PROLOGUE

            One’s destiny is not complete without sacrifices and casualties.

           Unfortunately for me, one casualty I had to endure turned out to be someone who, by the end, I could consider a close friend.  But just as I was getting to know her a little better, Kirra jumped in front of Norvin’s blade, sacrificing herself to save the love of my life from eminent death.

           It was a crushing blow to all of us.  We all took it hard—but Derrick took it hardest of all.  Kirra was his close friend, and I don’t think he’d ever lost someone he truly loved before.

           It wasn’t that kind of love—Kirra had a good twenty years on Derrick.  Their relationship could be difficult to describe—aunt and nephew?  Brother and sister?  It was somewhat strange—Derrick being a knight and Kirra being a thief—but I’d never thought to ask him about it.  There was always so much going on that it just wasn’t one of my top concerns.  All I knew is that Derrick cared deeply for her, and by the end, I did too.

            Essentially, Kirra was a thief because both of her parents were thieves, and therefore it was going to be very difficult for her to be anything else.  But by strange chance, I learned the truth about Kirra—that she didn’t steal for her own personal gain.  Her parents had died in a fire, and Kirra was taken care of by the local church.  Kirra was always thankful as a result, and she made it a mission to steal from the snotty noble, the arrogant rich, and donate most of the gold she earned from those scores to the church, so that they may help others.

            Kirra could be tough to deal with sometimes—her sometimes arrogant, always carefree personality clashed with nearly everyone in the group.  Kirra was her own person, and wouldn’t be changed by anybody.  When she first joined our group, it was fair to say that we didn’t like each other much.  But during a battle, when Kirra was in trouble, I came to her aid.  After the battle, she’d asked me why, and I told her that comrades always watch each other’s backs, no matter what.

            Little did I know that that answer would eventually lead to her death.

            I couldn’t help but feel guilty, especially when I saw Derrick wracked with grief over the death of his friend.  I tried to remind myself that in a battle, people die, even your comrades—there was nothing for it.  But every time I saw my usually jovial, cheerful, happy-go-lucky friend completely despondent, the crushing grip of guilt would threaten to drag me under.

            But I didn’t have the luxury of allowing that to happen—Sirak was still out there, and although he once again was no longer in possession of the Rod of Therl, he was still a dangerous threat.  He had converted the city of Min Lenoras far to the east into the dreaded Ther-lor, his vision of the perfect people.  Stealing the souls of the people to accomplish this end, he then used the souls to sustain his life force, which was rather shaky after being resurrected from the Netherrealm.  He had been banished there by a secret cult for committing crimes even beyond their sensibilities, and the Dyn’osi brought him back to help him execute his vision of the perfect world.

            The Ther-lor are essentially the undead—one might call them zombies—but they still retain their intelligence, able to take orders only from their master, Sirak, or someone he appoints to give them orders.  As such with the undead, they are unfeeling and merciless, and will continue to fight with all of their limbs chopped off, impervious to pain.

And then there was that backstabbing weasel Norvin.   Formerly a knight of Delmar, turned traitor to Sirak, turned traitor to King Marion of Longchester after that city had been converted into Ther-lor.  After he killed Kirra, I avenged her death by defeating him in battle—with Sirak’s help, ironically—and unable to decide on a fitting fate, I gave him back to Sirak to let the lord himself determine his fate. 

After bringing Kirra to Knol, the city of bandits, where she would be properly taken care of and remembered, we returned to Delmar to regroup, mourn, and make plans to deal with Sirak.  For the majority of us, the grieving process had to be short, for we were to meet with other countries and races to form an alliance to face Sirak and his army, which now not only consisted of Ther-lor, but minotaurs, ogres, and goblins.  We had intel from Natish, one of Sirak’s former cult members, that the souls of the people of Min Lenoras were being kept deep beneath the dormant volcano upon which the city stood, guarded by an ancient evil.  If we could destroy the magical barrier where the souls were being kept, they would return to the people and make them human again.  We were able to save Delmar and Longchester with a minimum of casualties, but the same was not likely to be true in Min Lenoras, since we no longer had the element of surprise.

We were minus two members from our group of companions—Derrick was still too emotionally unstable to come with us.  Before we left, Mirabelle and I visited him every day, sometimes even stayed over at his house with his mother Mildred and sister Lydia.  But no matter how much we were there for him, Derrick’s grief only got worse.  Eventually, with the fate of the world in our hands, we had no choice but to leave.  Mildred promised to take care of him, and I promised I would be back for him after I was done convincing the elves and dwarves to align with us. 

Timor, on the other hand, had a much more upbeat reason for not joining us.  A man out of his own time, Timor was going to travel to the Tower of Magic in Severance to reclaim his mageship and receive his training.  When he returned, he would be a full-fledged mage, stronger in the arts of magic and a much more valuable asset to the group.  He also was in possession of the Rod of Therl, a magical artifact that was used in the Dyn’osi ritual that transformed the free beings of the world into the Ther-lor.  He brought it with him to the Tower, where it would be kept safe. 

So the Knights of Iskandor—named after my best friend, Iskandor the dragon—departed, heading southeast to the realms of Vidasel and Balas Malator, the respective homes of the elves and the dwarves.  Myself, Iskandor, Mirabelle, Ceiridwen the pixie, Tandem and Mishap the brownies, along with Aurora, the mysterious child with the powers of necromancy, began the journey in fairly high spirits.  It was likely to stay that way for a while, but somewhere deep in my soul, I knew there would be bumps in the road along the way—perhaps even mountains.  There always are, after all, especially when you’re on a journey to save the world.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Book 1

Derrick’s problem.

Baladir’s brother.

The Willow Armor.

 


 

CHAPTER 1

            “This is not going to be easy,” I muttered.

            “I think you can take care of it,” Mirabelle said reassuringly.

            “I repeat my earlier statement,” I replied.

            “What’s everybody so scared of?”  Ceiridwen asked, fluttering in front of us. 

            “If you so brave, why not you fight him?”  Mishap yelled from Aurora’s pouch.

            “You two started this!”  Ceiridwen fired back.

            “There isn’t going to be a fight,” Mirabelle stated.

            “We don’t know that,” I said in a low voice.

            “He’s going to eat us!”  Tandem said, and he sounded almost cheerful about it.  “I’ve always wondered what the inside of his mouth looks like.”

            “You two are probably going to find out,” Ceiridwen said, an edge of smugness in her voice.  “We’re not going to be eaten.”

            “Can you two explain to me why you thought this was such a good idea?”  I asked the brownies.

            “It his idea!”  Mishap burst out.  “I just do what him tell me.”

            “Well … that’s not going to hold up in the trial,” Mirabelle said with a smirk.

            “There isn’t going to be a trial,” Ceiridwen said, laughing.  “He just going to eat them.”

            “Go on, Aidan,” Mirabelle said, nudging me forward.

            “Why does it have to be me?”  I asked incredulously.

            “Because you’re the only one who stands a chance if he loses his temper,” Mirabelle answered.

            “That’s like saying a dog stands a better chance against a bear because he’s bigger than the cat,” I muttered.

            “Unless he’s a small dog,” Tandem added.  “One of those little ones with the curly hair—”

            “Shut.  Up.”  I was not in the mood.

            “I have faith in you, my love,” Mirabelle said, kissing me on the cheek.  As sweet as that was, I had the eerie feeling that it was going to be the last kiss I was ever going to get from her.

            Aurora just stared up at me expectantly.

            I sighed and took a few steps forward.  Before me lay my friend, Iskandor, sound asleep in dragon form. 

            How am I going to do this?  What was I going to say?

            I stared at the dragon, shaking my head.  While we were all asleep, the brownies found all these twigs from trees—how they found this many twigs was beyond me—and stuck them upright in between the scales on the dragon’s back, four rows wide, all the way down his spine.  It gave the impression that the dragon had a stripe of short, messy hair running along his back.

            The dragon looked absolutely ludicrous. 

            The brownies had been warned—gently—by the dragon.  By nature, they had a tendency to pull pranks on everybody—I wasn’t sure if it was a brownie trait or if Tandem and Mishap were just mischievous.  But Iskandor had made it clear to the brownies to be wary of performing pranks on him, after an incident where they had tied the dragon’s tail to the wooden pillar of a small house in an abandoned village we were camping in.  The dragon moved his tail in his sleep, which ripped the pillar free from the house and the ground, causing the house to—very loudly—collapse in upon itself.

            The brownies had laughed hysterically.

            Iskandor had not.

            To top things off, Iskandor had been especially moody after revealing the truth to me about his relationship with his fellow dragons.  Just as I had been exiled from my country for helping a dragon, so too had Iskandor been banished from the realm of dragons for helping a human.  In a dark, depressing way, it was kind of fascinating how our destinies were intertwined, but at the same time, we had both paid such a terrible price for the injustices laid upon us.

            I stood in front of my giant, slumbering friend and slowly reached out to pet his snout.  It’s usually a death sentence to sneak up on a sleeping dragon, but Iskandor didn’t have a tendency to react violently when I woke him up. 

            I really wasn’t sure if I preferred for him to react violently this time—kill me before I had the chance to tell him what the brownies did to him.  Spare me the actual fight.

            “Iskandor,” I whispered.  “Wake up, my friend.”

            The dragon mumbled in his sleep a little bit, then began to slowly open his yellow eyes.  He grumbled a little, then stretched his neck and his back.  “Is it time to leave?”

            “Um, shortly.”  My mind was suddenly blank.  “I just, um, need to talk to you about something?”

            “What is it?”

            “Um,” I said again, and I suddenly realized that “um” had temporarily become my new way of life.  I resolved to make more of an effort to correct that, but I was too late.

            Iskandor’s eyes narrowed.  “Aidan, what is wrong?”

            “Um,” I said again, and then mentally I slapped myself in the head.

            The brownies were snickering.

            The dragon glanced over at them, then back at me.  By the narrowing of his yellow eyes, he clearly he knew something was up. 

            “Whatever is happening here, Obviously it is not serious.”

            “Not yet,” I mumbled to myself.  Making a failed attempt to compose myself, I decided there was nothing for it.

            “Iskandor, the brownies—”

            “What did they do?”

            “They—” I faltered again—“your back—”

            Before I could even finish, Iskandor’s head whipped around to look at the overgrown brownie forest along his spine.  His eyes widened in shock, then his head whipped back around to glare at the brownies.  His breath was heaving and he was growling.  Smoke spewed from his nostrils.  The brownies screamed and dove into Aurora’s pouch—as if that would save them.  The rest of the group fell back a step.

            I was instantly in between them.  “Iskandor, they were just having fun with you—”

            “And fun they have had,” Iskandor growled. 

            “Iskandor,” I said, my hands outstretched, “it was just a prank …”

            The dragon stared at me, then at Aurora’s pouch, then back at me, still growling.  Then suddenly, he flipped over on his back, and we were sent tumbling from the impact of his enormous weight.  All of the twigs snapped and crumbled seemingly at once, resulting in one simultaneous crack.  His back cleared, the dragon rolled back up to his feet and stalked away.

            The brownies peeked out from Aurora’s pouch, their faces contorted in wonder and fear.  Suddenly angry, I spun around and threw my hand out toward them.  My powers of telekinesis caught hold of the two brownies, pulling their tiny, kicking bodies from Aurora’s pouch.  Aurora just stood there silently, frozen in shock.

            “What in the name of the Abyss is wrong with you two?”  I asked angrily.  “I should have taken Kirra up on her offer to fling you two into Lake Apera.”

            Kirra.  Why did I say that?  Why did I bring her up?  The mood of the group instantly went somber.  My emotions now a jumbled mess, I turned and stalked away from them, after Iskandor.  By doing so, the brownies were released from my telekinesis, and I heard them scream as they tumbled toward the ground.  I didn’t hear any gasps or grunts of pain as they hit the ground, so I assumed that Ceiridwen had saved their sorry hides with her own powers.

            It didn’t occur to me until much later that I had used my powers so easily, whereas I had struggled a great deal before.  My practice was paying off.

            We were journeying southeast to the elven realm of Vidasel and the dwarven realm of Balas Malator to request help from the unified elven/dwarven nation to combat the might of Sirak.  The first half of the journey had been upbeat, but now … not so much.

            So, night after night for the next week, we traveled quietly, ate our meals without much conversation, and then traveled on the next day.  Over the course of the journey, I spoke to everyone individually, apologizing for mentioning Kirra.  Everyone was receptive and forgiving, but that didn’t change the mood of the group.

            Passing the bandit city of Knol on the way didn’t help either.

            Finally, we stood upon a hill overlooking the vast forest of the elven realm, flanked by the majestic mountains of Balas Malator.  The sight had a very calming effect, injecting a much-needed dose of peace and serenity into the group.  A low mist hung over the forest and mountains, giving them a very ethereal feel as the sun shone brightly overhead.  The air was just slightly cool.

            “It’s so beautiful,” Ceiridwen marveled.

            “Do you think the elves will like us?”  Tandem asked no one in particular.  “I sure would like to talk to them.”

            “They don’t generally like outsiders,” I answered.  “But Iskandor, Mirabelle, and I are friends of the elves—they’ll let us in.”

            What I said was true.  The elves are a very peaceful race, but other races are not generally accepted into Vidasel.  If one were to travel too close, they would be greeted with warning arrows landing in the ground by their feet.  The travelers would be asked if they required medical assistance, and then the elves would—politely—ask you to leave.  If you were smart, you would, because if you didn’t, you would become an elven pin cushion in a matter of seconds.

Elven eyesight is superior to just about every other race in the world, and if anyone else were standing where we were standing, all of the elven archers in the trees would be on alert.  But as we approached, a small delegation emerged to greet us.  I recognized them all—Nydel, the female elven warrior who would have gone on to become the general of the elven armies three thousand years from now, in a future that—hopefully—would never come to pass.  I met her after my death and “resurrection”, and she assisted Timor, Iskandor, and I as we tried to escape that horrible future and travel back to our time to save the world.  I could never look at her without feeling a pang of regret, remembering her last stand against Sirak as she attempted to buy us time while we were escaping through the portal.  Her skin was pale, porcelain-like, and she had soft, olive green eyes and honey-blond hair.  She moved with the grace and elegance all elves possessed. 

With her were Liem, current leader of the elven military, and Taden, another high-ranking official in the army.  Liem had the same delicate features as all elves, but with long red hair and golden eyes.  Taden’s hair was dark blonde and he had the same golden eyes as Liem.  All three were slender but well-built, and all three carried beautiful elven longbows, arrows nocked.

But the three were smiling as they approached.  “Lord Aidan, Lady Mirabelle, and Lord Iskandor,” Liem said, bowing to the three of us.  “It is a great pleasure that you would come to visit us again.”

I bowed in return.  “It is always a pleasure to visit your beautiful realm.  However, I fear that this is not a social visit, but rather one of business.”

“I feared as much,” Liem replied, nodding.  “So your visit will not be long then?”

I replied with a shake of the head.

“Where is Timor?” Liem asked, looking around. 

“He’s at the Tower of Magic in Severance,” I answered.  “Studying to become a full-fledged mage.”

“Good for him,” Liem smiled.   “Timor is a good man, and he’ll make an excellent mage.”

I nodded in agreement.  “We need to speak to the elven king, as well as the High King of the dwarves.”

“Can you vouch for your other friends here?”  Liem asked, with the customary elven caution.

“Of course,” I replied.

Liem smiled again.  “I know you can, Lord Aidan.  You would never knowingly bring anyone into our realm that would harm us.  Please follow us—we will offer you food and water, and I will make the appropriate communications to the kings.”

And so we followed the three elves into the misty, wondrous land of Vidasel.  As we entered, we were greeted warmly by other passing elves.  Mirabelle slipped her arm into mine, and that added to the happy, peaceful feeling that I rarely ever felt these days.  But even so, I worried about the impending meeting with the elven and dwarven kings—I would be asking them to go to war, to put the lives of their people on the line to fight with us and stop Sirak and his maniacal crusade.

And that is a request never taken lightly.

CHAPTER 2

The elves, as always, made us feel welcome in their forest kingdom.  We were brought to a table filled with fruits and vegetables and elven wine.  Iskandor declined all offers of food, as he has been known to do, and stood off to the side, occasionally greeting someone who happened to pass by him.  The others dug in (someone brought water for Aurora), and I took an apple off the table to munch on.  As beautiful as Vidasel was, it always brought an eerie feeling of uneasiness whenever I was there—knowing that not far away, a very young Iskandor was guarding my lifeless body.  My body would wake up in three thousand years, changed into the form I currently inhabited.  Iskandor would be full-grown, and from there the three of us, along with Timor, would embark on a journey to travel back to this time to stop Sirak.  The elves had agreed to guard my body, knowing that if something happened to it, I might very well cease to exist.  It always made my head go numb just thinking about it. 

            I glanced over at Mirabelle, who was mingling with some elves, and wondered why I hadn’t told her of this.  It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t trust her.  After thinking about it, I decided that I hadn’t mentioned it, simply because it wasn’t something I liked to talk about, and thus kept it to myself.

            So I politely interjected myself into Mirabelle’s conversation, asking if I could borrow her for a minute.  The elves agreed, bowing as they left.  I pulled Mirabelle to the side and told her the story.  By the end, she was wearing an expression of disbelief.

            “Are you serious?”  She asked quietly.  I nodded.

            She pondered this for a minute, and then her expression cleared.  “The body wasn’t disturbed for three thousand years before.  There’s no reason to believe it will be this time.”

            By the gods, she was beautiful.  Her purple eyes alight with joy and hope, her luxurious red hair blowing lightly in the breeze.  That smile that never ceased to take my breath away.

            “Why are you staring at me?”  Mirabelle asked with a knowing quirk of the eyebrow.

            “Seriously?  How could I not?”  With a blink of the eyes, I brought myself back to reality.  “That is an optimistic way of looking at it—”

            Mirabelle put one finger over my lips.  “Shhhh … we won’t speak of it.  There is nothing to worry about until there’s something to worry about.”

            I reached out and drew her in close, desperately in need of her comforting presence.  She embraced me back, and we just stood there in each other’s arms for a few moments.  I closed my eyes, wanting this feeling to last forever …

            “Is everything alright?”  Iskandor asked, jolting me out of my comforting daydream.

            I was having trouble finding any words in my jumbled mess of a brain, but luckily Mirabelle covered for me.  “Yes, Iskandor, thank you.  Aidan was just telling me about …”  She gestured in the direction of the cave where my body was being held.

            “Ah,” Iskandor nodded slightly.

            I had finally rearranged my brain to somewhat working order and was ready to use words again.  “Are you okay, my friend?”

            Iskandor shrugged.  “I am as okay as I need to be.”

            Mirabelle stepped forward and put her slender hand on his shoulder.  “You do know that we’re here for you, right?”

            The dragon smiled.  “Of course, Lady Mirabelle.  I very much appreciate your concern.”

            “So how much help do you think we’re going to get?”  I asked.

            Iskandor was thoughtful for a bit.  “The elves will help us, no question.  With the dwarves, it’s always a bit more complicated.”

            I nodded in agreement.  It was astonishing to me that two races as different as the elves and dwarves could live side by side in harmony, as different as they were.  The dwarves tended to stay inside their mountain home, never coming out unless absolutely necessary and thus, I had had very little interaction with them.

            Complicating things further was the fact that although the two races considered themselves to be united, that didn’t mean that everyone in both races was fine with that.  With the elves, it was a lot less noticeable—there were a lot of elves who protested, but did so quietly and in a very amicable manor.  But, knowing that things weren’t likely to change, those elves who protested accepted the union with the dwarves, taking things as they were and moving on.

            Not so much with the dwarves themselves.

            The dwarves are a more aggressive, surly bunch than the passive and quiet elves.  The protests were loud and incessant from the get-go, occasionally even becoming violent at times.  Eventually, a faction of dwarves split off from the main population, choosing to separate themselves from the rest of their society.  They still conformed to the regular dwarven laws and such and sometimes even attended mass gatherings, but their presence often cast a pall over the proceedings.  This faction was termed the Ururi, or “Outsiders” in dwarven.

            “We’re going to need all the help we can get,” I muttered.  “Although Sirak cannot create any more Ther-lor, the alliances he has struck with the goblins, ogres, and minotaurs has the potential to be even more dangerous.  Particularly the minotaurs.”

            “I have never seen one,” Mirabelle commented.  “Are they truly as fearsome as they say?”

            “Perhaps more so,” I replied.  “Minotaurs are giant, bull-like creatures.  They can wield heavy warhammers with a single hand.  They are vicious, ruthless, and even worse, intelligent.  Ever since the Minotaur Wars of the Second Age, they have sought revenge against the people of the world.”

            “What happened in the Minotaur Wars?”  Mirabelle asked.

            I sighed, recalled what I had read in a book about the Second Age.  “The minotaur invaded from the homeland over the seas in the northeast.  Pardon the pun, but they quite literally stampeded over the land, dominating every country that stood in their path.  Not only are they strong and intelligent, but they are also fast—no one knew how to counter them.  The people were virtually helpless as the minotaur quickly and efficiently conquered town after town, city after city.  They nearly succeeded in conquering the entire continent—the only land that remained unconquered was the southwestern country of Phenyang.

            “It was there that the minotaurs’ one weakness was discovered—they feared magic.  To this point in history, magic had not yet been seen in this land.  But the sorceress Kalathra, reputed to be the first magic user, used her powers to fight back the minotaur with the help of the Phenyang army.  Bolstered by their success, the rest of the people fought back, and over the course of a decade, finally forced the minotaur back to the northeast, where the minotaurs’ territory of Mosath-Tor was established.  Thus, the Age of Magic—and eventually the Magic Wars—began.”

            “Wow,” Mirabelle said, clearly impressed.

            “Would you like to hear about that age?”  I asked, half-joking.

            “Another time, perhaps, but I am very interested,” Mirabelle replied with a smile.

            “I don’t know the specifics of each age,” I shrugged.  “You’ll have to ask Timor about that.”

            “What do you know about ogres?”  She asked.

            “They’re stupid,” I shrugged.

            Mirabelle laughed.  “That’s very informative.”

            I grinned back.  “Minotaurs do often enslave them.  They are giants, very powerful, but as I said, not that bright.”

            “That I know, my love,” she said, kissing me on the cheek.  “I fought one once.”

            I was amazed.  “Really?”

            “Yup,” she said with a nod.  “A couple had wandered into Longchester and were terrorizing a couple local villages.  King Holden sent me and a unit of men north to deal with them.  One of them tried to run, and I chased him.  Took some time, but—” she shrugged indifferently—“I took care of it.”

            I was in awe—perhaps I shouldn’t have been, knowing what a great warrior she was as well.  “You are truly amazing, my love.”

            Mirabelle shrugged.  “I did what I had to do, no more.”

            I couldn’t help myself—I leaned in and stole a sudden kiss from her. 

            Mirabelle was wearing an expression of pleased shock.  “What was that for?”

            I smiled.  “Just because.”

            “Very naughty, Aidan of Delmar,” Mirabelle said, her eyes narrowed.  “Lucky for you, I don’t mind.”  She winked.

            “Well, that’s good,” I said, reaching around her waist and gently pulling her in close.

            “Excuse me, Aidan of Delmar,” a voice came behind us, sounding apprehensive.  I turned to face the elven messenger, who was staring at the ground and blushing. 

            “Please forgive me,” he muttered. 

            I smiled—I kind of felt bad for the poor guy.  “It’s quite alright.  What’s the word?”

            “They are ready for you, milord,” the messenger responded.

            “I will go and round up the others,” Mirabelle said.

            “Meet us at the Valley of Amity,” the messenger called after her.

            With that, the messenger led me toward the valley, where centuries and centuries before, the elves and dwarves had battled.  When they finally came to the conclusion that they could coexist peacefully, they gave the valley its name, symbolizing their newfound friendship.  They held a giant banquet out there once a year to honor themselves and their fallen brethren. 

            When we reached the valley, it felt like every member of both races was standing there, watching us approach.  The elves stood on their side, just outside the forest of Vidasel, and the dwarves stood on their side, outside the entrance of their Balas Malator home.  The kings stood in front, flanked by their royal guards. 

            On the left, Angdel, High King of the elves.  Tall, fair-haired with strikingly pale blue eyes, the king towered over the rest of his subjects—rumor had it that members of the royal bloodline were taller than normal elves.  He had an almost angelic quality about him—it seemed as if the area around him glowed a bit brighter.  His subjects not only served him faithfully, they worshipped him, as it was believed that when elven kings died, they spent the next chapter of their journey with the gods themselves. 

            On the right, Vodar Weldhammer, High Thane of the dwarves.  Like all dwarves, he was short and stocky, with a long reddish-brown beard and a fierce temperament.  The only thing that set him apart from the other dwarves was his golden dwarven armor and long golden scepter that stood taller than him.  He was said to be a fair but fierce ruler, and he had a tendency to grossly overreact if his emotions got the best of him.

            As I stood before the kings, Mirabelle appeared behind me with the rest of our companions.  We all bowed before the kings.

            “May I present, Lord Aidan of Delmar, Lady Mirabelle of Longchester, Iskandor the dragon, and their companions,” the elven messenger announced. 

            “The famed Aidan of Delmar,” Vodar’s voice boomed.  “Your reputation precedes you.”

            “I hope all that you have heard is good, Your Majesty,” I replied.

            Vodar shrugged.  “I heard you and your friends helped to save the world—that sounds pretty good to me.”

             I bowed respectfully and smiled.  “You flatter me, Your Highness.”

            “Well deserved, it seems,” Vodar answered.

            “It is good to see you and your companions again,” Angdel said with a warm smile.

            “And you as well, King Angdel,” I replied.

            “I heard of your request to see us,” Angdel said, “and I assume that can only mean that you are here to request our assistance in the coming war with Sirak.”

            “You assume correctly, Your Highness,” I responded.  “We could really use the help of both of your formidable armies in our battle against the Ther-lor.”

            King Angdel was silent for a moment.  “I fear that you are sending us all to our doom, Lord Aidan.”

            “All due respect, Your Highness,” I said, “if we don’t fight, we are doomed anyway.”

            “It would seem that way,” Angdel replied.  “I have heard the accounts of you and your friends from that future.  Forgive me for saying so, but … it all sounds so impossible to behold.”

            “I quite understand, my King,” I said.  “If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I certainly wouldn’t believe it.”

            Angdel was quiet again.  “I assume if you are gathering all of the people of the land to fight Sirak, that you have some sort of plan.”

            I sighed.  “We have no concrete plan as of yet, Your Highness.  In a way, any plan we could concoct will rely on who we have fighting with us, and how many.  I can assure you of this, however—” I stood more upright when I said this—“the plan will not be simply to fight Sirak and the Ther-lor head on.”

            “Well, that is reassuring,” Angdel replied with a light smile.  He took a moment to ponder and sighed.  “It really seems as if there is no choice—we are doomed if we do, doomed if we don’t.  That being said, I trust wholeheartedly that you wouldn’t needlessly send soldiers into the pit of fire if you didn’t believe that there was a purpose—or that you could succeed.”

            “We will succeed, Your Majesty,” I said, my voice even.  “We must.”

            Angdel smiled, and the radiance of it seemed to wash over us all.  “And as such, I have no objections to sending my army to fight by your side.  Also, I’d like to send one of my soldiers along with your group—as I understand it, if the assault is anything like what happened in Delmar, you and your companions will be on the inside, trying to restore the souls of the people of Min Lenoras, putting a true end to the battle.”

            I bowed gratefully.  “Thank you, Your Highness.  That would be most welcome.”

            “If I may, Your Majesty,” Nydel said, stepping forward, “I’d like to be the one to accompany Aidan and his friends.”

            Angdel’s eyes raised a little at this, and he looked back and forth between Nydel and I.  “I see no problems with this—what say you, Aidan?”

            “I have no issue,” I replied with a smile.  “In fact, I would be honored.”

            Nydel smiled warmly.

            “I, on the other hand,” Vodar’s voice sounded, “have no intention of sending the dwarves to their deaths.”

            I just stood there, dumbfounded.  I had expected Vodar to need a little extra persuasion, but I hadn’t expected to be nearly rejected outright. 

            “Your Highness,” I said carefully, respectfully, “the fate of the world—”

            “Sod off with the fate of the world,” Vodar said with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “I see no reason why the dwarves should even leave the mountain for this rabble.  Forgive me, Lord Aidan—” he said quickly, catching himself as he saw my eyes widen—“the rabble I speak of is Sirak and his glorified zombies.”

            It took me a moment to recover from the “rabble” comment, but I did so quickly.  “What you’re implying, Your Majesty, is that if you stay in your mountain, Sirak can’t get to you?”

            Vodar nodded.  “I certainly see no way he could.”

            I pondered this … true, Sirak hadn’t penetrated the dwarven kingdom in that awful future, but …

            “Your Highness,” Iskandor said, speaking for the first time, “I would not underestimate Sirak’s power.  The things that he is not capable of are very few.”

            “I underestimate nothing, dragon,” Vodar replied evenly.  “If Sirak cannot penetrate the mountain, and there is no danger to the dwarves, then I see no reason why I should risk our very existence.”

            “So you would leave the rest of us to rot,” Angdar replied evenly, showing no hint of anger in his voice—a simple statement.

            “Do not mistaken me, Angdar,” Vodar said, “our alliance has been very beneficial to us all.  But the rest of the world—to them, we are barely a blip on their very existence.”

            “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Mirabelle said, “but this is not about who did what for whom.  This battle is to ensure the existence of our life as we know it.  If Sirak wins, his beliefs on what life should be will infect us all.  No one will be safe.”

            “We will be,” Vodar replied.

            “Will you?” I asked, my eyes widening.

            Vodar’s eyes focused on me.  “Tell me, Lord Aidan—in your supposed ‘future’, what happened to the dwarves?”

            “There were no dwarves,” I answered, my voice rising.  “You were extinct.

            Vodar’s eyes went wide, in surprise and anger. 

            “You came out to help the elves during the initial assault,” I explained, my anger burning, “then you retreated under the mountain.  You never reemerged, and your entire race died out.  The dwarves died out with a whimper, skulking underground like rats.”

            One of Vodar’s Royal Guard drew his battle axe, and suddenly the entire valley was in an uproar.  I glared at the guard, daring him to attack.  Mirabelle was in front of me, holding me back.  Angdar was arguing with Vodar.  Everyone was yelling.

            I was still staring at the guard, furious.  “Tell him to put his axe away, Vodar!”  I yelled, pointing.  “If you don’t, you’ll be burning his body by nightfall and knighting a new guard tomorrow morning!”

            “Enough!” Iskandor roared, his booming voice reflecting off the mountains.  His yell of anger seemed to remind everyone that there was a dragon in their midst, and everyone eventually quieted down. 

            “You all are being foolish,” Iskandor growled.  “This war is coming, no matter how much we squabble.”  He then turned his attention to Vodar.  “And like it or not, no one is safe.”

            Vodar was glaring at me.  “I do not take kindly to threats against me or my people, Lord Aidan.”

            “I don’t take kindly to acts of stupidity by people in positions of power that could kill off an entire race of people,” I retorted.

            “Aidan …” Mirabelle’s voice behind me.

            Vodar’s steely expression did not change.  “You have a lot of nerve speaking to a king that way.”

            I didn’t have the least bit of sympathy for him, and my anger was simmering.  “Oh, did I hurt your feelings, Your Highness?  Well guess what?  If Sirak wins, it won’t matter.  Nothing will matter.  This world will be dead.  I have seen what this world will become, and I will be damned to the depths of Hell if I’m going to lay down like a dog and allow that to happen!” 

            The Royal Guard with his axe drawn took a step forward, and my eyeline shifted to him.  I didn’t even bother drawing my swords—I wouldn’t need them for this fight.

            Vodar stopped him however, blocking him with his arm.

            “Put your axe away, Danik,” Vodar said in a low voice.  “This is one battle you won’t win.”

            For a moment, it seemed like time stood still.  Everyone was quiet, waiting in anticipation, probably wondering if a fight was going to break out or not.  Vodar glared at me for a moment longer, then stared down at the ground, obviously deep in thought.

            Finally, he raised his head, and he was wearing a mostly even expression.  “I will take what you have said under advisement, Aidan of Delmar.  In the meantime, I will follow Angdar’s lead and send one of my best soldiers with you as a show of good faith.”  He turned to call over his shoulder.  “Rhodan!”

            One of the dwarven soldiers nearby stepped forward.  “Rhodan is not here, Your Majesty.  He left here a couple days ago to go to Knol.”

            “Knol?”  The king looked puzzled.  “Why would he go there?”

            No one answered, but no one seemed surprised either.  Seeing the dwarves’ expression in reference to this “Rhodan” made me very apprehensive.

            Vodar shrugged after a moment.  “Well, I suppose if you can find Rhodar in Knol, you can take him with you.”

            I sighed deeply—passing by Knol was hard enough, but now if I wanted to find Rhodan, we would have to enter the city.  I almost said “forget it”, but much like the army needed to battle Sirak, we were going to need all the people we could get. 

            “Fine—we will look for him in Knol.  Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said, bowing stiffly.

            Vodar nodded gruffly in return.   Angdar rose from his throne.  “May the gods go with you, Lord Aidan of Delmar.  Send word when you are ready to march on Min Lenoras and the elves will be there.”

            “Thank you, Your Highness,” I replied with a much more respectful bow. 

            With a final glare at Vodar, I turned and walked away, the rest of the group falling in behind.  In truth, there was a small part of me that understood why Vodar didn’t want to risk his army against an unknown—especially if a Sirak victory wouldn’t have an immediate effect on the dwarves at all.  But this fight was about much more than just the dwarves—it was about the world’s existence as a whole.  The fact that the king of the dwarves didn’t understand that only provided fuel for my growing frustration.

            “Well, that went well,” Tandem commented from Aurora’s pouch.

            “Dwarves not very smart,” Mishap added.  “Big beards, tiny, weeny brains.”

            “Ah!”  Ceiridwen said, settling on my shoulder and dismissing the situation with a flutter of her wings.  “We don’t need those stupid dwarves!”

            “They’re not stupid,” Iskandor replied evenly.  “Vodar is right to be apprehensive—Aidan, Timor, and I know the truth of the future, but the king only has our word.”

            “Hopefully, he will take the situation under consideration as he said,” Mirabelle said with a sigh. 

            “We can only hope,” I responded.  “Until then, we will have to plan for the battle without them.”

And with that, our visit to the unified elven/dwarven kingdom was over—now all we had to do was travel to Knol to find out what had become of this “Rhodan” character.

CHAPTER 3

            “I don’t even want to go in,” I muttered, as we stood before the bandit city of Knol.

            “It won’t be so bad,” Mirabelle said reassuringly.  “We’ll go in, we’ll find Rhodan, and we’ll leave.”

            “As least Derrick is not here,” Iskandor commented.  “Entering the city would be far more difficult.”

            I nodded in agreement.  Now that his name had come up, I suddenly started thinking about him, hoping he was okay back home …

            “What if Rhodan doesn’t want to come with us?”  Ceiridwen asked, fluttering by my shoulder.

            “We don’t take him,” I replied with a shrug.  “I have no time for anyone who doesn’t want to be with us.”

            “Why wouldn’t anyone want to come with you?”  Nydel asked.  “As far as I’m concerned, this is a tremendous honor.”

            I smiled at her.  Nydel had been mostly quiet since we had left the council with the elves and dwarves, but her eyes had been bright and alert, and she did seem excited.  Excited about what, I had no clue.

            “Thank you, Nydel,” I said.  “That is very nice of you to say.”

            She seemed about to say something else when Mishap piped up from Aurora’s pouch.  “It not honor.  It burden.  Sometimes boring.  We not stop for food when we need food.”

            “We’re not at home anymore, you ninny,” Tandem said reprovingly.  “We’re soldiers now—we don’t have the luxury of eating whenever we like.”  Tandem looked up at me then, somewhat sheepishly.  “Speaking of which—are we stopping for food soon?”

            I sighed heavily. 

            “Let us do what we came here to do,” Iskandor stated.  “The sooner we finish, the sooner we can return home.”

            Nods all around, and we advanced toward the south gate.  The crumbling walls flanking both sides of the gate had crumbled a bit further, almost enough that you could just about see inside the city over the walls.

            From the moment we entered the gate, eyes were upon us all around.  Nydel, having probably never set foot in the city before, looked extremely apprehensive, her hands shaking ever so slightly.  However, it didn’t feel like we were being watched as closely this time around—or perhaps, there weren’t as many eyes watching us as before.  I tried to figure out why I felt that way, until I heard a commotion coming from the center of the city.  It sounded like almost everyone from the city was there.  I could just barely see that past the enormous mob of people, there was a large contraption built.

            “Something’s going on,” Mirabelle stated.

            “Some kind of public gathering,” Nydel said, listening with her superior elven ears.  “Too many voices, I can’t make out what anyone’s saying, but—I can hear a lot of angry voices.”

            “I not like this,” Mishap said. 

            “You don’t like anything,” Tandem replied.  “I, on the other hand, am very curious to see what’s going on.”

            “Curiosity killed cat,” Mishap muttered.

            “I’ve always found that to be an idiotic saying,” Tandem commented.  “I don’t find it likely that curiosity could ever kill a cat.  I’d like to find out though—Aurora, when we get back home, do you think we could find a cat—”

            “Please shut up,” I muttered.  As we got closer, I could see that the contraption in the distance was a very crude platform with two vertical standing wooden poles connected by a horizontal one.  A rope was hanging from the horizontal pole.

            “Gallows,” I said in a low voice. 

            “I didn’t know there was any law here, that anyone could set up a public hanging,” Mirabelle commented.

            “There is no law here, as far as I know,” I replied.  I took a couple steps forward and tapped the shoulder of the nearest disreputable Knol resident.  The bald, filthy man spun around and, upon seeing it was me, jumped, gasped, and seemingly almost soiled his breeches. 

            “Oh, Lord Aidan,” the man said, heaving deep breaths, “I didn’t know you were in town.”

            “I just arrived.  Please calm down before I impale you,” I replied evenly—the man immediately stood at attention.  “What’s happening here?”

            Just before the man could answer, three men walked up on the platform, two of them dragging a prisoner.  The prisoner was noticeably shorter than the others.

            “That is Rhodan the dwarf,” Nydel observed.

            I sighed heavily.  “You’re kidding me, right?”

            “I wish I was,” Nydel said.  “What he could he have done to get himself hanged in this lawless city?”

            “We may not have laws like you have, lass,” the man from Knol commented, “but we do live by our own codes.  The dwarf tried to get with someone else’s woman.  Unfortunately for him, the boyfriend is the leader of a powerful gang.  His gang are the ones who built the platform.”

            “And all these people hate the dwarf?” I asked, moving my arm to indicate the large crowd of spectators. 

            “I don’t know that we hate the dwarf,” the man replied.  “We just want to see someone get hung.  Entertainment we don’t get to see from the outside, if you know what I’m saying.”

            “For the love of—” I growled.  I began to push my way through the crowd to the platform. 

            “What are you doing?”  Mirabelle asked. 

            “What does it look like I’m doing?” I replied in an exasperated voice.  “I’m going to save the stupid dwarf!”

            “Do you intend to fight through all these people?”  Mirabelle asked.  “Is it worth it?”

            “You heard that guy,” I responded.  “These people don’t care about the dwarf—they just want to see someone get hung for their own amusement.  I’m betting that they’ll be equally amused if we try to rescue him.  If that’s the case, we may only have to contend with this guy’s gang.”

            Mirabelle stared to follow me, as did the others.  I could hear the man from Knol confirm my suspicious by yelling out, “Oh, boy—this is going to be fun!”

            “What if this gang consists of fifty people?”  Mirabelle asked.

            “Then I guess we’ll have to fight our way out or die, won’t we?”  I replied.

            “I love how you say that so casually,” Mirabelle said with a slight smile.

            “Hey … I didn’t ask you to come with me,” I responded with a return smile. 

            Finally, I managed to push my way through the crowd and stand in front of the large wooden platform.  By the time I’d gotten there, the two men had already placed a noose around Rhodan’s neck.  The dwarf was standing on a large wooden stool.  He was wearing plain, dirty clothing and was sporting no beard, which was very strange for a dwarf.

            “Hold it!”  I yelled out to the man standing apart from the other three.  “I need that dwarf!”

            The lone man, seeming dressed from head to toe in black leather including a long overcoat, sneered down at me from underneath his slicked back hair and long mustache.  “Aidan of Delmar,” he growled.  “What could you possibly want with this dwarf?”

            “Not your business,” I replied, which sounded a great deal better in my mind than, “I don’t really know.”

            The man smiled sinisterly.  “Wrong answer.”

            With his eyes still fixed on me, he extended his arm toward his two men behind him and snapped his fingers.

            One of the men kicked the stool out from under the dwarf.

            “No!”  I yelled, and instinctively, I used my enhanced leaping ability to try and jump for the dwarf and free him.  Unfortunately, my trajectory was too close to the man in leather, who literally kicked me out of midair and sent me sailing into the crowd.  I landed hard on the ground amongst the sea of ruffians.  I scrambled to my feet, expecting a fight, but the crowd of criminals backed away from me, giving me room.  Some were even cheering me on, as if this were some kind of fight in an arena.

            As I fixed my eyes back on the platform, I saw an arrow sail from the crowd and split through the rope (which was swinging back and forth, no less), freeing the dwarf and sending him tumbling to the ground. 

            “Thank you, Nydel,” I whispered, reaching the platform just as the others did and just as what appeared to be the rest of the man’s gang were pushing their way through the crowd.  I leapt back up on the platform, where the man in leather charged.

            “Damn you!”  He screamed, as he aimed a punch in my direction.  I caught his hand, kneed him in the gut, grabbed him by his shirt with my other hand, swung him around, and tossed him into the crowd.

            “Now we’re even,” I muttered.

            The man’s two henchmen charged.  The first one swung two punches—I blocked them both and kicked him solidly in the chest, knocking him off the backside of the platform.  The next one had his dagger drawn, and I wasn’t going to be able to stop him from stabbing me in time.

            But Mirabelle was there, grabbing the man by the arm, kicking his legs out from under him, and nailing him with a thunderous punch just after the man hit the ground.  The man fell unconscious.

            Then we spun around, readying our weapons and our magic as we prepared for the gang to break from the crowd. 

            But then the strangest thing happened—the crowd blocked the gang from coming any further.  The first few rows stood almost in ranks, facing the gang, refusing to allow them to advance.

            A giant of a man approached the platform—the half-ogre whom we had spoken to when we had brought Kirra’s dead body to Knol.

            “Take the dwarf and go, Aidan of Delmar,” the giant said.  “We will protect you from them.”

            I was apprehensive (this was a city of bandits, after all), but after a moment of seeing that the crowd wasn’t going to allow the gang to come any further, I assisted Mirabelle in helping the dwarf to his feet.  Rhodan was half out of it, was likely half unconscious when Nydel’s arrow set him free from the noose.  He tried to speak, but all that emerged was a ragged whisper that immediately set him coughing.  He pointed to a large cloth bag that was sitting at the other end of the platform.  Aurora went over and tried to pick it up, but it was clearly too heavy for her.  Iskandor walked over and lifted the bag, heaving it over his shoulder.

With Mirabelle and I helping the dwarf, we led him out of the city that was almost his final resting place.

 

***

            A half mile north of Knol, I called for a halt.  The stout dwarf would have been heavy enough for Mirabelle and I to drag on our own, but as dead weight, the dwarf was ten times heavier.  We moved ourselves off the main trail and into a stand of trees, and Mirabelle and I laid him gently against the thick trunk of an oak tree. 

            “To what do I owe the pleasure of the great Aidan of Delmar saving my hide?”  Rhodan breathed.  His voice was clearly still husky, but it seemed to be getting stronger with each passing minute. 

            “Your king volunteered you to join me and my companions for the operation inside Min Lenoras,” I answered him.

            Rhodan stared at me blankly for a minute, and then he shook his head in disbelief and chuckled, which sent him into an awful coughing fit.  After he recovered, he looked at me and smiled wryly.

            “How noble of him to send me to my death,” Rhodan growled.

            “Your lack of faith in us is seconded only by my lack of faith that I may have found the right person for the job,” I retorted.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Rhodan was scowling at me.

            “You managed to nearly get yourself publicly hanged in Knol—the most lawless city in all the land.  Some might say that that takes a special kind of jackass.”

            Rhodan glared at me a moment longer, then looked away.  “Not so much, lad.  True, Knol is a city without laws, but that simply means that the residents there can do whatever they like—including publicly hanging somebody.  And it wasn’t exactly like I deserved it.”

            “Can’t disagree with that,” Mirabelle piped up.  “You were making advances toward the wrong woman.  Morally reprehensible, perhaps, but not exactly a crime that should be punishable by death.”

            Rhodan smiled.  “True, lass—especially when you take into account that I had no idea who that woman was.  They just wanted to make some kind of example out of me, make some show of power.”

            “What were you doing in Knol in the first place?”  I asked.

            The dwarf shrugged.  “Knol is my kind of bloody town.  Though the ale is infinitely better in the mountain.”  His eyes fixed on Aurora.  “What’s with the kid?”

            “She’s one of us,” I replied.

            Rhodan smirked.  “Formidable band of warriors you have here.”

            “If you knew the powers that child possesses,” I said, “you’d soil yourself where you sit.”

            “Yeah!  You not know what we can do,” Mishap shouted from Aurora’s pouch.

            “So shut your mouth, shorty!”  Ceiridwen chimed in.

            Rhodan frowned.  “Talking bugs too.  Nice.”

            “We’re not bugs!”  Tandem yelled.  “You’ve probably got enough bugs in that ratty hair of yours!”

            Rhodan smiled.  “Maybe, but at least they don’t talk.”

            The brownies shouted indignantly from Aurora’s pouch, then eventually settled into silence.  Rhodan’s gaze moved to Iskandor.

            “The magic-user?”  He asked me.

            “Actually a dragon,” I responded.  “Of all of us, I’d suggest that he’s the one you don’t want to anger.”

            Rhodan’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates.  “Noted,” he replied with a breath.  He looked over at Nydel.  “I’ll have naught to do with an elf.”

            This caught me by surprise—but only a little bit.  “I take it you are one of the dwarves who doesn’t approve of your alliance with the elves.”

            “I am the dwarf who doesn’t approve,” Rhodan responded, his voice even.  “I am the leader of the protest group.  And that’s why our lovely Thane volunteered me to join your group—not only because I’m the best fighter, but because I’m a nuisance to him.  You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that I have no beard—I shaved it off in protest of this cursed alliance.”

            “I can just … go home …” Nydel said, in a voice so low we almost didn’t hear her.

            “No, you won’t,” Mirabelle said sternly.  “You’re one of us.”

            “I don’t suppose it’ll matter that it was her arrow that saved your life?”  I asked.

            Rhodan spit on the ground next to him.  “Might as well just let me hang.”

            I’d had enough—I dropped down next to him, grabbed him by his armored breastplate, and yanked him close to me.  “Alright, listen to me, you ungrateful piece of garbage.  The way I see it, you have two options—one, you can come with us and do some good in the world, or two, you can go back home.  I’m guessing you’re not going to be welcome in Knol anytime soon, and if your king was so desperate to be rid of you, he’ll find another way to accomplish that feat.  Doesn’t sound like very much fun to me.  And perhaps, if you come along with us, you may just learn a little something about yourself along the way.”

             “Awww, that’s so sweet,” Rhodan replied with the widest, fakest smile I’ve ever seen.  I almost punched him, but barely restrained myself.  I released him, letting him fall back against the tree.

            “Your choice,” I said.  “Doesn’t really matter to me one way or the other.  Though, if you’re as good a fighter as you say you are, we could really use your help.”

            Rhodan looked around at all of us, then back at me.  “Keep the elf away from me.”

            I didn’t respond, except to look at Mirabelle—we both shook our heads slightly.  I looked over at Nydel, who had the worst shell-shocked expression, likely made worse because of her delicate, porcelain features.  I remembered the Nydel I’d seen in the future—the tough, determined, resilient warrior.  Clearly, this Nydel was not the person I knew in the future, and it would be a while before she would be.  This Nydel was naïve, sensitive, and sheepish. 

            I felt the need to say something to her.  I walked over to where she was standing, near another oak tree, looking out into the distance.

            “Hey,” I said, standing next to her, “don’t listen to him.”

            “It’s hard not to,” she replied.  “I just don’t know what I did to anger him so.”

            “You didn’t do anything,” I said.  “Truth be told, I don’t think even he knows why he hates elves so much.  But I do know this—if he’s going to stay with us, he’s going to have to learn to deal.”

            Nydel was quiet for a moment, then she turned to face me.  “Other than Rhodan, of course,” she started, wearing that sheepish, apprehensive look, “I really feel welcome here.  Anytime I see the Knights of Iskandor, I really get the feeling that you are a true family.  I want to thank you—I feel honored that you would allow me to serve under you.”

            “First things first,” I said, putting my finger up, “you don’t serve under me.  I may be recognized as the informal leader—” I cringed inwardly; even that didn’t sound right, “but in my eyes, there are no leaders here.  We’re all individuals that are a part of a team.  Technically, we’d be classified as a mercenary outfit, which I don’t like because of the negative connotations behind that phrase.  I guess you could say we’re a special unit—we do missions a normal military unit can’t do.  But the main thing is that we help people—that’s what’s most important.  And,” I paused, thinking back to the Nydel I once knew, “I think you’re a perfect addition to the team.”

            Nydel’s delicate features glowed with pride.  She smiled as she spoke.  “You may not see yourself as a leader, but regardless, you are a good one.  You know how to bring the best out of the people around you.  Yet another reason why I’m proud to be here.”

            “And we’re proud to have you,” I replied, smiling in return.  I patted her on the shoulder and turned to rejoin the group.  Aurora was sitting on a rock, the brownies on the ground next to her.  Tandem and Mishap were stretching their limbs, no doubt cramped from being inside Aurora’s pouch.  Iskandor was sitting nearby, his thoughts clearly far away. 

            Mirabelle walked up to me, and took my hands in her own.  “Did you get through to her?  I could see she was likely having second thoughts about being here.”

            I smiled.  “I think so.  It’s just so strange to me—this Nydel is nothing like the one I knew in the future.  I have trouble reminding myself of that sometimes.”

            “You’ll get used to it,” Mirabelle said.   She glanced back at the dwarf, who was still seated by the tree, pulling a helmet out of the bag we had retrieved from Knol.  “He’s going to be a problem.”

            “We’ll keep an eye on him,” I replied evenly.  “Worse comes to worse, he can leave.  I don’t care how good of a fighter he is—I won’t put up with his attitude forever.”

            I looked over at Rhodan and noticed that the only object he had pulled out of that bag was the helmet.  It was a brown, copperish color, had a large spike at the top, and apparently attached to the back of the cuirass so that it could be flipped up or down.  But I didn’t see any weapon.

            I walked back over to him.  “Did you leave your weapon back in Knol?  Do we have to go back for it?”

            “I don’t need a weapon,” Rhodan responded in a low voice.

            I thought this statement odd, but I just shrugged and didn’t think anything more of it.  After another hour of walking, I called for a break, and we settled down in a clearing just off the road. 

            “So—how did you and your crew get the gold pass in Knol?”  Rhodan asked.  “No one else walks in and out of there unscathed.

            “Long story,” I replied, feeling a pang of pain in my heart from the memories.  “Short story is, we have their respect, and they have ours.”

            “If you say so,” Rhodan grunted.  He started to turn away, then glared at Nydel before heading over to get some rations.  Mirabelle came to stand next to me.

            “Like I said—problem,” she said.  I only nodded in response.

            “However,” Mirabelle added, “I’m sure you thought the same thing about Kirra when she first joined the group.”

            I paused, thinking back to that fateful day.  It was true—I did remember thinking that having Kirra on board was going to be a major problem.  Sometimes, she was—but having her with us was far more beneficial than not.  If she were here, she would have most certainly put Rhodan in his place—then joined him for ale at the next tavern.  Afterwards, they would have been causing trouble together.

            I wished with all my heart that could have happened.