easily into morning.

The group was up and traveling through the forest at first light. Apparently, the forest liked them, or sensed their purpose. Whichever it was, they were allowed to pass through very quickly.

Once on the other side, Barcook ordered the Guardsmen back to Meridian City. He turned to the three riders who were expecting him to turn and ride for home as well. Pain and Angst were already riding for the land of Dark Keep. They seemed to wait for nothing and needed little sleep.

"What are you waiting for, we're burning daylight," the burly, bearded man shouted with a smile.

The others stared at him disbelief. Yorbo glared at the man with a hatred that would shrivel any other man. "I can handle this old man," he shouted.

This drew looks of surprise from everyone. "I'm sure you can Lieutenant, but as long as I outrank you I can do whatever I like."

Yorbo glared at him. He knew Barcook's words were calculated to get a rise from him and it was working. Barcook wanted Yorbo to try to hit him; he had always hated the spoiled little rich boy and just needed an excuse to put the kid in his place.

Instead, Yorbo turned his horse to the north and said, "Whatever. It's your funeral old man. Like you said, 'we're wasting daylight.'" With a satisfied sneer, he goaded his mount towards the north.

Days later they were finally close to the central kingdom of Dark Keep. They could see the menacing clouds of smoke and evil that kept the land in a perpetual state of dusk, hanging over the land like a curtain of gloom. Some said the land was cursed from the beginning of time, others said that the land was only cursed after the titanic struggle between the heroes and the Dark One. When they sealed the Dark One within the Gates, the land was said to have exploded forth in violent protest.

Yorbo had seethed the entire way and had taken out his anger at every opportunity. He even managed to put a crimp in Pain and Angst's antics. Barcook and Foron had been at odds with Yorbo, but he never gave them an excuse to unload on him, much to their dismay. Dawn was suspicious of Yorbo's behavior and watched him like a hawk. Still, she had not managed to catch him doing anything -- yet. She figured it was only a matter of time though.

"What I wouldn't do for him to give me the slightest reason," Foron whined. His voice was now an octave higher. Barcook had noted that he was now a very effeminate looking boy, one who could have passed for a young girl. He had not been the only one to wake up with a surprise that morning either. Dawn woke up with a fine white fur all over her body and a white horn growing from her forehead.

Barcook snickered and said, "Aye lass, I mean lad, I know what you mean. I would love to clean his belfry."

"And what's worse, since I woke up looking like this he hasn't let up. Damn the code, I'm going to push him off the next cliff I see."

"Then I'll have to execute you. Unless you catch him committing treason, or perpetrating some crime against Meridia, you won't be able to lift a finger against him. So, buck up. He'll get his sooner or later."

"If he keeps calling me 'sweet cakes,' it'll be sooner."

Barcook laughed and looked behind him to see Dawn trailing behind them looking forlorn. It pained him to see her so distraught but magic and destiny conspired against her. It was a powerful combination; one that few could undo.

Foron looked to Barcook who nodded his assent and he dropped back to talk to Dawn. She didn't seem in the mood to discuss things not that he blamed her.

"Dawn, I..." he started.

"I don't feel like talking Foron."

"I know what you're going through, but we have a mission."

"You have no idea what I'm going through. In only a few days, I've been violated, forced into a quest I would have had no interest in and been turned into a horse-woman. How could you possibly know what it's like?"

"Let's see -- I've been duped into a quest I have no interest in. I'm being changed into a girl and in that way I feel I've been violated too. How could I not know? Also you don't have to deal with Yorbo taunting you all day."

She smiled. She knew that he was trying to make her feel better. "Well this morning I woke up with... maleness... between my legs."

He looked at her gown slightly aghast. He looked to his own crotch and whispered, "Well if it makes you feel better, I woke up this morning missing mine."

They laughed together. Both feeling much better -- that is until they spotted the group of men sitting in the road. Barcook drew his blade and made challenge. "We are on the King's business. Stand aside and state your purpose."

The men were all dressed in white robes, except the biggest one, whom Barcook took to be the leader. He stepped forward, his black cloak floating ominously in the slight breeze. He threw back his hood revealing that he was a Nilgom, a kind of goblin that was employed by the followers of the Dark One. They were big and tough, with skin like a dragon.

"We are of the Order of the Divide. The King's business is of no interest to us, but you shall not pass into the Master's lands. You will die before you pass."

"You will die before we pass," Foron spat. It didn't seem that impressive from the young woman he now seemed to be.

"Ooh the lady threatens us," one of the robed men laughed.

"Kill them," the Nilgom ordered.

Pain and Angst threw themselves into the fray immediately, which surprised Barcook. He didn't question it; he didn't have time as he waded into the hooded men, sword in action. Even Dawn joined in the fray, using a combination of her new horn and a short sword to decimate the ranks of the Order.

Foron and Yorbo did their part as well, though Foron noticed his heart didn't seem to be in it. Foron assaulted the Nilgom with a fireball, but it just bounced harmlessly off the Nilgom's fireproof hide.

"You incompetent fool. That will have no effect on the Nilgom," Yorbo shouted.

"I've never faced one before. You got any suggestions?"

"Yes! Use cold spells. Nilgoms are lizards. They hate the cold."

Yorbo waded into the crowd of fanatics. He managed to hack a few before they pulled him from his horse.

"You promised no one would get hurt!" one of the hooded men growled.

"I said I have to make it look good. My involvement in this must never come to light," Yorbo spat.

"I spit on you noble scum. None of that will matter when the Master comes."

"I led you to them, now do your duty and kill Foron."

"Ha, kill them? Why would we want to do that?"

"I thought that is what you wanted?"

"No. Should they be killed the Prophecy could never be fulfilled. We need the elements in place so that the Omen can open the Gate. Then we kill you all, preventing you from destroying the Dark One.

"You lied to me!" Yorbo screamed. Suddenly he felt a terrible pain in his back as two massive wings burst from his back. The explosive force knocked him off the ground scattering the robed men all over.

Foron noticed the altercation and launched another cold spell at the Nilgom who was now on his knees falling into a state of hibernation. Then, he turned his attentions to the men attacking Yorbo. It pleased Foron to note that Yorbo's passion had returned to his fighting. The Lieutenant moved like the wind, despite the huge bat wings sprouting from his back.

Foron was amazed at how much magical energy he seemed to have. There were no limits as he summoned up a binding spell and hurled it at the fanatics. They stood alive but frozen in place by ethereal tendrils.

Yorbo turned to Foron with murder in his eyes. Then, he grabbed a throwing dagger and tossed it in Foron's direction. The young Guardsman ducked it and was about to grab for his crossbow, when he heard a bone-crunching thud behind him. He looked at the fallen Order member, twitching on the ground with Yorbo's knife in his chest.

"Stay out of my fights worm," Yorbo shouted in an unholy voice.

Yorbo turned back to his fight only to be tackled by another group of men. They seemed to be crawling from every tree and rock around. Foron jumped into the fray removing the men from Yorbo one at a time with magic.

Dawn and Barcook worked their way to where the other two were fighting and they all began to fight like a unit in a way that no one had ever trained them, but they were still outnumbered. Pain and Angst ran to the paralyzed Nilgom with murderous intent. They had their daggers drawn and were eager for it's green blood, but the creature batted them away with one sweep of his hand. He had recovered from Foron's attacks.

"We're going to get killed if we stay here much longer," Barcook shouted.

"I suggest a retreat," Yorbo growled.

"How do you suggest that?" Foron said defending himself from an attack. "In case you haven't noticed, we're surrounded."

At that, Dawn fired a magical bolt from her new found horn. It pushed the robed fanatics back to a safe distance. Then, it started to glow bright white. The light swallowed the heroes whole and held them cradled in its loving embrace.

When it disappeared, they found themselves standing before a castle. It was impressive and forbidding, seemingly built on a giant rock that overlooked all the Seven Kingdoms were it not for the foul clouds surrounding it. There was a bridge on a similar raised rock, but there seemed to be no obvious way to reach it, as if the rock had eroded away around the castle cutting off all access.

The smell was foul. Sulfur permeated the air from active volcanic vents that pockmarked the area, each with a dull red light emanating from within. It was the lifeblood of the Earth, but twisted and evil, glowing with a brilliant darkness rather than the light of life. The vents spewed forth the thick smoke that clogged the skies making it nearly impossible to make out the sky, except in a few choice spots.

That is when Foron noticed Dawn was missing. He looked down to find that he had changed as well. He was still wearing his armor but it fit him differently, tighter in some places and looser in others. He felt intense pain and pressure in his chest and struggled to remove his armor as quickly as possible. The pain was also intense around his lower private areas.

Barcook stared at Foron with a mixed expression of amusement and shock. There before him stood a striking, buxom young woman with blonde hair -- completely nude.

Foron self-consciously tried to cover his new body with strips of chain mail only to feel acute pain wherever it came in contact with his skin. She realized it was the iron in the mail. Iron and magic almost never mixed. Where it had been unnoticed before, it seemed she was much more attuned to magic now. She felt her magic swell to previously unattainable plateaus and then her magic took care of the problem, automatically outfitting her in mage's robes.

"I must say I liked you better the other way," a ghoulish voice called out. Foron looked towards the voice to see a giant humanoid bat smiling at her. The toothy grin was rather disturbing, reminding Foron of a dragon grinning while playing with its meal.

Then something hit him. He looked around for Dawn but she was nowhere to be seen. All he could spot was a beautiful white unicorn munching on some weak looking grass near the row of trees that stood between them and the castle. It was wearing the amulet the Imps had given Dawn like a collar.

"Dawn?" Foron inquired of the equine.

It nodded at him. The horn began to glow and she could hear Dawn in her mind. "I guess you should now call me Arisen Dawn. It fits more with my new form." Dawn's voice was definitely male in Foron's mind.

"Oh Dawn, I'm sorry," she said stroking the unicorn's muzzle.

"Do not grieve. I should be sorry for what you lost because of me, but we must still move on. I don't know how I know, but now that we have arrived the Omen will not be far behind."

"But how do we get in?" Foron asked. "The road to that bridge is long gone."

"Well however we do it, what little light we have will be gone in short order," Barcook observed, stroking his beard.

Suddenly Yorbo screamed in agony. The others could only look on in horror as the man-bat began to shrink. He cried out as bones shifted and flesh rearranged itself. There before them seemed to be a single bat writhing around on the ground.

Pain approached the little bat and held it aloft. As he did, the creature took off. As it launched itself into the air, it seemed to split in two, then four and soon a whole flock of bats was flying through the air towards the castle.

"A flock of bats will show the way and then betray the devil," Dawn said in their minds. "Follow the bats. Quickly!"

They started towards the castle. Foron shook her head, "Poor devil."

"It's no less than he deserved," Dawn told him.

"How do you mean?"

"These unicorn ears are not just for show. He betrayed us to the Order to get you out of the way. This is his punishment. I overheard him tell one of their members about it during our fight."

"Why that... I'll kill him!" Foron shouted raggedly, sounding nothing like her now normally dulcet voice.

"No time for that now, just follow that swarm," the unicorn said nudging her on.

As they walked, Barcook eyed the Imps. His curiosity getting the better of him he asked, "So what was that with you and the Nilgom?"

Pain looked up at him and smiled. "It's an Imp thing. We hate Nilgoms."

"Why?" Barcook asked confused. "Why do you hate them that much?"

"The reasons are lost to obscurity. Only vague mentions of a similar genesis. We tend to live in the same places, strive for the same things. Could just be that we hate reptiles."

Barcook smiled at that. "It looked to me like you wanted to cook him and then eat him."

"You could say that. The one solid fact we have is that there was once a war. The Imps lost that war and became food for the Nilgom. Later we revolted and took our revenge. If we can, we like to return favors."

Barcook grunted. He was beginning to respect the little guys.

Soon they reached the base of the castle. Foron fought not to choke on the cloying miasma, but if Barcook was affected, it didn't show and the Imps seemed to revel in it. Foron could see skeins flowing from Dawn like fishing line, forming a net about himself. When Foron got close to Dawn, she could breathe a lot better, but then Dawn started acting weird towards her, so she maintained a respectable distance for as long as she dared.

The bats flew into a large cavern at the base of the hill. There was rubble strewn about with the remains of a decaying wooden door nestled snugly within it. Inside they could make out the shape of a staircase that spiraled up into infinity.

"How old is this place?" Pain wondered aloud.

"And how the hell are we going to climb all these stairs?" Angst said shakily.

"Ye of little faith," the unicorn chuckled. His horn began to glow and they all felt a familiar sensation. That is until they bounced around and found themselves on their backsides outside a giant iron door.

"Yowch! What happened?" Angst cried.

Dawn and Foron looked the door over. They could see an incredibly large number of highly complicated skeins of magic woven about the door.

Dawn turned to the others and announced, "This room has a lot of complicated spells wrapped about it. It keeps people from teleporting in, among other things."

"Well at least we got up the stairs. Now what?" Foron asked.

Pain and Angst went straight to work without a word. The skilled thieves made short work of the door's ancient lock and opened it as if it had always been open.

"Wow!" Pain marveled. "That was a tough lock."

"You said it brother," Angst agreed. "They don't make them like that anymore.

They bowed and waved their arms entreating the heroes entry and the group obliged, finding themselves in a lavish chamber that looked as if someone had been keeping it up over the years.

"Weird," Foron muttered, looking around.

"The chamber has a maintenance spell cast upon it," Dawn explained. "It cleans up everything automatically."

Foron felt irresistibly drawn to the large mirror on the bureau against the wall. A brush picked itself up and began brushing her hair. Everyone watched her amazed. She seemed in a trance, unable to do anything but what it compelled. She opened a box that lay upon the bureau and removed jewelry from it, quickly draping various items about her person.

Pain, Angst and Barcook blushed a bright red as she began to remove her clothes unashamedly. She stood up, the brush still working itself through her hair, and made her way to a door on the opposite wall. With every stroke, the brush seemed to lengthen the golden silky locks that graced Foron's pretty head.

She opened the door finding piles of rags piled upon shelves. "Oh dear what shall I wear now?" she exclaimed nearly in tears.

"It's the maintenance spell. The previous inhabitant must have used it to remind her to freshen herself regularly. Some people are so vain," Angst scoffed.

"But what about my clothes?" Foron pouted.

"Even a maintenance spell can only do so much. Clothes disintegrate. Nothing can stop that."

"Ahem!" Pain cleared his throat. "I believe I can help, or rather Master Ragnar can." He pulled a gown from his knapsack and presented it to the young woman.

Angst said shyly, "I helped master Ragnar pick it out."

"You've got to be kidding me," Dawn interjected. "Was that meant for me?"

"Would have been if the demons hadn't tried to change things."

"You can't expect her to wear that. She was a guy just a few days ago."

But for some reason Foron couldn't take her eyes from the gown. She was still under the spell of the room and felt compelled to wear it. "Oh," she almost squealed, "It would go perfectly with my jewelry."

"Oh brother," Dawn complained.

"But why is it affecting only her?" Barcook asked.

"The spell is complex, yet stupid. It has to assume the only female in the room has to be the princess the spell was meant for. It seems Wizards were quite lazy in the old days."

Foron rushed the Imp and began to wrap herself in the gown, which flowed about her new form like gossamer on the wind. It seemed flimsy but warm, and it was strategically cut to reveal nothing when she was calm, but to tease and tantalize when she moved or when the wind grabbed it playfully.

"This is earth friendly material," Pain told them. "As a geomancer, her power is at its peak when she is in harmony with the earth."

As she admired herself in the mirror, the brush stopped at 100 strokes and returned itself to the dressing table. Suddenly the long hair whipped about as if held by unseen hands and began styling itself. Foron looked on in amazement as makeup slowly faded into existence on her face.

"Why, I'm beautiful," she exclaimed. Then she screamed in horror. "What the hell just happened to me?"

"What? You mean you don't know?" Barcook asked.

Dawn snickered as Pain and Angst began laughing so hard they fell down. "Of course she doesn't, she was under the influence of the spell," Dawn reminded him.

"This is not funny. I want this stuff off," Foron shouted. "Did you all see me naked?" she asked looking at the clothes strewn about the floor. Then she began to wipe off the makeup.

"I wouldn't do that," Dawn warned her. "The room will just make you put it on again. You might want to wait until we leave."

Foron made for the door, unintentionally walking with a sexy strut. She stopped short. "Did I just do what I think I did?" she asked confused, her face turning a bright crimson.

They all nodded their heads as if under some spell.

"Damn it!"

Corus screamed as his transformation progressed. His whole body ached as the bones rearranged themselves, and skin hardened. He was now covered in armor-like scales that would protect him from all but magical weapons.

Slowly he recovered, his pain fading to memory. He stalked to a mirror and gazed upon himself. Staring back at him was a sleek humanoid specimen, nothing of old Doreh's son remained. His black chitinous armor gleamed wickedly in the chamber light. His head was serpentine with an elongated muzzle, which showed row upon row of sharp teeth as he smiled evilly. His entire form screamed evil.

After admiring his new wings in the mirror for a moment, he decided to use them and leapt to the ceiling, his claws easily channeling through the mortar until he was flying free in the twilight sky. Corus flew about like a bird of prey, engaging in the joyous feeling of flying free as a bird. His revelry was short lived however, as he felt a twinge. He fought the urge for a time, but the instinct proved too powerful and he felt compelled to fly to the central kingdom of Dark Keep. As he did the last vestiges of Corus died, eaten away by the evil.

It didn't take them long to find the main hall. It was a large hall, with the rotting remains of a huge wooden table in its center. Foron imagined it had been a grand hall once and idly wondered what happened to the great empire that built it, but most of the legends of the old world had faded from memory. All that mattered now was the "Legend of the Gates." When Gorlon and his band of motley adventurers first ventured forth from Meridia to battle the forces of the Dark One, they were little more than a pack of selfish blackguards, each pursuing the Dark One for his own reasons. Power, greed, fortune, glory, the reasons ran the gamut of human weakness. In the end, they became one of the most legendary heroes of all time.

"So now what do we do?" Barcook asked impatiently.

"I guess we wait." Pain shrugged his shoulders and settled into a comfortable position.

Foron frowned, which looked more like a sultry pout. "Wait for what?"

"The Omen!" A voice boomed from nowhere.

"Master Ragnar!" Pain and Angst shouted simultaneously as the glowing, but translucent head of the old Wizard appeared before the troop.

"Yes, well done Pain and Angst. You may be redeemable yet."

"Thank you Master," they said sincerely.

"You have all followed in the footsteps of the great heroes of old, but your challenge is far from over. The signs are complete and the Omen will arrive shortly. The Gates need be opened before the Dark One can be sealed away once again."

"How? We don't stand a chance against the Dark One," Foron exclaimed in exasperation.

"You have all the keys in your possession; you need only turn them. You have already learned to work as one. Work as one again." With that, the wizard was gone.

Foron was about to say something when a sound like a thousand angry bees droned from the walls. Rock flew everywhere and the heroes ducked for cover behind what was left of the grand table.

"My destiny is at hand!" the Omen shouted as it burst through the ceiling. It imperiously stalked to the massive iron gates that made up the entire north wall of the hall. They were gigantic and ornately inlaid with gold and jewels, something a King might seal his most treasured possession behind.

"We have to stop him!" Foron sounded the battle cry.

Barcook unsheathed his sword and leapt to the fray. Foron pooled her energy and launched a cold spell at the dragon. Dawn fired magical bolts from her horn. Pain and Angst hid.

Barcook slashed with his sword several times, which only bounced off the hardened scales. Perturbed, the Omen backhanded him, sending him hurling into the nearest wall.

Dawn's bolts slammed into the Omen pushing it off to the side slightly but it brushed them off and continued to the Gates.

When Foron's attacks hit it, the Omen realized that she presented a real danger and stayed its march in order to eliminate that threat. It opened its vicious black maw and let loose a tremendous fireball that hurled towards the Sorceress with deadly accuracy.

At the last moment, she managed to erect a shield, which shattered immediately upon impact, but managed to bounce the fireball away from her. The western wall wasn't so lucky. It disintegrated instantly not even slowing the fireball, which continued out into the night, lighting the dark skies more than they had been lit in ages.

The dragon realized it would be no easy task to erase this particular nuisance. She would need more personal attention. It rushed at her, shaking off the effects of the ice that was beginning to form on his armored body.

Foron screamed in terror as he grabbed her faster than she thought possible. She summoned up a light arrow, which pierced the armor of the Omen and infuriated the creature even more. It had her by the neck and began to slowly choke her. It could have easily just crushed or slashed her throat, but it seemed to relish the slow death asphyxiation would cause.

Dawn neighed in horror and charged the beast hoping to gore the dragon and force it to release Foron, but the Omen caught the motion from the corner of its eye and quickly turned the charge to its advantage. It turned its victim into Dawn's victim, using Foron as a shield.

Foron and Dawn screamed simultaneously, one in pain the other in fear while the Omen twisted the girl's body about on the horn dropping the unicorn on his back. It hoped the fall would kill him, or at least take the horned creature out of the picture.

Roaring a victory cry, the Omen made its way to the Gates. "Is that the best the Forces of Light could muster?" it laughed.

Digging his claws into the metal of the Gate, the Omen tried to rip the doors from their hinges, but even its strength had limits. The door was well constructed and the spells that protected it, even better, but persistence paid off. It helped that the dragon was absorbing the energy the door was throwing at it.

Finally, it gave slightly, then more, until it was a crack wide enough for the creature of Darkness to peer into the gaping maw of darkness beyond. A strange black vortex spun about as the Omen peeked through the crack.

A voice boomed through the crack saying only one word, "MORE!"

The Omen made ready to attack the doors once again, but roared in pain as something struck it from behind. It turned to find a humanoid female unicorn standing ready to cast another spell. Her long white mane streamed in the wind that rushed in from the damaged wall and energy crackled about her, emanating from her three fingered hands. The energy slowly began to concentrate into the familiar shape of a sword. She lowered herself onto her haunches, and launched herself at the demon, the sword blazing with mystical energy. With uncanny force and accuracy, she swung the glowing blade, slicing open the belly of the creature. Hot molten liquid exploded from the wound as the Omen roared ferociously. The strange liquid spewed forth striking the unlikely heroine square in the face. She stumbled backwards, taken by surprise, and fell through the hole that gaped in the far wall, screaming as she fell toward the rocks far below the castle.

As she plummeted to the ground, she could hear the fluttering of a thousand wings. She looked around to find herself surrounded by a million bats exiting the entry cave they had led the heroes to initially, ready for their night of foraging. A thousand voices whispered, becoming a single eerie voice. "Don't worry, we will help you."

Dawn and Foron were amazed. First, they had merged into this form and now bats were talking to them. If they weren't feeling the flutter of their wings around them, they would have thought they were dreaming.

The bats formed a cloud about the Unicorn Heroine which became thicker and thicker, wrapping her in a black cocoon. When the cocoon was close to the ground, it seemed to split apart forming two distinct shapes, which unfurled further to reveal two glorious bat wings, which slowed the heroines fall and allowed her to glide safely to the ground. Momentarily taking stock of this new situation, she noted that was now wearing ornate golden armor, highlighting her feminine assets and glinting in the fading twilight.

"Wow. This is strange. I seem to be able to know what you guys are thinking," Yorbo thought to his companions.

"Which one of us is in control?" Dawn asked.

"I am," Foron thought coldly. She launched herself into the air and back towards the grand hall.

The Heroine shot through the hole to find the Omen trying to pry the doors even further. It sensed something behind it and turned to face the Heroine who already had her sword ready to slay it.

The Heroine gasped as she saw that the wound she had previously given in the Omen had healed itself. Gritting her teeth, she regained her focus and made ready to fight the Omen again.

The Omen roared in displeasure and launched itself at the Heroine carrying her back through the hole into the waxing night.

"Ah hell, not again," Dawn swore.

"Hang on," Foron thought to the others and used their momentum to flip the Omen over so that it was underneath them. She summoned energy and shot another light arrow at the creature piercing his chest and rocketing him into the ground.

"Nice touch," Yorbo thought cheerfully.

"It's not over yet," Foron growled.

The wind continued to storm through the hole in the wall of the Grand Hall as a hooded figure stuck his head through the double doors of the main entrance to the hall. Certain the coast was clear, he entered and motioned for his brethren to enter.

The Nilgom threw back his hood and examined the Gates. An impatient demonic voice demanded, "FREE ME NOW!"

"Soon my lord," the Nilgom hissed. "The door was weakened enough by the Omen that we may be able to open it. Make ready my brothers."

They gathered in a semicircle before the doors and began chanting. The power that flowed off them was staggering. It rushed in waves at the Gates. Yet, despite their immense powers, they only managed to jar the doors slightly.

"Again my brothers, it will fall!"

The Heroine caught a sharp claw to her midsection. The impact knocked the wind out of her, but her armor prevented further injury. The gouges in her armor instantly repaired themselves and she once again pressed her attack.

Her sword slashed at the Omen and met only with air. The Omen had leapt into the air and spat blazing hot death at the Heroine. Yet, she merely wrapped her bat wings about her body and awaited the impact of the fireball. It slammed into the wings and dispersed almost instantly.

She leapt into the air to give chase to evil's minion. It taunted her, easily outdistancing the armored goddess as it led her to a high point directly above the castle. From there, it could see more clearly the dismal and fire scarred landscape. It sent a sensation of pleasure through its black soul to know that the Seven Kingdoms would soon resemble this glorious landscape.

Turning on his pursuer, the Omen let loose another fireball, knowing she couldn't use her wings as a shield this time. She didn't have to. She may not have been as fast, but she was smaller and more lithe. She easily dodged the fireball and let fly a giant ball of ice towards the dragon.

Feeling extremely cocky, it stood there daring the ice to hit it. At the last moment, it unleashed a fireball that completely obliterated the snowball hurtling towards it.

"It's a stalemate," Foron cried. Since she was in control, the Heroine gave voice to her cry.

"Don't panic fool," Yorbo rebuked him.

"This solves nothing," Dawn said sternly to the feuding egos. "We must keep at him until we wear him down."

The Nilgom reveled in the heat, though his human compatriots were less than thrilled. The humans wished the Omen wasn't throwing around all those fireballs and enhancing the inferno spilling from the gates, while the Nilgom wished it to continue. The humans' robes quickly soaked through with sweat as they continued their barrage on the gates, which were now almost open. It would take mere moments to bring them fully open.


The doors shuddered one last time and came fully open, revealing an ominous swirling vortex of energy that mesmerized those who lingered to stare into it. They began to bow and shake with fear as a voice screamed, "FREEDOM! AT LONG LAST FREEDOM!"

Several of the men were lifted from their knees by an unseen force. Though they screamed, begged and pleaded, they were drawn into the vortex, their faces an engraving of sheer terror before they were swallowed up by the energy. A tremendous belch issued forth from the vortex. The Nilgom was inwardly amused but never let it slip.

The vortex changed and shifted, centering lower in the gates until it reached eye level with the Nilgom, who arose from his prostrated position to greet his Master. A handsome, raven-haired man stepped from the Gates. He was draped in the finest black silk raiment, finer than even the King of Meridia could obtain with all his wealth.

"Ah my humble servants," he said in a surprisingly rich and gentle voice. "I thank you. Every thing is proceeding as planned?" he asked with knowledge they were not.

The Nilgom bowed and said, "No my lord. The unexpected appearance of the Heroine has complicated things."

"I have foreseen this. That is why you are here," he said in his most charming voice.

The hall shook as the Omen fired another blast at the Heroine, which missed her and slammed into the castle. Dust from the ceiling settled gently onto his robes. Frowning he brushed the debris from his garb and said, "This will never do."

The Dark One blinked and vanished. He reappeared instantly before his subject and the Heroine.

The two stopped fighting, incredulous at the man who just appeared before them. The Omen knew its Master though and knelt before him.

"By El and Isar the fiend is loose!" Foron yelled.

"But how?" Yorbo asked him.

"I don't know, but we have to stop him," Dawn cried.

Foron leapt at the demon in a man's skin intent on slicing him in half. She knew more than likely it wouldn't work, but she figured she wouldn't know until she tried.

The Dark One waved his hand and a ball of energy crackled in his hands. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it flying towards the Heroine. Even she couldn't have avoided the spell. It knocked her back fifty feet and when she landed, she broke into her constituent beings.

Foron shook her pretty head and wondered what hit her. The unicorn struggled to his feet somewhat dazed. They looked around and noticed a flock of bats circling overhead. They continued to swirl inward faster and faster until they formed a cyclone. Seconds later a humanoid form emerged from the morass.

"Wow! I can almost do that at will now," Yorbo the man bat said.

They looked over to the Dark One who laughed. "This is the best that Lord Wisdom and his lackey could throw at me?"

The Omen rose and growled then smiled. The grin made Dawn ill at ease and she reared back. Foron tried to steady her.

She apologized, "I guess the equine instincts are getting stronger!"

"Kill them," the Dark One commanded grimly.

The Omen's grin widened. It was looking forward to this. Inhaling deeply, it hurled a massive fireball at the trio. Foron yelled and exploded with power forcing the fireball back towards the Omen.

The fireball exploded singeing the robes of the Dark One who frowned once more. The Omen took the brunt of the blast. It rose from smoke and flame smoldering from the heat.

"I would say it is time to raise the stakes," The Dark One said menacingly. He gestured at the Omen then disappeared. The Omen shook its head and screamed in agony as its form began flow like water. There was a horrendous cracking noise as its bones shifted and its form began to grow. The heroes looked on in awe as the creature grew in size to completely overshadow them.

The Omen growled its displeasure at the insignificant pests before it. It spread its massive wings and roared again, this time with no confusion as to his purpose, to kill the heroes.

"Yorbo!" a familiar voice boomed. "Distract the Omen. Quickly!"

As if he had been born to it, Yorbo changed into the flock of bats and flew into the face of the Omen, blinding the evil black dragon. Dawn and Foron were confused, but Dawn recognized the voice of Ragnar.

"You must listen. These events were preordained. You had no chance of victory against the Omen as the Heroine. You must face him as yourselves. Only the purity of the chosen one can wield the power of the Unicorn against the Omen. The Heroine is the form you must take to seal the Dark One away. Only Light can counter the Living Darkness."

"What does that mean?" Foron asked looking around. Getting no answer, she turned to Dawn. "I guess we have to figure it out."

"We had better figure it out fast. I don't think Yorbo can keep it distracted for much longer," Dawn replied, noticing that the bats were being scattered by the wild undulations of the giant beast.

The Omen spotted them through the bats and began advancing on them. Foron and Dawn scattered as the creature's foot dented the ground where they had been standing. Dawn turned and rammed the dragon's foot. His horn pierced the dragon's leg and he fired several magical bolts into its thick skin.

The Omen screamed as pinpricks of light burst forth from the area around the wound, but then the skin flowed back around it like a liquid. The creature screamed in rage and kicked the Unicorn sending him flying. Dawn landed with a bone jarring crash. Foron ran to his side, her flimsy gown flowing in the tempest being generated by the Omen's wings.

"I'm okay Foron," Dawn yelled, raising herself up. "One of the advantages of being a creature of magic is that I'm more resilient than a normal horse."

"I'm grateful for that. Next time try something a little less dangerous."

"Well it gave me an idea," Dawn said. "I think I know what Ragnar meant by Light countering the Living Darkness. The Omen is surrounded by a curtain of Living Darkness. Like the prophecy said, 'Destiny is a mistress harsh and cruel for certain. Good luck and Godspeed for our heroes in piercing evil's curtain.' "We have to pierce the dragon with Light, the Living Light that Unicorns produce. I just can't generate enough of it myself."

"What do I do?" Foron asked eagerly.

"Only a maiden pure can ride a Unicorn, you must ride upon my back where you can tap into my power and unleash it against the dragon."

Just then, the bats flew at them. "What should I do?" the bats asked in many voices that seemed to combine into one.

"You need to attack the heart of the dragon."

"I understand," the voices responded.

The bats flew off towards the dragon, while Foron mounted the unicorn. She instantly felt a rush of power flow through her. It was intoxicating, almost overwhelming, but she cleared her head and concentrated on focusing the power. Energy crackled from her hands as she prepared the Light spell that would end the Omen. Her gown flowed to fro about her, invigorating her and adding to her sense of freedom.

Yorbo directed his attack like a well-trained field marshal. Several bats would rush the dragon biting and clawing then withdraw. The whole process would repeat itself with regularity. Soon, there was a gaping hole in the darkness that made up the dragon's chest. Yorbo felt weird to have parts of him eaten, chewed or burned then spontaneously regenerated from another piece of his body.

Dawn was finding out it was a good idea for Foron and he to be mobile while preparing to attack as several times the creature spat fire at them. Fortunately, Dawn's reflexes always kept them a whiskers width from death.

"Now," the voices cried, "The skin is healing itself faster than I can damage it."

Foron wasn't sure she was ready, but she knew she had little time. She poured all of the energy she had gathered into a light arrow spell. She aimed it with a warrior's skill and plunged it into the center of the beast. It howled in pain, its eyes pleading for mercy as it realized what was happening.

Foron poured on the power, surprised to find the magic from the Unicorn streaming through her like a bottomless well. The Light began to corrupt the Darkness from within and the skin of evil began to bubble and blister, finally rupturing in places and exploding in streams of rainbow light.

The creature managed one final death rattle before finally disappearing in a flash so bright the heroes had to look away. When they turned back only a man lay where the dragon had been.

Cautiously approaching him, Foron reached down and examined the young man, trying to feel for a pulse. Finding none, she examined the black crystal that was the centerpiece of the amulet that resembled the one Ragnar had given to Dawn.

"He's dead," Foron announced. "But I know I've seen him somewhere before."

Yorbo resumed his humanoid form and said, "That was Corus, son of King Doreh of the Kingdom of the Southern Stars."

"Damn, another wasted life," Dawn snorted.

"We will make sure that no more lives are wasted on the likes of the Dark One," Foron spoke angrily, balling her hands into fists.

"We shall start with the Northern Kingdom and work our way down. The only real challenge is Meridia, but soon Dark Keep and this very castle will be the center of my empire," The Dark One said with a gleam in his eye.

Most of the Order stood about him ready to receive the instructions to begin the siege of the various kingdoms. The rest stood by chanting and casting spells to secure more energy for their Master while the earth shook in protest.

Pain and Angst were trying to remain hidden, but they figured it was only a matter of time before they were discovered. Barcook had been chained to the wall across from the gaping hole.

The Nilgom smiled. The others saw him as only a tool, a means to their ends, but the Dark One found him to be a kind of kin. When he was ruler of the Southern Kingdom, he would seek his revenge on the heathens that goaded him.

The Dark One called the Nilgom by his name in his own language. It came out as a series of hisses and smells that only the Nilgom could sense. The brethren of the Order didn't even realize the Dark One was doing anything.

The Nilgom smiled at the personal attention. "Yessss my Masssster?"

"See to the fortification of the castle," the Dark One whispered to his reptilian serpent. "Remember, once the world belongs to us, you will eliminate the heads of the different cells of the Order."

The Nilgom bowed his head in acknowledgment.

"Oh and get someone to fix that wall before..."

He was cut off by a battle cry as the Heroine swooped in, sword at the ready.

"Oops. Too late!" she yelled.

"See the vermin that can get into your house when you don't have effective pest control," the Dark One growled, but with a smug smile on his face.

"You'll be laughing out of the other side of your face when I send you back to the Void," the Heroine vowed, leaping at the Dark One with her sword. She slashed at him but he moved with a grace and speed that was unnatural for a man of his apparent age. The sword bit only into black silk.

The Dark One scowled at his torn robes. "Will you cretins never give my attire the respect it deserves? This is the finest silk."

"How can you be so flippant? Your death is at hand Sorcerer."

The Dark One laughed loudly. "Is that your impression of me? A mere Sorcerer?"

"The legends say you were once the greatest Magician to ever walk the Great Kingdoms. Until the Great Hero had to seal you away for the evil you had unleashed upon the world."

"You are fools. You think one as mighty as Gorlon was to be wasted on a mere huckster?" the Dark One snarled. His eyes boiled over with the evil energy within him and it began to dance and snake around him as he spoke. "I am evil incarnate. I am the Force of Chaos that even its Lord Fears. I am the unbridled passion of the heart of darkness. I am to evil what El and Isar are to the world of Light."

The energy danced around him with greater fervor until finally striking at the heroes like a coiled snake. The Heroine closed her wings about her deflecting the tendrils, which snaked about the hall seeking out devastation wherever it went. It barely missed Barcook. Even so, he screamed in agony as a tiny amount of the energy coursed through his body as the near miss tore away the foundations of the chains that bound him.

The mystical tendrils sought out all life. It disintegrated two of the members of the Order before the rest fled screaming from the hall. The Dark One formed two snakes in his hands made of ice. They launched themselves after the brethren who were escaping like a shark on the scent of blood in the water. He heard them scream in the distance and smiled with pleasure. "That should put you on ice until I can think of a suitable punishment for your abandonment."

He turned to the Heroine. "So, I see you are not without means of your own. As they say, can I have this dance?"

The Heroine screamed in rage and shot a rapid succession of magical blasts at the demon before her, but he easily batted them away with a casual wave of his hand.

Meanwhile, freed of his chains, Barcook had grabbed the first sword he came across. Now he leapt at the Dark One. It was so unexpected it caught him off guard. The Dark One staggered back, examining the sword jutting from where his heart should have been.

He roared in a deep agonized voice then pointed a finger at Barcook who tried to leap away. It was no use. The energy sought him out as if it had a mind of its own, striking the hapless warrior and sending him flying across the room. "Oh the things that I will do to you when I finish with this harlot," he roared in a voice that no longer feigned humanity.

The Heroine saw her chance and summoned a spell. Dark clouds roiled through the hole and lit the skies with a fierce electrical storm. The Dark One realized what she was going to do and reached for the sword to pull it out, but it was too late.

The lightning struck the sword sending millions of volts through the pseudo man's body. The lightning seemed alive as it grabbed the Dark One and lifted him into the air. He seemed dazed, but still clawed ineffectually at the sword, trying to remove it.

Though the Dark One struggled, the sword would not be dislodged. Barcook had many talents, but first and foremost he was a warrior, his skill with a blade second to none. When he put a blade somewhere he made sure it was not easily removed.

Pain and Angst looked on this as their cue. They leapt from their hiding place ready for action. Angst skillfully targeted a knife on the Dark One's hands. It pierced his hand forcing him to release the sword. Pain repeated the process with the other hand.

"You take on human form, you live and die with the consequences!" Pain shouted.

"I will see you rot in the Void Imps!" the Dark One screamed, but shakily.

Pain twirled his bolo about and hurled it at the demon. The bolo flew straight and entangled the Dark One's hands, ensuring that he would not be able to remove the sword.

The Heroine manipulated the lightning and it began to carry the evil back towards the Gates. The Dark One squirmed and shook, but was unable to free himself.

"Nooooo!" he screamed as the void beckoned him once more. "You worms will not defeat me that easily!"

His body began to melt and bloat as his robes exploded outward releasing a dark alien form. The thing was tentacles, a writhing disgusting mass of black shadow. They could hear it wriggle and slurp making strange wet noises. The gaping maw in the center pulsed and danced with the rhythm of the void behind it, somehow serving as the eyes, ears and mouth for the creature.

Tendrils snaked out and grabbed Pain and Angst while still others made for the Heroine. She slashed the tendrils and summoned her magic, finding it but a trickle of what she'd had before. Two light arrows shot forth and severed the tentacles holding Pain and Angst who dropped to the ground running.

The Heroine's horn began to glow as she put the last of her magical and light energy into the single largest light arrow she could create. It slammed into the maw of the creature drawing an inhuman and deafening screech.

The light sliced through the dark creature and dragged it backwards. There was no way it could stop itself, although it tried in vain to grab onto anything it could to stop its return to the Void.

Discovering a small and unexpected magical reserve, the Heroine used it to sever the tentacles, which shriveled up and disappeared once separated from their source. The Dark One continued to scream as it disappeared into the swirling vortex of darkness.

The Heroine rushed over to the Gates and struggled to close them. Pain and Angst ran to help, joined by a strange young red haired woman. They had managed to nearly close the Gates when a hand reached past them to help them close it the rest of the way. They all turned to find Ragnar standing behind them, staff in hand, stroking his chin in contemplation.

Exhausted, the Heroine became Foron, Dawn and Yorbo once again.

"Thank God that creature is sealed away forever," Foron sighed. She was exhausted.

"Oh it is never forever," Ragnar commented, which drew irate stares from everyone.

"After all that, it had better be forever," Dawn said annoyed. "No one else should ever be put through this again."

"You are venting your righteous indignation. Understandable considering what you have been through, but completely irrelevant."

Dawn's frustration finally bubbled to the surface, "No it is not irrelevant. You had better seal that thing forever. I lost everything over this!"

"You assume that I can, but you misunderstand my abilities," the wizard said sounding like a frustrated parent answering a child's questions.

Pain looked to his Master, "Sir for the good of the world..."

"Good and Evil are subjective concepts Pain. I am beyond such concepts."

"Then why did you gather us together in the first place?" Angst asked.

"Yes why did this have to happen to me? This happened for nothing?" the cute flame haired woman cried.

"Who are you?" Foron inquired of her. Then she noticed that the armor the young woman was wearing seemed to be a feminized version of the Guardsman uniform that Barcook wore. Foron's eyes grew wide. "Barcook?"

"Yes. It's me. The Dark One had plans to make me the first in his harem. He shared his thoughts with me out of rage -- as a punishment. I need a bath."

"You see? This is precisely why we should level this place. Bury those stinking Gates forever," Dawn shouted.

"That is precisely why the Gates cannot be sealed. At least not forever. When the time is right once again they will try. No matter how you secure the Gates, they will overcome it and the demon will be set loose once again."

"So then why go on? Why would you send us on such a futile quest?" Yorbo asked him.

"Was it futile?" the wizard asked. "I see a new Age of Heroes, new quests and new protectors -- you and the Heroine. The future is wide open and this is the beginning not the end. I protect the Age of Wisdom and Knowledge, which is above good and evil in all but application. We are on the cusp of the new Age of Enlightenment."

"But look at us. How can I love Foron in the form I now possess?" Dawn asked looking at Foron who blushed slightly. She wondered about the sensation but she didn't know why she felt that way.

"And what about me?" Yorbo asked. "Am I supposed to return to my family as this?"

"Minor details. I shall give you the means to return to your human forms at will. I can do nothing for Foron. Any disruption in her form now will strip away her power forever. Jolon Barcook has destiny along that path as well."

"But I can't stay like this!" Foron cried.

"You have little choice, but in time you will come to thank me for the blessing," Ragnar said with a raised eyebrow. Foron almost swore she saw a mischievous smile cross the Wizard's face before he left disappearing with no more fanfare than he came.

He left a medallion in his stead. Yorbo felt compelled to pick it up and place it about his neck. When he did, Ragnar's voice filled his head. "Remember, though, when thoughts of misdeeds fills your mind, the mirror shall reflect your true self."

Yorbo wondered what that meant for a moment then dismissed it as he felt himself become once again human.

The amulet around Dawn's neck began to glow brightly and he too regained human form, but as a male. He examined his unfamiliar body, feeling the strength of his arms and a strange sensation of power. Everyone looked on in astonishment at the fair-haired boy who bore no small resemblance to the Dawn they all knew. He had a star on his forehead that represented the horn of his unicorn form.

He rushed over to Foron and picked her up reveling in the sensations of his new body. "I never dreamed being a man could feel so invigorating."

Foron struggled in the grasp of the young man and tried to get him to put her down. "I'm not used to this Dawn, I need some time to get used to it." She also nodded at Barcook who was sullen and withdrawn.

"Why so glum Barcook? I'm sure we can find some other Wizard to restore you," Foron said to the former man.

"I'm lost. No woman could hold my rank. My people would no longer recognize me. What do I have to return to?"

"Look," Dawn comforted her. "My father can restore your position and we can vouch for your identity. All is not lost."

"My Padrin we can make this work, together. You and Foron can work through this together."

Barcook smiled and nodded her assent. She rose to see Pain and Angst trying to sneak out of the room.

"And just where do you think you are going?" Ragnar's voice boomed in their heads.

"We are free now are we not?" Pain inquired sternly.

"No you are not. You are well on your way though. I bid you stay with these heroes and offer any assistance you can. When the time is right you will be free of your sentence."

"We understand Master," Angst chuckled and poked Pain in the stomach. He was rewarded with a pair of donkey ears.

"Damn that old Wizard," Pain swore, only to have his mouth replaced with a duck's bill. Pain and Angst sighed, shrugged their shoulders and followed the heroes out the main doors of the great hall.

They made their way down the hallway, taking the former brethren, now sisters, with them. They didn't notice the eyes of evil watching them as they departed. The Omen laughed then shot into the night. It knew it would not be able to free its Master now, but it was forever and the time would once again come when the Dark One could be freed.

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