Бояндин Константин Юрьевич
The Guardian (Ralion I)

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  • Аннотация:
    Ралион 1: The Guardian
    Текст на английском языке; первый роман тематики Ралиона; в русской варианте (не переводе) называется "Пригоршня вечности"
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                              The Guardian
                              (Ralion I E)
                  (c) 1993 Konstantin Yurievich Boyandin
             E-mail: mbo@ccphys.nsu.ru, ralionmaster@geocities.com
                  WWW homepage http://www.cnit.nsu.ru/~mbo
               Postal: Russia 630090 Novosibirsk-90 p/b 315
                    This text has never been published.
        This text is not forbidden to distribute by electronic media
      given it is unchanged, the copyright notice is left intact and
      no profit is gained through the process of its distribution,
      directly or indirectly.
        This text isn't a translation from Russian texts by the same
      author, nor any Russian text is a translation thereof. This is
      'raw' text, which should have been thoroughly revised (but was
      not, since it became sure it isn't likely it might be published).
        Please view this text as the first author's attempt to write
      fantasy books directly in English. Please contact the author on
      any question related to this or other texts, in English or
        The Ralion image depicted below have been thoroughly revised
      and changed by now; most of the underlying ideas have been
      replaced and many new ones added. The text below does *not*
      refer to Ralion world as the author views it now.
        K.B., 21-st of May, 1999, Novosibirsk.
                           Chapter 1. The arrival
        The storm was over. All the waves, previously malignant, furious
    and roaring now became lazily rolling curbs. Just occasional splashes
    were heard; the sky cleared and a sunset glowed peacefully.
    Nlaminer awakened to find that Rhissa was not in the cave.
        Stretching, he sat and tried to recall all events of the previous
    hours. The boat, he thought with a bitterness, is now a pile of
    wooden pieces. How will we leave this island ?
        He crawled to the entrance and looked out, blinking. The ocean
    was completely calm; seagulls were flying over him, their cries
    bringing him back to reality.
        The boat lay on the sand just in front of the entrance.
        Amazing, he thought. How could it survive ? Then he noticed tiny
    blue sparks between planks, felt once more the leaden fatigue and
    thought with satisfaction, "At least I have spared our boat." After
    hours of trying to keep their boat afloat, it was hard enough to
    breathe... And the spell was still working. Nlaminer ceased his
    concentration on the spell and sparks died one by one.
        There were no signs of Rhissa around. It was a good omen. If
    something dangerous were nearby, he wouldn't be left to sleep. The
    island was mostly rocky; no big predators were here, so Rhissa had
    something to do. Undoubtedly she will return to the same cave. There
    is time to scout the surroundings, while the sun still provides some
        Nlaminer drew the boat to a safer place (though the storm was
    over, it could happen again) and began walking clockwise, in the
    direction of the purple sun just ahead. The island was a rough
    circle, a steep cliff one hundred feet high, with no hints of safe
    climbing. If we do not find some place to ascend, thought Nlaminer
    gloomily, we will have to sail north again. With no water and no food
    supplies, the journey can be the last one.
        The cliff was dark and sturdy. Only sand, a ring of sand twenty
    feet wide - all that separated the cliff from the ocean. In the
    morning, while they tried to find a haven and found none, the words
    about curse befallen this island seemed not only a dark joke; the
    lightnings, striking the rocky circle, the mighty waves trying to
    smash adventurers to death - as if some hostile will was trying to
    prevent them from getting ashore. The tiny pool of quiet water around
    the boat - the only effect of his spell - was not safe enough, when
    waves fell from above and the tons of foamy water tried to swallow
    them. And now, this unsafe barrier between rock and water was not
    promising any good shelter.
        The recollection ended after they had crawled into a natural
    cave; Nlaminer had fallen asleep right on the spot. As far as he
    could guess it was about nine o'clock now. He slept for... for
    fourteen hours.  The spell drained him too much.  Deep in his
    thoughts, Nlaminer made several paces more and had a first look at
    the Ladder.
    			*    *    *
        Rhissa dived for several hours; the ocean water was warm and
    clear; and the oppressive feelings following the storm has passed
    away. The island pierced the abyss like a great tower, rising from
    the unseen depths. The bottom descended very quickly; by the time
    Nlaminer woke up she had dived as deep as she could trying to reach
    the lower part of the huge stone ladder; but it continued deeper and
    deeper, with no sign of bottom nearby.
        It seemed the island drowned, to a depth of several hundred feet.
    Whatever secrets now lay under the unreachable mass of silt,
    they were well hidden. She thought she saw some outlines of doors...
    probably walls or statues... but probably it was just the
    work of imagination.
        The ladder itself was a great discovery. This island was
    considered deserted and lifeless. She was always fascinated by any
    mysteries and events of the past. When Nlaminer awakens, she thought,
    they will lead their path up to the top. Whatever shelter can be
    found here, there is undoubtedly some building atop.
        She ate. There was fish aplenty; she liked it raw, but Nlaminer,
    despite his carnivorous origin, always boiled or fried any meat or 
    fish.  Tastes differ; even if his bow wasn't lost in the storm, there 
    was nothing he could hunt for now - only seagulls.
        She had caught fish enough for them both. The food was safe
    under the large rock near the entrance to their cave. Nlaminer, as
    usual, wouldn't find it. By the time she finished trying to reach
    ladder's bottom Nlaminer woke.
        Rhissa swam to the shore and let herself get dry first.
    Nlaminer's footprints were fresh, waves hadn't washed them away. He
    would wait for her in the cave. Before she started moving, Rhissa had
    a look at the sunset. The sun was enormous and deep purple; the Night
    Star, first to appear, already sparkled amidst the rare white
    feathers of the clouds.
        Nlaminer hadn't found the fish, exactly as she thought.
    			*    *    *
        "I hoped we will quickly visit the lighthouse so we could leave 
    for Onnd," Nlaminer said, looking at the pile of large raw fishes. "It 
    turns out I will delay my further plans. This haven wasn't visited 
    for several years now." He picked a fish and after a sigh began to 
    eat it. Rhissa hid a smile; Nlaminer was brought up by Humans. Their 
    habits were still strong in him. 
        "And what are the plans ?"
        "Well... the same ones, I'm afraid. I would like to sail to the 
    Dragon Isles. As I was said. Now I have money enough to undertake 
    this voyage." He scanned through his backpack. "The money order was 
    damaged, I see. Well, that means only two or three days delay, no 
    more. And what about you, Rhissa ? What plans did you have beyond 
    investigating the Lighthouse ?"
        "Me ?" Rhissa was surprised. "I am not fond of voyages. Haans 
    lead a settled life, you know."
        "I cannot believe that. We are traveling together for twenty 
    years. If this is a settled life..." He smiled ironically.
        "I'm a Watcher, remember ?" Rhissa objected. "It's my task to 
    travel and look for unusual events. Indeed, I like travels now... 
    probably more than other Haans."
        "I see." Nlaminer remembered the day of their departure. As 
    usual, they had met at the wharf of Pink Isle the day before sailing 
    off. Nine times they undertook their adventures; nine times they met 
    the very day before.
        He finished eating and decided to change subject.
        "I thought the ladder was built at the same time the lighthouse
    was," Nlaminer said. "If the ladder is so ancient, who could
    construct it, then ?"
        "Possibly the Akaeff could," suggested Rhissa.
        "The race that disappeared one day," said he. "I do not believe
    they ever existed. Too many legends say they were very mighty
    creatures. And yet, nothing wonderful remained after them. We don't
    even know what gods they had, do we ?"
        Rhissa shrugged. She preferred not to discuss cults.
        Nlaminer knew this and after several seconds added, "Well, at
    least we know nothing now. Time to move along, right ?"
        Rhissa nodded. "It's the night already; if you are rested, let's
    move." Without any further remark she stood and disappeared in the
    coming darkness.
        Nlaminer followed her close. "You are a good hunter," added he.
    "The fish was good." There was no reply, for her friend never
    answered if there was no question. Nlaminer knew very well that some
    things are very good until you tried to understand them better. This
    was exactly the case.
    			*    *    *
        They stood on the top of the Ladder. Its size and proportions
    made it obvious to call it that way. Its visible part spanned for more
    than a hundred feet; eight feet wide, each stair about one foot high,
    good ladder for some tall creatures. And how much does it continue
    underwater ? And why are there no railings ?
        Rhissa sat on the marble stair and studied tiny lines incrusted
    in the stone. The outlines were almost effaced, probably due to
    the fact the Ladder was several centuries old. There should be a
    serious reason to erect such a strange staircase, direct, plain, with
    no railings.
        Nlaminer left the Ladder at once. There was a tunnel leading
    through the rock - no more than fifty feet long. Both entrances were
    wide and high. He couldn't reach the ceiling of the passage, despite
    he was six feet tall. And the carving was very fine. Some runic
    writings could still be seen, but the language was unknown.
        After searching for a while he found outlines of a well
    hidden door, leading somewhere into the depth of the cliff. The door
    was placed in the center of the tunnel and was inscribed with a
    dancing reptile figure.
        "Rhissa," called he. "Come here. I have just found something
        "Nothing," whispered Rhissa after listening to the stone door.
    "But I feel someone's presence there. Something... sleeping..."
        She closed her eyes. Nlaminer saw rainbow circles all around
    himself, a sign of mental sending. He frowned and tried to
    concentrate on the sending.
        The walls of the tunnels boiled, dropped down in large brilliant
    tongues of flame and he was left in the middle of nothing.
        He turned and turned and turned and there was no end to this slow
    movement, in the void with no clues and no sights. Out of nowhere, a
    huge distant laughing was heard. The floor appeared from below. It
    rushed towards Nlaminer, but unexpectedly slowed down and touched his
    feet gently. Nlaminer looked around. If this was the usual mental
    travel, he should stand where he was, otherwise he could fall off the
    cliff when he turned back.
        The floor was stone, of very fine polishing, with terrible
    monster faces pictured everywhere. Their bloody jaws seemed to move,
    foam dropping from the waiting fangs.
        The figures appeared all around him. Three huge columns of frozen
    water, upon them three tall and enormous creatures, tall enough to be
    deities, eyes flaming, weapons clutched in mighty hands.
        "I expel you from my domain," said the deep voice from above.
    "Your devotees smashed down my altars and temples, and this is a good
    time to repay you for my pain."
        Creatures seemed to struggle, trying to escape from their unusual
    places, but in vain, their muscles bulging, mouths opening but no
    sounds came out of them.
        "Struggle if you like," the resonant voice added. "Struggle in vain.
    I demand that all who pained my people are expelled from here
        Reptile-like dancing figures appeared in dozens, all armed with
    formidable spiked clubs, running towards Nlaminer, raising their
    deadly weapons. Nlaminer stood frozen unable to do anything but
    concentrate in the hope that he would travel back.
        The scene stood fast. Another voice, tiny, barely audible,
    came out of an unknown direction.
        "Search my place, stranger. Search my place if you want to fight
    the upcoming death."
        Nlaminer struggled to escape from the terrible vision. The
    laughter came again, the figures continued to move, the statues
    crying and struggling helplessly in their ice traps... and the heart
    beats sounded louder and louder. The club hissed right behind his
        He awakened. The door was still closed. Rhissa was nowhere
    near.  The stars shone cold and indifferent in the clear night sky.
    			*    *    *
        "Rhissa ?"
        No answer.
        He saw her figure, bowed before some large rock as if reading
    inscriptions. A small hissing sound came out of her mouth, but her eyes
    were closed and her whole body was tense and inert. Nlaminer detected
    she was angry, very angry - by the smell and the curled tip of her
    tail. Growling came out of her throat and Nlaminer, with terror, saw
    the bloody scratch appearing across her breast, the black line oozing
    down. He grasped her arm and pulled away from the rock.
        As if hit by a lightning, he stood gasping for air and fighting
    the terrible pain in the heart. Rhissa awakened, too, and her eyes
    were dim and full of pain. A shallow cut ran across her breast. The
    wound was trifling, but the whole scene could terrify anyone.
        They sat on the cold wet sand, unable to speak, just blinking and
    inhaling fresh cold air.
    			*    *    *
        She cured their wounds - Nlaminer was also cut, though he did not
    notice this small injury on his neck. He shuddered a bit when her
    cold scaly fingers touched the wound... and then it just disappeared.
        "This is your hand," Nlaminer pointed out. On the stone surface
    of the hidden door there was an imprint of the reptile paw - as if
    her paw was red hot and melted the stone. Puzzled Rhissa looked at
    her hands. No burns. No wounds, completely nothing.
        "What did you see ?" asked she after all. Nlaminer was puzzled,
    too, for Rhissa never told her visions, nor asked someone about his.
    These parts of her existence were considered private and were
    never discussed.  Nlaminer did not regard this experience as too
    private but always was glad to do well with any people. When your
    friend is of another race it is good not to ask too many questions.
    This was a pain, for his passion for knowledge was awesome. And this
    question did take him by surprise.
        Nlaminer described his vision. He could not describe the faces of
    the creature standing on the ice pillars; no faces came out of
    memory. But the hissing, calm voice that interrupted the horrible
    scene was clear and familiar to Rhissa.
        "We should find his place," said she shortly. "It should be here
    somewhere. And we shall find it quickly, until another vision comes."
        "I would like to search the lighthouse first," Nlaminer objected,
    "It seems there was some disaster there."
        "There will be another disaster if we do not understand what is
    happening now," Rhissa added and they walked towards the huge stone
    building rising up as if from the stone itself. Something sparkled
    occasionally on the roof of the building, but in the dark nothing
    could be seen there.
    			*    *    *
        There were visions before, Nlaminer thought. They never were
    troubled by them... and never wounded in the visions. Like being
    wounded in the dreams, he considered that impossible and ridiculous.
    This is the time, probably, to change one's mind.
        For Rhissa, the mental travel was a part of her clerical
    knowledge. Several gods talked to their devotees in this way; for
    Nlaminer, though, mental travel was some inner ability, unpredictable
    and hard to control. The best he could do was to oppose the sendings
    and stay in this reality. This is why he paid no serious attention to
    the visions that came to him.
        And yet something troubled him now. There is some detail that did
    not present before. Nlaminer decided to think about other things; the
    best way to let the mind solve the mystery.
        They approached the building - sort of a castle, really - and
    were surprised again. A round piece of land encircled by the cliff
    was now a lifeless wasteland. No grass, no insects, nothing but small
    rocks.  They stood for a while, then Rhissa took from the earth
    something weightless, brittle and tiny. She looked at it,
    then stretched her arm to Nlaminer. He had a closer look. A leaf of
    some grass, withered, as if burned.
        "Completely dead," she remarked. "But I feel no undead around
        Nlaminer understood it quite well. It was the day they first met
    when some terrible vampire-like creature attacked them and nearly
    killed them both. He remembered well how the grass withered and died
    as the monster walked to them. Its undead essence was so strong it
    poisoned life with its very presence.
        The grass looked exactly the same now.
        They looked over the western corner of the lighthouse, the
    small grove of nice birch-like trees. Well, they were trees once;
    now it was only skeletons of the trees that they saw. Like the grass
    remains, the trunks were lifeless, crippled and ugly. Rhissa was
    about to leave the devastated grove when Nlaminer detected something
    interesting. A branch on one of the trees seemed to survive the
    disaster. Though it was also near death now, he took it carefully and
    examined it closely. The branch could be restored to life if they found
    water quickly.
        Another discovery was half-buried nearby--a large marble plate
    with a rune engraved in it.
        "Murti," Rhissa was astonished. "I didn't know that one can
    desecrate Murti's grove and go away with it !" She searched the grove
    for some time and found nothing. Nlaminer waited while she prayed
    briefly to Murti and then left the dead grove.
        "The more I see here," Nlaminer added, "The more I think this
    place is accursed."
        "You are right," Rhissa nodded. "And we should be very, very
    careful now."
        Stepping carefully, the two of them entered the dark and sinister
    inner yard of the lighthouse.
    			*    *    *
        Nlaminer cast the spell of warning, but nothing, nothing was
    around. After they had walked a bit around the main building,
    Nlaminer offered to search other buildings, hidden inside the outer
        "It is unlikely we find something here," he indicated, "So let's
    browse through these rooms first. We have no weapons, no tools.
    Before we enter the lighthouse," and he pointed at a formidable iron
    door that blocked the entrance into the lighthouse, "we should find
    some equipment."
        Rhissa nodded and they left for different doors. All were ajar,
    no sounds except for the whining wind came out of them. If some
    danger was hidden in the lighthouse, it lurked somewhere deeper.
    			*    *    *
        Nlaminer did only superficial searching. His thoughts were far
    away, in the day and place they first met, in the depth of Wasteland
    dungeons, under the barren and lifeless surface of the devastated
        ...He lost all three companions when a flock of blood hawks,
    terrible vampire birds, attacked them by surprise. Only Nlaminer,
    with his superior unarmed combat skills, smashed three of the
    lightning-quick birds and got away with no more than a scratch.
        His three friends, though, were ripped to pieces in several
    blinks of an eye and before the hungry monstrosities were off for him
    again, Nlaminer was forced to flee, with sharp cries of the blood
    hawks following him close. He jumped into an old passage, closed the
    squeaky door after him and sat for a moment to think how he would find
    his way back.
        Tears did not come, though Nlaminer grieved very much; Marrkes
    race never exposed their feelings in this way. In any case, they
    always were aware of death that can come in any moment. This
    dangerous journey was a great risk and they had lost. The only thing
    he could do was to find the remnants and bury them.
        That meant he would confront the birds again. He walked through
    deserted streets of underworld city for some time, then crawled into
    some room, set up his protection spells and lay to sleep. His powers
    were very depleted, and now, alone and lost in the deep maze, he had
    no other choice than to hide and crawl. These dungeons did not
    forgive the mistakes.
    			*    *    *
        ...He was in a kitchen now. That could help me a bit, Nlaminer
    thought. There were pots of many types here. Nlaminer studied them
    carefully and then donned one of them. Now there were two things in
    his backpack - one his traveller box (tinderbox, candles, some
    torches, these sort of things), and now a new pot would help him to eat
    what he liked.
        There were also knives (useful things, though too bad to be
    weapons) and all other kitchen stuff. Judging by the dusty odor, there
    was no food here.
        The storeroom that was immediately beyond the kitchen, had also
    several useful items. One of them was an oil lamp, half-full of oil,
    several feet of rope and a hammer. Nlaminer took everything he
    supposed to be helpful in the situation and noticed a sturdy trapdoor
    in the far corner of the room.
        He put his ear to the trapdoor and listened. He thought he heard
    distant scratching and squeaking, but whether it was his imagination
    or real sounds he could not tell. The air coming from under the
    trapdoor was malodorous and damp. No, not now, thought Nlaminer,
    wriggling his nose. Why must I always stalk sewers ? It seems
    every possible way is hidden beyond the filthy and harmful passages,
    filled with some eerie and hungry life.
    			*    *    *
        Rhissa passed corridors and rooms with no useful things in them
    and listened. No sounds, except for Nlaminer's steps in the far side
    of the wall interior. No smells, just dust and rats somewhere near.
    She was deep in thoughts about the perished grove and the overall
    feelings that filled the air all around.
        The sendings that struck them both were highly violent, aimed
    very carefully, for they both disliked violence very much and such
    visions could be interpreted only as menace. Who could wish them harm
    anyway ? They never offended any deities, never desecrated any altars
    and temples... Who could chase them, so harshly and intentionally ?
    The malignant aura predominated around them, and new visions could
    come any time, probably more dangerous and violent. She asked for
    guidance to Naata, her protector and source of wisdom, but no signs
    of contact ever came. This was very strange and frightening now. She
    could swear the words has reached her deity, but none came back. For
    the high priest of a god it was very uncommon to lose any contact
    with one's deity.
        And the voice of Andrynx, Time Traveller, Dancing with Crystal
    Ball, The Guiding Light... what could force this neutral and peaceful
    deity to interfere with someone's sending ?
        There were no answers. Rhissa, still half-lost in thoughts,
    returned to the entrance where Nlaminer waited, also thoughtful and
        The night was still young. They told each other what was found,
    and, after all useful was collected, they decided to return to their
    cave now. The whole building emanated unwelcome sensations. It was
    not safe to rest here.
                            Chapter 2. The Shrine
        He managed to build fire - there were logs in the kitchen as
    well as in the smithy - and the two of them enjoyed the warm waves
    falling on their bodies. The wind outside the cave was getting
    stronger and sang its endless song of cold and infinity.
        Nlaminer sharpened the knife - the only weapon he had found in
    the outer buildings. Rhissa refused to use any weapon, and just
    carved the branch they had found into a sort of staff. The wood was
    still alive and could be brought to life again, explained she, but in
    this accursed place only spells could help it to survive. So while
    Nlaminer annoyed the silence with monotonous gnashes of steel
    against whetstone, Rhissa chanted over the newly carved staff and
    removed the last dead stripes of the bark.
        After an hour they managed to make as decent weapons as the
    situation allowed and went out hunting. They separated - nothing
    showed any danger around - and began to search for food. Rhissa under
    water, Nlaminer went around the isle, right by the cliff.
        The water was still warm and Rhissa after several minutes returned
    with her prey - several dozen fishes. Nlaminer returned only after
    an hour and reported there were nothing but gulls' eggs.
        Instead, he discovered another hidden passage.
        While he was frying his fish he told Rhissa about that.
        "The entrance is well hidden and the door just slides to the
    left," he began. "It was inscribed with Andrynx rune, but there were
    no footprints in the cave, as if it had been abandoned for centuries."
        Rhissa opened her eyes wider and a spark shone in them. She
    didn't find the hidden passage, despite she walked thrice around the
    isle. Nlaminer had a definite gift of tracking.
        "Wonderful," she said after Nlaminer finished his story. "You
    help us a lot, my friend, for this is the only way to learn more. I
    wouldn't like to tell that before, but it seems something prevents me
    from talking to Naata."
        Nlaminer was astonished beyond measure. "How long is it so ?"
        "After we had our visions there, before that door."
        "And you think the thing that sent all of this hides somewhere
    behind the door ?"
        Rhissa shook her head. "No, that place is quite safe. Well, safer
    than you suppose. It's a crypt, very ancient crypt, built centuries
    before the lighthouse was constructed."
        Nlaminer wanted to ask how she knew such things, but there was
    probably no need now. The certainty in Rhissa's voice was strong, and
    almost never made suggestions taken out of nowhere.
        Nlaminer finished his meal and examined their water can.
        "We have water for just a day, no more," he warned. "We should
    find some source somewhere."
        "I wouldn't drink the water inside the lighthouse," remarked
    Rhissa. "Let's visit that Andrynx place first. If there is some
    source of fresh water, it's underground."
        They hid the entrance to their new home as best they could and
        Another storm was building up.
    			*    *    *
        They entered the narrow and dark hole; after moving for some time
    they reached the door. It was unexpectedly dry here, with warm air
    coming from nowhere. The only source of light was a slight
    phosphorescence of the walls. The Andrynx rune glimmered faintly.
        "Should I open the door ?" Nlaminer asked in low voice. Rhissa
    shook her head and listened to the sounds that came from
    behind the door. Nlaminer heard nothing but howling of the wind
    getting louder. At last, Rhissa touched the door and it silently
    slid, opening another passage, lit with the same shadows of light
    and giving an eerie feeling. They heard an echo when they made first
    steps, as if someone were following them close.
        There was noone else here; the passage led them down and down,
    until they stood on the top of another stone ladder, vanishing into
    glimmering void somewhere far below.
        As Nlaminer descended, always ready to react, part of his mind
    drifted back to the days of the past. He went as if sleepwalking,
    noiselessly and steadily.
    			*    *    *
        After he healed his scratches, Nlaminer walked the dust-covered
    passages and streets of the huge underground complex, deserted for
    some unknown reason and turned into the lair of every nasty being one
    could imagine. Twice he confronted huge spiders, four feet tall, who
    tried to make a food storage out of him. The only weapon he had was
    his silver sword Protector, inscribed with runes that made it deadly
    against the undead. He managed to slay both the spiders without being
    sprinkled by their venom. After thinking for a while, he cut off
    their venom bags and put them into the special silver containers he was
    always carrying.
        The City of Singara seemed to transform into a monster pit.
        The rest of the day he moved outside, to the levels where the
    tunnel to the outside should be. He cleared just enough room to make
    camp, when he heard feet running somewhere near. His sense of danger
    warned there was no joke attack, and Nlaminer, having hastily
    collected his possessions, broke out with his Protector.
        There were several shadow-like creatures surrounding some figure,
    defending with brightly shining pole. The shadows emanated something
    very dark and forbidding and Nlaminer rushed to help the unfortunate
        The Protector began to glow; the enemy was some undead creatures.
    The only noise was the hiss of the poles encircling the adventurer;
    the shadows tried to touch him, but with no success. The adventurer
    had no chance; there was nowhere to escape. The time was short, and
    Nlaminer struck the nearest shadow, emerging out of darkness like a
    furious demon.
        The shadow he had hit dwindled and fled; Nlaminer sliced it
    again and the terrible ghost vanished with deep sorrowful howling. Two
    of the five remaining shadow monsters attacked Nlaminer from two
    directions at once. Nlaminer span around and caught a brief look at
    the adventurer he was helping. It was  a small reptile, eyes
    blazing with anger. It looked at Nlaminer and cried something. He did
    not hear it; there was no time and, diving beneath the black hand
    descending upon his head he lunged back. Another moan, another spirit
        He was raising his shining blade again when a darkness fell and
    the icy wind took away his breath. He managed to see another shadow
    towering behind his back when an arm pulled him back and he fell to
    his knees struggling for air.
        The reptile was unexpectedly strong. It pulled him further into
    the upper tunnels; his feet were failing and the dark mist still
    blackened the eyesight. The danger was somewhere near, even
    though the shadows were not pursuing.
        Suddenly they were in the open air. There was a sunset; and he
    was sitting by a tree. His senses returned to him in a flash and
    he discovered the small reptile studying him with a worried look.
    Nlaminer opened his eyes but managed to say nothing. He looked
    around; his backpack was lying near and the sheathed Protector was
    still on his belt.
        He managed to reach for the backpack and found a flask there. The
    Water of Strength, his favourite medicine, splashed at the very
    bottom. He swallowed and the fire ran through all his muscles.
    After a minute he managed to stand.
        "Rhissa," said the reptile, pointing at its breast. "I'm Rhissa
    Thalasshes ans Shiora."
        Nlaminer was surprised. Rhissa spoke Thalen, sort of a common
    language for this continent. He studied Rhissa and found it was much
    like Hanssa, underground reptile race. Alike but not the same. This
    one had stronger arms, head more oblong than Hanssa's. Obviously
    female. Probably there were other differences. It didn't matter
    anyway; they had saved each other from the inevitable death.
    "Nlaminer rad Haorsst," Nlaminer bowed. "I thank you for your
    help, Rhissa."
        The reptile sat near him and drank from her own flask. The odor
    from the flask was herbal, clear and pleasant.
        "Were you alone ?" Rhissa asked after a while. "I've seen bodies
    in that vampire birds lair."
        "All my friends perished there," Nlaminer answered after a short
    pause. "I intended to bury them, but I think this is impossible now."
    Nlaminer frowned.
        "There was almost nothing left of them," Rhissa pointed out. "If
    it isn't a secret, what you were searching there ?"
        "There were books in this city," Nlaminer replied. "The books on
    magic, a collection of the city's magic circle."
        He was surprised how easy it was to tell that. They knew each 
    other just for several minutes and yet it was quite natural to tell 
    her anything she would like to know. Magic ? Hardly, he thought. His 
    magic powers, medium as they were, were enough to detect mental magic 
    cast at him.
        Rhissa sat silent for a moment. Then she said, "We could help
    each other; I'm a Cleric and I feel you learn magic, too. You saved
    my life. I am your faithful friend now, Nlaminer rad Haorsst, until
    the end of time." Rhissa stood up and extended her hand to him,
    fingers outstretched. Nlaminer, bewildered, saw the bluish shining
    which appeared for a moment all around her.
        Then he stood and extended his hand in the similar gesture. "I
    accept your friendship, Rhissa Thalasshes ans Shiora. I'm also in
    debt." He thought bitterly that he had no goal now; his friends were
    dead and the quest for the books was now senseless. He touched
    Rhissa's hand and immediately the bitterness was gone, his spirit
    rose high and the colors shone all around.
        "He heard the oath," Rhissa said. "You have a blessing of Naata,
    my friend."
        Nlaminer had only scarce knowledge about the cult of Naata but
    made himself keep silence (this was not easy). Instead he bowed
        "The city was devastated during the last war," Rhissa added. "I 
    think you know this. I should find their sacred place and invoke 
    for blessing.  Otherwise, these undead darklings will crawl outside 
    again. We cannot destroy them; even an army cannot do that. All we 
    can do is to seal them in their dwellings.  Will you help me ?"
        Nlaminer did not hesitate. He can at least help Rhissa in her
    quest. As for him, he will continue his studies... later.
        "I will help you," he replied simply.
        "We need some shelter," Rhissa said. "We cannot rest in the
    caves; undead are near."
        Nlaminer concentrated and closed his eyes. A vision came to
    him... there was a forest nearby, safe enough to stay. He broke his
    concentration and pointed westward. Rhissa was looking at him
        "We can stay in that forest," he pointed. They took their
    belongings and left, for the night was falling. Nlaminer turned and
    looked at the entrance to the accursed city. The cave grinned
    malevolently at him. Come back, it was saying. We will wait.
                                 *    *    *
        He shuddered. But it was only Rhissa, touching his arm. "We are
    here," she whispered. Nlaminer looked around and understood why she 
    was whispering.
        It was a great cavern, ceiling raising to several hundred feet, 
    all emitting this unsteady imitation of light. It was dry here, 
    though a pool of water occupied the center of the cavern. The air was 
    filled with the essence of eternity and calmness. He had never before 
    experienced such an equilibrium of mind. Nlaminer looked around.
        Several iguana-like creatures crawled around. They paid
    little attention to the new visitors and were completely friendly.
    Their countenance was impressive. When Nlaminer ventured to touch one
    it just looked at him with dignity and opened its "smiling"
    mouth a bit. Rhissa moved to the pool and sniffed.
        "Here is the water," she called. "This pool is always clear. Look
    in the water, over there."
        Nlaminer looked and saw a huge shining rune incrusted in the
    bottom of the pool. Andrynx rune, no doubt. So it was the shrine.
        Nlaminer drank the water. It gave him a feeling of the Water of
    Strength (though they had none this time) - clear, with no special
    taste, but refreshing and restoring strength. Rhissa pointed to the
        "And here is the shrine," she added. "We should visit it now. We
    can rest here later; Andrynx grants rest to everyone."
        Nlaminer looked at the rune and his mind was getting clearer. The
    battles, losses and victories meant less and less; looking in the
    pool was like looking in the whole life. He thought he heard
    voices,.. sounds... images drifted beneath the pool's surface. He
    closed his eyes. This was no delusion, images disappeared at once.
    But the feeling of calmness remained unchanged.
        "Come on," whispered Rhissa again and he obeyed. He was vigorous
    now, full of energy. I should learn more about Andrynx, he thought.
        The corridor led down again... and as they began to descend, the
    visions again engulfed him.
    			*    *    *
        He woke up, senses acute, as if something had changed. He opened his
    eyes slowly and looked around.
        The moon was full; its pale light fell on the leaves and the
    grass, making them surreal and shadow-like. Something was wrong here.
    He sat and reached for the Protector.
        All was quiet. Everything. It was the strangeness that
    disturbed his sense of danger. Rhissa slept nearby, eyes half-open,
    body coiled up, breathing quietly. The head became clear; some inner
    voice was crying alarm, and Nlaminer drew the sword a bit from its
    sheath. The blade emitted dull, sparkling light. Something pursued
    them. He looked at the top of the hill, where the entrance to Singara
    resided, but all was quiet there, too.
        Too quiet, he corrected himself. He touched Rhissa's hand and she
    immediately opened her eyes.
        "We should leave this place at once," he indicated at the sword.
    "Enemy's near. Try to move quietly."
        The reptile nodded, took her strange-looking belt and grasped the
    staff. It was glowing again, with serene white light. They began to
    descend to the valley below, when a shadow-like silhouette appeared
    on the top of the hill and flew to them, quickly and noiselessly. In
    the moonlight it was next to invisible. Nlaminer drew the sword ready
    and looked around quickly. There was a good place to meet the
    oncoming foe; a wide ravine was nearby. Rhissa raised the staff and
    sang some incantantions. Immediately the staff began to glow, and the
    shadow began to glow, too. Nlaminer felt the icy wind flowing by; he
    stood concentrating, ready to react. His crossbow, with several
    silver-tipped bolts was in the pack. He managed to open the pack and
    dropped it. There was no time to search, the shadow would be among
    them in a moment.
        And when it came, all hell broke loose.
    			*    *    *
        Nlaminer saw the grass going black and withering when the
    creature passed over it. The trees seemed to moan and cry, as the
    leaves dropped in heaps after the moving monster. It had no face, but
    its human-like shape was terrifying. A deadly cold rushed
    upon them; the shadow drained life out of everything.
        The sword became too heavy, it weighed hundreds of pounds.
    Rhissa stood alert, singing her prayers and the blue mist came in a
    flash; the monster stood for a moment. Then its armlike wings
    raised and it tried to encircle Rhissa.
        Nlaminer struggled with the sword. He managed to overcome the frightening
    paralysis that crawled from the legs upwards. The hilt was beginning
    to become intolerably hot when he immersed the blazing blade into the
    monster's body. The sparks went in showers, and the sword began to
    melt. But Nlaminer continued to plunge his perishing weapon deeper into
    the weird shadow.
        The monster emitted a terrible hiss. Instantly all came black and
    white. Time ran wild; he saw Rhissa, hitting the shadow with a
    terrible hiss, forcing it to fly back; his hands were burning, and he
    was still injuring the undead hunter with the silver, boiling now and
    dropping to the ground.
        It all ended as instantly as it began. Nlaminer saw smouldering
    grass all around him; dead birds were scattered on the ground. His
    vision was still black and white. Rhissa stood beside him, head
    bowed, hands closed,  - obviously praying. The terrible stench came
    from the place where the shadow was. He made several paces away
    then sat, blinking.
        His hands were all blistered. His sword was gone; honorable
    decease, for it saved its owner again. Another battle like this, he
    thought wearily, will be my last. He closed his eyes and opened them
    only when Rhissa called him.
        "Show me your hands," she asked. He extended his hands, throbbing
    with pain, and Rhissa touched them for a moment. Immediately the pain
    subdued and the blisters began to shrink and disappear.
        But he was too weary even to thank her. He felt he was dragged
    away, and then his mind fell into darkness.
    			*    *    *
        "Here," Rhissa said when they came to a massive stone plate
    blocking their way. Andrynx rune was inscribed over it; Rhissa
    touched the plate and it slid down.
        They entered a small hall, no more than twelve feet high, where
    stood the statue: a huge dancing lizard, with a glowing crystal ball
    in the mouth.
        "We greet Andrynx," Rhissa said and a small echo whispered the
    words back. "We greet the great traveler and ask him to grant us
    wisdom and guidance." She made a gesture and a small Andrynx rune
    shone briefly above her.
        Nlaminer thought he heard a voice... the ball cleared for
    a moment, then filled with mist again. The statue's eyes sparkled and
    darkened again.
        Rhissa repeated her greeting twice; twice the ball cleared, twice
    it returned to its foggy state. Nothing came back. When Rhissa turned her
    face to Nlaminer, her face was frightened.
        "Something... prevents him from talking to me..." she whispered.
    Nlaminer was frightened, too; he never saw her frightened before.
    "What shall we do, Nlaminer ?" She grasped his hand and that relaxed
    her a bit. Nlaminer saw her newly-carved staff shining in the dark.
    The thought came to him like a lightning in the night. He took the
    staff and touched the crystal ball lightly.
        The ball shone like a small sun, and a transparent apparition
    materialized before them. Rhissa made the gesture again and again a
    small rune sparkled above her. The lizard's outlines blurred and
    moved, and the voice was soft, though perfectly audible.
        "My blessing upon you, travelers... I cannot speak for long. Find
    the mirrors and close them. Beware of hunters who come at night."
        And the Andrynx vision faded away.
        They stood there speechless, both curious and frightened. Then
    Nlaminer pulled Rhissa gently out of the hall.
        "We have to stay underground for a while," he said. "Your staff
    shines no more; we shouldn't stay here near the shrine."
        They ascended the long ladder and paused near the pool to fill
    their can with clear water. They did not speak until they reached the
    top of the greater ladder. Though they felt no fatigue, there was
    little reason to feel happy. The gods couldn't hear them. There was
    none here to help them. They had no weapons, no equipment and knew
    nothing of what was happening.
        The storm raged outside the cave.
        "We cannot leave right now," Nlaminer pointed out. "Let's wait
    until the storm is over. Meanwhile sleep if you like."
        Rhissa nodded and curled by the wall. Nlaminer sat, listening to
    the roaring and splashing outside and thinking. Rhissa's sleep was
    uneasy. She spoke incoherently several times, but Nlaminer didn't
    understand a single word.
                            Chapter 3. Welcome !
        A figure came out of the storm and silently slipped into the cave.
    Nlaminer grasped the knife and stood motionless, peering into the
    darkness. Rhissa slept farther back in the corridor; if there were an
    assault they would descend back to the shrine.
        A figure, dark-robed and tall, was not armed. It entered the cave
    and stood looking around. Nlaminer tried to identify the stranger
    by smell, but found this smell was new for him. Some reptile, no
    doubt, but with human-like posture, and no tail... The head was
    hidden under the cloak and Nlaminer saw no eyes.
        Suddenly the figure spoke.
        "Nlaminer, come nearer. I would like to talk to you."
        The words however were just in his mind. He heard nothing; Rhissa
    slept unworriedly, in spite of her good sense of danger. A
    vision, Nlaminer thought. This time subtle and detailed. Well, let's
    see what he wants.
        He left his hideout and walked towards the stranger. His face,
    lit by lightnings outside, was reptile-like, indeed, with eyes deep set
    and red. He spoke with no hiss, his pronunciation was quite perfect.
    No, Nlaminer corrected himself. He has telepathic abilities. That's
    why his "speech" seems so perfect.
        The stranger turned with no precautions and walked away. The
    storm outside immediately ceased; stars shone coldly, wind also
    stopped. It was cool and wet here. Even the sea was more than quiet;
    there were no waves at all, as if all the sea had frozen.
        "I would like to have you as allies," the stranger said and
    Nlaminer saw his eyes began to glow faintly. "I cannot tell you who I
    am, though you will find it yourselves."
        Nlaminer waited. The stranger waved his hand and they walked to
    the Ladder. It was geometrically perfect now, a harmony of stone and
    mind. They walked to the top and passed through the tunnel.
        A huge temple stood in the middle of the inner circle. It was
    inscribed with unknown runes, though Nlaminer saw the image of
    reptile-like creatures similar to the one walking at his side.
        "You see ? There was a temple here; my temple, Nlaminer. I was
    thrown out of here; my people were destroyed. You cannot imagine how
    painful it was. Now, I will restore all that was broken." The
    stranger waved his hand, the temple blurred and disappeared. The
    lighthouse appeared instead; it was burning, its walls crippled and
    falling in great clouds of dust and embers.
        "I was stopped," the stranger continued. "But you heard my call
    and you came. I will give you a choice. You can serve me and I will
    bless both you and all your people. In addition, I can grant you
    eternal life if you'd wish."
        Nlaminer spoke. "And if we refuse ?"
        "I will find another who will hear my call and will do that  [do what?] <--
    until my realm is restored." The stranger laughed, the sound being
    dark and eerie. "And you will feel the tortures I felt; and the death
    will never come, though you will crave it with all your hearts."
        Nlaminer shrugged. "It's hard to frighten me."  [I don't frighten
        The stranger nodded. "And I will not hurry you. You may try to
    prevent me from coming back; you cannot harm me. I hope I will
    persuade you - you both possess the brilliant abilities that would be
    very helpful for me. I am no enemy. But you CAN make me your enemy.
    Beware that, for I can be merciless."
        And the world around Nlaminer exploded. Lava came in rivers,
    winged demons flew around him laughing insanely and chanting weird
    and dark prayers. He ran, back to the Ladder that was falling to
    pieces, back to the entrance to the shrine. The hungry ocean waves
    tried to swallow him. Enormous beasts swam in the sea, roaring and
    splashing it. But Nlaminer ran and ran and heard the strange voice
    inside him. "I will wait, strangers. Choose wisely." And the wave
    fell upon him, and he swam upwards, to the air, but the whirlpool
    sucked him deeper and deeper. His lungs were aflame, he swam with
    desperate energy and was trying to leave this horrible vision.
        He regained consciousness. He was trembling, the holocaust
    pictures still shone before his eyes. Rhissa stood near
    him, silent, as if intending to shake him out of his nightmare. He
    managed to take a breath and looked into her eyes. She touched his
    forehead and the dancing lights disappeared at the same moment.
        "A sending ?" she asked, though the answer was obvious. Nlaminer
    nodded and looked at the cave exit. The storm was over, though it was
    still night there. Cool draught came for a moment. Nlaminer tried to
    stand up; his legs were still failing, but the fatigue was
        "I talked to the one pursuing us," he explained. "He wants us to
    help him. And he threatens, too. Very strange creature, I never saw
    one before." He described all the events and Rhissa nodded. "I know
    this race. That's Akauff, for sure; I saw their crypts. You say there
    was a temple atop the island ?"
        "At least he showed me that," Nlaminer put on his backpack. "I
    think it's time to investigate the lighthouse. Whatever answers could
    be found, they are somewhere there."
        They quickly gathered everything they had and left. The air
    outside was as cold and still as Nlaminer expected. The storm was
    over, not even a wave crossed the sleeping sea. Under pale bright
    moonlight the landscape was both beautiful and frightening.
    			*    *    *
        "The things I cannot understand," Nlaminer said while they walked
    up the Ladder, "is how the gods share their dominions ? You told me
    they always know their limits and do not violate them. If this is
    true, how one can explain the things we've seen ?"
        Rhissa thought for a moment. "There is sort of a pact between
    gods, you know. They assume none of them trespasses with evil
    intent - by "evil" I assume those able to harm the cult."
        "And if gods try to fight some other cult ?"
        "They will never participate in that themselves. They have many
    erranders and servants to use..." Rhissa's eyes brightened. "Well, I
    think I know what you are thinking. You suppose that was an
    apparition of some deity, right ?"
        Nlaminer shrugged. "I am not sure. I judge only by the things we
    saw. Devastated grove... silent shrine... your inability to invoke
    Naata... All of these can lead to that suggestion. But there's
    something missing in the whole picture."
        Rhissa answered. "The most interesting thing is why he talked to
    you only. This is what bothers me... You said he referred to both of
    us ?"
        "That could mean I will see something similar some time."
        "Or it will be something else that he will use. He repeated
    'persuade you'. Persuade to do what ? Devastate all other Murti
    groves ? Build up the temple again ? I cannot understand his goal."
        "Gods can be vindictive," Rhissa remarked. "But they never plan
    to destroy the whole people. There are things even gods cannot do
        They reached the top and had another look at the sea. Vast and
    quiet, it breathed of dignity now. No blind rage, no danger.
    Calmness and infinity, thought Rhissa. Calmness and
    infinity, though Nlaminer. They looked into each other's eyes but
    said nothing.
    			*    *    *
        "Welcome, strangers," Rhissa murmured as they approached the iron
    door. It wasn't locked... it was even a bit ajar. Nlaminer looked at
    her, surprised. "What ?"
        "Here," Rhissa pointed to a plaque on the door. "It reads,
    'Welcome, strangers'. In Thalen. Isn't that wonderful ?"
        "Wait," Nlaminer protested. "When we searched the yard for the
    first time, there was no plaque here. And the door was not opened."
        They looked at each other again.
        "I think the first decision is the best," added Nlaminer quickly.
    "I would like to study the yard again, for whatever hidden parts it
    has. If we find none, then we will enter."
        "I will enter," Rhissa objected. "There is nothing I feel too
    dangerous behind the door. Do me a favour and try to find
    something, too..."        [this is unclear, "try to find something, too"]<---
        Nlaminer shrugged and cast Warning. When he looked around,
    several gray points flew before his eyes. He concentrated deeper, and
    distant patches of brown hue painted the vision. He broke
    concentration and thought for a moment.
        "Some rodents... rats, probably. And poison... I think the water
    inside is poisoned, maybe all food storage, too. Beyond that,
    nothing harmful."
        "Very well." With no further discussion Rhissa pushed the creaky
    door and disappeared inside.
        Mlaminer shrugged for the third time and cast Detect Hidden. With
    the golden glow surrounding, he ran around the building.
        A finely carved stone door shone blue on the back side of the wall
    adjoining the cliff. Nlaminer made several scratches on the wall
    (several hidden passages, especially magically hidden, could be found
    with only great efforts afterwards) and began searching for the way
    to open it. No handle, no keyhole. Just a contour of the door, with
    an indecipherable word glowing above. While he studied
    the door, the spell expired and no signs of the door remained.
        Nlaminer spent half an hour trying to find any clue, but in vain.
    No pushing, no pulling, no buttons, panels, no movable parts of the
    wall nearby. There must be some mechanism inside the building or
    elsewhere that opened the door. His feelings told him the door
    could be opened quite easily.
        Suddenly he heard a stamping of feet and Rhissa appeared, running
    madly. "Come !" she pulled him by the arm. "You should look at all
    of this yourself."
        Nlaminer looked at her. Eyes wide, agitated, as if some demons
    were close at her heels. "Hold for a moment," he said and touched her
    mouth with a finger. "Count to ten. Then tell me again. Please !"
        The flame inside Rhissa's eyes went out and then she said, in
    a lower voice. "I will not describe that... I cannot. You must see for
        They came back, Nlaminer wondering what could affect
    Rhissa so much. Her mood became unstable after the contact with
    Naata was broken. Well, he thought, it must surely be a great
    loss. I should calm her or we'll be soon in trouble. When they
    approached the door again, Rhissa looked quite quiet, though her eyes
    were still a bit too wide. She let him in and followed after a small
    pause. Nlaminer wrinkled his nose; the place reeked of stale water
    and decay. They entered the entrance hall; there was nothing here but
    a small basin with a fountain. He approached the basin. Instead of
    water, something slimy oozed out of the fountain. Unhealthy odour
    came from the green water. "Welcome, strangers," he murmured and gave
    a wry smile.
        "That's nothing" Rhissa voice came from the right. "There is
    another hall ahead."
        There were rats nearby, judging by the unpleasant rodent odour;
    Nlaminer shut his eyes and then opened them quickly. Small shadows
    ran all around, paying them no attention.
        "I calmed them," Rhissa said as if reading his mind. "They will
    not bother us here." Nlaminer noticed she held the staff in her hand
    and its knob was emitting soft pink shining. "Be careful, though." Her
    voice, ghost-like and barely audible make him shiver for a moment. He
    turned and looked at her. There was nothing to see. Except for the
    staff knob, there was no Rhissa. Nlaminer felt an unearthly
    cold begin to pour down his legs... Then he saw the faint sparks of
    her eyes and took a breath back.
        He entered another hall, scarcely lit by moonlight trickling
    through the smashed windows at the far side. There were doors, one to
    the left, another to the right; several tables were turned upside
    down; pieces of glass and stone littered the marble floor. But this
    was not what took his breath away and paralyzed.
        Someone was sitting by the wall, Elf-like with sharpened features
    and light skin. He was dead; his hands clutched a broken black sword. A
    terrible beast, resembling a wolf, though almost black, with enormous
    fangs and mighty and thick paws, lay nearby, with half of the sword
    buried inside its great chest.
        The smell of death filled his lungs; the chilling sensation
    grasped him once again. I can be merciless, he repeated insanely and
    some voice deep inside echoed his words. He tried to turn away from
    this horrible scene, but something trapped his
    attention and chained it unbreakably. It was the smile on the face of
    the fallen Elf.
        It gave the sensation of unspeakable madness and triumph.
    Nlaminer thought he saw bloody fangs growing out of the mouth of the
    warrior; his smile seemed to widen. Evil and dead lights glowed deep
    inside the milky eyeballs. He tried to close his eyes, to hide from
    the demonic smile but it hypnotized him and there was no end to the
        And he cried.
        His cry echoed from the silent walls and the rest of the glass
    exploded into a burst of eerie rainbow. The two bodies fell in a heap
    of black dust, the three parts of the sword clanking loudly. His
    brain was throbbing with the impact of the seen; [scene?] I can be merciless,
    he repeated again and again. He felt himself floating ... Madly
    smiling Elf walked after him and its lips muttered these words, again
    and again.
        Then the staff touched his forehead and the nightmare was flown
    away. He was sitting before the terrible heap of black dust and
    Rhissa chanted something over him, supporting him gently. The room
    seemed to be more lit than before. The effect of the shock was so
    strong Nlaminer was afraid to open his eyes again.
        Guessing by the shadows, he lay unconscious for less than five
    minutes. Rhissa, worried but decisive, investigated the adjacent
    rooms. Nothing terrible; only several rats and ubiquitous dust. It
    seemed that his terror cured them both. The tension that collected
    inside them had burst out. But, Nlaminer thought sarcastically, it
    nearly blew off his head as well.
        Rhissa seemed to regain her self-control very quickly. She helped
    him to come nearer to the window and he bathed in the cold moonlight
    until the bells stopped chiming in his ears. "Are you better ?" she
    asked softly.
        He understood she was offering him her flask. He sipped a bit;
    herbal aroma engulfed him. The potion had no specific taste, just
    pleasant odour. "Do you feel any taste ?" Rhissa asked unexpectedly.
    "No" he croaked. "Like a water." He managed to return his voice back.
        "Good," she nodded. "Good for us I took this with me. If you felt
    any taste, it would be very bad."
        'Why ?' he would like to ask but restricted himself. But he
    caught a slight smile on Rhissa's face and hid his own.
        "I guess you are all right," she replied almost merrily. "Well,
    let's go on together. Let me only..."
        And she touched the dust with her staff and sang something in a
    high, melodic voice (Nlaminer always was fascinated by her voice; he
    never expected a reptile could have such a clear one). The dust
    turned to gray mist and engulfed her momentarily; then it cleared
    away. No more dust remained there; just broken sword and strange
    collar, thin but heavy-looking, with deep incrusted dark oval gems.
        "Obsidian," Nlaminer resumed after examining the sword. "Well, I
    never knew one can make obsidian swords. And this collar..." he
    reached to take it.
        "Stop !" Rhissa pushed him; surprised, he rolled over and stood
    unharmed. "See this !" And she waved her hand over the collar. The
    thing immediately began to radiate ill reddish light. "See ?" there
    was a hiss in her voice. "The foul thing is cursed. Gods only know
    what could happen. Never touch anything here until we will prove it's
    harmless." Her anger passing away, hiss overtones melting away, he
    saw she was frightened, fearing for him; he felt himself a naughty
    child. "Sorry" he said.
        They looked into each other eyes and... laughed. After the newly
    built tension had passed, Rhissa let her eyes shut for a moment and
        "Use your powers, friend, and check the rooms. I cannot feel the
    traps; there could be many here. We have to be together if we want to
        "Of course, Rhissa" Nlaminer intoned the formulae and the
    building put on many colors. Mainly, it became pulsating gray. Trying
    to hold on the concentration, he slowly turned his head from side to
    side. The collar glowed purple and hot; there was something deadly
    just over their heads. Several simple traps were constructed in the
    east wing... No more dangers were here. From below, the emanation of
    danger was so strong he could tell every detail. The place was
    mad, ill and bloodthirsting, though nothing malign waited in ambush.
        "You will not persuade me" he murmured, trying to see some
    detail in the great mass of purple coming from below the floor.
    Rhissa looked at him and her eyes were widening slowly. At last,
    Nlaminer broke the concentration and after a short rest he told her
    of his discoveries.
        "I'm completely out of energy now," he warned. "If we encounter
    nothing hostile, we should find a shelter somewhere... to rest. The
    Guarding Sight always depletes me to the very bottom."
        They found nothing of interest while scanning through the adjoining
    wings; resting rooms, sort of barracks, a small storeroom. The ladder
    in the western wing led upwards. Drops of something similar to blood
    sprinkled it generously. "Blood" Rhissa said. "This one is also
    fifteen years old. Like the bodies."
        "Then why didn't they ..." Nlaminer felt it hard to continue.
        "I think he made a surprise for us. Well, one nightmare doesn't
    frighten me twice. Next time he's to invent something else."
        This is what I fear, Nlaminer thought as he led the way up to
    the second floor.
    			*    *    *
        There was little of interest on the second floor. They found no
    bodies; all seven rooms - four guests', one - lighthouse owner's
    room; library and storage - contained almost nothing. All were upside
    down; everywhere all things were scattered at random.
        They found only a strange-looking amulet, an irregular piece of
    dark granite with twelve tiny rubies set in a circle. Several books;
    all of them completely destroyed - torn to pieces. They
    looked at the devastation and nothing explained what had happened
        "This is something new," Rhissa took a small silver key out of
    paper heap. "The trapdoor, the one in the kitchen; was it locked ?"
        "I think so," Nlaminer shuddered. "But I wouldn't visit whatever
    lies there." He told about the smells and sounds that came from
    beneath the trapdoor. Rhissa listened and said, finally, "I think we
    will visit those rooms. By the way, look here." And she pointed to a
    small plan lying by the wall.
        Nlaminer picked up the paper piece and studied it briefly. "It
    says there is another underground passage. The entrance is in the
        "What now ?" he asked. "All dangers are underground. Which door
    will we enter first ?"
        "First we visit the roof," Rhissa answered and touched a
    small panel in the corner. A part of the wall slid to the left and
    there appeared a small closet-like room. There were splashes of blood
    everywhere inside; the ladder leading up was partly broken and
    unstable. A disjected <[?????] skeleton of another wolf-like creature lay on
    the floor. Another collar glistened in the shades of moonlight.
        "Very interesting," Rhissa said hoarsely. Nlaminer saw her feet
    suddenly give way and rushed to support her. Her body stiffened, eyes
    closed, she looked much like the statue. Nlaminer dragged her farther
    from the bones and closed the secret door. Something rustled above
    his head and a bird-like shadow fell upon him. Nlaminer felt the
    chiming bells again. This time he decided to fight the oncoming
    vision. He cast Protection, though the spell nearly failed; having
    surrounded himself and Rhissa by the bluish glow, he found the
    pressure on his mind diminishing.
        The visions were rare; they had passed just two days here, and
    there was the third one ! They couldn't do anything on their own if
    these interferences would continue. But he could do nothing at the
    moment. Rhissa's body was lifeless. Her mind was traveling somewhere
    far beyond this reality; the only thing he could rely upon was her
    highly sensitive self-preservation instincts.
    			*    *    *
        For Rhissa the walls of the lighthouse turned into the caves of
    Hamnaro Hills; her people, the Haans, dwelled there. Far away from
    other races, in the very center of long forgotten Pink Isle they
    continued researching the nature of life. She entered the entrance to
    the home city. The sentinel greeted her respectfully and became
    invisible again, just stepping out to the darkness.
        "Why I am here ?" she asked herself as she walked the deserted
    passages. People seemed to be everywhere; but as she approached any
    door they all vanished magically. The speed of her
    sleeplike journey was tremendous. She moved in complete silence;
    light was very bright and she heard the distant worried murmur always
    following her, as if all around her sorrowed for something.
        She came to the temple of Naata, carved with more care
    than usual. She entered the sacred place with awe and respect;
    there were seven Haans here inside, praying or meditating by the
    finely carved walls. Light fragrance of herbs filled the air. But the
    image of Naata was dark and there was no incense burning before it.
    Rhissa frowned and came nearer to the bas-relief. Black eyes of Naata
    met her and she felt terror. The statue was dead; no response came
    from it. Why was the temple silent ? What disaster befell the city ?
        "You are the disaster," one of the Haans turned his face to her.
    It was a priest; judging by his bracelet, he was from the Blasted
    Earth, lifeless desert island far away to the north-east. "I searched
    you for several centuries, Rhissa. Why did you refuse to help us ?"
        "I... what ?" Rhissa was surprised. "What did I refuse ? When ?"
        The priest came nearer. He was very ancient; his days were coming
    to an end. The scales became dark gray, the eyes nearly colorless.
    "He cursed us all and banished Naata. You could have
    prevent that. Why didn't you save your own people, high priest ?
    There are no Haans eggs any more; we are the last Haans knowing about
    Naata here. There," he waved his arm outside, "are thousands
    of graves. I cannot blame you, for you will be punished if you meant
    any evil. Tell me only, why ? Why you declined the chance to save
    us ?"
        Rhissa was shocked; the old priest looked at her and quietly left
    the temple. Rhissa was nearly mad with the terrible news; somewhere
    inside her the gloomy and merciless voice repeated, You are responsible
    for all of this, you destroyed your own people. She moved along;
    passages and streets came one by one; her senses were confused. The
    burden of blame blackened all around her. The ancient Haans looked at
    her, eyes down, gray-scaled and motionless. The city was fallen into
    dust, into ruins; there soon will be none to tend it. An angry
    howling of hot winds came suddenly from above. There were holes
    in the ceiling; sand fell inside in heaps.
        The smell of doom and eternity.
        The dying eyes of Naata image.
        The silent old Haans, frightened and obedient to their fate.
        She was about to accept anything to be rid of this nightmare; she
    turned around and stopped. Heartbeats drummed in unearthly silence.
    Then a voice, thin but steady, whispered 'Calmness and infinity...
    Open the door, now...' and Rhissa remembered everything.
            "Let me out !" she demanded and warded away the luring voices of
    defeat and obedience. The roof cracked and fell upon her head; but
    she felt only wind coming from above. She closed her eyes and jumped
    into nothing...
    			*    *    *
        ...and knocked Nlaminer down. He lost his concentration, so
    sudden was her leap. They helped each other rise up. In the failing
    light of the Protection she saw the worried look of her friend. "I'm
    fine," she said softly and put a hand to her breast; her heart was
    still paining a bit, but the effects of the vision were melting away.
        "He tried to frighten me," she explained, not citing her vision.
    "I feel we will jeopardize the whole races, Nlaminer. This was
    shown very clearly. Let's think twice before we do anything here."
        She opened wide the door; only blood droplets. The bones and the
    cursed collar turned to dust. The light wind was flowing it away.
    They climbed the cracking ladder and soon were standing on the roof.
                           Chapter 4. Up and down
        "How beautiful!" Rhissa inhaled the salty air and studied
    the view. The roof was completely clean and peaceful. No
    blood, no bones, no signs of battles that fell on this peaceful land.
    There were faint outlines of mountains far to the north; Rhissa
    thought she saw a distant line of the Pink Isle, though she
    couldn't do that in any case. She closed her eyes and stroked the wet
    granite under her fingers. The past was coming at her.
    			*    *    *
        She stood at the Eagle Tower, the highest place on the Pink Isle,
    built at the time when Melrines, now forgotten, dwelt here. She was
    quite young again; her scale was bright and she didn't wear the sign
    of the High Priest. She remembered well the lessons of the priests;
    bound to their deity, they combined theology and many other sciences.
        She closed her eyes and clutched the warm parapet stone. Sun was
    behind her; warmth filled her, energy concentrating inside
    her sought exit, agitating and sharpening her senses. Like
    all other cleric novices, she couldn't control her power completely;
    sometimes the inner power came out with quite unusual effects.
        And now she imagined herself flying over the planet, where only a
    small part was land. She thought about it with some new, weird
    vision; the great continent of Swalans, Great North Land, the circle
    of the rocky and unwelcome Dragon Islands a hundred miles to the east
    of the continent. She visited white and lifeless Blasted Isle,
    where all the life was either burnt out or buried under the mass of
    sand; she had a brief look at Serpent Archipelago, a group of islands
    forming a figure resembling a coiled snake. And Ice Lands, lifeless,
    polar islands under ice shields a mile deep. She laughed and her
    laugh stirred the dreaming winds that took her and carried her farther,
    farther, farther... And here she felt too tired to continue her
    dreamlike flight.
        She cried in terror, for she was falling into the green ocean,
    occupying all the void around. She managed to shake off her vision
    and found herself standing at the top of the Tower, desperately
    clutching the stone wall... Her head was buzzing with the colors and
    emotions of her flight.
        "Take care of your thoughts," she was told by the teacher, High Priest
    of Naata, gray-scaled Haans more than four centuries old. "The origin
    of your power is life; you gather your energy from the life around
    you. But this is the power with no mind. You can stir it; but you
    will find it hard to stop. So never hurry the forces you are
    trying to master. Many clerics fall prey to their inability to
    control the energy they released."
        He paused. Rhissa was listening closely; she was taught to ask no
    questions unless told to; this restriction was wise, for
    thoughts unharnessed were greater obstacles than any lack of
    training. In the matter of magic deeds any loss of concentration
    could cost a very, very dear price.
        "Try to concentrate on your task, Rhissa. Mind: you will never be
    allowed to use any other spell until you polish your skill in
    the simplest one. You understand that ?"
        "Yes, teacher," Rhissa answered, though impatience sounded
    in her voice.
        Rmair, her teacher, smiled a bit. His smile didn't hurt her. In
    fact, she managed to see whether the teacher was smiling only after
    several years of studying with Rmair ans Kanlanss, who personally
    offered to teach her The Art. She was a good Haans, patient... mostly
    patient, in any case, and clever.
        "I feel you are disturbed by the limits I place," he added.
    "Well, Rhissa, teach yourself to control your emotions. You cannot
    allow emotions to control you. This will awaken the Dark Art; the
    force without spirit, the destruction. I will not allow you to follow
    the Dark Art, my child, but you will be always lured by it. Our
    lessons are finished this time. Come here as soon as you have fulfilled
    the task."
        When he addressed anyone as "my child", Rmair spoke only of
    serious things. Rhissa rose in silence, bowed and left the room.
    Rmair was a bit troubled. Something strange was about her... he
    thought he saw some dark future for her when his precognition
    talents awakened. But at times... at times he thought he saw no
    clear future for her. The visions were dark and forbidding... yet no
    gloom was about her; Naata didn't warn him. Well, even gods
    can miss the Dark Side coming to life. I will tell her, he thought as
    she ran down to the sandy beach. He saw her throwing stones at the
    angry waves and smiled again. She's mostly a child now; when The Art
    will be her spirit, she will become wise and powerful.
        He felt his own fatigue, many years old, unceasing. It was the
    burden that all High Priests carried through life. The balance
    between Life and Chaos was thin and vulnerable. She will play a very
    important role... if only he knew which one.
        She came back two years later.
    			*    *    *
        Nlaminer touched her hand and turned her back. She shook her
    head, warding off the memories.
        "There was something on the roof, don't you remember ? See,
    there's nothing here now !"
        "What ?" Rhissa turned to him in surprise. "I do not remember
    anything here."
        "Come !" He pulled her to the ladder. They moved quickly to the
    first floor, then outside, and to the beginning of the tunnel.
        Something dark and round stood on the roof. In the moonlight it
    looked like a cracked glass sphere, about ten feet wide, that rested
    on a small hut-like support. Rhissa eyed the object carefully; she
    thought she saw small sparks run on the surface of the sphere.
        "I saw it several times, when a lightning struck," Nlaminer
    explained. "And I know we were alone on that roof.
    What could you say ?"
        "I say let's return to the roof," Rhissa made several notes in
    her diary and hid it in the belt again. "I have
    some idea about what's happening here."
        They turned back. Nothing. They studied each bit of the
    surface; not even a sign that it was there.
        "Well," Rhissa said. "Now you go to the tunnel and look at the
    roof again. I will stay here."
        Nlaminer nodded... he began to understand her thought. He did as
    he was told. The sphere was in sight again... but not Rhissa. Rhissa,
    also, did not see anyone coming to the Ladder. The sky remained clear
    and cold; a breeze moved around, bringing salt and moisture. She was
    deep in thoughts when Nlaminer reappeared.
        "I see," Rhissa said when he finished his story. "That gives me
    bad feelings."
        "That it is another roof... not of this lighthouse."
        "Yes. And this is not the only strange thing. You remember the
    plan ?"
        Nlaminer took the lighthouse plan out of the pocket. "Aha...
    there is such a sphere here, on the plan. Do you think it's hidden
    under an illusion of some sort ?"
        "No," Rhissa shook her head. "I think this is another reality
    where we are right now."
        "What ?!"
        "Look," she pointed to the stars. "Try to think what the
    constellations looked like. I tried to find a familiar one. Not
    even a star known to me ! All is different here."
        Nlaminer viewed the sky for a while and then nodded again.
        "We should visit all the other parts of the lighthouse,"
    Rhissa added after a long pause. "We can find something similar, I
    hope. But first... let us stay here awhile."
    			*    *    *
        "I detect no danger behind the door," said Rhissa after
    they (with no success) tried to open the secret door in the yard.
    They both were studying the door; they had found the thinnest lines
    separating it from the rest of the wall, but alas ! The door didn't
    move even a hair. Strangest of all, there were no locks, no
    magic or other traps, - just a carefully hidden part of the wall.
        "I doubt we can break it," Rhissa remarked after trying to move
    it by force. "This door should open very easily. Let's think. What
    could force it open ?"
        "Special key," Nlaminer replied at once. "Some device that could
    unlock whatever mechanism holds it shut. But I scanned the door; it
    has no definite source of magic emanation. It emanates magic
    uniformly, no places with greater or less radiation." He touched
    the door and stood listening to the sensations. The door seemed to be
    alive; as if it waited for some polite word.
        "If only," Nlaminer said and Rhissa's eyes shone for a moment
    with red light. "If only..." He touched the door again and exclaimed,
    with the known sensation of the discovered clue "Maybe I will ask this
    door to open !"
        'This is your special ability', Rhissa whispered far beyond his
    hearing, after the door slowly opened, allowing them to enter. 'No
    hidden traps can stop you'. She made a sacred gesture, asking for
    guidance. Though no reply came to her, it calmed her agitation. The
    clearness of mind cost dearly now.
        They entered and, after several paces, they found another staircase.
    This one was spiral. Nlaminer led the way, weapon ready,
    listening and alert. Rhissa followed; her staff glimmered again,
    though she paid no attention. No hostile life was around; they
    descended into a vast and brightly lit hall filled with stands,
    bookshelves and other things. The steps creaked under them;
    three glowing spheres shone under the ceiling of the dome-like room
    and provided light enough to read.
        "A laboratory !" Nlaminer exclaimed as he studied the
    surroundings briefly.
        "I hope we find something useful here," Rhissa replied and
    hid her staff in the sheath on her back. "Nothing harmful... at
    least while we do not eat or drink anything."
        The door closed softly after they had descended. They both heard
    the click and exchanged looks.
        "Well, we will find our way out," Nlaminer said carelessly, fascinated
    by mysterious books and devices all around him. "Let's study all of
        They began to browse through apparata and books, potions and
    miscellaneous reagents, through many interesting things. All of these
    were set up in some unknown system... though there WAS some system
    here. Rhissa began searching through alchemical paraphernalia and was
    completely lost to anything else. Nlaminer took a book
    labeled "History" from a shelf and began looking through it.
                            *    *    *     
        "No," Rhissa told him when his attack was parried. "You do not
    use a sword. This is a different type of weapon. Look at me carefully."
        She grasped the staff and prepared to meet him. Nlaminer held his,
    carved this morning and carefully balanced by Rhissa. Her
    knowledge of this type of weapon seemed to be enormous. He had not
    expected such a small creature to be so formidable a
    weaponmaster. The only hope a larger opponent had was to use his weight
    and force to break through her defense. Though he considered himself
    to be more than a novice in sword handling, his staff techniques were
    primitive. None of his attacks were carried out even
    halfway. Rhissa's staff met his somewhere in the middle; but for
    her own spells, Nlaminer's weapon would be broken to pieces already.
    			*    *    *
        "The crossbow is good when you defend a position," she explained
    after they scanned the nearby lands for any intelligent life. "You
    will need to attack, not to defend, mainly; and there will be no
    walls to hide behind."
        After several hours of work Rhissa cut an oaken branch and made a
    small but carefully balanced staff. Nlaminer didn't understand much
    of what she was doing; she chanted strange pleasant
    songs over it; the wood became a light, dry, strong and resonant
    staff, easy to handle... so it seemed.
        They trained for two days and Nlaminer thought he
    made no progress at all. But this was a challenge he was proud to
    take. Rhissa's patience seemed infinite; he only noticed
    mischievous sparks in her eyes when she declined his clumsy attempts
    to hit her.
        Nlaminer had his first enlightenment... he called
    it "voice"; while engaging in a sequence of attacks and defenses, he
    suddenly began talking to himself...
        "The arrow that struck the star..."
        ...he paused for Rhissa's sign that she was ready to defend...
        "... it then returned ..."
        ...he was ready to issue a sliding blow; the staff began to
    descend and he was ready to spin in order to bypass his opponent's
    defense movement; he had never succeeded before...
        "... all charred and burnt ..."
        ...the staff was advancing with all the effort he could muster.
    Rhissa's eyes were looking in some other direction, but Nlaminer
    never believed she was not seeing his intentions...
        "... and left the sky AJAR !"
       ...and as the inner voice spelled the last word, it was as if some
    brilliant light lit the whole scene. An invisible force guided his
    attack; Rhissa's staff missed his and Nlaminer almost hit her
    with all his might. He took control in the very last moment
    and raised his weapon quickly. Both staves clanked
    at each other and flew high in the sky. Still guided by the same
    inner power, he jumped in the air, turned and landed still grasping
    the staff, ready to react. Rhissa's staff was still in the air and
    she reached for it, not slower than he... here the inner guidance
    ceased; he found himself face to face with Rhissa; his staff was
    raised above her head; she was not ready to defend.
        Rhissa bowed and dropped her weapon.
        "I cannot believe !" she said with respect. "You seemed to
    radiate energy; as if a god were guiding your hand. Tell me, my
    friend, what was it ?"
        Nlaminer, still under the effect of his newly gained ability, told
    her of his sensations. Rhissa touched him lightly; his trembling
    immediately stopped. "You must learn to
    relax," Rhissa said softly. "Your movement was perfect, but you have
    to sustain inner equilibrium. While under a sudden attack, your
    feelings should be steady and controlled. No matter what weapon
    you have, if you cannot concentrate on the equilibrium, you
    eventually will lose the battle."
        Nlaminer knew that the strange rhyme he heard just a few moments
    ago indeed gave him additional force and knowledge; but the effect
    ceased quickly and led him more quickly to tiredness. After an hour
    of training Rhissa said they needed rest. They sat under a tree side
    by side; Nlaminer drank water from his flask (he had no Water of
    Strength any more, though simple water from a spring was no worse).
        He vaguely remembered the events that occurred after that dread
    night battle with the undead hunter. Rhissa dragged him to a safer
    place where he remained unconscious for several days and nights until he
    returned to life. The life draining force had almost
    slain him; he survived and learnt more from his wounds. Rhissa
    said he would now be able to sense undead presence; probably it would
    bring more benefits than troubles. His life until his encounter with
    Rhissa was a chain of losses.
        He felt his inner attraction to Rhissa growing slowly
    stronger. He doubted now that she had been in real danger that time (but
    Rhissa said she was in a dire peril nonetheless).  He noticed
    there were no grand quarrels between the two of them.
        He preferred not to think too much about that. She was a
    perfect teacher; as time was passing, his abilities grew greater;
    Rhissa said they had about ten days more to prepare for their
    expedition; when the moon is full, she said, the undead will come from
    underground and it will be almost impossible to stop them. When the
    island is under their control, the City of Singara would be as
    effectively protected as sealed.
        He slept poorly these days; shadows dark and sinister flooded his
    dreams and he woke up in terror, his heart beating violently... but
    all of this slowly was cured. Meantime they told each other
    stories from their adventures while Rhissa made many notes in her
    diary; Nlaminer had no need to write all of this. His memory held
    everything he needed with almost no effort.
    			*    *    *
        Nlaminer woke up. Rhissa still manipulated something; the glass
    lightly rang; something poured; pages were turned... He looked at the
    book he had. He opened it at the page where the history of the
    lighthouse island was written.
        This part of land had drowned several times; all the towns and 
    other settlements were abandoned and lost in the abyss. Mysterious 
    Akaeff towns were lost forever. Only their crypts, built up 
    throughout the whole land, left after the vanished race. Nlaminer 
    looked at the image of an Akaeff... much like the stranger he was 
    talking to in his vision. A simple thought preoccupied him...  but he 
    couldn't hold it.
        He stretched, left the chair he was sitting in and reached for
    another book. This one had maps; Nlaminer took a piece of paper -
    there were several heaps of the thin perfect paper on the shelf - and
    began to make drafts. The underground passages... the lighthouse
    plan... more and more maps. All these books seemed to wait for him.
    Whose will ordered all of this in this manner ? What plans did that
    stranger have ?
        He put the pen aside... Good pen, he thought. Pity it will
    break in my backpack... some things are not meant to
    survive disasters. He examined himself. After that night his fur
    became light gray, almost colorless... His face, surrounded by gray
    beard and a set of grayish whiskers made him seem one of the ancient sages.
    He smiled and reached for a comb to do his fur. Being his natural
    dress, the fur required care, and he was several times soaked in
    salty water... time to tidy up his appearance.
        When he finished, Rhissa called him. "Come here, Nlaminer. I have
    found many useful things here."
        He walked to her, through many narrow passages between stands,
    tables, shelves. Rhissa sat at the huge stone table, covered with
    vials, retorts, burners and other alchemical glassware. She showed
    him two dozen small colored vials and books lying nearby.
        "These," she pointed at seven opalescent vials, "will heal
    you. I've written down the recipes. Many reagents are
    quite rare and the process is complex, but the results are great.
        "These four," she continued, "will make you resistant to
    poisons, though I'm not sure to which ones.
        "And these," she pointed at nine small black flasks, "will boost
    your energy, though it will hurt you a bit."
        "And these ?"  Nlaminer pointed at three green small bottles.
        "Well, these..." she paused. "I suppose they will sharpen
    your senses. I do not know how much... I hadn't much time to study
        "Good for you."  Nlaminer was quite frank. He was fascinated by
    all magic or magic-related things; the simple and quite obvious steps
    that transformed several strange things into a powerful potion could
    not leave him uninterested. Especially if his own friend could master
    such transmutations. For him this knowledge was opaque and
    indecipherable. "How we will carry them ?"
        "Well, I made something right here..." Rhissa showed her belt.
    She had made something like an oblong bag, inlaid with fur-like stuff.
    Indeed, in such a container the vials could survive even falldowns.
    Rhissa offered him the similar bag. "When did you make it ?"
    Nlaminer was astounded.
        "While you were... traveling," she paused, as if picking the
    correct word. She was always particular in psychic matters; his
    state was indeed more like traveling than simple dreaming. "Don't
    worry," she added. "It was quite simple. Besides, there was much
    leather here. I cannot even guess why. If only..."
        Nlaminer looked around. Heat suddenly enclosed him; he felt on
    fire. Something wrong could happen, if...
        "STOP !" he shouted. Rhissa stopped, bewildered. "You
    shouldn't... speak... about that..." he added hoarsely and then the
    feeling was over. "I understand what you mean. But if you speak that
    aloud, unpredictable things can happen."  He looked around again. The
    room was vibrating. It looked like an earthquake was coming. Glowing
    globes began to pulsate. "Come out !" Rhissa said and pulled him to
    the staircase. "We should leave at once. Our time's at an end."
        They rushed to the exit. The room was vibrating more violently;
    everything seemed to stand firmly. Nlaminer tripped over a step and
    was hit by a railing. A bit confused, he ran upwards; the room was
    trembling and... getting transparent... their time was indeed at an end
    here. Rhissa pushed the door and it obediently slid away; they came
    out and the door closed immediately behind them. Nlaminer looked
    around. No signs of a secret door. The island shook gently
    and all became quiet again. Nlaminer noticed his backpack was
    unfastened and remembered a metallic clanking as he ascended the
    stairs. He browsed through the inventory... his pot was missing. I
    hate raw fish, he thought suddenly and began to laugh.
        Rhissa looked at him in surprise but said nothing. She was glad
    to escape some unknown danger they had just awakened. Nlaminer laughed
    a minute or two and then stood up, wiping tears off his eyes. "All
    right, Rhissa," he added. "Let's wait a bit. I think we should
    examine the wall again."
        If only someone had left this room intentionally for us. He
    repeated this thought again. Nothing resulted from it. Whatever
    reacted to this simple idea, it was far away now.
    			*    *    *
        Nlaminer was wrong. The door stood where it was; and it opened
    quite easily. But this time, an odor of decay and death met them.
    Rhissa stopped at the bottom of the staircase and Nlaminer felt she
    was trembling. He took her hand in his; Rhissa waved her other hand
    and a small ball of light floated above her head. It slowly
    went down... the pale light showed them the picture of devastation.
    All was upside-down; the table turned and broken, the books burnt and
    torn; broken vials mixed giving this impossible stench.
        A whistling sound came from below. The bluish ball slid down;
    two large eyes reflected its glow. A giant snake-like creature filled
    the hall, coiling above the ruins of the laboratory. It was uncoiling
    now, emitting a low steady hiss. The eyes glowed with amber light.
    The mouth of this monster was opening... dry and unpleasant was
    filling the air. Rhissa stepped back... her hand moved for the
    staff... and a laughter came, rolling within the great dome.
        'No, no... You try to trick me, strangers... I removed this
    obstacle now... You cannot hurt me... but I CAN hurt you!'
        The snake flew at them, its sabre-like fangs oozing with
    lethal poison, hiss overwhelming, its odor making quizzy and ill...
    They ran back to safety and felt the rocks falling down,
    smashing the laboratory to pieces, finishing the destruction.
        Nlaminer pulled Rhissa farther from the door (though it was a
    door into nothing) and gasped for several seconds. The air removed
    the painful throbbing and he found Rhissa lying just beside him.
        "Water..." she murmured and he poured water cautiously into her
    mouth. She closed her eyes and lay again. Nlaminer wondered if he
    should give her that poison antidote... but after a small while she
    sat up and drank her herbal mixture. The mist in her eyes faded.
        "Help me... we should leave this place now," she said and fell
    unconscious again.
        Nlaminer carried her down to their first cave and built up fire
    again. Her breath became steady. Whatever happened to her, it was
    wearing off. He examined her; found none of the serious wounds or
    burns and sat beside her, frying this endless fish on the sticks. I
    should change the diet, he thought, lest I become scaly, too. He
    smiled again and continued to sing in a low voice. He sang about roads
    and stars... and the words brought him the sensations of peace. They
    survived another day here on this accursed land.
                            Chapter 5. The prison
        "This is what we have," Nlaminer put on the table all their
    trophies; five books, a bag with flasks; medallion and the knife. "I
    suppose this is not enough if we decide to explore the underground
        Rhissa sat, thinking, playing with a pen. They moved their
    headquarters to one of the guest rooms. It could be as easily
    defended as the cave; and they could always climb down out of the
    window. The window was mostly intact and when they started a fire,
    the room began to give a sensation of some comfort. The cave in this
    sense was a trap. Once besieged by whomever could come at night they
    would have no escape.
        "There are several strange places," Nlaminer continued. "One is
    the library. There are void places according to the plan; large
    enough for another guest room to fit in. However, there are some
    strange signs on the wall, no secret passage or whatever.
        "There are also passages leading deep underground and to the
    north. The entrance is in the rooms beneath the smithy; the stores
    under the kitchen are just monster pits and I feel myself not
    equipped to confront anything that lives there. I think we should
    concentrate on the underground tunnel."
        "You didn't mention the crypt," Rhissa added and her friend
    shivered a bit. "You are afraid for no reason, though. There are no
    undead lurking there; and all small creatures are easy to calm. The
    same about the kitchen. I do not want to fight anything that won't
    crave for our blood."
        Nlaminer sat tapping something on the table. "Well," he said at
    last, "I think you're right. But without a reliable rope, hooks and
    all other stuff it would be quite risky to continue our searches.
    And even if we decide to leave the island,.."
        "I doubt it," Rhissa said. "There is no boat any more. I think
    that last storm washed it away."
        Nlaminer paused. "Then it is normal to find some other way to
    escape from here. I cannot cast Fly; and nobody of us could make a
    boat out of stone."
        "The key to all the events lies somewhere in the building,"
    Rhissa objected. "Yes, we will study all the passages, but I think we
    will have to explore all the places we did not visit here, in the
    lighthouse, to understand how we should rid ourselves of our new
    supervisor.  For me, his actions bring only destruction. The
    nightfall is nigh; I will examine all the entrances, if you would not
        "And I will study the books," Nlaminer pointed at the books he
    managed to save before the laboratory was ruined. "I think there
    should be several helpful ideas here." Nlaminer cast Light on the
    spent torch protruding from the wall and began to read. They had
    little oil to spend; he had to use the magic now. Whatever force
    was preventing gods from talking to their devotees, his magic powers
    were recuperating normally. He made the Light a bit yellow and soon
    was deep into comparing, writing, searching through the books. Once
    he looked out of the window and saw Rhissa studying the outside of
    the lighthouse.
        While he was making calculations, writing down notes, a
    thought, small but annoying, moved deep inside his mind. He went on
    studying until he realized Rhissa was sitting behind him, meditating.
    The thought began to materialize into more solid form... Nlaminer
    looked at Rhissa and asked softly, "Do you hear me ?"
        "Yes," Rhissa answered, her eyes closed.
        "I think there is one more strangeness. One simple thing we
    missed before and are missing now. Do you recall something unusual;
    what we should have done, but didn't ?"
        Rhissa slowly opened her eyes. "What do you mean ?"
        Nlaminer considered hastily. The memory came back to him, and the
    picture began to restore some of the lost details. "Where is our
    boat, Rhissa ?"
        "Washed away, in the storm, what do you..."
        "But why didn't we hide it safely ? Eh ? Do you understand ?"
        Rhissa looked at him, and the knowledge flashed in her widened
    eyes. "Then we didn't scout the shore, but simply picked a cave..."
        "... Came to the lighthouse in the open ..."
        "... Didn't hurry to study the laboratory more thotoughly..."
        "We did not take elementary precautions. I see !
    He weakened our defense - we did not expect anything dangerous."
        "There must be details we missed while studying the building
    and its surroundings. He makes us feel safer than we are; several
    times we were in real danger and only good luck saved us from worse
        "So we should search everything anew," Rhissa resumed. "You are
    quite right, Nlaminer. This is what was giving me wry sensations.
    From now on we should distrust the obvious."
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer sat before the Archmage Inleir, an Elf, with snowwhite
    hair and keen and alive eyes; he couldn't guess how old he was;
    perhaps a thousand years; perhaps more. He sat in the guest hall of
    the Circle Palace of the city of Onnd and listened.
        "There are four basic types of magic known in our world" Inleir
    said, "There is your inner magic, The Power; there is your mental
    magic, The Wisdom; there is clerical magic, The Art; there is slow
    and subtle, but very powerful magic of druids, The Force."
        "Everyone can learn the basics of any one of the four systems,"
    he continued. "They all are meant to balance the Elements in the
    Universe. Every Element has its meaning and cannot be meant more
    necessary than any other. You can use your magic freely and with no
    dire results if you acknowledge the axioms of the system you follow.
    There is one universal axiom: the balance of forces shall be
        "You asked me to teach you of The Wisdom, Nlaminer; you also have
    thought you can impress me with some of your achievements. That's
    good, if there are true achievements in The Wisdom by now. So I ask
    you, have you something to show me ?"
        Nlaminer was a bit embarrassed by his stare; there was nothing he
    could hide from these eyes. He thought about the question, rested
    while his emotions went away and then answered, trying to sound calm,
    "No, master. I have none."
        "I will not tell you any philosophy until you are ready to accept
    it," Inleir replied. "The path of each system is different; but they
    all need the balanced state of mind. Remember it now and remember
    forever: emotions guiding you will eventually lure you to the Dark
    Side of whatever system you follow. The boundary between Dark Side
    and the Balanced Side is too thin and it is hard to see you are
    trespassing. The Dark Wisdom will lead you to imbalance and to
    Chaos. Until I am sure you control your emotions well I will not
    speak to you any more. Come back when and if you think you are
    balanced enough to accept The Wisdom." Inleir rose.
        Nlaminer rose, too, and bowed slightly. "I will return," he said
    and left the Circle Palace.
        He was annoyed by the visit, for the Archmage seemed to be an
    ordinary person, with no lightnings coming out of his eyes, with no
    essence of might emanating from him. In his dreams he would come to
    the Archmage, show him several spells he mastered by himself and win
    immediate respect from the wizened master. It seemed that dreams are
    always dreams, with no substance and much meaning.
        He went through the city; twelve golden eagles, his only
    possessions, jingled carelessly in his pocket. Anyway, he thought
    after all, I should find some job and lodging. Whether I will be
    taught or not, I should earn my living.
        He was skillful a bit in smithery and stone carving; Onnd was an
    industrial city, with ships and chariots and tools produced in great
    quantities; they should have need in some skills, undoubtedly. From
    now on, he decided, I will hope for the smallest. I dob't care much
    for Inleir, but it would be very sad to experience frustration so
                                 *    *    *
        The fire creaked merrily; half a dozen logs lay nearby; Nlaminer
    chopped some and they now sat, in the deserted building,
    with night looking at them coldly from the window. It's good we both
    prefer to work at night, Nlaminer thought, finishing his job. Rhissa
    read his notes and was thinking on something written in her diary.
        "The first thing we should discard is thinking we are short of
    time," she said, closing her notebook. "First; the disaster here
    struck about fifteen years ago. The change of the cosmic scale, given
    it had happened here, would not go unnoticed. Nonetheless, I detected
    only small changes in the Art's balance here. And I am not the most
    powerful cleric, Nlaminer; the High Clerics never let the disaster
    lurk for a long time."
        "Then he should hide his actions... for a while, if he plans to
    overturn the current balance. But wait... and how's ruined grove ?
    Did Murti - shall I not be cursed - pay no attention to such events?"
        "Gods are everywhere and nowhere." Rhissa repeated one of the
    rules she was taught in childhood. "They feel all the changes; but
    they do not normally guard every one of their sacred places. They
    have devotees to do that. Moreover, if our new "master" has
    powers to destroy sacred places with impunity, well, then all the
    other gods could fight him in some other layer of reality. Here it
    is our task to solve the problems. However, I feel the changes in The
    Art and in The Forcer. Something very destructive awaits here
    nearby. And we will find it - in no hurry - because the results for
    us and our people can be disastrous. Whoever this creature is, it is
    vengeful and powerful. We shall not neglect its abilities; we made
    several errors before that could cost us our lives, at least."
        "I will study the walls again." Nlaminer put a dish of smoked
    fish on the table, and several raw ones for Rhissa. "After we have
    our dinner, I will search for more clues here. I hope it will be
    harder now to put me off my balance."
        "Excellent." Rhissa nodded. "And I will scan The Art realm for
    whatever changes were recently made."
        A bit of a change will not harm, Nlaminer thought, when Rhissa
    came from hunting with a basket of fish. This time I will smoke them.
    He was eager to find a forest with game other than fish.  For a
    corncob he would trade all the treasures of the world. He understood
    they should be grateful even for this scarce food Rhissa managed to
    catch, but nonetheless... His food habits were not so easily
                                 *    *    *
        For every living creature, the way to any mental realm is
    different. Rhissa knew there was an infinity of realities, both
    material and pure energy, lying side by side. The boundaries between
    them were impassable by any common method, though meditation
    could open the connection briefly. She was strictly warned against
    long trips in th ethereal planes, for the body was attracting mental
    entities while its mind wandered far away. She never experienced such
    encounters but it could be her fatal mistake to let some other mind
    gain possessions of her body.
        Ethereal voyages, which brought her valuable information,
    could shake the Balance violently. She always "crawled" into the
    outside realms. No words could describe the sensations there,
    where matter was not and the energy could emit sounds, odors and
        She was coming to the Art realm now. Her mind always adapted
    the information to patterns already known. When the voyage ended and
    she made steady contact with the Realm, a storm of every possible
    sensation made her dizzy. This state quickly faded and she opened her
    eyes in the world where there were no eyes.
        She was standing in a burnt and charred forest; trees uprose
    their tortured limbs in silent moans. Strange shadows were running
    in the depths of the forest.
        Clouds, filled with fire and water, flew over her head with
    tremendous speed. Malignant faces appeared in their depths.
    Lightnings growled inside, as if waiting for a command to strike this
    land. Rhissa concentrated and her "body" floated above the forest.
        Impenetrable mountains surrounded this strange place.
    No sound was heard here. There were ethereal creatures; several were her
    "friends", as much as one could have friends here. But none of
    the voices of the Realm now sounded. It seemed she was trapped
    inside this place of horror, where no life was to feed her spirit.
        She flew over the forest; shadows ran to and fro, laughing,
    moaning, crying. They were shadows of life, for fire could not
    destroy living body; even in the ashes a trace of life still
    remained. Only the strike of the polar force, undead essence, could
    annihilate life completely. Rhissa thought she smelled the faint
    odor of undead presence. It was strange; this side of the Realm
    would always destroy any undead spirit. But something
    forbidden, impossible, trespassing was nearby. Was it the force that
    controlled these thunderclouds ?
        She reached the mountain barrier. A creature, the Akaeff image
    that haunted their visions, stood there, smiling peacefully.
    Its smile made her feel uneasy. She landed before the figure and
    looked into its hot red eyes. Madness and power glistened in them.
    Some old and poisonous insanity still lived inside it.
        'Want to go outside ?' it asked and saluted her with a short
        'Why do you hide your name ?' Rhissa asked with her mind, and the
    stranger came nearer. Undead presence emanated from him,
    though in the full sense,it was not undead. Rhissa worried,
    for it was something very strange.
        'You should find it for yourselves,' it replied and smiled again.
    'This is a test. I could weave both of you with illusions, but I need
    your sincere efforts. You are afraid of disasters ? Well, we can
    agree to something. But first goes the revenge.'
        This incoherent and strange speech was driving Rhissa into more
    confusion. There was something both attracting in this creature, and
    something horrible as well.
        'What revenge ? Did you mean to avenge the Akaeff ? They all
    vanished, but none of our races did that. You should know that.'
        'Races, maybe. Your gods are guilty.'
        'You want to fight gods ?' Rhissa saw the insanity coming nearer
    in its eyes. 'Nobody has the power to fight gods. Besides, you should
    know the Akaeff, as any other living beings, were not destroyed, but
    moved into some other reality.'
        'You think so ?' the creature grinned. 'Well, you are wrong.
    Wrong in all your suggestions. I possess the power to destroy the
    gods... and if it interests you, my race was annihilated in a flash.
    There is nothing left of them in any world. This is what I will
    correct. Unfortunately, I need the help of mortals to do that. This
    is why I talk to you now.'
        Rhissa had nothing to say. To object would bring her opponent to
    a madder state. Besides, its statements were too strange to find
    reasonable words to reply.
        'Go now,' it waived its hand and the storm began. 'I will keep
    here life enough to support you. But if I detect you are
    deceiving me, I will close the source of your power for a while, to
    make you obedient.'
        Rhissa tried to say something but felt a powerful impact that had
    thrown her away. Her journey back was uncontrolled and swift; when
    she returned to her body, every cell cried of pain, so fierce
    was that mental blow. She sat, gasping, by the fireplace, unable to
    speak, unable to think, the mocking voice of the stranger still
    ringing inside her mind.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer found many new details and hidden signs; he was glad
    to move their searches away from the dead end.
        First, there was a hidden room behind the wall in the library. It
    would be hard to unlock it; but he sensed no traps and no magic
        Second, he visited the trapdoors. The kitchen had a
    regular cellar trapdoor. No monsters were under it, only rats and
    their kind. The smithy passage was a different case.  Something WAS
    deep inside... but it slept - or waited -  with no threat
        He managed to study most of the surrounding
    cliff, with no result.  The crypt door had been sealed with a
    magic lock. No tool could force it open. But he felt no desire to
    visit this place.
        The worst surprise was when he went to the Ladder. The island was
    surrounded by a circle of black clouds; rain and storm were raging in
    the distance; gray clouds were hanging above his head. There was no
    way to sail away from here.
        When he returned to their room, Rhissa looked perfectly normal,
    though she felt tired. He told her about his discoveries and Rhissa
    told about her voyage, concluding, "So we are in a prison now."
        This was the exact word that described his thoughts. A prison.
    They had an eternity to sit here and do anything they wanted.
                                 *    *    *
        They descended into the underground passage. Their lamp was
    a poor source of light; Nlaminer offered to cast Light, but Rhissa
    suggested he save his powers for more important tasks.  They
    went very slowly, searching all around them. Rats were here in
    multitudes; Rhissa warded them away, and the foul-smelling army of
    rodents never disturbed them, though always followed them closely.
    Nlaminer looked at them and shuddered; there were too many to
    fight. If Rhissa failed to maintain her mental force, then...
        There were about ten rooms here. Two were actual prison cells;
    others were stores, mainly. After examining all of them, they
    entered a vast underground hall. It was a training room, no doubt;
    many spears, swords, daggers and other sort of weapons were hanging
    from the walls; several well beaten dummies and targets were all
    around. A grating in the right wall led to a small room with a basin.
        "Spoilt," Rhissa whispered. "Look, Nlaminer."
        He looked and frowned. A green slimy mass moved in the basin;
    a foul and poisonous smell came from that direction.  Slight but
    definite waves of hunger and blind hate came from the strange being
    living in the marble basin.
        "We'll have to clear all of this," she said. "We cannot leave
    this monster to live here. But first we will search this place."
        Nlaminer found several swords, mostly rusted and useless. After
    examining them he found one slightly serviceable short sword and put
    it on the belt. All the bows were too rotten to be used.
        Rhissa sat in front of the grating, singing the mantras; her
    staff was glowing and its glow was clearing the air inside. Nlaminer
    carefully studied the walls and found the door right opposite the
    entrance to the hall.
        It had a ring of twelve large embedded rubies; he moved the door
    and it slid easily, revealing the smooth and impenetrable wall
    behind the door. He closed the door and took the amulet; the
    same twelve gems, the same patterns. He felt them pulsating in
    the same rhythm. If there was a passage beyond that door, they had no
    clues as to how to pass through it.
        Their prison was strong and reliable.
                          Chapter 6. The way beyond
        The outside dwellers looked at the place where the Lighthouse was
    and saw nothing unusual. It pierced from the abyss and glowed in
    the dark, guidelight for those who missed the right way.
        The storms fell upon the island and left. There was nothing
    they could change.
        There were only five in this world that realized the danger
    hiding beyond the stone walls of the once peaceful lighthouse. Two of
    them walked its halls, trying to find the crack through which the
    unknown threat could crawl. Poisonous monsters lived now beneath
    the old building, spoiling the water and guarding any way to retreat.
    Clouds surrounded the small island; for all outer observers there
    were no storm clouds - the island lay calm and inviting.
        Rmair, the High Cleric, was another. His life in this body was
    soon to end; he could hardly move, but his mind was as keen and
    perceptive as ever. He felt the black walls that unknown force had
    erected between Rhissa and him. For a Haans the mind union was the
    highest possible value. The mind bond was the only power that
    granted them godlike abilities. His spirit always helped his adoptees
    (this is how he called all Haans to whom he taught The Art) and always
    he received light and power in exchange. Now, his dearest daughter was in
    so dark a peril he could not imagine. His spirit walked the Realm and
    could not break through the impassable mountains that surrounded
    Rhissa and her friend.
        Younger Haans looking after Rmair were worried, for he was lying
    for hours with eyes open, breathing barely noticeable, almost dead. He
    returned to his body and each time was near despair. The force
    that was able to build such strong barriers was no trifle.
    He knew not to alert the other clerics. The cost would be the lives of
    Rhissa and Nlaminer.
        Andrynx, beholding the devastation of his shrine, was performing
    the actions ordered by his oath. He could not interfere in this
    new problem; he was always neutral. But neutral does not mean
    passive. He warned as many beings as he could and now was trying to
    break the wall of darkness that Unnamed Force was building around
    him. He could always travel through time - and he sent indeed his
    manifestations guarding the hole between realities that was about to
    open. Beyond that, he could do nothing. He had seen the destruction
    of whole universes; though all such events grieved him much, it
    was his task to observe and remember. He left a small part of his
    spirit in the desecrated shrine and observed from there.
        Another force that dwelt far away from the life-abundant isles
    and continents was guarding all the other lands. The same rule forbade
    it to tell the truth; but this mighty watcher did its best to warn
    the people around and give them shadows of the truth. If the
    Dark Side managed to crawl in again, it would not be able to take the
    world by surprise.
        The forces were accumulating. The Balance, always fragile, was
    about to crash. The two of the whole world that could do something
    did not know that gods already were gathering around their
    reality. Mortals always judge the quarrels between gods. This
    quarrel could be the mightiest ever known.
                                 *    *    *
        "It seems our achievements are just temporary." Rhissa closed her
    diary and sat, watching Nlaminer studying his notes. "I cleared the
    basin, but it's poisoned again. We banished all the rats and other
    nasties, but some other monsters leaked in. My powers are very
    limited now, my friend. He is performing his promise. If I try to
    break through his walls once again, he can take my power away. We
    cannot stay here for long."
        Nlaminer was studying the amulet. The twelve gems were found on
    the wall of the library, too. The idea, simple but still uncaught,
    teased him traveling deep inside his mind. He felt as if clouds
    darkened the part of his mind that gave him precognition knowledge.
    That was driving him next to panic, but he remembered their decision
    to fight the strengthening pressure and tried to assess the situation
        "What was the name of that god... Andrynx ? Do you know any
    prayers, mantras that are devoted to him ?"
        Rhissa looked surprised. "Why, yes, of course. Why do you ask ?"
        Nlaminer though again. "This sign, twelve gems. That's a hint. It
    is on the secret wall, below in the training hall. It is on the wall
    in the library, too. And here it is." He extended his arm and showed
    Rhissa the glowing gems. "I have a feeling that some words...
    prayers, or the like, could do something." He told her how
    the gems pulsated when she was chanting her prayers.
        Rhissa's eyes brightened. "Well, give it to me, please." She took
    the warm piece of obsidian and looked at the gems. Four reddish, four
    bluish, two green, gray and colorless. She began to sing one of the
    mantras that gave her more concentration and immediately the bluish
    gems sparkled inside and started to radiate soft, warm light.
    Nlaminer nodded. "Exactly as I suspected. There should be a prayer
    that influences this thing."
        "I know the place we did not visit !" Rhissa exclaimed. "I have
    an idea. Come with me, Nlaminer, quickly !"
        "The crypt !" Nlaminer said. Yes, it could be useful. He took his
    backpack and their lantern and followed Rhissa out of the building.
                                 *    *    *
        She sang in high voice something in which the name of Naata was
    mentioned and the door of the crypt moved aside. Twelve gems appeared
    in its depth; the gems pulsated irregularly. The adventurers looked at
    the amulet. Its gems were pulsating in the same patterns.
    Rhissa's eyes glowed triumph. This could resolve the mystery
    of this entrapped place. They stood for a moment, looking into the
    silent entrance, then Rhissa gently took the lantern from his
    hand and extinguished it.
        "We should not use external light here," she explained. "Naata
    guards all the dead and he will give us light enough if we are
    allowed to enter."
        They took one step into the crypt. The ladder led deeper;
    it was wide and descended very slowly. The night engulfed them; the
    air was not stagnant as they might expect. It was cold but fresh, calm
    and silent. Naata was the guiding light for dying beings; he traveled
    with them far beyond this land and taught them the wisdom they need
    to be reborn later. If this place was still sacred to him, no undead
    filth could trespass here; Naata spirit was merciless to anti-life.
    Nlaminer saw nothing in the beginning; he felt Rhissa taking his
    hand. He felt as if small sparks ran between their hands. He pressed
    her hand lightly and stood motionless beside her. She raised her
    staff and its knob started to emit dull, grayish light. The interior
    of the crypt was illuminated - but there was no light; his eyes were
    now seeing in this complete darkness. He looked at Rhissa and she
    smiled back. They descended deeper into the ancient chamber with Naata
    runes inscribed on the walls.
        A great bas-relief of Naata was on the far side of the hall;
    stately figures were engraved in the stone; tombs were placed in rows
    by the walls. But it was not tombs they noticed; beneath
    the image of Naata, in the circle of twelve images of small stars
    there was a half-effaced inscription. While Rhissa was praying,
    Nlaminer did his best to learn the still visible words. The
    language was ancient and he did not realize he was reading it
    effortlessly. The rhyme that was written there had some deep
    mysterious power inside; whoever placed this verse here was a great
    poet. The words, although unknown, brought the sensation of
    unfailing force and certainty.
        He repeated the words, fascinated by their inner harmony and part
    of his spirit invoked visions of the past.
                                 *    *    *
        He used to sit high in the hills, listening and watching.
    After he left the Circle Palace, Nlaminer became a hunter. His bowman
    skills were high; he spent little time looking for game; mostly, he
    sat in the hills and tried to find that mysterious Balance so often
    mentioned.  For a year he strengthened his concentration and meditation.
    His job gave him enough money to visit libraries. He helped several
    alchemists gather herbs and other reagents for their mixtures. Nlaminer
    decided to learn as much as he could, regardless of his further magic career.
        His only spell, Firework, a bright but harmless illusion, was his
    pride; the formula for this simple trick was given him by that
    strange source that later gave him precognition images. The first,
    faintest signs of the Voice led him to more and greater discoveries.
        One winter night - though it was not true winter; it was rainy
    and windy season, with almost no rain - one winter night he sat in a
    cave, mastering glowing sheets of Firework. He sat thinking for a
    while; when he returned to the cave he noticed that the fire images still
    danced around. He had managed to concentrate on them even when he was
    thinking about other things ! Strangely, this thought gave him no
    sensation of achievement. After all, he thought, forcing the red
    leaf-like flame to twirl and twist, this is the only thing I know
    well. It's just the start.
        "Yes, that's a start; but a good start, too." a familiar voice
    said. Nlaminer turned and saw Archmage Inleir standing beside him.
    Nlaminer moved aside, to give him a place by the campfire. Archmage
    sat, extending his hands to a crackling fire.
        "You have found a way to reach the Balance, Nlaminer," he
    continued casually. "You are welcome now to come and learn The Wisdom
    any time you like."
        "I thank you," Nlaminer slightly bowed to Archmage and asked,
    "How did you know I was here ?"
        Inleir laughed. "Your Firework, colleague, could be seen from the
    Dragon Isles. You attained the ability to control your mind, but
    there are many other things you'll have to learn. It's up to you to
    decide when and how you will start your studies."
        "And how do you know I can control my mind ?"
        Inleir became serious. "Well, that's hard to explain. I guessed
    upon the changes in The Wisdom. You radiate, as other mages do, an
    emanation of The Wisdom. After some training, it's easy to see the
    intensity of that aura. And to block it. Yours is very
    strong, but mostly uncontrolled."
        They bid each other farewell and Nlaminer was alone again. That
    he had passed some test didn't impress him much; during these five
    long years he tested his knowledge and skills, changed his job
    several times and was ready to meet serious challenges. Civilization
    gave stability enough; but far from the big cities there were terrible
    monsters; in the air, in the sea abyss and deep underground wonders
    were lying, unseen and unknown. The world was colorful and full of
    adventures. He was quite young and thought sometimes to risk more
    dangerous adventures than trapping beasts for their skins and crawling
    cold mountain caves for cave moss and strange fungi.
        The next summer he reappeared in the Circle Palace and became an
    eager and curious novice mage.
                                 *    *    *
        Rhissa was wandering far away, too. She walked around, reading
    inscriptions on tombs and meeting the marvellous and heroic
    past. She considered herself to be very young; but she had had
    adventures enough for many heroes of the past. She visited nearly
    every piece of land in the world. She met fierce dragons, the
    strangest and mightiest race, sometimes greedy for treasure and difficult
    to talk with; but very wise and talkative, if approached correctly. She
    visited the settlements of reptile, humanoid and other races.
    Some force, beyond the knowledge of mortals, spread more than a dozen
    races everywhere; they lived mostly in harmony, for the world was
    great and the gods watched over them.
        She learnt The Art; the mysterious world, originating from all
    the living beings fascinated her. The gloomy Dwarves, curious Elves,
    humble and almost invisible Moonpeople, even the Dragons - all
    clerics from any race were supported by the same energy, by the same
    reality they tended. She was assigned the title of High
    Priest after she helped fight an invasion of undead warriors from
    one of the deserted underworld towns. The history of the world was
    long missing any large wars. But the echo of the bloody ancient wars
    was strong and destructive; hordes of unrested spirits would
    come and destroy whole islands. The number of these haunted sites
    was reducing, but slowly.
        The City of Singara was another case. She never suspected it
    could be a stronghold of evil undead hunters; she obviously had no
    chance but for appearance of Nlaminer that day. It all happened more
    than thirty years ago; from time to time they journeyed together...
    well, mostly together. Without warning, they met... and moved to
    new adventures that could be ahead. She often thought about their
    brave assault on the depth of Singara; they escaped in the very last
    moment, had sealed the accursed undead lair and cleared the place of the
    unholy presence. They were not yet true friends; her oath was
    sincere and such oaths were the highest reasons for any Haans.
    Nlaminer accepted her friendship later, when they made their visit to
    mysterious ancient shrines of the Blasted Lands. He seemed to feel
    better in hazardous environment; his countenance of irony
    was something of a protective shell.
        This time, when her power was dwindling, his spirit supported
    her greatly. Strength of spirit was essential now, when their
    new "master" was trying to impose on them thoughts of obedience and
        ...When they left the crypt, Rhissa thought she saw dark shadows
    hanging around in dozens. Something was waiting for a signal to begin
    invasion, if they failed to submit to the Unnamed Stranger. Nlaminer
    saw no shadows; he was preoccupied by the rhyme. Missing words would
    not come back. After several hours spent trying to meditate over
    them, no knowledge came. His precognition gift was diminishing, too.
    Their prison was expanding inside their minds.
                                 *    *    *
        "I think we have no other choice," Rhissa said after meditating
    for a while. She looked worse now, Nlaminer thought worriedly. Her
    calmness was disturbed as that creature was closing the source of her
        Nlaminer was trying to invent the missing words, but in vain. The
    gems began to glow with no apparent order after he read the rhyme.
    The Voice was silent.
        "This is the most powerful way I know," she continued, still
    with her eyes closed. "It's dangerous; especially for you, as you
    never visited The Realm before. We will be most vulnerable and open
    there; but we can learn everything we need, too. I cannot force you
    to do that; we can die while performing the rite. You should agree to
    the rite sincerely, otherwise we are doomed."
        Nlaminer felt uneasy; the spiritual matters did confuse him. But
    the pressure was becoming intolerable. It was unlikely the benefits
    from their "master" were worth betraying all the other worlds. If
    her intuition said something, it was good to accept that.
    Anyway, death will come, sooner or later. To die while trying to
    avoid betrayal would be honorable. The matter of honor
    was as important to him as friendship for the Haans.
        He said only, "I agree. What's the rite ?"
        "The rite of Unity," Rhissa answered, "With the combined power
    of our two minds we could find the time and place where that rhyme
    was first inscribed. It's the key to our prison; we are being forced
    to accept our failure. I think the rite is worth trying. From this
    moment, Nlaminer, do exactly as I tell you. I am weakened now;
    any mistake or insufficient effort could be our end."
        "I'm ready," Nlaminer answered firmly and saw Rhissa giving him a
    tired smile.
        "First," she murmured, "We'll need warmth. The rite will deplete
    our psychic and physical energies to the bottom. It should be very
    hot here to survive the rite."
                                 *    *    *
        While Rhissa was preparing all necessary for the rite, Nlaminer
    made his last notes in the notebook. He collected all their
    possessions in case they needed to move quickly. Meanwhile Rhissa
    was chanting her prayers over two of the potions she held in her
    hands. After half an hour the air in the room grew hot.
    Rhissa finished singing and gave a potion to Nlaminer.
        "Drink this," she said. "This will strengthen your mind; for me
    it would not be necessary if I were in normal form. But I am tired
    now, so we both need stimulation."
        Nlaminer drank the potion. Immediately he felt his senses
    sharpen and liquid warmth running through his body. "Now sit and
    close your eyes," she told him. Nlaminer obeyed.
        "Try to concentrate on the rhyme." Rhissa's voice
    was coming from a distance; the world was reeling beneath him; he
    felt Rhissa supporting him. It was hard to concentrate on anything
    with his thoughts running in all directions; he was vaguely aware
    of Rhissa's hands in his own; she was chanting something, and the
    words were turning into bells that chimed all around him. A strange
    energy was coming through him. He felt every muscle tense, his heart
    beat wildly, his whole body trembled. The rhyme suddenly became easy
    to repeat; the outer world was falling somewhere far below; he felt
    only her hands grasped in his own and the tremendous flow of energy
    passing through him.
        And then it happened. A merciless hand pressed his throat; the
    world exploded in painful white flames; unearthly strings sang their
    music. He saw a myriad of colors, though his eyes were closed tight.
        The sensations were too weird to describe. He tried to open
    his eyes and was shocked. He had no eyes, though he was seeing a
    wonderful world all around him; he had no ears but heard heavenly
    sounds from all directions; he had no body but could move easily in
    any direction in this new place.
        First it frightened him. He tried to turn his invisible body
    violently, feeling he had no support under his feet and then he
    managed to think clearly. His eyes were seeing in many directions at
    once, though one part of the surrounding world was more detailed
    than the other. The world below was full of such beauty the emotions
    were wild and dangerous. He fought feelings that ripped his mind;
    eventually he calmed them.
        Wild, boiling energy filled him. He thought of Rhissa and
    immediately she answered somewhere inside his mind, 'I'm here. You
    have to accomodate to these new sensations. We have little time, but
    get used to it.'
        'Where are you ?' he asked, for he turned around but saw noone.
        She laughed mischievously, 'I am in you, you are in me.'
        He listened to inner sensations... he felt strange, her
    mind was sharing its memories and feelings. He realized that she was
    sharing HIS memories, HIS feelings...his whole life was open to her.
    He understood what she meant by 'vulnerable'. He was more open now
    than ever; there was no way to hide anything from the other mind.
    He heard her laugh again. 'Trust me, my friend. We are the united
    mind now... and forever.' Her 'voice' became serious. 'Nlaminer,
    we are being pursued.  Please, think about the rhyme while we have time.'
        Nlaminer thought, and felt them flying with immense speed.
    The air darkened around them; the landscape was changing rapidly.
    They landed softly on a glowing marble plane; the sun shone through
    the eerie black sky. A large statue stood in front of them. A rhyme,
    complete and clear, was glowing white.  Nlaminer read it several times,
    in the hope that he would remember.
        'Now we must find the way back,' Rhissa whispered somewhere
    inside him. 'Leave that to me. Help me to move, that's all.'
        Nlaminer noticed that the outflowing energy which filled
    their 'body' at the moment of arrival was ceasing slowly. He broke
    the concentration and saw their invisible body moving somewhere
    upwards, beyond clouds and clouds. The flight was giving him
    fantastic sensations; the colors, mountains, lakes, oceans... Myriads
    of worlds were passing by. He saw something resembling a giant
    whirlpool; Rhissa guided their flight inside that marvellous
    structure. Here he noticed a shadow pursuing them. It radiated death
    and was sucking out their strength, slowing them, making them
        The shadow was bodiless and shapeless; it emanated hatred and
    disdain; it was hunting for them and their forces were running dry.
    He tried to help her, though this experience was too new for him;
    they were near the entrance to the rotating whirlpool when the
    shadow nearly seized them. The sky was dark and forbidding
    behind their 'back'; despair and anger forced him to coordinate
    their efforts.
        Their united desperate efforts flung them both into the rotating,
    howling black well between worlds; at the same moment a brilliant
    light filled the universe between them and the savage shadow. The
    black figure ran back for a moment and then was lost in the bright
    white cloud, separating it from Nlaminer and Rhissa.
        They were falling, falling, falling. Their energy was almost
    ended; they couldn't direct their movement and their minds were
    thrown violently back into their world. Icy abyss engulfed them both;
    it was heavy and painful.
                                 *    *    *
        Far away, where old Rmair lay on a pile of herbs, a
    radiant light suddenly emanated from his body. Younger clerics rushed
    to him, but it all ended in a moment. Rmair was dead; he died with a
    smile on his lips. The sorrow and uncertainty left his face.
    His spirit had cleared the tension all around him.
        In the north, a huge black wall of thunderclouds surrounded
    the lighthouse island; the storm raged, lightnings were striking something 
    in the middle of it. A column of white light flew for a short moment
    upwards, piercing the heavy clouds. The thunder fell upon the ocean
    and rolled all around. It sounded of triumph and overwhelming force.
    And the darkness closed again.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer came to his senses; they lay on the stone floor,
    embracing each other. There was snow everywhere in the room. The
    fireplace was covered with ice; the chilling frost was grasping his
    very heart. He stood up, trembling from the deadly cold. His strength
    was spent; he was tired to the highest extent, but to sleep right
    now meant to die immediately. The window was broken; the angry
    howling of the wind mixed with other sounds from outside.
        He looked out the window; furious thunder ripped the sky.
    Shaggy mighty figures walked slowly to the lighthouse; red
    eyes glowed on their faces, their hands clutched enormous swords.
    Nlaminer had a quick look around - a complete blackness surrounded
    the island.  The hunting had begun.
        He took all their possessions; gently took Rhissa from the floor
    and flung the door open. Snow was on the floor; Rhissa lay
    lifeless on his shoulder and that gave him no time to tarry. He ran
    to the library as fast as his failing legs allowed, taking the
    amulet out of his pocket. The gems on the wall glowed as he began to
    read the rhyme. He heard the first monsters entering the lighthouse
    but continued to read. The gems begin to pulsate and then a part of
    the wall slid to the right, revealing the black wall, sparkling and
        Nlaminer knew he had no time to reflect. Carefully holding Rhissa
    he entered the black wall. In the distance he heard a
    mighty thud and then they were in darkness, in a place beyond the
    lighthouse... beyond any known place. It was warm and silent here.
    He put Rhissa on the floor and pressed his ear to her ice-cold breast.
    Her heart was beating slowly... very...very...slowly. He embraced her
    again, in order to share the last of his warmth with her and here the
    tiredness overwhelmed him. The blackness became complete, without
    thoughts and pain.
                        Chapter 7. The eternal forest
        He saw a small light floating somewhere above and realized the
    dream was over.
        Then came the sensations. Monotonous humming of night insects;
    the rustling of leaves above his head, the smell of forest and
    flowers. He was lying on the warm and soft earth; the cold was far
    away now. The strongest sensation now was hunger. He tried to guess
    where they were, but in vain. The memory of the last events were all
    dream-like - their eerie flight, the terrible hunter, the red-eyed
    monstrosities coming at them, snow covering all around. Nlaminer
    shook his head and managed to sit up.
        The light turned out to be a moon. It was small and cold; and the
    stars were all unfamiliar. Their colors seemed amazing, after many
    days passed in the stone trap of the lighthouse. He froze in place and
    listened. Somewhere nearby a familiar voice was singing a song. It
    was charming, though none of the words were in known language. He
    rarely heard Rhissa singing songs, not prayers or mantras. He decided
    not to interrupt her.
        By the time she finished the song his senses returned to normal.
    A small fire was burning about two dozen feet away from him; Rhissa's
    dark silhouette was sitting between it and Nlaminer. Then she called,
    without turning her head, "Another world, another life. Come here, I
    know you are not sleeping." Her voice contained both taunt and joy,
    the emotions that left her completely in their prison somewhere far
    away. It was Rhissa of the long past days: joyous, living and keen.
    They took several steps toward each other and Nlaminer hugged her
    happily. He heard her heart beating quickly... then he put her on the
    ground and sat by the fire, looking into her glistening eyes.
        For a moment, they needed no words. The death that towered above
    them was tricked again. They waited several minutes in silence
    and then the life came back.
        "It seems I always miss the most interesting," Nlaminer said,
    enjoying the warmth. "Where are we now ?"
        "Not so quick," Rhissa moaned. "You are yourself again, I see. I
    will tell you why we are here, though it is a short story. I guess
    you are awfully hungry, as you slept for five days."
        "How ??" Nlaminer was astounded beyond all limits. "Well, I never
        "You have to sleep to regain your state," Rhissa added. "I
    meditate, and then I need very little sleep. Normally, you do not
    sleep very much. After our voyage you were drained and almost
    dead. I detected it was only tremendous tiredness. You regain your
    powers amazingly quickly - the only thing you need is sleep."
        Five days ! Nlaminer looked around, embarassed. For him, only a
    moment passed after they entered the black wall and were safely away
    from whomever was invading the island.
        "Here," Rhissa pointed at the miscellaneous food lying covered
    with large leaves of some plant. "The game is abundant here; though I
    am no hunter, I had to become one," and she pointed at the spear,
    leaning on a tree nearby. "There are many edible plants here, too.
    While we have to rest here, this will be enough. I tried to keep this
    land as untouched as I could."
        While Nlaminer fed his hunger, Rhissa told him her story.
                                 *    *    *
        She regained consciousness where there were no sounds and
    smells, save their own. She felt no ceiling; the polished mirror-like
    walls were uprising endlessly. The floor was polished, too; it was
    warm here and she felt her stolen powers were returning quickly.
    She sat up and waited for a moment; the sensation of returning
    energy was marvellous and pleasant. The tiredness washed away;
    then she saw Nlaminer collapsed beside her and studied him carefully.
        He had lost more energy than a normal being could afford to lose;
    his mind and body were one step away from death. She felt, though,
    that the main danger had been overcome. So she fed him all the energy
    she could spare... And then sat, in peace and quiet, enjoying life.
    It was wondrous, to be alive.
        She felt no contact with the Realm. This place was unusual. She
    had no idea how Nlaminer had gotten them there. His amulet, still in
    his hand, glowed and emanated warmth and small light - less than a
    candle, but enough to see what was around. She took it from his hand
    and began studying the surroundings.
        They were at was a bottom of a well, with thirty-six polished
    mirror walls, forming a regular polygon. A sphere, two feet in
    diameter, floated in the middle of the polygon, six feet above the
    floor. Rhissa tried to reach it but couldn't; the interior of the
    sphere was dark and impenetrable.  Nevertheless she felt tremendous
    energy hidden in that object; she decided not to touch it. They had
    problems enough.
        She waited for several hours, without trying to investigate
    walls, floor or sphere more closely, when suddenly one of the
    walls became transparent and a miraculous landscape opened behind it.
    She looked at the amulet; its gems were shining in constant pattern
    now; she remembered the pattern and ventured to throw some small
    thing through the wall.
        It landed on the other side. Sooner or later, she decided, they
    would have to experiment going through one of the walls.  She felt
    that the other side would be suitable to live in; and she quickly dragged
    Nlaminer and all their inventory through the portal. Soon after they
    were on the other side, the black hole in the air vanished. The gems
    ceased to glow simultaneously.
        The forest, endless and peaceful, surrounded all land around
    them. The hills, ravines and valleys made a freakish landscape, but
    here all was full of peace and calmness, the things they both missed
    so much.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer told her about his awakening in the snow-covered room.
    She nodded. "I suspect he will invade our land when he sees us
    unwilling to assist him. I can only hope there are forces out there
    able to withstand his force. I understood what he wants and from what
    we have already seen I can guess he will not be too patient to reach
    his goal."
        Nlaminer was intrigued, "Which goal ?"
        "When gods cannot agree upon their areas of influence, they
    summon mortals to judge them. This is a tradition; there are many
    legends of judges from our world. This is an extremely rare
    case. Mostly the gods are able to solve their problems themselves.
    But a decision of mortal judges becomes final and cannot be
        "So it is a god, then ?"
        "That's the thing I am not sure of. His power is truly godlike;
    but the way he behaves and some other signs show me this is quite
    an unusual being. What's worse, he hopes we will be the judges. You
    remember his promise ? He can destroy our whole races and I am
    certain he would do that. Indirectly, slowly, he can outwit all the
    guardian forces and remove our people forever."
        They sat silent for a moment.
        "This is why I think he will follow us; as far as I know he likes
    hunting. Well, we have to win more time to find a way to stop him."
        "This means..."
        "This means he is scanning the Realm now. He will find us sooner
    or later; we cannot hide forever. If he were sure we are no more, he
    would start seeking new judges. But I doubt we've fled unnoticed."
        "And if we have ?"
        Rhissa thought. "That would be a good chance for both us and our 
    world. But he will hurry; his methods were too violent to go 
    unnoticed. We made him lose his temper - and this is good, too; for 
    it will be hard for him to find followers easily."
        "Anyway, we have to hide for some time," Nlaminer concluded. "I
    think there must be some intelligent dwellers here."
        "I think the same," Rhissa replied. "The task will be hard. I
    suppose we could spend one day just enjoying the life. Heroic
    deeds make me too tired, you know." Her eyes sparkled and they both
        "I think I'll wander for a while," Nlaminer said and stretched.
    "It's quiet here; I feel no serious danger."
        Rhissa nodded. "Don't walk too far. It's easy to lose one's way
    here." Nlaminer nodded in response and walked noiselessly away. He
    heard her singing another song. Her voice was still heard even when
    the fire and the smell of smoke vanished without a trace.
                                 *    *    *
        The Stranger lost his temper for a while. He ordered his
    sublings to seize the mortals and bring them to a safer - from his
    viewpoint - place. That disturbed the world too much; what was worse,
    he completely lost contact with them. His spiritual
    manifestations wandered around the Realm, listening for the cleric
    presence. If they are alive, they will be found and he will remind
    them of his threat. Stranger laughed; the throne room he was
    sitting in trembled.  But he was perfectly calm and joyous now.
        The mortals considered him to be a merciless, powerful creature.
    He was not evil, of course. He had lost his place in the Universe,
    and deserved to get the position back.
        If they were dead, well, too bad. He would have to find another
    judge. If they were alive, they would obey him. He knew they feared
    for their races... and the fear sometimes persuaded better than
    violence itself.
        After all, he was not a violent being. The circumstances make him
                                 *    *    *
        "No, that will not do," Nlaminer corrected Rhissa's hand. "The
    bowstring should not be so tight. If you overstring it, it will snap
    the next hot day." He loosened the string a bit and began  carving
    the point-of-aim. After a hour of work he nodded and passed the
    finished bow back to Rhissa.
        They traveled for four days now; the trees were magnificient
    here. Rhissa said she never saw such a perfect forest. It varied from
    coniferous to mixed; she took several good yew branches. They made a
    staff for each of them and a bow. Nlaminer's knowledge in bows was
    nearly as great as Rhissa's in staves and maces. They traveled and
    traveled; nature in this world was undisturbed; the Realm
    presence was strong, but there were no signs of intelligent life. Nothing.
    Civilization cannot be completely invisible; for magic users
    such as they were, it could not be hard to find the nearest town. They
    continued their journey; one forest was replaced by another forest;
    lakes, rivers, springs were crossing the land. A distant mountain was
    seen on the edge of eyesight - and no minds, except for their own.
        They taught each other the skills they knew; Rhissa showed
    interest in bowman skills and Nlaminer was glad to give her the
    basics of that. After a day of training Rhissa's skill was quickly
    catching up his own. Nlaminer sat evenings writing verses and
    polishing his knowledge in magic arts.
        They were guarding their thoughts and intentions from the spying
    spirit of the Stranger, but no spies ever came. As they moved
    east, onward and onward, it was obvious there was nothing
    but endless forest. The whole world was like a great park,
    carefully looked after and colorful.
        Rhissa was finding new and interesting herbs day after day.
    Nlaminer was not skillful in alchemy, but followed her and listened
    to her explanations, even if they did not bear the immediate truth.
        "I cannot understand," he said one evening, "how you recognize a
    particular plant suitable for some mixture. This is another world;
    all the herbs are quite different."
        "This is only partly true." Rhissa showed him a leaf. "I do
    not know how it would be called here; but its inner spectrum is just
    like our common athelas. You see ? Alchemy uses this inner
    spectrum in its formulae. I have no need to learn about the plant or
    root or whatever. All I have to know is the core of this leaf."
        "And how one can do that ?"
        Rhissa shrugged. "One uses a relevant spiritual plane to see the
    spectrum. I use the Realm, the one that is familiar to me. If you
    choose to learn alchemy, you'll use your mental plane to see its
    emanations. Alchemy is mostly empirical science; without our
    knowledge, precognition and magic, it would be almost useless; from a
    million senseless or outright dangerous mixtures one must pick
    the only right one. This is hard to do; I used to throw away more
    than seven eighths of my potions when I was learning. This is the
    basis of alchemy. Rhymes and rites are mostly a theater; a way for an
    alchemist to get into a necessary state of mind. And," she smiled
    ironically, "to impress the spectators." She made several passes of
    her hand and the leaf withered and blackened. Then she said
    several inaudible words, made some other passes and the leaf returned
    to life again.
        "What was it ?" Nlaminer said after he studied the
    leaf. It was completely fresh and vivid; its spicy odour was new and
    pleasant. "I cannot believe what I have seen. Tell me how you've
    done it !"
        "Some other time," and the teasing flame flashed in her eyes.
    "Anyway, if you knew all my tricks, how could I surprise you ?"
                                 *    *    *
        Their dreamlike journey continued on and on. Nlaminer knew Rhissa
    had something on her mind. Sometimes he thought he heard some of her
    thoughts... or shadows of thoughts. After the rite he felt changes in
    his mind; as if part of another entity was dwelling deep inside him.
    He felt embarassed to ask Rhissa about her feelings; the sensation of
    being exposed to all the universe was overwhelming and alien to him.
    And it left somewhere in his soul the hunger for more spiritual
    experience as if he had been granted the universal knowledge for a
    part of second. The rite awakened some previously undisturbed forces
    deep within and they were changing him... into what ? He felt the
    calmness and stability, yes - but the past Nlaminer was here, too. No
    other mind was walking inside his brain, there was no mental injury,
    and yet...
        He preferred not to ask about her plan. His world was the world
    of quick actions and swords. The subtle and spiritual matters were
    the domain of his friend. So let her guide their way now. He used
    every hour of their presence here to master his concentration
    techniques and his mind was often wandering far away from his body.
    The same independence of mind he felt when sparring with Rhissa with
    staves or teaching her to shoot. He decided to let his memory find
    clues to their quests, then saw many familiar scenes repainted
    before his eyes.
                                 *    *    *
        After five years spent in the Circle Palace, Inleir summoned him
    one day and said, "I congratulate you, Nlaminer; for now I cannot
    teach you anything new."
        Nlaminer felt surprise.  "How it is so ? I hardly know the
    Fire Circle, I know so little..."
        Inleir shook his head. "You possess all you need. The
    equilibrium that lives inside is next to perfect; of the basic
    knowledge I can give you nothing more. It is now your task to find
    a way to enhance your magic, your power, colleague."
        Nlaminer waited to be told more.
        "You want to know why I don't teach you more spells.  You are a
    talented mage, you possess many other skills and can earn money enough
    to buy any spell in any magic Circle you choose."
        "Your mind prevents me from teaching you any more," Inleir continued.
    "We are of different races. Further learning would be like violence in
    your mind. Your sources of power differ from mine. If I impose my
    techniques over your patterns of power, it could be destructive and
    poisonous for you. My title of Archmage does not mean I am absolutely
    omnipotent. No, even gods are not that powerful. The highest mages feel
    the state of mental field all around our world and take the greatest care
    using their spells. It may seem strange, but Archmages should try not
    to cast spells whenever possible. It's the cost of the powerful mind,
    Nlaminer. My task is to preserve the mental realm from which we take
    our Wisdom power."
        "So I am on my own," Nlaminer said bitterly. "Teacher, will you
    tell me what to do next ?"
        "No, I won't," Inleir refused. "I cannot risk changing
    your life in such a way. But I will give you hints. Seek creatures
    born of magic, that live on magic, whatever magic they use.
    This is how you can find a way to train yourself. You can start with
    dragons, for example. They may be ferocious and bloodthirsty; but
    they possess abilities far beyond all the other races. I give you
    this," and Inleir passed him a small amulet, "It's the sign of my
    school. It will help you to make more friendly relations in our world.
    Adventuring is a dangerous road and there cannot be too much help."
        The bitterness left Nlaminer at once. Inleir was not right, he
    thought, I have to learn too much to control myself. Yet all he knew
    now was enough for a lonely mage to protect himself even in great
        They parted friends. Nlaminer left for the port and wandered.
    His dearest dream was to solve the mystery of his origin; he knew
    only the great underground city in which he dwelt for as long as he
    could remember. That city was far to the west, on a long island, where
    the Human race lived.
        It had been his home for many years, and it was good to start his
    quest from his homeland.
                        Chapter 8. A gift and a door
        "The only thing that worries me is the time," Nlaminer sat as
    they made a raft. "We have walked this eternal forest for two
    weeks; now we will try to cross the sea, and what then ?"
        "Are you disturbed by something ?" Rhissa asked in reply, "Your
    words are right if there is a hurry to do something. I feel no
    changes in the surrounding world. I feel no changes in the Realm,
    either. What's the reason to hurry ?"
        "I'm disturbed by the calmness of this place," Nlaminer showed
    all around him, "Too peaceful, too quiet." He stopped.
        Rhissa had a longer look at him. "You expect a trap, maybe ?"
        "Why not ?"
        "Well, I've told you. I do not sense His presence in the Realm."
        Nlaminer thought. "Is the Realm always the same ?"
        "What do you mean ?"
        "Well, this is another world. I was taught there are millions of
    worlds, all scattered around in the Universe. Is the Realm also...
    present around all the Universe ?"
        Rhissa thought for several seconds. "I think, yes. Because the
    Realm isn't a united entity. You have seen several pictures of it; it
    comprises the clerical plane of power of all the realities."
        "How do you know ?"
        The small reptile possessed truly infinite patience. "I know it.
    All my experience in all my previous lives tell me that."
        "And you remember all your past lives ?!"
        "No, I don't."
        Nlaminer couldn't understand whether Rhissa was joking or not.
    She looked at his frowning face and added, "In the Realm I meet - how
    should I say ? - shadows of my previous avataras. The imprints of
    their thoughts. Their memories. As you can tell many things by
    smell, I can tell the owner of several things within the Realm."
        "I wish I could visit this Realm," Nlaminer sighed, "I am
    normally deaf and blind to it."
        "No, you are not," Rhissa came closely to him. "If you were, we
    would never meet. Besides, the rite couldn't leave you unchanged. All
    you need is training. Before you ask that of me, tell me, my friend,
    can you take the responsibilities of the Realm traveler ?"
        Nlaminer thought for a reason to give an affirmative reply but
    found none.
        "This is why you feel deaf to it. You understand ? You have
    contact with two magic sources at once. Every one of them hinders the
    other not to let you have the fullest potential. This is your gift,
    not your fault. But this can become a curse, too."
        "What should I do then ?" Nlaminer had a completely lost look.
        Rhissa answered simply, "Wait. The sources are quarreling with 
    each other because you are moving between them. Stop that. Do as you 
    feel, do not think of your inabilities. There are none. Every being 
    creates its limits so that it could consider itself limited. Humans, 
    for example. They have no inner power strong enough. They are, 
    therefore, a most violent and impulsive race. They consider 
    themselves deprived so they are blaming all around in that.  Instead, 
    they need only to train, and any power can be theirs."
        "Do they not know this ?"
        "Several do. Humans can be brilliant mages, best friends, if they
    so choose. I think this is an ideal. We Haans have the strongest
    contact with the Realm, are one of few races which have
    to look after it. Believe me, this is dangerous."
        The raft was made. It had no sails; they constructed
    simple oars, for the sea was shallow, not more than breast-deep for
        They collected a week store of the food and left for the
    mountainous island far away. This time Nlaminer was not worried.
    Rhissa's words calmed disturbance within him that has started to
    break out. He sat and sang, or meditated at times when they did not
    speak. The raft was carried by lazy streams to and fro, but they
    were inevitably approaching the great mountain.
                                 *    *    *
        "Did you notice that ?" Rhissa asked suddenly. Nlaminer was
    writing something in his notebook and asked only, "What ?"
        "Turn around," she said. "But try not to show your emotions." Her
    voice was completely calm, evem dreamlike. He turned his head.
        A leviathan, a fishlike creature, was swimming after the raft,
    following them at a distance of several hundred feet. Its size was
    unthinkable; perhaps four or five hundred feet long, with a fat belly
    and bulging eyes four or five feet wide. Nlaminer froze; the size of
    that "fish" was enough to paralyze him. It seemed grotesque, toylike
    but for its size. Without loud splashes it followed in their wake.
        "When did it appear ?" Nlaminer managed to ask, hypnotized by the
    alive eyes of the monster. It stared at the raft and its passengers
    with a keen interest. Nlaminer knew at once it could be quite
    impossible to stop that giant.
        "A minute ago," she replied unworriedly. "Out of nowhere. Now you
    don't see it, now you see."
        Nlaminer handled his emotions promptly. The only thing that could
    seem dangerous was the size of the leviathan. But it swam without
    signs of aggression, as if waiting for something.
        "I wonder," Nlaminer said thoughtfully, "What does it want ?"
        Rhissa opened her eyes and sat up. "I think it's just curious.
    Hungry monsters won't wait too long; besides, there's something
    unusual in this pretty little fish."
        "The size is unusual enough, I'd say."
        Rhissa smiled and waved her hand to the "smiling" giant. It
    slapped its tail against the water, hurling rainbows high in the sky.
    Rhissa turned to Nlaminer. "You see ? It just sends us its regards."
    They observed their new companion and it left them as suddenly
    as it joined them before. One mighty splash, and the leviathan was
        "The host sends us his greetings, I think," Rhissa added.
        "The host ? Who is the host here ?"
        She paused for a moment. "We will see."
        Nlaminer looked around. Their raft was entering a natural haven.
    Magnificient rocks were supervising the narrow pass between them and
    a sandy shore. While they talked about that giant, their goal
    appeared before them without warning. A large wave rose from the
    sea and placed the raft carefully far on the shore. The passengers
    rolled upside down; but that was not the only surprise. A path, paved
    with opal stones, led up over a small hill. The mountain's foot
    rose from the very shore; low hills occupied the rest of this
    land. They both raised their heads; white clouds were rolling slowly
    down the mountain sides. A wind, coming from beyond the hill, brought
    them a fragrance of flowers and they were dizzied by a tumult of
    odors. Clover, buckwheat, lavender, primrose, dogrose... flowers
    of all seasons mixed in a beautiful wave which flowed over them. The
    wave passed and they looked at each other with surprise.
        All around them was silent. Only seagulls, always hungry, crowed
    and yarked above their heads. This gave Nlaminer an illusion of his
    standing on the top of the ancient Ladder, looking down into the
    encircling sea... The vision of the lighthouse island came and left.
    Rhissa felt a momentary disquiet in her companion and touched her
    hand to his elbow. "Don't let the past rule the present."
        Her words came as if from hundreds of miles away. He shook
    the delusion from his eyes and listened again. Nothing new. Wind
    whispered in their ears; a flowery fragrance remained, though
    not as strong. He bowed to get their possessions.
        "I think we are told to follow this path," Nlaminer said. "And I
    think it would not be too bad to do that."
        They came down the blooming hills. Eternal summer dwelt here;
    there were no other seasons. Colors were the brightest they had ever
    seen; springs murmured down the slope of the hills. The path coiled
    and twisted as they wandered deeper inside this new island. The
    mountain, crowned with a brilliant white cap, looked not threatening 
    but welcome.
                                 *    *    *
        "Welcome, strangers," Rhissa read a small plaque on the wall of a
    house. "I've seen this somewhere before..."
        After they walked the path for several hourse, it descended into
    a valley; just near a small lake a beautiful gray house was built,
    made of fine marble. The door was not locked. Besides the plaque,
    written in Thalen, they saw nothing unusual. A small garden
    surrounded the house. The windows were curtained and no sounds came
    from inside. Yet the valley did not seem deserted.
        Nlaminer knocked. The door immediately opened. "Come in," a voice
    called from within. As they stepped in, Nlaminer had time to notice
    the plaque had vanished without a trace.
        "Come in," the voice was pleasant and resonant. They passed down
    a wide corridor and entered a hall, decorated with runic inscriptions.
    A low end table stood near two large windows; the host of the
    house was sitting on the floor. He was robed and first they saw
    nothing but a humanlike figure. Then he stood and turned to them.
        Rhissa saw a wisened old Haans, with darkened scale and
    vivid, flaming eyes. Nlaminer saw a Marrkes sage, with snowwhite fur
    and gray eyes. The host sat and gestured, inviting them to sit,
    too. Cozy wooden chairs appeared beside them. The host went
    to the windows and pulled away curtains. Sunlight filled the hall.
        "I am rarely visited here," he said. Rhissa heard hissing
    overtones; Nlaminer heard resonant 'r's. "Well, first I think you
    should tell me your names."
        "I think you know them," Rhissa stood up and Nlaminer rose, too.
    "I'm Rhissa Thalasshes and Shiora, the Cleric Watcher and High Priest
    of Naata. This is my friend in Unity, Nlaminer rad Haorsst." Nlaminer
    shuddered when he heard her spelling 'friend in Unity'. "But
    our titles and abilities are nothing to you, Ezoxu the Wise."
        The figure laughed. "No, you are wrong. You earned your titles;
    besides, you are the ones mastering the fate of your world now. No,
    Rhissa, it's just a tradition. I do not use my powers of knowledge
    here at home."
        Nlaminer shuddered again. "This is your home ?" he asked with
    much reverence.
        Ezoxu nodded. "My race left this world long ago; it was left ever
    young and glorious. I doubt there is anyone of my race
    near. But the world still lives and I live here, too."
        Rhissa bowed slightly again and stood silently. Nlaminer felt
    as if he were in a dream. Ezoxu sat. "You
    are guests here; no need to pray to me. I hear you quite well."
    His eyes narrowed as he smiled. "Speak to me as you'd speak to
    any other, Nlaminer. If you think gods only sit on thrones
    casting mighty spells, you are wrong. We all were mortal beings
    like you. I like living here just like any of you would. So
    don't be afraid. The task you are solving is great and probably you
    will return some day to your world. Until then, be my guests." He
    stood and added, "Please excuse me; I will return soon." He walked
    noiselessly out of the hall.
         Nlaminer said in a low voice, "You never told me that you are a High
    Priest, Rhissa."
        "Well, you never asked me," and she laughed. "If you think it's
    quite usual for me to speak to gods, you are wrong. I'm also
    feeling like I am in a dream. If he came with thunders and flames,
    roaring his words and being a hundred feet tall, I would be less
    astonished. But he never uses lightnings and flames. His
    domain is knowledge."
        "I know," Nlaminer replied thoughtfully. "I feel I could question him
    day and night. He would soon become tired."
        Rhissa smiled mysteriously. "We shall see."
                                 *    *    *
        They were having a tea party on the shore of the lake.
        As if by agreement they never discussed the Stranger and the
    weird events occurring on the lighthouse island. They talked about
    many things; Ezoxu seemed to be endlessly hungry for news; Nlaminer
    carved a flute and played several songs.  His two companions listened
    with great interest. It was hard for Nlaminer to view their host as a
    regular creature; he knew his image of Marrkes was an illusion.  It was
    custom for him to behave like his visitors (or devotees ?). Nlaminer felt
    awe that made him silent and embarrassed at times.
        They built a modest hut out of dead branches in the nearby
    forest; the tea they drank gave them enough energy for even hard
    work, should they choose to perform that. Nlaminer sat for many hours
    observing two forces living in his mind; here at Ezoxu's home his
    powers were getting stronger. But the dual presence was still
    separating him from his other side. Ezoxu didn't force him to speak
    when he was unwilling; Rhissa was always eager to talk to the god
    and Nlaminer felt strange discomfort about that.
        Days passed; once Ezoxu asked him, when Rhissa was not
    near, "What disturbs you, Nlaminer ?"
        His piercing eyes couldn't be fooled. But Nlaminer was unable to
    express his feelings and he just shrugged. "I know humans raised
    you; I know you are wondering where lies your homeworld. Will you
    feel better if I say your parents are still alive and remember you
    often ?"
        Nlaminer shook the gloom off himself at once. "What..."
        "No," Ezoxu raised his hand. "Let's not speak of your world.
    There are bright and dark ages there, too. You came
    from that world, but you have duties elsewhere. You have a beautiful
    friend. I will tell you one thing only; you are not alone, Nlaminer.
    The one that carried you from your home did that intentionally. I
    cannot tell you more. But keep in mind, you are not alone. Your
    fate is of your own making. Even gods cannot change your life if you
    don't choose it."
        The darkness fell from his eyes. Ezoxu touched him for a moment
    and a crack inside his soul disappeared immediately. "Your powers
    will help you if you keep your spirit alive."  They began
    telling stories of their lives; Ezoxu listened as well as talked.
    Rhissa sat beside Nlaminer; the conversation lasted until stars
    began to shine on the darkening sun.
                                 *    *    *
        They stayed for several months in the wonderful forest where
    time didn't flow. The shadow that touched Nlaminer in that Realm
    flight was not leaving easily. He felt almost jealous observing
    Ezoxu and Rhissa talking merrily, but the whispering voice was
    melting away. He wandered about; he did not dare to hunt, nor was it
    necessary. His head was spinning with all he learnt here and he sat
    singing his songs or playing the flute... sometimes he did that far
    from the gray house. He felt the essence of this world: calmness and
        One day they woke up simultaneously. Without a word, they
    took their belongings. Rain had poured through the night,
    quiet and steady, as everything here was. Rhissa took his hand and in
    the same instant they found themselves standing in the familiar well-like
    place, with thirty six mirrors glaring at them coldly. For some time they
    did not realize there was a subtle white glow around them. It seemed to
    be constant, as if it were a farewell gift from their host.
        "I forgot to say farewell to him," Nlaminer muttered.
        "No need," Rhissa echoed back. "We will never need to say
    farewell to him. We will meet from time to time."
        Nlaminer went to the nearest wall and grasped the obsidian amulet
    hanging on his neck. His homeworld... he sighed but could not let
    these memories flow away. They moved before his eyes like distant
    fog-covered peaks of the mountains, always on the horizon, formless
    and unreachable. Rhissa's voice called him back. "Nlaminer ! It
    opens !" He opened his eyes. The mirror melted away; a wonderful
    land was before their eyes; different from the quiet Ezoxu land but
    nonetheless breathtaking. He was about to step over the boundary
    between the worlds when a sudden thought struck him deeply. "No."
    He pulled Rhissa back. "We will not enter."
        His eyes radiated such a strange light Rhissa did not venture to
    protest. After a while the entrance dimmed and disappeared; a mirror,
    still cold and impenetrable blocked their way.
        "It's my homeworld," he whispered and sat on the floor; Rhissa
    sat beside him, speechless, holding his hand tightly. "If I pass, I
    bring him with me." Marrkes do not weep; but his sorrow was dark and
    painful. "He left a spy deep inside me, Rhissa. If I show him any
    weakness, he will strike. I shouldn't leave this place until I force
    him back." His words thundered with unexpected might and a globe
    above them flashed like a small sun. They ignored it and sat
    until the cold had left their hearts.
                       Chapter 9. The Twilight Palace
        "These passages confuse me," Nlaminer complained after they
    climbed stairs for more than half an hour. The only light inside the
    great hall came from nowhere. Thick carpet rustled as they walked;
    the stairs were well tended.  They passed many floors and saw no
    other passage but this great staircase.
        Fascinating paintings decorated the walls of this strange place.
    In the dim light they seemed insubstantial and illusory.
        With unfailing interest, the two strangers examined the weird
    beauty of the palace. The palace was deserted, yet nothing was
    falling into decay...
        ...Nlaminer thought of their arrival here. Unlike their previous
    jumps, this one occurred while they slept in that room with thirty
    six mirrors and a dark globe above.
        They awoke in the nearby alleys. Their interworld journey was
    quiet and sudden. They stood up hastily, prepared to defend
    themselves... but no one came. Twilight ruled the place; a purplish
    horizon indicated the sunset that had ended not long ago.  They
    waited and waited and nothing changed. Unknown birds sang a strange
    song, filled with unalloyed beauty. The sall singers flew over their
    heads; bushes were trimmed and a colossal Palace overlooked the
    surrounding lands. As far as they could see, only alleys stretched as
    far as they could see. Distant woods seemed to begin at the horizon
    and Rhissa thought she heard splashing of the sea.
        As it was before, the whole place was quite peaceful. The
    quietness differed from malign silence of the lighthous or the eerie
    calmness of the mirror room. The Ezoxu world gave assurance and
    equilibrium.  This place was indifferent to them.  They felt lost in
    the maze of low trees and bushes. Disordered fountains order produced
    cascades of water droplets.
        "Fresh," Rhissa said at last when she first sipped the water.
    "This is good. I feel no one's presence near us; but there must be
    a reason why we were brought here."
        "I think we are meant to learn something," Nlaminer replied. They
    sat on the outer wall of the basin. Water fog gave a pleasant
    sensation in the hot air that surrounded this place...
        "I think we have something to learn here," Nlaminer repeated.
    They entered a large room filled with bookshelves. Book everywhere.
    The titles were all in Thalen.
       "This cannot be," Rhissa objected. "Think of it; why would there
    be anything familiar to us ?"
        "Someone has modified this place for us," Nlaminer said. "Why
        "Too much to do. Besides, why bother for us ? We have to find a
    way to rid of our... well, you understand me. We cannot hide from
    him.  To be frank, I do not wish to seek refuge the rest of my life.
        "Ezoxu helped us, didn't he ?"
        "Yes and no. Do you consider gods to be everywhere at the same
    time ? Do you consider them to care for mortals ? No. The status of
    god is a way to establish the cult.  The cult is a self-preserving
    entity, you see.  For example, if a god said, 'A blindness upon those
    desecrating my altars', then the one desecrating that altar will be
    blinded. But will a god perform that personally ? No.  There are
    billions of worlds; not even gods have power enough to deal with
    every problem.  Their cult is their essence. In most cases a god
    doesn't do anything at all."
        "Did we not talk to a deic manifestation ?"
        "This is a case as rare as a god's death or a god's coming. One
    chance out of a billion billions. How do you feel about it ?"
        "It seems for me I saw a brilliant dream. What of that ?"
        "Exactly. A dream. When - and if - we talk to him once more, he
    will remember us. Do not expect a god to come in flesh to talk to a
    mortal. Ezoxu is a Wisdom itself; he knows the origins and ways. He
    cannot predict or see through time; but he can teach many things. His
    wisdom is subtle, almost invisible, yet it forces one to learn.
    Didn't you feel anything there ?"
        "Well,.. what I learned was very general advice, no more."
        "You want too much," her eyes glistened angrily, "If even a god's
    words cannot persuade you or teach you, what do you expect of
    mortals? Of me ?"
        Nlaminer stood silent. His stared at the shelves and
    absentmindedly took a book. 'Deities and cults', it was entitled.  He
    put the book into the pack and immediately they were at the entrance.
    of the palace. The book was still in the pack. Rhissa sat on a small
    stone bench and sat there, ignoring Nlaminer.
        "Something is stirring inside me," he said, approaching her.
    Rhissa kept silence. "I walk as if in a fog.  Something inside me
    calls for my attention." She sat silently. He put his hands on her
    shoulders. Rhissa relaxed a bit but remained silent.
        "I need you," he called softly. "If I hurt your feelings, I beg
    your pardon."
        "I understand," she turned her face; it was calm again. "The Rite 
    stirs you. The bridges between your mind and other mental planes were 
    opened too quickly. Be patient. The first time it is painful. For 
    both of us, Nlaminer."
        He was embarassed again to ask more.
        "Imagine you've been given new eyes, ears and so on. The old
    ones were cut off, replaced with new ones. It's very painful."
        She paused for a moment. "We cannot investigate this place.
    It's laughing at us. We walk for hours to find something new.
    I feel tired of it."
        Nlaminer took a book out of his backpack. "This time, more luck."
    Rhissa saw the book and brightened. "How interesting," she pointed
    at the title. It was completely indecypherable now; letters were
    unknown. Only pictures remained the same. She browsed through the
    large tome and exclaimed, "Here !"
        He had a brief look. The stranger was depicted, in colors and
    life. Many other pictures and runes commented on the images.  Rhissa
    tried to understand something, but in vain.
        Frustrated, they returned to the nearest fountain.
                                 *    *    *
        "We should accept the rules of this place," Nlaminer was
    explaining his idea. They sat by a fountain; the twilight never ended
    here. They slept, one guarded the other. They tried to move outside
    the alleys and away from the palace, but with no success.
        "We try to follow our own logic. I would recommend not to fight
    these weird passages. Simply follow them," he added.
        "I do not understand you."
        "Well," Nlaminer searched for a proper word and then the Voice
    came again, booming and powerful. He did not expect to hear his inner
    advisor again.  Weak and subtle, it had been; now it sounded like
    thunder. "DO NOT WISH", it thundered and Nlaminer, with a surprised
    cry, sat clumsily on the ground. He saw Rhissa rushing to him... the
    world reeled and then the vision was gone.
        "I... am... all right," he said, smiling wryly. Rhissa calmed the
    headache. Then he remembered the words and for several seconds
    thought about them. He had another idea now; it shone before his
    eyes. It was simple, but could work.
        "Stand here, close beside me," he ordered and Rhissa, looking
    intently into his eyes, obeyed. "Now concentrate. What's behind our
    backs ? Do not turn. Tell me, what is there ?"
        "Why, the fountain, of course."
        "Is an entrance to the palace there ?"
        "No, of course not."
        "Excellent. Let's repeat that again. There's no entrance to the
    palace behind our backs."
        "There's no entrance to the palace behind our backs. What..."
        "Look." He turned himself. Even before he did that, he knew what
    would happen.
        They stood motionless, amazed at what they saw. A path, paved and
    clean, led a short way to the entrance. Rhissa glanced admiringly at
    her friend and looked inside the opened door. No one came out of
    there, as usual.
        "I think I caught the idea," Nlaminer added. "But what's next ?"
        They didn't know the answer. Perhaps there was no answer at all.
                                 *    *    *
        How simple it was ! They visited the library of the palace, which
    was behind the entrance door. They found food storage, guest rooms;
    they knew now how to behave here.  They even saw a local dungeon just
    to make sure it exists.
        They were sitting in the library. Rhissa was reading
    miscellaneous historical books; Nlaminer was learning the magic.
    There was a spell book in this collection. After thinking a while, he
    decided not to take the books with him, he sat reading them. Rhissa
    was examining 'Deities and Cults' and, after reading for several
    hours, she called Nlaminer.
        "Listen," she said. "Toxxar, the deity of Life, supervises all
    healing and restoration processes. A peaceful deity, of Akaeff
    origin, has the power to banish the undead and cure diseases... and so
    on. There is a complete description of this deity. The image is
    the same as we saw earlier. It's him."
        "But I know nothing of such a deity," Nlaminer objected.
    "Besides, I wouldn't say he was too peaceful."
        "I feel the same. Be it  a local deity, a smaller manifestation
    of some universal one, it would not be mentioned here. But my
    clerical experience does not tell me about him, either."
        "This is the key we were looking for," Nlaminer said. "It's not
    known in our world; yet it is him who is depicted here, no doubt."
        "We must learn more about him," Rhissa concluded. "The whole
    story is mysterious. He's universal, but nobody knows of him. He's
    peaceful, and I feel frightened of his peaceful intentions." She
    looked at the picture again. Toxxar was smiling from the page. "What
    is it you want ?" she asked. The image did not reply.
        "I have an idea," she said suddenly. Nlaminer looked at her
    expectantly. "Let's pay a visit to the owner of the palace."
        "I doubt he - or she ? - exists."
        "Let's try, anyway." They closed the door and wished NOT to visit
    an owner of the palace. The door was opened... nothing new.
        "Let's think of the host's apartments," Nlaminer proposed.
        This time the door opened to a small room filled with many
    interesting things; fire was crackling in the fireplace and a window
    looked out at the sea. Rain fell from the other side of the window.
    Nobody invited them in, but the adventurers entered and carefully
    closed the door. A large chair stood in front of a solid oaken
        No one sat there.
                                 *    *    *
        "This is all so cozy," Nlaminer said slowly, charmed by the
    interior of the room. "I would like to sit here, really, for a long,
    long time." He saw bookshelves, filled with ancient manuscripts; a
    book lay on the table and a cup of something resembling herbal tea
    stood on the table; statues decorated corners, hunting trophies hung
    from the walls. It felt like a home.
        Fire was casting fragile shadows on the floor; they writhed and
    coiled up and down.
        As if in a dream, Nlaminer sat in the chair. It was perfect and
    comfortable. He looked around him; Rhissa walked around, studying the
    walls and miscellaneous items attracting her attention as if by a
    magnet. This was not a haphazard collection, brought here just to
    trick them into something. A definite purpose was behind the whole
    room. Owner had just went out for a minute... What if he returned ?
        There was a gold-encrusted inkwell just near it; a fountain pen
    and an ancient pens stood in the special stand. He opened a book with
    no title on the cover; it was a chronicle. The dates and notes were
    made in calligraphic writing.  The words were in Thalen, too; but
    something inside Nlaminer objected: no, it is your eyes that see
        "How interesting," he murmured, reading the notes from a distant
    past. He could not tell how he knew it was a distant past; probably
    the same way Rhissa did. "What ?" Rhissa asked him absent-mindedly,
    engrossed in studying a collection of staves, leant to a corner. They
    were all made of iron wood, with rich carving all over them. Many
    looked battle-worn.
        "It is written here," Nlaminer continued, "It was an ancient
    cult; the Akaeff were most powerful druids of that time and the whole
    planet thrived."
        'The Akaeff scientists discovered another way to move between the
    worlds by traveling through the mental planes. All realities could be
    linked through a channel in any mental Realm.
        'They visited many alternate realities; they sent their scouting
    parties and found many unoccupied worlds, filled with abundant life
    and nothing more. Traveling became usual for Akaeff, with their
    powerful mental abilities and well balanced minds; they met no
    opposition when they encountered other intelligent beings and never
    tried to occupy already inhabitated worlds.
        'Then they found the Tunnel.' Strangely, Nlaminer thought. I
    heard about a Tunnel somewhere. He looked through the window and
    shuddered. The sun was rising; its deep red beams were painting the
    landscape into fantastic hues. Nlaminer stood up and came closer to a
    window. Another building, strange and dome-like stood on the other
    side of a large canyon. Many windows pierced its mosaic walls; light
    came through the windows and a distant music seemed to sound there.
        Rhissa heard him telling the story, but her mind was wandering
    far away. She saw vast unlit halls, long but empty corridors... what
    were they ?
        'One day the fear came through the bright passages of the Tunnel
    and the gods gathered to defend their domains.'
        An explosion, mute but violent, ripped the world before his eyes
    driving him into a smoking and burning ruin.
                                 *    *    *
        He saw a terrible ant-like creature crawling from under the ruin.
    It raised its head and clutched all four its mighty hands. Its
    army followed closely; the bloody clouds were hanging over the
    devastated town; a hot wind furiously attacked all the forces
    surrounding the entrance to the Tunnel.
        'The presence of mighty demonic forces scorched all life on the
    great island; only hot sand was swirling above. All the gods, however
    different they were, guarded the entrance. There was no ceremony of
    Judgement. The alien forces made their way harshly; the first victims
    were the Akaeff towns and they were put to ashes. In a flash, the
    wonderful race ceased to exist.'
        This time he saw with someone else' eyes. The terrible four-armed
    creatures crawled insect-like from amidst the burning passages.
    Still there were no attempts to break through the defending circle;
    the mighty figures of deities, in their most ferocious
    manifestations, stood patiently, destroying everything that tried to
    pass outside their ring.
        'The gods waited for the leader of these forces to come. Flame
    was raging throughout the island; from the other islands and
    continents it looked like the end of this world. The Balance was
    supported only by an extreme effort of the highest masters of
        And the leader did, indeed, come pouring unearthly flame and
    disintegration around its army. The moment of the strike was most
    terrible; gods reversed the destructive flame against its origin; the
    army coming endlessly from the depth of another reality was
    annihilated; three gods lost their domains throughout many realities
    that day. All those who remained encircled the crater with a web of
    interworld ways inside and closed it. The moment of victory was
    horrible; twenty nine creatures, both creative and chaotic stood in
    an allied ring, twenty nine gods themselves were defending the worlds
    from attacks coming out of nowhere.
        'The gods agreed to prevent such intrusions as best as they
    could. All Tunnels were closed and divided between them to control
    any force that would want to pass by these passages outside all the
    worlds. Only those given permission were allowed to wander the
        And then everyone vanished. Only the poisonous sand, emitting
    death many years after the battle, was moving around the blasted land
    burying the remnants of a high and glorious race. Only a few mortal
    creatures assisted the gods in the Defense. They carried new and
    terrible truth: however carefully the Balance was supported, anything
    could happen. This day was the day of new philosophies to come and
    old to be forgotten. The echo of the Defense was ringing in many
    outside realities for thousands of years.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer shook off the vision. He was still sitting in the chair.
    His right hand covered a blank page in the book.  Nothing more
    written in it. A landscape outside the window was the same again;
    dull and motionless clouds, twilight, endless alleys.
        He shuddered and removed his hand hastily from the page. He
    thought blood was coming from his hand, soaking the white paper.
    Then he saw letters, purple and perfect, emerging out of nowhere;
    text was being written by an unseen hand.
        'I was the one who lost all in the shortest moment. I was near
    death many long years; and I will return, with your help or without.'
        "Rhissa !" he exclaimed and turn around quickly. Rhissa was gone.
    Skulls lay in a heap; swords were carefully sheathed and attached to
    the walls. Dark and sinister pictures stared at him.
        'You need her no more, stranger. You need only to call my name
    and we can join our efforts.  What more could a mortal want than to
    be a god?  I will show you power and might of a real god.'
        The words were appearing right on the floor; wherever his gaze
    fell, bloody letters were being carved or written.
        A fury encompassed him. He felt terrible pain, as if he were
    being cut apart; but the hatred of the Stranger was stronger. He felt
    immense power coming through him. He closed his fists; darkness oozed
    into the room from all directions.
        "Come here !" he shouted; he felt as if he wore armor that
    radiated a bright and hot glow.  He raised his hands; they were in
    battle gloves; his right hand grasped a shining sword. The floor
    cracked when his plated feet stepped onto it. "Come here, you coward
    ! Bring her back ! I will destroy you, you damned demon !"
        'You are going in the right direction,' mocked the steady voice.
    'Take another step. I'm behind the door. Force me to do what you
        Nlaminer hit the door with a gloved fist; the door shattered.  A
    mighty reptile stood there, eyes blazing, an iron mace in its paw.
    Nlaminer saw flame pouring down his armor and sword. His hatred and
    fury gave him a demonic force. He struck the enemy and sliced its
    mace in two.  The foe did not flee; it laughed. Nlaminer thrust his
    sword in the chest of the opponent. His sword met nothing. Still
    laughing, the reptile retreated.
        Nlaminer's swings cut everything they touched. Stone fell to
    dust, wood burned to nothing, metal boiled and vaporized.  Though the
    foe was not harmed, after each blow it became more transparent. A
    black hole appeared on a wall nearby. The reptile turned, became
    solid for a moment and leapt inside. Nlaminer lunged and cried
    triumphantly; boiling blood dropped on the floor and his opponent
    writhed with pain.  But it managed to escape; with flame coming out
    of his eyes he rushed into the closing portal.
                        Chapter 10. Alone in the mist
        In the beginning it was mist. It filled the space all around,
    lit with soft reddish glow and created walls and floor and ceiling.
    The mist was clouding in any forms the mind could imagine. It had no
    form, no sounds, nothing at all. It spiraled into ruby feathers,
    turning on and on.
        After mist, pain came. It had many hues and colors, too.
    It seemed to be endless and strengthening. Every bit of the body
    ached; the mind was in agony, too, with terrible efforts having taken
    most of its powers away. The core of his mind was full of pain; it
    was like he was thirsty, hungry and deprived of everything possible.
        The will came the next. It was the impulse that forced him to
    fight the deadly fatigue. The battle was short but violent.
    Eventually, he rose on failing legs and sat up, in the middle of the
        Memory was the last to come.
        Strangely, the last events did not weaken him any more. He could
    not allow himself to sit and bemoan his losses. Rhissa was in danger.
    He felt she was alive, but in danger. The room was a weird look; deep
    cuts and scratches everywhere. The reptile blood, dried up, was
    splashed all around. 'I forced you to feel my anger,' Nlaminer
    thought, but the thought did not bring him joy. He was tricked again
    and from now should behave most carefully.
        First, their possessions. He went into the other room. His
    backpack and her belt were lying in the heap of skulls. Disdainfully,
    he kicked them; they immediately turned into a cloud of white powder.
    Nlaminer collected all they had brought here and reached for the
        There was none. He studied his inventory: nothing. He felt for a
    moment floor falling under his feet... then he fought panic
    back, sat in the same chair and tried to make up something.
        The situation: he is in unknown reality, Rhissa in some other
    reality, the only known way to move between is lost. Good time to
    panic, if only it could help him.
        Strangely, a cup with the 'tea' still stood on the table filling
    the room with fragrance. He studied odor; it seemed to be not
    dangerous. Anyway, there was too many ways to kill them both before.
    Owner of this place was indeed a strange creature, with a
    particularly specific sense of humor, but not hostile.
        He prayed briefly to all gods and drank.
        The mist left his vision at once. Then the room began to change.
    It was growing larger; the walls moved to bring more space. A
    dome-like building appeared again, then a bridge span the distance
    between the two buildings. Part of the wall moved aside to open the
    entrance to the bridge. It was three feet wide, with no railings.
        Nlaminer had seen too much in the previous several days to be
    astonished any more. He grabbed his and Rhissa's belongings, took
    one of ironwood staves, with a knob in the form of a dragon head
    and left his worn sword instead. With the staff on the belt, and
    Rhissa's items packed in his own backpack he came to the bridge and
    looked down.
        Myriads of the paths were entangled in a maddening maze. Lights
    shone here and there down in alleys. Probably, some nocturnal
    insects.  A wind was blowing, soft and warm. Nlaminer waited a moment
    and stepped on the bridge. Nothing happened. Then he crossed it
    decisively; in five minutes he stood on the other side.
        The bridge didn't disappear or shrunk or anything else. It was
    still there. The Palace was nearby, a mountain of a castle, giant,
    splendid in some dark way and motionless. Nlaminer shrugged and
    entered dark corridor. A plaque was hanging above his head. It read
    in fine Thalen letters:
        'Welcome to the Theater'.
                                 *    *    *
        As the Palace before, the Theater was splendid and magnificient.
    Nlaminer saw nothing that would be appropriate for a theater still.
    Passages and corridors went round and round, spiraling to some
    mysterious underground void. Many doors, all of them locked.  There
    was nobody around, though he heard voices and music, and all sounds
    of normal undisturbed life. To hear it here, it was weird, too.
        He spent a hour to make a trip around the outermost passage. He
    wouldn't descend down any staircases yet. If he found nothing new and
    returned to the bridge entrance, he would think of visiting some
    other floors. He had water enough to live here for several days; and
    little food, too. He thought of Rhissa and frowned.  What if she is
    also in some stone labyrinth, with no water, no food, nothing at all
    but her vivid spirit and clerical skills ?  Well, right now he could
    do nothing. He sent her his greetings...  hoping she will feel them,
    and stepped on staircase. Like the passage he had just left, it was
    lit by a light globes attached to the walls. The walls were of a very
    fine carving, with textures rich and interesting.  Whoever built this
    Theater, he had excellent imagination.
        Radial passages crossed the lower round passage. He saw
    human-like and other figures coming through the passages in the
    distance; the air was a bit dusty but not stagnant. He tried to open
    the first door he saw on the curving wall and it opened easily.
        It looked exactly as he could imagine it. A decent room in some
    small inn far away from big cities. Fireplace with several logs
    burning, a supper on a silver dish that waited for him.  Sleeping
    room and bathroom were farther, behind fine oaken doors. He closed
    the door behind him and approached the table.  A card, made of
    glistening paper was lying on the dish. It said:
        'The room is reserved for Nlaminer rad Haorsst, voyager.
                                             Uaron, the Manager.'
        Nlaminer fell into chair and burst into laughing. He laughed
    until his throat began to pain. The whole scene was so unexpected he
    could not help laughing... Then he stood, waited for several seconds
    and said, "My best regards, Mr. Uaron. I appreciate you care very
    much." He tried to sound as earnest as he could. Then he thought.
    This Uaron, whoever he was, should know much about this place... For
    Nlaminer it was more Inn than Theater. He looked at the dish and felt
    a terrible hunger in the same instant.
        He ate with much appetite. The tension of the last events had
    consumed too much energy. When he finished, he visited the bathroom
    to clean himself. His fur was so untidy... and his comb was lost
    somewhere between the worlds. After a while he managed to create more
    elegant appearance and returned to the fireplace.
        The silver dish vanished. Instead, a small silver key was
    lying on the table. Nlaminer took it; it was almost weightless. A
    strange thing indeed. He shrugged and sat in the chair.
        The first thing he would like to do was to understand where he is
    and where is Rhissa. He was quite a novice in the mental journeys and
    the rite gave him sensation these journeys need special training to
        The second thing was to learn how he could leave this place and
    visit any other. Preferably, to find Rhissa, wherever she was now.
        The third thing was to learn what so-called Toxxar was doing and
    why he ceased to pursue him. He felt no mental oppression any more.
    That was pleasant, but was giving unquiet feelings, too.
        I should find Uaron, he decided. After I rest for a while. Beside
    the warm fireplace, in the comfortable chair he soon was dozing. His
    mind was gathering efforts to find a solution to the three problems.
    Meanwhile his body rested.
                                 *    *    *
        When he returned to Anlaven, the town where he was adopted and
    where was taught the basics of the life, his foster parents were long
    dead; human span of life was thrice as short as Marrkes'. The house
    was occupied by merchants who were polite and kind enough. Nlaminer
    was still remembered here. But humans were always distrustful to
    alien races. And the six-feet furry stranger, with inch-sized fangs
    and growling overtones in his voice couldn't be as welcome as he
    would like to.
        Nlaminer cordially bid them farewell and left for the cemetery.
    There he prayed to Naata and other gods and sat for a while. His
    appearance was quite formidable to prevent outright staring at him.
    With heavy heart he ordered a room in the nearest inn and began to
    think over his plans.
        The City of Singara had been deserted four centuries ago. The
    Humans began to explore it once, when another assault from the dark
    depths made them to cancel their scouting. It was rumored to hide
    unthinkable treasure, as all deserted places always are. Nlaminer
    knew enough of Singara history to assume he could find a treasure
        The only problem was he wouldn't go alone. Too many hazards lay
    ahead. Nobody knew very well what could crawl round the nearest
    corner, so no precaution was unwarranted.
        And the cost of the equipment was rather high. He had to earn
    more money somehow. It was easy. His magic skills, limited as they
    were, brought him immediate awe and respect, for common people were
    always thinking of mages as mysterious demonic creatures, able to do
    anything with a movement of finger. Well, he was good enough to
    fulfil several simple quests (found lost box with precious gems, cast
    protection from thieves and wild animals onto cattle-sheds and so
    on), which gave him both money and reputation. He managed to buy an
    enchanted silver sword Aimnall (Protector) and gathered a small band
    of the adventurers; all four of them were humans. They visited the
    outermost parts of Singara and were lucky to find treasure enough to
    equip themselves even better.
        Nlaminer lived near Singara during all winter, mastering his
    thief abilities (a good skill in traps removal is never missed),
    weapon skills (many trainers were eager to fence with him) and ranger
    arts.  He was a supreme hunter and even the snow-covered mountains
    brought him enough food and skins, which he could treat and sell
    afterwards.  This was life interesting enough for a small town such
    as Anlaven.  But his inner goals were set aside.
        After much thinking he decided to explore Singara deeper. His 
    companions were eager to join him; thus he left his native town for 
    the next time. Provided treasure found there were as much as they 
    guessed, he could start his voyage to Dragon Isles, to begin his long 
    quest, to find where he had come from and why. He heard of no other 
    Marrkes in this world. Murrkins distantly resembled his race, but 
    they were more powerful, more cat-like and with weaker mental 
    abilities.  They accepted him like a kin and were always friendlier 
    than any other race. But they knew nothing of Marrkes, too.
        His theology knowledge was also much in eclipse; he accepted the 
    existence of deities, but paid little respect to them. They were 
    mostly mystical beings to him, faraway and too hard to communicate 
    with. In his opinion, mind was weapon strong enough. Nobody would 
    invoke to deities unless there were no other way. Sometimes he felt 
    he had to pray, but very rarely.
        Their expedition failed completely. All four of his companions 
    were torn to pieces by a flock of blood hawks deep underground.  
    Nlaminer could hardly return, too.
        But he met Rhissa.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer woke up. The embers in the fireplace were dying. It was
    warm in the room. He slept with a silver key and ironwood staff in
    his hands. He scanned his backpack. Nothing missed. Whoever ran the
    place, he was honest enough.
        Time didn't flow here. He felt his inner clocks stopped.  This 
    gave an illusion of stability and being protected from everything. 
    Well, if he stayed here, probably it would be the case.
        He gathered everything he had and looked outside. The corridor 
    was the same - voices, soft music, footsteps...  Nlaminer went out 
    and tried to remember the door that led in his apartments. If only it 
    makes any sense, he thought. The mind was tired of endless tricks 
    with space and time, it would be so quiet to live in a place where 
    walls do not move and all paths always lead to the same destination. 
    He sighed. A passage led down, towards depths of the Theater.  
    Figures walked in the distance. The way seemed to be no worse than 
    any other and Nlaminer moved on, looking around.  Pictures were 
    attached to the walls - landscapes, abstract paintings, but not a 
    portrait among them.
        If only I knew where Uaron dwells, he thought. Too strange 
    creature, he must be. But everything in this twilight realm was 
    strange, sometimes eerie. I need to find Uaron, but where and when I 
    manage to do that ?
        Still thinking, he made a turn to the right and stood amazed.
        It was a great restaurant, all filled with people.  Different 
    races sat here. None paid too much attention to the newcomer.  He 
    walked by the richly decorated tables; a low hum of conversation 
    filled the brilliant hall, nearly two hundred feet in all dimensions.
        A barman was an elegant Human, with white hair and smiling eyes.  
    He silently offered him a cup of the herbal tea. Judging by smell, it 
    was the same mixture he drank there at the Palace. The understanding 
    suddenly came over him. Nlaminer sat by a counter and thanked the 
    barman. The latter made another cup for himself and sat, intently 
    looking into Nlaminer's eyes.
        "Uaron ?" Nlaminer asked, after he sipped a bit off the cup. The
    taste was wonderful. It brought him the memory of the Eternal forest
    and its fragrance. Nlaminer shook away the images and noticed the
    barman nodded.
        "Welcome to the Theater," he pronounced the last word with a
    capital letter. "It seemed you need a good rest."
        A music, unknown and weird for Nlaminer, started to play. He
    widened his eyes; the inner rhythm was charming. "Where are we?" he
    asked, looking around. The place was irreal, fragile, unnatural.
        "This is the Theater, that's all." Uaron answered him, playing
    with empty cup. "This is my place. I saw you in the Palace and
    decided you could need my assistance."
        "The Twilight Palace ?"
        "How charming ! Is it the name you gave it ? Wonderful." Uaron
    smiled and made himself another drink.
        "Do you know something of me ?" Nlaminer asked.
    Something very unusual was about this Human... or what he were else.
    Something mysterious and powerful. Not the magic power; not even
    godlike powers. But powerful still.
        "Nothing you wouldn't give me. I know only you are in trouble. I
    have very few visitors, you see. These," he made a gesture and the
    hall became empty; the music was playing still, "These are illusions,
    images of my mind. I have strong nostalgy for my home." His face
    darkened for a while. "So I decided to remain here and welcome
    whatever stranger passes through this place."
        "What's the Theater ?"
        "That's all I want. You see, great emperors possess much power
    and rule large countries. But they live for a short time. I would
    like to live longer... So I placed the limits to my empire and fled
    from whatever world I could live in."
        "A Tunnel," Nlaminer nodded. "I see it now. This is a Tunnel. So
    you are a god ?"
        Uaron shrugged. "In a way. I rule this place; it obeys the rules
    I'd once introduced. Nothing more. But I will live as long as I
    desire, for Tunnels are outside of any time flow."
        Nlaminer was amazed. "I thought all Tunnels were under gods'
        Uaron laughed. "There are always things nobody could imagine. I
    thought the same until I visited the Twilight land. There are no gods
    here, at least I evade them. We do not interfere into one another's
        "No gods at all ?"
        "No, no gods. They never visit the Twilight land. No one knows
    how it was created. And any mortal can find here a refuge from
    anything, if he succeeds to come here."
        "It's rain outside," Uaron added unexpectedly. "Do you like rain?"
        Nlaminer shrugged. "I do not mind it, anyway."
        Uaron flapped his hand and the splendid hall vanished. They stood
    on the vast domelike roof of the Theater. A warm rain was falling.
    Uaron made another gesture and two chairs, under a gray tent,
    appeared out of nothing.
        "You can help me ?" Nlaminer asked. "I seem to..."
        "No !" Uaron interrupted him. "Do not tell me anything. This is
    not necessary. You want to find someone, right ?"
        Nlaminer nodded.
        "And you are ready to do anything to save her ?"
        Nlaminer stood up. "How do you know ? You were..."
        "Easy, my friend, easy." Uaron laughed again. "I saw you both
    from the window. No need to get annoyed. Believe me, if I wanted to
    play with you, you could wander the Theater forever. I had such
    visitors; some of them wished to discover my treasury. Stupid ones !"
    he laughed again, more shortly than before. "I have no treasure but
    the Theater, you know. Gold and everything else has no value here."
        He stopped laughing and looked at Nlaminer earnestly, offering
    him to sit again.
        "You think I am crazy ? No. But... from the other hand, craziness 
    is like spice. It brings stronger sensations. So, judge me any way 
    you want, but I can help you. The price is high, though. Very high. 
    Are you still willing to continue your journey ?"
        Nlaminer thought for a while. Then he looked into dark eyes of
    his host and nodded. "Yes, I think so."
        "I am glad. You will think I am mad and the price is too cruel.
    Maybe it is. Let us come to my library."
        They stood and entered a door that appeared in front of them.
    Uaron led their way. "When you live in a place like that for several
    hundred thousand years, you will learn its rules perfectly."
        "If there is no time here, how you could measure time ?"
        "You are clever. Well, I brought my watch with me." He showed him 
    fine watch, fastened on his wrist. Nlaminer heard of such things, but 
    never had one or even saw. They cost awfully much.
        "This is the only thing that shows me the time," Uaron added.
    "Well, we are here." He opened wide the great doors and they entered
    a vast room, going far into distance. Bookshelves were placed in
    rows. Nlaminer stood fascinated. He never saw so many books at the
    same time. They were going for several minutes, and there was no end
    to the room. If it could be real...
        "It is real," Uaron replied. "Here everything's real... except
    for all that isn't." He smiled. "Well, this collection is quite real.
    The only way to keep one's mind working. And here's the table."
        He led Nlaminer to a massive hazelnut table. A thick heap of
    paper lied on it, inkwells and pens stood in rows.
        "There is a door in the far end of the library," Uaron waved his
    hand. "Here comes the price for your freedom. You will sit here
    and write everything that occurred in your life. Every day you
    remember, every adventure that befell you, every hue of your life."
        Nlaminer had nothing to say.
        "You may believe me or not," Uaron added in low voice. "But
    that door will let you out only when you finish writing all that
    happened until you stepped into the Theater. That's a rule. I cannot
    change it. Nobody can."
        "She will perish while I write this chronicle," Nlaminer said
    bitterly. Despair fell upon him, a dark and endless mist.
        "No." Uaron shook his head firmly. "There is no time here.
    Decide for yourself. You cannot trick the Theater, but you can play
    its rules. Does her life cost the price I've named ?"
        Nlaminer replied at once. "Yes."
        "Then pay it. Until then, be my guest. I am a good host, you'll 
    see that yourself. Pay the price, Nlaminer. You will find no other 
    way out."
                          Chapter 11. The Museum
        Rhissa remembered only she took an ironwood staff. Its knob was
    in the form of grinning skull. She remembered her disgust at such a
    thing... A flash blinded her and she sensed matterless void 
    encompassing her.
        She heard her heart beating; distorted voices, full of anger and
    hatred, filled her head. She thought she recognized Nlaminer's
    voice... Soon the voices passed away.
        She heard wind whistling in her ears. A calmness and certainty
    suddenly filled her heart. Nlaminer was alive, that's for sure. The
    being calling itself Toxxar did not achieve its goals yet. No reason
    to feel panic. This metal certainty did not leave her even when her
    feet touched a cool floor, in the fullest darkness.
        She had only the weird heavy staff. The room was large and quiet;
    cool draughts were flying it over and over. She raised the staff and
    it emitted bright white light.
        A giant monster, grinning savagely, stood above her. She
    was frozen with terror. When she was about to defend, she
    noticed there were no noises, smells and even life emanation from the
    giant bear-like creature.
        She walked around it. An imitation, a stuffed beast, no more.
    Whoever worked on it, it was fine and careful work. Even hunger
    in its eyes was very natural. Rhissa looked at the floor, amazed...
    and understood why her footsteps were so soft. A carpet of dust, half
    foot deep covered all around. Trying not to raise it, Rhissa began
    her studying of this strange place she has been thrown to.
        She tested her contact with the Realm. It was weak, but her
    powers will slowly regenerate. The worst of all is she had absolutely
    no equipment. No water, no food, nothing at all. She was on her
    own, with Nlaminer outside this reality.
        As for food and water, it was simple; she will not starve to 
    death. Judging by the speed here energy was restoring, she will spend 
    most of it to provide her nutrition for her body.  And this ugly 
    staff was the only weapon.
        She sighed. Time to learn how one could leave this abandoned
    place and where it was lying.
                                  *   *   *
        A day passed and another. She was still in the endless giant 
    room. But now it was clear: this hall was sort of a museum. Beasts, 
    monsters, relics of them and so on stood in the glass cubes, or by 
    themselves, on postaments and so on. And the dust, thick, several 
    centuries old. Time itself was an exhibit in this place.
        Silence was disturbing. Nearly all the noises were deafened by 
    the dust or the great span of the hall. She managed to walk from one 
    wall to another; it took two hours. A labyrinth of the exhibits was 
    also dizzying; the natural look of the most of them was enough to 
    scare even the bravest adventurers. They were mostly unknown to 
    Rhissa, but that was not strange. She walked by a wall. Sooner or 
    later she should reach an entrance to this enormous room.  She marked 
    one especially great showcase and moved amidst the creatures even the 
    most imaginative mind couldn't make up.  Soon she was half-walking, 
    half-dreaming; the only things her eyes detected were possible signs 
    of a door.
        When she found a door, it was absurdly small in comparison with
    the hall. Just six feet wide and eight high. She had no idea how the
    biggest beasts were put in here, but it wasn't what worried her most
    of all. She opened a door, not bothering to check what was behind and
    left the vast hall.
        She stood in a narrow corridor, extending endlessly in both 
    directions. A plaque on the door read:  'Animals'. Well, it could be 
    translated in that way. She had no spare energy for detailed 
    investigation. The corridor was cleaner; no dust lay on the floor. 
    Warm air blew slowly; it made her more vivid and the fatigue of two 
    (or more ?) days walking immediately forced her body to complain.
        She sat by the door to have a small rest. Another door, twenty
    feet across the corridor had a plaque 'Science achievements'. That
    sounded great, but first her feet should rest. Rhissa closed her eyes
    and tried to abstract from all that surrounded her now.
                                 *    *    *
        The several following weeks she spent walking in the great halls 
    of the Museum; the name was proper enough for such a colossal 
    collection. She guessed who could establish such a place and why it 
    is long forgotten and never visited. The only unlit room was 
    'Animals' section. The number of sections was infinite, as it seemed.  
    Dozens of other life examples, of classes she never thought about, 
    filled other sections. 'Knowledge' section possessed the treasure of 
    wisdom she would never suspect to exist.  Temptation to sit and study 
    all of this was overwhelming; the absence of time here was assuring 
    there will be no dire results of such studies.
        But everything more or less valuable was hidden under a bluish
    glowing mist, covering showcases. She threw a small stone at one
    of such fields and the small piece evaporated with a glare.
        The hall that really attracted her was labeled 'Cults'. She 
    entered it with awe; millions of gods looked at her from many altars 
    and sacred things, placed in strict order. There were no dust here 
    and all the images seemed to be alive. She never suspected the 
    Universe could comprise so many deities. Indeed the amount of unknown 
    was growing with the amount of knowledge. She felt as if she was 
    inside all the times and ages of all the worlds.
        Gods looked at her; she heard distant voices and sounds, 
    emanating from the images. Only once she saw a known altar. It 
    belonged to Zartin, the god of Dragons, fierce, glorious, covered 
    with perl-like scale. He was so realistic she studied the image for 
    many minutes. His blazing eyes met hers; she kept her stare and the 
    world around began to move and melt.
                                 *    *    *
        The images were foggy and detailless. She tried to concentrate on
    them and realized she was seeing many worlds at the same time. Her
    thoughts moved to her native world and in the same instant the vision
    became clear and alive.
        She looked at her world from the great altitude, as if she was 
    flying high in the sky. The Blasted land crawled beneath her.  It was 
    sand-buried and white. Dragon Isles were slightly visible through a 
    thick layers of clouds. Her eyes tried to focus on the Lighthouse 
    island and she saw at the same instant a great volcano raging in that 
    place. A column of smoke was rising high; lava was flowing endlessly. 
    The battle of fire and water was awesome; she understood the rest of 
    the lighthouse with its secrets were gone along with the Andrynx 
        She tried to find her Pink isle, but the dragon whose eyes she 
    was looking with changed its course and headed for Dragon isles.  She 
    thought she heard the booming and hissing of the steam and the roar 
    of the volcano breath, but it could as well be just her imagination.
        Then she saw a familiar dark shadow and heard the mocking 
    laughter once again. 'Spying, little cleric ?' A panic grasped her 
    mind. Somehow he managed to watch even the deeds of other gods !  She 
    tried to break the contact and found herself standing in front of 
    Zartin image.
        His stone eyes showed superiority and irony. The essence of 
    everlasting energy gave her more strength and strengthened her 
    spirit, too.
        She prayed to him shortly and continued her way.
        After a long time she discovered the altar of Toxxar and stood
    there, unable to pass the place by.
        Two images were mixing in the dark bas-relief. One was the Akaeff
    image, agile, tall, with eyes deep set and peaceful. The other was
    strange, shapeless violent image, with eyes red and hating, with
    immense power emanating from them.
        She paused, fighting the impulse to penetrate Toxxar thoughts or 
    use his senses... desire was so strong she had to close her eyes and 
    walk away several steps. While she possessed no means to combat 
    Toxxar powers and move between realities she had no chances to 
    withstand his will.
        With Toxxar eyes burning her neck, she moved along.
                                 *    *    *
        She stood in front of the showcase with a "portal generator" 
    device inside. The magic books were just words for her; and her 
    attempts to break into the Realm were hindered. The only hope was to 
    use some alien technology based upon other principles.  After 
    scanning the hall of 'Movement' section she find eventually several 
    portal spawning devices. No comments on how to use them. Well, 
    provided she could get such a device, she could risk to cast 
    identification, even if it will take then several hours or days to 
    regain her powers.
        She tried to find any switch turning off the blue field, but with
    no success. It glowed, destructing anything trying to approach the
    guarded object. She was near to despair, when a strange feeling
    appeared inside hre mind. She paused to study this sensation.
    Out of nowhere, an image appeared before her eyes. It lasted only
    several moments, but the idea was plain and simple.
        She was astonished, as she never experienced the Voice before.  
    Then she found a massive metal thing taken from some ruined showcase 
    (it was part of some floating vehicle). She calculated the safe 
    distance and threw the piece of metal at the showcase.
        A terrible sound of vaporizing metal filled her ears. The
    field flashed white and disappeared. She had time enough to break the
    glass and grasp the device inside. The green indicator on it was
    lit and the whole item gave a sensation of might hidden deep inside.
        As she leapt away from the support, the field switched on again.
        In the same instant, some strange, unpleasant sound came from a
    distance. Guards, she thought. Time to learn how the damned thing
    works. She concentrated on the hand-sized device lying on her hand,
    but before she had cast the spell, a heavy footsteps came from
        She sprang, trying to block any possible attack, but an invisible
    force seized her and the staff dropped to the floor. A metal
    creature, resembling tall Human stood near her. Her muscles
    were paralyzed, her mind was the only obeying part of hers. She
    felt her body turned and began walking somewhere, the guard
    following. 'Nlaminer !' she cried with desperate strength, and a
    blackness fell upon her eyes. She still felt she was going, under the
    full control, but her contact with the outside world was vanishing
    with frightening speed.
        For the first time her clerical knowledge was useless. The
    opponent had no mind, she had nothing to strike at. No life, no
    mind,... only oppressive, crushing force living in the ugly metal
                                 *    *    *
        An imprisoned mind suffers much more than an imprisoned body. The
    time stopped its flow; the barrier that closed all the outer world
    was impenetrable. The worst was she got nothing from the Realm. With
    no energy left, she was doomed to perish here.
        After an infinite period of time she felt a mighty stunning
    impact on her mind. She felt she was falling down from an unmeasured
    height.  Then she felt she is being supported and saw a furry hand
    pressing to her forehead.
        "Nlaminer," she tried to say, but managed only to move her lips.
    He winked at her and offered her her own flask. She sipped and the
    senses returned to her. Nlaminer was standing beside. He looked...
    somewhat differently. It was hard to say what had changed in him. She
    clutched to his arm, unable to speak. The terror of inevitable death
    was still strong in her heart. She saw his lips moving but heard
    nothing. After a while her hearing returned to normal. "Can you
    move ?" he was asking.
        She nodded. Nlaminer smiled and helped her to sit. She looked
    around; a small pedestal she was sitting on now was a place of her
    imprisonment, no doubt. There was many such pedestals, both with
    remnants on them and without. She shuddered at such terrible vision
    and sat with closed eyes for some time. Then she remembered the metal
    guard that had taken her prisoner.
        "The guard," she pointed at the door. "A metal creature that
    had captured me. I was unable to resist it."
        "I see," he took from his backpack her belt and helped to fasten
    it. "I brought all your possessions," he explained. "I thought you
    could make some use of them." And he laughed softly. She noticed he
    was carrying another ironwood staff, with delicate carving
    resembling tiny scales.
        They ate; Nlaminer brought some food, too. Rhissa was very
    hungry; Nlaminer ate only a little. For her, the real food was
    especially tasty, as she was fed only by spells, which could not
    bring taste and the feeling of satiation.
        Nlaminer sat all the time and only looked at her. They waited
    for about half an hour, when Rhissa asked him, "What are we waiting
    for ?"
        "You need to recover," he answered. "I had a brief study of this
    place. I did not made any search, as I had to free you as soon as
    possible. We have little time to spend. Did you find the altar of..."
    he looked at her and make a vague gesture, "You understand ?"
        She nodded. "Yes, I saw him."
        "He is planning a Judgement. I do not know how; no doubt he had
    found a Judge. We should hurry. I do not know how we could prevent
    that, but we will need his altar, I think. If you are rested, let's
    go. Right now."
        "You want to threaten a god, Nlaminer ?"
        "He is not a god," he winked again. "It's a long story. Let's
    move. The time here has another speed; hope the Judgement had not
        "Mind the guard," Rhissa repeated as they were approaching the
    door. He nodded and kicked the door open.
        A guard was standing right near it. Rhissa was ready to strike it
    when Nlaminer simply touched the massive figure and it fell heavily,
    breaking into small parts. Nlaminer was about to run to the 'Cults'
    door, when Rhissa called, "Halt ! Wait a bit !"
        Nlaminer watched as she picked a portal spawner and hid it into a
    pocket. Then they went as fast as they could and a hour later they
    stood in front of Toxxar altar.
        "We should make our strongest efforts now," he warned. "We shall
    travel through the Realm. I have no doubts he is mostly in our
    reality now. There is a small chance we can convince the gods to
    postpone the Judgement. If his plans succeed... well, all we will
    have to do is to try to hide your and mine people somewhere. This
    creature is awfully strong. Only the combined minds can interfere
    with his actions. His altar will give us the directions; we should
    find him and do everything to banish him away."
        "If we make the Rite now, we will die," Rhissa said softly. "But
    if this is the only chance, let's try it."
        "No," Nlaminer objected. "Not this time."
        He took a silver collar out of his backpack. "This is a farewell
    gift," he said, fastening it. "My powers right now are stronger than
    yours. That will not last for long, but it could help us for a
        He gave her a hand. She took it. A warmth, quick and alive,
    flowed into her body. "Lead the way," she heard his words, coming
    from somewhere inside her mind. "I will move us, but only you know
    the way."
        They felt the same overwhelming energy that hurled their minds
    into the other dimension; this time, though, their bodies were
    following them.
        If anyone could observe the scene, he would see them both glowing 
    with intolerable brightness. Their bodies drew nearer, melted into 
    one.  Then they disappeared; a lightning struck the altar of Toxxar 
    and destroyed it. Echo of explosion ran several times across the 
    hall; a smell of ozone and black remnants of the altar - it was all 
    that left.
                          Chapter 12. The Judgement
        Colors whirled around them in a storm. Their wild flight slowed
    down and finally they stood in a weird forest-like place.  Stars,
    several moons and several suns shone on the sky.  Multicolor shining
    envelopped all the leaves and branches.  Trees, plants and everything
    else glowed with all the hues of a rainbow.
        They looked at each other. Their bodies were separate now, but
    their minds were still United. They need no words, even a shade of a
    thought was enough.
        'You look majestic,' Nlaminer heard his thought after he had a
    look at Rhissa. She glowed with deep green light, her aura comprised
    an enormous power. Her image was perfect, features flawless and
    godlike. She smiled.
        'You too. All are godlike here,' Nlaminer looked at his body and
    was amazed. This one was strong, agile, quite young and emitted an
    intensive orange glow. He listened. It was not normal hearing that
    gave him sensation of a beautiful music filling the surrounding
    space, but his mind could not find a proper explanation to many new
    senses he possessed now.
        'What now ?' she asked him and her aura changed its color a bit.
    I see her emotions, Nlaminer understood.
        'I have the following plan,' Nlaminer replied. 'The Realm is a
    timeless place, as any Tunnel. We should wait until the Judgement
    begins. I do not know who is Judge, but we should distract this
    creature and affect its mind. Judge is under the full control of
    Toxxar or is threatened as we were. This is the only way I see to
    change the result of the ceremony.'
        'You cannot distract a god,' Rhissa objected.
        'He only tries to look as a god,' Nlaminer said, 'He possesses
    some power to trick all the other gods... or part of them, that does
    not matter, into thinking he's a god. We should make him to switch
    his attention to us. This is a great risk, but I do not know what we
    could do if he wins the Judgement.'
        They stood for a while, their shining bodies mighty and
    magnificient in the forest that was outside of all the worlds.
        'And I think his power will be less in the Realm, too,' Rhissa
    added unexpectedly. 'His origin of an energy lies somewhere else.
    This is my world,.. and yours, too. He could force us return to a
    physical plane, but only if we allow him to.'
        'That's a good idea,' Nlaminer said thoughtfully.
        'Which one ?'
        'To find the source of his energy.'
        Rhissa paused for a while. Her aura became golden, then a sparks
    of white diluted it. 'One can do that,' she replied. 'But somebody
    should distract him. And when he's cut from the energy, his force
    wouldn't be hard to resist. How long will your collar work for us ?'
        Nlaminer laughed. 'As long as we are inside the Realm. I was told
    it will disappear as soon as the contact with the target reality is
    strong and stable. You see ?' he pointed at his neck. 'It is no more.
    All the other things are with us.'
        Rhissa looked troubled. 'But will this not disturb the Realm too
    much ?'
        Nlaminer shrugged. 'You are Cleric. I can do very little here. I
    do not know whether my magic will work. But my memory and my mind are
    with me. And your powers are enormous now. Together we can oppose
    him; he can be outraged. When his power is off balance it can be
    tricked and defeated. He's a master of The Wisdom, not of The Art.
    Something allows him entering into other mental planes, but we have a
    chance to defeat him anyway.'
        'How do you know all of this ?'
        He sighed. 'I had time enough to learn many things. I will surely
    tell you this story, but let's invent a plan first.'
        Rhissa looked disappointed for a moment. 'I can find the Hall of
    Judgement. And I feel radiation from the domain... of him. What
    should we visit first ?'
        'The Hall of Judgement.'
        She smiled. 'Your hand, please.'
        He gave his hand... and they melted again into shapeless blazing
    comet. A wind whistled among the leaves of the rainbow forest when
    this comet soared high in the sky and sped away.
                                 *    *    *
        The Hall of Judgement was located in a Tunnel. A place where no
    god had a superiority over any other. Gods were discovering more and
    more Tunnels; and creatures unknown even to Ezoxu the Wise were
    roaming those planes of existence. Ezoxu himself was standing now in
    the beautiful hall, with floor decorated with miscellaneous gems and
    precious metals. Diamond columns were supporting transparent ceiling.
    The only entrance to the Hall was through the Gate of Judgement, a
    wide arc leading to every reality known to the gods.
        He was in the form of the Guardian. His task was to test every
    possible attempt of fraud, for Judges were mortals and a god even
    here could influence their decisions. His mind was guarding Judge
    each time the Rite of Judgement, or the Judgement, was performed.
    Judge was always summoned by the plaintiff; the task of the Guardian
    was to check the Judge's authentity, too. The Judgement that was
    about to begin gave him wry feelings. He thought he knew the Judge...
    something told him there will be something wrong, even though his
    Power of Knowledge was useless inside this brilliant place.
        The burden of the Guardian was very heavy. Decisions that he
    heard throught a vast span of his existence were both just and unjust
    from his viewpoint; they were kind and cruel. His voice was a supreme
    force and when his words could wipe off the whole worlds he felt
    unease. He stood and walked the Hall. Wry sensations didn't leave him
                                 *    *    *
        They moved in a space with no boundaries and no time.
    Nlaminer saw with his 'eyes' all the skies he could ever imagine.
    A blue sky and a green sky; a purple sky and a black sky. Suns
    were also of any possible color. Sometimes it was no sky, shapeless
    images crawled high above. He saw castles in the sky, towns and
    worlds floating above one another. The Realm was combining most
    different and contrary ideas, was equaling all the creatures, was
    both rational and crazy, both kind and evil. He saw things that could
    drive him mad, but this place taught everyone to disbelieve as well
    as believe.
        He 'floated' inside their United minds; he was the force
    that propelled them with the speed that seemed infinite. Rhissa's
    essence was the same: vividness, life and a bit of irony.
    Uncertainty that enveloped her in the Museum was long gone. It was
    her world and she was always welcome here.
        They crossed hundreds of worlds and then with no visible reason
    a road appeared before them. It looked like a usual pavement - gray
    stones were laid in a chaotic manner. Strange mountain landscape
    surrounded the road. It ended with an arc; a golden glowing line with
    an impenetrable blackness inside.
        'This is the Gate of Judgement,' Rhisa announced. 'Judge will
    come by this Road. You will recognize it, for no one will ever pass
    this way. I think I'd better move to an entrance to the Domain of
    you-know-who. I will wait for you signal there. Just call me if you
    will need me. And listen to my calls, too. I will not enter his
    world, but if he is not deaf, he will listen to me and sense me even
    outside his place.'
        'But Judge will see me !'
        'No, if you will stay off the Road. And be careful if you decide
    to enter the Gate. Gods cannot use their unique abilities inside, but
    legends say there is always a Guardian there. Someone able to detect
    intruders. Any careless action may cause the death of millions.'
        'If we never see each other in this life,' Rhissa added in steady 
    voice, 'I will find you in another. The Unity is forever.' She 
    disappeared. Nlaminer felt anxiety; she was quite calm even in the 
    face of death. It was very hard to suppress this anxiety; but 
    concentration now was the basement of the whole plan. He sat near the 
    edge of the Road and sighed again. To wait in a timeless place was a 
    fine trick. The whole point was to make oneself want to see the 
    moment that was desirable. Now he had to wait until Rhissa was close 
    enough to the Stranger's place.
                                 *    *    *
        Gods would come one after one. There was no strict rule about 
    order in which they had to appear. They arrived when it was 
    convenient for them. There was no time here, thus everyone controlled 
        Judge was the last to appear. Right now it was Palnor who shared 
    the vast Hall with Ezoxu. Ezoxu distrusted King of Thieves. Mostly 
    because Palnor's devotees brought trouble to every one of the gods 
    sooner or later. But his knowledge of mortals was probably greater 
    than Ezoxu's. Master of Stealth was behind every secret intention 
    lurking in mortal minds. He was even just...  well, to some extent.
        He had his usual appearance of an itinerant musician; his Flute
    of Illusion was always with him, though right now it was just an
    instrument. Palnor was a superb musician, too. He stopped near the
    seat of the Guardian and greeted Ezoxu with a deep bow.
        "It seems it will be an interesting Judgement this time," he said
    and smiled as if he was telling a big secret. "Why you are so worried,
    Sage ? You expect something strange, right ?"
        "Very strange," Ezoxu answered. "Toxxar is back. He claims the 
    positions of several other gods down there." he meant the homeworld 
    of Judge. "I would never expect him to be such violent."
        "Time can change everyone," Palnor replied. "Would you mind my
    playing flute for a while ? You need a good music to think by, I
        "Of course," Ezoxu smiled back. He liked this music. Palnor did 
    visit his homeworld at times when Ezoxu manifestations were 
    relatively at piece and no mortal sieged his mind with endless 
    questions. "You may steal my unease, if you need it."
        King of Thieves nodded in acknowledgement and started one of his 
    songs. Crystal sounds drifted beneath a ceiling, entangled the air 
    inside the Hall and brought life and happiness. Ezoxu listened 
    eagerly, having closed his eyes. The unease did go away with the 
    charming voice of Flute. His burden seemed less for a while... and it 
    was pleasant to feel.
                                 *    *    *
        Rhissa was quite earnest when she bid Nlaminer farewell there, 
    close by the Road. She felt the danger and enormous power emanating 
    from the domain of so-called Toxxar. This time she was not afraid, as 
    she was before, after their first Rite. That Rite seemed to be 
    thousand years ago. The entrance to Toxxar place was dark and guarded 
    by colossal thunderclouds, casting lightnings of destructive force 
    all around them and pouring black rain down an invisible land.
        Bushes blocked her way. They reached their mutilated branches 
    towards her, poison dripping off their leaves and thorns. It was the 
    exact sensation about the Stranger mind: poisonous and thorny.  She 
    knew that they cannot harm her if she is not afraid of them. Yet the 
    scene was terrifying; moans and growls came from the maze of thin 
    black branches. Hot wind moved them and poison drops evaporated into 
    heavy, sick smoke that was immediately drawn away.
        Will that be close enough ? This place seemed to be relatively 
    safe.  When she enters the land behind the maze of bushes, she will 
    be in greater danger, no doubt. Will Stranger hear her if she calls 
    Nlaminer now ? There was no answers to these questions. She had 
    whispered deep in her mind, 'Here, Nlaminer.' in hope he will hear 
    her voice.
        Somewhere in another part of the Realm Nlaminer shuddered. The
    words spoken by Rhissa sounded like a gong in his alert mind. He
    readied his senses and gathered all the strength he had. 'Come now,
    Judge,' he said softly. 'I am ready to meet you.'
        And Judge came round the corner of the Road.
                                 *    *    *
        Gods waited for Toxxar. Only Zartin ignored the call. Ezoxu knew 
    Lord of Dragons very well and felt himself more quiet.  Zartin's 
    sense of danger would bring him here, if a real threat were near.
        Andrynx the Time Traveler was sitting in his reptile form, 
    half-closing his eyes, semi-transparent and silent, as usual. Ezoxu 
    knew his temple was devastated down there, but Andrynx never paid 
    violence with violence. His strength was his ability to be 
    everywhere, in all the times, in all the worlds. He would simply move 
    his temple to some other place... when the Judgement is over. Even if 
    Judge banish Andrynx out of his world, he will lose nothing.  Most of 
    the gods were his friends and they were always glad to seek advice 
    from Andrynx the Predictor.
        There were many others; Murti, Naata, Gwenvireth, Xandur, Orkhhos 
    and all the rest who had their dominions down there. Beastlike and 
    humanlike, reptiles and insects, with shape and without, they all 
    were waiting for Toxxar. All conversations stopped. They all expected 
    the one who trespassed the boundaries and claimed for the Judgement 
    to return his domain.
        And Toxxar came. He was robed and tall, his Akaeff countenance 
    full of dignity and wisdom. It was truly the very Toxxar who had lost 
    all his devotees during the Defense and hence became a shapeless 
    mind. What miracle could bring him back to the form and power ? Ezoxu 
    was surprised. Nothing in Toxxar was the same now; he noticed flashes 
    of a black fire deep inside his eyes.
        Toxxar greeted all gods waiting in the Hall of Judgement. They 
    saluted him back; whatever he would demand, gods will never fight one 
    another. There were millions of realities, gods also were born and 
    died in due time. Mortals were forming the image of their worlds.  So 
    Judge was judging himself.
        Toxxar named Judge and everyone looked at Ezoxu. It was time to 
    call forth Judge to come. Who will he be this time ?
        "Let Judge enter," Ezoxu ordered at last.
        Footsteps came from the other side of the Gate.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer tried to keep the balance of his mind but the look of 
    Judge turned all his mind upside down.
        It was he who walked the Road of Judge. But Nlaminer the Judge 
    was a bit different. When he approached the place where Nlaminer the 
    Traveler sat, Judge paused for a moment, as if listening to something 
    strange and suspicious. His eyes would meet Nlaminer's if only he 
    could see him. For an infinite period of time they looked into each 
    other's eyes. Judge was trying to see whoever was hiding so close to 
        Judge was the same Nlaminer who rushed after the shadow of Toxxar 
    into a hole back in the Twilight Palace. It was the Nlaminer who was 
    the essence of his fighting skills: ferocious, fearless and clever.  
    His wide eyes narrowed now. He had no ability to see his other self 
    staring into his eyes, but their minds were hearing each other.
        There was not only dark and destructive forces that dwelt in 
    Judge. Nlaminer the Traveler sensed his self splitting again. His 
    mind was being divided into two; each part was reaching for the 
    other, each one was in pain but another power was dragging them 
    apart. 'Nlaminer !' Nlaminer cried with all his strength. 'Come here 
    ! Stop !' But his double turned tail and slowly entered the Gate. 
    Nlaminer remembered the desperate face of his dark self. He would 
    unite with his other part, but a merciless will of Toxxar had chained 
    him to another mind. Mind ill and poisoned.
        Nlaminer had a presence of mind to call 'Rhissa ! Now !' and 
    stepped inside the Gate of Judgement, with no clear plan of what he 
    would do there. Toxxar stole a part of him, tricked him into 
    forgetting Rhissa and his oath. Now this violent double will do 
    anything to get free... for even with his mind guarded by Toxxar 
    Nlaminer felt double's will for freedom... his own will.
        After a moment of darkness he entered a magnificient and brightly 
    lit hall... Fantastic figures stood all around. Toxxar towered near 
    the Gate, Nlaminer's double at his right.
        And nobody cared for Nlaminer's presence.
                                 *    *    *
        Rhissa heard his desperate call. It was obvious Nlaminer was in 
    deadly trouble. But it was up to him to deal with Judge now. If she 
    fails to distract Toxxar, he will undoubtedly perish. She flashed 
    beyond writhing and curving bushes and stopped right under the mighty 
    thunderclouds. 'Toxxar !' she called with all her might.  'Toxxar, 
    come here ! I am Rhissa, the one who knows who you are !' A lightning 
    fell upon her, but inflicted no harm. She absorbed its energy and 
    laughed insolently.
        Something roared deep within the dark land.  A way to Toxxar 
    place was near. She was taking a risk, for she could be dragged 
    inside and that would be her end. But Nlaminer's voice held so much 
    pain and fear she had no other way than to taunt Toxxar.
        'Come here ! Are you afraid ? You can only steal and hide ?'
        A black shape materialized in front of her, a huge creature, all
    claws and teeth, twice as tall as Rhissa. Sweating with poison, the
    monster approached her.
        She laughed scornfully; her hand raised and a glowing mace 
    appeared in it. The black shadow flinched back - a mace of pure fire 
    just touched the fierce spirit and it fell in clouds of foul smoke, 
    moaning with terror.
        Rhissa stood straight; her voice was ringing as if she were a
    goddess herself. 'Come here ! I know you are not a god, Toxxar ! And
    everyone will know that !'
        The thunderclouds froze; the storm raging over the scorched land 
    ceased its mindless fury. All the gloom gathering above suddenly was 
    flown away. She understood she frightened Toxxar this time and 
    angered him beyond measure. Her life was at stake. If she is caught, 
    nobody will save her.
        She flew closer to the heart of the terrible land.  Some movement 
    in the Realm took her attention. As if some spirit was flying at a 
    tremendous speed. She fought her panic that was about to fill every 
    bit of her spirit and waited for her opponent.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer feared he will be thrown away the very instant he enters 
    the Hall. And his surprise was great, for no one had noticed his 
        Well, almost no one. A creature sitting in a great wooden chair 
    was Ezoxu, no doubt. And he saw Nlaminer... saw him and a shadow of 
    surprise flashed in the calm wise eyes of the god. Nlaminer thought 
    he saw Ezoxu giving him a slight nod, as if encouraging.  What now ? 
    He decided to stand quietly and wait.
        "Let Judge name himself," Ezoxu said and Nlaminer heard the voice 
    of his double sounding both in his ears and deep within his mind.
        "I am Marrkes Nlaminer rad Haorrst, Ezoxu the Wise," the double 
    said and Nlaminer understood the plan of Toxxar to the very end.  The 
    double would say anything to earn freedom, which was promised him in 
    exchange. He shared Nlaminer's memory; every god would suppose him to 
    be a genuine creature. But what Nlaminer could do ? And what Toxxar 
    planned to do after the Judgement was ended ?
        Nlaminer listened as the double was naming all the events of 
    Nlaminer's past, as Ezoxu asked him in order to prove Judge had 
    rights to decide. Every god was satisfied; Ezoxu declared that Judge 
    had hereafter all the power to change the fate of his world and 
    Toxxar was asked what was his demands.
        "I demand that Andrynx, Naata and Murti are banished from that
    world," Toxxar said quietly, but his voice was full of barely hidden
    hatred. "And I demand the race of Haans was expelled, too, for they
    were opposing my efforts to regain my domain."
        Then a change had happened. Nlaminer was the only one who had 
    seen that. An image of Toxxar flinched back. Dread black fire in his 
    eyes went out and fear appeared for a moment in them. Then something 
    had left Toxxar's formidable husk and nothing majestic left in the 
    terrible figure.
        The bonds that were dragging the double away from Nlaminer 
    disappeared at once. Nlaminer rushed to the double and entered his 
    body in a single flight of a thought. He felt the pain and hatred 
    that filled the mind of Judge and struggled to control his tongue and 
    his dark thoughts. The efforts he made were overwhelming, the powers 
    fighting each other were nearly equal. If not for the United minds 
    that gave him such might, his plan would fail.
        "What is your decision, Judge ?" he heard the voice of Ezoxu.
    Balancing on the edge of conscience he managed to say with the
    Judge's lips, "I think the cause is unjust. I order Toxxar to leave
    our world forever." His mind was no longer able to sustain the
    pressure upon the Judge's struggling mind.
        "So be it," Ezoxu said and stood up. "Toxxar, you must obey the 
    decision of Judge. Every one heard the decision. I, the Guardian, 
    announce this decision to be taken into account immediately."
        Nlaminer left the furiously defending being of Judge and fled to 
    the Gate. Having crossed it he heard a call for help. Rhissa was in 
    danger, too. He collected the rest of his strength and wished with 
    all his heart Rhissa to become near him, whatever was happening to 
                                 *    *    *
        "So you called for me ?" a dark and furious figure asked her. She 
    stood her ground with mace ready. The eyes of the false Toxxar flared 
    with insane fire. "Nobody will threaten me and get away with it. Tell 
    me what you know if you want to save your life.  Her friend will not 
    help you. " And the spirit grinned.
        Rhissa felt terror for a moment... then she understood the
    Stranger did not know about Nlaminer presence. Nlaminer was
    struggling, using enormous power to fight something. But he was 
    alive. So they did have a chance.
        "Try catch me," she said and readied herself to strike demonic 
    opponent. "You tried to trick all the gods. You failed.  They will 
    not trust the one who struck the innocent."
        "I was defending your world together with all your coward gods !" 
    Toxxar cried suddenly and a crown of lightning fell around him. "I 
    was deprived of anything a god can be deprived of. Everyone forgot 
    me. All pretended I never existed at all. Who you call the innocent 
    ?" He raised his hand and a silver sword appeared in it.
        "Not even gods can live forever," Rhissa answered. "You are 
    afraid for you life ? You, claiming yourself to be a god ? A god is 
    alive as long as anyone remembers him. You were remembered. And yet 
    you think it was unjust that you had lost all your devotees ? Tell me 
    then who is guilty ?"
        A sword was raising high above her. "I'm tired of talking," 
    Stranger said. "You believe your spirit cannot be destroyed ? I will 
    prove you the contrary. I am stronger than any existing god, and you 
    will see that... if I grant you right to return from Nowhere."
        "No !" she cried and aimed a blow at his chest. The mace struck 
    Stranger with all the might she could find and the sword fell from 
    his hand.  Toxxar made a step back, he emitted a cry of pain and 
    growled terribly. Rhissa saw him becoming a giant. His hatred was 
    darkness that enveloped them both. Her mind was pressed so violently 
    she felt she had only several moments before she will be crushed 
    under fury of this creature. 'Nlaminer !' she called with all her 
    strength. Toxxar laughed. His laughter boomed like a mighty thunder. 
    Mountains fell apart when this laughter rolled over them.
        And suddenly Rhissa disappeared. She felt dizzy...  Then it was 
    Nlaminer that stood above her. He touched her arm and her wounded 
    mind brightened again. She listened; a roar, mad and horrible, was 
    approaching them.
        'We'll have to flee,' Nlaminer said, 'I have little energy left.
    Please, Rhissa, move us anywhere from this place.' They united again
    and the comet of their spirits fell through the Road, to some another
    layer of the Realm.
        'How it was ?' Rhissa asked him while they were falling into one
    of the whirlpools leading outside.
        'It was nice,' he answered faintly and managed to laugh. 'We have
    the only task now. To survive.'
        The whirlpool engulfed them and threw down, down, down, into
    unknown and mysterious world.
                            Chapter 13. Fugitives
        It was sunset.
        The sky was deep blue, purple in hue around the spot where the 
    sun should disappear the next minute.
        There was an island where they stayed now. A small circle of 
    land, abundant with plants and trees, full of small rodent-like 
    animals and birds singing beautiful songs.
        Each evening they built fire, sat near it and stared at sunset. 
    They lived here for two weeks now and nothing wrong was still about 
    this place.
        The two adventurers had now time enough to speak on any subject 
    they could remember. But they rarely did so; they mostly sat and 
    looked. They sensed they need not to speak. Many things were obvious 
    and known. Only the memory of their solitary adventures was 
    fascinating for the other. And while they were not expecting an 
    impulse to leave this island and jump into some other reality they 
    felt themselves at piece. The events they went through did not offer 
    them much rest anyway.
        "We need some permanent solution," Nlaminer said after they
    jumped into third reality during the same day. "We cannot flee
    forever and we could make up something to defeat the false god."
        "We should know where to go to," Rhissa said. "This jumper moves
    us at random." She meant the portal generator. It turned out to be an
    extremely useful device. It was getting energy from the environment;
    its full charge was enough to set up about eight portals one after
    another. The only thing they could not work out was how to make the
    device to move them into some desired reality. They were sure that
    they will be moved into a world with appropriate conditions to live
    in. Nothing more.
        "And he follows us every time we use our magic abilities,"
    Nlaminer said. "Nice situation. But there should be a possibility to
    take him by surprise."
        "That means we know where his place is exactly."
        "And he waits us in both Wisdom and Art domains."
        "And I cannot invoke to deities without attracting him 
    immediately," Rhissa concluded. She was right. They had time enough 
    to flee into a portal hastily set, when hordes of black shadow guards 
    appeared out of nowhere. It happened each time they tried to use 
    their mental abilities.
        "Have we anything he cannot detect ?" Nlaminer said. "I still
    have my Voice, but it rarely visits me now."
        "I have my clerical skills, but they are limited if I am meant
    not to attract his sentinels. I can heal wounds, I know several
    useful alchemist recipes. That's all."
        Nlaminer sighed. "I see. But I feel the answer is somewhere near,
    very near. If only gods would help us !"
        "Gods have no intentions to deal with the false god," Rhissa
    objected. "We have changed our own reality... well, you changed
    mostly... and that's how we see our future. Beyond that, gods will
    not bother to save us or the like. Nobody forced us to deal with the
    false god; and it is up to us to find the way out."
        "Pity," Nlaminer murmured. "I would make anything to put an end
    to that ill and mad being. Besides, he could keep his promise and
    begin desroying our races."
        "Gods will not allow his demons to enter their dominions," Rhissa
    replied firmly.
        "He has a way to change the very laws that control the gods."
    Nlaminer objected. "Thus he could trick them. After we have ruined
    his plans to return bakc to his dominion - well, the real god's
    dominion - he should be very angry indeed."
        "How do you know about that ?" Rhissa asked, intrugued. "You told
    that before, but I never asked you again."
        "I studied some books at the Theater," Nlaminer replied simply.
    "There were... well, there are many books there. At last I have found
    a reference to similar problems. When mortals are able to trick
    the laws of the Universe and acquire godlike abilities for a while."
    He reached for his ironwood staff. "And I brought several souvenirs
    from the Theater... this staff, for example."
        "By the way, why did you make so many notches on your staff ? How
    ling did you stay there anyway ?"
        "Notches ? A notch for every day passed."
        "What ?!" Rhissa began to count them. It took more than half an
    hour. "It makes... about fourteen years ?!"
        Nlaminer nodded. "I could leave and find you only when I would 
    have written the whole history of my life. So I did. No other way.  
    The Theater is somewhere in a Tunnel. Then I opened a door and saw 
    your footprints in the dust. This is how I'd found you."
        Rhissa looked at him and sat nearer. "You had saved my life 
    again. Should I stay there any longer..." She looked the other way 
    but Nlaminer felt a flow of energy coming from her hand. It warmed 
    his soul.
        "It was terrible to sit there all these years," Nlaminer went on.
    "I will tell you the whole story some time. First week I was sure you
    are in dire trouble, for I felt something... inside me..."
        "I understand," Rhissa said quietly. "I felt the same."
        "Then Uaron had told me, 'Any time you think about her, you let 
    the time flow here. You should forget her for the time being.  
    Otherwise you could as well never see her again.' It was even more 
    hard, NOT to think about you. Remember you, but do not think. I was 
    at the edge of a breakdown those days, but I had soon found a way to 
    do what I want without letting the time flow."
        "Tell me the whole story, Nlaminer."
        "To spend fourteen years more ?" he smiled. "Well, I think I
    will do that part by part. Should we build fire now ?"
                                 *    *    *
        They were building a house. However long would be their stay
    here, it was hardly proper for them to have no shelter.
        'House' was too loud a name for a shack they were constructing.  
    The only tools were bones and teeth of some sea predator, looking 
    like sharks of their native world. They had hard time fighting it, 
    but its long and sharp teeth were quite handy to cut small trees and 
    vines.  The work added more sense to their imprisonment here, and 
    kept them alive and alert.
        After their jumper had accumulated energy enough to throw them 
    further, Nlaminer ventured to cast several simplest spells. No side 
    results followed; Rhissa detected no spies afterwards and nobody came 
    for them out of black boiling gate.
        "I suppose it is a projection of a spirit his minions are looking
    for," Nlaminer added. "When I cast simple spells, I force only the
    slightest part of my mind to visit the Wisdom Realm. As far as I see
    this part is too small to be detected."
        They were finishing the roof at the moment. She jumped down and
    said agitated, "An excellent idea ! Why, the gods smile at us,
    Nlaminer, for we are a Cleric and a Wizard. Do you know about spirit
    traveling ?"
        Nlaminer shook his head.
        "That's a simple trick. Many foretellers use that; it's dangerous 
    and many people do not know how much they risk performing that.  I 
    will explain shortly. That's a way to push someone's mind into the 
    Realm and withdraw it then back. Cleric uses his power just to open a 
    gate to the Realm. You see what I mean ?"
        "Well... not everything." Nlaminer confessed. "You can push me
    into the Realm ? What then ?"
        "Then you will travel to some god and ask for help."
        Nlaminer thought. The idea seemed to be both simple and
    effective... if only their opponent didn't know his "spiritual smell"
    as well as Rhissa's.
        "What are the chances I will not be pursued ?"
        Rhissa shrugged.
        "Nobody knows. When I was fighting the false god out there, he
    didn't know you are somewhere close. I hope he suppose you to be a
    pure Wizard. Otherwise we will have to live here forever... or jump
    until we find his place," she stressed 'his'. They never called
    Toxxar by name. Methods to hear one's name were too simple for any
    godlike creature. "I suppose both the choices are equally vain."
        Nlaminer nodded. "And how we will do this... spirit traveling ?"
        Rhissa closed her eyes for a while and frowned. "Well, I never
    learnt this trick in all details. We will wait here until I recall
    all the intrinsics of that. Besides, I had to control the speed
    with which I enter the Realm. Funny, I never tried to do that before.
    Who could suggest this would be useful !"
        Nlaminer sighed and said. "Well, I will go and hunt, I think. It
    will be rain later in the evening."
                                 *    *    *
        It took actually several days before Rhissa prepared all
    necessary potions and trained enough to master a spiritual travel.
        It was then that a simple question came into Nlaminer's head.
        "By the way, what god I should address ?"
        This question put another problem immediately.
        "You think..." Rhissa thought quickly, "That he can trace any
    contact with the gods that were present at the Judgement ?"
        Nlaminer nodded. "Why not ? He's very suspicious; he would blame
    any of them in what had occurred at the ceremony."
        Rhissa put aside her diary and sat thinking for several moments.
        "Then describe each deity you saw there. Be exact, please; I know
    much of the gods, but not everything."
        And Nlaminer began to describe all the fantastic figures he
    beheld the very moment he entered the shining Hall of Judgement.
        Rhissa nodded.
        "I see. As far as I know, only three gods we know about were
    not present at the ceremony. And I am not glad to say their names;
    because it will be extremely hard to deal with them."
        "Who are they anyway ?"
        "First, Zartin, Lord of Dragons."
        "Dragons ?" Nlaminer felt his heart to beat quicker. "I wonder
    why he paid no attention to the Judgement ?"
        Rhissa smiled. "He seldom visits meetings if he considers them
    trifling and there is no dire threat to his subjects. Mostly they are
    Dragons... well, maybe Drakes, too. That's why it will be extremely
    hard to obtain his help."
        "And the other two ?"
        "Those are chaotic deities. Kundi and Yanati. They possess powers
    far beyond those of the other gods... But the prices they demand are
    hard to pay. Sometimes it takes several lifespans to pay the whole
        "And I should try to learn where the false god dwells."
        Rhissa nodded again.
        "There should be other Tunnels leading to such a place - as the 
    one we had visited, Ezoxu place, - and back. I know nothing specific 
    Tunnels. Probably entrances can lie in the Realms, both yours and 
    mine. Probably not. I was never interested in such things before."
        Nlaminer sat silent for a couple of minutes.
        "Well, I prefer Zartin," he said at last, "He can be hard to talk
    to, but I dislike Chaos even more. I would better spend several years
    persuading Zartin, whatever terms he would offer."
        "As you wish," Rhissa nodded. "I want to warn you, though. Lord 
    of Dragons is a creature of mood. One time he will grant you anything 
    you wouls ask. Another time he will not listen to you for all the 
    treasure of Palnor. This is a thing I cannot help you with. And keep 
    in mind: you can be only sincere talking to gods. They read your mind 
    as clearly as you read your books."
        "Let's begin, then." Nlaminer tried to look ready amd alert. It
    was hard; something annoying stirred deep within his inner self and
    he still was unable to understand what it was.
        "Listen and remember," Rhissa began. "Here is the prayer that
    will guide you to Zartin..."
                                 *    *    *
        When it happened, Nlaminer body became heavier and lifeless. His
    heart was beating, yes, and he was breathing... well, his body was
        Rhissa sat looking at his spiritless husk. A body would exist as
    long as there was energy enough to support it. After the spirit was
    thrown into the Realm, body entered kind of lethargy state. It slowed
    down all the processes and to almost any person spiritual traveler
    would seem to be dead.
        She sat motionless, her head still ringing with her own 
    heartbeats. The potions they had drank were mighty mind stimulators. 
    It was a middle of night now, but her eyes were so acute she felt as 
    it was the brightest daylight.  Her ears heard all whispers and 
    whistling of the night jungle and a tumult of smells was making her 
    reel still more.
        She felt as if terrible weight fell from her soul. A great
    oppression vanished; it was nearly physical sensation, so might and
    unexpected it was. She turned in terror to Nlaminer body; but it was
    alive and his spirit was still existing, too. And yet something dark
    and sinister moved farther when the mind of her friend had gone into
    weird depths of the Realm.
        She stood up. An energy, wild and almost uncontrollable, filled
    every little part of her being. She felt as if her mind had just
    been released from a dark and terrible dungeon, back to sunlight,
    flowers and life. She looked at her hands; bluish glow was gathering
    all around them. What happened to her ? Where was this strange energy
    coming from ?
        She looked at Nlaminer body and shivered; a dark and evil 
    creature sat by the tree. Not her friend any more, but a grinning 
    monster, emanating destruction and menace with its very presence.
        She touched her hand to a cold and limp hand of the stranger
    sitting in front of her and a roaring explosion came from somewhere.
    Her vision waved and became transparent; some other world was
    advancing upon her. She closed her eyes and waited.
                                 *    *    *
        She saw several worlds at once; one was that peaceful green 
    island they were hiding at. Another world was undoubtedly the Realm, 
    but no dark shadows were awaiting her spirit. And another world, 
    where she was right now mixed with the previous two.  She 
    concentrated and the third world became solid and vivid. The other 
    two became barely sensible and far away.
        They stood there, Nlaminer and she herself; they were lifeless
    statues, exact to the smallest detail but lifeless all the same. Only
    the faintest mind radiation came out of these figures.
        A hall, great and made of fine crystal was around them.  Night 
    stars were its roof; winds were its hosts. Marvellous landscape was 
    seen through transparent walls and music, gentle and beatiful 
    descended from above.
        She saw her parents, her children and some unrecognizable figures 
    standing around the two of them. They were like statues, too.  Rhissa 
    didn't move; she realized her own presence was bodiless, yet she 
    could 'walk' here. She saw dozens and dozens creatures, that 
    surrounded them in wider circles. Who were they ? Why were they 
    standing here ?
        'They are all bound to you,' a voice whispered in the wind.  
    Rhissa looked up but saw nobody. 'They depend on you. Surely you know 
    that ?'
        She saw more and more creatures, all of them vaguely familiar, of
    many races, Haans, Marrkes, Humans, Dwarves, some of them long dead
    but famous, others still living. There was no end to this flow. She
    saw faces, postures, outlines... All the world, any creature known to
    her was here, no doubt.
        'But why they are here ?' she asked and her voice rang in tiny
    invisible bells. Another touch of the wind, another word coming with
        'You judge their fate,' the voice told her, barely audible words, 
    like falling leaves, 'Ask me no more... Just come and sense all that 
    troubles them.'
        And she felt her mysterious host did slip away with endless winds
    swirling in this vast space.
        She saw a figure of her first child, Sumar Thalasshes ans Rhissa, 
    standing close to her. He was no more a small and curious Haans, 
    always coming to places he wasn't supposed to come to. He was a 
    Cleric Guard now, Second Priest of Naata, with all the signs of his 
    rank inscribed on the medallion he wore. Where was he now ?  She felt 
    warmth coming from his strong and ironic image; children were always 
    United to their parents, though they never made full use of that 
    link. Rhissa came nearer to Sumar figure and felt he was still alive.
        She touched his image and another world came upon her, engulfing 
    her senses and bringing peace and calmness.
                                 *    *    *
        Unlike their closest relative, Hanssa race, Haans could control
    almost all aspect of their existence. Even a reproductive urge, coming
    each six years was under control. Female Haans could beget a child
    almost any time. Controlling their animal side, Haans considered
    there should be important reasons for any Haans to have children.
        Their laws and traditions could allow a pair of Haans to bring up
    their children only if they could support them and teach them of all
    relevant knowledge. It was a tradition that children of Priests
    would become Priests, too. It wasn't a strict rule, of course;
    Rhissa's parents were Craftsmen. Only those Haans possessing
    wisdom and balance enough could give birth to children.
        No families existed as other races understood them. The Union and 
    all other spiritual links were much stronger and would always be more 
    reliable than any other bonds. The Union could not be tricked or 
    anything; Haans could not Unite if they were not in necessary harmony 
    of minds.
        Rhissa saw herself with Sumar, in the days when he was three 
    years old. Haans grow up quickly. Young Sumar was very eager to learn 
    spiritual matters. It was not unusual for Haans to become priests or 
    other cult servants, though this profession did not make a majority. 
    When he would be taught everything necessary to survive in this harsh 
    world, he would leave his parents and all three of them would resume 
    their paths.
        But it was still in the future; Rhissa sat with Sumar on
    top of the tower overlooking their small island. Mostly he wandered 
    by himself, always close to Rhissa. At times, though, they sat side 
    by side and she told him stories about past, tales of heroic deeds 
    and fables. Sumar switched his attention easily. He could spend days 
    at his father's study, learning to read and browsing through thick 
    tomes of lore. Then he could reappear and they could wander again, 
    underground or above, talking to each other and opening doors to the 
    world of images and tales.
        Seven years passed in a flash. Rhissa was two hundred and five 
    years old when Sumar was hatched and thus quite young from the Haans' 
    viewpoint. Yet this experience was very powerful, and with every 
    child's mind attached to her own, she felt more and more power 
    raising within her.
        She had six children more until she met Nlaminer eighty years
                                 *    *    *
        She came out of a dream of the past. Sumar image was looking at
    her, she heard winds and her heartbeats again. My blessing, she
    thought and touched the stonelike hand of Sumar again.
        Then she turned to other children of hers, to her parents and all
    other Haans standing around. Several of them were dead now, but she
    felt nothing wrong about them.
        She studied briefly two formidable Marrkes statues right behind 
    the one depicting Nlaminer itself. They could be his parents. One of 
    them was tall and strong male, in leather armor and with a starlike 
    medallion on his chest. His eyes sparkled, a good humor prevailed all 
    about his countenance and Rhissa felt sympathy at once.  When she 
    touched the statue she realized Nlaminer's father has passed away. 
    She prayed for him and turned to Nlaminer's mother.
        A female Marrkes looked powerful, too. Only her furless face and 
    finer features told she was of another gender. She was alive, though. 
    Rhissa felt her somewhere far beyond this reality. Rhissa knew her 
    name at once, but did not venture to share her other memories; it 
    would be more improper than to overhear one's words.  Nlaminer's 
    mother was in perfect health; she was sure her son was alive and that 
    was enough. I will tell him, Rhissa thought, when we are together 
        And then she faced Nlaminer himself. She touched his warm stone
    hand and a world lit by flowing lava opened to her.
                        Chapter 14. Thought of Zartin
        ...A world lit by flowing lava surrounded him...
        This time he felt himself vulnerable and open again; powerful
    gift from the Theater could not amplify his powers any more. This 
    time he was on his own; free spirit, drawn from his body and released 
    in the place where all living creatures could meet one another.
        He was floating in the sky - or it wasn't a sky at all ? - amidst
    the brilliant soft clouds, enjoying the sensations of freedom and
    calmness. He was being lured to float endlessly here, to abandon all
    his quests and duties, to rest here forever. But it would be too easy
    a way. After several weeks of being a fugitive he could not fall prey
    to such simple tricks.
        He remembered the words of a prayer (Rhissa called it 'Thought of
    Zartin') and the unspoken words began to flow in his mind. He grew
    more assured and strong as the words of power were passing through
    his mind. He saw the surrounding clouds to become more red, to darken
    and swirl...
        "Alhaes thena oli Zartin bethaval..."
        Then he heard bells ringing and understood his Voice was
    somewhere near. In this realm, where all thoughts could materialize
    into a sensible and visible forms, all words could be words of power,
    if uttered correctly.
        "...keavel fin Ariden solajen..."
        A lava-spitting abyss replaced peaceful green meadows below. Hot
    air flew upwards, bringing reddish sparks and roaring of mighty
    underworld forces. Clouds vanished; air was like melting glass -
    filled with ephemeral images, dancing, disappearing and coming out of
    nothing. Air ran slowly, it was thick and viscous and beautiful
    landscape turned into a hellish sight.
        "...faloinh kennawas uanot saleg."
        A floor came from below; it was warm, too. Quite tolerable to
    walk, but reminding of terrible power dozing somewhere beneath. He
    was in a corridor built of melted stone. Dragon heads, modelled in
    obsidian with ruby eyes were grinning at him. Every several paces
    they were, placed on the walls, giving him room barely to advance.
        Nlaminer realized he had a body once again; not anything of his
    possessions, but just his own body. He felt rather uncomfortable in
    this hot environment, but there was no other way. Wind stopped
    blowing; deep humming filled the twisting passages and sourceless
    light fell around, allowing no shadow to be cast.
        Nlaminer moved along. There was no directions here; one way was
    as good as another. He preferred not to choose and simply walked the
    path he was facing.
        Echo followed him; several times he thought someone else was
    creeping up behind him. He turned around - nobody. But spirits of
    shadows were twinkling around him, and shadows of voices were
    whispering in his ears. And his Voice left him altogether.
        He touched one of the obsidian heads; he thought he heard hollow
    laughter rolling behind his back. Then the sensation passed. He
    stood, listening and looking around; no form came round the corner
    and no spoken word met his hearing, too.
        Something was wrong here. He was far away from Rhissa's buoyant
    spirit; some dark and malignant creatures stirred inside him. What
    were they ? Why they were here ? For a moment he understood Rhissa
    cannot help him any more; he was alone here, surrounded by eerie
    silence and stone grins of the dragon heads.
        "I am alone," he whispered, ready to dart down the corridor,
    half-expecting some horrible shadow float to meet him.
        Then he heard several voices, talking at the same time,
    different, alien, mocking his own voice. 'Alone... alone... alone...'
    they repeated and laughed.
        "Who are you ?" he asked, feeling ashamed and angry. There was
    nothing here that could actually harm him, and yet he was afraid some
    irrational, ancient fear. What on earth was happening right now ?
    Voices imitated his question and laughed again. He turned around
    abruptly; was it some shadowlike figure that retreated round the
    nearest corner or it was just a trick of light and his own
    imagination ?
        He looked at his hands and opened wide his eyes. Hands were
    oscillating between several forms. They were his own furry hands...
    then they melted into bronze-like strong hands of some other humanoid
    creature... they were turning into reptile hands, into wing-like Tafu
    hands, into dragon paws and there was no end to these
    transformations. He touched his face; he was shocked, as there was
    several sensations relative to one another; as if several Nlaminers
    touched their cheeks at the same instant and felt one another's
        I am losing my mind, he thought desperately. Hold, he ordered 
    himself, stop changing. I am Nlaminer rad Haorrst, of Marrkes origin, 
    thrown into an alien world. He repeated the words that were the only 
    link between the world of real things and the one of nightmares. But 
    the weird process did not stop.
        He walked along. This was even more confusing, for there was
    Nlaminer-Marrkes, proceeding on his feet, and there was
    Nlaminer-Tafu, flying on his wings, there were crawling, jumping and
    whatever possible other Nlaminers moving to the same goal, led by the
    same mind... or it was many minds combined into one ?
        "Zartin !" he shouted with all the strength he could muster,
    "Lord of Dragons, I ask for your help !"
        Walls shook and fell like a card house. He was in another room
    now; it was still red and hot, but there was no dragon heads on its
    walls... and no ceiling. Purple sky stared at him out of its myriads
    of stars.
        "You are tiresome, mortal," he heard a bright resonant voice. A
    wild energy came from this voice, and walls were illuminated with
    many hues of red color as this voice touched them. "Am I supposed to
    answer your silly questions ? I am no predictor. If you will not turn
    back, then you will feel my curse very soon. OUT !!" the voice boomed
    and Nlaminer felt as if fierce scalding wind was blowing his being
    away; several of his new Nlaminer parts were thrown into a dark abyss
    that opened behind his back. But most of him remained where he was
    and he heard terrible hissing coming out of the mighty throat. Now
    Zartin (and Nlaminer was quite sure it was him) will accurse him... A
    nice addition to their problems...
        "You were not at the Judgement, O Lord of Dragons," Nlaminer
    heard his own voice, steady and strong. Strange, it was not his own
    voice, but who was speaking with his mouth ?
        "Judgement ?" a question was nearly visible; the owner of the
    majestic voice had a power giving visible shapes to spoken words.
    "How do you know that ?"
        "We, I and my friend, tricked the one naming himself Toxxar and
    we are chased right now. You are our only hope, Zartin the Great. I
    would not like to rely on Chaos. Whatever the price you will demand,
    I am ready to pay it."
        He stopped after this awkward speech was spoken and waited.
        "Amazing," Zartin replied with hardly concealed interest, "Name
    yourself, and then I will talk to you."
        "I am Nlaminer rad Haorsst, a Marrkes," he began and saw a
    humanlike figure materializing in the room. The 'Human' had deep,
    blazing eyes and dark skin. Even in his human form, Zartin emanated
    power and vigor, and his voice made the wall creak and wave.
        Nlaminer paused. "I can tell you the whole story, Lord of
    Dragons, though it could take several years. Actually, we need a help
    to discover a hideout of the creature imitating the god Toxxar. He
    can disclose our camp any moment; my friend out there brought me
    here to talk to you."
        Zartin smiled. His smile was mysterious and unreadable. "You can
    tell me the whole story later. I am fond of stories... well, I like
    bravery and jewelry even more,.. as you could suspect..." a tiny hiss
    was heard. Zartin was laughing. "... but I am quite impressed. I
    thought you ventured to ask my advice... I hate those silly fortune
    tellers and am merciless to them." He smiled again, this time his
    smile was deadly cold.
        "But we need your advice, Lord of Dragons," Nlaminer insisted. "I
    cannot call it something else."
        "And if I refuse ?"
        "Then I will persuade you until you either smite us to death or
    agree to help us. We are fugitives; we changed the Balance in our
    world and we need to eliminate the danger, to the end."
        "You hate this so-called Toxxar, I see," Zartin said, "I can
    understand that. But my prices are very high, Nlaminer rad Haorsst. I
    am always insatiable with heroic deeds and adventures. What if I
    demand of you the adventures you never thought of ? Will you risk
    your life to fulfil your promise to me ?"
        Nlaminer did not hesitate. "I will."
        "And your friend ?"
        Nlaminer shrugged. "Our lives have different paths to follow. I
    cannot promise for her. She has her own god, her own race and her own
    goals. I can guarantee I will take any adventure, if you like them."
        "I feel you are not cheating. Good. But tell me again, why do you
    hate your enemy ?"
        "Hate," Nlaminer repeated and stood silent. Yes, he hated the
    foul and mad creature indeed. And this was strange. He never felt
    that emotion for long; it never controlled his soul. Something 
    awakened in him; he heard bells ringing again. His Voice was coming 
    to help him.
        "I cannot tell you why," he replied to Zartin. They were standing
    on a green meadow now, with green trees all around and gentle breeze
    coming from above. "I think something happened to me... but I cannot
    even guess what."
        "Look," Zartin came nearer and touched his forehead. "Turn
    around, Nlaminer and see what is following you."
        Nlaminer felt dazzling light penetrating his skull and turned.
    And the sky grew bloody again.
                                 *    *    *
        This was the very moment Rhissa saw with Nlaminer's eyes. She was
    terrified as much as she never was in her whole life. Shadows, the
    whole horde of them, were gathering behind Nlaminer. They were
    patient and invisible to normal eye, but now they were coming to her
    vision, ghastly, ugly, full of hatred and thirsty to slay anything
    that would oppose them. Rhissa saw footprints of Nlaminer and
    numberless rows of dark creatures coming right after him. Where they
    were - in the nearby reality, separated by the thinnest barrier, or
    securely far - it was impossible to say. But they did not escape the
    attention of their foe. How long will he wish to play with them ?
        They were the parasites that drained his mind, she realized. And
    that's why she felt so strong after the contact with Nlaminer was
    broken. They are dragging him back; how long will he last ?
        She saw several nearest monsters moved uneasily. They feel me,
    she thought, they feel my clerical essence. Their shadow eyes were
    trying to see the enemy that was hidden somewhere and couldn't be
        She made a desperate effort and found herself lying on the sand,
    clutching at it and gasping for air. Nlaminer, still dark and alien,
    was sitting motionlessly.
        She sat beside him, with portal generator ready. They couldn't
    take all their possessions... well, she couldn't help that. If their
    enemy realizes what they are planning, the end to his play can
    come very quickly.
                                 *    *    *
        "These are servants of your enemy," Zartin told him. "They are
    feeding upon your hatred, despair, all dark side of your nature.
    Would you like to see what you have forgotten by now ?"
        Nlaminer nodded. He felt himself terrible. He couldn't say
    anything; his courage deserted him.
        "Close your eyes," he was said. Nlaminer obeyed and that very
    moment his mind was split into a million of minds, and thrown into
    different parts of the whole Universe.
        He felt himself thousand creatures at once.
        He was sailing a great ship; in quest for some mysterious
    treasure buried long ago and forgotten.
        He was digging through the stone with his mighty spade-like
    forepaws. He was building a huge town with a band of helpers.
        He was fighting mighty demons and his weapons were shining like a
    fierce small sun; he defended all that were dear to him; he protected
    the Balance, the principle of principles.
        He was male, female, sexless... He was everything at the same
    time and nothing at all. He was a momentary thought and a great long
    age. He was the time itself and knew everything of the Universe.
        But he was not overpowered by these visions, sensations and all
    the other feelings he couldn't even name. He felt himself in strange
    but perfect harmony with all of this; he was everywhere and nowhere.
        Then all of this ended.
        "Do you understand ?" Zartin asked him again. Nlaminer's mind was
    still befogged. But he fought through the fog and nodded...
    uncertain though he was.
        "I wouldn't expect to see such a guest," Zartin was talking with
    much more relevance now. "You are a wonderful being, Nlaminer. I
    think this is why you are still alive. Your enemy conquered many
    parts of you person, but not all. And your Unity does support the
    very spark that can help you to win."
        "How do you know all of this ?" Nlaminer was shocked. To be in
    frint of a creature reading your mind was... well, improper in some
        The god smiled coolly. "I think you know perfectly well how.
    Well, I think I will help you. I will not tell you where his place
    is, but I will help you anyway."
        The Voice was upon Nlaminer in a moment.
        "A Tunnel ?"
        Zartin looked back. He seemed to be amazed. "How do YOU know ?"
        "You want to show us a Tunnel to him ?"
        Zartin was Lord of Dragons indeed. He calmed his surprise. "Yes,
    I will guide you there. But I have several terms to be fulfilled."
        Nlaminer felt his throat dry and pricky.
        "Please tell me," he said in hoarse voice. Something told him
    Zartin will demand something very hard to do.
        "First, you will be allowed to enter the place I talked about
    when you regain your Balance and feel yourself whole."
        Whole. Split. He began to understand what had happened... his
    double, Nlaminer the Judge... was he a part of him ? Was there any
    other parts ? His Voice was simple and emotionless. Yes, there are,
    it told him. They are trapped inside your hatred and anger. They are
    closing your eyes and deafening your ears.
        "Second, Nlaminer. You will never enter the world you were born
        Nlaminer was so surprised, his surprise was near to rage now.
        "Why ?"
        "Because I want it to be that way."
        Nlaminer stood silent for a long time. The dream of all his life
    was to be forgotten now. Never to visit his homeworld. What to do
    then ? What is the sense to live, if you are forbidden to fulfil your
    dream, so near now, so sweat ?
        "I agree," he heard still another voice of him, speaking
    unthinkable promise. His whole self was crying 'No !' but his lips
    answered affirmatively. Zartin looked at his face, and added.
        "And the last. You are in debt now, Nlaminer. You'll have to
    undertake the adventures I will demand of you. Do not ask me how much
    you'll have to complete. I will see myself."
        "And you should enter the dwelling of your enemy barehanded,"
    Zartin finished.
        "Barehanded ? You want me to fight with no weapon ??"
        "Toys," said Lord of Dragons, "I give you weapon much more
    powerful. I give you Thought, not your toys you call weapons. Do not
    tell me I am wrong, Nlaminer. I take offense easily."
        "As you wish," and yet another part of Nlaminer bowed before
    Zartin, who smiled at him and waved his hand. "Good-bye," he replied.
    "I wish you luck."
                                 *    *    *
        Rhissa woke up in a flash. The fire was almost dead; Nlaminer,
    still cold and barely breathing, was sitting beside. But something
    was advancing them, at a tremendous speed.
        She grabbed their packs, got held of Nlaminer limp hand and
    readied the portal generator. Light was coming from the zenith; it
    flew in large cascade, in rainbows, with millions of colors and this
    light was falling upon them. She stood bathing in this strange 
    glowing when she felt a movement in the Realm. In the same instant, a 
    shadow Nlaminer stood up, separating from Nlaminer body and stared at 
    her coldly. She stood frozen, unable to speak, unable to move. The 
    creature made a step to her and then was washed away by powerful 
    rainbows.  Another shadow came out of Nlaminer, and one more. They 
    were drowning in the falling shining... and then, with no sign of it, 
    Nlaminer returned back to his body.
        He smiled faintly to Rhissa, who was still grasping his hand, now
    warm and alive, and said only, "I agreed to fulfil his demands. They
    were too great for me... but I agreed."
        And he fell asleep on the spot.
                       Chapter 15. The Ethereal Bridge
        "You are frightening me," Rhissa told him once after they
    finished their combat lesson.
        Nlaminer sat under a tree and smiled back. "I am frightened
    myself," he replied. "I never dreamt to have such skills."
        This time they made their camp in a warm, but mostly lifeless
    world, where they lived at a small archipelago, comprising eight
    tiny islands.
        They jumped there immediately after Nlaminer woke up. Rhissa told
    him something was changing in the Realm. They did not wait for
    emissars of the false god.
        Nlaminer felt no oppression now. Was it some Zartin magic or
    anything else, but he discovered world again. He was writing songs,
    travelling across islands, he seemed to be reborn. They knew they
    were not safe, and Nlaminer proposed that they would continue their
    combat training.
        He wasn't a clumsy novice any more. Rhissa was brilliant at maces
    and staves, but she was far below his present abilities. Nlaminer was
    quite another creature now - thoughtful, concentrated, but quick and
    vigorous. When they began their first fight in this world Rhissa was
    defeated ten times out of ten.
        Rhissa couldn't understand where her friend took this
    extraordinary energy, knowledge, vigor. He only smiled when he was
    asked. During their second combat lesson she saw something that made
    her not only surprised but terrified.
        They were fighting with ironwood staves. After a series of
    maneuvres Rhissa tricked his defense and was about to touch him with
    a knob - to indicate a hit - when she saw Nlaminer outlines changed
    for a moment... he became combined from several different
    creatures... she saw all of them melting together again and in the
    next instant he half-turned gracefully and disarmed her.
        "There," he said, with his staff raised above her. "That's what
    Zartin has given me. He calls that Thought."
        "I am astonished," Rhissa said, wide-eyed, and indeed she was.
    "How could you impress him so much to receive such gift ?"
        Nlaminer shrugged. "I told you everything. I thought someone else
    was speaking with my lips... as if several separate Nlaminers were
    dwelling inside my mind. When I was weak, they helped me to speak
    to the god."
        "I think I saw your other selves," Rhissa whispered. "Right now,
    when we fought."
        "Tell me," Nlaminer asked. After Rhissa described her vision, he
    dropped his weapon and sat on the ground.
        "This is wonderful," Rhissa added. "If we manage to return home
    you will be a living legend. A mortal who spoke to the gods
    themselves and has been given many gifts from them." she saw a shadow
    passing across his face, "Something bothers you," she said and sat
    near him. "What is it ?"
        "To return home," Nlaminer echoed. "He forbid me to return to my
        "What ?!"
        Nlaminer repeated Zartin's words.
        Rhissa shook her head and added,
        "It's hard to understand gods. You can only be sure in one thing.
    Zartin would not try to trick you."
        The shadow left and Nlaminer turned to her, smiling.
        "You are right. We will confront our opponent once more. But when
    we return home, we'll both be living legends." he laughed. "I never
    thought I could take such hazards ! They are not yet passed, but the
    whole story's enough to write a wonderful book. Well," he added,
    winking at her, "Probably I will write it some day. I had a good
    training, you know."
        "You are a perfect fighter," Rhissa added. "Why do you insist on
    training me ?"
        "You should be able to confront my double," Nlaminer became very
    serious. "The false god has stolen a part of me. The double's my
    mirror. I know he would be glad to destroy you. He cannot harm me.
    But he will venture to kill you."
        "That's impossible !" Rhissa felt despair. "One cannot defeat
    godlike skills."
        Nlaminer took gently her hand and despair was gone.
        "He's a mirror," he said, softly and slowly. "Only a mirror. He
    can only imitate me, nothing more."
        Rhissa was silent.
        "Besides, my Voice, my inner Voice will help you."
        Rhissa looked at him. "How do you..." she stopped abruptly.
        He winked once again. "I know and you know. In the Museum.
    Remember ? You were in trouble and my Voice helped you. Rely on it,
        "But I cannot summon it by will !" she protested.
        He shrugged. "We will train until you can control it. I lost this
    Voice, I think - after my conversation with Zartin I do not sense it.
    But you share this ability, and without it you are doomed. We both
    are doomed."
        After several long minutes Rhissa stood up. It was former Rhissa,
    alert, ironic and quick. "Let's continue," she demanded. "If we are
    meant to return home, I would like to return as soon as possible."
                                 *    *    *
        Days passed quickly. It was always summer here; they woke up
    early in the morning and trained until their strength left them. They
    spent the rest of day as they liked.
        One day Nlaminer sat meditating and Rhissa saw his figure
    transforming into a multitude of strange shapes, every one of them
    being Nlaminer. She felt he longed for his homeworld; the main goal
    of all his previous life was senseless now.  At times she saw him
    truly alien. Tall, fierce like his father, yet kind, sensible and
    well tempered.
        Life is wonderful, she thought. I have to return home and tell
    the quest is over... as soon as we deal with the false god. And I
    will ask to relieve me from my duties. I have done enough. Enough for
    several lives. She lay on warm sand and listened to rustling of
        She closed her eyes. The other mind, strange and mysterious, was
    mixing with her own. We place spirituality above everything else, she
    thought. I think we are too zealous to do that. If one serves
    Balance, whatever path he would choose, it is right. We secluded
    ourselves underground and are invisible to others. Is it right ?
        'I think you will decide for yourself,' she heard familiar voice.
    It was Rmair, old Rmair that was somewhere far beyond this world. How
    could he get here ?
        'Never mind, Rhissa. I saw you closing a Tunnel. You with your
    friend saved many lives. I am proud of you.'
        "It's my duty," she answered. She was afraid to open her eyes. If
    Rmair was speaking to her, he was...
        'Dead ? Only my body is dead, Rhissa. We never die. We can part
    for a while, that's all.'
        She opened her eyes. A grayish shadow was sitting beside her. It
    was Rmair, tall, gray-scaled, wise.
        'We are not secluded, Rhissa. That's how all the others think.
    Every race has its destiny. Sometimes even gods cannot change it.'
        "But mortals can," Rhissa smiled.
        Rmair shrugged. 'Maybe. I sense you are troubled. You are tired
    of your rank, aren't you ?'
        Rhissa was confused. "I sense his troubles and I cannot help
    being troubled, too. He has to choose his path now."
        'You plan to choose yours, then ?'
        Rhissa shook her head. "No. I gave an oath and I will keep it.
    But my oath does not prevent me from helping my friends."
        'You regain your Balance,' Rmair nodded. 'I feel better now. You
    are whole again, you mind is in perfect form. Do as your heart tells
    you.' And Rmair spirit was gone. She saw Nlaminer in his place. He
    was staring at her as if in a dream. Then he stood up and asked,
        "What did I say ?"
        "You said I am whole." Rhissa replied without hesitation. She
    didn't know now whether she spoke to Rmair or Nlaminer. Probably to
    them both.
        "Whole ?" Nlaminer suddenly turned around. A hole, black as
    deepest night, appeared behind his back. He helped Rhissa to stand
        "Time to go," he said. "Are you ready ?"
        She nodded. "I am now."
        They entered the gate, stepping into mysterious and unknown
    depths of a Tunnel. Zartin kept his first promise.
                                 *    *    *
        "It's like a bridge," Rhissa said.
        They stood on great stairs, spanning from unbelievable depths
    under their feet to unthinkable heights above. They could hardly tell
    where 'down' and 'up' were now. No earth, no sky, nothing but endless
    web of stairs stretching in all directions.
        Light, mild and pleasant was dispersed everywhere. Nlaminer smelt
    flower fragrance and freshness; Rhissa smelt sea salt and freshness,
    too. No shadows came around them and gentle breeze blew constantly.
        The bridge they stood upon was no less than twenty feet wide.
    Giddiness fell upon them for an instant and passed. The bridge had no
    railings, yet it seemed safe and sturdy.
        "The Ethereal Bridge," Rhissa added. Puzzled Nlaminer look at her
    but said nothing. "I know it is. Well, what now ?"
        "I do not know. Come along, we have but two ways to go."
        They began to ascend (or descend ?) endless path. It was strange.
    It looked exactly like a staircase but took very little efforts to
    move. It was like in a dream: you floated for a moment, your body
    gained weight again and you stood one stair above.
        "Are we ready to confront the false god ?" Nlaminer asked her
    suddenly. "We have little choice right now. We will be in mortal
    danger. I am no longer afraid to meet him again. And you ?"
        Rhissa reflected for a while. "I think we should visit several
    other deities in case we are defeated. We possess knowledge vital
    for our world."
        Nlaminer nodded. "I see. Do you know how to do that ?"
        Rhissa shook her head. "It will come to me. Let's just walk."
        Nlaminer saw around them, down and up, to the left and to the
    right. Figures passed over other bridges. They were distant, unclear
    and strange. Obviously the two of them were not alone here.
        "The Universe has more facets than I could imagine," he said.
    "How simply it was before ! Deities and mortals, spirits and demons.
    So few types, so obvious. When I knew about Tunnels I felt there is
    knowledge I would never be able to comprehend."
        "The more we know, the more we would like to know," Rhissa
    replied. "My race is very eager to learn more about the Universe. You
    visited one of the greatest sources of wisdom - that Theater, I mean
    - and if you care to visit our sages they would never let you go."
        Nlaminer laughed. "I will tell you the most, then. It will save
    my time and feed you curiosity."
        Rhissa returned a grin. "You will never feed it. I am insatiable,
    too. Uaron, who it is ?"
        Mlaminer did not answer immediately. "He lived in some world
    where they do not use magic; they use science and machines and
    reached wonders."
        Rhissa interrupted. "It's even hard to imagine. That's obvious
    imbalance. If you use machines only, you destroy spirit and life."
        Nlaminer shrugged. "Probably. I know now the only absolute truth:
    there is no absolute truth. Our concepts are correct when applied to
    our reality. They could as well be wrong elsewhere. Anyway he
    discovered an entrance to Twilight Land, a Tunnel he dwells in, and
    managed to create the Theater."
        "Alone ?" Rhissa could not believe that.
        "Alone. He imagined it... and it appeared. He's a peculiar Human.
    Sad, mostly. He is alone there. No gods come to Twilight Land. Mortal
    visitors are rare and they often are treasure hunters."
        "Wherever we live, we are the same," Rhissa murmured. "I wonder,
    can be other places - different from ordinary realities and Tunnels ?
    Did he tell you about that ?"
        "It's better to think there are. Why not ? I thought we can call
    any creature mortal or god. But Uaron, he is neither mortal nor god.
    I think we should allow anything new to exist."
        "How interesting !" Rhissa said, "Pity if we fail to deliver all
    this knowledge back to our world. It's invaluable."
        They walked and walked; bridge coiled into fantastic shapes and
    countless paths passed by, stair-like and not.
                                 *    *    *
        "I know what I will do when all this is over," Nlaminer told her
    several hours later.
        They sat on a small platform floating in the air. No need to
    walk, Rhissa explained. We will move wherever we wish instantly, or
    we could walk eternally and reach nothing. Six bridges started from
    the platform, all of them in different directions. The whole sight
    could drive anyone dizzy. Nlaminer ceased to think how all of them
    supported a walker. It couldn't be explained. It should be accepted
    as it was.
        "What is it ?" Rhissa turned to him. Nlaminer lied on his back
    and stared at something above.
        "I will learn how to travel between realities," Nlaminer
    answered. "I am forbidden to visit only one of them. Many secrets and
    wonders are everywhere. If I have no homeworld any more I will travel
    as far as possible."
        "If you ever need a companion, just tell me," Rhissa replied
    earnestly. "I have many other duties. Sometimes I will need a break."
        "Surely," he replied. He would like to say much more, but it
    wasn't necessary.
        Rhissa sat meditating. Nlaminer did not distract her any more but
    sat writing down his own diary. It was too much to remember than a
    mortal brain could hold.
        After a while she opened her eyes. Nlaminer slept beside, placid
    and undisturbed. He did not change his appearance. He was whole now,
    single entity with several facets melted in one. Was it how all
    Marrkes were ?
        She knew how to move around the Ethereal Bridge. She knew much
    about it; Nlaminer told her something about such places. Moreover,
    gods used to travel by this Tunnel, hence the idea should be very
        She ventured to travel. It was no need to awaken Nlaminer. She
    touched his hand and uttered several words. A melodic sound sang high
    above them, platform shook a bit and vanished. They were at a place
    where bridge ended by an endless wall of stone. Massive door stood
    right in front of her. Runes inscribed over it told her it was an
    entrance to Naata.
        Rhissa left her sleeping friend and opened the door almost
    without efforts. A smell of incense met her, charming and luring. She
    felt the presence of god here, formidable but tranquil. She had a
    brief look at Nlaminer and stepped inside.
                                 *    *    *
        She was alone in grand temple of Naata.
        It was modest and magnificient at the same time.
        Columns rose from the floor. They bloomed in large stone buds 
    high above; elaborate pictures were spanning them. This was no mere 
    temple; it was Temple of Temples. Its walls embraced many thousands 
    years of the cult. Great battles, famous saints, legends and fables 
    were depicted there. Rhissa beheld this beauty and her mind filled 
    with awe. The essence of her god was everywhere. The air she inhaled, 
    the floor she stepped on, the walls she looked at. All of these was 
    Naata, guidelight for dying, wisdom for living.
        She stood inclining her head. Since their departure from the 
    lighthouse she never tried to pray to Naata openly. It was time to 
    recall her duties and strengthen her belief. Because, she thought 
    with a slight taste of bitterness, her life can finish soon, with no 
    chance to be reborn later.
        Strangely, all words that could be relevant in such situation 
    deserted her. All prayers were senseless here. They were meant to 
    draw god's attention. Here the very place was Naata. He always 
    listened to anyone entering here.
        Incense smouldered before Naata's image. She saw his stone eyes. 
    Alive, burning with inner flame, they met hers. Though she was High 
    Priestess and therefore possessed many powers granted by Naata, she 
    never heard his voice. He was Naata the Silent. Death was his domain. 
    Death was the judge that balanced any living creature and chose its 
    path for the next lifespan, provided it were granted. Yet his Priests 
    opposed murder at all cost.
        Many friends of Rhissa wondered why she chose such a dark god. 
    She was joyous, vigorous, alive - and served Naata the Silent, 
    wordless spirit that watched as you finished your mortal way. She 
    held no grudgings to such attacks. She learnt philosophy of Death. It 
    was no trifle and one should accept it with dignity. To fear Death 
    means waste one's time. It will come regardless of what one's doing. 
    Sooner or later. So she just smiled when someone paid outright 
    disregard to Naata.
        She remembered Rmair, his words spoken by Nlaminer lips and felt 
    sorrow for a moment. When she looked again into Naata's eyes she 
    saw him smiling. Barely visible, but smiling. She smiled back and 
    bowed. Even in this extraordinary place Naata remained himself. 
        Rhissa came back bathing in mild white shining. She was radiating 
    that light, though she did not notice it. At the entrance she turned 
    back and left all her diaries lying on the floor. If she does not 
    survive their assault Naata would pass this knowledge to other 
    priests. If she is lucky, she will write them again.
        ...She returned them back on the platform and several seconds 
    later Nlaminer opened his eyes.
        "I saw a beautiful dream," he said. "It was about you."
        'I know that dream,' she thought hiding her smile.
                                 *    *    *
        "I think we should visit Andrynx," Nlaminer offered. They ate all 
    that remained; Rhissa's flask contained again wonderful potion that 
    made them rested in a flash.
        "Let's visit it now," Rhissa replied. "And find the false god at 
    last. I get tired of endless flight."
        Nlaminer nodded. "What should we do ?"
        "Take my hand," she said and he did. She spoke the only word, and 
    a sad voice of flute sang high above. They found themselves standing 
    in front of large white door.
        "Open it," Rhissa said. "He is waiting for us."
        Nlaminer pulled the great door and it opened wide easily. White 
    passage led to a brightly lit hall. All decorated in white and gray 
    it was open to all winds. It was cold and hot there, light and dark, 
    silent and noisy. A large stone lizard sat in the center of the room 
    looking at them. Nlaminer looked at Rhissa and she nodded 
        "We greet Time Traveler again," he uttered. He could not help 
    trembling. The eyes of Andrynx image were bottomless and keen. 
    Knowledge of millions universes sparkled there. He bowed again and 
    put his diary and books on the floor. "We intend to visit the false 
    god, Toxxar, and to force him stop devastating worlds. Here is 
    knowledge we obtained in our journeys. It can be useful, sooner or 
    later. I ask you to accept this gift. It can be our last adventure."
        He saw a small cloud engulfing both of them and when it 
    disappeared his books and notes vanished, too.
        Andrynx accepted his offering.
        "If I survive," Nlaminer said with gratitude, "I promise to build 
    you new temple, even if it will take the rest of my life."
        He felt this was right. He felt obliged to return such a great 
    favor. What else could he do ? He bowed again and noticed Rhissa 
    bowing, too.
        When they walked back to the Bridge it seemed to them they will 
    live forever.
                                 *    *    *
        "Do you want to tell me anything ?" Nlaminer asked when they were 
    again on the Bridge. It was time to meet their foe in its own lair. 
    Dreadful and mad, he was able to eliminate them altogether, to delete 
    their names forever from existence. 
        "You know everything I could tell you," she replied and held his 
    hand tighter. "Fore !"
        ...The door was absolutely black, with no carvings or pictures. 
    The only sign was gray rune 'T' glowing on it.
                          Chapter 16. The beginning
        "Welcome, srangers," Nlaminer read aloud. A large plaque hung
    over their heads. Beyond entrance, dozens of corridors twisted and
    curved to and fro. Nlaminer shuddered. Silence was ominous and this
    plaque was another joke of the dark and strange creature.
        "We've seen it before," Rhissa shrugged. "Not much surprise, I'd
    say. But listen, how will we find him here ?"
        "That's easy," Nlaminer raised his arm and spoke several words. A
    glowing ball appeared above his head. In its bright glow corridors
    shrank, dwindled, coiled back. Most of them disappeared. Only two of
    them remained; they stood in one of them. Another crossed it hundred
    feet ahead.
        "An illusion," he resumed. "And remember, Rhissa, you possess
    magic, too. No need to conceal it now."
        She nodded. "Where will we go ?"
        He pointed ahead. "Forward. He cannot be in hiding forever even
    if he choose to."
        They moved ahead. Echo filled the corridor and many eyes
    followed them as they proceeded to the crossroads.
                                 *    *    *
        "I expected something horrible," Nlaminer whispered. "But nobody
    meets us."
        They stood in the center of crossroads, weapons ready, senses
    acute. Rhissa felt her spirit floating freely. Tensions left her, she
    was ready to counteract any attack, any attempt to crawl into her
        Steps came from the left. Nlaminer moved the glowing ball there
    and two figures highlighted. They saw themselves. Silently they
    watched as their doubles advanced. Something strange was happening to
        "They are aging," Nlaminer said in low voice. "Too naive to scare
        The figures were still ten steps away when their flesh withered
    and dried up. Fur was falling in clouds from Nlaminer's image; the
    second Rhissa fell down, turning to dust as she fell. A second later
    Nlaminer's double fell apart, too.
        "I detect something undead down that passage," Rhissa said
    suddenly. "Over there." she indicated down the passage their doubles
    emerged from.
        "Let's meet them," Nlaminer lowered his staff and stepped on.
    Rhissa followed, guarding his back. They proceeded several paces
    ahead and another pair of doubles advanced them. Rhissa sensed strong
    undead emanation pouring out of them. False Rhissa grinned at them
    and black glow flared in its eyes. False Nlaminer laughed exposing
    enormous fangs. Something black dripped from these fangs. Stone floor
    corroded and vanished in heavy malodorous puffs of smoke as heavy
    drops hit it.
        Nlaminer began raising his weapon when Rhissa said fron behind
    his back. "Not necessary." and a flash of blue light struck two
    hideous shapes. They cried in agony and collapsed in nasty dark
        "He shows us our future," Nlaminer grinned in disgust. "I wonder,
    what else could he imagine ?"
        He concentrated. Glowing ball darted farther and returned
    immediately. Large hall opened in the far end of the passage.
        "There is nothing beyond that hall," he commented. "Shall we
    visit it ?"
        Rhissa shrugged. "I think we could find something interesting
    even here."
                                 *    *    *
        Toxxar sat in his study when something disturbed him. None of his
    spies reported the two mortals crossing any mental realm. And yet he
    sensed them near, very near.
        He looked around and put his hand on the Book near him.
    Its powers nearly allowed him to achieve his goals and resurrect the
    cult... but for treachery of Ezoxu, the Guardian. He couldn't delete
    Ezoxu directly. That could result in too strong aftershocks in all
    neighbour realities. Thus he added Ezoxu to his list of enemies and
    began to poison his cult, to weaken it. His agents penetrated many
    realities, destroying priests, imposing his own cult, his principles.
    But the efforts were too trifling. He possessed an absolute power,
    yes, with some restrictions. And yet he couldn't rebuild the former
        What was wrong ? He reflected for several minutes and found
        His mind sensed advancing danger and his minions crawled out of
    all holes and cracks. His spies shuddered and froze for a moment. The
    mortals were near, very near... where are they ?
        Suddenly an idea came to him. Yes ! Their power was strong and
    complex. He will retire from his position and force the humanoid,
    Nlaminer to become his substitute.
        "I am old," he said aloud. It was true. Old and tired. But his
    wits were still sharp. I will fulfil my promise, mortal, he thought,
    I will make you a god.
        As for that reptile with her painful aura of Naata, she must die.
    That was easy, too. Nlaminer's double was guarding his study outside.
    She should not enter his study at all cost.
        As he heard this order, Nlaminer's double appeared out of shadows
    and hid close to the studio's entrance. He was furious when his
    double tricked him and his master. He cannot slay him; that would
    mean his own death. But he will destroy his companion. The double
    will not be dangerous alone.
        He grasped his enormous sword and froze. Steps were heard at a
    distance. They came nearer and farther, but sooner or later he will
    face her.
                                 *    *    *
        As they approached the entrance to the hall, solid wall
    materialized out of thin air. It bore an image of laughing dragon
    head. In clear voice it growled, "Entrance forbidden." and breathed a
    small sheet of flame.
        Rhissa recoiled from flame, but Nlaminer only laughed. He came
    nearer, taking no heed of the head and touched the barrier. Rhissa
    didn't noticed which words he said, but the wall disappeared with a
    groan.  Nlaminer winked at Rhissa and added only, "Uaron taught me of
    some useful tricks. Don't stay there; it's safer in the hall."
        Indeed it was. Rhissa sensed hostile presence was replaced by
    specific temple air. It was a temple. Unexpected, long forgotten, but
    a real temple. Rhissa outstretched her arms and walls began to emit
    soft pleasant glow.
        "I couldn't believe it still exists," she exclaimed. "This is the
    temple of Toxxar ! Real Toxxar !"
        Nlaminer listened to silence. God's spirit was very weak, if any.
    He wouldn't perceive it himself. Yet under thick cover of dust he saw
    inscriptions and bas reliefs. They entered the middle of the hall. A
    giant statue of Toxxar, in blessing posture. It was the exact  copy
    of the Stranger they saw... but for its eyes. Real Toxxar had eyes
    wise and clear. His smile was benevolent.
        "What could happen to him ?" Rhissa was astonished. "It's him,..
    well, nearly him. It never occurred to me gods could go crazy, too."
        Nlaminer came nearer and cleared of dust part of the pedestal.
    "It was not tended for at least several centuries." he announced.
    "That means the false god never enters his temple. Why ?"
        They stood in silence. Then Rhissa murmured several words and
    statue's eyes glowed white for several seconds. "He's alive," she
    said. "He's real Toxxar, but someone keeps him out of reach."
        They looked at each other in puzzlement.
        "So it is a mortal being," Nlaminer said at last. "Uaron was
    right. A mortal can imitate god. This is an example."
        "Why do you think so ?"
        Nlaminer smiled sadly. "Because he cast his projection inside the
    Twilight Palace. No gods are allowed to visit Twilight Land."
        Rhissa's eyes widened. She understood, too.
        "Then... well, I see now. He cannot have many identical
    manifestations, and..."
        "... and he fully controls only one of them. That's why we
    managed to trick him back at the Judgement."
        He looked at the statue again.
        "We probably will never know how he managed to acquire all his
    abilities. I suspected he is assisted by demonic forces or the like.
    If he's mortal, he should fall prey to some habits of mortal 'gods'."
        "Which ones ?"
        "He must think he foresaw all our actions. Probably he thinks we
    would break into his hideout, or try to sneak some way. I plan to
    enter his apartments right now. Simply enter them."
        Rhissa grasped his hand. "That's too dangerous ! Let's go
    together !"
        "No," he turned his face to her. It was calm, but Rhissa saw how
    much he desired to live. He was expecting death... and was so quiet ?
    "I was told to enter his place alone and with no weapons. You will
    come later. Choose yourself when."
        He made a broad gesture and a door outlined on the nearest wall.
    "Remember Twilight Palace ?" he put down his backpack and staff and
    turned to her. Rhissa seemed to be calm, but Nlaminer sensed her
    emotions very well. "We will meet again," he added and opened the
    door. "Wish me luck."
        She had only time to nod him before the door slammed shut.
        She was alone.
                                 *    *    *
        The study was vast and filled with tables, bookshelves, and
    nobody knows what else. In the far end he saw a tall figure sitting
    at a table. It didn't notice him; not yet. He was free to choose his
        It smelt strangely here. It gave a sensation of old, even ancient
    being living here for ages. Odor was neither unplesant nor too
    strong. It was merely the odor of centuries. Probably their opponent
    sat here all his life. He tried to recall how long he could sit here.
    Twelve thousand years, no less. Nlaminer shuddered again and sneaked
    between two large tables. It was too far to fly at him and any magic
    assault could not take him by surprise. He should crawl nearer.
        Was the false Toxxar ignoring him or it was just another joke of
    him ? Nlaminer heard muttering, as if the stranger cast some spell.
    But nothing dire happened. Nlaminer realized he was just reading some
    book lying in front of him.
        If this door opened in front of the false god, he thought, I'd
    have much less time to think. Praise all the gods I am still unseen.
        Nlaminer knew a way to shield his mental activity. But he would
    still be visible for any eyes. Besides, the pretender could hear or
    sense him casting spells and then...
        Did he really had any choice ? Probably, no. Nlaminer sat for
    several minutes gathering his strength.
                                 *    *    *
        Rhissa waited for several minutes and decided to enter the door,
    command it to open to wherever Nlaminer was at this time. When she
    readied her weapon the door opened again and Nlaminer returned to the
        She felt her heart beating wildly.
        "What did you do ?" she managed to ask. Nlaminer came nearer and
    she saw him carrying a great sword. Where did he get it ?
        "I was waiting for you," Nlaminer grinned savagely and she
    realized whom she was talking to. Fear paralyzed her; she nearly
    dropped her staff. Through the deadly web covering her mind she heard
    bells ringing in the distance. 'Defend !' yelled someone deep inside
    her. 'Defend or you will die !'
        "I would be free by this time but for you," the double said and
    raised his sword. Rhissa retreated, slowly, still unable to react
    quickly. "You ruined his plans and make me his slave. Is this how you
    repay for the good ?"
        "You should not fight me," she managed to utter. "You should
    unite with your other self. If you resist the will of the false
    Toxxar he could not control you."
        "Unite ?" the double grinned obscenely. "No, I will chop you to
    pieces. He's stronger than you. And master wants him, not you. You
    only bother us all." He prepared to hit her.
        "If you kill me, you will die, too," she warned and clutched her
    ironwood staff.
        "You underrate his powers, puny reptile," he smiled again. "We
    will both live. As long as we will wish. Too bad you won't see it."
        His attack was dreadful. She could barely parry his blow and her
    staff was nearly cut in two. Bell rang louder and louder. The Voice
    was hurrying to help her. I should survive until it comes, she
    thought desperately and assaulted her opponent.
        He parried her blow lazily, with no visible efforts.
        "Try if you like," he teased her. "I know everything you know.
    Care to see ?"
        He thrust his sword and she was nearly wounded again. Her
    opponent opened his defense and she hit him against ribs. He growled
    in pain and stepped back. When he looked at her again, he was
    smiling wryly.
        "Guess who you are hitting ?" he said and Rhissa understood how
    seriously she was trapped. She couldn't harm him. And he could kill
    you with no problems at all. She was backing away. Her opponent
    sliced her staff to pieces and she reached instinctively into her
    belt. There was no weapon and soon it will be nowhere to retreat.
        The double was about to tease her even much. He lingered with his
    sword raised high and laughed. His voice was rolling between the
    walls and produced distorted echo.
        The Voice whispered the only word and she had almost no time to
    follow its advice.
                                 *    *    *
        Nlaminer managed to advance enough to jump at his opponent. It
    was tall reptile creature. Its skin resembled stone; it wore gray
    gown and was occupied altogether by the book. It was a big book,
    probably very old. But her pages were thin and letters were small and
    neat. Nlaminer need not to cast a spell to feel mighty magic bound
    within the book.
        He was preparing to jump when a pain, terrible and imbearable
    struck him. He felt as if someone clubbed him on the chest. He
    gnashed his teeth and fought to keep his balance. He failed and
    dropped to his knees, pressing hands against his side.
        Stranger turned his head and stared at Nlaminer coldly.
        "So you came," he said. "I see your friend is having some
    problems out there," he giggled. "Soon you'll be in perfect form to
    replace me."
        "What ?" Nlaminer asked him, standing up. Stranger moved his
    finger and Nlaminer fell again. His legs were not supporting him.
        "Do not hurry," stranger replied rather distractedly. "Let's wait
    a bit. Soon you companion will be finished and you'll become a god,
    too. As you see, I fulfil my promises. Am I evil ?"
        "You destroyed too much to be called kind," Nlaminer retorted.
    "And you planned to wipe away the whole races. Is this kindness ?"
        "You are wrong. You cannot tell rightful revenge from senseless
    murder." stranger smiled. "Don't worry. I am tired already. You are
    young and full of energy. Your powers are too bright to neglect. This
    is why you will be granted a status of god."
        "Never," Nlaminer sat up, guessing whether he could take stranger
    by surprise now. If he manage to cast a spell unnoticed...
        "Nobody asks your opinion," stranger said casually.
        In the same instant another pain, pain of ripping mind, buried
    Nlaminer's mind under an abyss of agony. She's dead, he managed to
    think, and I will die now. This monster will get nothing. Stranger
    saw Nlaminer's twisted smile and looked around. Nobody else was here.
    Stranger watched as Nlaminer wriggled and said in didactic voice,
    "She is gone. Do not hope to follow her. You'll have to wait, yes,
    wait for a long, long time." he giggled again.
        Nlaminer heard nothing. He was gasping for air, but death
    wouldn't come. He saw stranger sitting again and heard through
    melting darkness,
        "I see you were too attached to her. Well, I will even make you a
    gift. You'll both live forever and..."
        Something hit stranger and he fell clumsily off the chair
    leaving his book on the table. Without realizing what he is doing
    Nlaminer jumped at him. Stranger was standing up and reaching
    for his book. "Away with it !" Nlaminer bellowed and hurled the heavy
    book as far away as he could.
        A lightning flared above their heads. Blast of hot air pushed
    all of them back and in the eerie white light Nlaminer saw the book
    being sucked into a large whirling hole in the air. The hole was
    shining painfully and angry lightnings raged deep inside it. The next
    moment, the book was gone. Nlaminer threw himself over the table.
    He raised his fist to hit the foe to prevent him from casting spells.
        A hand met his blow and blocked it.
        It was Rhissa. He looked at her but had no time to realize she
    was alive.
        "Let him alone," she said gently. "He's dying." she picked up the
    staff she flang. "Help me."
        They dragged stranger farther from the table. Nlaminer saw him
    losing his authority and power drop by drop. Soon it was a reptile,
    tall and graceful, with scale as white as snow. Akaeff, he thought.
    This is what are they like.
        "Who are you ?" Rhissa asked stranger when he opened his eyes.
        "I am the last of my people," he replied in clear, string voice. 
    They saw no madness in his eyes. These eyes registered impossible, 
    dire tiredness.
        "You are not alone," Nlaminer heard himself objecting. "I know
    there are other Akaeff. They are not gone."
        Stranger looked at him and smiled faintly. "Then pray for me,"
    and he was gone, too.
        Wind blew in their faces. Nlaminer protected his eyes and saw
    Rhissa falling to her knees. She was sobbing.
        He hugged her and they sat silent in vast and mysterious hall.
                                 *    *    *
        They stood at a beach. Waves rolled over strange looking pink
    sand. Nlaminer inhaled fresh sea air and blinked. I am at home, he
        "We are at home," Rhissa said and he returned from his thoughts.
        "This is your island," Nlaminer looked around. A tower overlooked
    the beach. It was beautiful and ancient. Rhissa nodded.
        "I wished to return home and here we are."
        "I cannot believe it," he confessed. "It's like another dream.
    Sweet and wonderful. I'm glad you are in it." and they both laughed.
        "Stay here as long as you wish," she said. Nlaminer looked into
    her eyes. They said, stay forever.
        "Thanks," he replied. "By the way, what happened to my double ?"
        "I don't know," she passed him portal generator. "I know only
    he's far away. Take this, you'll need it."
        Nlaminer saw guards coming to greet them, but it didn't matter
    now. "He said we will live forever," he murmured.
        "I knew that before," she helped him to climb a rock.
        The storm was over.

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