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Morlind

By Kevin Ranville

Table of Contents:

Part I: The Sacrifice *

Chapter 1: The King *

Chapter 2: The Prince *

Chapter 3: The Princess *

Chapter 4: The Story *

Chapter 5: The Wizard *

Chapter 6: The Choice *

Chapter 7: The Portal *

Chapter 8: The Hilltop *

Chapter 9: The Hero *

Chapter 10: The Entreaty *

PART II: The Rescue *

Chapter 11: The Darkness *

Chapter 12: The Captive *

Chapter 13: The Dialog *

Chapter 14: The Champion *

Chapter 15: The Key *

Chapter 16: The Restoration *

Chapter 17: The Shards *

Chapter 18: The Crystal *

Chapter 19: The Memory *

Chapter 20: The Plan *

Part III: The Gathering *

Chapter 21: The Search *

Chapter 22: The Merchant *

Chapter 23: The Sea *

Chapter 24: The Convert *

Chapter 25: The Awakening *

Chapter 26: The Mission *

Chapter 27: The Siege *

Chapter 28: The Black Stone *

Chapter 29: The Darkest Hour *

Chapter 30: The Dawn *

Epilogue *

Part I:
The Sacrifice

Chapter 1: The King

Sometimes when youíre King you have to make some tough decisions. The weight of your crown drags you down into weariness, with its regulations and responsibilities. The fate of the whole nation rests on your shoulders. Every little choice you make could have disastrous consequences for your people. Thatís what itís like to be King sometimes.

Sometimes the choices you must make arenít so big.

King Morlind III knelt in his garden for a long time, looking down at his favorite patch of flowers. There had not been much sunlight in the land these days. Every single day was overcast with thick heavy clouds that completely blocked out the sun all day long. The land hadnít seen sunshine, in fact, for years. Not directly anyway. There was enough light for plants to grow. No one was starving or anything, but the Kingís recreational garden wasnít exactly thriving either.

It was his habit every morning to come down here during the first hour of daylight and pull whatever weeds had sprung up overnight before they got too well rooted in and damaged his beloved flowers. The weeds of course, being more adapted to harsher conditions, were thriving in Morlindís garden, bullying their way into a greater share of the gardenís limited resources, and try as he might, Morlind couldnít seem to eradicate them, or even keep them at bay.

Rosemont the wizard, his most trusted advisor and friend, had offered him some magical means to overcome the plague of weeds that had overrun his gardens but he had refused. Caring for the flower garden was his personal responsibility and one of the few simple pleasures he enjoyed in the midst of his complicated life. Though the weeding and pruning never seemed to end, he actually liked it that way. It gave him something to think about for a while, other than the weighty affairs of the kingdom.

He was faced with a tough decision though, this morning. Some of the weeds had gotten themselves entangled into the roots of his last remaining Casdinia Shoe flowers. His wife Osdina had planted the patch before she died. Gardening had been her passion originally. He had merely picked up the habit in her honor after she had passed away many years ago. Keeping the gardens neat and tidy helped to preserve her memory. Now the work she had done was all but gone except for one little section where he had transplanted the survivors from the other plots he had been forced to abandon.

Now the weeds were encroaching even on his Casdinias. They had been Osdinaís favorites and he hated to see them perish. The choice was between cutting the weeds out by the roots and possibly damaging the Casdinias beyond recovery, or letting the weeds remain, as he had done the past few weeks, and simply cutting them off at the base. To destroy these precious flowers felt like destroying the very memory of his wife. But if he did not get the weeds out they would die anyway. The choice seemed simple enough compared to the daily burdens of his kingdom, but in his heart the situation was bigger than anything else. He missed his beloved wife dreadfully.

If she were here she would tell him to quit being silly and just rip the evil roots out, Casdinias or no Casdinias. He couldnít face the loss of his queenís favorite little Shoe flowers though. Not the very last one.

Sometimes a kingís decisions were small, and sometimes they were big. This one was both at the same time.

Morlind eventually decided he would take the wizard up on his offer to magically destroy the horrible weeds. At least around this flower anyway. He got up off of his tired legs and looked around at the ragged old patch of soil he called a garden. For a moment he was overwhelmed. There were currently more weeds than flowers and his work was mostly about damage control, rather than helping his garden thrive. Perhaps it was time to enlist help from a few servants.

No. That wouldnít be right. The garden was his to care for, as Osdina had been. The trouble was the kingdom was his to care for as well, and were it not for the duties of his royal office, he could stay here all day and conquer the weeds once and for all.

Alas his kingdom called, however, and the weeds prospered in his neglect.

Morlind swallowed hard. He would have to call in Rosemont the wizard for weeding, and servants for maintenance, or there would soon be no garden at all. Such choices had to be made, though he didnít like to make them. Life was like that though. The King sighed to himself and tugged off his gloves in surrender. The weeds seemed to shiver with rejoicing as a hot wind brushed by.

"So few flowers, and so many weeds," he said to himself.

It was like his kingdom in a way. The weeds of evil had been encroaching and thriving in his kingdom as well as his garden. Menís hearts were getting darker and darker as the months went by and the very skies above seemed to reflect it. There were a few good people scattered here and there, but not many, and the evil of the land was strangling them out as the weeds strangled the flowers from the garden. He felt even more overwhelmed by this situation than the problems in his little garden.

Perhaps there would come a day after all this dark business was behind them, when he could build his gardens up once again to the glory worthy of the memory of Osdina. He longed for that day. He would do anything to achieve peace in the land once again, but it seemed so far off. The dark Wizard Daklorund was corrupting his kingdom more and more as time went on, and there seemed to be no end in sight, but the destruction of all that is good from the land.

Suddenly Morlind was overwhelmed again as he looked down at his garden. The flowers were like his good citizens, his loyal subjects that were simply trying to live and be good but found nothing but struggles in this land. What kind of king was he to surrender them to the weeds?

He dropped to his knees again, tugged on his gardening gloves and began pulling weeds out by the handfuls. The garden was his to care for. He would do the best he could until he could do no more. Then he would ask for help.

He worked like that for a good forty minutes, digging out weeds and wiping sweat from his brow as each breath of hot wind blasted by him. The unnatural heat of the morning seemed intent on discouraging him, angering him, frustrating his determination, but he continued on, passionately yanking out the little demons until his knees ached and his back burned for relief. Finally he stood up.

"Majesty," someone called to him from the garden gate. "Your presence will be required very soon in the royal court. Perhaps it is time to get cleaned up."

"Thank you, Nomolind," Morlind replied. "I was just about to-"

His voice caught in his throat. He had seen a slight movement in the bushes around the edge of his garden and when his eye turned to look at it he saw the head of an arrow slide out of the foliage. He didnít know what it was at first, but then he saw the shape of a man behind it. The arrow was aimed directly at him. He froze in his tracks at first but then everything inside him screamed out for fleeing and he managed a mere flinch in the direction of the gate before the arrow came flying out at him.

"Majesty!" Rosemont called, rushing into the gardens with several castle guards.

The arrow grazed his neck and ricocheted off the opposite wall of garden with a sharp snapping sound. Morlind fell to the ground in shock. His head smacked automatically into the wound on his neck.

The guards were upon him before he even hit the ground and he pointed in the direction of the bushes. The four of them stood firing arrows into it for a whole minute, waiting for the scream of a wounded man. Such a scream never came, and eventually they ceased fire. There was no way to escape the garden other than the main gate, so the assassin had to be there.

Sure enough when they went to look they saw a man laying behind the bushes with his hand nailed by an arrow to his face. He was still breathing. When they tried to drag him from the bushes, however, they found he had also fallen on his own dagger. The dragging motion had twisted the blade around inside him and killed him.

"Majesty, youíve been hit!" Rosemont gasped.

"Iím alright," Morlind stammered, but then passed out.

The King was hurried into the castle. What should have been a minor wound was in fact quite deadly owing to the fact that it was a poisoned arrow that had struck him. Rosemont hurriedly dug up the antidote and applied it to the Kingís neck. He spent the majority of the day recovering in his bed with his daughter Marilina pacing nervously back and forth beside him while he slept.

When he finally awoke late that afternoon he called his counselors together for an emergency meeting. This event had pushed the situation into desperation. Something had to be done, or the entire kingdom might be destroyed.

They talked at length, discussing every possible solution, but none could be found. The advisors even began to bicker amongst themselves in the Kingís presence and King Morlind began to get angry. He had to remind himself that they also had been corrupted by the evil that plagued the land, but were otherwise good men. He strongly corrected them all, and then encouraged them. Then, when nothing else could be decided, when no more progress could be reached at the table, he dismissed them all, ordered them to get some rest and retired to his chambers once again.

A while later there was a knock on the door.

"Who knocks?" Morlind asked.

"Rosemont, sire."

"Ah, Rosemont. Come in my friend," the King responded. His heart was distressed and he was in need of some private counsel.

Rosemont entered. "Majesty," he acknowledged the King with a short bow.

"How are you, friend?" Morlind inquired.

"I am well," Rosemont replied. "As are you, I hope."

"I am greatly troubled, Rosemont," the King confessed. "What will become of this kingdom of mine when an attempt is made on my life, and all the advisors can do is bicker in front of me like children?"

"They send their humblest apologies, majesty. We have all failed you today. First in allowing an assassin onto the castle grounds undetected, and then in our petty squabblesÖ" Rosemont told him. He moved to the bedside and sat himself on a stool. "All of us have had moments of weakness in this era of darkness."

"Indeed," Morlind acknowledged. There had been a time the month before when the King had almost sent a servant to the gallows for spilling tea in his lap. He had flown into a rage and felt the power of the evil he resisted everyday take him over for a few moments. It was Rosemont who had eventually calmed him down, and the King humbly apologized for his outburst and sent the servant home to be with his family for the week. Then the King retired to his chambers and wept aloud. He had wounded his own soul more in that outburst than the servantís.

It was after that that Morlind decided he should take more private counseling sessions with Rosemont. He wanted to be sure he did not make any foolish mistakes and abuse his power. That was exactly what the evil in him needed.

Morlind remembered that story and decided he should encourage his advisors further with some act of benevolence. Surely they were hurt by their failures as much as he was when, if not more.

"See to it that their families are brought to the castle for a feast tomorrow," Morlind decided. "My daughter Marilina can make the preparations."

"An excellent idea, sire," Rosemont answered. "Your advisors will appreciate that immensely, and their families will benefit as well."

Rosemont went to the door, summoned a servant and gave him the Kingís orders. King Morlindís heart felt better. Having said it, it was as good as done, and he was cheered at the notion of caring even for his advisorís families. Rosemont dismissed the servant and returned to the bedside stool.

"What are we to do about the state of the kingdom?" Morlind mused aloud. "We can not go on like this much longer."

There was a long pause while Rosemont gathered his thoughts.

"I have consulted the White Stone, majesty. There is a faint ray of hope in its answers."

"Go on," the King said, reclining on his bed.

"Signs point to a hero who may be able to free our hearts from this war against evil, even from the evil itself."

"A hero?" Morlind echoed.

"Yes. And once the evil is eradicated we may one day see a return to the goodness that once pervaded this land. Though it may take generationsÖ"

"Who is this hero?" the King inquired. His soul brightened with this new notion of hope.

"I do not know, sire," Rosemont admitted.

"So all we have to do is find him, then," the King decided.

"Iím afraid there are no heroes left in the world, majesty" the wizard said.

The King pondered this momentarily. He wondered if Rosemont was correct. Since the darkness of the evil wizard Daklorund had befallen the land so many years ago all heroism seemed to have melted from the hearts of the populace. But was it gone completely? This notion frustrated the King deep in his soul. He rubbed at the wound on his neck. His stressful thoughts aggravated the irritation there.

"Is there not a man left in all my domain with any shred of courage?" he asked with a furrowed brow.

"There are many good men, women, and children in your domain, sire," Rosemont explained calmly. "There are those with courage, those with honor, those with great wisdom. Others have great strength, skill with weapons, and valor in combat. Many have nobility, dexterity, or wit. All these qualities make a hero."

"But you said there are no heroes!" the King exclaimed, resisting the encroaching impatience.

"According to the White Stone, there are none," Rosemont clarified.

"Who comes the closest then? Who is the most worthy man in my realm?"

"We must not gamble the fate of our nation on one who is merely Ďclose enoughí," Rosemont asserted.

The King sighed heavily, and nodded in agreement. Everything Rosemont was saying was true, though he did not like to hear it. The fate of the kingdom rested on his decisions as head of the nation. The very culmination of generations of crisis had arrived within his reign and it was indeed a great burden. His grandfather had failed to resolve the growing evil in his generation, and then his father after him had also failed to stop its spread. Now it was his turn as King, and he saw now how difficult it really was to rule in a land where such great evil spread like a plague. He actually had it more difficult than his forefathers. The power behind the great evil had grown in the past sixty years and perhaps nothing could stop it now. It was all he could do to keep the peace and stay an out right riot among the people. And now people were even trying to kill him! How he had failed-

"Sire!" Rosemont interjected, as though reading his mind. "Do not lose heart. Do not give up hope. We must believe there is an answer."

Rosemontís words encouraged him. The King shook off the doubts that had intruded into his mind and patted the wizardís hand.

"Youíre a good friend, Rosemont," the King said. "This evil affects my very thoughts. Such a darkness covers us that we are not even safe in our own hearts, and it hurts to be goodÖ"

"This is why there are no heroes left, majesty," Rosemont explained. "Daklorund has taken steps to ensure his power can grow unchallenged."

"Indeed," the King agreed.

"The hearts of our people melt like wax before a flame. They give in to it more and more everyday. This once kind and benevolent people have been falling into petty squabbles, fits of rage, debauchery. Parents have left their children hungry and run off to indulge in wanton excesses of every kind. The light of hope is fading fast. Yes, all these things are true, but there are greater truths than these stories of woe."

"Are there?" the King asked tiredly. His soul was hesitant to believe there was any sign of hope.

"There is a side effect of this great evil Daklorund possibly has not foreseen."

The King turned to face the wizard. His eyes gleamed with a curiosity.

"The boundaries between good and evil are more clearly defined now than theyíve ever been before. Those with evil hearts are being drawn to greater and greater evil, while those with good hearts are moved toward greater goodness. The effect is stunning. Souls hunger for the food their moral orientations require. The evil ones are driven deeper and deeper into evil, while the good ones are pulled toward doing greater good. A great refining has taken place in the land."

"Yes. I have noticed the effect of it, but I did not realizeÖ"

"Even the smallest and least in the kingdom, if they still have good hearts, are driven to deeds of great kindness, benevolence, and selflessness. Such deeds feed their souls and strengthen the good in them, and it grows and grows until-"

"A hero is born?" the King interjected.

"Sadly no," Rosemont confessed. "The good are eventually lost in acts of great selflessness. Dying to defend the innocent, starving to feed the hungry, submitting to betrayal and all other forms of treachery with honor and dignity. They die gloriously but their deaths do not help the cause of good in the long run."

"Why not?" the King asked.

"Because they are dead," the wizard said flatly. "Their goodness ends there."

"Indeed," the King agreed.

"The evil ones in the land cleave to selfishness and self preservation at all costs. They will not spare anything for anyone unless it benefits them somehow. This has gone on for generations, and thus the evil ones in the land outnumber the good by far. Daklorundís power grows."

The King released a heavy sigh from deep within his being. He knew Rosemont was correct about this as well. He had seen such glorious acts of self sacrifice. He had done a few of them himself. The constant pull of evil on his soul had driven him to these extreme acts of goodness, but he had never understood why. He knew now though. Rosemont had summed it up perfectly. It was a kind of self preservation on his soulís part. To do evil wounds a good soul, and to continue in it would eventually kill its goodness. He had instinctively resisted this internal death by countering it with good. He had fed his soulís hunger for doing good.

These acts of great goodness he and others had done had also brought sorrow with them though. Sacrifices were made, comforts were lost. Though the good knew the joy of virtue for its own sake, there was little other happiness in this world for them, and they were grossly outnumbered. Many of the citizens on the side of good had seen their own family members lost to the seductive power of the Dark Wizard. Many others had joined them out of sorrow and desperation, out of weakness of the heart they had given up the fight. Only those who had been driven so far into good that they could never turn back, only they remained, and virtually nobody could stay neutral.

The King suddenly felt an exhilarating joy to be part of such a fellowship. There were few of them left, but he was proud of every single one of them. Each was a treasure, a shining light in a world full of treachery and selfishness. The Wizard was one, his son another, his advisors, farmers, merchants, and nobles here and there.

And there had been Osdina as well.

King Morlind swallowed hard, resisting the emotion that leapt from his belly at the thought of his fair queen. He remembered prince Oslind carrying her body through the castle gates. He had been soaked in the blood of her killers from head to foot, except for the tracks of the tears that streamed down his cheeks.

She had been out in her carriage with her armed escort to do some business in town. People say she had seen a child being beaten and had attempted to intervene. A scuffle ensued between the guards and the crowd and suddenly they had been attacked.

Oslind had gone to find her when she had not returned on schedule. He found her sure enough. She was in the midst of being savagely defiled by the group of thugs. Oslind moved in to attack but somewhere in the scuffle his mother had been killed.

Rosemont stared quietly at the King, knowing he thought of his wife once again. He had that pained look in his eye. He swallowed hard again and again.

The King remembered that day, every day. It had taken Oslind months to recover mentally and emotionally from the events of that day. He had failed to save his mother. He had failed to restrain himself from flying into a vengeful rage and butchering those men beyond recognition. It took him a long time to get over the guilt of that day but he eventually did. He swore he would never loose his temper again. He swore to be only good from then on. To honor the memory of his mother by his own excellence, and thus far he had done it. Morlind was proud of him.

"So what do we do?" the King asked after this long lapse into contemplation.

"We must find a hero," Rosemont answered.

"But-" the King started.

"There are no heroes leftÖ"

"None at all." the King said again, unable to stifle his frustration.

"There are none. But we must find one," Rosemont said. Morlind sensed a growing tinge of desperation in the wizardís voice that both saddened and scared him. Even this great man was not immune to doubt, fear, and frustration.

"If we donít we will all be destroyed. Whether by death as a martyr, or conversion to evil. We can not go on forever. The light of this world is fading fastÖ"

"We must find a hero," Rosemont repeated. Both men faded off into their own thoughts for a moment.

"What is a hero?" the King asked. "If all these great deeds of self sacrifice and goodness do not qualify, then what is a hero?"

"I donít know, sire," Rosemont admitted. "I only know that the White Stone indicated that there is not a hero to be found in the whole world."

After another long pause for thought the King faded off into sleep, and his friend, the wizard, slept in the chair beside his bed.

Chapter 2: The Prince

Prince Oslind was named after his mother. The King and queen had thought it best that there not be yet another Morlind in the lineage, and decided to break the chain at Morlind III. The new prince would be named Oslind, a combination of Osdina the queen and Morlind the King. He was a handsome youth. Slender and agile, strong and intelligent. He had been his motherís pride and joy before she died. He was to be the next King of Morlind.

He had been trained with weapons from an early age at his own request. Though his mother did not want him to become a soldier, he had befriended the Captain of the Kingís Royal Guard and stood in awe of the manís skill with weapons. He had met with him everyday since he was old enough to be called a man, and they trained for a few hours, starting first with the mind, then the body, then with weapons. Captain Hardsly had made a promise to Oslindís mother that if he was committed to training as a warrior he would make it more difficult for him than anyone else. His mother had hoped that such stringent instruction in the arts of war would turn the lad off the whole notion, but it did not. He was a tenacious student and he grew to be the mightiest warrior in the kingdom, even rivaling Hardsly himself, though Hardsly was ten years older and had had a decade more training than Oslind.

Hardsly had grown to love him as a brother.

On the afternoon of the great feast planned for the Kingís advisors, Oslind went on an errand into town to fetch his sister Marilina a dress from the seamstress in town. She had sent messengers with her specifications early that morning and Oslind departed late afternoon to pick it up. They had servants who could have run such menial errands of course, but Oslind had volunteered. He was feeling quite restless pacing around in the castle all day. He didnít like to be cooped up indoors stewing over the assassination attempt on his father the day before.

The day was dark and cloudy as usual. It was a rare event when the sun came out in the town of Morlind these days. Whenever it did the whole town stopped and looked up at the sky in a brief respite of awe. Then as soon as it had come, peeking through a hole in the ever-present cloudscape above the town, it was gone, and the clouds returned to their solar obscuration. The stories Oslind had heard of Morlind being lit up like a jewel by the rising sun seemed to be fantastic tales of fantasy. He had never seen it, and thought he probably never would. All he had ever known was the heavy laden skies of dark gray that held an unnatural heat over the town like a suffocating blanket.

The Castleís front gate opened out to a large terrace with stairs leading down two roads to town on either side of the river. Oslind walked to the front of the terrace and leaned over the waist-high balustrade to look down at the water that flowed out from under the Castle. From up here on the terrace one could see the whole town. Oslindís eyes wandered down the path of the river until it disappeared under the first of the townís three bridges. It was a pleasant view, if not a little too familiar. Seeing the vastness of the sprawling town below used to inspire him, but now as a man it just seemed too small. His heart craved more. He wanted to see other cities, other lands, where the sun shone freely everyday. He wanted adventure.

He sighed and cinched his scabbard a little tighter to his belt. There would be time for adventures, he supposed. There were wars to be fought with Daklorund the evil wizard. At least he hoped there would be. Not much had happened other than the ongoing internal battles of morality. He dropped his hand to the handle of his sword, as his habit was, and began his walk to the seamstressí shop.

"How silly Iíll look carrying a dress through town," he mused to himself. Silly maybe, but his clothing and manners outshone any of the townsfolk who might chance teasing him. Not to mention the swiftness of his blade. He always had that skill to resort to if need be.

His strolls through town were usually uneventful. Citizens stepped respectfully aside when he walked by, offering the occasional bow or salute, and went about their business as though he had not even been there. People had business of their own, which did not include a run-in with the prince. Only a few times in his life did Oslind ever have to draw his sword in town. He did not like to think about those times though.

Sure enough this day was no different. It was almost disappointing for Oslind to experience the same old routine. Respectful bows, people giving way as he walked by, young boys gawking at his sword. Oh well. What did he expect? Though the land was in a time of moral crisis it had been more or less peaceful thus far. At least peaceful enough for the Kings Royal Guard to patrol the streets, preventing any major incidents. He still had to be on his guard of course, if they had made an attempt on the Kingís life, they might also come after him. He grinned at that thought.

"Let them try it!" he mumbled under his breath.

A while later he was at the seamstresses shop. A bell tinkled above his head as he entered.

"Good afternoon, dear lady," Oslind said.

"Bless my heart! Itís the Prince of Morlind himself, in my shop!" she swooned.

"Iíve come for my sisterís dress," he announced.

"Why, of course you have. I only just finished it moments ago."

The dress was made exactly as requested. The lady of the house had put all other orders on hold when she had received the requisition from the Princess that morning, and she had fussed and fawned over it the whole day.

The dress itself was simple, yet elegant. Marilinaís tastes were soft and uncomplicated. She did not care for frills and finery which she felt took away from the overall look of the dress. The dress maker did not get a chance to create such fine clothing very often, and she always enjoyed the challenge. She had created many dresses for Marilina and always strove to make each one more beautiful than the last. It helped to distract her from the loneliness of life without her husband. He had been killed several months ago trying to break up a fight outside a nearby tavern. More often than not the seamstress was in bad shape emotionally, but it never showed in her work.

"Excellent," Oslind said, turning it over and over in his hands.

"I hope sheíll like it," the seamstress commented with a hint of anxiousness.

"Not to worry, milady. Sheís the best dressed woman in the kingdom because of you," Oslind complimented her.

"Why thank you, Prince Oslind," the lady replied modestly. "Youíre too kind."

The seamstress hurried about wrapping the dress up in fine paper and string. Of course! Oslind had expected to carry the dress home slung over his shoulder the way a soldier carries his pack, but this gentle lady was sparing him that embarrassment, and protecting the dress as well. Bless her soul.

Just then Oslind noticed her hands trembling as she wrapped up the package, though there was not really any reason for her to be afraid, and she was young and in good health. He decided she must be emotionally distressed.

"How goes the battle these days?" he asked as she worked.

"The battle?"

"How are you holding up?" he clarified. The battle they all fought was common knowledge but it was rarely acknowledged except among close friends. Prince Oslind had brought it up in a casual conversation with a mere acquaintance and that was unusual. She knew exactly which battle he referred to though.

"Things are alright, sometimes. Sometimes theyíre hard. We all do our best to hang on to whatever good we can."

"Of course," Oslind said. He sensed a bit of self-consciousness from her. More than was normal.

"I canít say things have been perfect, but compared to some other folk out there-"

"Is everything really alright, Kalrina?" Oslind asked again, more directly.

"Well, my good Prince! If you insist on pryingÖ."

"I want to be sure youíre alright. Thatís all. There are so few good people left in the city. I know itís hard, and so we must take care of each other. Is everything alright?"

"I stole from a customer yesterday," the seamstress confessed. Her eyes began to well up with tears. "She didnít realize she had overpaid me and I did not tell her. She walked out without realizing. I thought Ďwhat harm could it do? Sheís wealthy. She wonít even noticeíÖ"

"I see," Oslind said gently.

"ÖOne of my best customers. Loyal all these years. But business has been so slow latelyÖ." Her voice cracked. A tear spilled down her cheek.

Oslind moved toward her and placed and arm around her shoulder. She reminded him of his mother a bit, and it felt good to give her a hug.

"We must make it right, Kalrina," he said softly.

"But how? Iím so ashamed!" her voice was a whisper now, as she tried to fight off her overwhelming sadness.

"Hereís what weíll do. Place the amount she overpaid into an envelope and write on it that you realized your mistake and wished to make it right. Include a token of some sort. A lovely sash, or fine gloves, or something. That should account for the inconvenience. "

"But I donít think I can afford to give anything like that away," the woman fretted. "Business hasnít been too goodÖ"

"Iíll tell you what. Iíll buy it from you for her. Would that help?"

She thought about it a moment and then shook her head.

"No sir," she said, swallowing hard. "Itís my mistake. Iíll take the loss."

The womanís spirit lightened visibly after she made the choice. She wiped the remaining tears from her cheeks and handed Oslind the neatly wrapped package. "Thank you for the good advice, sir," she smiled. "I knew what I had to do, but I just couldnít get over the embarrassment of it."

Oslind looked at her carefully as she fidgeted with the ball of twine. There was still a strain of uncertainty in her movements. A subtle nervousness that one only noticed when watching for it. He had to make sure she really was alright.

"If you give up, even just a little, all the fighting youíve done will be in vain. Never give up, not even for a moment. Itís hard living all alone, but I see much strength in your heart. Donít you quit, Kalrina. I believe in you."

This broke the woman. She clutched his arm and wept openly. Months, perhaps years of bottled up sadness and sorrow, stress and tension were suddenly released onto this understanding heart.

"Itís so nice to hear a kind word," she sobbed. "Nobody cares in this world. Nobody does anything good for anybody. I donít want to be like that. Not ever! Iíd rather die!"

She cried like that a while longer, and Oslind caressed her shoulder.

"The King and Rosemont are working out a plan, Kalrina," Oslind said quietly, lifting a finger to his lips to indicate the secrecy of it. "Take heart. It wonít be much longer."

"Blessings be upon them," Kalrina said excitedly through her tears. She lifted her eyes to look into his face, searching for the truth of his words in his gentle gaze. "I have strength only in the notion that all this will be ended one day. Give them whatever help you can," she pleaded.

"I promise," Oslind answered. "Meanwhile stay close to your friends and keep fighting."

"I will," she said, offering a faint smile at last. She saw in his eyes that there was truth in the words he had spoken. At least he believed it to be true anyway, and that was good enough for her.

He gathered up his package under one arm, pressed a generous bag of coins into her hand, and walked out.

The road back to the castle seemed longer than the trip out had been. It was a little darker now, and hotter somehow. There were fewer people in the streets and the way should have been quicker, but Oslind was lost in his own thoughts. He mused over the talk with Rosemont his father had told him about. They had talked the night before and were working on a plan that might end this whole mess once and for all. His father had not volunteered many details but there had been a tinge of hope in his voice. He said it had to do with a hero. Someone who could end the Dark Wizardís reign of evil. They did not know who it was but they would find him.

It seemed to Oslind the heroes were made, not found.

A small child was lying by the side of the road ahead of him. Oslind stopped in his tracks. After only a momentís hesitation he strode forward to investigate. Had someone attacked this poor child? Was he dead of starvation? Or perhaps just abandoned? Oslind knelt beside him and rolled him over.

It was a girl.

He shook her and she coughed.

"Hello?" he said, nervously. People stopped to gawk. He dropped the dress onto the ground and lifted her to his chest to feel for warmth. She was not cold. She was just a little-

Suddenly the girl bit him, snatched the package from the ground, and ran off an alley.

"What?!?" he gasped in shock.

Oslind heard a faint chorus of laughter bubble up from the onlookers as he shook the pain from his hand. He leapt to his feet to pursue her.

"That little brat!" he hissed through clenched teeth.

He ran through the pedestrians and down the dark alley she had escaped into. He heard her cough again in the distance and he knew to turn right at the next intersection. This alley opened out into another public thoroughfare and Oslind stopped at the edge of the street. He could not see her. Had she escaped?

Suddenly he heard a small scream straight ahead of him.

He brushed through the crowd and into the alley across the street. Down this alley was another left-right intersection. He looked right, and then left, and saw her. A man had her by the scruff of her shirt and was pulling the package from her hands. She struggled weakly as Oslind hurried toward them.

"Hey!" he shouted.

"What do you want?" the man sneered. The girl bit his hand when he looked away and he winced in agony. He swung around and punched her soundly in the forehead. She fell in a crumpled heap. Oslind drew his sword and in a flash it was pointed into the manís face. The man blanched.

"What do you suppose youíre doing?" Oslind asked him. The man froze for a moment, sizing him up. Oslind could tell he was searching for an appropriate lie.

"This hereís my daughter. Now why donít you bugger off?" he answered.

"I donít see too many people stealing from their own daughters like this," Oslind responded.

"Perhaps you donít get out enough," the man smirked. His initial fear at having a sword aimed into his face was quickly fading.

"The package you are stealing from her is mine," Oslind told him.

"Is it?" the man said smoothly. "And I suppose you want it back."

"I do," Oslind said. His voice trembled with the nervous tension of the situation. His head felt fuzzy with the heat.

"So why donít you take it from me then?" the man challenged.

Oslindís anger flared up. His sword twitched in his hand. This man was arrogantly scoffing at his authority. Did he not know who he was dealing with? Oslindís teeth clenched in rage as he stared into the manís obnoxious little eyes. With one swift thrust he could shove the end of his sword through this manís brain and the world would be rid of him. Nobody would miss him. He was trash. Human trash. Vermin!

"The package is mine. Youíll will give it to me or IĎll cut off your head," Oslind hissed.

"You wonít do no such thing," the man said with a confident sneer. "I know who you are. Youíre the Prince. Youíre one of those goody-goody folk. You wouldnít hurt a fleaÖ."

Oslind gulped, remembering himself. For a moment he had forgotten who he was. He had reduced himself to a common thug, eager to do violence to an unarmed foe. The evil had taken him over for that moment and he had allowed it. Oslind swallowed hard again. His mouth was dry. His hands trembled.

"Drop the package on the ground and walk away," he demanded.

"No," the man said calmly. "And youíre not gonna make me, Goody-goody!"

Oslind was paralyzed with rage. Half of him wanted to cut this insolent little punk to ribbons of blood soaked flesh and leave his useless carcass for the dogs. The other part of him fought with all his being to hold on to his integrity. He would not strike an unarmed foe. He would not betray own honor by losing his temper over this little worm. The moment froze in time as he wrestled with the evil trying to invade his soul. His stomach knotted painfully.

But if he could just take one slice, it would fix him. If he took one little stab. Oslindís nostrils flared at the stink of him. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead into his eye. The heat was suffocating.

"Just like I thoughtÖ. Goody-goody!"

Suddenly the man spit in Oslindís face, stepped back, and laughed.

"Ha! Goody-goody! Go on! Cut my head off! Ha! Youíre weak!" the man laughed. He looked at the package. Part of the paper had torn and he saw that it was a dress.

"A dress?!? Is this your dress, Goody-goody? Will you wear it to the Kingís banquet tonight?"

Oslindís knees felt weak. Everything inside him wanted to hack the man into quivering giblets of rat food. Years of training, reflexes, muscle, speed, cried out for use against this stinking fool. But there was something more. There was his mother who never wanted him to be a warrior in the first place. Not a man of violence. There was Captain Hardsly insisting that a soldier never strike an unarmed man. There was his father telling him that his integrity, his choice to be good is of greater value than anything else in the world. So he did nothing. He could smell the manís spit, and feel it trickling slowly down his face. He smelled the manís breath as he laughed. But Oslind did nothing. The man was right. He would not harm him. He was not worth the cost of his honor.

The man dropped the dress at Oslindís feet and backed away, still laughing. "Whatíre ya gonna do? Whatíre ya gonna do?!? Ha! Nothing? Youíre weak! Weak!"

Oslind pleaded in his heart for the man to leave quickly. Every bit of strength he had was channeled into self-control. But he wasnít sure how long it could hold out. Sweat was running freely down his face now. Finally the man disappeared around the corner. It was over.

Oslind lowered his sword which now felt like it weighed five hundred pounds. With what little dignity he could muster he wiped the spit from his face with shaking hands. He sheathed his sword and stooped to pick up the dress. Then he saw the girl. She was awake, and staring at him with awe. There was a large purple bruise swelling on her forehead. Oslind paused again, and stared back. She coughed.

"Why dint-cha kill him, mister?" she asked with a croaky little voice. There was emotion in her tone that betrayed a confused heart.

"I donít know," he said. "I wanted to, but I couldnít. Heís just a common thug."

"Ya should-a killít him," she repeated, still dumbfounded at his incredible self-control.

"No," the Prince said, shaking his head. He exhaled slowly, trying to force himself to relax.

"Youíre a good man," she said, as though realizing for the first time what that really meant. Her eyes were still wide with amazement.

"Am I?" Oslind wondered aloud. He was unsure if he had won the fight, or lost it.

"Sorry for trynía steal from you, mister," she said after a moment. Oslind looked at her as though seeing her for the first time. He had forgotten that she had tried to swipe the dress in the first place.

"Thatís alright," he said. "If you hadnít we never would have met, right? Iím Prince Oslind."

He sheathed his sword and stretched his hand out toward her.

"My nameís Switch," she said slowly. She was even more in awe now. She hadnít realized he was the Prince. Now she was afraid. She had tried to rob the Prince! But she also saw that he was a good man, and the kindness and honesty in his eyes made her trust him. She took his hand and shook it, absent-mindedly rubbing the goose-egg on her head.

"Pleased to meet you, Switch," he said.

"Sorry for stealiní, mister- Prince Oslind," she said, still trying to talk her way out of trouble. "I- I just donít got nothiní. I canít even eat today."

"Where are your parents?"

"I got none. I ran awayÖ" she explained. Oslind saw by the depth of experience in her gaze that she was not lying. She looked to be about seven or eight years old. "I been liviní on the streets for a long time."

Oslind looked down on her with compassion. She was just a little girl, yet she had been through so much. She deserved better than life on the streets.

"Weíre having a banquet at the castle tonight," he said. "If you help out with the servants you can eat as much as you like at the end of the night. Would you like that?"

She nodded with desperate excitement. Her hands shook with the thought of eating in a Kingís banquet.

"Youíll have to get cleaned up and changed into some nicer clothes though," he told her.

She nodded again. A bath and clean clothes! This was too good to be true!

"If you do a good job maybe the servants will want to keep you on," he continued.

Her little eyes glowed with a strange light, the way a person would look at the rising of the morning sun after the worst night of their life.

"You really donít have anyone at all?" the Prince asked sadly.

She dropped her gaze to the dirt and shook her head in negation. Her lip quivered. "I donít got no one at allÖ" she said.

Oslind knelt in front of her and touched her cheek, lifting her gaze back up to look at him. Her eyes were becoming misty and her cheeks were reddening. She blinked and swallowed, and a tear tumbled down her cheek. Behind the toughness and experience she wore on her face, Oslind saw shadows of her innocence.

"Youíre a good girl," he told her. "Youíve just had a bad life. Come on home with me and weíll take care of youÖ."

"Youíre really gonna take me to da castle?" she asked in a cute croaky little voice.

Oslind nodded.

"Maybe you could even stay with us, if you promise to be good," he added.

That was all she could stand. In a cold, black and scary world this man was offering her kindness. He had come to take her out of the darkness, to save her from a future full of evil, of bad people and desperate acts of self preservation, and he would give her a home. She broke down crying and grabbed him in a hug exactly the way Kalrina the seamstress had.

He held her for a long time. She had not been hugged or loved for so long. She had had no one she could trust. No home or family. There was surely a lot to cry about. More than he realized. He let her cry. His heart swelled with compassion. There was a lump in his throat and an overwhelming happiness that healed the insult the thug had given to him. It felt nice to take care of people.

She looked up at him after a while and her eyes were shining with a new twinkle of hope.

"I promise Iíll be good," she said, wiping at her tears with the back of her wrist.

"Thanks," he smiled. Then they got up and started for home.

"Ya know what," she said at the end of the alley. "Dat guy said you were weak, but you íer way stronger Ďden him. Yer strong enough ta be good. I wanna be strong like dat someday. Will you teach me ta be good like you are, Prince Oslind?"

"Sure thing", he promised.

Perhaps he had won the battle after all, and this little girlís soul had turned out to be the prize.

Chapter 3: The Princess

Princess Marilina was five years older than Oslind. She was a model princess, very beautiful, elegant and graceful, though somewhat prone to worry since her mother had passed away. The care of her brother and father had fallen onto her. She had promised her mother this the day she died. The last thing her mother had told her before she went out that afternoon was that she should stay in the castle and take care of her brother and father. Marilina could not of guessed that it would be the last time she would see her, but she had honored her motherís wish ever since. She was still unmarried because of this, though both Oslind and Morlind urged her constantly to select a husband from among her occasional suitors. She could not think of such a thing however. Who would care for her beloved father and her dear baby brother?

On this particular day she made herself very busy preparing for the banquet. She had all the castle servants busy doing something and there was not an idle servant in the whole building. There was food to prepare, the banquet hall had to be made up, the musicians had to be arranged. All of it was a whirlwind of bustling activity that both thrilled her and aggravated her at the same time.

It was not until later in the afternoon during a short break in preparations, that she realized Oslind was running late. Her first thoughts were that he was dilly-dallying around, having a grand old time with some of the town guards somewhere while she stressed away preparing for the guests. She dismissed that notion though, knowing that Oslind was a man of his word. If he said he would come straight home he would indeed make every effort to come straight home. She had no doubt about that. So instead she began to worry.

Her father had nearly been killed the day before, and she began to wonder if maybe something treacherous had happened to Oslind. A sickening weight of fear dropped into her stomach as she imagined Oslind laying in an alley somewhere surrounded by thugs, kicking and beating him. She shuddered and began to berate herself inwardly for not sending an entourage of guards with him.

Then after a few minutes she laughed at herself. She pictured Oslind standing in an alley surrounded by thugs, only this time they were all laid out on the ground in bloody heaps. That seemed more like it, given Oslindís thorough training in all manners of combat. She had seen him wield a blade as an artist wields his instrument in his daily practice, she had seen him take out seven guards with an empty scabbard in one of Hardslyís many practice drills. Oslind could definitely handle himself among untrained street thugs.

But what if he was shot from a distance as their father had been?

The fear flooded into her stomach once again as she pictured her brother dying all alone in an alley somewhere with an arrow in his neck. His years of training did not count for much against a foe who shot at him secretly. Her knees went weak and she dropped onto a nearby couch wringing her hands impatiently. She had dozens of fine dresses! Why could she not have worn an old one? Why did she have to send Oslind-

Ah, but he had volunteered after all. When she thought back on his restless pacing earlier that morning she realized he probably would have found some other excuse to get out of the castle, were he not sent to get her dress. Oh well. He was impetuous that way. There was nothing she could do. If only he would hurry! If he was not back in ten minutes she would send the guards to get him. He would hate that, but it was better for him to suffer a momentís embarrassment than for her to agonize all day in worry.

She decided to go check on the group assigned to decorate the front terrace of the palace. She could at least watch for him from down there. She flitted out of her room with anxious haste and was soon sweeping through the front walk of the palace grounds towards the main gate.

When she got to the terrace she noticed some of the group standing idle. Most of the decorations were finished, and it looked lovely, but she did not like to see her servants standing around doing nothing.

"Is the work finished?" she asked calmly.

The idle servants were startled at her sudden appearance, and began to look around for something to do.

"Just about, milady," one servant said. "There is not work enough left for all of us."

"Perhaps there is help needed in the kitchen then?" Marilina suggested.

"Perhaps," one of the idle servants replied, and he and the others hurried away into the castle.

"How does it look?" a servant asked her.

"Has Oslind returned from town with my dress?" the Princess asked, scanning the roads on either side of the river.

"No, miss," the servant replied. "Not yet."

Marilina strode over to the balustrade and sat down on it. She did not look at the decorations. Her eyes gazed out across the cityscape, searching for her brother the Prince. Suddenly she remembered her manners. She turned and looked at the main gate.

"It looks absolutely stunning, Najmierina," she complimented.

The gate was adorned with flowing silks that draped over pegs in the castle wall. The silks had cloth flowers pinned to them, and various vines and bunches of leaves. On each side of these draperies were tapestries hung at the height of the door, and stretching down to the floor of the terrace. There were carpets rolled out from the main gate to the tops of each stairway on the side of the terrace. The sides of each carpet were gilded with lacy floral designs of white and gold that would guide the guests inward toward the castle. It all looked very welcoming.

"I would like to have a pair of trumpeters stand next to the gate and sound a note to honor each guest as they arrive," Marilina said.

"Excellent Princess. It shall be done," Najmierina replied.

"Only instruct the trumpeters not to sound off right in the personís face as they walk through the gate. That would be very disconcerting. Let the note sound as they step onto the carpets at the top of the stairs."

"It shall be so," Najmierina agreed.

Marilina strode up to the balustrade once again and swept the roads with a glance, wringing her hands in restrained panic. Suddenly there was a hand on her shoulder. She glanced back startled and saw Captain Hardsly.

"Is the Princess alright?" he asked.

"Iím a little upset by the idleness of our staff this afternoon," she replied.

Hardsly easily saw through her pretension. He was older and wiser and knew her from years of observation to be overly concerned about her younger brother. Since their mother had died she had taken it upon herself to mother him insufferably, and Hardsly saw this worry written all over her face.

Marilina didnít like his probing gaze and glanced out toward town again.

"Iím wondering where Oslind is with my dress as well," she added coolly.

"Oslind is more than capable of handling himself among commoners, if any trouble should arise," Hardsly commented. "No need to worry, dear Princess."

He saw by the look on her face that she was not convinced. She was troubled and he did not know how to comfort her. A simple slap on the back and encouraging word did not work with her as it did with his soldiers.

"Perhaps I could send some men to seek him," Hardsly offered. "I would go myself but my duty holds me to the castle in case of trouble for the King...Or for you."

Marilina was comforted by this. She looked up to him with a brightened gaze. For the first time all afternoon she felt a little more secure. Hardsly would let nothing ill happen to any of them. He would defend her beloved father to the death if necessary and take care of her as well, as he had done since they were youths. He would not let a hair on her head be harmed, if he could help it-

"Look! Here comes the Prince," a servant announced.

Marilinaís hair spun in a glistening fan as she turned to see where the servant pointed. Sure enough there he was, walking along with a small child.

"For pityís sake! Whatís he done this time?" she asked herself.

She stepped down the stairs and strolled over to meet them on the path.

"Where have you been, brother," she demanded of him. "Iíve been worried sick!"

"Didnít I tell you?" Oslind said to the little girl. She grinned shyly.

Marilina had intended to throw her arms around her brother in a great big hug but instead she noticed the large bruise on the little girlís head and instinctively stooped down to look at it. The girl flinched as she reached out to touch her.

"Itís alright, Switch," Oslind reassured her. "She just wants to see if youíre alright."

"Iím sorry, dear," Marilina said. "Iíve completely forgotten my manners. My name is Marilina, Princess of Morlind, daughter to the King."

It sounded so official. Poor little Switch just stared at her in awe.

"And you are Switch, I presume?"

Oslind put one hand on top of her head, and another under her chin and nodded her head for her. She was entranced by the Princess and could not speak.

"Where did you find this one?" Marilina asked him, adjusting her ragged clothes absentmindedly.

"She was being assaulted by a common thug in an alley. I had to rescue the little maiden in distress."

"Poor thing," Marilina sighed. "Weíll have to get you cleaned up and fed. Thereís a banquet tonight, you know."

Switch nodded rapidly. Her scruffy hair spilled into her eyes when Oslind lifted his hand from her head. Marilina brushed it aside.

"Come along inside, dear," she told the little girl. "Weíll give you a nice hot bath and see if we canít find a little dress for you to wear."

"Iím Ďunna help da servince," Switch croaked. "Mister- Ah, Prince Oslind said so. Heís gonna ask if I kin be a handmaid to da pincess. Datís you."

"Oh sheís adorable!" Marilina swooned. Her maternal instincts were coming out in full strength. There had been very few children around the castle since she and Oslind were kids themselves.

"So you wonít mind taking her and cleaning her up before the guests arrive?" Oslind asked.

"Not at all," Marilina replied. She suddenly forgot all about the preparations that had to be made. She took the dress from Oslind and guided the youngster into the castle. The Prince walked along behind them, smiling as Switch gawked up at all the fine decorations, the garden finery, and finally the castle itself.

He decided not to worry his sister with the full story of his encounter with the thug. Although he figured Switch would probably tell her all about it as the day wore on. For now he just wanted to relax and enjoy the site of the two of them strolling along. He hoped they would become very good friends.

"Any trouble in town?" Hardsly asked.

"I had a bit of a tussle with a common street thug," Oslind answered. "Nothing happened really."

"I detected a little edginess in your tone this morning. Are you sure you were out there looking for a fight today?"

Oslind knew he had, but did not want to admit it. Looking for a fight was against everything Hardsly had ever taught him. His mind scrambled to come up with a suitable response to the question. Hardsly answered for him though.

"You must guard your heart against such evil, Oslind. If you give in to it just a little, even in your thoughts, you open the door for much greater evil down the road, after the seeds of anger have sprouted."

"Iíve been foolish," Oslind replied. "Iíll do my best to be more careful in the future."

Hardsly took his word for it, nodded and watched him disappear into the castle following Marilina and Switch. Something was still not quite right about Oslindís tone, but he decided to let it go for now. The Prince had business to attend to.

Once inside the castle Oslind parted ways with them, excusing himself to wash up and dress for the party. Marilina took Switch by the hand and went up to her room. She had servants draw a bath and within moments it was done. In the mean time, however, Switch was given bread to eat, and fruit, which she devoured ravenously, even starting to work on the cores of the apple before the Princess stopped her.

"Donít eat too much, Switch," she said, politely pulling the apple core from the girlís hand. "Thereís a whole banquet to eat tonight."

"I never ate dat much in a whole week," Switch said. Her eyes were sunken and dark and the bruise on her head was not the only one she had. As Marilina sat next to her she noticed other wounds on the girl. Bites and scratches, bumps and scrapes, covering virtually her whole body, and dirt everywhere.

The bath was finished and Marilina asked the girl to remove her clothes. Switch hesitated, eyeing her shyly.

You donít want to have a bath with your clothes on, do you?" Marilina asked.

Switch shook her head no, and decided she would have to trust the Princess, though she would have preferred to have Prince Oslind nearby instead. She pulled her ratty old shirt over her head and more injuries were exposed. Marilina put her hand to her mouth in shock. She had large welts on her body, and scars that were scary to look at. She was thin as a rail and her ribs poked out from her sides. Marilina could see almost all her bones and her heart was both horrified and filled with compassion at the same time. What had this poor child been through?

She took off her pants and Marilina saw a rash on her legs. She was quite a sight. Her legs were skinny as well and her knees bulged thicker than her thighs. Switch coughed.

"Come on dear," Marilina said. "Letís get you cleaned up."

Switch was feeling very self-conscious standing naked in front of the Princess. All her ugly sores and scrapes were showing and she want to put her clothes back on and run away back to the city. Back to her little crawl space in the alley where no one could find her. She wanted to be alone again.

But then, as the Princess gently guided her over to the bath, she realized she did not want to be alone. She wanted to have people take care of her. It felt good to have someone nearby who wasnít trying to rob her, or humiliate her, or beat on her just for fun. She knew very well how horrible life on the streets was and forgot her embarrassment immediately.

The bath was warm and comforting. She eased into it and felt it sooth her in every place. Aches and pains seemed to melt away as the warm water surrounded her. She sank in up to her chin and smiled.

"Nice, huh?" the Princess asked.

"Itís makiní me sleepy," the girl replied.

"Iím gonna wash you, ok?" Marilina said. "Donít be nervous. Youíve got a lot of dirt all over you and it may take a while."

Switch nodded.

Marilina took a sponge and began gently scrubbing the girlís back. Switch winced and flinched when she hit tender spots but she did not resist overall. It actually felt very good to be touched and cuddled. She began to remember her mommy.

"Letís see if we canít do something about your hair while weíre at it, huh?" Marilina said.

"My hairís yucky!" Switch replied.

"Itís not too bad," Marilina answered. "We just need to wash it with soap and soft oils."

"Will I be pretty as you, Marenind?"

"Weíll we canít have you looking like a scruffy little mongrel around the castle, now can we?"

Switch went silent again. Marilina worried she had hurt her feelings.

"Weíll try our best to turn you into a little princess yourself, ok?" she added.

Switch smiled again. Her little hand reached up from under the blanket of bubbles and grabbed the sponge. Marilina smiled at her. She probably hadnít seen a sponge in years.

Her hair was knotty beyond comprehension, and it took Marilina a good half hour to comb all the tangles out of it. She kept talking to her as she did and the child winced painfully, but toughed it out. Marilina put the comb down on the side of the tub and picked up the lump of soap. She washed her hair thoroughly with the soap and reached for the comb again to comb the suds through her hair. The comb was gone and the sponge was in its place.

"What ?" Marilina said, furrowing her brow. "I just put the comb down here?"

Switch looked down at the bubbles with a sly smile. The comb rose from the water in front of her.

"You took it?" Marilina gawked. "I didnít even see you!"

Switch smiled playfully. "I switched it!" she said.

"You little sneak!" Marilina giggled. "Is that how you got your name?"

"Yup," Switch replied.

"Who gave you that name?" Marilina asked, resuming her combing.

"My daddy," the girl said. "I used ta switch his wine with juice. He got too drunk, an hurt my momma all da time."

"Did he?" Marilina said.

"One time he came home drunk already and he beat my mom up til she died."

Marilina stopped combing. She was shocked. That would explain why this little girl was running around in the streets.

"I counít switch his wine dat time cause he wadnít home. My momma used to sing songs to me sometimes when I was in bed, soís I counít hear daddyís sweariní. Then he killít her dat day, and I was all alone. After that he started ta beatiní up on me. So one day I switchít his wine wit some poison in it. He never woke up aggin!"

Marilina could feel the childís body tensed with anger and fear and stress. She gently rinsed out her hair and combed it some more. She looked a lot more like a little girl and less like a rag doll that had been chewed up by a dog.

"So thatís how you wound up in this mess," Marilina said.

"Yup. I been runniní around the streets fer a very long time," she replied.

"Well letís see if we canít make a handmaiden out of you, shall we?"

"Prince Oslind is gonna teach me to be good," Switch said.

"He is?" Marilina responded. "How nice of him!"

"I seen him stand still when dat man spit in his face and he never even killít him," Switch said.

Marilina froze again at this new revelation.

"I want him to show me how to be good like dat, cause itís when my daddy spit in my face that I killít him."

A lump swelled in Marilinaís throat. She was near tears now. She resumed combing with trembling hands. What had happened that day?

"Daddy was beatiní on me one day and he said I was useless garbitch, and he spit in my face. I was thinkiní about how to poison him before that, but he never spit at me before. It hurt more than any punches, or kicks, or being hit with a bottle even. It hurt my heart mostly. I decided to kill him after he did that," Switch went on. "Öand I did too. I hated him. He killít my momma, and he spit on me. I hated him. I put poison in his wine and switched it."

A tear spilled down Switchís face. Marilina patted her head softly, caressing her, trying to comfort her. Switch lifted her hands to her face and wiped the tear away.

"I wish I never killít him though. I wanna be good. I donít wanna be alone. I saw Prince Oslind when that man spit in his face and he never even did nothing back! He never did nothiní to him!"

Switch suddenly broke down into sobbing and Marilina hugged her to her chest, quietly and compassionately stroking her head and face as she wept.

"I wanna be jus like dat. Prince Oslind is a good man. He can teach me how to be good again. Heís gonna be my friend."

It seemed to Marilina that Switch was talking to herself more than anything. She just happened to be there to listen. She let the girl talk, sorting out her feelings. After a long while Marilina lifted the sobbing girl from the bath and wrapped her in a towel. She called for the nurse to dress her wounds as best as she could and the two of them helped each other dress.

Marilina had never felt more proud of her brother than she did that day. She knew he was a good man, but to see how he had touched this little girlís heart, and even possibly changed her life brought her overwhelming joy. She hoped to one day be as good a person as Oslind was. She loved her little brother and would have done anything for him.

As Marilina and Switch put the finishing touches on their outfits and went down to the banquet, Marilina decided that she would take on this little girl as her own personal handmaid and try her best to teach her to be good also. If possible, maybe she could even help to heal the girlís broken heart.

Switch had actually turned out to be a pretty little girl. Oslindís eyes widened at the sight of her. She was wearing a petite little dress that one of the servants had searched out for her, and she had little shoes on as well, and ribbons in her hair. She didnít exactly look like the little princess Marilina had been at her age, but she at least looked healthier than she had earlier.

Oslind was about to show Switch to the kitchen so she could help out the servants, but Marilina insisted that she sit with them at the table. If she was to be a personal handmaid to the Princess she would have to start learning the ways of the Princess. Switch was delighted.

She met the King as well who simply adored her. He called her a dear little fawn and all agreed she was a joy to have at the table. There had not been children in the castle for so long. The advisors at the banquet had brought their sons and daughters with them but Switch was still the only child in the room. As she ate mouthful after mouthful of the most delicious food she had ever tasted in her life, she could not help but marvel at her good fortune. That very morning she had awakened in a crawl space behind a garbage can wondering what she would eat today, and now she was in the Kingís castle eating at the table of the King himself. She knew she deserved none of this, but that did not seem to matter to them. They were just happy to take care of her.

In the end all the guests were honored and encouraged as Rosemont had said. They all went away with full stomachs and happy hearts. They would have the strength to fight on for a long while after this night. The King took special care to honor each man and woman at the table with a toast. Switch raised her little cup as well, not really knowing what was going on, but having fun nonetheless.

All men honored the King in turn. They each stood up to share some encouraging anecdote about how the Kingís kindness and generosity had touched their hearts. They took the opportunity to express their gratitude and appreciation for the King they had all nearly lost the day before. Switch was surprised to hear it all. She had not even known who the King was before that day, but he seemed to be a very nice man from what the people were saying about him. She didnít like to think anyone would want to hurt him. There were a lot of bad people in the land though.

Oslind and Marilina also got up and shared their hearts about their father. He was a great man. A man who would do anything for his people. He was like a father to them all. He was exactly what a king should be, and they were proud to be his children. Tears were shed at this sentiment and all agreed that the two had spoken the truth. Switch looked at the King with a new fondness.

After dinner musicians were brought in and the group enjoyed an evening of dancing and singing together as the hours went by. Switch, being shy as she was had to be compelled to dance by Marilina, but was soon going at it with all her heart, enjoying herself and feeling more free than she ever had in her whole life. Free to simply be a child and half fun in the company of friends. She even laughed out loud a few times as she and Marilina spun around the room together while the company clapped and sang along with the musicians. It was the happiest day of Switchís life.

When it was all done, she was taken up to sleep in Marilina's room. She was given bed clothes to wear and a little cot beside the Princessís bed. The lights were snuffed but Switch found she could not sleep. She could not hear the noise of the city. She did not have the pangs of hunger in her stomach that she had lived with every hour of her life. She did not have rats biting at her ankles or bugs crawling on her while she slept. She should have been completely comfortable, but she was not.

"Princess Marenind?" Switch said in the darkened room.

"Yes?" Marilina answered.

"Thanks fer takiní care of meÖ"

"Your welcome, Switch," the Princess answered, and drifted off to sleep.

Somewhere in the night Marilina woke to find Switch in bed with her, snuggled up next to her like a baby, and clenching her night dress in a contented little fist. In the darkness of the room Marilina could not see Switchís bruises and scrapes. She looked just like a normal, tiny little child. Staring down at her in the bed, and thinking about her sad little life story, Marilina fell in love with her. She knew that from this day on she would always take care of this special little girl, no matter what.

Chapter 4: The Story

A few weeks went by and Switch began adjusting to life in Morlind Castle. Her training as a handmaid had begun and she was learning fairly well. There were many other things she had to unlearn as well. She was forbidden to pick her nose, and scratch herself in front of people, for example. She wasnít sure what "unladylike" meant when they corrected her, but she took their word for it and tried her best to break all her bad habits, once she realized they were bad.

The cuts, scrapes, and bruises she had when she had first come to the castle were all but completely gone. Regular bathing, treatments from the nurses, and daily meals went a long way toward healing her of the wounds she had gotten from life on the streets. She was even gaining weight.

She was gradually getting to know the servants in the castle as the days went by. The cooks, the cleaners, the pages, the stewards, the guards, and the nurses to name a few. She spent most of her time with Marilina and Oslind, but the King enjoyed her company as well. She spent a few hours a week with him, playing games and hearing his many stories. She even made friends with the wizard Rosemont, and he never ceased to dazzle her with his many tricks. Slights of hand, and riddles and such. She had the biggest few weeks of her life and she was never bored.

She spent all her other spare time wandering around the castle exploring. Having lived on the street for so long, she couldnít shake the urge to search out every little hiding place she could find. There were crawl spaces under stairs, secret doors behind tapestries, stairways that led up to trap doors underneath rugs in rooms she hadnít even been in. She found squeaky old suits of armor, dusty, weathered paintings of people she had never even heard of, shelves full of books she couldnít read. All in all it was quite an adventure.

On one particular evening, after all her chores were done and her lessons were finally complete, she began her usual itinerary of recreational exploring in a part of the castle she had not yet seen completely. It started with a secret door that opened into the middle of a spiral stair case. The staircase wound up and down a circular tower that she guessed was pretty much in the dead center of the castle. It was dark and kind of cold. It smelled like old wood and dust. Switch clucked her tongue in the darkness, listening for the size of the passageway in the echo that returned. She thrust her little glass lantern up the stairway and down.

"Which way ta go?" she thought to herself.

Going downstairs looked a little scarier, being quite a bit darker, but the stairs leading up had a spooky breathy noise of wind that seemed to moan like a tortured spirit through the hollow stone walls. Switch shuddered. Goose bumps rose from her skin. She decided to head downstairs first.

As silently as a mouse she stepped down the stairs into the darkness, wondering what new secrets she would discover. She was not disappointed. At the bottom of the stairs was a great heavy door that she had to pull open with both hands, and one foot against the wall. It groaned with an irritated creaking noise and finally surrendered to her shoving, grinding open enough for her to squeeze through.

Inside was a dungeon. She stepped into it with a look of astonishment on her face. There were rows of cells on each side of the long hallway with solid wooden doors that had bars for windows, just big enough for someone to show their face through. Switch glanced curiously into each and every cell. They were all empty.

At the very end of the hall was a larger cell. Its door had no window. Pity the poor soul who got himself shut in here. There would be no light at all if the door was closed.

Switch wandered back up to the door she had come in. Next to it was a door she had missed. This one was an ordinary door. Not a prison cell door. Inside this room was a desk and a chair, probably for the prison guard. There was even a rack for weapons. Unfortunately it was empty. At the back of the room was a small closet. No. Not a closet, Switch realized. A toilet. The guard couldnít very well abandon his post to use the bathroom, could he? There was a little bench-like structure with a hole that dropped down into the darkness below. Switch could hear running water down there from far below. Probably the river that went under the castle, she guessed.

Being the sneaky little scamp that she was, however, Switch noticed a small latch on the front of the bench. She unhooked it and lifted the top of the bench. It rotated upward revealing the entire width of the toilet shaft. It was big enough for a man to crawl into and there were groves carved into the stone that made perfect hand and foot holds. Weird. Perhaps the guards had constructed this little escape hatch in case the prisoners got out and tried to kill them. Or perhaps they made it so they could sneak out at night to have a little fun when they were supposed to be on duty. Either way it was more than Switch could resist. She stepped into the hole, climbed down a few steps and closed the bench lid above her. Then she descended into the darkness, clutching the handle of the lantern in her teeth. It was a long way down, and very difficult in the darkness, but she made it, feeling out each hand and foot hold carefully with her hands and feet as she went.

At the bottom was a fairly high drop into the shallows of the river. There was a rope though, that one might use to climb back up into the toilet shaft. Switch did not drop down, though. She doubted she would be able to get back up if she did, and she would probably douse her lantern in the fall. She didnít want to half to walk all the way around to the front of the castle in the dark and ask to be let in after hours.

So she climbed back up only to find the bench had re-latched itself. Now she was stuck. After a momentís thought she decided she could probably reach the latch if she lifted the lantern up through the hole and put it down on the bench. She did so, very carefully and reached one skinny little arm up through the hole to find the latch. Sure enough, there it was. She flipped it open and pressed up on the lid of the bench. Unfortunately her lantern was on the bench and didnít like the sharp upward jerk she had given the surface it sat on. It fell through the hole, clunked her on the head, and tumbled down the toilet shaft into the river below with a small splash. Switch was plunged into complete blackness.

Now it was an adventure.

She just held on there for a moment wondering what she was going to do. She was not afraid of the dark at all. She usually preferred it. Not being able to see meant that other people couldnít see you either. She was accustomed to it after years of hiding out on the streets, in crawl spaces down dark alley ways. It was the only place she felt safe. This was total darkness though, and though she was not afraid of it, she was worried about being able to find her way back to the stairway and up to the door where she had started. This got her heart beating a little bit and she swallowed nervously, trying to visualize the route she had taken into the guard room.

Finally she started out. She flipped the lid completely open and pulled herself out. Then she made her way out of the toilet closet and tip-toed across to where the door to the guard room was. She felt her way along the walls toward the door. She felt the weapon racks, then the desk, the chair, and then the door. She opened it and felt her way along the walls to the large heavy door of the dungeon. It was dead silent in there. The only sounds she heard were her breathing, the pit-pat of her feet on the floor, and the light swishing of her hands along the wall.

She got to the main door and squeezed through it once again. Then she headed up the stairs, slowly and carefully feeling out each step before she took it. Finally she was at the door where she had started from. She poked through it and hurried to get another lantern. There was still the upstairs half to explore.

She ducked back into the stairwell feeling the nervous excitement that exploring gave her. It occurred to her all of the sudden that this was the center tower of the entire castle. It was also the tallest one, if she remembered the outside view of the castle correctly. If she went all the way up she would be able to see the entire kingdom from the windows up there. She headed up the stairs in what felt like a dream-like state. Perhaps it was all the excitement of exploring but she thought her mind was going a little foggy all of the sudden. She found herself in front of an old bookshelf on a landing and realized she had been standing there staring at it in a daze for a long time, and she had the strangest feeling like she had just forgotten something very important. She dismissed it eventually and turned her attention to the bookshelf in front of her.

This was a strange place for someone to put a bookshelf. Who would climb all the way up here just to get a book? She checked carefully and sure enough, they were fake books. She pulled and pushed at them until finally she heard a click. One side of the shelf rotated out into the stairwell a bit, and the other side rotated into the wall. She pressed on it and it turned without resistance, or even sound. The shelf rotated completely around and clicked back into place. She found herself in Rosemontís private chambers. He was sitting there at a desk with his back to her, absorbed in an old tome and scribbling down notes to himself with a quill pen. Switch stood frozen, wondering what to do.

"Found my secret exit, did you, girl?" the Wizard said to her without turning around.

"Datís pretty neat, Wizard Rosemont," Switch said after a moment. "I wish I had one of those in my bedroom."

The wizard put down the pen he was writing with and turned in his chair to face her.

"I use that one when I want to sneak down to the kitchen for an evening nibble," he told her with a smile.

"Howíd ja know I was Ďdere?" Switch asked curiously. She hadnít made a sound.

"I felt a draft all of the sudden. Sorry. Youíre a good sneaker, but there are some things you canít control."

"Howíd ja know it was me?" she asked again, stepping up behind his chair and pushing her cheek into his arm to look at what he was doing.

"Well the only other person who would come sneaking up through a secret entrance would probably be out to kill me. I have a spell that warns me if any assassins are in the castle and since it didnít sound the alert I knew it could only be you."

"íYer pretty smart," Switch grinned, dropping herself on a stool beside the wizardís great chair.

"When youíve been around as long as I have you learn a thing or two."

"Whatícha doiní, Rosemont?" Switch asked gesturing at his piles of books and papers.

"Oh, same as always. Just researching the history of our land, trying to find any solutions to the problem with that bad guy over the mountain."

"Find anyíting good?" she inquired, furrowing her brow up into an angry grimace at the mention of the Dark Wizard.

"Well Iíve managed to confirm for myself that the ideas Iíve come up with so far definitely will not work. So far the one solution I donít like at all seems to be the only feasible one," Rosemont confessed.

Switch wasnít entirely sure what Rosemont was talking about, so she decided to change the subject, hoping he wouldnít notice her confusion.

"Whereíd he come from, Rosemont?" she asked. "Howíd he get here?"

"The Dark Wizard you mean?"

"Yeah,"

Rosemont was very near the conclusion of the matter and he was very tired, but he wanted to be sure he had exhausted all other possibilities before presenting his findings to the King. Here was little Switch looking up at him with bright and shining eyes, her face beaming with curiosity. Rosemont knew that to answer her would be a long story that would take him away from his work, but he welcomed the break. He scooped Switch up and sat her on his knees, showing her the pictures and maps in his books as he told the story.

"Well Switch, as you know the castle of King Morlind III sits on the east-side of a mountain slope, overlooking the town sprawled out across the valley below. The town is also called Morlind in the Kingís honor, and itís set on two banks of the river which runs down from the mountain, right underneath the castle itself."

"I was jusí down Ďdere a while ago," Switch interrupted. "I lost my lantern in the river."

Rosemont patted her on the shoulder, prompting her to listen as he continued.

"Many years ago, when those called grandfathers in the town were mere children, the town was bright and bustling. It was the light of the nation, people said. They spoke of it as though the very streets were paved with gold. They werenít paved at all of course, but people from other far-away towns didnít know that. On the other hand, those who doubted it was a golden city had never seen it lit up like a jewel when the morning sunrise hit its mountain slope each day at dawn."

"Did you ever see Ďdat, Rosemont?"

"I saw one of the last few sunrises over the town once, when I was a very small boy, younger than you even," he answered.

"Wow!" Switch marveled.

"Anyway, it was about that time, when King Morlind I was on the throne, that the Dark Wizard Daklorund was said to have first arrived in the land. He began a plague of evil that exists to this day, first setting himself up in a small abandoned castle on the west-side of the mountains, and then enticing converts from among the good people of Morlind.

Gradually over the years Daklorundís evil spilled out over the mountain into the east-side of the land. It was a subtle evil. Something in the air that got into peopleís hearts and minds. People began to think bad thoughts about one another. They helped each other less and less. They even went out of their way to harm one another occasionally. But nobody knew why, and the once bright shining dawns that woke the city of Morlind each day became dimmer and dimmer as the years went on.

King Morlind I had assembled his wise men and nobles to investigate the matter and after many months of searching they discovered the evil wizardís castle on the other side of their mountain. They had always known it was there but they had thought it abandoned. There was a desert on the west-side of the mountains. Who would want to live there? There was no food or water.

Warriors and wise men sent to investigate returned and reported that it was indeed uninhabited, but unfortunately they had unknowingly been infected by the evil of the wizardís realm. They brought the evil back with them to the peaceful realm of Morlind.

They began to feel excessive anger at first as they headed back to Morlind, and too much self-concern. Selfishness overtook their hearts, and then outright malice. Some of them were able to resist it, but others simply gave in to it. They submitted to its power and it took over.

This was how it started.

Years later their evil had spread throughout the populace. More and more people were dragged into the battle between good and evil as they interacted with those who had given in to the bad from over there. Many lost this battle in their hearts. It was like a sickness, and it was infectious. The idea that a person should look out only for their own interests began to prevail in the land. People loved their neighbors less and less, and years later, by the time Morlind II was on the throne, many had abandoned even the love of their own families. It was sad and scary time."

Switch knew this all too well. The image of her father flashed into her mind and she fought to block it out.

"There were those who won the battle with this sickness of course. Those who discovered the cure naturally and managed to fend off the plague. They found that when the evil attacked their hearts the best thing to do was to resist it deliberately and forcefully. To do the opposite of what this sickness wanted them to. They shared with friends when the evil wanted them to be selfish. They told the truth when the evil wanted them to lie. They loved instead of hating. They took the hard road when others took the easy way.

Such a constant battle is hard on the heart though, and many were worn down to weakness. They eventually took the easiest paths as well, giving in to the relentless evil that pounded at their hearts and minds everyday. They stopped resisting at first, just letting the evil win now and then, and after a while, when the evil won enough of their hearts, they began to become evil themselves, and resisted doing good. That was how the battles went. Thatís how souls are lost.

When enough people had become evil, the battles were won more swiftly. The evil became thick wickedness, and the skies over Molind darkened even more. The people turned bad, and everyday stories were told of worse and worse acts of horrible deeds that made little children cry, and mothers fear. The fathers began to lock their doors at night."

Switch shuddered. Rosemont continued.

"By the time Morlind III assumed the throne the evil had spread completely through the land. There was not a man, woman, or child left who was not touched by it, who didnít fight the battle every single day to keep their hearts pure.

It was during Morlind IIIís reign that Daklorund made his first appearance. A band of miners came down from the mountain one afternoon, ragged and tattered, as though they had been through a horrible war. They screamed and raved through the town about a dark monster-man who had attacked them. When news of their arrival reached the King they were summoned to Morlind Castle to appear before the King and his advisors. They bowed before him and told their tale. This is what they told him."

Rosemont unfurled a scroll and read to Switch.

ĎYour majesty, we must confess that we have deceived the people, but we do not wish to deceive you. The man we encountered was no monster. He was dark and handsome, and spoke smoothly. He offered us food at our camp and we accepted not knowing who he was at first. We thought him a friendly stranger from another realm. But he soon revealed his true nature to us and it was pure evil. You could feel the evil coming off of him the way you feel heat standing next to a fire.

He began to speak of great powers, and pleasures, and wealth and luxury, and everything a manís heart could desire. He talked to us about the true happiness in life being in self preservation, in looking after oneís own interests and destroying anyone who got in your way. He spoke of power to defeat any enemies who dared to interfere with our own basic rights to serve our own pleasures, or something like that. We did not trust him, majesty. We have seen enough evil in our kingdom to know that that was no route to happiness.

He invited us back to his castle but we politely declined. He told us he was always ready to help if we ever changed our minds. He said we need only come visit him on the other side of the mountain. Then he faded off into the night.

As we returned to the city we all agreed that he was the source of the evil that has befallen this land since the time of our grandfathers. We also agreed that no one should ever be seduced into going over to the west-side of the mountain to partake in his evil kingdom. Forgive our presumption, majesty, but we decided to concoct a story about him being an evil monster. We hoped that the fear of him would keep people away from his side of the mountain forever. So we stopped by the river and wounded each other and tore apart our clothes. This is how we came to be in this condition.í

ĎYou have done well,í King Morlind replied after a momentís thought. The notion occurred to us that perhaps they were on the side of evil and were attempting to deceive the King, but we soon rejected it. Being miners they had not been exposed to the evil of the city enough to be infected by it. Perhaps if they had, they might have accepted this strangerís insidious offers and returned with him to this realm he spoke of.

ĎWe hope your tale of horror will scare some goodness into the populace once again,í King Morlind said, and he dismissed them with generous gifts of appreciation.

The minersí horror story had no effect on the city though. The next day a rabble of men set off up the mountain to hunt down this beast the miners had spoken of and they returned with an opposing story. They told tales in the towns taverns of a man who had promised them great riches, power, and pleasures, a kingdom of their own. It was after that that people started leaving Morlind for the west-side of the mountain, and the people who left never returned."

Switch shuddered again.

"Those who stayed continue in their daily battle against the evil that wants to take over their hearts. Fear is spreading over the land as well. Some cling to the story that it is in fact a horrible beast over there seducing people with empty promises and devouring them when they went over. Others are convinced that this stranger is in fact merely a man with a very smooth tongue, and those who did not return had merely found a better life in his realm."

"What da you Ďtink he is?" Switch asked nervously.

"As far as I know. He is just a man, but he has powers that make him scarier than a monster. Most monsters can be defeated with swords or magic, but when the evil gets into your heart who can save you?"

"No one should go over Ďder," Switch commented. "Ever!"

"Iím in agreement with you on that one, Switch," Rosemont said. He patted her on the head and set her down on the floor once again. The story was done and she had lots to think about. She thanked him for it and headed out the door.

She felt frightened all of the sudden, though. More frightened than she had been when she was in the pitch-black dungeon under the castle. She suddenly needed to see Oslind. He always comforted her when she was scared. He taught her that doing good gave him courage, because it kept the evil out of his heart. She needed some of that courage now.

Her favorite part of each day was the time she spent with him. Heíd held true to his promise to teach her to be good. In spite everything he had to do each day, he still made time to meet with her each day before it all got started. She sat outside his bedroom door every morning waiting for him to get up. They would have breakfast together and she would ask him a million questions. He seemed to have an answer for every one of them, even if the answer was the name of someone who knew more about the question than he did. Switch loved those mornings with her friend Oslind.

She found him in his bedroom that evening and immediately gave him a very clingy hug. He asked her what was the matter and she told him about the story Rosemont had told her.

"Thatís a good story," Oslind answered. "I remember when he told me that one."

"Itís a good story for da morning time. Not when ya hafta get goiní ta bed pretty soon," Switch argued sadly.

"Donít be afraid, Switch," Oslind said, patting her on the head. "Thereís nothing to fear here in the castle."

Thatís when Switch finally asked him why people at the castle were so nice compared to people in the city. The cruelty of the streets was all she had ever known. People were indifferent at best, and out-right malicious to one another at worst, and Switch had often felt the brunt of it, being a helpless little waif with no one to take care of her.

People in the castle however, were nice to each other. They were genuinely concerned, and helped one another, even when there was nothing to be gained in return. It seemed very strange to her, she felt like she was in another world. A very, very nice world. It confused her though and she found herself suspicious sometimes, wondering if people in the castle were really sincere when they said a kind word to her. Then she would feel bad for mistrusting them. After a long while, she had decided she would ask Oslind about it.

"Oslind, how come people at da castle is so nice, but people in the town arenít?"

"To be honest with you, Switch," Oslind replied. "Itís people in the castle who are normal, and the folks out in the street have got everything backwards. You just didnít notice because mean people were all youíd ever known."

"I donít know whaícha mean," Switch responded.

"Well a long, long time ago in the land of Morlind, everyone was nice to one another the way we are up in the castle here. But then something bad happened and people started being mean all the time."

"It was Ďdat bad guy over Ďda mountain, right?" Switch said with her head cocked to one side.

"Yup," Oslind said. "Iím sure Rosemont told you all about him."

"Whyín cha jusí kill Ďim, Oslind?" Switch suggested bluntly.

"Iím sure weíd like to, but the problem is, whenever we send people over there to get him, the people we send end up turning really bad too, and they donít get the job done. It seems the closer you get to the bad guy over there, the more his power changes your heart."

"Oh," Switch said. "But dat still doesnít say how come everyoneís still nice at the castle. Yer closter to the bad guy den da people in da town. You should all be badder den everyone up here."

"Thatís a good point, Switch," Oslind commented. "I suppose the difference is that we are more aware of the problem in the land, so we can try harder to be good."

Switch furrowed her brow.

"We also help each other to be good everyday. If someone makes a mistake we can tell them to be good. Very few people tell each other to be good in the city."

"Yeah," Switch grinned. "Datís fer sure."

"It also helps to have you around, Switch," Oslind went on.

"How come?"

"Itís a funny thing to have a bad thought in your heart and then see a small child like you, who never had anyone treat them any good. It makes you just want to be the best you can somehow. Iím not sure if you know what I mean."

"I tink so, Oslind," Switch said. "I saw the King lookít really upset a few times, and den when I came to say hi he cheeríded up agin."

"I think Rosemont is also helping us all a great deal. He has very strong magic that protects us somewhat from the evil that comes over the mountains."

"Heís a nice man, idínt he, Oslind?" Switch smiled.

"Heís gonna find a way to get us all out of this mess, I think," Oslind answered.

"I hope so," Switch concluded.

Oslind carried her to her bed and kissed her goodnight. She fell asleep and dreamed of the guard room and the toilet shaft. Only this time Oslind was inside the lantern. He was giving off the light that guided her through the darkness. She woke up with a horrified start when the lantern fell. Down, down into the darkness, end over end, in slow motion. She even thought she heard him say goodbye.

Chapter 5: The Wizard

After a long night of meditation, and consultation with the White Stone, the wizard Rosemont had concluded the final details. It was a drastic solution to say the least and it took all of his will power to accept the truth of it as the answers came to him. When he awoke that morning he steeled his nerves and summoned the King.

"Let us eat first, my friend," Rosemont suggested. He had spent quite a long time reading, researching, meditating, wringing his hands, worrying, and even weeping over the plan he had come up with, and he had missed out on quite a few meals because of it. Now that it was all settled in his heart, and he was certain there was no other way, he resigned himself to the situation and decided to comfort his soul with food, in the pleasure of the Kingís company.

The King had a hearty meal brought up to the wizardís quarters and they talked idly about the simple affairs of the castle as they ate. Children of certain servants were caught up in a romance, and would be wed, a friend of the cookís and fallen over the balustrade and splashed into the river after drinking too much wine, and other such light hearted stories that helped each man to forget his own troubles.

Finally when they had each swallowed the last mouthful of breakfast, they turned the discussion to the matter at hand. The King knew that this was the day the wizard would reveal the great plan he had been working on. He also knew that whatever it was, it troubled the wizard greatly, so he indulged his request of a good meal, in spite of his eagerness to hear the story.

"Iíve been locked away in this study of mine for so long I hardly know the state of affairs in the kingdom. The only visitor Iíve had other than servants is that little Switch."

"She is pleasant company, isnít she?" the King smiled.

"Yes she is. She helps to remind me of what the fight is all about."

"She does do that," Morlind agreed.

"How are things in the land? Have they gotten much worse?"

"Quite a bit, Rosemont," the King said soberly. "The guards complain of more and more trouble with citizens in the city streets."

"Indeed," said Rosemont. "I have heard the occasional tumult, even from up here. There will soon be mass rioting I think."

"Taxes and tribute payments are decreasing each month. Violence has escalated. There are no longer any safe neighborhoods. Each week I send more and more guards out on patrol and each week, each shift returns with greater tales of trouble."

There was a momentís silence between them.

"Have you figured out where we can find this hero you spoke of?" the King asked solemnly.

"Yes, your majesty. I have," Rosemont replied, dropping his eyes to the floor.

"Why havenít you said anything sooner?"

"Forgive me, Majesty. The answer to our problem has deeply troubled me, and I wanted to be absolutely sure there is no other way. You will know everything by the end of this conversation. I assure you."

"Well let us begin then," the King said, sitting back in Rosemontís favorite chair. He looked comfortable enough sitting in a relaxed posture with his hands folder calmly across his stomach, but inside he was full of anxiety. Whatever this plan was, it had troubled Rosemont terribly. Surely it would disturb the King himself even more, but he was ready to hear it. They must bring the evil in the land to an end no matter what the cost.

"Well, as I said," the wizard began. "The White Stone has indicated that there is not a hero to be found in this whole world, but we must still find one. This apparent paradox puzzled me greatly, until I began to ask better questions. You see the White Stone gives no direct answers, it merely glows brighter according to the degree of truth in a statement presented to it. Most of my research has involved me finding the answers and merely verifying the validity of my conclusions in conference with the Stone."

Rosemont reached into his robes and fished out the Stone to show the King. It hung on a heavy gold chain around his neck, clutched by a golden claw. It flashed and flickered subtly throughout their conversation, lighting their faces periodically with its customary white light.

"So you have discovered where we can find the hero?" the King asked eagerly.

"Iím afraid itís not as simple as that, majesty," Rosemont replied. "I would it were a simple matter of journeying to a far away country and finding a worthy man. I exhausted that possibility myself, spinning in circles with my finger pointed outward and asking the Stone if the hero was in this direction or that. Finally little Switch gave me a great insight into my error. I was standing in the great hall downstairs spinning in all directions, getting quite dizzy and demanding the Stone for clearer answers, when she walked in and asked me what in the world I was doing. She said those exact words. ĎWhat in da world are ya doiní?í I stared at her for a moment and suddenly burst out laughing. She was right! What in the world was I looking for? If there was indeed a hero, and he is nowhere to be found in the world, then there has to be other worlds in which we must search for him. At this the Stone glowed brilliantly, as if rewarding me for finally Ďgetting ití."

"Other worlds?" the King asked incredulously.

"Yes, majesty. The hero we seek exists in another world. Daklorundís power has vanquished all heroism from this one. I immediately began researching this new avenue of truth. My first thought was that it was impossible. What a great distance to travel! How long it would take to get to this other world! But the Stone eventually showed me that concepts such as distance and time in this world are irrelevant in the matter. Itís a whole other world! What has time and space got to do with it? Itís not as though one would set out on a journey to get there."

"So itís impossible then," Morlind said.

"By what means of travel do you think it is impossible?" the wizard challenged him. "On horseback? By boat? Flying from a great catapult up into the stars? Yes. It would be impossible by these means. You must remember that we are not talking about the reality of our world here."

"I donít understand," the King admitted.

"What we need is a portal, majesty," Rosemont told him. "A magical doorway into this other world, through which a man can pass and begin his search for the hero."

"Do you have magic that powerful?" the King asked doubtfully.

"Yes, majesty. Magic that powerful does exist, and yes I do have it. We all do."

"What do you mean? We are not all wizards!"

"No we are not. But we all have power enough to open this magic portal."

"Explain," the wizard demanded flatly. He did not like being confused.

"Once I discovered the concept of the portal I sadly realized that there is not enough power in the whole world to open it. What would I use? Lightning? Wind? Explosives? These kinds of things could blow a hole open in a wall through which a man might walk, but they could never open a hole in space and time. The portal requires infinitely more power than that."

"And you have found such a power?" Morlind asked.

"Yes. As I said, it is a power we all possess," the wizard replied.

"So it must be quite simple then!"

Rosemont paused. The King waited excitedly, his thoughts ran to a many possible things a man might have that is powerful enough to fuel such great magic. Will power? Intelligence? Physical strength?

"Yes and no, majesty," the wizard answered eventually. "The solution is simple. The application of it is not."

"Go on then," the King urged him. He fidgeted in his seat with great agitation.

"The power we all possess is our very life. Each man, woman and child is a great strength in the universe. Every thing we do, everyday has the power to change things, either for bad or for good. There is no such thing as a small, or useless person. We are all the champions in varying degrees. Some have power grand enough to alter reality itself, if they but recognize it, harness it, and apply it to their will, and others have power merely to alter the course of their day. One man might take it upon himself to change the world as easily as another might decide to walk to the local tavern and get drunk. The difference is in will, application, and fate."

"Fate?" the King asked.

"Yes, fate. A personís station in life determines the extent to which they can use the power of their life force. You as King, for example, have authority to send thousands to their deaths. You have this power immediately, at your fingertips. Others must work their whole lives to gain such influence. Another man simply has power over himself, and can only alter his own reality."

The King listened raptly. He was amazed at these notions the wizard was explaining to him.

"The smallest citizen, Switch, for example, has more power in her being than all the might of your crown and throne. She is a human being, full of thoughts, ideas, energy, and emotion. She has the power to alter the very universe. As do you, Oslind, Marilina, and everyone else. But her power could only be fully realized if she were given the authority to implement her thoughts, ideas, and emotions freely."

"But thatís impossible!" the King objected. "Even as King I canít just wave my hand around and cause a door to be opened into another world."

"I didnít say that you could. I didnít say you have the power. Perhaps a better way to say it is you are the power."

Morlindís thoughts balked. He didnít like the sound of that.

"As I said," Rosemont continued, "the application of this power is not simple. It requires a personís entire life to open the door."

"That long? The kingdom will be destroyed by then!" Molind retorted.

"Sorry, majesty. You misunderstood me. What I mean is it requires a personís entire life force to open this portal."

"And what happens to them after that?"

"Iím afraid itís over for them, majesty. Their life force is spent in opening the portal and they are destroyed in doing it."

The King dreaded what was to come.

"Who will open the portal then?" he asked.

"The person to do it must have enough power in their life. This power comes not only from everything that they are, but also everything that they could be if given the chance. A man who is destined to do great things in this world, both through his own choices and actions and the choices fate makes for him, has more power than another who simply lives out his life and dies alone. Human lives are the greatest power in the universe, but some hold greater power than others."

"Who will open the portal, wizard?" the King demanded impatiently.

"Two are required, majesty. One to open the first portal, and another to go through, find the hero, and open a second portal so the hero can come back to us."

The King sighed heavily. He fought a driving panic that was trying to take him over.

"Which two?" he breathed shakily.

"Iím afraid I must be one of them," Rosemont answered.

Silence descended into the room. Morlindís face went slack and lost all color, as though the very life had been drained from him.

"And Prince Oslind must go through to seek the hero and bring himÖ."

The wizard trailed off. The King had risen from his chair and moved away, as though the pain shooting through his heart radiated from the wizard himself. He staggered to a nearby table and fell across it. Sorrow and anger pulsed through him, and then despair as the truth stretched its way into his mind.

"No, not my dear son. Say any name but his."

"Iím sorry majesty. His lifeÖ His power as the future KingÖ His skill with weapons and warfareÖThe strength of his heartÖHis honorÖ."

The King sounded angrier now as his mind tried to wrestle the idea from reality. "Not my dear beloved son, please. Not my sonÖ"

"Itís the only way," Rosemont said. The White Stone brightened in agreement.

Morlind turned to the wizard. Tears were flowing freely down his cheeks. Rosemontís heart broke that moment. He had never seen the King so sad.

"Youíre telling me I have to give up my one and only son to save my people from their own evil hearts?" the King asked.

Rosemont simply nodded. He could not speak. He was paralyzed by the Kingís tears.

"I will go myself. I will not let him die!" Morlind cried desperately.

"That wonít work. You must run the kingdom, majesty. And your life force is simply insufficient in your old ageÖ"

"How do we know this plan will even work? What if we go through all of this and the hero is not even found, or refuses to come back to Morlind?"

"The plan will work. The White Stone confirms it. You must believe me that I have considered all these possibilities myself and a thousand others besides. This is the only way."

Tears flowed freely down Rosemontís face as well. He had tried his best to prepare himself for this meeting, but it had turned out to be impossible. He could not bear to see the King so distraught. It hurt him more than the notion of his own demise in this plan.

"There must be some other way! There has to be! And you, my best friend! To lose you as well. I would sooner part with my entire kingdom!"

"Doing so would resign every man woman and child to the evil of the Dark Wizard. We can not even consider that possibility. We have the power to save them, majesty. I am determined to save them, and so should you be."

Morlind finally broke down completely. He thrashed his arms angrily across Rosemontís desk, wiping the table top clear of its months of refuse. He knocked his forehead onto the desktop and pulled at his hair. Then he fell to the floor, racked with sobs. The full realization of it finally hit him. He knew Rosemont was right, and there was nothing he could do about it. He could not simply let his people die. But how could he sacrifice his own son? It was too much for his mind and heart to take. And how would Marilina deal with it? She loved Oslind more than her own life. She would rather die than see him suffer. The King laid on the floor for a long time pouring out his sorrow in frustrated tears of utter despair. His whole world had darkened almost to blackness.

Rosemont sat down on the floor beside him amid the piles of scattered parchments and books, and patted his friendís arm.

"It seems impossibly hard, majesty, but consider the souls that will be saved. If for no other reason, consider Marilina growing old in a kingdom without evil. Where the sun shines once again and the stars come out at night. Where children can walk the streets safely, and every poor soul hungry is cared for. Think of the shining smiles. Think of the laughter, and peace in the land. Think of the hearts and minds of every man devoted to good once again."

Morlindís heart lightened somewhat at this. He was sure Rosemont clung to this possible future himself and kept himself going with the hope of it. Here was a man ready to give his own life for strangers who would probably rob him and leave him for dead if they got the chance. And his son as well. He had not even considered the possibility that Oslind might say no to this plan. He would struggle with it, but ultimately he would agree. He would give up his life for the people, even if for no other reason than that his father wished it. He was a good man.

This thought made King Morlind cry once more. Minutes passed as the two men fought drowning in the anguish of their thoughts

"This hero had better be worth it," the King said eventually.

The White Stone glowed brightly in answer.

Morlind and Rosemont smiled at each other and then laughed a little.

"Everything will be alright in the end, Majesty," Rosemont said. "I promise."

"Come letís go down to the garden," Morlind answered. "I need to get some air."

After they were gone a small shadow, about the size of a little girl slipped out from behind a curtain and disappeared behind a book shelf and down a flight of stairs. There were tears in her eyes but she fought them off with an enraged snarl. Her best friend Oslind, who had promised to take care of her, would be leaving. She felt abandoned once again. She felt betrayed. She decided there really was no good in the world after all. She gave up the fight and the evil pushed its way into her heart.

Chapter 6: The Choice

Oslind woke the next morning with a start. Something was wrong. For the first few moments he couldnít put his finger on it. He swung his feet over the side of the bed in a sleepy fog. The floor was cold against his blanket-warmed feet. He sat there for a minute trying to wake up, and figure out what was wrong. His head turned toward the door.

It finally came to him. Where was Switch? She was normally knocking on his door first thing in the morning. He had gotten used to her being the one to wake him up, but there had been no knock this morning. So he had slept in. Thatís what was wrong! Where was she?

He got out of bed and stretched tiredly. There was a basin of cool water in the corner the servants had prepared the night before. He went to it and splashed the water into his face and neck. He toweled himself dry, went out the door and got ready for the bath the servants had prepared for him. As he cleaned himself he could not help wondering where Switch was.

Soon he was dressed and heading down to breakfast.

"Has anyone seen Switch this morning?" he asked a serving maid.

"No, sir," she replied. "Would you like to have her paged?"

"Iím sure sheíll turn up," Oslind commented. He decided that maybe she had slept in as well, or was busy running around in the castle somewhere. He would have searched her out himself if he did not have an appointment with his father and Rosemont that morning.

He had been called to the Kingís private quarters and informed of the meeting the night before. He was told nothing about it except that it was very important and he should get a good nightís sleep.

Perhaps Switch had been told to let him rest. Yes! That must be it. Oslind finished his breakfast, satisfied with this hypothesis, and headed up to the meeting.

Morlind looked at him with a restrained joy when he entered. There was also a hint of sadness in his look that troubled Oslind.

"Good morning, father," he said.

"Good morning, dear son," he said happily. He grabbed the youth by the shoulders and embraced him. Oslind was bothered once again.

"Have you had a good rest?"

"Yes I have," he said. "A little too much I think."

"And a good meal?"

"That too," Oslind replied. "Whatís the matter, father, that I should need a good rest and a good meal to hear it?"

"Rosemont will be along shortly," the King answered. "Heíll explain everything."

Sure enough, Rosemont did explain everything. He arrived and the three men sat down. For what seemed like hours the wizard explained the plan to Oslind in great detail while Morlind sat in pained silence. Oslind was stunned as the magnitude of the whole idea dawned on him. Two people would be needed. Used as portals, and destroyed. It was brilliant and horrible at the same time.

"And who else is to go through this portal?" he asked near the end of it. "I gather you need two people. Myself and another."

"You are a smart young man," Rosemont commented.

"I assume you need me to go. As the future King I must hold plenty of this fate power you speak of. This is why I was called to this meeting, was it not?"

Oslind kept his eyes fixed on Rosemont. He could not bring himself to even glance at his father, who he knew must be absolutely broken hearted by this plan.

Rosemont nodded gravely.

"I will be the other portal," he told the Prince. "I will open the first portal. You will pass through my life force to the other world, the world the hero is in. You must find this great hero and convince him to return to Morlind."

"How does it work?" Oslind asked. "How are these portals opened?"

"I have concocted a potion that gathers a personís life force into a great ball of energy. I will drink it first, and when you see the portal open wide enough you must take a running start and dive through. It is your will that will direct you to the destination, as I will be unable to concentrate on anything."

A distraught sigh escaped Morlind from the other side of the room.

"You must focus on your destination as you run. Tell yourself to travel to wherever the hero is. To a place near him. An isolated place where no one will see you appear through the portal on the other side. You must then begin a search for this hero. The White Stone will assist you. I will give it to you, and you will give it to the hero before he returns. Perhaps it will help to convince him to return with you. In any case, I will not be needing it anymore. It will serve as a sign to the King when the hero returns with it. You must explain all these things to the hero when you meet him. Do you understand?"

There was a long silence. Oslind nodded hesitantly.

"It will be a great adventureÖ" He tried to say. His voice broke into a battle with emotion.

"Yes, it will," Rosemont agreed.

"Does-" Oslind swallowed hard, forcing himself to get out what he had to say. "Have you told Marilina about any of this? Or Switch?"

"Not yet," Rosemont said. "We wanted to be sure you agreed to all of this before we distress them. You do agree to it, donít you?"

Oslind got up from the chair and headed for the window. Then he headed for the door. Then he headed back to the chair again. His thoughts were a mess. His heart was heavy with panicked sorrow. The two men watched him, waiting for a response.

"There is no other way?" he asked desperately. "Do people have to die for this ugly mess?"

"There is no other way," Rosemont confirmed.

"I- I mean, are these people worth the lives of two great men?", Oslind punched the back of the chair in frustration. It jostled on its four legs. "Are they worth the pain this will cause Marilina, and- and my father, and Switch?!?"

The King rushed forward and grabbed his sonís shaking shoulders.

"They will be," he said, "after we have won."

"And you are willing to send us to die for them?" Oslind asked his father, half infuriated, but a little amazed as well.

"I would not have a single hair on your head harmed, my son," Morlind replied with tears running freely down his face. "You are my greatest treasure in the world. And Rosemont is my truest friend. But I love this people more than life itself. If I could go in your place I would. I begged Rosemont to find a way to make it possible, but he could not. You are the only one who can go."

"No!" Oslind snapped. "I canít do that to Marilina! I canít abandon Switch!"

He turned in anger and headed for the door.

"Will you abandon them to a life time to evil then?" Rosemont said to him. "Daklorundís power will only grow stronger! Soon it will conquer us all-"

But Oslind was gone.

"His own anger will decide the issue for him I think," Rosemont said. "It will guide him into doing whatís right."

A deep, frustrated anger churned in Oslindís guts. The fury of a man being rendered helpless, bound to a fate he had not chosen for himself. He had wanted honor, glory, and great victories in battles that would be told for generations to come. Not this! Not an ignominious death, merely passing the torch on to someone greater than himself.

And how could he break Marilinaís heart like that? How could he abandon everyone who needed him for someone he didnít even know, someone he didnít trust. How did they know this plan would even work? Could there possibly be any greater heroes than those already in Morlind? Hardsly? Rosemont? Himself?

And what were they fighting for? A flock of street scum who would just as soon stab them in the back and leave them for dead. The low-lifes who would batter and abuse a little girl, and spit in the Princeís face. No way! These were not worth it. Let them all die!

For a second Oslind realized the Dark Wizardís evil was gaining a foothold in his heart with these thoughts, and for a moment he thought to resist it, if only out of habit. Another part of him however, felt completely comfortable sinking into the mire of anger and bitterness and rage. Why fight it? The fight would never end.

"Oslind!" Marilina called out to him as he strode through the castle toward the training facilities. The Prince turned toward her. She was running to him.

"Oslind!" she cried. "Switch has stolen from me. She took some of my jewelry and has fled back into the city!"

"What?!?" Oslind snapped.

"I donít know what got into her. She didnít come to bed last night. When I saw her yesterday she was in a bit of a sour mood and when I woke up this morning she was gone. Her bed had not even been slept in. I searched the whole castle for her, but I couldnít find her. Then when I went to get dressed I noticed some of my jewelry was missing."

Oslind stumbled backward and fell against the wall. Not Switch. She couldnít have. His heart ached in his chest. Not SwitchÖWhy now?

"Please, Oslind," you have to find her. "Sheís not safe in the city with that much jewelry. Sheíll be robbed, or worse."

This snapped Oslind out of his shock. He jumped up and hurried toward the armory. "Iíll find her!" he promised.

Marilina wrung her hands in panic. "Take some men with you," she called after him. "The streets arenít safe anymore. Donít go alone."

Oslind didnít answer. He would go alone. He hoped to get into a fight today. The rage burning inside him needed release.

He arrived at the armory, looked around at the armor and weapons, and then decided to skip it all. All he needed was his sword.

He went to his bedroom and got it. He tied his scabbard to his belt as he hurried out of the castle. He would find Switch, and bring her back. He would kill anyone who dared to harm her.

The day was darkly overcast as always, and hot and muggy as well. The whole city boiled like a cauldron of tension. He could hear it from the balustrade as he trotted down the steps. The disgruntled murmur of the populace, punctuated by the occasional angry shout or burst of riotous laughter, drifted up to him, and grew louder as he approached the city. It was exciting and scary at the same time. But Oslind was ready.

Where would he possibly find her in this mad throng? It was a bustling day. People bumped and jostled one another as they made their way through the streets. Sweaty faces and angry words were everywhere. Oslind saw no children at all. He saw the occasional fist fight tumble out of shops and taverns as he passed by. He saw men groping women as they hurried along on their way to wherever they were going. He saw a man lashing his horse in a fit of rage as the poor animal struggled to drag its cart out of a rut. The man threw down the whip and fell to punching it in the shoulder and ribs when it was unable to move any further. Oslind did not like to see an animal treated so cruelly, but he had more urgent matters to attend to. The man kicked the horse in the side of the leg and it fell down with a terrified scream. Several passers-by laughed.

Weíre these people worth saving? Sweat trickled flowed down Oslindís temple as he shook his head in anger once again.

The seamstress shop! Oslind thought suddenly. That was were he had first met Switch. She was sure to have gone back to her old neighborhood. He headed for the street where he had first met her.

She was not there. Oslind turned about, scanning for anyone shorter than 5 feet tall who might have any idea where she was. A man brushed by him rudely, knocking him out of his way as he went.

"Hey!" Oslind objected in heated frustration. "Watch it!"

The man cursed him and hurried along his way.

Oslind turned about again and saw the alley where Switch had run into when she had first snatched Marilinaís dress. He headed toward it. Following in the footsteps he had taken that day he brought himself to the very same alley where he had confronted the thug. The alley of her secret hide-away.

Sure enough he heard the same little scream he had heard that first day. It was her! He dashed around the corner, almost slipping on a smear of rubbish in the alley and looked toward the sound he had heard. He saw a group of men, five of them, and Switch on the ground between them. Oslindís sword flashed into the daylight of the alley and he bolted toward them. One man had the cloth bundle with Marilinaís jewelry in it tucked under his arm. Another man, on his knees, had ripped Switchís clothes off and was forcing her legs apart. She screamed again.

Something snapped inside of Oslind. This was the exact scene he had seen the day his mother was killed. He broke into a full sprint and was upon the distracted group of men before they had a chance to turn around. The sword exploded out of the chest of first man he got to, and before the others could even look up to see why he had grunted, it was twisted, yanked out and thrust through a second man. Blood erupted forth as the sword emerged from the second manís stomach and sprayed across the back of the kneeling manís head. The first man crumpled to the ground, not even yet aware of what had happened.

"Wha-" a third man yelped finally realizing that they were under attack. Oslind yanked his sword from the second manís body and kicked the back of his knees. He was thrown backward and his agonized scream was cut short when the back of his head smacked the cobblestone alley with a loud crack.

Meanwhile the third man had drawn his dagger and the kneeling man was leaping to his feet, tripping over Switch. The fourth man turned to flee seeing his two fellows down already. Oslind swung his sword upward in a swiftly curving arc and severed the hand of the man holding the dagger. The dagger flipped into the air and the man stumbled backward in shock. Oslind snatched the spinning weapon from the air and flung it toward the fleeing man. It stuck to the hilt in the manís back with a strange thumping sound, and he stumbled forward and fell into a pile of trash. Switch dashed behind a pile of rubbish.

The man who had been holding the dagger had apparently not yet realized his hand was gone. He made a reflexive stabbing motion in Oslindís direction and blood jetted from the stump of his wrist in streaming arcs that splashed all over the men in the alley. Oslind swung downward with his sword and sliced the manís severed arm in two, lengthwise, down to the elbow. The blade lodged itself between the bones of the manís forearm and Oslind held him there. He was locked in a prison of agony and was able only to kick weakly toward Oslindís shins before dropping helplessly to his knees. Short little whimpers escaped him while Oslind waited, allowing him to suffer for a few moments before he killed him. The man cursed in a strangled yelp. Oslind gave his sword a sharp twist and the manís forearm bone snapped away from his elbow with a sloppy crunching sound. The thug screamed in pain that couldnít adequately be expressed by his animalistic cry of torture. Oslind tugged his sword free and one half of the manís arm flopped limply downward like a broke twig. The whole arm was a mess of blood and gore.

Somehow the horror of it did not phase Oslind. He found himself merely annoyed by the manís screaming. It made his head throb. He had to silence him. The Prince swung at him and cut sideways across his neck, slicing a wide smile shape into the flesh of his throat. Blood splashed outward onto Oslind as the manís head fell backward, no longer attached to the rest of his body. It reminded Oslind of the way a tree fell when you had cut enough of the trunk away. His body crumpled to the floor of the alley. Finally Oslind turned to face the last man, the would-be rapist.

It was the same thug he had confronted in this same alley a few weeks ago. The same thug who had spit in his face. The man was shaking violently, and cowering against the wall of the building.

"Please," he begged, tossing away his knife. "Donít hurt me. Please have mercyÖ."

Oslind looked at him with contempt. His very life was a tragic mistake. Why had he even been born? He was a waste of everything his life required.

"I have something of yours," Oslind told him. "I wanted to return it."

The man dropped his hand from his face to look at Oslind. Oslind spit in his face.

It suddenly dawned on him who Oslind was and he fell to the alley floor screaming, knowing he would not be allowed to live. Oslind raised his sword to strike him down but suddenly heard a holler from his right. He looked.

The man with the dagger in his back had gotten back up and was charging toward him with a dagger of his own raised high above his head. Oslind stepped aside and dropped to his knees, cutting the manís legs off at the knee as he maniacally charged by. The stumps of the manís legs hit the cobblestones with a painful grinding of bone on stone and he actually took a couple of steps on the severed legs as his momentum carried him forward. He fell to the pavement and collapsed forward onto his stomach. Oslind went to him, tugged the dagger out of his back lifted his face from the alley, and stabbed the knife into the front of his face. He left the dagger there in the dead manís face and turned back to the cowering thug. He had slowly gotten up and had almost made a run for it, but Oslind caught him by the hair and dragged him back toward the massacre.

Oslind threw him against the wall and began slicing pieces off of him in a fit of controlled fury. The screams that echoed all the way down the alley were drowned out by the din of the mob, and nobody even noticed that a man was being brutally hacked to pieces down the alleyway as they hurried about their business. Oslind took his time with him, remembering the humiliation of being spit upon, the names the man had called him, and the stink of him. He chopped off of pieces of him one by one until the man was just a mass of squirming stumps. Then he stabbed forward with one final thrust and nailed the manís head to the wall. His body jerked and twitched at this and Oslind shook his blade free. Then he thrust through the manís chest, ending his life once and for all. He pulled his sword away and spat on him again.

It was then that he heard a little girl crying.

Oslindís froze. His body went weak and his sword dropped from his hand, falling to the ground with a metallic clatter. He turned to look, still panting from his exertion, and saw Switch. She had her hands buried in her face, covering her eyes, and she was sobbing brokenly. Five men were dead, piled in pools of blood around Oslindís feet and the small child had seen it all. He had brutally butchered them in front of her and he suddenly felt a crushing weight of shame. What had he done?

Suddenly he remembered his promise to his mother. Never again would he lose his temper. Never again would he betray his honor as a soldier. Never again. But he had done it.

A glob of blood fell from his hair onto his face. It was still warm.

Oslind clutched his fists to his temples and screamed in agony. Then he dropped to his knees and his hands fell weakly into his lap. He sat astonished. Heíd been beaten by the Dark Wizard again.

Switch sobbed quietly a few feet away.

"SwitchÖ. I-"

She sobbed louder, cutting him off, shaking her head in disbelief.

"I tíoght you was good," she cried. "I tíoght you was good!"

"I came to look for you, Switch," he said, nearing tears now himself. "I wanted to bring you home."

But he knew this was a lie as soon as the words left his mouth. He had come out here looking for a fight. He found one alright, and he would never be the same again. Nor would Switch.

"I donít wanna go wit you," Switch said coldly. "Youíre a very bad manÖ"

Oslind hung his head in defeat. He had been this girlís whole world. Her idol. She had looked up to him as a great tower of goodness and strength, and now he had destroyed all that. Now he had sentenced her to a life without hope. Somehow he felt like he had killed her too.

"Iím sorry, Switch," he cried. He went to move toward her, to touch her, to hug her, to beg her forgiveness.

"Donít touch me," she snapped. "Get away from me."

Oslind got up, slipped slightly on a smear of blood under his feet, and backed away from her. He looked around and saw a rain barrel a short distance away. He went to it and began scrubbing and washing himself. His hand, his arms, his face and neck, even his hair was covered in blood and gore. No wonder she didnít want to be touched. Oslind tried his best to cleanse himself of the gore and was soaking wet from head to toe by the time he was reasonably presentable.

He went back to Switch, stepping carefully over the bodies, but she had moved away from the main fray. He picked up his sword from the ground where he had dropped it and looked around for her. She had moved a little ways down the alley and was crouched between two piles of crates. Oslind wiped his sword clean on a dead manís shirt, sheathed it and went to her. He knelt beside the crate she was hiding behind.

"Please come home," he said. "Itís okay if you hate me, but Marilina will miss you."

"I donít ever wanna see you agin!" she said.

Oslind sighed in desperate frustration. What had he done? He had fallen prey to the evil of the Dark Wizard, and it seemed he had even enjoyed it. And now Switch was turning bitter as well. Oslind was horrified. It had started out as a normal enough day. What had happened? How had he lost the battle this day after winning so consistently in the past?

Daklorundís evil was getting stronger, Rosemont had said. Eventually it would destroy them all. Finally Oslind understood why he must give himself to the wizardís plan. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He hated the evil once again, after seeing the consequences of having embraced it. This power Rosemont had said that he had, this mighty strength of fate, could be used for evil as well as for good. Now he had seen it. There would be no glory for him in this world. He would eventually be vanquished by the evil of it, and be used as a mere pawn for the Dark Wizardís purposes.

There was only one way out. He resigned himself to it, looking at little Switch. She could only get worse herself, or maybe even killed. Surely she would have been today if he had not gotten here when he had. He had to get her back to the castle.

"Switch, please come home. The streets arenít safe for you anymoreÖ."

"I kin get along jusí fine," she said. Her crying had wound down to sniffling.

"No you canít! You might have been killed today! Look what almost happened!"

Switch shuddered, hugging her shredded clothes tightly to her little body.

"Listen," Oslind said after a few moments. "I just wanted to tell you that Iíll be going away. Rosemont is sending me on a journey to find the hero, and only one of us can come back. So if you want to live at the castle still itís okay, cause I wonít be there anymore."

"I aíready know Ďbout Ďdat," she hissed angrily. "I heard them talking about it. Youíre gunna leave me, after you promised ta take care of me. You promised!"

"Yes, Switch," he said. "I did promise you that. But now I realize that the best way to take care of you is to go and find this hero so you can be safe from the evil wizard once and for all. I wasnít sure if I could do it. But Iím sure now. We have to find the hero, Switch. The evil in the land is even getting into me, Switch. Look what Iíve done here. I have to go away."

"No!" Switch protested, suddenly changing her tone from anger to fear once again. She rose from her crouched posture and grabbed his shirt in two desperate little fists. "You donít haff ta go anywhere! Iím sorry I said you was bad. Iím bad too. Look what I stoleíd from Marilina!"

She scooped up the bundle of jewelry. Oslind shook his head.

"No Switch. You arenít bad. Youíre just a little girl. I love you. Marilina loves you. We all forgive you. Just come home."

"Iím saw-wy," she bawled. "You doní haff ta go! Donít leave me. PleaseÖ"

"I have to," he said again. "If I donít everyone will turn into the kind of monster I was today."

"No!" Switch wailed, grabbing him in a jealous hug. "Donít go!" Her hands clenched desperately at his blood stained shirt.

Oslind held her once again, for a long time. He was relieved she had changed her mind about hating him but there was a new pain in his heart now. He decided right then that at least she was worth saving, if anybody could be saved.

"Letís go home, Switch," he said to her. "We can talk about it more at the castle."

He lifted her up, wrapped the cloth that had held the jewelry around her, and carried her away from the scene of violence. Nobody seemed to notice the strangeness of the sight, a bloodied man carrying a small girl out of an alley where a massacre had taken place. She buried her face in his neck and cried all the way home.

Chapter 7: The Portal

Oslind carried Switch home to the castle and was met on the road by a band of soldiers Marilina had sent to find them. She could not stand the agony any longer and had gotten Hardsly to dispatch soldiers to find them. She was near absolute panic.

The soldiers met Oslind and Switch on the road and escorted them back to the Castle. When Marilina saw them she broke into a run down the stairs and hurried to meet them. Hardsly followed her. The two of them had been waiting for them by the balustrade in front of the main gate. Marilina had been wringing her hands anxiously and Hardsly had been pacing back and forth like a caged tiger with his hand on his sword. Now as they hurried toward them they saw Oslind was covered in blood. Marilinaís legs went weak and she stumbled and fell to the ground.

She saw Oslind exactly as he had been the day he carried their mother home. She sat and stared for only half a second while a dizzying chaos of fearful thoughts tumbled through her head. Was he hurt? Was Switch alright? Was she dead? Hardsly tried to help her up but she shoved his hand aside and got herself up once again, stumbling the rest of the way toward them on aching legs.

"Itís alright," Oslind hollered as they approached. "Weíre fine."

"What happened!?!" Marilina demanded. "Youíre covered in blood!"

The group met on the road and Marilina snatched Switch from Oslindís arms, giving her a quick examination for any injuries.

"Itís not ours. We had a bit of a problem with some street thugs. Thatís all," Oslind replied.

"Neither of you were hurt?" Hardsly asked, more intending to reassure Marilina.

"No," Oslind answered. "Not a scratch. Switch is a little shaken up though."

"I was so worried!" Marilina stammered, overcome with relief, but still shocked at the site of them. They all turned and head for the castle. "Where have you been, Switch? Why did you leave? What happened?"

"Oslindís gonna leave, MarnindÖ Tell him not ta go!" Switch whimpered from inside Marilinaís embrace.

"What are you talking about? Leave for where?"

"Never mind, Switch. Iíll explain later."

"Weíve got to get inside and clean you to up," Marilina said. "You look horrible. Father has been worried sick as well."

Hardsly thumbed the handle of his sword quietly wondering what Switch had been talking about as well. The group disappeared into the castle.

A bath was drawn for each of them and they were scrubbed thoroughly by servants. Hardsly and Oslind in one room, and Marilina and Switch in another.

"Whatís this about you going away, Oslind?" Hardsly asked.

Oslind looked up at his friend and decided it was time to tell him the situation. He dismissed the servant and continued washing himself as they talked.

"Father is sending me on a mission to seek out a hero that can save this land from its evil."

"A hero?" Hardsly asked.

"Yes," Oslind replied. "Apparently there are no heroes in all the land worthy of opposing the Dark Wizard. I must journey to another place to find one."

"I see. When do you leave?"

Hardsly accepted this brief explanation with the resignation of a man who was accustomed to taking orders without question. There was a look on his face that betrayed his discomfort with the notion however.

"Whenever I am called I suppose. It is Rosemontís plan."

"How many soldiers will you require for escort? I can spare ten or at them most fifteen."

"Apparently that wonít be necessary for this journey. Iím supposed to go alone."

"How long will you be gone?"

Oslind paused for a long time. He had been trying to forget the idea of his destruction by immersing himself in the action of the day, but now the notion returned again.

"Tell me something, friend," Oslind said softly. "Do you think these people are worth the life of one good man?"

"Your father thinks so," Hardsly answered apprehensively. What was he getting at?

"But what do you think, Hardsly? Would you die for these people?"

Hardsly paused, struggling to grasp what the hidden meaning behind the Princeís words.

"I donít know if I would die for this people, to be honest. But I would die for the King, for Marilina, and for you, if need be."

"Of course," Oslind replied. "You love us, dearly, and we love you in return. But would you die for an enemy? A common street thug who would rape a little girl and leave her for dead? For a whole mob of such folk?"

Hardsly swallowed hard.

"It would be difficult," he said gravely. "But If the King wished it, I would lay down my life for those he deemed worthy."

"And so would I, I suppose," Oslind decided. "Itís hard to be enthusiastic about the idea though."

"What idea, dear Prince?" Hardsly asked, fearing to hear the answer.

"I will not return from this journey I go on. It will destroy me. But if my father deems this people worthy, I must go."

"I see," Hardsly said flatly.

"My only comfort is in the hope that one day Switch will know a world free from evil. If I go I go simply to honor my father, and to perhaps make a better world for her and Marilina. I can not bring myself to feel the love my father has for these wretched people however. I almost feel betrayed."

Hardsly saw the fear, anger, and desperation struggling inside his good friend. He felt the same need to console him as he had felt with Marilina. He knew however that a simple slap on the back and encouraging word wouldnít suit this situation either.

"If I know your fatherís heart as I think I do, I believe he finds love for these people in the notion that their evil is not their fault. They are victims of the Dark Wizardís power and would do good if not for his malevolent influence. I remember a time years ago when a stranger would stop to say a kind word and help you with a burden you carried through town. I remember when people still had the heart to fight against the thick fog of darkness that hangs over our realm. I remember peace and tranquility in the streets. All these things are still out their in the hearts of the people, they are merely buried beneath the oppressive evil the Dark Wizard bombards them with everyday. Surely Switch is not the only decent person left outside of the castle wallsÖ"

There was a silence in the air as the two of them reflected on this.

"You are a wiser man than I," Oslind answered finally. "I had not even thought of it that way. I was only blinded by anger and frustration. And to think how I attacked those menÖ"

"You used more force than necessary?"

"Yes," Oslind confessed. "I butchered them."

"How many?"

"Five. I hacked them to pieces. Right in front of Switch. I was an animal. I- This blackness came over me and the next thing I knew there was Switch crying her eyes out in horror."

"I wonder if this will cause trouble in the population," Hardsly mused.

"You donít think-"

"The people have been boiling on the brink of rioting for weeks now. Something like this is the perfect excuse to push them over the edge."

"I donít think anyone saw me."

"Letís hope not," Hardsly said. "Still we should inform the King."

Oslind swallowed hard. The situation seemed to be more volatile than he had originally thought. What would he tell his father? He suddenly felt even more ashamed.

He finished his washing and hurriedly dressed himself.

They met Marilina and Switch downstairs and found the girl without a single trace of the days violence, other than a sullen look on her face. Marilina immediately demanded to know about this journey Switch was so upset about. Oslind asked Hardsly for a moment alone with his sister and Hardsly took Switch by the hand and led her on ahead to see the King.

Oslind tried to explain the whole situation in the nicest possible way, but Marilina would not hear of it. She absolutely refused to let him have anything to do with this terrible plan and would not sacrifice her brother for the sake of such a terrible people. Try as he might, Oslind could not console her, or make her see reason behind Rosemontís plan. She simply refused, passionately and furiously demanding he forget the whole idea. She could not seem to persuade him however, and she began to feel the desperate helplessness of watching someone she loved march off to their own death. Her tears flowed freely and she eventually began hitting him out of frustration.

"You canít! You wonít! Donít do this to me! You just canít!" she sobbed. "I demand that Rosemont find another way. You canít leave me. Please, Oslind! Donít do this."

But then she saw the tears in her brothers eyes and she knew that it was already decided. She knew that there was nothing she could do. She grabbed him and held him to herself shaken with crying from the very bottom of her being. He held her in turn and allowed himself to cry as well. For the first time he began to realize that he would die. Marilina would never see him again, and it broke his heart.

They held each other like that for a long time until the King, Hardsly and Switch entered the room. Servants arrived and helped Marilina and Switch to her bed chamber. Oslind and Hardsly informed the King of the fight Oslind had gotten into rescuing Switch, and Hardsly was dispatched to secure the castle in case of emergency. Oslind informed his father that he had decided to go through with journey. Then Rosemont was summoned to finalize the plan.

"When do we do this?" the King asked him. "How soon?"

"We should not wait too long. Things in this realm will get worse before they get better," Rosemont said.

"If we are to do this, we must do it soon," Oslind added. "Every hour is torture now. I fear I will lose my nerve."

"We must not hurry," the King said anxiously. "We will never see you again. Give us at least a few days of your company, for pityís sake."

"Father I would stay forever. You know I would. But Iíd go insane with grief and fear if I waited too long, knowing that this journey was inevitable."

"I do not wish to cause anyone excess sorrow," Morlind replied. "How long do you need?"

"Letís say tomorrow at sunset," Oslind suggested.

"I donít think weíll have that much time," Hardsly said from the doorway.

All three men turned to him.

"What news, Hardsly?" the King inquired.

"Mobs are forming in the streets, highness. The bodies weíre found and Oslind has been implicated. They are accusing us of brutality and are creating quite a tumult out there."

There was a pause and sure enough, the crowd could be heard, roaring angrily from the streets below.

"Is the castle secure?"

"Yes, majesty," Hardsly answered. "Iím not sure how long we will be able to remain in siege though, highness. We were not prepared for this."

"We should act now, majesty," Rosemont added. "We must find the hero and defeat Daklorund before there is too much loss of life from these event."

"How long will preparations take you, Rosemont?"

"Things are ready even now, my King," the wizard answered.

"Gather together those near and dear to you, my son," the King sighed. "If this riot gets any worse you will have to go tonight."

The riot did indeed get worse. Garrisons throughout the city were besieged by angry mobs as every man whipped himself into a frenzy of indignation at the violence down to them by the Kingís son. Citizens began looting and pillaging shops and stores and those not actively part of the mob barricaded themselves in their homes with their valued possessions.

Meanwhile, inside the castle the servants were dismissed to their quarters and the Prince and his loved ones assembled in the great hall for the commencement of the journey. Having sobbed uncontrollably all day, Marilina was exhausted to aching numbness and stood helplessly by as Rosemont gave Oslind the final instructions.

"Remember, run straight at me and dive in to the center of the life force you see. Focus on your destination. Force yourself to travel there. I donít know what kind of journey it will be for you but my journey ends here. I give you the white stone to take with you. You must give it to the hero when you see him. Take this vial as well, do not lose it no matter what! You must use this to bring the hero back. Be sure to explain to him everything I have told you. Surely he will be wise and courageous and will have no trouble understanding. Do you understand all these things?"

"Yes," Oslind said. "I do."

"Good then. Itís time to say goodbye to everyone. Only be merciful and make it brief. My heart is heavy with sorrow as well."

"Youíll have to go first, wizard," Oslind stammered. "I-"

"I understandÖ"

Rosemont said goodbye to everyone, encouraging them with words of hope for a brighter future, encouraging them to remember the sacrifice that was made for them that day, and to honor the memory of these two. He thanked the King humbly for his friendship and gave him a hug and a pat on the hand, then he nodded to Oslind. Oslind stared at the floor for the longest time, lost in overwhelming sadness and desperate anxiety. Words escaped him completely. But then the sound of the screaming throngs outside urged him on to whatever words he could muster.

"Let me start with you then, Rosemont," Oslind began. "You have always been loyal to my father the King as long as Iíve know you. You are as courageous as you are wise to have come up with this plan, and also to take part in it. I am encouraged by your strength. Surely the world loses a great man today."

Rosemont nodded.

"Hardsly. Take care of my loved ones here. I leave you here in my place. Defend them with your life. Youíve been like a brother to me. Youíve always been my hero. Train others as you have me, and theyíll be no lack of valiant men in the worldÖ."

Hardsly stepped forward and hugged him. There were no tears in his eyes, though his face distorted in the effort to maintain his composure. "I will, my Prince. Go with honor. You are loved."

Oslind turned to face his father, King Morlind.

"And- and you, Father. Words can not express my love for you. I give my life today, simply to honor your love for this crazy mob of rioters you hold so dear. The very fact that you love them as you do makes me love you even more. I have not studied history as much as I have war, but I think you are probably the greatest king who ever lived. I am honored to be your son. I love you, FatherÖ."

Between choked sobs his father managed to reply, "A man could not be more proud of his own son than I am of you today. Your mother would be so proudÖ You will be remembered foreverÖ."

"Take care of theseÖ. Father," Oslind added. Then he turned to Marilina.

"My dear sister. My heart is breaking just seeing the sadness-"

Oslind stopped, swallowed hard and tried to continue.

"Take care of Dad, okÖ."

At that Marilina bolted forward and grabbed him in a smothering embrace. She buried her face in his neck and cried.

"I love you so much, Oslind. I love you so much!" she bawled, clutching at his shirt like a frightened child. She looked up into his face and kissed him. "Ten thousand citizens are not worth one of you in my heart. If itís at all possible, if thereís anyway. Try to come back and see me sometime. Even if itís only in my dreams. Iíll miss you forever- "

A tear spilled down Hardslyís cheek. Oslind turned to Switch last of all.

"Hi there, little girl," he said, trying to offer a comforting smile.

"HiÖ" she said softly, trying to be brave.

"Iím leaving now, Switch. I donít want to go but I have to."

"When are ya cominí back, Oslind?"

"I- Iím not gonna be coming back, little friend. Thatís why Iím saying goodbye."

The little girl broke into sobs of her own. She turned away and hung her head to the floor.

"Whose gonna teach me ta be good?" she wailed. Oslind turned her around to face him once again.

"Well I will, Switch. If you promise to never forget what Iíve already taught you."

"Please donít go, Oslind. Iím sorry I Ďwan away. Iím sorry for stealiní. I wonít ever do dat again. Iím so sorry. Can you please stay?"

"I canít. I have to go away and find a hero who can make this world good again. Promise me youíll take care of him when he gets here. Help him however you can."

"I donít want you ta go. I need you," she cried.

"Be brave Switch. Marilina needs youÖ."

Switch hugged him for a long time and wouldnít let go, finally Hardsly stepped forward and ripped her away from him. Oslindís shirt tore and she screamed and kicked and bit, trying to grab him one more time. Hardsly held her tight and she eventually sank into defeated sobs. Hanging limply from his grip on her little body, and reaching out a shaking hand towards the only friend sheíd ever known. Marilina staggered on her feet, almost fainting and Morlind stepped up to catch her.

"I love you all," Oslind said finally. "Remember me."

Last of all Oslind spoke to his mother, silently inside his heart. He closed his eyes and saw her standing in her garden. She waved to him. He told her he loved her and that he hoped she was proud of the man he had become. She nodded to him.

He opened his eyes once again. He smiled a weak teary-eyes smile and turned to face Rosemont. Rosemont removed the White Stone from around his neck and placed it around Oslindís. Then he reached into a pocket and gave Oslind a second vial. Oslind placed this vial in a pouch he had tied securely to his belt next to his sword. The potion was deep red, almost blood-like in color. Rosemont nodded and walked to the end of the hall. Oslind kept his eyes on the wizard, not daring to look at his family again lest he lose his nerve. His sword at his side began to feel very heavy.

"Ready?" Rosemont called. His voice echoed in the hall.

Oslind nodded. His last thoughts in the world of Morlind were of how strange the wizardís voice sounded echoing through the hall. It sounded almost like a dream. He wished above all else that this was nothing but a dreamÖ

"Remember Oslind. Focus on your destination. Run. Donít stop. Donít look back."

Oslind bowed his head and concentrated on the hero he knew he must find. Rosemont popped the top off of his vial and raised it toward the crowd.

"Goodbye all," he said, and drank the potion in one gulp.

All were silent while they waited for the potion to take effect. Nothing happened at first. Then slowly Rosemont began to convulse. His eyes shut, as though in pain, or in concentration, and his body shook. His mouth dropped open as though he would say something, but no sound came out. Suddenly there was a faint glow around his midsection. It was light bluish at first, then it faded into shades of white and pink. Then it expanded, or rather, the wizard seemed to fade away. It was as though the glow was eating away at him, and growing and swirling with his energy.

Oslind braced himself to run, still concentrating on reaching the hero.

The light expanded and brightened. It grew to envelop his entire midsection, from his chin to his knees. The colors became dazzling. They danced and pulsed almost as though they were in a struggle with Rosemontís will to live. Finally the ball of energy stabilized and the colors swirled and whirled like a giant ball of rainbow. The entire room was lit up with it, and those on the other end of the hall could feel the Rosemontís essence emanating out from where he stood. The essence of the wizard they had always known, but had never quite understood completely. They could barely even see Rosemont anymore, but from where they stood they got a gentle breeze of who he was, and their faces were lit with the colors of his soul. For a brief moment they comprehended him completely. It was a moment they would never forget. He was a man they would never forget.

The ball of energy began to suck air from the room. There was a great rushing noise like wind blowing through a tunnel and a dull rumbling. Oslind Inhaled deeply and broke into a run. Switch screamed and wriggled free from Hardslyís distracted grip. She ran after Oslind but he was already half way down the hall. With all the will power he could muster, Oslind locked the concept of the hero into his mind and sprinted the last half of the distance toward Rosemont. He dove from about four feet away and disappeared into the ball of light, pulling it with him as though it were made of fabric. It enveloped him and wrapped around inside out, dragged into the place Oslind had jumped through. There was a great swooshing sound, almost like thunder in reverse and the entire ball of energy disappeared. Switch stumbled and fell to the floor, and the room went dark.

Oslind and Rosemont were gone.

Chapter 8: The Hilltop

Far away in another world, on the outskirts of a small town there stood a lonely hilltop behind a small roadside restaurant. It was overgrown with tall prairie grasses and seldom saw any visitors. Occasionally the staff of the restaurant would wander up here for a smoke break, kicking back against a tree to look up into the night sky and blow smoke rings at the moon for a few minutes. Other than that it was no-manís land.

On one particular night however a bit of a storm stirred up on top of that hill. A small pin point of light appeared about 4 feet above the ground. Distant screams were heard, far-away and echoing, about as loud as a whisper, a small girl yelling a manís name, a young woman crying out as if in dismay. There was also the sound of wind. Small at first as though someone were forcing too much air through a drinking straw perhaps. But as the point of light got bigger the wind sound grew louder, and the distant voices seemed nearer, on the other side of a great hall perhaps. The grass began to wave back and forth and dust and leaves were blown in small whirl winds around the hilltop. Finally the point of light grew to a few feet across and the wind was more than a sound. It was a mighty rush of air pouring out of the light above the ground and spilling down the hillside, pushing violently through the grass that was in the way.

There was a great energy radiating about the place as well. Something that could not be seen like the light, or felt like the wind. It was a sense of something great and powerful. It was a great and powerful presence of a great and powerful wizard named Rosemont. It was all over the place, with the strength of a bomb going off, but with no more violence than that of the winds it stirred up. The man himself was not there, but his life force was. Everything he was, and is, and might have been, all the power he possessed as a living being was there, tearing a hole in the fabric of reality.

Suddenly a grown man came flying through that hole as though thrown through it. He popped out and it snapped shut behind him. The sound was like thunder in reverse. The screams and voices on the other side were instantly silent and all was dark, even before the man hit the ground. All the energy of the great and powerful man who had opened the hole in reality was suddenly and completely spent. It collapsed without a sound and everything that this energy was, and is, and might have been was suddenly and completely gone. At least thatís how it might have seemed to an outside observer.

To the man who had come flying out of the hole of light that great energy was not gone at all. It was all over him, he was covered by it, saturated inside and out with it. He could almost feel it humming in his flesh. It was not the man himself, but merely his energy, inanimate, unconscious, but very distinct and very powerful.

The man who had come flying out of this hole in reality was named Oslind. He hit the ground and bounced. He hit the ground again and rolled. Then he slid to a stop in the grass at the top of the hill, face down in the dirt. He drew in a deep and strained breath, as a diver might, unsure of whether or not he had made it all the way to the surface before he sucked in air. He half expected to inhale something unbreathable. He sucked the air in though, and was greatly relieved that it was okay. Then he just laid there panting for a moment, trying to figure out if his eyes were open or not. He could see nothing except the negative of the great light burned into the back of his eyes. He could hear nothing and feel nothing but the energy of wizard on him. He was numb except for the vague feeling of the ground underneath him.

Gradually the energy of the man dissipated. The humming faded away. The amazingly powerful force that had brought the traveler through the very fabric of reality itself was leaving him. It took a long time and he could feel it going. It flowed slowly out of him like water from a cracked pitcher perhaps. The numbness it had caused faded as well he began to feel his bodyís sensations. He clutched at his chest and felt the White Stone. He felt his sword under his hip.

Slowly Oslindís eyes began to adjust. They corrected themselves, healing over the burning that the blinding light had caused. In a few minutes he was able to see grass waving back and forth on the hilltop. He began to hear the wind blowing gently in the trees, and the insects sounding their evening courtship songs. He could smell the grass and the earth, he could feel the cool night air on his dusty face. Then he could hear his own voice.

"RosemontÖ" he said in the agony of a broken heart. His voice was a mere whisper, but it cracked with emotion. This wizardís energy had been all over him and inside him. He had felt it to the bottom of his soul. He had the feeling of having just awoken from a very long dream. A dream of the wizardís entire life. Somehow in the instant it took to cross over to this world he had experienced the wizardís entire lifetime, every single moment, with complete and total empathy. It had passed like a sudden flash, but at the same time it all passed as slowly as when the events of the wizardís life had actually happened. He had just come through the manís entire life experience. He had torn through it like tearing through a great membrane, and arrived on the other side in this world, but somehow he now knew everything the wizard had known. All his secrets, all his hopes and fears. From the time he was first aware he was alive, right up to the manís final thoughts, and it all happened in the eternity of a mere instant. This was the great power that numbed him.

The young Prince laid in the dirt and wept. He wept over the memory of his friend the wizard. He wept at his new understanding of the wizardís love for the King, his deep and undivided devotion, his willingness to give his own life for the people the King loved. He wept at the realization of how good a man the wizard really was. He wept for the pain the wizard had felt in his last moments. The pain of having his entire being ripped apart and stretched across reality. It was an agony beyond physical torture.

As his tears subsided he began to feel much older than he had been a few minutes ago. He felt like an old man now, with two life-times of experience behind him. He knew all the secrets of magic and wizardry, as well as he knew the art of the sword. This new knowledge was vague though, almost imaginary. Part of him doubted it at first, the way you dismiss a dream as fantasy after the first few minutes of the morning have passed. Oslind shook his head in confusion. Another part of him knew it was true though. He had vividly seen the manís entire lifetime of training in magic, all his failures, and all his successes. His years of study and training hung in the back of Oslindís mind like a garment hidden away in a closet, that needed only to be searched out and put on. Thatís what it seemed like to him anyway.

He sat up and looked around. It was nighttime. There were stars showing through in between dark patches of clouds in the sky above. He had never seen stars in the sky before. His jaw dropped open in awe. It was a beautiful sight! He felt the cool nighttime breeze blowing across his face, and closed his eyes from the relaxation of it. He felt-

Wait! Suddenly he realized the most important difference between this world and his own was something he didnít feel. The evil miasma of the Dark Wizard that he had struggled with his whole life was completely absent. His heart felt light. His heart felt free. Strangely enough he felt relaxed and calm. The suffocation of mental, emotional, and moral oppression was gone. There was only the awareness of being somewhere else. For the first time in his life he felt peace in his heart and mind. It was wonderful. If only there was a way to bring everyone he cared about here. They could all live happily ever after. He sat calmly with his eyes closed for a long time.

When he finally opened them once again he saw that he was on a hilltop in between two low mountains, surrounded by a sparse growth of trees. Down one side of the hill was a river. On the other side was some sort of brightly lit building. Beyond the building was a very, very long, perfectly flat gray rock that stretched like a road in both directions as far as the eye could see. Suddenly a giant metal box went flying down along this long rock at a frighteningly high speed. There were lamps in front of this metal box that lit up the area in front of it. There were also windows in the box that one might look into if the speeding box ever stopped. It made a noise like a roaring monster as it went. Loud and steady. It roared without pausing for breath, all the way down the long gray rock road.

Oslind saw people walk out of this building and walk out to other of these metal boxes. They opened doors on the sides of it and got inside. Then with a grinding metal roar the box came rumbling to life. It rolled on wheels out to the rock road and sped away. It was some sort of transportation device, like a carriage, only without beasts or men to pull it. Where did they find such a long rock though? Oslind thought.

Suddenly another of these carriages pulled off the rock road and stopped in front of the building. A whole group of young men climbed out, laughing and talking loudly to one another as they walked into the building.

"Perhaps one of these men was the hero," the young traveler said aloud to himself. "Is it safe to just go strolling down there though? I doubt very much that I could go unnoticed."

His hand moved unconsciously to his sword. Would he be forced to use it?

The White Stone brightened.

Suddenly he was hesitant to go down there. He didnít know what kind of weapons these people might carry, or what kind of training they had as soldiers, if any. They were most likely commoners, but even commoners occasionally held dangerous weapons. He did not wish to be surprised.

"Well thereís no reason to assume theyíre hostile," he said to himself. They were laughing and having fun werenít they? But the White Stone had indicate he would be forced to use his sword. The White Stone did not lie.

"Is the hero down there?" he asked the stone.

It glowed in response.

He was comforted by that thought. It would be just a matter of finding him and convincing him to return to Morlind. Would he go though with it? How tragic if the mission failed now, after all this ordeal.

The stone brightened in affirmation. Of course he would. Rosemont wouldnít have bothered sending him out here all for nothing. Oslind felt another moment of relief.

He was glad to have the White Stone with him. Truly he would have been totally lost without it. He held it up in front of his face and looked at it. There was something strange about it. Somehow it had changed since he had come to this world. He wasnít sure how, but he knew there was something different about it. What was it?

The more he thought about it the more he was convinced there was something amiss. But he could not pinpoint it. It wasnít something wrong with the stone. It was just something different. SomethingÖ

"Rosemont!" he said. "Itís Rosemont."

He had used the name more as an adjective though, than a proper noun. The stone had a quality of Rosemontness about it somehow. That was it. The energy that had saturated him those first few minutes had not flowed out into nothingness. They were absorbed into the stone. It looked exactly the same, but now there was the essence of the wizard emanating from it. Thatís what he had sensed. Perhaps being associated with the wizard for so long had caused it to naturally draw the energies of the wizard into itself.

Oslind sensed this intuitively. He did not know why he believed this to be so, it just made sense to him. So now he also had the comfort of having at least the essence of his good friend Rosemont to accompany him on his mission in this world. He returned the chain to its place around his neck and stood up on the hilltop.

He paused first to dust himself off and adjusted his clothes as well as he could. He was a bit disheveled from his tumble onto the ground but otherwise he was unhurt. He decided to take a walk down to the river to wash up. He would not make much of an impression on the hero looking like something that had crawled in out of the mud.

So down he went, toward the river. It was a little steep but there were trees here and there to help him as he walked down. It was a cool night and the sound of the river was soothing. He knelt down at the waterís edge and began washing his face.

The cool water of the river trickled down his neck and under his shirt. For a moment he was reminded of his fight with the thugs in the alley, when he had washed up in the rain barrel afterward. Then he remembered Switch. The look on her face, the sound of her voice, so broken and dismayed. He realized then that it was probably not the violence that had disturbed her. She had been living on the streets in the wickedest part of the city and had probably seen her fair share of ugliness in her day. The thing that had upset her the most was seeing her hero turn into just another ugly monster, just like everyone else, and she probably despaired the thought of never learning how to be truly good herself if her beloved teacher had now fallen as well.

The idea filled his heart with pain. He missed his dear little Switch and wanted desperately to hug her once more, and tell her that everything would be just fine. He wanted to let her know that he really was a good man after all. He had sacrificed himself for her; for everyone. He could only hope his one great example would teach her more than a lifetime of lessons ever could.

Then he realized he would never see her again. He would never see any of them-

He paused on the riverbank at this thought. A drop of water trickled from his hair down his face and dropped of his chin. A lump formed in his throat and he struggled with a moment of self-pity.

"Itís the mission thatís important here, Oslind old boy," he said to himself. "If you complete this mission you will have saved the entire realm of Morlind. Thatís something to feel good about I suppose."

He patted his face dry with the hem of his shirt.

"Still," he continued. "If there was some way I could have my old life back. It sure would be nice."

But sacrifice was just that. A sacrifice. Complete and total. No holding anything back for yourself.

"It wasnít much of a life anyway," Oslind reminded himself. "The constant struggle. Walking around everyday in a world so evil you can feel it hanging over you like a bad smell. It will all be worth it in the end if my success here destroys the evil that plagues my homeland. If my people have a chance to live their lives free of the ugliness Iíve always known. That sure would be nice."

The White Stone glowed in agreement. Oslind was not convinced however. These words seemed empty and meaningless in contrast to the stark reality of his immanent death. He swallowed. Trying to fight that thought out of his mind. Trying to make himself believe in the rightness of his cause.

He turned around to sit down on the river bank and dangled the stone in front of his face on its chain once again. Once again he pondered the Rosemontness of it. Perhaps Rosemont himself was trapped in the stone somewhere. Perhaps he was looking out at him, trying to encourage him somehow.

"Are you in there, Rosemont?" he asked. The sound of his lone voice in the stillness of the night made him feel incredibly lonely. He shivered.

The White Stone did not glow.

"I know youíre in there," he argued. "I can feel you. I canít really explain it, but there was always a certain energy about you, a certain presence, or whatever. I saw your entire life flash by as I went through the portal. I feel like I know everything there is to know about who you are and what youíre all about. And I feel all that in this stone. I know at least a part of you is in there."

Still the stone did not reply.

"Well if you can hear me, wherever you are, I just wanted to say what a great man I always thought you were. I just wanted to thank you for the ten-thousand times you took care of my father. And for all the wisdom and kindness you should to my sister and I. And for coming up with this plan of course. I guess that was your greatest work. Thanks, Rosemont."

Oslind didnít really know why he was sitting there talking to a stone. It was obvious that Rosemont wasnít there to hear it, but he had to say it. Even if just for himself. He had to let the words out of his heart. There were a million things he could of, no, should have told his Father, Marilina, and Switch, but he just hadnít had enough time. Now these things in his heart would die unspoken with him. The love that he wanted to express to them would fall dead. All the great things he felt in his heart for them would simply vanish when he died. They would never know how he really feltÖ

New tears welled up in his eyes. He swallowed hard, trying to fight them back, but everything in his heart that didnít want to die unheard pressed forward in a rush of desperate and chaotic emotion. He could not stop it. He wept again sitting there on the river bank. He wept like a small and helpless child. Helpless and hopeless. Knowing he had but a few hours to breathe his last breaths, think his last thoughts, cry his final tears and then he would be finished.

"I donít want to die," he cried out to nobody, or to himself perhaps, the only person there to listen. "IÖ"

He trailed off into sobbing as his psyche tried to come to grips with the concept of his own demise. His head hurt from thinking about it, his temples throbbed painfully. Every muscle in his body was tense as his body wrestled with his mind. Sweat poured down his face and neck, stinging his eyes. He gasped for breath trying to fight off a crazed panic that threatened to overtake him. He forced himself to breathe deep and slow, trying to calm himself. He struggled to relax, though his body wanted desperately to fight, or flee, or do whatever it took to escape the stress he was under.

"Is there no other way?" he cried. "I donít want to die."

The White Stone glowed blue.

He looked deep into it. Blue? This was new. It was a soothing color. Like a deep pool, lit from far beneath by some point of light. He looked at it some more and saw there really was a small point of light deep inside the stone, a faint glimmer of white surrounded by the blue. He looked at it until he found he could look into it. Inside this light was a little world that reminded him a little of Morlind, except the sun was shining. There were birds singing in the trees, the sky was clear, the people were happy, the children ran around the streets laughing and playing freely, without a care in the world. Strangers greeted one another in the market with a nod and a smile, a slap on the back and a kind word.

Then he saw his father in this world, standing on a balcony over looking the city. The King was smiling, happy, and at peace, looking out over his people with contentment on his face. He looked up, he looked at the clear blue sky and sighed. A tear came to the old manís eye, but it was not a tear of sadness. It was a tear of joy. Oslindís heart swelled seemingly beyond the dimensions of his being. To see such joy on his fatherís face was a gift greater than a hundred life times.

"Thank you my son," Morlind said, though his son was not there to hear. He spoke only to himself. "The people are saved. The children are happy. The birds fly through a bright blue cloudless sky and all is right with the world. The land is at peace. Thank you my son, for doing what you had to do, when you had to do it. You have saved us all."

Then the scene blinked out.

Oslind was comforted beyond words. The White Stone had showed him exactly what he needed to see, and now he knew he found he could actually go through with it. He would just hold that look on his fatherís face in his mind forever and everything would be alright.

"It seems you do more than answer yes," Oslind said to the stone.

The stone glowed affirmatively.

"You give more detailed answers when a simple yes is not good enough?"

The stone agreed.

"Thank you, stone," Oslind said to it.

Then another thought occurred to him.

"Did Rosemont know you could do that?"

The stone responded yes.

"So he might have gotten that message Iíd given to him a while ago after all, when I thought I was only talking to myself."

The stone lit up again. Oslind was comforted further.

No wonder Rosemont was so sure of this plan. Once he figured out what the plan was the stone must have shown him all these little scenes in as much detail as heíd just seen the scene with his father. But how come he didnít remember all this stuff from when he saw Rosemontís whole life flash before his eyes as he went through the portal? All he remembered was Rosemont sitting and staring into the stone for extended periods of time, but he never saw what the wizard had seen inside there. Strange. Perhaps the stone was protecting him from a bizarre paradox. To see himself talking to Rosemont through Rosemontís eyes, and then actually go through the experience would have sent his mind into an infinite loop of doing and remembering simultaneously. That would have been bad.

"Can you show me my sister?"

The stone glowed white.

"Oh, uhÖ More specifically, can you show me my sister the day of that banquet? It was probably one of the last happy days of his life."

The stone glowed blue and Oslind stared into it. His face cheered as he saw his sister laughing and smiling, dancing with Switch as the musicians played. He saw her kiss their father and raise a toast to Morlind. He saw himself there too, smiling and laughing and enjoying the company of friends. Then the scene blinked out.

"Remarkable!" he said aloud.

He let out a deep sigh once again and got to his feet.

"Which way to the hero, stone?" he asked.

There was no reply.

"Humph. I forgot you donít work that way, right? Oh well. Perhaps he will find me," Oslind said.

The Stone glowed its affirmation. Oslind laughed happily and climbed back up the hill.

His jovial mood collapsed however, when he got to the top of the hill. In the distance, down at the building below there was a great commotion. A throng of people spilled out of the doors and Oslind saw them all surrounding two people chanting and cheering with the vigor of a blood thirsty mob.

He saw the larger of the two fellows swinging punches at the smaller one. He saw the smaller one dodging and trying to escape. He saw the throng of onlookers bar his way, keeping him inside the ring of spectators. Then he saw him take a hit in the face. He heard a yell. Then the young man kicked the big guy back, quick and hard right between the legs. There was a girlish yelp of pain from the big one, and when he doubled over in pain the smaller one kicked the larger one again in the hip, knocking him off balance. The big guy stumbled sideways and fell against the wall of people. The people parted to avoid being knocked down by him and the small guy leapt through the gap between them and dashed toward the hill. The mob jeered and laughed at the fleeing youth but nobody pursued. The big guy did however, along with five or six of his buddies.

"Here comes trouble," Oslind said, and hid himself in the grass as the group ascended the hill.

Chapter 9: The Hero

Benjamin Cory Zastar sat reading a novel in a booth in the dimly lit back corner of the Shiny Cup Diner. He had finished his food long ago and was absorbed in the adventures of his favorite sword-wielding fantasy heroes. It was a relatively busy night at the Shiny Cup, and he worried as he turned page after page of his book that he might have worn out his welcome. He wasnít the only one though. Just about every booth in the place was full of kids he knew from school. This was the hang out on Friday nights, before they all headed off to whatever parties they would end up at later that evening. The waitress had long since cleared away his plates and kept coming back every ten minutes or so offering to freshen his drink. She was tired and couldnít wait until quitting time. Her attitude put Ben on a nervous edge, but still he could not bring himself to close his book and head home.

There was not much going on at home. Just the four walls of his bedroom, his nagging mom, and a chattering television that constantly distracted him from his reading. Reading was pretty much all heíd done since high school had ended a few weeks ago. He had finished four books since then. It was an escape he sought whole-heartedly. The real world to him was mundane, dull, colorless, and dreary compared to the world of fantasy that enraptured him in the pages of his favorite stories.

He could hear the vacuous conversations of his school mates in the din of the restaurant. He tried his best to ignore them but occasionally a few tidbits got through his fortress of concentration. Some chick had slept with some guy at a party. Some kid had busted his arm trying to ramp over a parked car on his skateboard. Some other kid was sure to get his butt kicked when his dad found out half the bottles in the liquor cabinet were empty. Blah, blah, blah.

Ben squinted his eyes in frustration, aggravated by his inability to just tune out the inane goings on of his idiot peers. He brought his eyes back down to the page and skipped forward to a more interesting part of the story.

The hero in this particular scene was standing on the horns of a dilemma. He had a magic sword but lacked the courage to use it against a horde of trolls that held a princess captive. He was nobody, but somehow he had been thrust into the position of the hero that must save the world. Benjamin could relate all too well. He was a nobody also, in his world, unfortunately there was no such situation thrusting him into a moment of glory where his inner greatness could shine. He doubted there would ever be, and so he lived his fantasies out vicariously through his books.

"The distance between the hero and you is all the things youíre afraid to do," the story read. Ben grinned. That hit the nail right on the head! That was him all over. That was why he loved reading. Little nuggets like that kept him sane in this otherwise mind-numbing existence. Ben reached into his pocket, pulled out a pen and put stars around that quote. Suddenly he could no longer continue. He just stared at that line for the longest time trying to absorb the deeper truths of it into his frustrated young mind.

How would he react though if such a situation ever came upon him? Would he have the courage to stand against an army of snarling trolls? Would he rise to greatness in the moment of truth? He was pretty sure he would, If the situation ever presented itself. Especially if he had a magic sword. That would be cool. Well, maybe he would. At least he liked to think so. The more he read his books, the more deeply he longed to become the hero he felt that he really was deep down inside. Reality tended to balk him though in his own little moments of truth when he had to stand up for himself but didnít, for fear of getting his head punched in. He tended to back down from heroism in his daily life a lot more than he liked to admit to himself.

Ben let out a deep sigh. Was he really a hero? Or was it all just a fantasy. He started to doubt, but then glancing down at the stars around the quote on the page in front of him, he quickly changed his mind. The distance between himself and the hero he could be was in all the things he was too scared to do. It was so simple! Heroes just did what they had to do when they had to do it. If he wanted to be a hero, he would have to stare down his fear and take action when the moment arose. Could he do it though? He would have to, or everything he believed in would all be a lie. That was hard to take.

The more he thought about it the more determined he became. Perhaps he could finally become the hero he knew he was deep down in his heart. Perhaps he could finally-

His thoughts were interrupted by a boisterous intrusion into the diner.

"Shut up, you fat, stupid knob!" someone laughed from the doorway.

Benjamin looked up and his face knotted into a tangled look of dismay. It was Max Daniels and his gang of thugs. Great! This was exactly what Ben dreaded on an otherwise peaceful night like this. The scorn and ridicule of a brainless troll like Max. What misery would he inflict on him tonight?

Max was big and broad, dark and sinister, but by no means troll-ugly. He was perhaps one of the most popular guys in the school. Ben had always grimaced at the notion that mere looks and popularity could win you acceptance and admiration from the school populace. Girls were constantly throwing themselves at him, even though he had the personality of aÖ Well a troll. He probably didnít even know any words more that two syllables long, he was arrogant and rude to anyone below him on the social ladder, which was pretty much everyone Ben knew. He was a notorious bully who seemed to delight in the suffering of those he deemed unworthy of common dignity. Somehow though the chicks still adored him. This drove Benjamin nuts.

Ben tried to hide behind his book, hoping to wait for an opportunity to escape the diner unnoticed. No such opportunity came, however. Max swept the room with that authoritative glance of his, scanning for anyone he did not think was worthy to be in the same room as him. His eyes fell on Ben.

"Ha! Lookie here, boys," he bellowed. The conversation in the room hushed. "We got ourselves a little book worm back here!"

"I donít want no trouble," the waitress chided.

"Ah, stuff it, Lady," Max sneered. "Get me a drink."

The waitress shook her head in disgust and disappeared into the kitchen. Benís face heated into a bright hue of anger and fear. Max pushed some kidís chair rudely aside as he headed over to Benís booth at the back of the room. His entourage of thugs followed closely behind.

"Whatchaí readiní there, dopey?" Max asked, snatching the book from Benís fingers. "The Gondonimi-wumbo-jumbo Property?"

Itís called The Gondorian Prophecy, you loathsome idiot. Perhaps words with more than four letters are too difficult for you. This is what Ben wanted to say, but his fear paralyzed him.

Ben didnít get a chance to say anything actually. Max flung the book all the way across the diner, picked up what was left of Benís drink and threw it into his face. Ben flinched in shock. Shame, rage and fear fought a microsecond war inside him, but as always fear won. The restaurant gasped all at once. A few kids chuckled and Maxís sidekicks laughed out loud. Max loomed menacingly over him, wordlessly daring him to try and do something about it. Ben automatically suppressed the instinct to tackle his assailant to the floor and pummel him. He simply wanted to run away. His entire body felt swollen and twisted with the flood of restrained adrenaline that pulsed through him. His ears tingled. His hands shook under the table.

"Yeah. Thatís what I thought," Max muttered in disgust, answering the question that wasnít even asked. "Now get the hell out of here, ya skinny little turd, Ďfore I bust yíup!" Then he turned and headed for a booth in the middle of the restaurant. His buddies followed him.

With what little dignity he could muster, Ben slowly lifted himself from his seat and headed over on shaky legs to pick up his book. Cold cola dripped from his hair and ran down his forehead. His shirt clung to his skin. People stared at him as he walked by, but he did not stare back. Some chuckled, some whispered, some shook their heads. He kept his eyes on the floor as he made his way over to where his book had landed.

Max glanced over to make sure he had obeyed, and then went back to his obnoxious conversation with his friends. Ben scooped up his book on the floor by the washrooms, shoved it into his back pocket, and stepped into the menís room to clean himself up. His face was livid with rage. He felt like crying. His hands shook uncontrollably and his stomach knotted painfully with the mess of emotions that struggled inside him. He splashed cold water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror.

The distance between the hero and you is all the things youíre afraid to doÖ

Benís teeth clenched together under the weight of his agony. Was he really a hero? Had Max Daniels robbed him not only of basic human dignity, but also the very dreams of his heart? Wasnít this the moment of truth he had told himself he would stand up in. The moment was here. Would he?

His hands clenched into angry red fists as he stared at himself in the mirror. His eyes looked crazed to him and he felt a little frightened. He tried to force himself to get a grip.

"This is the only life Iíve got," a voice whispered inside his head. "Should I let a troll like Max Daniels ruin it? If I donít stand up to him now, everything I believe in is a lie. If I do nothing, Iíll never be a hero."

A tear spilled down his cheek as the frustrated battle with fear was fought inside him. He did not want to be pulverized, but to do nothing? That was even worse.

"Itís my life, damn it!" Ben hissed angrily, finally grasping at a thread of determination that pulled him beyond his fear. He strode toward the bathroom door and stood in the diner once again. There was Max, throwing his head back in laughter. There was max eyeing up some girl like a piece of meat. There was Max, thinking he had defeated Benjamin Cory Zastar once again.

Benjamin Cory Zastar closed the distance between himself and heroism in a brisk stride.

He came right up behind Max, snatched up a bowl of chili some kid was eating and dumped it soundly onto Maxís head in one swift motion. Maxís friends widened their eyes in stunned shock. Their jaws dropped.

"What the-" Max squeaked in surprise. He jumped up and spun around. But Benís fist was already on its way to his face. It slammed into his nose with a slushy smack and Maxís head snapped backward. Globs of chili flung about from on top of his hair. He stumbled in shock and fell backward onto the table. The table collapsed easily under his weight and the whole mess of food and drinks fell to the floor. The entire restaurant exploded into a wild cacophony of cheering. Ben jumped forward and nailed Max a few more times in the face. Years of pent-up rage were suddenly released from the cage of fear and a weird animalistic snarling bubbled up from Benís throat.

Suddenly he was yanked off of Max and he stumbled backward, falling against a table and knocking its contents to the floor with a violent crash. Max jumped up with a dazed look on his face and spun about to . His fist came at Benís face but Ben flinched aside and it merely grazed his ear. He thrust his left fist into Maxís stomach and Max let out a wimpy little yelp of pain. Suddenly another punch hit him in the back of the head and he fell forward, knocking Max to the ground once again. Ben didnít fall with him though. He stumbled over him and broke into a run for the door. He had gotten a few shots in and now it was time to bolt. Maxís buddies would make sure it was not a fair fight. He would probably be hospitalized if he didnít escape.

Kids jumped aside as the fight came their way, while others at the back of the restaurant hurried toward the doors to follow the action. Half way to the door one of them tackled him and he fell over a table once again. Dishes and silverware scattered everywhere as the table fell in a chaotic symphony of mayhem. Another blood-thirsty cheer erupted from the crowd. Ben rolled out from under the kid who had jumped him and quickly got to his feet again. This time he made it to the door, but by now everyone in the restaurant had jumped to their feet and came rushing toward him. He got all the way out to the parking lot before one of the thugs grabbed him and started punching him in the stomach. Ben was winded and doubled over in pain, trying desperately to breathe once again. A circle of kids formed around them and Max shoved his way through. He came at Ben swinging and Ben dodged this way and that, trying to flee. The kids wouldnít let him though. They simply pushed him back each time and Max got more agonizing punches in on him.

Then Ben took a devastating shot to the face that blinded him with pain. He yelped out loud, and broke out crying. Now he was definitely losing. He heard Max laugh as his vision righted itself and he jumped forward and booted Max right in the groin, quick and hard. Max yelped again and doubled over, clutching at his wounded privates. Then Ben kicked him again in the hip and he stumbled sideways knocking the gawking onlookers aside. There was finally a gap in the wall of onlookers. Ben leaped over Max who had fallen to his knees, and ran for the hill behind the restaurant. The mob jeered and laughed at Benís fleeing but nobody pursued. They began to dissipate, thinking it was all but over.

Max did chase him however, along with his buddies. He stumbled to his feet and broke into a limping run.

"Catch that little maggot!" he yelled at his friends. "Hold him for me!"

Ben ran for his very life. If he was caught now they would surely kill him. He ran up the hill like a frightened animal fleeing a pack of wild predators, but his leg was sore and his balance was fuzzy. It was slow going and they caught up to him at the top of the hill. One of them tackled him and he crumpled to the ground in defeat. Fear gripped him insanely now and he flailed about wildly, trying to free himself from the punkís grasp. He yelled and screamed like a little child until the rest of the group got up there. Then he froze in silent fear as Max crested the hill.

"You little maggot," he snarled, almost drunk with rage. "When I get through with you I swear to God you wonít even remember your own name."

Ben whimpered.

"Donít!" he cried, struggling against the grip of the Maxís friends. "Please! Iím sorry. Donít hurt me!"

But it was too late to plead with Max Daniels. Max was only spurred on by his helplessness. He swung wildly and pounded his fist into Benís guts. Ben barked, and then gasped once again. He tried to hunch over but he was held fast.

Max punched him over and over again, landing two or three punishing shots to his midsection and finally Ben could not breathe at all. He simply shook his head in agony and gulped for air.

Max wound up for a shot directly into Benís face but suddenly a man lurched out of the shadows and caught his wrist in an iron grip. The man twisted his arm back behind his head in a swift jerk and snapped Maxís forearm with a sickening flesh-muffled crack. Maxís scream echoed off the mountain sides and his friends released Ben and backed away, in shock. Ben dropped to the ground and slumped into a ball on the dirt.

The stranger kicked Max in the back of the legs and he dropped painfully onto his knees. The man still had his arm in a merciless vise-like grip and it twisted, crackling even more as Max fell forward. His scream was chilling. His buddies took another step backward. Ben looked up in dazed wonder.

Then the man said something to them in a foreign language and flung Maxís arm forward. The broken forearm smacked Max in the side of his head and he howled in pain once again. Then Max was kicked unceremoniously down the hill. He rolled over and over down the steep hillside, twisting and crunching his arm as he went.

The stranger stood menacingly before them and issued a challenge to the remaining thugs in whatever language he spoke. None of them understood him. They glanced nervously at one another, watching for any signs of fleeing in any of their comrades. None of them fled. They all turned to the defiant stranger and raised their fists. Surely the five of them could take him.

They could not have been more wrong.

The first two punks charged forward hoping to tackle him to the dirt and work him over from there, but the man stepped forward into their charge. He kicked one punkís knee, snapping it backward as he charged forward and the tendons tore free of the muscle with an audible snapping sound that was instantly drowned out by a deafening scream. The kid fell forward from his momentum and his foot was crushed under his own hip. At the same time the man thrust his hand up into the other kidís throat and clothes-lined him with a strangling chop that knocked him solidly onto his back.

The remaining three saw their two friends fall with almost no effort on the part of the opponent and they blanched. He called them forward but they did not move. They looked down at their writhing and screaming friends in amazement and fear and backed up a step. Then they looked at each other.

The stranger, sensing their hesitation relaxed, he dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword and-

"Heís got a freakiní sword!" one of them yelled in panic.

Suddenly all three of them ran in terror over the ridge and down the hill. The man called to them in his alien tongue, pointing at their comrades lying in the grass but they were already half-way down the hill, stumbling and rolling, getting back up, and running again. So the man simply launched one fellow to rolling down the hill with his foot, and threw the other one. They rolled and crawled down the hill as fast as they could. Then he turned to their victim.

Ben looked up at the stranger in fear, finally catching his breath. He wondered for a moment if he should flee as well, but seeing the sword he knelt there in awe instead.

The man had white armor on. His hair was shoulder length blond. His eyes were deep and dazzling. He wore a large stone on a chain around his neck. His sword handle gleamed in the night. Ben just stared, completely forgetting his aches and pains for a moment.

Then the man asked something of him. Ben did not know what heís said, but suddenly the stone he wore lit up with a white glow as though answering his question. The man grinned joyfully as though heíd just opened a treasure chest full of precious jewels. Then he reached down, offering a hand to help Ben to his feet.

Ben reached up and took it.

"Youíre really, real?" he stammered, rising to his feet. The man looked at him puzzled. Evidently he could not understand Ben either, but the stone glowed once again, this time in response to Benís question. The stranger asked another question and the stone did not glow. Then he threw his hands up in sudden frustration and turned away. He looked exasperated, apparently angered that Ben did not speak his language. Ben gulped.

Suddenly a commotion arose down at the diner. Both of them looked down and saw a crowd gathering around the injured bunch of Max and his friends. They were all pointing up the hill and shouting back and forth at each other. Suddenly a police car pulled into the parking lot. The mysterious man stood mesmerized, watching the flashing red and blue lights as though heíd never seen such a thing before.

"Shoot!" Ben hissed. "Letís get the hell outta here!"

He grabbed the stranger by the arm and they turned to run down the other side of the hill toward the river. It was only waist deep, but very cold and they hurriedly waded across it to the other side and dashed into the forest on the other side. They ran for a good ten minutes until Ben could go no farther. Finally he stumbled and fell, still weak from the injuries of the beating he had taken.

The stranger stopped. He stepped forward and knelt beside him, looking around for any signs of danger, and then relaxing when he decided it was alright.

"Aw! My legs!" Ben panted. "I canít run anymore."

The stranger responded with some sort of reassurance and patted him on the arm.

They rested there for a long time. No one came after them. Far away in the distance Ben heard the faint wail of an ambulance. It was almost inaudible through the thick of the trees but he heard it. He sat up and rubbed at his wounds.

"Well I wanted adventure," he said. "Looks like I got one."

The stranger smiled at him. The stone glowed once again.

"That thingís magic or something, isnít it?" he said half in disbelief. The stranger looked down at it, realizing he was talking about it. He showed it to him. "I mean, I donít think thereís really any such thing as magic in this world," Ben said. "But you also donít see knights in shining armor suddenly appear with swords in the middle of nowhere either.

Ben rubbed the back of his head. It still hurt.

"Perhaps Iím delusional. I did take a few knocks to the head after all."

The man shrugged. Ben looked at him curiously once again.

"Iím, uh, Ben," he said, pressing his hand to his chest. "Me. Ben."

"Peen?" the man said, trying to comprehend.

"No. Ben. Benjamin Cory Zastar," he repeated, enunciation each syllable with great care.

"Ben Corindor?" the man said back.

"Uh, no," Ben sighed. "Well, whatever. Sure."

Ben Corindor. It sounded like something out of one of his fantasy novels. It was kind of cool.

"Ben Corindor!" the stranger beamed.

"Yeah," Ben nodded tiredly. "Sure."

Then the stranger pointed at himself. "Oz-lindÖ" he said.

"Oslind?" Ben repeated, pointing at him.

The stranger nodded. They smiled at each other in the dim light of the forest.

"Ok, Oslind," Ben continued. "Now I know your name. But where the heck are you from?"

Oslind shook his head, not comprehending.

Ben was equally confused. Here he was in the middle of the forest at night with some sword-wielding hero from a fantasy novel he might have read, and it seemed to him that this guy had actually been looking for him for some reason. He seemed so happy to see him, as though heíd expected to meet him somehow. But why was he looking for him? What was going on?

Oslind had saved him from a near-death beating from Max and his goons, and the two of them had run off into the forest like a couple of adventures fleeing a band of trolls. It was exactly like a novel, but what did it all mean, and what was with the glowing stone he wore? It seemed to answer questions for them, shining affirmative whenever they said something true. It was all so strange, but wonderful at the same time.

"Itís a good thing Iíve read so many fantasy novels in my life," he chuckled. "Anyone else might have snapped and gone insane meeting a weird stranger like you."

Oslind shook his head in confusion. He had no idea what Ben was talking about and thought perhaps it might have been something important. He looked very troubled.

"Man, this is frustrating," Ben snipped. "How the heck are we gonna communicate?"

The white stone glowed between them. They realized together that the magic stone was offering its help to them. Smiles spread across their faces once again as they looked into each otherís eyes.

Chapter 10: The Entreaty

Ben and Oslind sat in the forest in a clear starlit night, trying to communicate with each other by means of the magic stone. Coming from different worlds however it was not as simple as translating Oslindís words into Benís language, or visa versa. They tried many possible ways of communicating through the Stone but nothing seemed to work.

Eventually Ben gave up trying to understand Oslindís words. He gave up concentrating, trying to invoke the Stoneís magic by his will power as the fantasy novels heíd read seemed to suggest. Such intense concentration was giving him a headache anyway, and it was getting them nowhere.

Both men had been speaking into the stone, willing it to translate their message to the other, but finally Ben just backed away from the stone and shushed them both.

"Shhhhh, Oslind," he said in resignation. "This is getting us nowhere."

Oslind shrugged. He had no idea what Ben had just said but he did comprehend the shushing gesture heíd made, placing his finger to his lips and holding out his hand in surrender. They fell silent and just looked at each other for a moment. Finally Ben spoke.

"Okay," he said, thinking aloud. "Obviously this stone is not going to simply translate our words literally back and forth like this, but we know that it can help somehow. We just have to figure out how."

Oslind sighed tiredly.

"This stone deals in truth, right? So I suppose we have to deal in truth as well. I mean, what is communication essentially? Itís getting the truth of someoneís message across to the intended hearer, right? So I guess weíve got to forget about hearing the words the other person says, and focus in on the meaning behind it."

The White Stone agreed, lighting up the area with the brilliance of a small campfire. Ben took the Stone from Oslind and placed it around his neck.

"Ok," said Ben, pointing at his mouth and shaking his head no. "Donít listen to my words. Concentrate on my meaning."

Oslind sat confused. Ben pointed at the stone and then to his ear. Listen to the Stone, he tried to say. Oslind nodded, only slightly comprehending.

"Ok," Ben continued. "Iím just gonna tell you a story and youíll have to just concentrate on the meaning behind my words, not on the words themselves. Here goes."

Ben began talking casually about everyday events in his life. His story eventually meandered into his recent graduation and he confessed that now that heís finished school, he didnít really know what he was going to do next. He told Oslind how he felt like his life was coming to a big black void of directionless uncertainty. He had no idea what career to work towards, he didnít even want to think about it actually, but life was pushing him forward towards the edge of nowhere. If he didnít decide soon he would fall down into darkness.

Oslind listened only to Benís words at first, purely out of habit, but eventually as he stared into the Stone the words faded away. He began to perceive a stream of ideas flowing through his heart. It was vague, expressed to him without words, but it was something he definitely understood, if only at a gut level. He found himself feeling that life seemed to have come to a dead end. He had done everything he was supposed to do thus far and he didnít know which way to go next.

At first Oslind thought these were his own feelings, but after a while these thoughts began to stray into concepts that he did not even understand. He saw himself going into a big building where many young people carry books around with them and sit in rooms together listening to an older man lecturing them. He felt a strange sense of loneliness and isolation. It occurred to him after a while that it was Benís life he was seeing, and though Ben was speaking to him in another language, his meaning was being conveyed to Oslindís heart by the stone. His eyes brightened in comprehension and he began to realize as he listened that Ben Corindor was a solitary fellow who had little fondness for his peers and yearned to be somewhere else most of the time. He had only a few mild acquaintances and no close friends at all. Oslind felt sad for him.

"Are you understanding me?" Ben asked excitedly, seeing the look of comprehension on Oslindís face.

Oslind perceived that Ben wanted to know if he was understanding what he was saying. Oslind did and he beamed with happiness giving Ben a vigorous nod. He leapt to his feet and hugged the young man. Ben was a little surprised at this gesture of affection but he yielded to it. He was just as happy to have finally broken through the barrier of communication after a good hour of frustration. Oslind pointed to his ears and shook his head in negation. Then he pointed to his heart, and then to Benís, and then he nodded.

It seemed they were going to have a heart-to-heart talk.

Next it was Oslindís turn. He took the stone from Ben and placed it around his neck. Then he started to tell his own story.

Ben relaxed, staring into the stone calmly listening with his heart, as opposed to his ears and mind. He in turn had the strange sensation of having a second set of thoughts flow through his heart, and he also wondered for a moment if they were his own. He immediately dismissed this notion though. The thoughts playing through his mind were mere concepts, intuitions, emotions, and basic ideas. He had to interpret them into his own understanding, but it required the concentration of getting his own brain to shut up for a few moments while he focused in on the stream of Oslindís meaning.

Sure enough he caught on to the meaning behind Oslindís words and he rode the stream of thoughts like a train, passing from one concept to another as the Prince told his story. He was a prince, the son of the King of his land. He had a sister and a friend who was the Captain of the Royal Guard. He had been trained in combat and was a fierce warrior. He even had a little friend, a girl he had found in an alley who he had to save from a group of thugs.

Each person flashed into Benís mindís eye as Oslind spoke of them, and Ben was surprised that he got not only the general meaning of Oslindís words, his feelings about each concept he spoke of were conveyed as well. He suddenly knew that Oslind loved his father and sister desperately, and held his friend the Captain of the guard in the highest esteem. He knew how Oslind felt about his combat, that it was an honor to bear a sword in his kingdom and the responsibility should never be abused. Ben sat in awe, feeling Oslindís feelings as though they were his own.

Oslind then returned to the beginning of the story of Morlind, once he realized Ben was following him. He told the history of the land of Morlind, of the King and the population and the dark Wizard slowly corrupting the world with his plague of evil. He told of the various attempts they had made at vanquishing the evil and how they had all been undermined by the moral failures of the parties who were sent.

He then told Ben about how the great wizard of the land had finally come up with a plan to find a hero in a distant world and bring him back to their land to defeat the dark wizard once and for all. Unfortunately it required the lives of two of the kingdomís best men. It would ultimately be worth it though, if the hero agreed to come to their world and rescue them from the Dark Wizardís evil influence.

Ben swallowed nervously. He was beginning to comprehend his part in all of this.

Finally Oslind told him the ending of the story. How that very evening he had started a riot in the streets and had forced the implementation of the Wizardís plan ahead of schedule. How he had said goodbye to his family and friends once and for all and leapt through a magic portal into this world. How he had found Ben and how the White Stone had confirmed that he was in fact the hero they all sought. Then he asked Ben if he would return to his land to fight the Dark Wizard for them.

Ben was awestruck. He stared up at the Prince with a look of disbelief. The rich and full emotions in Oslindís tale stunned Ben as much as the story itself had. He knew that Oslind, this mighty warrior, who had taken out Max and his thugs with barely an effort looked upon him, a skinny little book worm, a nobody, as a great hero who would rescue his land from destruction, a hero for whom he would lay down his life. He could feel Oslindís admiration and reverence for him and Ben could not have felt more unworthy. It was so strange to be sincerely considered greater than he believed he really was by this obviously mighty prince. Had there been a mistake?

Oslind looked at him expectantly. Ben took the stone from him and placed it around his own neck. Oslind tuned his heart into Benís and Ben began his reply.

He was completely dumbfounded. He was no hero. He had no idea how to destroy evil wizards or save entire kingdoms. He did not know why the White Stone had chosen him, but he felt like it was a mistake. Heroes were men of action. Heroes had skill with weapons or magic, or bows and arrows. He had none of these. Heroes had strength of heart. Courage, discipline, strong convictions, unfailing goodness. He had none of these either. He ran from fights, he was ridiculed and he simply took it without standing up for himself. He fled into his fantasy stories when challenged by life to become more than he was. He was no hero, though he wished it were true. He wished with all his heart that it were true, for he wanted nothing more than to be a great adventurer who would save people, fight for the cause of good, and defeat the bad guys of the world. He wasnít a hero though. He faced it honestly, remembering his recent defeat in the fight with Max and the goons. He recalled how he had blubbered like a helpless child, begging for mercy and being beaten like a dog until Oslind had intervened.

Benís voice was choked with emotion as he spoke. Oslind listened in silence. A look of sad confusion conquered his formerly hopeful visage. Finally he took the stone from Ben and answered him with a tone of great determination.

"Many more people believe in you than you realize, Ben Corindor." Oslind spoke to his heart. "Our entire kingdom is at stake and the King himself laid down my life to find you. Rosemont, a wise and powerful man, who did nothing but study his entire life believed in you. He laid down his life for this plan, to bring you to my home land. I myself believe in you. Though I do not wish to die for all this, I am willing to in the hope that youíll be victorious and set my kingdom free from its evil once and for all. The White Stone believes in you. Itís magic is more powerful than any Iíve seen, other than the evil of the Dark Wizard. I asked it if you are the hero we all sought and it said yes.

"You can defeat the Dark Wizard if you apply yourself to it, Ben Corindor. There is no doubt about that. All of us believe in you. Perhaps you simply need to believe in yourself, or at least take our word for it for now. The courage will come later.

"Maybe you do lack skill with weapons, magic, or bows and arrows. Perhaps that simply means these things are not required to defeat the Dark Wizard. Perhaps there is more to you than even you realize. Perhaps this is why I was brought to you out of so many others among so many worlds. Perhaps you wish above all things not to become a hero, but to show the world the hero that you already are deep down inside."

Ben dropped his head into his hands, trying to let go of the doubts that seemed to permeate his entire being. He desperately wanted to believe in Oslindís words, to believe in himself, but everything inside him disagreed.

But wait! Hadnít he finally stood up to Max earlier that night? Hadnít he finally mustered up the courage to fight when every other time he had run away? What was that line in the book he had read? This distance between the hero and you is all the things youíre afraid to do. He had faced his fear then. He had lost the battle with Max, but maybe Max wasnít the real foe. Maybe the battle that really mattered was the battle with himself. He had won that one. Maybe he was a hero after all. Maybe the White Stone, the wizard, the King, Oslind, and everyone else had been right about him.

Maybe all he had to do was believe it.

Ben reached out and took the stone from Oslind.

"Iíll do it," he said to him. "Iíll go to your world and fight this evil wizard of yours. I may not save your people, or rescue the kingdom, but Iíll try."

A happy tear spilled down Oslindís cheek. He reached out and held Benís hand in his. The look of gratitude on his face could be understood in any language. This time it was Ben that reached out and hugged Oslind, and for some reason he burst out crying. Every pitiful thing that his life had been seemed to fade away all of the sudden. The black void that had been his future had now turned into a door, a portal that would lead him to his destiny, and he wept at the joy of it.

"Thank you for believing in me," he said. "Nobody has ever believed in me. Not once my whole life. It feels real good. That you would believe in me even to the point of coming all the way across the universe is an honor I can only hope to live up to. I never had a friend before, not a friend like you. Thank you for being my friend, Oslind. Thank you for believing in meÖ"

Oslind felt the meaning of Benís words in his heart and simply hugged him back in silence. The wind blew softly through the trees. Oslindís hair was tousled around in the breeze as the moment passed. Finally Ben pulled away.

"So letís get going then," Ben said finally. "How do we get back to Morlind?"

Oslind took the Stone from him and placed it around his own neck.

"We?" Oslind said sadly. "There is no we. You will go back alone. My life force will be used to open the portal back to my world. Iím afraid I must be destroyed. My life ends here."

Suddenly Ben understood the full extent of this plan. He understood the horrible sacrifice these men had paid to find him and get him back there and he suddenly felt ashamed for his disbelief. For some reason he had assumed he would be fighting side by side with Oslind in the battles in his world. He had not put two and two together. Now he realized his new found friend would die no sooner than he had met him.

"Donít be sad though, friend," Oslind continued. "I give my life freely, for my father the King, and for the people of Morlind. I believe with all my heart that you will free them from the darkness and bring peace my homeland once again. I was bitter and afraid at one point, but now that I have met you I die without regrets."

Ben swallowed hard once again. Once again he was overwhelmed with a deep feeling of unworthiness, but he fought it off, not wanting to dishonor the faith this man had in him. If Oslind believed he was the hero that could save the kingdom, and was willing to die for it, than it must be true, though Ben didnít understand how or why just yet. He accepted it by faith, and that was good enough for now.

Oslind explained to him the mechanics of how the portal worked, as far as he understood it. He would drink a potion and turn into a great ball of light and Ben would have to run and dive through this portal, concentrating on his destination as he went.

It seemed simple enough to Ben. He did not really mind leaving this world behind. What was here for him anyway? No job. No future. A gang of vengeful bullies who would make his life a living hell the first time they caught up with him. The only thing he would really miss would be saying good-bye to his mother. The last she would hear would be that he had wandered off into the woods and seemingly disappeared.

Though he had never really had a very good relationship with his mother, this bothered Ben a bit. It would kill her to not know. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the little paperback he had stashed in there earlier. He flipped to the back and tore out one of the blank filler sheets. Then he uncapped his pen and scribbled a short note to his mother, saying goodbye, and that he loved her. He was going away on a long journey and might never see her again, he continued. He told her to take care of herself and signed his name. Then he folded it up and stuffed it in a knothole of a tree for the search party to find.

Then he turned to Oslind once again.

"Where to?" he asked. Oslind shook his head, confused once again by the lapse into conversation without the aid of the Stone. Ben reiterated in mock sign language that he was ready to go and Oslind looked around for a clearing through which Ben could run when the portal was opened. They saw one in the dim light of the pre-dawn sky at the top of a nearby hill.

They ascended together. Ben was brimming over with excitement at the thought of real adventure for the first time in his life. All his dreams would now come true. Oslind on the other hand was sullen and a little bit fearful. He knew these would be his last few minutes alive and he struggled to push the panic from his mind.

They got to the top of the hill and found they could see pretty much the whole valley from up here. The sky had become partly cloudy overnight and a gentle breeze now blew across the treetops. There was dew forming on the ground. The stars in the sky were beginning to fade and the dark purple hues in the east were turning a lighter blue.

Oslind stripped off his sword in a finally act of resignation to his fate. His days as a warrior and prince were through and he tied his blade around Benís waist in a symbolic gesture, passing the torch onto him as it were. There were tears flowing down his cheeks, though he fought to restrain them. Ben choked down the emotion that was rising in his throat. He put his hand on the sword and pulled it from its sheath. It was heavy and seemed clumsy to him. What the heck would he do with it? He felt honored to have it though. He put it back in its place and turned back to the Prince.

Oslind made his parting speech.

"Take care of my family, okay?" he began. "Tell them I love them and I hope they remember me with fondness in the days to come, after this battle is won and there is peace in the land once again. Tell them that if they are ever sad, if they ever miss me, tell them just to look at the happiness of the people. Tell them it was all worth it in the end, okay Ben?"

Ben nodded. He matched the Princeís crying with tears of his own, for he felt the full strength of the emotions behind the Oslindís words.

"Take care of yourself," he concluded. "You will never be forgotten."

With that he removed the Stone from his neck and placed it around Benís. All he had left was his armor. He would die a warrior in these.

He walked across the top of the hill until he felt Ben would have enough room to get a good running start then he turned around to face him.

He shouted something in his language which Ben could not understand, and raised the vial into the air. He shouted something else, trying to sound determined, trying to sound noble and brave, but the waver in his voice betrayed him. His arm slowly fell to his side and he hung his head down and stood there, crying helplessly. Ben watched as the manís heart broke in his last few moments alive. He did not want to die.

A moment passed.

Oslind was the bravest man Ben had ever met, and he, even he was struggling with fears. How much more would the lowly Benjamin Cory Zastar struggle? Ben learned in that moment that a true hero is not one who feels no fear, but one who feels as much fear as any other man and still acts anyway.

Oslind tried to raise the vial above his head one more time but was stopped by a blinding flash of light from the eastern sky.

The sun peaked out over the horizon and lit the bottoms of the clouds in a brilliant magenta color. Its beams continued upward into the great blackness of the night and pushed all darkness away with itís overwhelming brilliance. Oslindís jaw dropped open in absolute awe. It was a sunrise, the first one he had ever seen, and it was more beautiful than he had ever imagined. His face was lit up with it, washed over with golden orange hues that sparkled in the tears on his cheeks. His eyes shone and something beautiful happened inside him. His fears and doubts were also pushed away with the magnificent light of dawn. He laughed with weakly and fell to his knees.

Ben watched him with equal astonishment. He had seen many sunrises in his life, but he had never seen the dawn of joy in a manís heart as he now saw in Oslind. It was more beautiful than every sunrise he had ever seen. He was now even more determined to go through with this plan. If Oslind had never seen a sunrise before and felt this much joy, how much more joy would his entire kingdom feel if he defeated the Dark Wizard and vanquished the evil from their land? The idea made Ben shiver. He would give them all such a sunrise, for Oslindís sake. For Oslind loved them all so dearly. He would not let the good Prince die in vain.

The sun exploded into the sky until it was fully ascended over the horizon. The clouds backed away a bit and served merely as canvases for the sunís colors, rather than an obscuring blanket to block it out. Oslindís initial astonishment faded into peaceful contentment and he came to grips with the reason he was going through with this whole mess in the first place. He wanted his father and sister, and Switch to see the beauty he was now seeing. He would die a thousand deaths if it meant they could see this glory even for a moment.

He sat for a few more minutes until his eyes burned from looking at it. Then he rose to his feet once again and turned to face Ben. He lifted the vial high into the air and nodded. Ben nodded back. Then he shouted the same words he had shouted earlier, except this time with full conviction and determination. Then he popped the top from the bottle and drank it all in one gulp.

Ben readied himself for the portal to open, trying to focus on the land Oslind had come from. He did not know what to expect. How long would the potion take to work? How big would it get? Was he far enough back?

Suddenly Oslind jerked as though shot. Some sort of hellish pain ripped through him and he convulsed, barely able to stay on his feet. He shook and flinched with agony and finally screamed. His scream echoed over the treetops and across the valley. Ben saw a light faintly glowing from his midsection. No, not a light, some kind of rainbow of energy that seemed to swirl and writhe in a slowly expanding ball. It was then that Ben began to feel Oslindís presence all over the hilltop. Oslindís very being was emanating outward from this bundled orb of glowing energy and Ben suddenly felt like he understood everything that Oslind was as a man. All his life force was being released into the air around him, and it could be felt even from the other side of the hill. Ben stared in awe. The wind picked up and the grass began to wave violently back and forth, as though caught in a storm.

Finally the ball of energy was up to Oslindís chin and down to his knees, about three feet across, and Ben broke into a run. He picked up speed as he approached and tried his best to focus on the destination. He could not help but marvel at the awesome power of Oslindís life force however, and he almost stumbled as he ran. But at the very last second he steeled his mind into one single thought and leapt into the ball of energy that had been a prince but was now a portal. There was a sound like thunder in reverse and Ben disappeared from the world. Everything that had been Oslind collapsed in a violent implosion and suddenly all was silent again.

The great Prince of Morlind had been completely destroyed.

PART II:
The Rescue

Chapter 11: The Darkness

 

Oslindís earliest memories were of being safe and secure in his motherís arms. As far back as he could remember he was always snug and happy, wrapped up in her love and care. If he was afraid, or sad, or hurt, she was there. She was there to praise him when he was good, and she was there to give him correction and guidance if he had been bad. There was never a time when she was not there. Though she was laden down with the burden of castle administration, she always took care of little Oslind when he needed her. It was his first memory.

Beyond that most of Oslindís childhood memories were centered around adventures. There were monsters that needed to be slain, bad guys that needed vanquishing, and beautiful damsels that needed rescuing. He ran around the castle as a boy with a little wooden sword, slaying these dragons and rescuing these damsels. He was a hero in his mind, and his excitement could not be suppressed, though he was a constant annoyance to the Castle staff. He would leap out from around a corner and scare an innocent passerby half out of his or her mind with a barbaric holler of conquest.

On one such occasion the victim happened to be the castle cook carrying two trays of food down the stairs to the banquet hall. The fright caused the cook to drop his trays and slip on the sauces that spilled across the stairs. The cook was badly injured and little Oslind was in deep trouble. Oslind protested adamantly that the accident was not his fault. He claimed the cook had soiled himself from the scare and had slipped on purpose to cover up his embarrassment. King Morlind didnít buy that story however (though he and Rosemont had a hearty laugh over it later) and it was decided that Oslind would have to be punished.

It was decided that something needed to be done to keep Oslind busy. He needed his youthful energy harnessed and directed toward more productive activities. His parents disagreed as to what they should be, and while they discussed it Oslind was ordered to help out the soldiers in the armory with whatever they needed. This was when Oslind first got to know Hardsly, a young soldier in training to become the captain of the Kingís Royal Guard. The rest, as they say, is history.

Oslind decided he wanted to become a soldier, just like Lieutenant Hardsly. His mother would not hear of it, and it was only after much deliberation with Hardsly that she was finally persuaded. Oslind was accepted as a recruit and worked to exhaustion on the drills. The intention was to drive him to quit, as neither Hardsly nor Osdina wanted him training as a soldier. Oslind surprised them all however, and as he grew he won the respect of every man in the company. As for Osdina, she was just happy he had become a disciplined and honored young man.

Ben saw this as he flashed through Oslindís life in the portal. Though it all went by so fast, the memory of Osdinaís love and care was so powerful that it stuck with Ben out of the thousands of little incidents that he saw in Oslindís lifetime. He saw Marilina, he saw king Morlind. He saw Rosemont and Hardsly. He saw the castle, the town and even a lot of the countryside of the realm of Morlind. Everything that ever happened to Oslind came flashing by in the blink of an eye and Ben couldnít figure out if heíd really gone through it all with Oslind, or if Oslindís memories had simply been transferred over to his own mind. Either way it was overwhelming knowing another person so completely and so suddenly that it actually felt like being him for that moment.

He saw that he was a man capable of great love and devotion to those he cared for. He saw the death of Queen Osdina through her sonís eyes and his heart nearly broke along with Oslindís. After that, Oslind became prone to excessive violence when he let his anger take over. It scared all who knew him, especially Marilina. He saw Oslindís love for Marilina, his father the King, Hardsly, and a little girl named Switch. Then he saw Oslindís last day in Morlind.

Just when he thought it was almost over, Oslind had the experience of flashing through Rosemontís entire lifetime as well. Ben went through this little flash and had even more stuffed into his mind in the same instant. Before he knew it, Ben had two lifetimes of experience added to his own, and it all happened miraculously in the blink of an eye. He saw Rosemontís destruction as Oslind flashed through him into Benís world, then he saw Oslindís destruction as Ben flashed through him. Then he came out the other side.

He was about four feet off the ground when he entered the world of Morlind, and he was flying through the air at sprinting speed. He tore into the world with a great clap of thunder, and hit the forest floor with a bounce and a tumble through the brush. He rolled to a stop against a tree and just lay there for the longest time humming with the energy of everything Oslind might have been. It was the most powerful thing Ben had ever felt. He knew Oslind was a great man, but he never imagined how great he really was. Everything that the Prince had been and could have been was saturating Ben as he lay there against the tree. It was so intense in fact that Ben was completely numbed by it. His body and mind were overwhelmed.

It reminded Ben of having a flash go off in your face when you were in the dark. You were blinded by it for a moment and couldnít see a thing. Thatís sort of what it was like for him, except it was all over his entire body, blinding all five senses, and even numbing his mind. For the longest time Oslind was everything, everywhere, all around him and inside him, and then it began to fade.

He began to feel the weight of his body on the ground, as though someone was slowing turning the gravity back on. He began to hear the sound of a blustery wind, hot and angry through the trees around him. He began to sense some dark and sinister presence all around him. It was like a blanket the was trying to suffocate him, but he found he could breath just fine. The air in Morlind was hot and thick but it was breathable. The suffocation was more outside him he realized after a moment, like a great heaviness that was trying to saturate him. He didnít know what it was, but it felt completely and totally evil. He also began to feel pain in his body. He was still sore from the fight with Max and the boys, and now this tumble into Morlind had jostled him up even more.

He began to hear another strange sound. The sound of sobbing. As his senses came back to him he realized the sobbing was coming from himself. He felt a great sorrow inside him as the numbness faded. Sorrow over Oslind. Sorrow over Rosemont. Both of whom heíd known completely, their entire lives. Now they were gone. He was shattered with the notion of it, and he wept like a helpless child. He realized fully how great a sacrifice these men had made, giving their very lives to bring him here, and he felt woefully inadequate to the task they had called him to. He was no soldier. He was no Wizard. He was no hero. He was not even close. As he lay there sobbing in the dirt of the forest floor, Ben began to feel that a tragic mistake had been made.

"Why did you do it?" he sobbed to himself. "Why me? I canít save the world. Iím nobody."

Gradually Ben felt the Oslind-energy fading from his flesh. He clutched helplessly at his body, trying to catch some of it, trying to make it stay. It was not a thing that could be caught however. It flowed out of him like air leaking from a punctured balloon. He could no more catch it and hold it than he could grasp the wind in his fingers, and it broke his heart. As he sat there crying he became aware that the energy of Oslind that flowed out of him was not simply evaporating into nothingness. It was being absorbed into the sword at his hip, the relic Oslind had carried with him his whole life. That comforted him a little. He lay there for a long time until Oslind was completely gone from him. Then he pulled the blade from its sheath and hugged the handle to his tear-streamed cheek.

"Iíll never forget you, Oslind," Ben promised inside his heart. "Iíll remember you forever."

The hot wind blew by, howling angrily through the trees without pausing. It was the only sound after Benís crying ceased. The great sword seemed saturated with the energy of its former master. He kissed the cool metal handle and slid it back into its sheath.

He laid there for a long time waiting for his vision to come back on, but it didnít. For a moment he thought maybe heíd gone blind. He turned his face this way and that but everything was completely dark. He began to grow a little afraid all of the sudden.

Finally he sat up and realized the problem. It was must have been nighttime. The land of Morlind was completely dark. It was a night without moon or stars or any source of light whatsoever. He rubbed his eyes and saw bright flashes. He waved his hand in front of his face and saw only the faintest shimmer of what might have been his palm, but he was not sure. He couldnít see a thing. There was only the sound of wind in the trees around him that told him he was indeed outdoors. Heíd never seen such blackness before in his life though. He was terribly afraid. His hands began to shake.

"Man is it ever dark out here!" he said to himself. His voice trembled like a frightened little child in the night, echoing off the trees around him.

There was suddenly a brilliant flash of light that burned his anxiously gaping eyes with the strength of the very sun itself. Ben jumped a little in surprise and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. When he opened them it was dark again, except for the ghost of the flash that had burned itself into his retinas. It took a moment before he realized what had happened. It was the White Stone! He had spoken truth and the stone had confirmed it. The world was completely dark.

"My name is Benjamin Cory Zastar," he said. The stone lit up the woods again. He looked around at the trees and foliage he had landed in. Then the light faded. "Iím in Morlind," he continued. The ground was rocky and sloped downward. "Iím in a forest of some sort," he added. By the fresh burst of light from the stone he saw he was on the slope of a mountain. Then it was dark again. Well at least he had a light source. That was comforting. He stood up carefully and shook the dead leaves and twigs from his hair and clothes. "Itís nighttime here," he said.

This time the stone did not glow. Ben tapped it, as though its battery had run dead or something. "It is nighttime here, right?" he asked. There was still no response. His heart skipped a beat and jumped into a gallop.

"You mean itís not nighttime?" Ben asked in astonishment.

The stone lit up and faded out again. This time the darkness was even darker than before. His panic made it so.

"What the hell is going on here?" he stammered. Benís voice echoed in the darkness. He began to feel an overwhelming terror, like a small child whoíd been locked in the dark and scary cellar. He began to gasp for air. The oppressive blanket of evil added even more to his panic and soon he was sniveling like a little kid, almost hyperventilating as he gasped for breath, sucking in the hot and heavy air.

"Where the hell is the sun?" he squeaked.

Ben could feel that it was hot like the day time, but there was absolutely no light. He grabbed on to the tree he stood beside and slid down to a cowering squat. His mind raced through all the other reasons to be afraid. He was in the blackness of a forest possibly miles from anywhere, and he had no idea where he was supposed to be going or what he was supposed to be doing. Why had he come? Why hadnít Oslind told him about this darkness?

Because Oslind hadnít known. Ben remembered Oslindís last day in Morlind. He had butchered some thugs in an alley and it had been a bright enough day. It was nothing like this though. Where was he? Had he gone to the wrong world? No. The Stone had glowed when heíd said he was in Morlind, and the evil Oslind had felt was here, only about a hundred times worse.

The only other hypothesis Ben could come up with was that perhaps between the time Oslind left and Ben arrived, the dark wizard had won and covered the land completely in darkness. How much time had passed?

"Surely thereís not a single good person left in this world," he commented.

The stone disagreed.

"There are still good people left in this world?" Ben corrected himself. The Stone glowed in agreement. "I just have to find them then." The stone glowed again. "In fact. There are good people nearby." The stone glimmered slightly, but much fainter than before. This was almost true, Ben supposed. "There are good people in the general vicinity, but not anywhere near me?"

The stone glowed. Ben was comforted. He got up and scanned around for anything heíd dropped in his tumble through the portal. There by the light of some trivial truth heíd spoken he saw his paperback, The Gondorian Prophecy. It must have fallen from his pocket. He scooped it up and stuffed it back in his pocket once again.

"The distance between the hero and you, is all the things youíre afraid to do," Ben quoted.

The White Stone glowed. Ben smiled. Some fear left him, and he began to make his way through the forest. It was slow and dark and he reminded himself of a giant firefly, switching on and off as he went, step by step through the woods, not even knowing which way he was going. Leaves crunched under his feet. Twigs snapped. His shoes sounded loud as they scuffed across the rocks. He had the encroaching fear that at any moment a pair of hungry glowing red eyes would appear in front of him, above a great hungry mouth full of jagged and drooling teeth. He could almost hear the throaty growl as the beastís throat closed around it heavy panting breath. Thatís what the blackened air felt like - the hot breath of a giant beast, ready to devour him. He was torn between wanting to hurry through the woods in a panic, or simply crouching down in hiding beneath some thicket and waiting until someone nice came along and found him.

"Iím going the right way," he stated.

The stone did not glow.

He turned around.

"Iím going the right way," he repeated.

This time the stone agreed. Of course! He would have to go downhill if he wanted to get to the castle. He must be in the wilderness on the mountainside behind the castle. He had been going sideways along the slope. Downhill was the way to go.

"Iím heading for the castle now," he said aloud. The stone glowed in reply for a moment, but as it faded out he stubbed his toe against a protruding stone. A curse echoed through the darkened forest.

"Thereís gotta be a way you can stay lit. I canít see a darn thing! My eyes are going buggy from you flashing like that," he said to the stone. The stone flashed in response.

Ben sat down in the darkness, took off his shoe and rubbed his aching toes. The only thing he could think of to do to keep the White Stone lit would be to keep monotonously repeating some simple and obvious truths. That would get tiring very quickly.

He decided to sing instead. Something simple, where the words were truth. That would serve both to keep the stone lit, and to cheer him up a bit if possible. What to sing though?

"This little light of mine, Iím gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, Iím gonna let it shine," he sang quietly to himself.

The stone lit up. Since Ben had no intention of preventing the Stone from shining, his statement was technically true, though it must have had to assume Ben was referring to itself. Not only did the stone light up, it stayed lit. The brightness merely waxed and waned in between lines. Ben found he was able to continue through the darkness without stopping now. He felt better. A little better anyway.

"In the dark, Iím gonna let my little light shine," he continued, and then started over. His voice was a little strained, and he panted in between lines from the exertion of the hike, but the song served its purpose. He could see, and he could walk.

He walked for a good hour like that, repeating the same three lines over and over again, stopping only briefly every fifteen minutes or so to sit for a moment and wipe the disgusting flow of sweat from his face. He was getting very thirsty.

Gradually the slope leveled off a bit and the going got a bit easier. He stopped on a small rise in the rock and stared off into the distance. He thought he saw a bit of light in the sky in the distance. Perhaps the black cloud that blanketed this land, completely blocking out the sun, thinned out up ahead.

"The clouds are thinning out over there," Ben said to the stone, checking the truth of his hypothesis. The stone agreed.

"There is a sun in this land after all," he sighed with relief.

After another hour of walking in the suffocating heat of the day his thirst became intolerable. His legs and arms began to shake and he was feeling a little dizzy. He asked the stone by process of elimination which direction the nearest water was and he was directed off his course to the left. He walked for ten more minutes and found that he had been going parallel to a cool clear river the whole time. He heard it before he saw it. He sang a little louder and faster as he hurried toward the sound of flowing water. Finally he got there and stumbled to his trembling knees on the bank. He shoved his face into the cool water and gulped down large amounts of the refreshing liquid. The stone went dark once again, but he didnít care. He didnít need to see the water. He just needed to drink it.

He shoved his whole head in and began splashing water over his back. It felt wonderful. For a moment he had relief from the heat. He pulled his head out and let out a happy little chuckle of relief.

"I never enjoyed a drink of plain old water so much in my whole life!" he commented with all sincerity.

The white stone glowed brightly. In the water an armís length in front of him he saw a dead human face looking out at him from the cold blackness of the river. He let out a startled shriek and within a second he was ten feet away from the river bank, scrambling backward on his hands and feet, cutting his hands on the rocks and twigs but not even noticing. He backed up against a tree finally and sat there curled up in a small frightened ball shaking like a leaf. He was in darkness again, but the image had burned itself into his mind. He could still see the cold dead eyes looking at him as though in agony. He whimpered aloud shuddering involuntarily with terror. His stomach wretched at the thought of drinking water that had soaked into a corpse. He turned his head and vomited the entire contents of his stomach onto the roots of the tree. Then he started to cry. His mind strained under the weight of the fear that was being shoveled on to it moment by moment. Now he was afraid of the dark, and afraid of the light.

"What the hell am I doing here?" he stammered. He was in a desperate panic now. Previously he had simply been scared, but now he felt insane with fear. It had become too much for him.

"Help!" he hollered in a cracked little voice. "Somebody help me!"

"Whoís there?" somebody yelled back in the distance. Only it was not spoken in English. It was yelled back at him in the language of Morlind, but for some reason Ben understood it perfectly.

"Iím over here," Ben called back, hesitantly experimenting with this new dialect. "Please help me!"

The language sounded strange in his ears. He had never known any other language than his mother tongue, and suddenly he found himself speaking Morlindish, or whatever it was called.

It occurred to him as he sat there that he must have learned it while flashing through two lifetimes of native Morlinders. He was still surprised by his understanding of it though. It was like a memory deep in his mind had all of the sudden awakened. Though that probably wasnít the case, thatís what it felt like to him. He sat there pondering that for a moment as he waited for the man to arrive.

"Where are you?" the man yelled again, closer this time. "What are you doing out here?"

"Iím lost. Iím looking for the castle," Ben replied. "Thereís a dead body in the river over here!"

"There are a lot of dead bodies in the land these days," the man said with half a chuckle. His voice was even closer than before. "Where have you been?"

"Iím not from around here," Ben said. The white stone glowed faintly with each of his statements, illuminating the frightened young man huddled up against a tree. Finally he saw torch light in the distance. As the light approached Ben saw not one man, but several, and he started to wonder if heíd made a mistake in assuming they were friendly. He tucked the White Stone nervously into his shirt.

"So I gathered," the man said back. "Nobody in their right mind would travel alone through these woods without a light. There are hordes of bandits wandering around."

One of the men laughed and was shushed. Benís heart sank even deeper into fear. His hand went awkwardly to his sword, though he knew he had no idea how to use it.

The men approached the rest of the way and Ben saw them more clearly. He got to his feet as they neared and found an overwhelming urge to draw the sword flowing through him. He resisted it though, it felt scary. He did not want to fight. These were not the teen aged punks heíd dealt with at the Shiny Cup Diner. These were men. They were ragged and dangerous looking. He let go of the sword once again, afraid to offend them.

Draw the sword, a voice inside his head whispered. Draw the sword! His hand shook in resistance to what seemed to be a reflex action.

"Have you got any food?" one of the men asked in an anxious tone.

"No," Ben replied equally agitated now. "I have nothing. I was getting a drink from the river and saw a dead body over there."

"Did he have any food?" someone else asked.

"I didnít look," Ben said in disgust. "He was under water."

"You donít look like much of an adventurer," the first man said. The men approached slowly as they talked and the impulse to draw the sword grew even stronger. They all looked ready for a fight. There were about seven or eight of them.

"Iím not an adventurer," Ben confessed. His hand had moved onto the handle of his sword without him even realizing it. The sword had felt clumsy and heavy when he had held it in his own world, but now the weight of it at his hip was reassuring somehow. "Iím just looking for the castle. I need to speak with the king."

Suddenly they all burst into laughter. They spread out to the sides of him now as they approached and Benís heart was now pounding in his chest. His body was shaking. He saw the man who seemed to be the leader, the one who had originally called out to him when he had cried for help.

"And just what do you suppose youíre going to talk to him about, little man?" the leader asked.

"I mean you no harm. Just back off!" Ben stammered, changing the subject.

There was an odd pause in their advance. Now they knew that Ben knew they were not planning to be friendly. They all stood looking back and forth between him and their leader. The leader stared steadily at Ben. A gust of wind tousled his ragged shocks of hair around. His eyes were slits. There was no light in them. Ben didnít see light in any of their eyes. The weight of evil in the air seemed intent on crushing his very soul.

"Those sure are interesting clothes," the leader murmured. "I wouldnít mind to try them on."

Ben looked down at his sword and finally moved to whip it out when the men suddenly lunged at him. The sword flashed free of its sheath but it only managed to hack part of a manís finger off before Ben was tackled and thrown to the ground. His head smacked against a rock and a bright flash of pain exploded from behind his eyes. There was an angry scream from the injured man and a boot stomped onto Benís face, twisting it to the side. His cheek pressed into the dirt. Half a second later the severed finger dropped to ground six inches from his face. It was the last thing Ben saw before everything went black.

Chapter 12: The Captive

Ben awoke in the dark. He was in pain once again, and in darkness, and he was confused. Heíd forgotten where he was as he slowly ascended into consciousness. At first heíd thought he was back at home in his own bed, but then as he awoke more fully he felt agony in his body that seemed to consume his entire being. He lay completely still. Any movement he made seemed to aggravate the pain. Even breathing hurt. He slowly realized he was still in Morlind. He was hungry and thirsty. His body was numb, except for aches and cramps and a throbbing headache. For the first time in his young life he literally felt like he was dying.

He heard the crackle of a fire and the mind-numbing moan of a steadily blasting wind. Suddenly he heard someone talking a short distance away.

"How long do you suppose heíll sleep for?"

"He took a pretty good hit on the head."

"Are we gonna kill him you think?"

"Heíll be taken to Daklorund I expect, just like all the others."

"Janorlind will vote for killing him I bet, after what the little rat did to his finger."

"Heís worth more to us alive than dead at this point. Janorlind knows that."

"That kid seems different though Ė like heís not from around here."

"Then perhaps Daklorund will pay even more for him. Weíve sent nothing but women and kids over there for months. Heíll be happy to get a hold of a strong young man like this."

There was a heavy silence as each man sorted through his thoughts.

Ben shuddered. He was laying on his side, on the cold ground. His hands were tied behind his back and his wrists burned from the knots. He could barely feel his arms. He tried to kick his feet, but they were tied as well.

He slowly, carefully rolled to the left and right and found himself in some sort of wooden cage. He sat up, wincing from the pain in his head. There were wooden bars above him as well, but these ones were covered over by some sort of heavy fabric tarp. He turned slowly around and saw that there was only one end of the little cage that was opened to fresh air. In the distance he saw firelight flickering across the trees. All else was black. He could not even hear so much as an insect chirping in the night. There was only the incessant howling of the hot wind through the trees.

"What do you suppose Daklorund does with all those people up there?" one of the thugs asked his comrade.

"I donít know, and I donít want to know. He pays us to keep bringing Ďem, so we do. Enough said."

"I bet heís sacrificing them or something. Maybe worse! You ever hear the screams that come out of that place?"

"Like I said, I donít know, and I donít want to know, now shut up about it."

"Do you think heíll want that stone the kid had? And that sword? Thatís a nice sword."

"I figure the bossíll probably want to keep them for himself. Heís got that crystal thing too. Heís getting pretty wealthy."

"What crystal thing?"

"That thing he picked up off of that brainless dolt of an adventurer we killed last week."

"There was a crystal?"

"Yes, of course there was a crystal, dung-wit. Donít you remember? That pink thing?"

"I donít know. I guess so."

"Anyway, now the boss has those three treasures, and I donít think heíll be wanting Daklorund to find out about them, so you best keep your mouth shut when weíre over there. Youíll find yourself laying at the bottom of a river like that scatter-brained drunk of a swordsman we got the crystal from."

"Quiet, you two. Weíre trying to sleep over here."

The conversation trailed off into whispering that was drowned out by the crackling fire. The wind which had sounded merely lonesome earlier was scarier now. Ben felt very alone. The tarp above the cage fluttered in the breeze.

Ben tried to shuffle over to the door behind him, but he could barely move. Everything was agony for him. Finally he gave up and simply dropped back down onto the floor. Tears started in his eyes once again as he lay there silently wallowing in self-pity. Some hero he had turned out to be. He had been beaten, battered, and bludgeoned since heíd met Oslind. He was transported to a strange land that was completely covered in darkness and he had no idea where to go or what to do. Now heíd been robbed and imprisoned by a group of thugs and he was apparently on his way to be sold as a human sacrifice to the wizard he had come here to defeat. In the books heíd read adventures were always so easy. The hero fought bravely, chance and fate always intervened at every turn when the going got tough, and their courage never seemed to fail. There was never a problem that couldnít be beaten in the end, and they lived happily ever after.

This was no adventure book, however. He was no hero. This was really happening. He was really in danger of death. There would be no lucky coincidence to save him. He was certain Oslind had made a terrible mistake in choosing him.

"I just want to go home," he whispered to himself. "I wish I could just go home."

He closed his eyes, as though willing his wish to come true, and was soon fast asleep once again. He slept for several more hours on the cool earth floor of the cocoon-like cage. For some strange reason he dreamed of Osdina. He dreamed of being safe and warm in her arms. He felt loved. He felt secure.

"Seek me out," she said to him. "Iíll protect you."

Then he awoke. Someone was tapping him lightly on the head. It was a woman. Ben heard it before he saw it.

"Wake up," she whispered. "Hey, come on. Wake up."

The first thing Ben noticed was that most of the aches and pains were now gone. He had a slight headache, and his body was still cramped and sore from lying with his hands tied behind his back, but other than that he didnít feel too bad. The sleep had done him some good. Even the heavy oppression of evil in the air seemed to have lightened a little.

The thirst was even worse though. Laying there sweating in the heat of the cage all day had drained him dry and he was almost delirious with it.

"Water," he whispered.

"I donít understand," the girl replied. "What did you say?"

Ben realized he had spoken in his own language. He asked her again in Morlindish.

"Oh, right! Sorry. You must be terribly thirsty. Hold on."

She disappeared without even so much as a sound. Ben lay there, waiting for her return, slipping in and out of consciousness, or so it seemed to him anyway. He began to feel awful again after sheíd gone. His mouth was dry and his throat was like sandpaper every time he swallowed. He lay there patiently waiting for her. Something seemed to want him to get angry with her for taking so long. The heaviness of evil seemed to have returned. That was it. He shrugged it off and simply hoped for her to come back soon. He didnít know who she was, but if she was going to bring him water he didnít really care. She was not one of the thugs. He gathered that much at least.

Just then one of the thugs came lumbering up to the cage. The footfalls were heavy on the ground. Ben could feel them as the man approached. He knelt in front of the door and looked in on Ben.

"Still alive, kid?" he asked with no real concern.

"Water," Ben pleaded.

"You want some water, do you?" the man asked with a chuckle. "Iíll give you some water.

Then he stood up, tugged down his trousers, and began urinating onto Benís head. Ben grimaced, but could offer no real resistance. He struggled and squirmed but he was helpless. There was nothing he could do. He heard the manís soulless laughter and he suddenly hated him. He whimpered, and gnashed his teeth at the humiliation, but there was nothing he could do.

Finally the man finished and stooped down to look into the cage once more.

"Howís that?" he chuckled. "Is that enough water for ya?"

Ben moaned in agony. Heíd never felt more degraded in his entire life. This guy had topped everything Max Daniels had ever done to him in one single gesture. It was a horrible feeling.

"Thought so," the man continued. "That was for my finger, by the way. I would have killed you in your sleep by now, but we all know Daklorund has something much worse in store for you. Worse than I could ever offer. My only comfort is knowing youíll soon die a horrible death."

Then the man grunted, and let out a gurgling breath. He lied down on the grass beside the cage and seemed to simply pass out. Ben couldnít see it, but he could hear it. A moment later the cage door opened.

"Come on, letís go," the woman said.

Ben looked up in shock. Where had she come from all of the sudden? He hadnít even heard her approach.

"I canít move," Ben told her. "Iím tied up."

The girl reached into the cage behind Ben, and with a short sawing motion she freed his wrists from the binding ropes. He pulled one arm in front of him and rotated his aching wrists. His shoulder ached from the motion but it still felt good to be free.

Ben managed to lift the weight of his body off of his other arm and bring it out from underneath him. His hand was completely numb, having had barely any circulation at all for almost an entire day. He rolled onto his back and just lay there allowing his strangled limb to breath for a moment. Blood began flowing back into it and it was soon agonized with the pins and needles of restored circulation. It ached as though waking from the dead.

"Whatís that smell?" the woman asked.

"That man used me for a toilet," Ben replied.

She made no comment in reply, but Ben sensed her body tense with anger. She must be on the side of good, Ben thought.

"Come on, we really have to go."

"Did you bring any water?"

"Yes. Here."

She thrust a water-skin into the cage. He sat up, untied its drawstring, and began drinking deeply. He was soon finished the entire skin, pausing between gulps to gasp for air, until the very last mouthful was gone. It was wonderful - cold and fresh.

"Thanks," he panted, handing it back to her.

"We should get going now."

"I canít feel my arm. I can barely move. Please give me a moment."

"Alright. Iíll be right back then."

She closed the cage door once more, but did not retie the ropes. Then Ben heard her dragging the body of the passed-out man away into the darkness. He suddenly realized she must have killed him. Of course! Why the heck would the man have simply lied down and fallen asleep with this strange woman right there? He had said something about Ben dying a horrible death, then he had suddenly grunted, gasped and fallen over. She must have slit his throat. Benís eyes widened, and suddenly he was eager to jump up and get going in spite of his pain. He sat up and began tugging at the knots on his ankles. The ropes came free and he got himself turned around toward the cage door. Thatís when he saw the womanís face for the first time.

He could not see her completely, but he got a vague impression of her from the distant firelight. She was actually a beautiful young woman of perhaps seventeen or so. She had dark hair and dark eyes, shrouded by a hood that was the color of the forest.

"You ready?" she asked.

"Yeah. Letís get out of here."

She opened the door for him and he crawled out into the warm night air. He stood up for the first time since the short little battle the day before and noticed they were in a circular clearing of very tall trees that rose up almost like a wall around the little camp. The tree trunks were like a ring of pale pillars all around them, disappearing into a dark canopy of twisted twigs above them. There was not a leaf to be seen on any of them. How could there be? Without sunlight they could not survive. There was a small fire, encircled by tents at the center of the clearing. A lone figure sat on a fallen log in front of the fire. He had his back to them.

The woman grappled Ben by his urine soaked shirt and tugged him down to the ground.

"What are you doing!?" she scolded him. "You trying to get us caught? Stay down."

"Right. Sorry."

No wonder heíd been so easily caught, he thought to himself. What a bungler he was.

They crept off into the tree line and squatted down in some dead brush to survey the camp. There were five tents, each holding no more than two guys at most.

"There could be as many as eleven," the woman commented. "Excluding Nine-finger Janorlind here."

Ben looked down and was startled to see a cold dead face staring up at him from the ground beside her. He was not as shocked as he had been the day before however, after seeing the dead man in the river. Perhaps he was getting a little more used to the violent world of Morlind.

"How did you know his name?" Ben asked.

"Iíve been watching this camp all night. I had to wait until the rest of them went back to sleep before making a move to rescue you though."

"Thanks for that, by the way."

"Sure. No problem."

She scanned the encampment intently and did not notice Ben staring at her.

"My nameís Ben," he said eventually.

"Peen?" the woman asked, wrinkling her brow at the odd pronunciation. Apparently there were certain phonics that just didnít translate well into Morlindish.

"No. Ben. Benjamin Cory Zastar."

She looked at him with a puzzled expression on her face, as though he had just offered her a tongue-twister.

"Pen-Corindor?" she said. Ben seemed to recall Oslind guessing something very similar.

"Okay, sure. Ben Corindor."

"I am Caitliana," the woman said. At first Ben thought sheíd said Kate Lee Anna. Thatís how the sheíd pronounced it, but then he remembered that Morlinders donít have middle or last names. Menís names usually end with ind or und, and womenís names usually end with ina or ana. Her name must be Caitliana.

"Pleased to meet you, Caitliana," he said, offering her a handshake. She looked at him puzzled, unfamiliar with the gesture.

"Right. You guys donít shake hands. I forgot."

This new culture would take some getting used to.

Caitliana brushed his hand aside and gave him a sideways hug and a pat on the shoulder. It was the way they greeted. Ben remembered now. He patted her shoulder in return.

She was lean and trim, he noticed with his arm around her. She was a little below a healthy weight, but she was incredibly strong. Then she pulled away and it was back to business.

"What are you doing out here?" she asked.

"I was looking for the castle of King Morlind. I got a little lost."

"Youíre not too far off. Itís about a half-dayís journey to the east. Just follow the river. Why do you need to go there?"

"I have to talk to the king, I guess. I donít even know why Iím going there to be honest. Iím completely lost."

"Youíre gonna have a bit of trouble talking to him. Heís a prisoner in the dungeon last I heard."

"A prisoner!? How long have I been gone?"

"I donít know," she answered, not realizing the question was rhetorical.

A gust of wind ruffled her hood and Ben glanced up at the sky.

"Is there ever light here?" he asked. "I seem to remember there was at least light in the sky during the day when I last left."

Ben was talking more from Oslindís point of view than from his own. It was pretty much the same thing though, in a way. Oslindís memories were stored away inside him as though they were his own.

"There hasnít been light in years. Thatís part of what contributed to the fall of the Castle. The Kingís soldiers just lost all hope."

Just then the man on the log by the fire stood up and began scanning around for his comrade. Ben and Caitliana froze in place. Eventually the man sat back down again, but continued scanning for his fellowís return.

"Can you fight?" Caitliana asked.

"Not really," he confessed. "Iíve never needed to."

"Youíre really not from around here are you?"

"Howíd you guess?"

"Anyone who canít fight is either dead or captive over at Daklorundís castle. You had better learn quickly if you want to survive."

"Iíll try."

"Youíre going to have to do better than try. The bandits in this land arenít gonna give you a second chance if you miss the pocket."

"Miss the pocket?"

"Yeah. You know, the pocket, where the heart is. Itís how you kill someone on the first strike. Aim for the pocket. If you miss, youíre dead."

Ben seemed to remember Hardsly telling Oslind something like that during his training. It must be a local colloquialism. Morlinders had pockets sewn into the insides of their cloaks, above the heart. It made sense actually.

"Aim for the pocket. Gotcha."

"But watch out, because theyíre gonna be aiming for your pocket as well."

"Ouch," Ben muttered with trepidation.

"Yeah, well just donít stand still for too long and you should be alright. If you do get in a fight that is. Youíre better off to avoid it altogether."

"Sounds like a good idea."

"Here take this knife off of this guy here. Youíll need it."

She fished a dagger from a sheath at his hip and handed it to Ben. It was crude metal, double-edged and tapered to a fine point. It had a heavy wooden handle, and it was very sharp. It was about ten inches long, almost a sword in Benís inexperienced hands.

"Alright. You wait here. Iím gonna go get that crystal off that guy."

"He doesnít have it. The boss does."

"Yeah. I know. Thatís who I was talking about."

"Oh. Right. Good luck."

"Sure," she muttered. In a situation like this luck had very little to do with it. She actually looked a little insulted at the notion.

"Hey!" he called quietly to her. She turned back for a moment. Her eyes flashed in the night with a glimmer of impatience.

"What?" she asked.

"Can you get my sword and white stone too?"

"If I can."

"You donít understand. You have to get them. I canít leave here without them. Theyíre special."

"Iíll see what I can do."

Caitliana crept forward, toward the camp once again without the slightest sound. Ben was amazed at her stealth. She reached the line of tents and rounded them along their backs, one by one until she reached the opposite side where the largest one was. The tents were makeshift affairs, simply tarps stretched over two poles, and staked to the ground with pegs. They had doors at least Ė corners of the tarps that hung down across the triangular openings at each end. Ben saw Caitliana slip into one of these doors and disappear into the bossís tent. He swallowed nervously, feeling like he should help her somehow, but not knowing what to do. He watched intently, agonized by the tension that filled the air with each passing moment.

Suddenly Caitliana was thrown from the tent and tumbled onto the grass by the fire. Her dagger was knocked out of her hand and clattered onto the ground at the guardís feet. The guard jumped up in shocked surprise.

"Thief!" the boss hollered. "Grab him!"

The guard who had been sitting quietly by the fire all this time went to pounce on Caitliana, enraged that she had managed to slip past him undetected. She rolled aside and was on her feet before he got to her however, and he stumbled to the ground where she had been laying. She kicked him soundly in the face with a loud smack. He tumbled to one side and rolled onto the fire. He screamed as his cloak ignited and he began thrashing and rolling around on the ground.

Another thug popped out of his tent just then hurriedly tugging on his trousers. He was momentarily off-balance. Caitliana stomped on the crotch of his pants between his thighs, knocking him to his knees. She brought her knee up to his face with a swift jerk and his nose caved in with a sickening crunch. The motion of it sent him sprawling backward, back into his tent. He did not get back up.

A third thug lurched out of another tent and grabbed her from behind. She used the momentum of his motion however to flip him up and over her body and he slammed on his back to the dirt with a heavy thud, barking in shock as the wind was knocked out of him. She leapt onto him before he could get back up, crushed his throat under her knee and landed a swift sharp punch right into his nose. Ben saw a spray of blood shoot out of him and he struggled weakly as she pressed her weight down onto his windpipe. Soon his struggles subsided to spasmodic twitching.

The next man came at her from the front, charging out of his tent with a barbaric holler and running at her full speed. She leapt forward, rolled to scoop up her dagger, and slammed it into his chest with one powerful stab. The dagger sank in to the hilt, carried forward by his momentum and the man convulsed in mortal agony, feeling the shaft of metal pierce his heart. Caitliana had to twist her body to one side to avoid being crushed by him as he stumbled forward onto her. She yanked her knife out of his chest and got to her feet again with in one swift motion. Sheíd gotten him right in the pocket, Ben noted with morbid fascination.

She had now taken out four of them, but more began emerging from their tents all at once. They slowly surrounded her and she began to look a little panicked. Ben was fairly alarmed himself, but he was still afraid to get involved. Could she handle them all by herself?

Evidently not. One man lunged at her, knocking her dagger from her hand with a sweep of a heavy club. She gave him a high kick to the jaw, knocking his head sideways, and sending spinning drunkenly and staggering to one side. He stumbled into a tent and it collapsed under his weight.

By this time however two more guys made a grab at her. She managed to kick one manís crotch into a pulpy mess with a swift upward snap of her leg, but the other caught her from behind in a headlock from which she could not immediately escape. The man with the battered groin simply collapsed to the ground with a howl of agony, but the rest of them came forward to take their revenge on her for the assault she had given their party.

Yet another man was kicked in the throat as he approached her, and he doubled over, wheezing and gasping as he struggled for breath. The man holding her from behind tightened his grip on her and she yelped in pain. The next man to approach did manage to land a devastating punch into her stomach and Ben cringed in horror at the dull groan that escaped her.

Finally the boss himself stepped forward. After a quick survey of the damage sheíd done he turned his cold black gaze to her and decided her fate.

"How longís it been since yíall had a woman, boys? Especially a pretty little thing like this."

The remaining men growled in agreement. This was about to get very ugly.

"What say you? You all want a piece of this sweet little meat?"

"Aye!" the men said in chorus.

"Come on, then. Letís have at her."

Ben could stand no more. He may be a coward and a weakling, but he could not stand by and watch a girl be brutally ravaged by a gang of blood-thirsty thugs. He took up the dagger Caitliana had given him and charged the group, trying his best to catch them by surprise. It worked for the most part. They were all distracted, watching lustfully as the boss stepped forward to kiss the desperately struggling young woman. By the time they heard him coming he was already upon them.

The man closest to him turned at the last second only to have a dagger plunged into his heart, right in the pocket once again, and the remaining men jumped in shock at the seemingly sudden appearance of a second foe. The man crumpled to the ground, clutching at Benís shirt, and Ben had only a moment to realize he had just killed someone. He was as shocked as any of them, but he had only a moment to ponder the gravity of it before the remaining men took action.

Ben yanked the dagger out of the manís chest and turned to slash at a second man. He sliced across the manís forearm and the man yanked his hand back with a yelp.

Caitliana used the opportunity to snap her head backward into the face of her captor, busting his nose like an over-ripe piece of fruit. His grip loosened immediately and she ducked under his elbow, flipping him to the ground with a twist of his arm. Another man lunged at her with a knife but she stepped aside and disarmed him with a twist of his wrist under her arm. There was a messy snapping sound and his weapon fell to the ground. She snatched it up and used it on him, slicing it deeply into his neck as he grimaced in horror down at his arm.

Ben meanwhile was flailing about haphazardly with his knife, not really hitting anything, but keeping the men at bay at least. Caitliana took out another man from behind, burying her knife in his back with a gory thump. Other men, who were merely wounded were getting back up to join in the fray, and Caitliana dispatched them one by one with slashes, stabs, kicks and punches. Ben merely sliced and poked here and there, making himself more of an annoyance to them all than anything. He was enough of a distraction however to allow for Caitliana to finish the rest of them off. In the end Ben simply watched in shock as she went from one man to another, stabbing them to death and slicing their throats as they lay on the ground writhing and struggling weakly against her. Finally all was silent. The man who had been the boss was slowly crawling away holding a wound in his belly with one hand, and swinging the fallen club at her with the other.

"Have your way with me, will you?" she said to him. "Now whoís a piece of sweet little meat?"

The man screamed as she leapt upon him, stabbing him over and over again until he no longer struggled. It was a gruesome scene. Great globs of blood exploded out of the man each time she yanked the blade out of him. It reminded Ben of Oslindís fight in the alley with the thugs who had tried to rape little girl Switch.

Finally Caitliana got up off him, panting and grinning with a maniacal gleam in her eye. Her hood was back now, and Ben could see her fully. She had long hair, tied into a rope-like braid that hung down her back. She looked stunningly beautiful, but scary at the same time. She was covered in the blood of her fallen foes. She turned her piercing gaze onto him.

"I guess youíll be leaving with your sword and stone after all," she said.

"I guess," he replied.

It was over. His first real battle as an adventurer, and he was still standing.