Steve felt a perceptible change in the atmosphere the moment he crossed into the Forest. He felt like he'd just stepped into the distant past. Something told him that the trees, shrubs and even the grass on the ground had probably all been there for thousands of years. Steve also got the distinct feeling that they were not supposed to be there. No one was. It was as if they were sneaking onto private property, and Steve found himself worrying that something or someone was going to come and kick them off at any moment. Dragons? Steve shook his head, reminding himself that there was just no such thing.
They walked slowly, jumping at the slightest change in the shadows, and each trying silently to convince the other that everything was all right. Soon, Steve could no longer see the Badlands behind them, and he grew more nervous. Despite the fact that the Badlands weren't exactly welcoming, it was still a connection to the normal world, and now it was gone. Marcellus' nervousness grew, and Steve knew that he felt the loss, too. They both checked their Spirit Gems again, making sure they could easily be seen, then gripped each other's hands even tighter, and kept walking.
After about ten minutes (which felt like eons to Steve), they came upon a strange barrier in their path. It looked like a black log, about three or four feet high, with curiously smooth edges. They moved to walk around it, and the log moved. Steve gasped and stepped back. Suddenly, behind the "log", Steve could see a glint of yellow. He focused on it, and his heart started to pound. An eye. What he'd thought was a log was actually the snout on what looked like a giant black alligator's head. The thought crossed his mind that maybe it was an alligator. They were in the South, after all. They had alligators, right? But as the head moved higher and higher, and more of the black, shiny underside of the creature was exposed, Steve knew exactly what he was looking at, and it was definitely not an alligator
The dragon raised its head until it was about eleven or twelve feet off the ground, then looked down at them. Steve's heart raced, and his breaths came fast, his own fear compounded by Marcellus' escalating panic. Marcellus dropped to his knees and lowered his head to the ground, pulling Steve with him. Steve lowered his head, too, holding the shield in front of them, in case the dragon decided to blast them. After a few painfully tense moments, the dragon spoke. Its deep, rumbling voice resonated within Steve's body like a too-loud bass, vibrating his insides. Steve wasn't even sure if the dragon was speaking Portuguese or English, or any language he knew, but he seemed to understand anyway. "Who dares set foot on the sacred soil of the Ancient Ones?"
Steve swallowed hard, and dared to look up, taking it as a good sign that they hadn't been killed instantly. "Please f-forgive us for trespassing, my Lord," he said, hoping like hell that the dragon was male. "We mean you no disrespect. My... my name is Stephen Pereira and this is Marcellus Pereira. We're from Pacificana, and we..."
"Stop," the dragon said, lowering his head to Steve's eye level. Steve bit his lip hard. Had he said something wrong? The dragon eyed him keenly for several moments. Finally, the dragon spoke again. "You are not of Pacificana, Stephen Ray Perry."
Steve gasped, and his eyes widened. "H-how... how could you..."
"The King of the Ancient Ones knows much," the dragon said. "You are not of this realm. Yet you bear the crown of Pacificana, you are Bound to the bondmate of King Stephen, and you possess the Sign of the Spirits. Curious."
Steve could only gape at him in utter shock. Marcellus had raised his head now, and Steve could feel the surprise coming from him, too. It almost overpowered his fear. Steve tried to pull himself together. "I... I don't know why I'm here, Your Majesty," he said. "But now... I have to... I'm trying to rescue a girl. She was kidnapped by a..."
The dragon growled and Steve stopped short, fighting the urge to run. He'd never heard a more terrible sound than that low, furious rumble. Even the air around him tingled with the dragon's anger. "I know of whom you speak," the dragon said. "That vile magician has brought something here that has never touched these sacred grounds before." The dragon paused a long time before finally speaking. "Death." Steve gasped, and he felt Marcellus' despair. "I do not speak of your princess," the dragon said. "She lives. But the Sorcerer has killed one of my own children."
Steve gasped again. "He killed a dragon?" Steve cried.
"Yes," the King said. "He is now in her former dwelling place, and he holds your princess there. He comes out periodically, bent on keeping us from our Lost One. We cannot destroy him because of his invincibility charm, and we cannot draw the earth up to imprison him because of the innocent who would be imprisoned with him. Now, here we sit, unable to remove the blight that defiles our home with his hateful presence."
Steve sighed and shook his head. This bastard was a menace to everybody - even the dragons! How was he going to rescue Annette from a man who could kill a Messenger of the Four Spirits? "Your Majesty," he said at last. "Will you please grant us safe passage through your forest?"
"No human has ever been granted permission to roam freely through the Forbidden Lands," the dragon said. "However, I will grant you passage through the forest, as well as safe passage out, and lasting friendship to the crown of Pacificana in exchange for one thing."
"Anything you ask, Your Majesty."
The dragon let out another low, angry rumble. "I want you to bring me his head."
Steve swallowed, and glanced at Marcellus, who looked as worried as he felt. Steve had no idea how he was supposed to kill the Sorcerer, when even the dragons couldn't do it, but he knew he had to try. "I will bring it to you, Your Majesty," Steve said. "Or I will die trying."
The dragon smiled, which was an unnerving sight, considering all the teeth. "Your word is enough," he said. "Rise. I will take you to him."
Steve and Marcellus stood up, and waited for the dragon to start walking. Instead, Steve blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, they were in a completely different place. There were no trees, and about thirty yards ahead of them was a range of mountains. The King growled so loudly that the ground trembled beneath their feet. Steve swallowed his fear and looked over at the dragon. Now that he wasn't hidden by the trees and Steve could get a better look, he thought the dragon was quite a beautiful creature. Positively terrifying, but beautiful all the same. He was huge - maybe thirty or forty feet long, not including his tail. His scales were jet black, but so shiny that they glinted in the light of the setting sun, and his large black wings had an iridescent quality to them. He had a large number, of white, sharp-looking teeth, and the horns on top of his head could probably impale an elephant. At the moment, he was gazing at the mountains with such hatred in his large, reptilian eyes that Steve edged nervously away from him. The dragon dug his claws into the ground and he was actually vibrating with fury.
"The Sorcerer dwells in a cave in these foothills," the King said. "We have tried to destroy him, but his spell protects him from even our most potent flames. None of us have been able to get close enough to him to remove the talisman that gives him his invincibility."
Steve sighed heavily, and felt nervousness from Marcellus. "I do not know how we can hope to succeed where the Great Ones have failed, Your Majesty," Marcellus said, voicing Steve's thoughts.
"You may yet," the King said. "You are smaller than we, and your fingers are more nimble than claws. However, I will not leave you to face this danger without first helping you in what way I can. Lay down your Spirit Gems." They did as they were told, and the dragon blew on them. Steve heard the sound of flames, and felt intense heat coming from the dragon's breath, even though there wasn't anything to see. "Now," he said after a moment. "Put them on again."
Steve slipped his on first, and Marcellus yelped. "What?" Steve asked. "What's the matter?"
Marcellus' sudden panic subsided, and he smiled. "An invisiblity spell," he said, slipping on his own chain.
Steve frowned when Marcellus remained clearly visible. "Yours didn't work?" he asked incredulously.
"It did," the dragon answered. "You are only visible to each other, and myself of course, and then only when you are both wearing the pendants."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Steve said. "Thank you so much." Marcellus echoed him.
"You are welcome. I will bestow you with another magical gift before you go, but you must use it with caution, for it can only be used once." The dragon breathed a small lick of dark red fire into the air. It formed itself into a sphere about the size of a basketball, then started to move toward Steve. Steve edged away nervously, but the dragon shook his head. "Stand still." Steve gritted his teeth and stood firm as the fireball drew closer and closer. There was little heat, despite the swirling, crackling flames. The fireball finally got as close as it could, and Steve gasped when it touched his chest and quickly moved inside him. He felt hot, tingling energy course through him, then settle down somewhere in his gut.
"What... what is it?" Steve asked breahtlessly.
"The Strength of the Ancient Ones," the dragon said. "When you draw on the spell, you will have the strength of a dragon. But remember to use it only when you need it most, for it will only work once."
Steve's eyes widened. "Wow. I thank you, Sire," he said. "But how will I know when I need it?"
"You will know," he replied. Steve nodded, knowing that he probably wasn't going to get a clearer answer than that. "And now, it is time for you to begin," the King said. "May the Four Spirits bring you success," the dragon King said.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Steve said. "And thank you for all your help." The dragon nodded, and they bowed deeply to him before he vanished from sight. Steve suggested they leave their traveling gear behind, since they wouldn't be able to move quickly with backpacks on. They left everything but their weapons, covering the gear with their cloaks so that, from a distance, the pile could be mistaken for a rock or a stray shadow. Then they started toward the mountains.
Steve kept a fast pace, wanting to get this over with as fast as possible. He still had no idea what he was supposed to do about the Sorcerer once he got to him, but the quicker they got to him and did something, the better. They walked along the line of hills, looking for any sign of a cave opening. They were met again and again with solid rock. What caves they did find often turned out to be illusions created by the shadows, or small caves that no dragon could hope to enter. The search grew harder after sundown, and Steve found himself wishing they'd asked for some kind of light source. The clouds that had covered the Badlands didn't reach all the way to wherever the King had taken them, and they were able to see by the moonlight, but seaching was still very difficult. After Steve and Marcellus explored yet another false cave, Steve started to get frustrated. "I wish he'd told us exactly where to go," he said.
"We will find them soon, my love," Marcellus said, but Steve could feel the impatience that belied his calm tone.
"I know. It's just..." Steve stopped. The wind had shifted slightly toward them, and an awful smell had come with it. "What is that?" Steve asked.
"It is the smell of death," Marcellus replied quietly. His expression had turned grim. "I believe we are getting closer."
They continued to walk, following the foul scent, despite their natural desire to go in the opposite direction. The smell grew stronger and stronger as they walked, until finally, it pervaded the air so thickly that Steve almost gagged. Moments later, they finally found the source of the stench. They turned a corner and saw, several yards away, the carcass of a dragon. Steve gasped and took a step back, horrified. The dragon was slightly smaller than the King, and had probably once been bright red in color. Now, her scales looked dull and clouded, and her body was twisted into an unnatural position. But that wasn't what made Steve's stomach lurch violently. The dragon's head had been severed, and now sat a few feet away from the body facing them. The eyes were still open, and they, too were dull and clouded over in death. Steve covered his mouth with his cloak and turned away, trying to keep the contents of his stomach from coming up.
Marcellus put a hand on his shoulder, and Steve could feel disgust and anger coming from him. "Will you be all right?" he asked quietly. Steve nodded, and Marcellus rubbed his back lightly. "It is a warning," he said. "For all those who would try to enter."
"Enter?" Steve said weakly, finally managing to get control of his stomach. "Enter what?"
Marcellus frowned slightly. "The cave, of course," he said.
Steve reluctantly turned back around to look. He'd been so upset by the sight of the dragon that he hadn't even noticed the mouth of a large cave looming up behind the body. Steve sighed heavily. "Well, we know where he is. Now what?"
As if in answer, they heard a loud, ear-piercing screech. Steve crouched instinctively and looked up. A bright blue dragon was circling the sky, screeching and roaring. In moments, a man stepped out of the cave and came forward, moving around the dead dragon. He moved fast, though not unnaturally, and the dragon kept his attention focused away from them, so Steve could only see the long flowing hair that the guards had described. The dragon roared and shot a stream of blue fire at the Sorcerer. The flames stopped before they reached him, as if they'd hit a wall. The dragon screeched in frustration and the Sorcerer laughed, beckoning for the dragon to try again.
"Let's go," Steve whispered to Marcellus. They came out from behind the outcrop of rock and walked toward the cave. The ground was burned and dug into deep furrows in several places, probably from the magician's struggle with the red dragon. They avoided the grooves and tried to walk as silently as possible. Even though the angry blue dragon was probably making enough noise to cover any sounds they made, they didn't want to take any chances. They moved around the carcass, giving it a wide berth, and walked into the cave.
Steve and Marcellus walked down a short tunnel of about thirty feet, before coming to a large cavern. The room was almost pitch black, and Steve found that he could only see about a foot in front of him. He wished again that they'd asked for a torch or some other source of light. Marcellus took his hand and guided him to the right wall. Steve understood immediately. They would search along the wall foot by foot, then go through the eitire room until they found something. Marcellus kept one hand on the wall and one hand in Steve's, and they started to search. They walked quickly, wanting to find Annette before the Sorcerer returned. Steve could still hear the dragon roaring and shrieking and breathing fire outside the cave, so he figured they still had some time, but he didn't want to push it.
They walked for what seemed like a very long time before they found Annette. It was so dark they nearly walked into her before they saw her. She was sitting with her back against the wall, her arms shackled above her head. Her head was bowed, and she was trembling slightly. Steve immediately started to check the shackles to see how strong they were. Annette looked up sharply, eyes wide with fright. She started to whimper and tried to pull away from him. "It's all right, Annette," Steve said softly. "It's me, Stephen. I'm using an invisibility spell."
Steve was shocked when, instead of reacting with joy and relief, Annette started to cry. "Why?" she sobbed. "Why are you so cruel? Why can't you just leave me alone, and stop taunting me this way?"
"Oh, little one, no," Marcellus said. "We are not his illusions this time. We are truly here to save you." He touched her face, but Annette whimpered and drew away, continuing to cry.
Steve was suddenly filled with an intense hatred for the magician. He drew his sword and Annette cowered at the sound. "Brace yourself, Annette," Steve said. "Marcellus, stand back." Marcellus backed up, and, still sobbing, Annette squeezed her eyes shut. Steve swung at Annette's chains, hacking at them with all the fury he wanted to show the Sorcerer. Annette yelped, but Marcellus hushed her and told her everything was all right. When, after several strikes, the chains refused to give, Steve started in on the rock wall itself.
Finally, the chains came away from the wall, and Steve helped Annette to her feet. Tears still streamed down her face, but she was smiling now, and clutching his tunic with both hands. "You didn't have the key," she said. "You didn't have the key this time! It really is you!" She buried her face in his chest. "Oh, Stephen, I'm so glad you're here," she said, calling him by his name for the first time he could remember. "Where's Marcellus?"
"Here," he said, touching her arm.
She grasped his arm, still maintaining her iron grip on Steve's shirt. "Thank you, thank you," she said. "Oh, I'm so sorry I doubted you. I want to go home! Oh, it's so awful! I hate him! I hate him!"
"I know, sweetheart," Steve said. "So do I. We're leaving right-" Marcellus gasped, and Steve looked at him sharply. "What is it?" he asked.
"It is quiet outside."
Steve tensed. He gave Marcellus his shield and gently pushed Annette into his arms. "Get her out of here," he said quietly.
Marcellus shot him a worried look, but didn't question his command. He took Annette's arm and led her toward the cave entrance. Steve stayed behind to wait for the Sorcerer. As it turned out, he didn't have to wait for very long. Marcellus had only managed to go about three steps when Steve heard hurried footsteps coming from the tunnel. He heard Annette gasp, and much fainter, Marcellus shushing her. After a few seconds, the footsteps came to a stop. Steve could hear a sharp intake of breath from the Sorcerer. There was a moment of silence, then he spoke. "Illuminate."
Suddenly, the room was as bright as day. Steve squinted in the sudden light, willing his eyes to adjust faster. When he could see again, he got his first real view of the Sorcerer. The sight shocked him considerably. The Sorcerer looked almost exactly like him. No wonder Daniel thought we must be related, Steve thought. He was the same height as Steve, he had the same wide jaw, the same high cheek bones, and the same large nose. About the only differences were that he looked to be about forty-five years old, his hair was much longer, and his eyes were a pale, pale shade of blue - almost clear. If the color of his eyes wasn't disturbing enough, they were filled with such cold fury as to send chills down Steve's spine, and the man wasn't even looking his way. His eyes were trained on Annette at the moment, and he strode toward her.
Annette started to cry again, and Marcellus pulled her back, keeping a firm grip on her arm. Steve was angered to see that Annette's clothes were ripped, and there were at least as many cuts and bruises on her skin as there had been on the archer's children. Steve's blood boiled, and it was all he could do to keep from attacking the magician outright. The Sorcerer moved to within feet of Annette. "Well, well, my little princess," he said, smiling a disturbingly unkind smile. His voice sounded remarkably like a slightly huskier version of Steve's, although it was laden with barely veiled menace. "You seem to have developed a sudden increase in strength. Or, could it be that you are not alone?" The Sorcerer moved even closer to Annette. Trembling, she pulled away from Marcellus and backed away from him as the Sorcerer drew closer. Steve was amazed. Terrified as she was, Annette was trying to protect Marcellus, drawing the Sorcerer away from him. "Where are they?" the Sorcerer asked, when he was only a few inches from her.
Annette shook her head. "Th-there is... n-no one, m-my Lord," she said.
"Lies," the man cried, slapping Annette hard across the face. Marcellus immediately yanked Annette behind him and backhanded the Sorcerer with all his might. A white light flashed from the crystal pendant hanging from the Sorcerer's neck, and Marcellus' blow bounced off an invisible barrier. The Sorcerer smiled. "I knew you were lying, you wretched little whelp," he said. He raised his arms. "Reveal!"
Suddenly, Annette gasped and looked directly at Marcellus. His invisibility spell was broken. Damn! Steve tensed and gripped his sword tightly, but no one seemed to notice him. He remembered the day Annette was kidnapped, and how the Sorcerer's magic had blown everyone around him yards away, while he was able to stand firm. The protection spell was still working. Steve walked closer to Marcellus and Annette, moving slowly and silently to avoid detection. In the meantime, Marcellus had already drawn his sword, and stood at the ready, watching the Sorcerer warily.
"Ah, it is you, Marcellus," the Sorcerer said. "I know the king would never send his little love slave into danger alone. Come now, Stephen. Where are you? Show yourself!"
Steve ignored the command. When he was close enough, he touched Marcellus to let him know that he was still there. Marcellus didn't react physically, but Steve felt the acknowledgement inside. "Deal with me, villain," he said.
The magician smiled that evil-looking smile again. "If you insist." He drew his sword, and they began to fight.