Chapter Ten: Hope Unlooked For

Melissa drove the wagon slowly through the village, looking for the Dancing Pig Inn, which the locals referred to as the Lipsticked Pig. "The name's the Dancing Pig," one of the townsfolk had told Melissa when she'd asked for directions to the inn. "But that fancy name's so much like putting lipstick on a pig that's what we call it."

Melissa found the inn on one of the streets that wound up to the crest of the hill the town was built against. The sign boasted a dancing pig, just as promised, though privately Melissa found herself agreeing with the townsfolk, the name and the colors on the sign were a bit intense for a place that was rather ramshackle. She pulled the tired horse to a stop outside the livery stable beside the inn, and made arrangements for their horse to be cared for then went to awaken Celora.

"We're here Celora, time to wake up," she said as she shook Celora's shoulder gently. The young Priestess opened her luminous eyes, looking around her dazedly. "We've reached Tawny Creek, and we'll stay here tonight."

"Is there any chance for a bite of dinner?" Celora asked with a smile.

"Let's go inside and find out, shall we?" Melissa led the way into the inn. The inside of the inn is somewhat better than the outside, Melissa thought. The common room appeared well kept and clean. There were several patrons inside, mostly farmers having a drink after a full day's work. Several men turned to stare appreciatively as the two women entered. They would have been more circumspect if Celora were still wearing her Church robes, but all they saw now were two beautiful unescorted women. Their arrival brought a few invitations to join various men or groups of men. The two women acknowledged the invitations with a nod or a smile and then proceeded to an unoccupied table in the corner of the room near the hearth. It will be cold later, and the fire will help ward off the chill, Melissa thought.

They had barely seated themselves and settled their cloaks in one of the spare chairs before the innkeeper made his way to their table. "Good day ladies, my name is Ned, and I'm the owner of this here inn. How may I be of service?"

"We would like a pair of rooms for the night and some dinner, please," said Melissa.

"Of course, are there other members of your party?"

"Not yet, though another may be joining us later," Melissa answered.

"We have a pot of mutton stew bubbling on the hearth and some fine bread baked fresh this morning," Ned told them. "Or if you'd prefer something else I'd be happy to see what our cook can whip up."

"I think the stew will be fine for me, Celora?"

"It will be fine for me as, well, though I would appreciate a piece of cheese and some fruit if that would be possible," Celora said. Melissa looked at Ned with an eyebrow raised in question.

"Of course, ma'am, I think we can provide something suitable," Ned told them. "What would you like to drink with your meals?"

"Red wine if you have it, otherwise some ale will be fine," said Melissa. Celora nodded her agreement. Ned stepped away to gather their meals. As they watched, he sent a young girl running up the side stairs, presumably to ready their rooms. Celora seemed to be drinking in everything around her.

"Have you traveled much, Celora?" Melissa asked her after a moment.

"Not really, my Lady," Celora answered. "Only when I went on the campaign a year ago with the King's men, and we did not stay in inns along the way. This is a new experience for me."

"Celora, please call me Melissa. If you keep saying 'my lady' people will take notice."

"Yes, my… Yes Melissa, I will try." Celora smiled shyly. Melissa returned the smile, and then chuckled lightly. Ned came back with their food and then two glasses of rich red wine. Ash she was thanking him, Melissa asked if the innkeeper happened to know anyone that could guide them through the Haunted Hills. A sudden hush fell over the room as others caught her question. Ned looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry, but those of us who live so near the Hills don't like to talk much about them," Ned told them. "I doubt you would find anyone here that would be willing to make such an adventure, let alone claim to know the ways of the hills well enough to play guide." Melissa took note of the men in the common room turning their backs on the two women, not wanting to get involved. A very few made gestures that she supposed were designed to ward off evil. One man stood up and walked over to their table, however.

"I can take you into the Hills well enough, ladies," said the stranger as he approached their table. Melissa noted that Ned sneered at the man ever so slightly before nodding and going back to the kitchen. "I'm called Lynn," he said by way of introduction. Melissa gave their names and then offered the man a seat.

"You are a woodsman, Lynn?" Melissa asked him.

"More of an adventurer, to tell the truth," Lynn told her. Lynn was a fairly handsome man, Melissa thought, but there was something vaguely unwholesome about the way his gaze lingered on them, especially when he looked Celora up and down and smiled. Maybe I should let him try to lay a hand on her and see how badly she hurts him, Melissa thought.

"An adventurer," Melissa said as though impressed. "My word, that must be an exciting life. How many times have you been through the haunted Hills?"

"More than I can easily count," Lynn said with a greasy smile. "I can take you women anywhere." Melissa didn't like the oddly placed emphasis in that phrase and was just about to ask him to leave when Celora spoke up.

"You're lying to us," she said simply, just loud enough that the men at the nearest table heard. One of them sputtered and spewed a bit of his drink, then wiped his chin and turned to look at the tableau.

"Little girl you are far more attractive when you don't say anything at all," Lynn said heatedly. "Why don't you go back to being beautiful… and silent?"

"It's dangerous to lie to a priestess of the Church, you know," Celora said matter-of-factly. "Especially one trained in battle. Would you care to rephrase your last comment to me?" Lynn looked nervous for just an instant while Celora was talking, but then his confidence reasserted itself. He reached over to take hold of Celora's hand where it lay on the table. Celora stopped him just short of touching her hand. "Are you absolutely willing to lose that hand?" Lynn's hand hung in midair, and he considered what to do next.

There was a sudden flash of movement between their faces, and Lynn's sleeve was pinned to the back of an empty chair by a quivering arrow. Everyone at the table looked at the arrow for several seconds before turning to see where it had come from. Ronin stood in the doorway with another arrow nocked on his bowstring, pointed in Lynn's general direction but not drawn. "I think the ladies wish to be left alone, Lynn. They certainly don't need a worthless oil-speaker like you trying to bed them then rob them. Isn't that your preferred method?" Lynn almost growled in response.

"Ronin you dirty lying son of a goblin," he said angrily. Ronin laughed at him. Lynn reached over and pulled the arrow with his free hand then started to throw it in the fire.

"I would appreciate not having to knock you into the fire to retrieve my arrow," Ronin said quietly. "Why don't we save time? You just lay the arrow on the table and then leave. That way you won't get hurt again like the last time we met." Lynn froze for a moment, and then laid the arrow on the table with a sigh. He shot an angry look at Melissa and Celora and then stormed out of the common room past Ronin. Ronin stood aside and made no threatening moves, but Lynn still gave him as much room as the doorway allowed. As soon as the man left the room, laughter broke out amongst the patrons of the inn, interspersed with called greetings to Ronin.

"May I join you ladies?" Ronin asked softly as he picked up his arrow and returned it to his quiver. Melissa just waved a hand at the now empty chair where Lynn had been. Celora looked at the newcomer in interest, and Ronin for his part was having difficulty taking his eyes from her face.

"Is this the young lady who owns that necklace you showed me today?" Ronin asked Melissa.

"Yes it is, and that reminds me to return your necklace, Celora." Melissa handed the silver necklace to the priestess. "Ronin, this is Celora Witchborn. Celora, this man is called Ronin. We met this afternoon on the road while you were sleeping."

"Pleased to meet you," Celora said, holding her hand out. Ronin started to take her offered hand, then paused.

"I won't lose the hand, will I?"

"Not unless you are in a habit of lying to us or threatening our safety," Celora said with a smile. Ronin shook her hand gently and smiled broadly.

"It looked as though you were handling Lynn well enough. I certainly hope you don't think me rude for interrupting, I thought I might be able to drive him away quickly is all."

"I must admit I was a bit annoyed at first," Celora said with another glowing smile. "But I realized you had good intentions when I heard you speak." She paused to look long at the necklace in her hand, smiling as she remembered how she had treasured it all her life.

"May I ask where you got that necklace, Celora?" Ronin asked. Melissa noted that his eyes were oddly intent.

"I don't really know," Celora answered. "I've always had it since I was found as a child. I keep hoping someday it will help me to unlock my memories of where I came from, but so far that has been a fruitless wish."

"Perhaps not entirely," Ronin told her. "May I tell you a story of my past?"

"Please, but perhaps you would like to have something to eat or drink with us?"

"Thank you, I would enjoy a mug of ale," Ronin said with a smile. Melissa went to ask Ned to provide a mug of cold ale for their new friend. As she returned with it, Ronin was telling Celora his tale.

"I haven't always been a woodsman, as Melissa here calls me," he said. "Once, long ago I was a simple farmer. With my wife I worked a small holding near the Hills, farther out than most people will farm, but the land was good and there had been peace for so long my woman and I were loath to believe the tales. For several years, things were good; our farm prospered, animals, crops, and all. One season, after we had lived there, my wife gave birth to the most perfect girl child I had ever seen." He paused and took a deep draught of ale.

"Our daughter had dark hair and the most beautiful violet eyes. They could look into your very soul and see the truth in you, or so it seemed to us. We loved her more than life itself. Until it all ended." He drank again, seeming to struggle to hold back tears. He finally sighed and a grim expression came over his face. "The peace we had always known on our farm was shattered when they came. The demons came raiding out of the Haunted Hills, burning and killing. I was working in the fields when they came to our farm. My wife and daughter were in the house. I heard my wife screaming and ran faster than I had ever run before to help her.

"When I reached the house, my wife was holding off a group of three demons with a pitchfork. I killed two of them with my bare hands while my blessed wife killed the third. It was then that I saw that my woman was wounded. She had been sliced across the stomach, badly wounded, even dying right there before my eyes. I held her as she took her last breath and touched my face." Ronin had to stop for several minutes, looking at the fire and wiping away his tears.

"I'm sorry, I haven't spoken of this in years," he said at last.

"Please don't apologize," Celora said, laying her slender hand on his big, rough hand. Melissa thought she detected a small surge of power from the girl, healing the man's sorrow just a little, or maybe just giving him the strength to continue. Whichever it was, Ronin steadied and was able to go on with his tale.

"I took the necklace from around my wife's neck and hung it carefully around our daughter's neck," he said. "It was a seven-rayed star with a white zircon from the Hills mounted in the center. The necklace had been hers from her mother, and was some kind of mark of her people. She had never wanted to talk about it; it seemed to cause her pain so I never pressed for more than that. Anyway, the strangest thing happened when I put the necklace around our daughter's neck. The stone flashed a bright bluish white, more intense that I've ever seen from a stone before. But the strangest part was that the light seemed to penetrate my daughter, becoming a part of her. Her hair turned from dark brown to a bluish white right there on the spot, and her skin took on a pale radiance. I knew she was special, but I never guessed something like that could happen.

"More demons must have come up behind me right about then," Ronin said. "I was hit on the head by something, anyway. Everything seemed to go black and I heard my little girl saying what sounded like 'you will pay for that' and then nothing. When I came to, I was lying in the field near where our house had been. The house and barn had been burnt to the ground, everything was gone. I buried what was left of my wife and wanted nothing more than to join her in her grave, but I had to find our girl. There was no sign of her there. The only signs of the demons were little blacked spots where they had been burnt. I got up and walked away, starting the search that has lasted ever since. My daughter was seven on that day. If she lived, she would be about your age, Celora."

Celora felt like she was caught in a sudden wind storm; she could hear a roaring sound in her ears, and felt vertigo as if she were falling. She held firmly to the table as Ronin spoke again. "May I look more closely at your necklace?" He reached forward and took hold of her necklace, lifting it slightly to catch the light. "Yes, that's the one alright," he said. Celora had the strangest sensation that a door had opened in her mind, a sense of déjà vu as Ronin held the necklace. She looked at his face and saw in her mind a younger version of his features.

"Papa?" Celora said tremulously. Two great tears welled from her eyes.

"Yes, my daughter," Was all he said. They were suddenly both weeping and hugging each other fiercely. Melissa was smiling through her own tears, happy to see these two reunited after so long. She saw a plenty of smiles around the room, farmers that were feeling joy for one of their own. And for a long lost daughter come home at last.

When they awakened the next morning, the women were surprised by a gathering of townsfolk with gifts for them both. Somehow, Melissa was included by her good fortune, as the townsfolk saw it, of finding Celora and bringing her home again. Once they discovered that Melissa and Celora were on a long journey, they brought items that the pair would need. Soon they were well outfitted with riding skirts and shirts, cloaks, and boots, all suitable for traveling by horseback. There were cooking pots and utensils for camping, and saddle bags to hold everything.

Ronin had brought a shaggy horse for himself to ride. Then he made arrangements to trade the wagon to the blacksmith for another horse so the two women would have mounts. They weren't fast, but they were the best to be had in the village. Ronin seemed displeased with the quality of the horses, but didn't say anything to offend the generosity of the people helping them.

"Are you up to riding a horse?" Melissa asked Celora. They were all tired from sitting up late talking of their plans, and father and daughter just beginning to tell years worth of tales. But Melissa's chief concern was for Celora's wounded back.

"Oh yes, I should be fine," she answered. "All that sleep let me heal quite well."

At last all was ready for their departure. Celora was hugged by many of the women of the village, and Ronin was congratulated by the men. The mounted their horses and rode slowly up the road toward the northern edge of the town. Celora turned more than once to wave at the people standing in front of the inn. Melissa just smiled, still very happy for father and daughter. It took them about a half hour to pass the last outlying house in the village. Once they were out of sight of the town, Ronin led them off the road and toward the Hills off in the distance to the east.

They hadn't gone very far when Ronin's wolf companion joined them. The two horses the women rode were unused to being so near a wolf, and they both bucked and shied until Celora murmured a spell of calming over them. They were still wild-eyed at times, but they tolerated the wolf's presence without further complaint.

"Your friend, Papa?" Celora asked, indicating the wolf.

"Yes, this is Bob," he told her. Celora laughed at the choice of names, expecting something grander.

"Please to make your acquaintance, Master Bob," she said to the wolf. Bob, for his part, stopped still and looked at her for a long moment. Celora gazed back in surprise, realizing she could hear the wolf's thoughts. "He's asking if we are to be pack mates."

Ronin stared at his daughter for a moment, considering. Then he looked at Bob. "Yes, Bob," he told the wolf. "These are pack mates. And no, you may not eat the horses." Bob sneezed and loped off into the brush, disappearing completely.

"He said he wouldn't eat a horse anyway," Celora told them. "I've never talked with a wolf before, or any other animal for that matter. Papa, how did you come to have a white wolf for a companion?"

"I freed him from a demon trap one winter while hunting in the Hills," Ronin said. "His pack was dead and he seemed to be as lonely as I was. We just sorta took to each other and became friends as he healed."

"Does he talk to you, too?" Celora asked her father.

"Not really, I don't have the magic for it." He didn't say anything more for several minutes. "Your mother was able to talk to animals that way. I figure that's why you can, too. He doesn't talk to me, or rather I can't hear words, but he makes his meaning plain enough if you know how to read the body language."

"That explains a bit of your success hunting the demons," Melissa said.

"Aye, they can fool my ears and eyes right well sometimes," Ronin told her. "But we haven't seen a demon yet that can defeat Bob's nose."

They rode in silence a long while. Their path took them over broad meadows and through groves of trees. Ronin led the way, keeping them out of easy view whenever possible, and riding briskly through the areas where they were more exposed. They saw no humans as they rode, though they frequently startled groups of deer and elk as they passed through the trees. Celora was delighted to see so many animals. Melissa was wondering if she talked to all of them, and amused herself privately by inventing conversations between the priestess and the various animals. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, but she soon found herself wanting the ride to be over. Her muscles were aching from being on her horse for so long.

"Ronin, is there a place we can take a break and rest a time?" Melissa called. Ronin didn't respond, and she was about to ask again, when they came out of the trees suddenly along a small stream. Ronin pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted.

"How about a lunch break?" Ronin answered with a smile. Melissa found herself smiling in spite of her aching legs and back.

"Convenient timing, I must say," she told him. Celora just laughed and pointed. Melissa looked across the river and saw Bob come capering through the tall grass chasing a mouse. The wolf darted this way and that as the mouse tried to elude capture, finally pouncing and bending to eat the poor creature in a gulp.

Melissa happened to be watching Celora's face when Bob caught the mouse and saw her flinch and then smile sadly. "Are you hearing hunter and prey?" Melissa asked her.

"Yes, sadly," Celora answered. "Bob was very satisfied."

"What did the mouse say?" Ronin asked.

"He said "Oh crap!" and then nothing else, that's why I wanted to laugh even though it was sad."

"Perhaps you should give some thought to shutting out the thoughts more often?" Melissa suggested.

"I think you're right, otherwise I fear I might go mad eventually." They settled by the stream after letting their horses drink, and ate a light meal. After a time Melissa spoke.

"So what can we expect once we reach the Hills, Ronin?"

"Mostly nothing, if we're lucky," he said. "The Hills are barren except for a few stunted and twisted trees. There are no people and no animals, again, that's if we're lucky."

"And if we are not so lucky?" Celora asked him.

"I expect you saw some of that during that campaign you went on," he told his daughter. "If the demons are active, there may be roving bands hunting any trespasser. There could be traps ranging from the kind that pinned Bob and nearly killed him, to traps meant for humans. If we see or hear anyone, do not approach unless I tell you it's safe."

"They pretend to be people in need?" Melissa asked.

"Yes, and sometimes they use real people in need to pull you in," he said. "More than once I've had to ride away and leave some poor man or woman because there was no way to save them. I still dream of one or two of those."

Melissa sat thinking. Charlie never wrote much of anything about the Hills. I don't know what to expect here at all. Celora opened her pack and removed the silver-chased battle hammer and her spell book. Obviously she was preparing in case she needed to fight soon. Ronin looked on, apparently torn between awe and pride. He had been very impressed to discover that his long lost little girl had grown into a powerful battle priestess and war hero. When he'd heard about how she had been treated after that campaign, he had very nearly ridden off to deal with the High Priestess himself. He had been satisfied, barely, when Melissa told him of the punishment she had delivered.

Ronin had not been pleased to hear their goal. He knew how dangerous the Hills could be, and he knew of no lands beyond them. Probably because he is right, Melissa thought. There are no lands beyond the Haunted Hills, at least, not within this world. Celora was steadfast in her devotion to Melissa, and even though she didn't explain openly to her father about Melissa's divinity, her dedication to the woman was enough for Ronin. Since he couldn't dissuade them, he set his mind to guiding them and keeping them safe.

For her own part, Melissa was hoping they wouldn't need to have a demonstration of Celora's power, especially her healing ability.

They camped that night nestled beneath a rocky ridge close to the beginning of the true Haunted Hills. Ronin had suggested that they try to make it through in one day, and not have to try and make camp within the demon's domain. Firewood was hard to come by, but Ronin proved to be a resourceful camper. Soon they had a small concealed campfire burning and a hot meal bubbling over it. Celora was thumbing through her spell book, familiarizing herself with the most useful spells so they would come easily to mind if needed. She paused at one point and her lips moved for several minutes. Finally she gestured to release the spell she had been building and a shimmering dome rose above them, descending slowly to the ground. Bob came dashing in under the edge before it reached the ground and sat grinning at Celora.

"What is this you've done, girl?" Ronin asked her.

"It's a spell that conceals our camp from view," she said with a smile. "I thought it might make it easier for all of us to sleep tonight."

"Will it prevent anyone from hurting us?"

"No, but it will keep anyone from seeing our camp unless they manage to walk directly through it. They won't be able to hear us, either. I think we can sleep without a watch tonight, Bob can alert us if anything wanders near."

Ronin grunted in acknowledgment, plainly welcoming the chance to sleep without much concern. One by one they settled into their blankets and drifted off to sleep. Celora whispered goodnight to Bob and saw the wolf's ears flick in answer.

They awoke the next morning, rested and ready to be on their way. They ate a cold breakfast rather than building another fire. That's one drawback for the girl's trick, thought Ronin. It makes the morning a bit harder. Within a short time they were packed, mounted, and moving swiftly over the ridge and into the Hills.

Melissa gasped in surprise as they entered the Hills proper. She was the only one of the three that had never journeyed here and she was unprepared for the sudden change. The ridge where they had camped was barren and unwelcoming, true, but here there was almost no life at all. The few twisted trees Ronin had described looked like demons themselves more than children of a kind Nature. They traveled over hard ground, sandy or graveled but hard packed. The horse's hooves rang over the stone they crossed at times, and sounded unnaturally loud on the sand.

The light around them was reddish, even after the sun had climbed above the rocky crags ahead. The sky directly overhead seemed black yet devoid of stars. Melissa shivered, finding it a truly alien landscape. It made her wonder what the lands they would travel later would be like. The author's touch had not been made here, nor in the lands that separated her from her husband. That meant that anything could happen, any kind of monster or demon could lurk. She hoped it also meant that they might find help along their way. They rode on.

Once the sun had climbed above the peaks ahead, it seemed to shimmer and disappear into the blackness. They still had light around them, as if the sun's illumination still reached the ground through the black shield that was the sky in this place. From that time on, there was effectively no way to determine the time of day. Melissa wondered if that had something to do with Ronin's reluctance to spend more than one day in the region. Then she heard the real reason for his concern. There came a shrill cackling howl behind them. It was still some distance away, but it still caused the horses to shy and try to bolt. Melissa worked a little magic of her own and steadied the horses, granting them additional strength to run without stopping. She looked over and saw Celora working her own spells of protection about them. Soon the air shimmered around each of them as she formed magical armor over each person, their horses, and even Bob.

Within minutes, they heard another gibbering howl coming from another direction. Melissa guessed this meant that other demons were joining the hunt. They rode faster now, still keeping their horses controlled so they wouldn't tire before the end of their race. Ronin was calm, focused on finding the best path ahead that led them where they wanted to go. Melissa focused on what the pathway to the doorstep of the Tower would look like in this world, willing them all to find it quickly before the demons found all of them. There, she thought, there's the notch in the peaks that marked the beginning of the road.

"Ronin!" Melissa shouted to him. "Make for that notch in the ridge, that's the road we want." The hunter nodded and changed their path slightly. They were climbing steadily now, but the howls were coming closer seeming almost on top of them. At one point there came a loud snarl and then a painful yelping. Melissa was concerned that the wolf had been hurt. But after a moment, Bob came leaping into view on her left, his white muzzle was dripping with blackish blood. Apparently, the yelping had been one of the demons. She smiled. "Good boy, Bob!" The wolf didn't answer her, but kept running.

Celora canted another spell, this time granting strength and courage to all of them. Melissa felt renewed energy flowing through her body and grinned fiercely. This could almost be viewed as fun, in a way, she thought. The horses seemed to be flowing smoothly over the hard ground, almost dreamlike in the way things were blurring by her on both sides. They could hear another pair of demon voices behind them now, replacing the one that had fallen to Bob's discouragement. Melissa thought they would easily outpace the demons at this rate, when disaster struck.

Melissa's horse placed a hoof in precisely the wrong spot, finding a weak spot in the rock they were thundering across. The stone cracked and gave way causing the horse to stumble and then fall sprawling across the hard surface. Melissa was thrown far through the air to land in a crumpled heap at the base of a rock outcropping. Ronin was unaware that she had fallen, being too far in the lead. Celora had just ridden out of sight. Melissa's head was spinning; her horse was still down and just struggling to rise again. The area around her became very quiet suddenly. The world around her seemed to hold its breath.

A demon's cackling howl sounded very close to where Melissa crouched, she wondered if she would the time to perform any kind of magic when the demon found her. The howl split the air, so loud that Melissa clapped hands over her ears in a futile effort to block the painful noise. Then the demon leaped into the clearing where she lay helpless.

It seemed to have come directly from a nightmare. The demon was about five feet tall as it crouched on all fours. It looked vaguely like a cat, with slit-pupil eyes and long fangs. It's body was scaled, rather than furred. Melissa had the incongruous thought that if you used a pencil to make long jaggedly tight lines to outline a panther, you might come up with something like this. It saw her as soon as it landed and growled in delight. It approached Melissa slowly, appearing to draw some kind of sustenance from her fear, just as it most likely would from her flesh. She saw it crouch, gathering its muscles beneath its jagged exterior for a killing pounce.

There came a sound of horse hooves pounding toward her. Too late, I fear, Melissa thought. Then Celora came thundering into the clearing, swinging her war hammer right through the head of the demon. There was a crack of lightning and a brilliant flash as the mace impacted the creature's head. The demon flashed into fire and ash, and then was gone. "Can you mount?" Celora called to her urgently.

"Yes, I think so," Melissa answered. She ran to her shivering horse, quieting it with a touch, and then mounted. Celora swung her horse around and kicked its flanks to force it to a gallop. Melissa followed suit as soon as she was in the saddle, and the chase began again. As she came around the rock outcrop that she had landed against, she could see Ronin coming back for the women. He halted as they came into view then fell in beside them.

"Are you alright?" Ronin called to Melissa.

"Thanks to your little girl, yes I am," she called back with a grin. "Although my horse and I would be dead without your protective spells Celora, thank you." Celora just smiled in response and kept riding.

They rode without further incident for more than two hours, or what seemed like forever to Melissa. She had the opportunity to calm her nerves from her fall, though she could still hear the demons closing behind them. They seemed to only be able to keep pace with the riders now, or else they were choosing not to overtake them. That thought gave her cause for concern as they were nearing the edge of the Hills, and presumably safety from the demon packs. Apparently the thought had occurred to the others as well. Melissa could see them readying their weapons. As she watched, Celora surged forward to ride beside Ronin for a moment, reaching across to lay a hand on his quiver of arrows and murmuring a spell.

Melissa smiled. The young priestess thought well on her feet, apparently. So far she had shown that she could calmly handle whatever the demons threw their way. Melissa fervently hoped that would remain true as they began their journey in earnest.

Ronin pulled his bow from its sling on his back and prepared an arrow. Melissa didn't know whether he had seen a threat, or if he was expecting trouble as they neared the edge of the demon's domain. They entered a long upward sloping valley that climbed toward the notched pass they were making for. If they could just pass through here they should be free. And then Melissa saw the demons that were waiting for them ahead. There were four or five on rock outcrops lining the valley about halfway along its length, and one very large demon just walking down into the center of the valley to stop them. This demon was huge compared to the one that had attacked Melissa earlier. It was easily bigger than a horse, and though it had the same general appearance, it also had longer fangs and additional horns protruding from its back like a ridge down the spine.

Ronin drew and fired an arrow at the lead demon. Melissa watched the arrow streak toward the demon, falling in a shallow arc. The demon reared to swat down the arrow, and instead took the arrow deep in its breast. The demon bellowed in rage and pain and then began clawing at the wound fiercely, shredding its own hide in a futile attempt to remove the arrow. Melissa wondered at that until she saw light emerging from the areas that had been clawed; the arrow was causing the demon to burn from within. In seconds the beast was reduced to ashes, and the lesser demons were backing away slightly in fear.

Melissa smiled grimly, and prepared her own surprise. Obviously light was a weapon here, or rather the light of creation instead of mere fire or visible light. And she was familiar with the light of creation. The demons behind them were sprinting forward now, giving their full effort to catching the riders within the valley. Ronin fired another arrow, and another demon burned and died. Melissa gathered her memories of her husband when he had written the beginning of Celora's story, added her own feelings of love, and tried to weave them into a mental net. Turning in her saddle, she imagined a wall of brilliant fire erupting across the valley where she had just passed. She felt the instant of vertigo that had become so familiar and saw the wall rise just as she imagined. The demons tried to stop, two of them were even skidding and frantically clawing in an effort to halt their advance, but to no avail. The four that followed them passed into the fire and disappeared in brilliant flashes that left afterimages on her retinas. She grinned fiercely and turned to see how the others were faring.

Ronin had now accounted for three, including the massive pack leader. Celora had smashed another with her mace as it tried to reach her father. The last demon was now running for its life, leaping from rock to rock as it fled. Ronin reined in and lifted his bow. He fired one arrow, looking impossibly high to Melissa's inexperienced eye. She watched the arrow arc high above the valley wall and then plummet toward the demon as it reached the crest, unaware of its peril. The arrow struck the demon in the center of its back, and flames erupted from the impact. In a second, the demon was gone. They rode on at a slower pace now, letting their horses rest somewhat after the harrowing ordeal. Without the strength and endurance spells that Celora had given them all, they surely would have fallen after a short time, too exhausted to continue even for their lives.

As they trotted into the upper end of the valley, Melissa could see a few real trees here and there, living examples of a kinder Nature than they had passed in the Haunted Hills. The air smelled better here, or perhaps it was just the sense of hard-won freedom that made the air sweet.

"We all need rest," Ronin said. "The horses don't have much left. I suggest we try to get beyond the ridge before we stop. The demons might try to reach us if they can sense us at all."

They rode on, up out of the valley and onto the ridge above. Once at the top of the ridge, they saw a black stone road stretching into the pass and out of sight in the distance where the valley bent. They reined in their horses and dismounted for a rest. Melissa was shaking from exhaustion and stress, and the others were in similar shape. Their horses were trembling and stumbling as they tried to walk. They gave the horses some water and a bit of food to help restore some energy, and then sat down to rest themselves.

"We can't stay here," said Ronin. "We're too close to the demons to be safe."

"If we can go on, we will find shelter within two hours' ride up this road," said Melissa quietly. She hated the idea of going on, and knew the others felt the same way. "We will be safe there and can stay for an extra day or two to recover if we decide to do so."

"If you have never been through here before, how do you know so much about the landmarks and where to find shelter?" Ronin asked her.

"Father, don't question Our Lady," Celora interjected. Ronin looked surprised as much by her interruption as by her words.

"Celora, please," Melissa said quietly. Celora blushed and put a hand to her lips. "I have certain advantages, Ronin. My husband created this world, and I remember much of what he created. Some things, I have some control over, like the shelter waiting for us. Others, I have no knowledge of or control over, like the demons."

"Then you really are the Goddess, as my daughter says?" He looked disturbed and even frightened by the prospect. Melissa laughed, leaving him looking stunned.

"I certainly don't think of myself as a goddess, and you don't need to treat me like one," she told them. "The reality is a bit complicated, and would be difficult for you to accept, I think. In any case, I would prefer not to address that discussion until we have met the rest of our party.

"The short explanation is this," she continued. "My husband was an author, a storyteller, and somehow the stories he made came to life. And now, he is very ill and being held captive where I cannot go to him. This is what we are trying to do, save him before it is too late for all of us. Does that help at all?" Ronin nodded without speaking, still looking as though someone had hit him over the head. Oh dear, thought Melissa, this might be more difficult than I thought.

"Then you and your husband are not the goddess and god of this world after all?" Celora asked.

"Well, it's not that simple, my dear. We did create this world, and others. We do have power to shape them, but we are just mortal man and woman in our own world. I don't know if that is true here, and I hope you'll forgive me if I am not in a rush to test my divinity here." She smiled at them both, and Celora suddenly laughed.

"Now, that I can understand," said Ronin with crooked smile.

"Think we can press on to the shelter?" Melissa asked them. They looked at each other as if gauging their strengths.

"I think we should at least try for this shelter you speak of," Ronin said after a minute. "I don't know about you ladies, but this old man is tired."

"Papa, you're not old," Celora told him.

"Maybe not," Ronin answered with a straight face. "But I am tired."

They rode slowly through the canyon-like pass. The hoof beats sounded loud in the confined space. It was getting cold around them now, as the sun was setting far to the west. They had been riding slowly, but steadily through the pass for more than the two hours that Melissa had promised. But then, we've been moving slower than riders would normally travel, thought Ronin. The horses were stumbling on occasion, their muscles trembling. More than once, Celora had used a spell to temporarily restore their energy, but it was lasting a shorted time each time she used it.

They were approaching a bend in the canyon, the road disappeared around the shoulder of the canyon wall. Ronin worried that they would not reach this promised shelter before they lost all of the light they still had. It was twilight now, and in these hills it wouldn't take long to become very dark indeed. They rounded the bend and he saw the shelter ahead and on their right. It was a small stone hut that backed against the hillside. There was a chimney, promising a fire tonight if they had wood. There was also a small barn attached to the hut, where the horses could rest out of the weather.

The horses seemed to sense that here was shelter for them all, and they picked up their weary hooves and moved quicker. Bob loped ahead to check the place for other inhabitants, perhaps he's hoping to disturb some mice, Ronin thought with a smile. Bob pushed the door open with his nose, and entered the hut. He came out again and dashed into the barn. There was a furious commotion, and Ronin grabbed his bow quickly. The door to the barn burst open as Bob chased a mouse out of the barn and finished him off with a quick gulp. Ronin chuckled and hung his bow back in its sling.

They dismounted in front of the barn and took the horses inside. It was very dark inside, but they were able to unsaddle their mounts and rub them down. Ronin went inside to set a fire on the hearth. As the flames caught, some light spilled through a high window between the barn and the hut, giving Melissa and Celora a bit of welcome light to gather their belongings and bring them inside. They closed the door to the barn, shutting in the mounts. The women entered the hut, closing the door on the night behind them.

The inside was rustic, but comfortable and safe. There were low wooden beds with thin mattresses for them to sleep on. Melissa felt bad for not thinking of that for the other huts, but was too tired to do anything about it. Our other party members will just have to do the best they can, she thought. Ronin had a fire going well now, and the shadows danced on the walls hypnotically. They agreed to eat a cold dinner rather than cooking, and ate in silence. Ronin produced a skin of mead and they each had a drink. The golden wine warmed them even as it made eyelids heavy.

They each took a bed and settled into their blankets. Ronin had spread a blanket before the door for Bob. Melissa smiled but chose not to comment. The big white wolf settled on his bed and leaned against the door. He would alert them if any danger approached. One by one they fell into a deep and well-earned sleep.