Charlie stayed awake as long as he could, as he sat in the darkness of his prison cell. He was struggling to understand what had happened and his role in it all. I saved Dr. Knutley at least, he thought. That is, I saved her if she was really ever here. Or if she was even real to begin with. Maybe I just dreamed all of this and I will suddenly wake up at home with Melissa beside me. He sighed heavily and changed position on the cot. The narrow bed squeaked beneath him, the slats supporting the thin mattress digging into his hip.
I've never had a dream this uncomfortable before, Charlie thought wryly. If I hurt when I move on the cot, do I really hurt? Or is that part of the dream? If this is real, and I accept what Lucas told me… If I accept that Lucas is real… Then I bear responsibility for everything that is happening. So what happens to all of this if I die?
Charlie was startled by the thought. He had the feeling that the world had fallen silent, listening and waiting for his next words. Could I die here? And if I do, what happens to Melissa? What… What happens to Ingvar and Mikey and the others? Charlie yawned. Fatigue was draining the focus from his thoughts, and the darkness was closing in, pressing against his eyelids.
If I am the creator of these people and I bear responsibility for them, thought Charlie as he drifted toward sleep, then doesn't my creator bear the same responsibility to me? If so, you'd think he would at least try to tell me some things to get me pointed in the right direction. With that thought floating in his mind, Charlie fell asleep.
"Charlie?" The voice sounded somewhere close to Charlie. "Charlie, can you hear me?"
"I can hear you," Charlie whispered. "Where are you?"
"I'm wherever you want me to be." Charlie smiled and bit back a response.
"Then perhaps a better question might be who are you?" Charlie smiled and waited for the voice to respond.
"Aye, that is the question," the voice answered with a chuckle. Charlie realized that he could see, and began to look about him. He was surrounded by clouds and indistinct light. He could almost believe that he was floating on a cloud in heaven. But then again, he thought, this is my dream I can be wherever I want.
"But are you sure this is a dream?"
Charlie laughed. "Of course I'm sure it's a dream," said Charlie.
"But then again," said the voice, "You tend to think everything is a dream. Despite all the evidence laid before you, you refuse to see anything as real and take action."
Charlie thought about that in silence for a long moment. His first reaction was to be angry, but before he spoke he began to doubt his own feelings. Is he right? Charlie thought. Am I refusing to see the evidence before me? Maybe I'm wrong to assume everything is a dream and try to hold onto my sanity.
"Sanity is merely the ability to function within a reality," the voice told Charlie. "By holding onto one view of reality, you are refusing to see other possibilities. Does that make you sane or insane?"
"Oh I don't know," Charlie retorted. "I'm sitting here on a cloud, surrounded by nothing but clouds, talking to a person I can't see, what could possibly be insane about that?" There was an instant of silence followed by raucous laughter.
"My wife always told me I was a smartass at the wrong time," the voice said. "I guess this is what she was talking about."
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"Just talking to myself," the voice said. Charlie realized that the voice was somewhat familiar. He frowned, trying to place the sound of the voice from his fragmented memory.
"Ah, now I remember who you are. Your name was Luke?"
"Actually you can call me Lucas," the voice responded.
"Lucas, yes that was the name I remember from before. We spoke in another dream of mine."
"Are you going to insist that it was a dream all day?" Charlie opened his mouth to reply and closed it. He frowned again.
"That depends," said Charlie. "Are you going to insist that this is real all day?"
"Arguing with you is like talking to a wall," Lucas said.
"Buddha once sat before the wall, and when he arose he was enlightened."
"Charlie we can sit here and trade quips all day long or we can talk about something more important."
"What could be more important?" Charlie asked.
"Well, you were asking your creator to give you some guidance," Lucas replied calmly. "Perhaps we could discuss that."
"Are you trying to tell me that you were my creator?" Charlie asked incredulously. Lucas didn't reply at once, instead letting the silence draw out until it became uncomfortable. He can't possibly be serious, Charlie thought. Could he?
"Well I could claim to be your creator," Lucas laughed. "But alas I am no more a God than you are, Charlie." Charlie laughed along with Lucas. He was torn by conflicting feelings of relief and disappointment.
"Well even if you're not my God," Charlie said. "Could you at least give me some guidance on what I should be doing?"
"At last you're talking some sense," Lucas replied. "Have you asked yourself what Haven wants?"
Charlie frowned and thought about the question. "I thought he wanted to use my power to become rich, but if he just wanted to be rich why would he take me to another world?" Charlie said, thinking out loud. "That doesn't make sense. He must want something more than just being rich and famous."
"And if he wants something more than that, what do you think that might be?" Lucas asked. Charlie fell silent as he considered the question.
"What I don't get, is how we got to another world in the first place."
"He had outside help," Lucas told him. "The same entity that transported Melissa to one of your worlds; the same entity that has been dogging your steps ever since this adventure began." Charlie looked up sharply.
"The Shadowed Man?" Charlie asked.
"I thought he was just a bad dream," Charlie whispered. "Or a symptom of a mental disorder."
"There is some truth to both of those statements, actually," Lucas told him with another gentle smile.
"And do you know who the Shadowed Man is?" Charlie asked Lucas.
"I do," Lucas replied slowly. "But I'm afraid I cannot tell you that just yet."
"Why can't you tell me?"
"Charlie," Lucas said calmly. "There are some things that you have to learn for yourself. If I were to give you that answer now before you have taken the steps to learn that, it would change the outcome of the story. And if we change the story, there's no telling how that will affect the people that we care about."
"We?" Charlie asked with raised eyebrows. "Do you mean to say that you care for the people involved in this mess?"
"Of course I do, Charlie. I have been helping you, after all." Charlie smiled, feeling an odd sense of relief at the reassurance. "Now," Lucas continued, "we should talk about what Haven has been up to. He has been operating outside the story, and there are consequences to that."
"What do you mean? How could he be operating outside of the story?" Charlie asked. "Has he learned to change things in the story… affect the world?"
"Yes, in a way, he has learned to change things," Lucas said. "He has been possessed by a demon and has become the king of the demons in Mikey's world. That means that the old demon king passed his magic along to Haven. Charlie, Haven has become deadly. And he is threatening to destroy everything to steal our power. Even now, he is being devoured from within by the demon that controls his mind. By stepping outside the story in this way, Haven has transformed Mikey's world into a shadow of what should be."
"Is…" Charlie paused and swallowed before continuing, dreading what he might hear. "Is Melissa in any danger?" Charlie waited for an answer, his fear growing with every second that passed before Lucas spoke again.
"Yes." Charlie felt like his heart tried to simultaneously stop beating and leap from his chest. His fear was a wave that crashed over him, nearly drowning his fragile hold on reason. That single word of confirmation from Lucas was a storm released inside Charlie's mind and soul.
Charlie looked down from the cloudy place where he and Lucas were sitting and saw far below them a city. As he looked he could see more and more detail in the cityscape, and he could see the smoke of battle rising from a place near the Southwest quarter. It looks like a large temple in gleaming white marble, Charlie thought. That's quite a battle raging around it; there are a lot of injured and dead on the steps around the temple. That could almost be Cara and Ronin on the steps… And that means that Melissa is nearby. Charlie gazed intently at the scene far below, trying to see where his wife might be in that carnage. He could now see the figure of a huge man flinging bolts of what looked like black lightning in the square below the temple steps. That kinda looks like Haven down there, he thought. As he watched, Haven struck down a big man in gleaming armor, knocking the huge double bladed axe from his hands. He saw Haven stride past all of the fallen and walk into the temple. Charlie realized that Melissa must be inside that temple.
I have to do something, Charlie thought. I must save her! "How can I go to her? And how do I go about using my power to help her?" Lucas responded by giving Charlie a fierce grin.
"That's my boy," he said. "My first suggestion would be to send some reinforcements…"
* * *
Ingvar lay on the stones of the square, trying to find the strength to rise and continue the fight. His heart was willing, but his body seemed unable to respond. He gazed crookedly at the heaps of fallen warriors around him. Some of them appear to be alive, he thought. Though for how long, only the gods know. Speaking of gods… A little divine providence would be helpful right about now.
Ingvar thought he heard the deep baying of Niall's dire wolves in the distance, but knew that couldn't be the case. The dogs are all dead now. We are all dead or dying; that sound must be wishful thinking. He closed his eyes, thinking he would rest a moment and then try again to get to his feet. He thought he could hear the sounds of Niall weeping and pleading with Mikey to stay with him. She must be fading fast to hear the desperation in his voice. I wish my Cara were here with me that we might die together if die we must.
The ground around him was pulsing with the golden light of Celora's blessing, and Ingvar felt the warmth seeping from the stones into his broken body. At least there will be a blessing for my soul as I die, he thought.
* * *
Niall panted in near exhaustion, holding his side where a small scratch from a demon weapon was burning with a wicked fire. Mikey was holding the doorway by herself, giving him a chance to catch his breath. In another moment, they would switch places and she would rest while he held the door. There was a pile of smoldering black armor on either side of the doorway leading out across the porch of the inn and down to the street. It was helping to channel the attacking demons into a narrow band. This fact was making it easier to hold the door with a single warrior, but the seemingly endless numbers of assailants made the work grim and hopeless. Niall stilled his mind and forced himself to breathe deeply. Little by little he succeeded in dulling the fire in his side and focusing his energy for the coming effort. He stepped forward just as Mikey's boot heel caught on a board and made her stumble. Niall caught the descending demon blade on his sword, saving his lady from a wound.
"Your turn to rest my love," Niall said. Mikey just nodded wearily and stepped to the rear. Niall stepped into the resulting gap in the door and his blades flickered forth to drink demon blood. The sight before him was nearly mesmerizing: lunging demons became falling demons, became flaming and smoking armor as the bodies burned from the enchanted weapons in his hands.
They had arrived to find a few patrons of the inn defending the porch, Jane standing tall among them, and demons surrounding them. They had apparently barricaded the windows from within, as the demons were focusing all of their energy on getting through the door. They could see two men down on the boards of the porch; women were trying to pull them to safety inside. Niall and Mikey paused only an instant to gauge the situation, and then threw themselves upon the rear of the demons. Sapphire had made quick work of the legs of the rearmost line of demons. They fell writhing to the ground only to die on the points of Mikey and Niall's blades. Niall had ordered the defenders to pull back inside the inn, and they had complied gratefully.
Niall and Mikey, with Sapphire's help, cut an opening through the demons and gained the doorway. Once there they stood back to back and killed demon after demon until the burning armor began to pile up around them. As they got winded, they began to trade off: one holding the door and one resting. Sapphire was patrolling the interior of the inn looking for any sign that demons were breaking through the boarded-up windows. Twice she sounded the alarm, and twice defenders had arrived to find her finishing off the demons unlucky enough to get inside. They patched the defenses as best they could and rewarded Sapphire with praise and petting.
I wonder how long we've been fighting? Niall thought. It seems like hours; I've lost track of the times that Mikey and I have traded positions. I wonder, too, how the others are faring. Niall heard Mikey curse violently. "What's wrong?" Niall cried.
"We have a big problem coming this way," she answered in between more curses. "Look for yourself." Niall looked quickly over the heads of the demons before him and his heart sank.
"Dear gods… Is that another dragon?"
"I'm afraid it is," Mikey sighed. "And just when I thought we were making some headway." As they watched, a black sinuous head rose above the demons that were rushing toward the inn. A cheer arose from the black armored demons before them as they saw the Dragon approaching. Mikey and Niall felt their spirits sinking and the fatigue weighing upon their bones and muscles. Niall took advantage of the brief pause to pull Mikey close.
"If we must die, I thank the gods that I found your love at long last," he told her. Mikey smiled through tears and kissed him deeply.
"I only regret not getting the chance to drain the Royal Treasury for a grand wedding," she said with a mischievous smile. "And the wedding night, of course. That would have been something to remember, I'm sure." Niall smiled at her, tears in his eyes. They drew apart at a sudden consternation among the demons. They looked over the tops of the black armored foes to see a line of golden light advancing toward the inn.
"Think that will save us?" Mikey asked Niall.
"Maybe," Niall answered doubtfully. "But only if we live long enough for it to get here."
They watched the golden light covering the ground as it drew closer. The blessing inched its way across the dirt road, coating everything as it passed. Niall caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye and reacted barely in time to block a sword thrust from a demon.
"Time to get back to work," he said through gritted teeth. The ground beneath them began to tremble violently. Niall staggered and felt Mikey grab hold of his arm.
"Niall, look!" Mikey shouted in his ear. He looked where she pointed with her free hand and saw that the dragon was rushing forward in an angry charge. It was plainly intent on tearing through their defense before the blessing reached the inn.
"Mikey! Get back…" Niall's words were lost in the tearing sound of a vast impact as the dragon crashed into the roof overhanging the porch of the inn, knocking them backward. Mikey's head struck the floor with a hard bounce and the world went first gray and then black.
* * *
Haven paused at the restored iron doors blocking his entry to the temple, considering. My power has grown, he thought. Where now is there anyone to tell me what to do? Where now are the rules that bound my behavior, kept me bowing to administrators and managers? I am become more than a man, more even than a king. I am become a god. He held out his hands before him, fingers extended toward the massive iron doors, and suddenly closed his hands into tight fists. The doors burst inward with such force they flew from their hinges to ricochet from the walls within the temple with a tremendous ringing noise.
A very few people stood within, raising their weapons in trembling hands as they sought to impede his progress toward the altar where two women chanted within a cocoon of golden light. Haven looked at the defenders with something akin to pity in his eyes. No one moved at all for a long moment; only the sound of Celora's chanting could be heard.
"Get out of my way," Haven said softly. His voice made the defenders shiver as though Death incarnate had spoken. Men, young and old, looked at one another and considered without speaking; each man attempting to gauge the courage of his neighbor. Haven felt his anger stir. I hate it when people don't listen to me, he thought. "Too late," he whispered.
Haven raised a single hand and made a sweeping motion. Dark energy flowed from his hand to throw the defenders across the room. They landed hard against the walls and slid to the floor. Many of them rose weakly and tried to flee the room, the others were unmoving either dead or unconscious. Haven strode forward slowly, relishing the feeling of uncontested power as he approached the ritual that was blocking his troops. He drew his power together, black lightning cracking as he raised his hands to strike. He gestured with both hands, shooting the black power forward to remove the troublesome priestess, power crackled through the air and then washed over a broad white shield.
"Get back Haven," a powerful voice warned. Haven was startled and stepped back quickly. Facing him was a marble statue bearing a long sword and a broad shield. The figure stood over twelve feet and was powerfully formed. And the face was familiar. Where have I seen that face? Haven thought.
"Well… Charlie," Haven said with mock warmth. "How good of you to join us. I must admit that I am surprised that you made it here." And that you made it here just in time.
"You will harm no one else in this city, Haven," statue-Charlie rumbled.
"And I supposed you are going to stop me?"
"I have stopped you," Charlie said quietly. "You will not get past me."
"I don't believe you will fight me, Charlie," Haven said in a reasonable tone. His years of experience came to bear now, trying to calm an irrational patient into compliance.
"I'm not the one that will fight you, Haven. They will," Charlie gestured back through the broken doors. Haven thought for a moment that he was simply bluffing, trying to get him to turn, but then he heard the sounds of renewed fighting mixed with ferocious baying and growling. He turned involuntarily at the sound and saw hundreds of the huge dire wolves pouring into the square and tearing apart his remaining forces. Haven cursed and turned back to Charlie.
"You might have turned the tide of battle Charlie," he said through gritted teeth. "But this city is mine."
"Not anymore," said Charlie with a smile. Charlie sheathed the sword and walked back to the altar where Celora stood chanting. The priestess wavered with fatigue, her voice ragged but determined. Melissa stood trembling, near exhaustion. Neither acknowledged Charlie as he approached to stand directly behind Celora.
"I bless you my child, and pass this gift to your faithful hands," Charlie said kindly. He set his right hand upon her shoulder. A blazing silver light flared around Charlie's statue, and the marble crumbled into powder. The sliver light remained behind, slowly drifting forward to surround Celora. As the light touched her, she visibly straightened with newfound strength. The emeralds in the crown blazed like green suns. The light pouring from her hands was now mixed with gold, silver, and green light. This new light pulsed quickly outward. Haven screamed in pain as it surrounded his feet and drove him backward out the door.
"Damn you Charlie!" Haven roared. "This isn't over! I WILL have you and your wife both, kneeling before me as I eat your hearts!"
"The story isn't finished yet," Charlie's voice echoed softly in the temple. Haven screamed in true pain as the light swept over him. Black lightning flashed and was overwhelmed by argent lightning. Haven was consumed and only ashes remained floating in the air, his cries of agony fading on the wind that now flowed out of the temple.
* * *
Ingvar was in a dark place, despair filling his heart. He was damned, a lost soul floating in the Abyss between worlds forever. He would have wept if he could have.
"You have much more to do, my friend," said a voice in the darkness near him.
"Who disturbs my torment?"
"What you are feeling is from demon poison, Ingvar. You must have faith and come back to the light. Your friends need you very much."
"My friends are all dead and gone," Ingvar replied sadly. "Even my beloved Cara is lost now." Much to his shock, the voice began to laugh. Ingvar felt a flush of anger that someone would mock his pain.
"You had better grab onto something," the voice said between chuckles. "Things are going to change now."
Ingvar was about to question the stranger, when a gust of wind hit him. The wind was filled with the scent of growing things, flowers and fruits and the essence of Spring-time. The smell alone was enough to drive back his despair. The darkness was shredded by flashes and swirls of green, gold, and silver light. His fatigue vanished, taking with it the weight that had been holding him down. He realized that he could see once more, cobblestones filled his vision as he opened his eyes. He was afraid to move at first, knowing he had been deeply wounded, but soon realized he couldn't feel any pain. He pushed himself up to his knees and looked around. All around him, warriors were stirring. Running footsteps caused him to look behind, and he saw dozens of women and children pouring out of the temple to look for survivors. He got unsteadily to his feet to look for Cara and then she was suddenly there in his arms, threatening to take him off his feet again. They were both laughing and crying as the held each other tightly.
"I thought I had lost you, you big oaf," Cara sobbed into his shoulder. Ingvar smiled.
"I don't know how or why, but I am thankful to feel your arms once more," He whispered as he stroked her hair. Cara tightened her arms around his waist. Ingvar raised his head after a minute and looked around the square. He was stunned to see that everything was different now. The broken temple was restored, all the pillars they had used as barricades were gone. The temple gleamed as if it was just made. I suppose it just was made, Ingvar thought. He could see some warriors still on the ground, their wounds being tended, but he saw no dead defenders. The signs of battle were simply gone, other than those recovering from wounds.
"Why was I healed when the others weren't" Ingvar asked out loud.
"I need you to watch over my wife, Ingvar. You can't do that if you're wounded." Ingvar smiled, recognizing the voice finally.
"Thank you Charlie," Ingvar said quietly. Cara looked around, trying to find the source of the voice. "I promise to do everything I can."
"And I will do what I can…" Charlie said. His presence faded and Ingvar realized they were alone once more.
"Was that… really him?" Cara asked.
"I believe it was," Ingvar said. He wasn't sure what to think about gods and goddesses. He'd never given all that much thought to such matters. But a man asking for help to protect his love, now that was something he could understand. "We'd better go see if everyone is alright."
They walked up the steps and into the temple, gazing in wonder at the gleaming structure. Sunlight streamed from windows high overhead, falling directly on the dais where Charlie's statue had been. It had been replaced with a new statue.
"Oh Charlie, I wish you would stop making these statues," Melissa was saying as they approached. Celora stood by her, one hand covering her mouth as she giggled. Melissa was looking up at the statue with her hands on her hips, looking as though she was trying to look angry. The tears in her eyes and the half smile gave her away, though. They all looked up at the beautiful new statue of the goddess with Melissa's face lifted up to the sunlight. "They're just so embarrassing, but thank you my love."
"Is everyone alright here?" Ingvar asked.
"There were many severe injuries," Celora answered. "But most were healed by Charlie's blessing. Even some of the dead returned to us, though they still have injuries that will need tending."
"Gods be praised," Cara muttered. She looked up and caught Melissa watching and blushed. Melissa just smiled at her and said nothing.
"We'd best be checking on our other companions before we feel too much relief," Ingvar said. "Things are well here, but what about Niall and Mikey?"
"There is nothing here that cannot be tended by those who are already here," Celora said.
"Then let's see if we can find some horses in all of this and go find out," Ingvar said firmly.
* * *
Niall heaved again at the heavy beam that held Mikey trapped. He had cleared most of the wreckage caused by the dragon's attack, but this one last beam lay across her chest pinning her in place. She had been talking to him despite her pain while he worked but had now fallen silent. He was nearly frantic in his desperation to free her. Outside the inn he could still hear the demons trying to get through, although he hadn't heard the dragon in several minutes. He guessed it was looking for another way to get to the survivors.
"Niall, you aren't going to move that alone lad," Jane said behind him. "We need your sword elsewhere."
"My lady needs me right here," he answered angrily. Jane laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Niall… Mikey is…" Jane swallowed and blinked away her tears. "Anyway, you are the best swordsman we have and those thrice-damned demons are still trying to break in. We need you in case they do or we all die. I'll stay with Mikey and others will help. We will get your lady free."
Niall started to argue again but then he caught sight of the faces of the other people in the room behind Jane. They all had tears in their eyes. They all were shaking with fear and exhaustion. Sapphire wormed her way through the crowd and past him. Gently the big black dog licked Mikey's gray face. No! Not gray, just very pale, Niall thought angrily. I will NOT lose her! But he saw the wisdom in what Jane said, even though his heart said otherwise. He was just standing up when Sapphire went on alert, her ears standing erect and pointed out beyond the wreckage blocking the entrance.
"What do you hear, girl?" Niall asked the young dire wolf. Sapphire's tongue lolled out in a doggie laugh and she began prancing. "Something good" Gods know we could use some help here."
Then they heard it: the baying and howling of dire wolves in the distance, coming closer every second. Then came the answering sound of the demons nearby trying to organize a defense. "I need to get outside, now!" Niall shouted.
"We can clear the side door easiest, this way…" A villager pulled at Niall's blood-soaked sleeve and dashed away toward the back of the inn. Niall followed him with Sapphire running behind. They tore the table away from the side door and began levering the nailed boards with a hammer left behind when they'd sealed the door. When it was clear, Niall carefully edged it open and looked outside. Seeing no immediate threat, in fact he saw no enemies at all, he edged out the door. Sapphire shouldered past him and ran to the corner of the building closest to the noise.
The dire wolves stopped their baying just as they reached the front of the building. Niall saw about two hundred demons forming into ranks, but they were too late. Hundreds of dire wolves hit their ranks and tore through. They were silent when they attacked, only occasionally growling as they worried at some limb. The only thing to be heard clearly were the screams of dying demons. Their black blood was splashing everywhere thanks to the savage assault. Niall only saw a few wolves wounded, for as his own dogs would do, the pack turned immediately on any demon that scored a hit on a member of the pack. From where Niall stood, it was almost like watching some frothing sea made of fur; here and there a black armored demon would rise momentarily above the fur like a rock through surf only to be washed away by the next wave.
The dragon chose that moment to emerge from the woods behind the buildings and charge into the fray. Niall's mind went white with rage when he saw the beast that had killed his love. Without any thought, Niall ran out to attack the great beast, his slashing blade drew its attention after a couple quick wounds. The beast turned to snap at him but he refused to yield ground. His rage was so strong that he had no concept of personal danger. If he had, he would have welcomed the chance to die so that he could be with Mikey once more. The beast's armor was thickest around the head, and his blades were striking sparks as he struck but they did little damage.
The dragon lunged forward, and then seemed to stagger. It bellowed in pain and anger and turned away from Niall to face another attacker. Sapphire had ripped the mighty tendon that worked the rear leg, and now the dragon was dragging that left-rear leg as it hung useless and gushing black blood. Niall remembered what his lady had done to the first dragon and without considering the risk he dashed forward, running as nimbly as he could up the tail and the long back of the scaled beast. When he reached the neck he stopped. He sheathed one sword and raised the other high in both hands, point down and thrust with all of his rage and pain. There was a bright silver flash from the blade as it stuck home, the blessed blade sank deep into the dragon's flesh. The beast screamed and thrashed, nearly knocking Niall from his perch. Sapphire darted in and slashed at the exposed throat, seeking a soft spot. Niall worked the blade back and forth seeking something vital inside the beast.
The blade seemed to slip into a groove and then begin to cut. Niall knew then that he had found the space between the vertebrae and should now be cutting the spinal cord. He redoubled his efforts, not caring now if he survived, only wanting… needing to kill this damnable beast. The dragon screeched a terrible sound like tearing metal and then suddenly went limp beneath him. Niall had no strength left, he slumped forward and catapulted over the dragon's frilled head and to the ground below, landing in a ragged heap.
As the darkness took him, he thought he saw swirling light in green and silver joining the gold light of Celora's blessing. "Mikey… My love, I'm coming."
* * *
They arrived at the scene of the battle to find dozens of the dire wolves laying nearby in grass, licking wounds and grooming or simply looking pleased and panting. They stopped in awe of the great dragon lying dead in front of the inn. It was a moment before Celora looked beyond the dragon to see Thomas kneeling on the ground cradling Niall's lifeless form. She slipped from her horse and ran to help, her weariness forgotten.
"Here, let me see him," she told Thomas as she reached his side. Thomas looked up with tear streaks cutting through the layer of dust on his face, his eyes red and raw-looking.
"I fear you're too late, Lady," Thomas said. "I've watched my king die twice now." Celora said nothing but laid a hand on Niall's chest and her other hand on his brow. She closed her eyes and began praying under her breath, lips moving but no sound coming forth.
"Did the dogs bring down this brute?" Ingvar asked softly.
"Only one dog, my Lord," Thomas answered, a look of wonder peeking through his grief. "My Lady's dog, Sapphire, helped. But mostly this was the work of my King."
"Niall took this thing down?" Ingvar whistled softly in appreciation. "Now THAT is a feat worthy of song."
"Let me go…" Niall's said very quietly. "I can't live without Mikey. Let me go."
"Where is she?" Ingvar asked sharply.
"…Held… the door." Ingvar looked at the front of the inn. The whole front of the building was a smashed ruin. There were people trying to move the wreckage away and get to the door, but they weren't able to move the large beam that held everything in place.
"Out of my way!" Ingvar roared and stepped into the gap that appeared as people stumbled out of his way. The huge barbarian king took hold of the beam and tried to lift it. He strained at it but only raised it a few inches. He could hear a whimper beneath the wreckage as he lowered the beam once more. He reached for the Ravens and measured the wreckage, looking for the key that would release the pile. He saw a smaller beam had fallen vertically on top of the main beam. Nothing would move without removing that piece first. Ingvar roared and swung the battle axe in a whistling arc over his head and down into the vertical beam. The Ravens sheared through the dry wood in a single stroke. Ingvar dropped the axe and once more took hold of the beam. This time when he strained all of his muscles, the beam rose free of the tangle. He changed his hold on the beam and began walking it backward out of the doorway. As he made room others rushed in to clear the other wreckage away, quickly revealing the crumpled form of the thief, bloody and still.
Then Celora was there beside Mikey, gently probing for signs of life. "She's alive… barely."
"But the blessing brought many people back from death at the temple," Cara said.
"This was too far away for the main strength of what we did," Melissa told her. Dear Lord in Heaven, Melissa prayed silently. I don't know if it is appropriate for me to pray to you to save someone that Charlie created, but these are real people to me. I love them, and they are good. If I have found any favor in your eyes, please save them. Please guide Celora in healing them. Amen.
Sapphire, who had been hanging back forlornly, began whimpering and crept forward to Mikey's side. After a moment, Celora leaned back and Sapphire's tail began thrashing from side to side, making a thwacking sound as it hit the priestess. "Sapphire, please!" Celora said with a weary laugh. "She's ok, but be very gentle."