Chapter Twelve: Darkness at Dawn

Melissa couldn't sleep, though she tried. She was exhausted from travel and fear and sorrow, and yet sleep would not come. She tossed and turned in the narrow cot in her small room, perhaps dozing off and on for as much as twenty minutes at a time, but she never felt that she actually slept. Finally, around four o'clock in the morning, she rose and dressed for the day.

Melissa tip-toed through the stone house toward the front door. The fire had burned low and there was very little light left in the main room. She could see the still form of Ronin sleeping on the floor before the door to the room where Celora slept. Melissa smiled at the sight, and then looked for Bob. The white wolf was nowhere to be found. She quietly opened the front door and stepped outside into the brisk predawn air. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and lower face, breathing through the soft wool to help keep herself warm. She also looped a length of the woolen scarf over her head to slow the loss of her body's heat, and then topped it by raising the hood of her cloak. Although the early morning air was below freezing, Melissa actually felt rather comfortable.

As she stood looking out toward the gray Eastern horizon, she noticed a faint plume of steam rising from the tumbled stone blocks around the tower's base. Someone else must be having trouble sleeping, she thought. She walked closer and made out the faint shape of Ingvar sitting on a pile of rubble near the tower.

"Good morning Ingvar," Melissa said softly as she approached. The grizzled warlord turned his head at the sound and smiled at her.

"Good morning," he said simply. Melissa settled near him on another block positioned where she both faced Ingvar and the coming dawn.

"Are you standing guard or having trouble sleeping?" Melissa asked him.

"A little of both perhaps," Ingvar replied with a soft chuckle. "I always have trouble sleeping the night before a battle. My wounds ache for some reason."

"Anticipation, perhaps?" Melissa asked.

"Aye, anticipation of new wounds to be joining the old, more likely," Ingvar said with another wry chuckle. "Actually I've found the night before a battle to be a time of profound clarity; a chance to honestly examine my motives and my conscience."

"Why, Ingvar," Melissa exclaimed in mock admiration. "You have the soul of a poet under that rough exterior." Ingvar quirked an eyebrow at her and then smiled.

"Cara has accused me of that once or twice," he said. "But you really don't want to hear me sing. Trust me on that." Melissa laughed softly with him. The predawn stillness seemed to discourage loud speech. It was a time that was perfect for introspection, just as Ingvar said; a time to examine one's soul and prepare to leave the world just in case things went bad. Melissa shivered.

"Are you warm enough, Melissa?" Ingvar asked.

"Yes, I'm fine, thanks," she replied. "Just worried about what the day will bring. I can't shake the feeling that this is going too easily."

"Aye, I can understand that feeling well enough," he said.

"So you have been out here all night?" Melissa asked him. "I'll bet you're rather cold by now."

"No, not all night," he answered. "I slept for a time; Cara wouldn't let me sit out here all night unless I'd angered her. I woke two or three hours ago after another bad dream."

"A bad dream? Is that a common thing for you?"

"It has become a common thing for me, yes," he said. "I keep dreaming of a man being held prisoner, or at least I think he's a prisoner. He's being treated for an illness but the one treating him is also trying to pry some secret from him."

Melissa became very still as Ingvar described his dreams of the prisoner. She was certain that he was describing Charlie, that somehow Ingvar was linked to Charlie and feeling his pain. "How long have you had these dreams? Melissa asked at one point when Ingvar had fallen silent. He looked out at the gray horizon a few moments before answering.

"They started soon before you appeared in my throne room that night," Ingvar said at last. "Time is a bit fuzzy for me prior to that night. I suppose that would be the symptom of your husband's not finishing my story, eh?" Melissa thought that Ingvar's eyes looked a bit haunted as he spoke. She imagined that a man of action would have trouble accepting ideas beyond what he could directly experience.

"Yes, that is what I believe to be true," she told him. He nodded once in acceptance, and Melissa was sharply reminded of her husband. Charlie had indeed put a lot of himself into creating Ingvar; this huge warrior was very much like her Charlie in mannerisms at times. And yet he was very definitely a powerful warrior and a king. His presence was overwhelming at times, his will could persuade you to his point of view without having to hear his words. Melissa felt very comforted near him, even as his similarity to Charlie made her ache all the more for her husband's company.

"Somehow, you're linked to Charlie," Melissa told him quietly. "Charlie once told me that he felt that he had placed too much of himself into creating your story. Now I see what he meant. I'm sorry that your sleep is troubled by dreams of my husband's plight, and yet I am so hungry to news of him that I welcome hearing about your dreams. Does that make sense?"

"Any other time or place, no," he said with a half-smile pulling at one side of his mouth. "Given what we've been going through, yes I think it does make sense. But that could be that I'm loopy from lack of sleep." They both laughed at that.

They sat together in a companionable silence, waiting for the sun to rise over the horizon. Melissa was struck by how silent this land was. There didn't appear to be any wildlife here; no tracks disturbed the snow for as far as she could see. There were few trees in the distance, here and there poking through the snow or leaning over a hilltop. The land rolled gently away from them on all sides until it reached the mountains that framed this wide valley. The air was so still that Melissa imagined the world was holding its breath.

A sudden movement near Melissa made her start. Bob was suddenly standing at her side facing outward and sniffing the air. The white wolf seemed to be nervous, although Melissa couldn't put her finger on what made her think that. Perhaps Ronin and Celora's gifts for communicating with the wolf were rubbing off on her. Thus, she wasn't completely surprised when Bob began to growl softly.

"Melissa, go wake the others," Ingvar ordered quietly. "We have company and may need to leave soon."

Melissa tried to see what was causing the concern but failed to find anything amiss for several seconds. And then she saw it: a black scaled back ducking behind a hilltop some distance out from their position. "What is it? Can you see?" Melissa asked him.

"Whatever it is, I think it may have friends out there," he answered. "And our wolf friend here doesn't like them. That's enough for me. Please go now, get the others moving." This time, Melissa simply obeyed without further discussion.

She burst into the stone house expecting to have to rouse everyone, only to find people were beginning to stir on their own. Celora was bent down, gripping Ronin's shoulder to shake him awake, and they both turned to look at Melissa as she entered the house. She heard Cara murmuring Ingvar's name in their room followed by the sounds of her moving around. The was a yelp from the room where Mikey and Niall were sleeping, closely followed by Mikey's sleepy voice.

"Okay Sapphire, okay," Mikey said irritably. "If you need to go outside, just go. Why do you need to bite my foot?"

Melissa knocked on the doors that were still closed, and then said loudly enough for all to hear her, "We need to get ready for trouble." There was an instant of silence, and then everyone began moving quickly, dressing and arming themselves. "Cara, please help me get things packed and out to the horses," Melissa called.

"What is it, my Lady?" Celora asked.

"We saw something sneaking toward our camp," Melissa said. "The only glimpse I had looked like whatever it was had black scales."

"Could there be demons here?" Celora asked. "Or maybe they followed us?"

"I don't know, but that's a good possibility," Melissa answered. "Did you shield the camp last night?"

"Yes," the priestess said. "Although it won't hold long if there are more than a few demons. I didn't focus on a shield that would kill demons, just one that would keep them out and gives us time to respond."

There was a booming sound, and then the twang of Ronin's bowstring. A horrible scream filled the air, bubbling down to a pitiable mewling. Celora ran back into her room for her prayer book and battle mace. She was met at the door by Niall and Mikey with drawn blades. Cara and Melissa quickly gathered the remaining gear, stuffing most of it into packs without much concern over properly separating the items by owner; that could be done later. Taking a last look around, they dragged the heavy packs out to the horses and began strapping them in place. Cara had to show Melissa how to secure the packs, but then Melissa was able to handle the task on her own.

The air was ringing with loud booming sounds, sometimes followed by more screams as Ronin found a mark with his arrows. The demons were dying faster now that Celora had added her blessings to his weapons as he fired. Now the screams were followed by the rushing sound of flames consuming the demons. Melissa went back outside to see how she could help, only to find a scene from a nightmare.

The shield that Celora had surrounded the camp with was glowing a bright gold where it intersected the ground. Surrounding them were dozens of demons, their large cat-like bodies heaving and slamming against the dome of the holy shield. The booming sound came whenever a demon launched itself high into the air to come crashing down on the shield. There were clouds of gray ashes swirling around the demons, a testament to Ronin's devastating skill with his bow. Unfortunately for them all, his arrows were nearly depleted and the demons were still coming.

"Melissa!" Ingvar shouted. "We can't stay here. I suggest you do whatever needs to be done to open a way for us." That sounds like my Charlie, Melissa thought wildly. He would make an order sound like a suggestion, too.

Melissa looked around for any way to get them to safety. She was feeling a wave of panic threatening to overwhelm her senses, a rising pressure within her as she started to hyperventilate. We could hide in the tower, she thought. But the tower would only provide enough room for the people, probably not enough for the canine members of the party, and certainly not enough for horses. We need to get to safety, but where? Melissa fought her rising panic, struggled to breathe slower and deeper.

No, she thought suddenly. We don't need to move to safety. We need to move forward on our path. She had brought them all here for a reason. She knew this tower was a meeting place between worlds. Charlie had described it to her once as an idea for a new story. The doorway to the ruined tower would serve as a portal to their next destination if she could just figure out how to activate it. And she only had a few minutes, perhaps less, before the demons would be through the shield.

Melissa tried to focus her thoughts on how she had transported herself between the worlds of Charlie's imagination before. She could move between them fairly easily, but this time she had to bring horses and people with her. She needed a doorway of some kind to provide the opening. A doorway, she thought. The tower had been figuring prominently in her thoughts up until now. It was in ruins, but the arch that had once held its doors was still intact. Melissa stood facing the archway, imagining a portal that would connect them to their next destination. She felt something within her mind like pieces of a puzzle snapping together and opened her eyes. There was a dark rippling surface suspended in the doorway now, looking for all the world like a rippling pool of dark water, or maybe oil, except that it stood vertically in the opening. Melissa shifted her eyes to the fight going on around her, and suddenly, the portal collapsed. Oh no, Melissa thought. It won't stand without my concentration!

A demon broke through the shield and charged at Melissa as if sensing that she was the focus of power within the group. She had the clear view of its fanged maw and outreached talons as it leaped for her. She was drawing a breath to scream when the demon was smashed to the side by Bob's diving assault. As the two forms rolled to a stop against a pile of fallen masonry, Sapphire dashed in and ripped out the demon's throat. Melissa nearly collapsed in shock, but forced herself to keep standing. These people are depending on me for their lives, she thought angrily.

"I need to hold the portal open while you all go through," Melissa called to the rest of the group. "We need to get the horses through, and then ourselves. I'll have to come last." There was a babble of dissent as each person tried to dissuade her from staying behind as they passed to safety. "The longer we argue, the shorter time we have for the shield to protect us. Your choice, but choose soon please." They stopped arguing and started moving. Cara started pulling horses out of the barn, and after a moment Ronin went to join her, all his arrows spent. Mikey, Niall, and Ingvar stood with weapons drawn, ready to handle any demon that broke through the shield, which was happening more frequently now. Celora helped with horses, pausing every so often to speak a hurried prayer to brace the shield or quiet the horses.

Melissa turned back to the opening and imagined the portal once more. It came easier this time, having already been formed once in her mind. She stood facing the doorway, keeping the image of the portal strong within her mind and then called to the others. "Cara, start taking the horses through now, the others need to follow after them. I'll come last and the portal will close behind me."

Cara bit her lip to prevent any argument, nodded once and then walked the lead horse to the portal. The horses were tied to each other, so that one would follow the next and hopefully would stay together on the far side with little management from whoever was there. Celora wanted to stay behind to help Melissa, but before Melissa could argue, Ronin gripped Celora's elbow and pushed her through the portal. All the horses were through, and the others were drawing in close to the portal covering the retreat. Three demons crashed through the shield at once.

Bob and Sapphire attacked one of the demons, leaving two for their human pack-mates. Ingvar made short work of one, nearly splitting it down the middle with a single strike with the Ravens. Melissa shuddered at the wreckage caused by the massive axe but kept her concentration on the portal. Niall and Mikey were able to slice up the remaining demon with multiple slashing cuts.

"You two get through the portal next," Ingvar shouted at the two beside him. "Take the four footed ones with you. I'll bring Melissa."

Mikey protested, but Niall nodded and grabbed her wrist and pulled her after him. Bob and Sapphire followed them. Ingvar was just turning to follow when a huge demon crashed through the shield and struck him down with a swipe of its cruelly taloned paw. Ingvar cried out as he was forced down to his knees. Melissa let her attention waver slightly and the portal rippled and nearly closed. The demon stepped over Ingvar and stalked toward Melissa. It bared its dripping fangs beside her face as if trying to strike terror into her heart before it killed her. It never got the chance.

Ingvar wasn't dead, but he was bleeding to death from the massive tear in his back. He rose to his feet and swung a backhanded blow at the demon's exposed neck. The Ravens sliced through the heavy scales covering the beast's neck and sent the head bouncing across the stones. Ingvar staggered and nearly collapsed.

"Ingvar!" Melissa shouted. "You have to get through the portal, now!" Melissa didn't hear a response, and nearly turned away from the portal to look for him. Ingvar struggled to stay on his feet and to stagger toward her. The shield collapsed with a sound like breaking glass. The demons came bounding through, completely unrestrained now. Melissa knew she was going to die and that everything would be lost. Oh Charlie, I'm so sorry, she thought. Something heavy hit her from behind and carried her to the ground. There was darkness, and cold.

Cara stepped forward into the portal, tugging at the reins of the lead horse. The surface felt like stepping into a membrane that stretched before her, resisting her passage at first. Then it seemed to tear away around her and she felt a cold so intense it seemed to burn her skin. And then, as quickly as it started, it was over and she was through the portal on the other side. The horse at her side whickered and stamped a bit as it came through, but whatever spell Celora had laid upon it before seemed to have helped the beast maintain its calm. Cara continued pulling the horse through so that the others would follow.

After a moment, and several horses, she saw Celora and Ronin come through the rippling darkness of the portal. They helped her to get the horses through and lined up out of the way of the portal, in case the others had to come through quickly. She was quite frightened for her lord, knowing that he was likely to stand the rearguard. It seemed like hours passed, though she knew it was only seconds, before Mikey and Niall came stumbling through, with Bob and Sapphire on their heels. That leaves Melissa and Ingvar, she thought.

There was a burst of light as the portal collapsed. Cara screamed, thinking that her love was trapped on the other side of the portal, and then screamed again as she saw the tableau before the doorway. There, in a bloody heap on the ground, was Ingvar lying on top of Melissa. A hulking demon stood above them and roared its defiance. The remains of two more demons lay squirming on the ground as they died, severed in half when the portal closed. They were all too stunned to move, all that is, except Celora. The young priestess was nearly shouting a battle prayer as she sprang toward the demon, swinging her silvered mace through the air with a whistling shriek. The mace struck the demon's upraised paw, sheared through in a burst of flame, and impacted deep into the thing's head. The demon burst into flame and was gone in an instant. Cara blinked away the afterimages in her eyes and saw Celora kneeling beside Ingvar and Melissa, desperately working to heal them before it was too late.

"Ronin, come lift Ingvar a little," Celora ordered. "Gently, he's badly wounded. Niall, Mikey… pull Melissa out and see if she is hurt." They did as she asked and she continued working on Ingvar. As Cara watched, tears running freely down her cheeks, afraid to move lest she break the spell and her lord die, Celora chanted and the horrible wound on Ingvar's back began to close. Cara couldn't tear her eyes from the magical healing taking place, fascinated to see the terrible damage vanishing as she watched. Days, weeks even, of healing were compressed into minutes. The wound closed, but Celora kept working, laying her hands directly on the places where moments before had been bloody gouges. She worked to heal the interior damage as she had closed the outer.

After many minutes, or perhaps days, Cara wasn't sure how long it had taken, Celora sat back and took a deep breath. "I've done what I can for him," she said. "How is Melissa?" Cara looked around, surprised that she had forgotten that Melissa had been hurt, too.

"Is he? I mean…" Cara swallowed hard, afraid to speak the words. "Will Ingvar…?"

"Live?" Celora asked with a weary smile. "Yes, he will, Cara. He's very weak and needs rest, but he will live."

"Oh thank you and thank the gods," Cara cried, rushing to Ingvar's side.

"Be careful with him, though," Celora warned. Cara slowed and knelt beside Ingvar carefully, laying her hands on his ashen face and gently kissing his brow.

Celora was more worried about Melissa, though she kept her concern to herself. She knew enough about magic to know that it could hurt badly to have a spell broken while focusing on it, as Melissa had been focusing on the portal. Add that to being knocked down by Ingvar and three demons, and there was plenty of reason to be worried. She'd had to stay with Ingvar though, because his wound would have claimed his life in another moment if she had waited. As it was, he was very nearly dead while Celora worked on him, and she'd had to give him a fair amount of her strength to keep him among the living while she healed him. She walked to where Mikey cradled Melissa, trying hard not to stumble in her weariness.

Melissa's face was very pale as Celora knelt beside her. "She's still breathing, but she hasn't responded to anything yet," Mikey told Celora as the priestess began to examine the woman they all served. Celora could see a bruise forming on Melissa's forehead, probably a concussion there, she thought. She began a prayer of general healing, laying a hand gently on Melissa's brow. Celora could feel a terrible sadness within Melissa's mind as she probed for injury. Startled by that, she went deeper only to find that Melissa had believed that she was dying when they had fallen through the portal. Celora smiled, knowing that the woman would recover. She finished her healing prayer and then felt the world spin around her. She tried to stand and ended up falling to the ground. And then everything went black.

Celora woke slowly to the sound of a fire crackling nearby. She slowly opened her eyes and saw golden light on a broken stone wall above a camp fire. She heard the quiet voices of her companions nearby and sat up abruptly, thinking she had to see how her charges were faring. She nearly passed out again as she did so, and put a hand to her head and sat very still until things stopped spinning.

"I see you're awake again," Melissa said. Celora dropped her hand and looked around. Melissa was sitting beside her and slightly behind. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, my Lady," Celora answered; somewhat embarrassed that Melissa was asking her, instead of Celora being the one asking. "How are you feeling now?"

"I'm fine now, thanks to you and Ingvar," Melissa said in a subdued voice. "Though I can't recommend having him and several demons land on top of you. I really thought I was dead, there."

"You're tougher than you think, then," Celora said with a reassuring smile. "You had a concussion from hitting your head when you fell, but besides that, only a few bruises. You probably hurt more from having your spell broken."

"Well, Ingvar and I are alive thanks to your quick action," Melissa said. She leaned over and kissed Celora on the forehead. "Thank you. Now, you should get some rest. We're staying here until Ingvar recovers." Melissa stood and Celora watched her move off toward the fire. Celora wondered for a time whether the sorrow she had sensed in Melissa was from the thought that she was dying, or that she hadn't died. She resolved to watch Melissa and be there for the other woman if she needed a reason to keep going.

He stood in the center of the ruined camp. His minions mewled and ranged around him, seeking forgiveness for failing to stop the woman and her champions. There was blood sprayed across the trampled snow, staining the stones with the life's essence of the warrior. He had watched from a distance as his demons overran the camp, shredding the priestess-cast shield, and struck down the warrior that protected Melissa. Somehow the man had been able to live long enough to behead his precious pet and then push Melissa through the portal into another place and time. The shadowy man turned his eyes away from the now empty doorway and told himself that it wasn't a complete failure. Surely, the man is dead at least, he thought. No mortal man could survive a wound such as that for long.

Melissa had escaped him by traveling between worlds. He didn't know which world she had taken her pathetic humans to, but no matter. He would find it soon enough. She was only a mortal herself, and no match for Chaos. His minions were everywhere and they would find her soon. And once they found her and alerted him to her presence, he would begin the next phase of his great design. He was slightly concerned that Melissa would find a way past the guards he had placed around her husband before he could be turned to the work of Chaos. The shadowy man thought about it for a time, gazing across the empty wastes before him as though looking through time and space. Perhaps I should turn the doctor against Charlie, he thought. Adding a third party to the dance would bring a deliciously chaotic thread to the tapestry being woven.

Surrounded by snow and blood, the shadowy man began to grin and then to laugh.

Morning dawned cold and bright. Melissa stood outside the camp watching the sun rise over this barren place, golden light spilling across the endless snow. They had come through the portal to find another tower broken amidst a rolling landscape and surrounded by tall mountains. It was very similar to the place they had left, with the exception that there was no house here and the tower itself seemed more broken. They had made camp among the stones, using the tower on one side and the remains of a wall on another to provide some shelter from the wind.

Now that the time had come to begin their journey, Melissa was feeling frightened and alone. She worried that she was misunderstanding the events around her, not sure that she was leading them on the right course. She desperately wanted to save her husband Charlie, but she was afraid the cost would be too high for these people who trusted her. She heard a small noise and turned to see the big black dog, Sapphire, padding up to her.

"Hello Sapphire," Melissa said to the dog. Sapphire cocked her head to one side and then came and leaned against Melissa's side wanting to be petted. "Does your mommy know you're out here?"

"Oh yes," said Mikey from just outside the camp. "Silly girl seems to think I'm at her beck and call."

"Or her bark and woof?" Melissa asked archly. Mikey tilted her head back and laughed.

"Yes, that's it exactly," she said when she regained her composure. Mikey shivered.

"Are you cold?" Melissa asked the thief.

"No, it's just all this open space," she said. "I'm not used to places where I can see so far in one direction, unless it's on a rooftop."

"Mikey, I'm worried about you," Melissa told her. "This first task will be hardest on you I think."

"What's there to worry about? Other than furry-butt here, I've got nothing to lose," Mikey said with a grin at the dog.

"I think Niall might feel differently about that, if you were to talk to him about it," Melissa said shrewdly.

"He has let his feeling be known," Mikey said. She had lifted her chin and was staring off into the distance, plainly unwilling to make eye contact.

"Is it so hard to love a king?" Melissa asked softly. Mikey held her breath a moment as though shocked by the question, and then let it out in a long sigh.

"It's hard to love," she answered. "Niall is everything I could ever hope for in a lover. But the last person I loved was my father, and he was taken from me. I keep thinking 'What if I yield to him and he gets killed, or worse?'"

"What could be worse than him getting killed?" Mikey looked at her, and Melissa saw the pain hidden in those deep eyes.

"Rejection would be worse," Mikey whispered.

"Oh my dear child," Melissa said, laying a hand on Mikey's forearm. "The greatest treasures in life cannot be won through fear. And sometimes the greatest pain leads us to a greater destiny than we would have otherwise known. Even if you and Niall tried to build a solid relationship and it didn't work out, you would still have pleasant memories. And no man ever lessens a woman's heart unless she gives him that power herself. I think you will have to decide which is more important to you; the love of your heart's destiny or the fear that holds you back from it."

"Wow, I don't think I'll get back to sleep after that," Mikey said despairingly. Melissa looked at her in grave concern, afraid that her honest advice had been completely missed. But then she saw the barest twinkle in Mikey's eyes and knew that this was the thief's way of acknowledging her advice. They both laughed and then went back to the camp to see if anyone had started breakfast yet.



Here ends the Seeker's Journey, Book One of the Imprisoned God. I hope you enjoyed the story and that you will watch for the next installment. I would love to hear from you if you have comments on the story. You can leave comments at

~ Todd A. Phillips