The Temple of the Moon (Alistair Chapter Six)

The temple stood in the middle of a clearing in the Scottish forest, rising up three stories into the air. It was a humble structure, meant to compliment the surrounding forests, rather than tower over them. The stones and beams that made up its walls had all been gathered from the surrounding area, reverently gathered by the Druids who wished to live amongst the land that they loved so dearly. In truth, it looked more like a small German cathedral, with a steepled roof and one lone tower of stone rising higher than the rest of the structure. Humble, and yet strong and graceful, it stood watch over the woodlands and their inhabitants.

Alistair stared out over the wooded valley below as he sat perched at the highest point of the temple roof. He liked to climb up there and think; he found the view and the isolation to be soothing, and together, they provided the perfect atmosphere for relaxation and reflection. It was quiet here at the Temple of the Moon, the Druidic temple in Scotland. The Druids had other camps throughout the country, but this was the main focal point for their operations in the region.

It was no wonder why the Benandanti (the Latin name for the Druids) had chosen this place as their home; not only was the location strategically placed, it was absolutely beautiful. The temple sat on a small hill, surrounded by a lush forest of ancient trees. The Druids were quite fond of wooded areas, and regarded them as holy and sacred places. They had planted a small garden next to a grove of wild cherry trees on the edge of the woods, and the soft scent of the cherry blossoms and the herbs in the garden wafted up softly to where he sat. A short step beyond the garden grew the mighty oak and ash trees that stood like silent guardians around the temple grounds. The branches creaked and whispered to one another, even though there was no wind apparent. The sweet sounds of the songbirds serenaded him as he closed his eyes and leaned back, allowing the warmth of the sun to bathe his face with its fading afternoon rays.

Alistair smiled to himself, purely content in that moment. In all his years with the Gatekeepers, he had travelled to many beautiful places, but this was by far the one most dear to his heart. Perhaps it was because it reminded him so much of his childhood home; as it should, since his father’s house was a mere half-day’s ride from the temple. His mind wandered to his time as a Gatekeeper; it had been fifty years, almost to the day, that he had been counted among their number. He reopened his eyes and looked down at his hands; it still amazed him that he was, by normal human standards, a very old man, at the ripe age of seventy-five, yet he still appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Entering into the Gatekeepers meant being steeped in all sorts of ancient magic, and one of the side-effects was the aging process was slowed almost to a stand-still. He was unsure if he was truly immortal, but at the rate he was aging, he would most likely outlast all of creation by at least a few centuries.

After his training, the Gatekeepers had assigned him to be the liaison between the Druids and the Gatekeepers in Scotland. He had spent the last fifteen years living peacefully and quietly among them, growing accustomed to their way of life; it was a slower pace than anywhere else, and they lived out their days with a reverent grace that Alistair found to be rather endearing. He loved the lifestyle and the mindset of the Druids; he hoped that he could spend centuries among them, dwelling within the peaceful confines of the Temple.

Suddenly, he felt uneasy, and was pulled from his thoughts, back into the present moment. He noticed that the birds had all but ceased their singing, and the air felt tense and electric, as if lightning were about to strike. He swiftly climbed down from where he sat, and the moment his boots touched the ground, a bolt of red flame fell from the sky and scorched the trees on the edge of the clearing.

Alistair tensed and clutched the hilt of his sword, anxiously awaiting to see what emerged from the shadows of the wood. Several moments passed before three rangers stumbled out of the treeline, blood-soaked and with terror in their eyes. The foremost of the three stumbled and fell into Alistair’s arms. The other two men fell to the ground, having succumb to their wounds. Alistair knelt with the man in his arms, holding a hand to the gaping hole in the ranger’s chest, trying to staunch the profuse bleeding.

“What is it, brother? What chases you?” Alistair asked, with a pit growing in his stomach as he began to fear the worst.

The ranger’s eyes frantically bounced around before locking onto Alistair’s face. The man trembled, and his voice wavered and cracked as he replied, “They have come…they are not six steps behind…”

Alistair felt his heart drop even further. “….who? Who is it?”

The man’s entire body shook violently, and he closed his eyes, painfully drawing one last breath. “An army of our dark brethren have arrived; the Dark Druids have come to lay siege to the Temple of the Moon.”

The ranger exhaled what little breath he had left and went limp. Alistair gently laid him down and looked to the trees. No one had emerged yet, but he could feel the darkness gathering just beyond what he could see. He withdrew his blade and rushed to the door of the temple, tripping and falling on the stair case in his hurry. He threw the doors open and called out to all who could hear him.

“We are under attack! The scouts have brought report of an assault by the Dark Druids hastily coming this way!”

Immediately, the inhabitants of the temple began to gather around him, asking dozens of questions all at once. Before he had time to respond to any of their queries, however, he was viciously thrown forward by a second firebolt landing at his feet. He shook off the dizziness in his head as quickly as possible and scrambled to find his fallen blade. He stood and faced the entryway, and mounted on black stallions and wearing thick black cloaks which hid their faces, sat the army of Dark druids, just as reported. They stood stock still, almost tauntingly, and Alistair looked around at the devastation the firebolt had caused.

Bodies of men, women, and children lay scattered around the doorway, and the doors themselves had been blown clean off their hinges and lay smoldering just inside the threshold. Smoke and haze rose and swirled around, adding to the malicious, mysterious air that surrounded the silent attackers of the temple. Behind him, Alistair could hear the remaining residents rushing towards him.

An older man came to a halt at his right, and he knew without looking that it was Logan, the leader of the Druids. He withdrew his blade and pointed it towards the assailants.

“You have pounced upon my home in a rather unruly manner; I suggest you take your men and go back to the hellhole from which you have escaped, before the full vengeance of the Druids falls upon you, lads.”

The front line of hooded horsemen laughed darkly, and one of the men removed his hood, revealing a bald head and a scarred face. He grinned wickedly back at Logan and Alistair.

“Where are your manners, old man; won’t you welcome old friends into your home?”

Logan gasped, and he gripped Alistair’s shoulder.

“My son,” he said quietly, “under different circumstances, I would say we must defend this temple to our last drop of blood, but against a man and a force such as this, I believe it is wisest to retreat and live to fight another day.”

Alistair grimaced. “But…”

Logan gripped tighter. “This is not a battle we can win. When we are under a brighter sun, I shall tell you the whole truth, but for now, you must do as I say. RUN!”

Logan spun Alistair around and shoved him, firing off a smoky, purple bolt from the tip of his blade towards the riders. The bolt struck the ground and stirred up a whirlwind at the top of the steps, just in front of the horsemen, which acted as a barrier between the riders and the Druids. Alistair and Logan ran to the back of the temple, urging the others to grab their weapons and flee with them. Behind them, they could hear the shouts of the enraged Dark Druids, and the bald man could be heard above all else.

“RIDE THROUGH NOW! Do not let them escape! We will bring this roof down on their HEADS before we let them get away with their lives!”

There was a loud crack, as if thunder had struck overhead, and the entire front wall of the temple exploded into millions of pieces of wood and stone. The Druids of the temple raced with all the speed they could muster out the back end of the building as the debris from the blast rained down upon them. The mounted men urged their steeds through the whirlwind, with most of them being thrown from their horses. The spell lasted long enough for the Druids of the temple to escape the building and race towards the stables.

Without bothering to saddle their horses, they jumped onto the backs of their mounts and urged them into a gallop as soon as they were out of the stalls. As they cleared the stables, a volley off arrows came hurtling down on them, taking out several of their already thin number. The Dark Druids had managed to push beyond the whirlwind and were attempting to take out their enemies before they could reach the trees.

“Onward, into the forest!” shouted Logan. “If we can get into the wood, their arrows will not be able to reach us!”

The trees lie nearly two furlong’s from the doors of the stables. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t seem like very far, but with death quite literally raining down on their heads, it may as well have been forty miles. The horses sensed the urgency of their mission, and plowed ahead with all the strength they had, dodging quickly left and right around holes in the ground and small boulders as the barrage from above whistled by, far too close for comfort.

They had almost reached the forest, when a single arrow dropped from the sky and struck Alistair square in the shoulder. The surprise and the pain nearly knocked him off his mount, but he clung with his good arm to the horse’s neck, thinking of nothing but holding on for dear life. They passed through the first line of trees, and the arrows ceased.

Knowing that their enemies would be quickly behind them, they pressed on through nightfall, and they did not stop until they reached a Nemeton of the Druids just as the moon began to dip and the sun peaked above the horizon once more. They slowed their steeds to a halt, and the men slid quickly from their backs, with Logan calling for help as Alistair slumped to the ground, weak from the blood loss and the long ride. He was fading in and out of consciousness, and the last thing he remembered before he was swept away into a fevered dream-state was a woman firmly grasping the arrow in his back, and saying softly to him, “This is going to hurt worse coming out than it did going in.” She ripped the arrow from his shoulder, and as the white hot pain shot through his entire upper body, Alistair fainted dead away.

When he awoke several hours later, he found himself on a small cot, in a room by himself. His shoulder was bandaged, and his arm was hung in a make-shift sling. He stood slowly, still somewhat dizzy from the events of the night before. He made his way out to the main room, where Logan and Quinn, one of the rangers who had not been on patrol duty at the time of the attack, were sitting at a table with the woman from before and several other people. From what Alistair could hear, it sounded as if Logan was finishing up the telling of their tale. Everyone turned to face him as he approached the table, and he waved his good hand half-heartedly in silent greeting.

The woman smirked. “Well, Logan, it seems you were right; he IS made of tougher stuff than I thought.”

Alistair looked quizzically between Logan and the woman, and both smiled softly. She continued, “You’ve only been out for a few hours, and here you are, walking around almost as if nothing had happened. You were nearly on death’s doorstep when you arrived on mine, and somehow, you pulled through, despite riding all night with that nasty wound.”

Quinn nodded at Alistair. “The Gatekeepers are known for more than just their magical prowess, m’lady. They are very hard to kill, as our enemies will swiftly learn.”

“Quinn, my dear boy,” Logan scolded gently, “striking back right away may not be the best move. I believe we should wait for our moment; an opportunity will reveal itself when it is most ripe.”

Quinn huffed and sat back with his arms crossed, his jet-black hair falling over his eyes, further adding to the dark-and-brooding look he always had. Alistair gingerly sat down, and sighed.

“Alright, I’m assuming I missed the part of the story where you tell everyone who that guy was?”

Logan nodded once. “Indeed you have, but I am not opposed to retelling it for your sake. The man’s name is Buchanan, and he is known as the Firebrand; I’m going to assume you can guess why.”

Alistair nodded. “It was his fire spell that destroyed the temple, then?”

“Indeed,” Logan replied. “He has always been known for it; I have never seen a sorcerer who could wield flame with the amount of force and precision as Buchanan.”

Alistair tilted his head and furrowed his brow. “How do you know him, exactly?”

Logan leaned back and stroked his moustache. “Long ago, before I was chosen as the leader of the temple, he was my pupil. He was my most gifted student, capable of magic more powerful than any I had seen in one his age.”

“How did he fall in with the Dark Druids?”

“Well, as I’m sure you know, many of the elders of the Dark Druids were once Druids of the light, as I am. When I was young, a faction of the Druidic Order began to delve into the darker arts, believing that there needed to be balance between darkness and light. They believed that for every life that was nurtured and seeded, one must be smothered and snuffed out. They began practicing the most deplorable of the darks arts, and started staging assaults on unsuspecting towns. They were quickly captured and brought before the Scottish Druidic Tribunal to face judgement for their crimes; the Tribunal was a trap, as the Dark Druids had fully intended to be captured and tried in order to destroy the elders of the Druids and start the order anew once they were gone.”

Alistair rubbed his wounded shoulder. “I know all of that, but what does it have to do with Buchanan?”

Logan’s face fell, and the memories of his former student flashed through his mind. “Buchanan was drawn to their power; he sought to become the strongest sorcerer in Scotland, and he found their beliefs of the dark arts to be a means to that end. He believed the best way to protect people was to subject them to fear; he thought that the only way to keep the people from hurting each other was to terrorize them to the point that they were afraid to lift a hand against one another. His initial motives were pure, but severely flawed, and eventually his thirst for power overcame him. He grew increasingly violent, and withdrew from the order when he came of age. He sought out the Dark Druids, who welcomed him with open arms.”

Quinn snorted. “If you knew there was darkness within him, why didn’t you eject him from the order before then?”

Logan sighed. “I believed that he could be turned back to the Druid way. I was convinced that he would see the error of his ways and, in time, would learn to mellow the fire in his belly.”

Quinn was incredulous. “So instead of stopping that monster, you continued to arm him? You made him one of the most powerful people you had ever met and then simply let him walk right into the arms of our enemy?”

Logan lowered his head and sat silently for a moment. “I had a chance to stop him. When he first left, he attempted to kill those who lived in the Nemeton with us. It came down to a duel between the two of us, and I could not bring myself to kill him, even knowing how far he had fallen. I still had hope that he would return peacefully. I let him live, and in return, he has done nothing but become a thorn in my side.”

Alistair shook his head. “If he’s such a problem, why have I never heard of him before?”

Logan lifted his head once more. “Since he has become the Firebrand, he has been meticulous and methodical, only coming out of the woodwork to fight battles he knew he could win. He has been silent for the last fifteen years; the last altercation we had with his forces was the very reason you were assigned to the temple. I did not feel the need to inform you of any of this, as during that battle, he was badly injured. I had hoped he had succumbed to his wounds, and was no longer a threat.”

Alistair began to put the pieces together in his mind. “But you had a lingering fear that he would still return, and that’s why you asked for a member of the Gatekeepers to be assigned to the temple.”

Logan nodded silently.

Alistair continued. “So, if we take out Buchanan, then the Dark Druids are crippled?”

The woman spoke once more. “Yes and no; he is their general, but their leadership has yet to rear their ugly heads. Eliminating the Firebrand would be a heavy blow to them, but it would not remove them from the situation. They have a sizeable army, and from the tale Logan has told of the attack on the temple, they are quite confident in their size and strength right now. We may have found ourselves on the brink of a war that we are far from prepared for.”

Alistair shifted uncomfortably. “Pardon me, but I do not believe we have been properly introduced, madam. I am Alistair, a member of the Gatekeepers; and you are…?”

The dark haired woman smirked. “I am Aria, daughter of Wallace of Bruce, leader of this Nemeton.”

Alistair bowed his head. “A pleasure to meet you, officially.”

Aria dipped her head in return, and Logan cleared his throat.

“I believe the best course of action right now is to sink into the shadows until we have recovered our strength and come up with a plan for recovering the Temple of the Moon, if there is anything left of it to recover. Aria, send messengers to the surrounding Nemetons, and inform them of what has transpired. Tell them to be ready to evacuate their homes and go into hiding.”

Aria nodded sharply and excused herself. Logan sighed and looked to Alistair. The weight of the situation was etched across his face, making the man appear to be far older than he was. After a moment of silence, he said quietly, almost to himself, “I do not know what is to come. I am afraid we must permanently leave our former lives behind in order to fight this menace. I only hope we can overtake them before they burn every living tree to the ground and cut short every life from here to Arthur’s kingdom.”

Logan stood and walked towards the front door; he paused with his hand outstretched to the handle, and turned back to those at the table. “We will stay until Alistair is ready to travel; as soon as he is, we retreat back into the trees.”

“And what then,” Quinn asked quietly.

“Truly, I do not know…” Logan whispered. He then left the house, and the door closed swiftly behind him.

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The Coven (Alistair Chapter Five)

Clive rushed over to where Alice was one her knees cradling their elven friend. He was trying to remain calm, but his worries were bubbling just below the surface.

“Is she breathing?” he asked, with a note of panic sneaking into his voice.

Alice nodded silently, concern etched on her face. Clive approached and knelt down beside them. He reached over and brushed a lock of hair away from Cecilia’s face. She was still unconscious, but at least she was breathing. He attempted to lift her from Alice’s arms, but the woman growled defensively at him. He raised his hands in surrender.

“I’m not going to hurt her; you know that. The danger has passed, and we need to examine her for any wounds she may have obtained from hitting the wall. Please…let me take her from you, just for a moment.”

Alice glared at him momentarily, and her expression slowly softened from anger to gentle concern. She looked down at her friend and nodded again. Clive gingerly lifted Cecilia from Alice’s arms, and immediately noticed blood smeared all over Alice’s dark arm. He shifted the elf to look for the source of the blood, and saw a large gash on the back of her head. Her light hair was matted with blood where her skull had smashed against the rocks. Not seeing any other injuries, he laid the elf back in her partner’s lap and quickly removed his shirt. He wrapped it carefully around Cecilia’s head and stepped back.

“Keep some pressure on that wound; the bleeding should stop soon enough.”

Alice laid her friend’s head in the crook of her elbow and sighed. A single tear escaped her eye, and with her free hand, she angrily brushed it away.

“Don’t you go dying on me now, songbird; we’ve been through worse than this and come out of it no worse for the wear. It would be a crying shame if you went and left me now.”

Clive placed his hand on the woman’s shoulder.

“She’ll pull through. Once we find the coven, we’ll have a couple of them take a look at her; there are probably some things they can do for her to help speed up the healing process.”

Alice took a deep, quivering breath and regained her steely composure. She pointed to Alistair and Mordecai with her chin.

“Go,” she said quietly. “There is nothing more you can do here. They need you more than we do right now.”

Clive nodded and softly patted Alice’s shoulder as he stood up. He jogged over to where the men were searching the solid rock wall for an opening. With the exception of the door that led to the passageway they had entered through, there appeared to be no other way out of the arena. Alistair stepped back from the rock face, visibly perplexed. He glanced over to Clive as he approached.

“We must be missing something; there has to be a way out of here. There must be a lever or a handle here somewhere that we are just not seeing.”

Mordecai wiped a drop of sweat from his brow. The temperature inside the mountain was beginning to rise to uncomfortable levels, almost as if there were a fire burning deep underground, turning the arena into an oven. He stepped over to where the other two stood to make a suggestion.

“Now, I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but this whole area is steeped in magic.”

Clive and Alistair turned their gaze to the tracker, waiting for him to continue.

“So, since the people who built this place were so well versed in the arts, have you considered maybe we’re looking for a magical door of some sort, maybe one that can only be opened through the use of an incantation or a password?”

Alistair cracked a slow, sly grin.

“You may be on to something, my friend; I am somewhat ashamed that the thought had not yet occurred to me. We may have been looking for a lever when we should have been looking for something a little more ethereal.”

The man stretched out his arms in front of him and closed his eyes. Blue sparks arced between his fingertips, buzzing like a hive of bees as he focused his mind.

“Show us your secrets and reveal to us your pathways, ancient ones. Open!”

The sparks leapt across the room to the wall, striking the rock with vengeful force. The stones groaned, and a slab began to slide back and to the side, revealing a long hallway, lit by the same kind of torches at the entrance to the cave. Mordecai and Clive blinked and looked at one another, utterly dumbfounded. Alistair turned to them, with the same sly grin as before.

“Uh, well now…that was…surprisingly easy,” Mordecai stammered.

Alistair chuckled. “The natives were a strong people, but they liked to keep things simple. They found long, complicated spells and incantations to be cumbersome, so they tended to use simpler magic whenever possible. I imagine any number of revelation spells would have done the trick.”

Alistair winked, and Clive reached to adjust the collar to the shirt he had forgotten he was no longer wearing.

“I suppose we should be on our way, then,” Alistair quipped.

With Alistair in the lead, the three of them made their way down the long hallway. They quickly came to a fork in the road; one way led up a flight of stairs, presumably to the seats above the arena. The other sloped downward, and a wooden door was just barely visible from where they stood.

Glancing back and forth between the two, Alistair nodded to the downward path.

“Very well, it would appear that our way has practically been mapped out for us. Quickly, now!”

They broke into a trot down the hall, throwing the door open so quickly the hinges barely had time to announce their presence. Once inside the door, the hall continued on, winding and turning, with several offshoots leading in various directions. Before the three of them could decide where they would look first, a voice was heard from farther down the way.

“Leave us alone, you bastards! Haven’t you tortured us enough? What more could you want with us?”

Alistair cleared his throat. “Melinda, is that you?”

A shuffling could be heard as if someone had stood up quickly from the dusty floor.

“Alistair? Do my ears deceive me, or have you truly come for us?”

Without answering, the three of them ran down the hall towards the voice. They rounded a bend, and found a series of rooms that had been recently fitted with steel prison bars, forming large makeshift cells. In the first cell sat eight women, all in varying degrees of disarray. Some of them appeared close to death, while others, including Melinda herself, appeared to have suffered their captivity more gracefully than their sisters.

Alistair approached the bars and grasped the middle aged woman’s hand as she reached out through the bars of the cell. Her brown hair had streaks of gray running through it, her dress was tattered, and there was dirt on her face, but her steely gray eyes betrayed the strong defiance that had surely kept her alive.

“Fear not, my dear, we shall have you free of this prison in mere moments,” he said as he gripped her hand.

Mordecai loaded his revolver and spun the cylinder quickly.

“Y’all step back, now,” he grunted.

He stood to the side of the cell door and fired a round into the lock, blasting in clean off the door. The cell swung open, and the men rushed inside to help carry the members of the coven who were unable to walk.

As they got the wounded women to their feet, Alistair was shocked at the condition they were in.

“Dear god, what did they do to you, Melinda?” he asked in horror.

Melinda laughed dryly. “Trust me, old friend, you don’t want to know.

The group limped and stumbled their way out to the arena, where Alice still waited with Cecilia in her arms. Those who still had strength left in the coven saw this and walked over to see what help they could be after they set their sisters down on the floor. Melinda stood to the side with Alistair and watched as a couple of them uttered quiet incantations over the unconscious elf. After several minutes, Cecilia stirred in her sleep and mumbled something in her native tongue.

“She is going to live, but she is badly wounded,” one of the women said quietly. “we have done what we can to help her along, but now the best thing for her is rest.”

Alice snorted. “And that’s the one thing she won’t get; we have to get out of here and down the mountain first.”

“Pardon me, but that raises a rather important question,” Clive interjected. “How exactly are we going to get out of here? The path is blocked, and it does not appear that there is enough energy left among us to break the barrier curse and move the stone.”

Alistair turned and placed his hand on Clive’s shoulder. “I would not worry about that; I believe you have underestimated the power of collective magic.”

Clive was puzzled. “How do you mean, sir?”

Alistair motioned with his hand for Clive to look around the room. “As tired as we all are, I would still imagine that there is enough power and knowledge in this room to accomplish the task at hand. If given a moment, I am sure that the coven would be willing to help us, or at least some of them will. If we gather our strength together, there should be enough left within us that we can break the spell. Druid magic may be strong, but it cannot withstand the might of those gathered here. Even with Alice tending to Cecilia, we will find that our collective strength is more than adequate.”

Clive nodded, and after several minutes, Alistair gathered those who were able in front of the stone. Altogether, it was Alistair, Clive, Melinda, and two others from the coven. They all lifted their hands in the direction of the stone, ready to perform the necessary ritual.

“Close your eyes and try to relax; let the magic flow through you, let it wind around you and gather among you. It will be a strange sensation as it begins to flow, so try not to tense up. Remain focused on the task at hand; listen to the incantation as I cast it, and when you feel it start to pull on your strength, give yourself to it. Put all your strength into it. Once it starts to take effect, you must balance being both calm and forceful with it. Some of you have never done this before, so it will be uncomfortable, but trust your instincts. As wielders of magic, you will know when the right time to push and when to hold back.”

Everyone nodded and they closed their eyes. Alistair cracked his knuckles.

“Alright, old boy, let’s see what you’ve got,” he muttered to himself.

Mordecai looked on in wonder as the incantation began. Alistair started off with a whisper, and a slight wind picked up within the cave. He was uttering the same strange phrase over and over, but Mordecai couldn’t quite make it out. Slowly, Alistair raised his voice to a speaking volume, and purple smoke appeared, swirling and floating around the spell casters. Mordecai still was unable to decipher what Alistair was saying; as he spoke, the wind picked up more and more, carrying all but a few syllables here and there.

The wind whipped into a frenzy, howling all around the arena. The smoke grew thick and dense. Alistair’s voice lifted to a shout as he continued to chant the words of the spell. Suddenly, he pulled his hands in to his chest and violently thrust them back out in front of him. The spell casters were immediately enveloped in a smoke so dense that they could not be seen from the outside. From the swirling cloud of smoke burst five figures made of smoke and mist; a fox, a wolf, two does, and an otter rushed from the cloud towards the stone. They appeared to strike an invisible barrier just before they reached it, and they exploded into a plume of red and yellow sparks.

The wind picked up its urgency, somehow taking on even more fury than before, and the animals appeared again. Three more times they rushed the invisible wall only to be turned away. The fifth time, however, they burst through it, and they continued forward, striking the boulder that barred the way. The giant stone shattered with a loud crack, blown into millions of tiny pieces. The wind died immediately and the smoke dissipated; the spell casters fell to the ground, their strength spent.

Mordecai rushed over to them as they struggled to sit up. Sweat dripped down their faces, and they were out of breath. Each of them looked to where the stone had been mere moments ago and then glanced at each other. They had done it; they were free.

The group rested for several minutes until they had the strength to walk again, and then the coven and the Gatekeepers helped each other up. They slowly made their way out of the cave. Once they were outside, they paused to rest again. Several of the women wept at the sight of the early morning sky; most of them had wondered whether they would live to stand under the clouds ever again. When everyone was ready, they walked down the steep path back to the burial ground.

As they walked through the ring of stones, the guardian rose out of the ground ahead of them. They stopped, wondering if they would be forced to endure the trials once more, but after a moment, the guardian silently bowed his head and stepped to the side, allowing them to pass. Once they were beyond the cursed ground, the rest of the walk down the mountain was calm and peaceful.

They reached the base of the foothills just as the sun had fully broken the plane of the horizon. Alistair motioned for everyone to sit down and rest, and he gently laid the spellbinder that was holding onto his arm down in the grass. He then stood tall and raised an arm to the sky. A raven dropped from the clouds above and landed on his outstretched limb. He tenderly stroked its head with his index finger.

“Tell our friends that we have returned and we are in need of their aid,” he whispered. “Tell them to come quickly, as our strength is all but spent.”

The black bird tilted its head to the side and launched itself from his arm. Alistair collapsed onto his back, breathing a heavy sigh. Everyone sat without speaking, almost too tired for conversation, as they waited for the return of the Ravens. Soon enough, their friends arrived with their mounts. The leader dismounted quickly and approached Alistair. He saluted the Gatekeeper, placing his right fist over his heart and bowing slightly.

“Great One, Lucrezia has sent us in response to your call for aid. She has dispatched us to bring you back to our encampment. There, you will be fed and clothed, your wounds will be attended to, and you will be provided with a safe place to rest until you are well enough to travel to your homes.”

Alistair stood and smiled, returning the salute. “Your kindness is always appreciated. How far is your camp?”

“Not far; by horse, it is perhaps a ten minute ride.”

Alistair nodded and turned towards the group still on the ground. “Take those who are unable to walk by horseback and leave us one or two of your men to guide the rest of us on foot. Tell Lucrezia we will arrive shortly.”

“Very well; when we have dropped off your friends, we shall return for the rest of you. We shall not be gone long.”

The elf looked to his men and gave a sharp nod. They helped those too tired or badly injured into saddles and rode away. Alice refused to be separated from Cecilia, and thus rode with the advance group to the Ravens’ camp. This left Alistair, Mordecai, Clive, and Melinda to walk with two of the Ravens back towards the encampment. Ten minutes later, they were met once more by the mounted group, returning as promised. The remaining ride was short, as they had walked most of the way by the time the others had been able to come back for them.

When they dismounted, the camp was buzzing with activity. The wounded were being tended to, clothes were being washed and repaired, and food was being cooked. The next few hours went by like this, and by the time everyone had been properly been taken care of, the sun had passed high noon and was beginning to dip in the sky. They all found themselves around the fire at the center of the camp, each with a cup of hot soup in their hands. Alistair recounted the tail of their adventure to Lucrezia, and when he had finished, there was silence for a moment. There was one question that remained on everyone’s mind when all was said and done, but none seemed willing to ask it.

Their thoughts were disturbed by the sudden appearance of Cecilia stepping into the circle. She had awoken some time before, but had spent the last hour sitting behind everyone, listening to the tale be told. When she walked into the circle, she made her way over to Alistair. She looked very much like a small child, as the shawl that hung over her shoulders hung down almost to her ankles, accentuating her diminutive size.

She went and stood directly in front of Alistair, silently looking him dead in the eyes for a moment. After a moment, she smirked.

“Ali, I believe we are missing a key part of the story, one you have expertly kept hidden from us thus far. Yet, with all your storytelling prowess, you have been unable to hide its existence from us. There is a tale you have yet to share, old friend.”

She reached up and softly poked him in the nose. “What say you share the rest of the story with us?”

Alistair smiled softly. “It is good to see you up and walking again, Cece. You had us all quite worried there for a while.”

Alistair sat back and breathed deeply. “Well, I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you. It is a long story, though, so I suggest you settle in. You see, my connection to the Dark Druids goes back centuries, back to when I was still in Scotland.”

Cecilia sat down next to Alice, who hugged her firmly from the side. Alistair took a sip of his soup and screwed his eyes up to the sky as he thought.

“Ah, where should I begin…eh, I guess it all really began in 1299 or so. The Gatekeepers had assigned me to be the liaison between the Druids there and the Gatekeepers…”

Cave of the Dead (Alistair, Chapter Four)

The five of them reached the entrance to the cave and paused a moment to catch their breath. The way up had been steep, and passing through the trials had done nothing for their stamina. They passed around canteens of cold water, and when each had drank their fill, they silently nodded at one another, signaling that they were ready to continue. Alistair took a long, slow breath.

“Alright; onward we go, I suppose,” he murmured to himself.

They stepped through the mouth of the cave, and instantly whatever sense of darkness and evil they had before was exponentially magnified. The dark arts seemed to be oozing from the stony walls around them, filling up their lungs, attempting to drown them before they even reached their target. The Gatekeepers pressed on, unwilling to be swayed by the influences of the magic that swirled around them.

The path through the cave was lit by torches that burned an unnatural shade of green, adding to the sense of dread and foreboding that hung so heavily in the air already. The flames dances and flickered, casting eerie shadows all around. Mordecai found himself wishing that the cave had been without light entirely; he was on edge, jumping at every strange shadow that bounced around in an unexpected place.

Alistair led the way, as the trail led them further down into the mountain. The temperature steadily began to rise with each passing step, giving the Gatekeepers the feeling that they were descending into hell itself. They walked along silently, with the only sounds to be heard were the whispers of the torches they passed and the sound of their own feet as they walked. As they went along, they grew more and more uneasy, and the longer they went without encountering their enemies, the higher their anxiety went.

After what felt like hours of walking, Alistair held up his hand to stop the group. Without speaking, he pointed down ahead of them. It took a moment for the other four to realize what they were looking at in the shifting light, but eventually, a doorway came into view. A dull, orange glow could be seen bouncing off the rock from beyond the door; the kind of light only fire, true fire, would emit. It stood to reason that if there was a fire beyond that threshold, then there would be an open room in which it was contained. Perhaps they had finally found the dragon’s lair, as it were…

They quietly crept the rest of the way down the path to the doorway, and Alistair slowly peaked around the corner to see what lay beyond. He quickly darted back and looked over his shoulder at his companions, giving them a solitary sharp nod. It seemed they had found something worth noting, at least.

Alistair held up his left hand and began counting down from five with his fingers. The others eagerly fingered their weapons, and Mordecai nervously checked that his revolver was loaded once more. When Alistair reached zero, the five of them bounded around the corner and through the doorway. Once through, they found themselves in an auditorium-like space, with a giant inferno burning in the center of the main floor. Above them and slightly to their right, stood a host of twenty or more figures dressed in black robes and wearing masks painted like skulls.

Six of these figures were seated in front of the others, watching as the Gatekeepers entered; one of them stood and theatrically held his arms out wide as he began to speak.

“Welcome, travelers; now, please pardon me, but I have a few questions about your visit. I am quite certain that you are Gatekeepers, with the exception of the mutt, of course…”

The necromancer’s eyes could be seen lingering on Mordecai for a moment, and the black dog bristled at the term “mutt.” Alistair held out his arm, shaking his head ever-so-slightly, and Mordecai held himself back as the necromancer continued.

“…but what I do not know is why you have come. We are but mere mages, who have been without a home for some time. Now that we have found a place to call our own, you come barging in unannounced. I can only hope this is a house-warming party.”

Alistair gazed up at the robed figures for a moment before replying.

“You can drop the act, dark ones; you know why we have come.”

The one who had spoken before sighed and removed his mask. His face almost looked more evil without it, as the light from the fire created shadows on his face, but illuminated a star-shaped scar on the left side of his cheek.

“Good sir, I don’t have the slightest idea what you mean.”

“Do not toy with me, necromancer; you have taken friends of mine from their homes and brought them to this cursed place, though for what, I can only guess. Release them, and we shall let you go peaceably. If you resist, we will have no choice but to obliterate you.”

The man with the star-shaped scar cackled, his voice dancing eerily around them as it bounced around the cavernous room.

“Yet again, the Gatekeepers have only some of the information. You come here knowing nothing about those whom you face, nor what our purpose truly is. We wanted nothing from those useless spellbinders; it is you we have been after from the beginning.”

A large rock fell from the ceiling and blocked the door behind the Gatekeepers. They whirled around just as the way out was sealed, and then turned once more to face their enemies.

“Alistair, you think you know so much, yet here you are, just as confused as your compatriots. Sadly for them, you have walked them right into the mouth of a bear, and there will be no escape for any of you. Once we have finished with you, I will decide the fate of the coven; for now, we will thoroughly enjoy bringing about your demise.”

Suddenly, the entire host of necromancers leapt from the balcony where they stood and landed on the arena floor across from the Gatekeepers. The five of them huddled together and attempted to quickly assess the situation. Mordecai twirled his six shooter in his right hand and clutched his hunting knife in the other.

“So, do you feel like explaining one more time why you thought five of us could pull this off?” he asked dryly.

Alistair grunted. “I will admit, they are slightly more organized than I had anticipated.”

Alice coolly pulled the crossbow from her back and aimed it at the line of necromancers that faced them.

“There’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said through gritted teeth. “Now, if you children are finished with this discussion, I believe we have a game to play.”

Clive twirled his emerald tipped cane in his hands. “I do believe she has a point, gents; we’re in the thick of it now.”

Cecilia laughed softly. “Somehow, it always comes to this…” she muttered almost to herself.

With that, the five of them rushed their opponents, with enchanted crossbow bolts whistling through the air and bullets screaming across the gap between the two groups. There was a heartbeat of silence as Alice and Mordecai reholstered their firearms and they rushed towards the battle, and suddenly, the arena was enveloped in chaos.

Red streaks of smokey lightning arced across the room, narrowly missing their targets, leaving smoldering holes in the rock where they landed. Clive spun and fired off a series of green bolts of his own from his cane, knocking three of the necromancers to the ground. Alistair, brandishing a crusader’s blade, swung with vengeance, chopping down one black robe after another.

The necromancers were not without their own defenses, as they hurled every dark spell and evil incantation they knew at the Gatekeepers. Cecilia was struck by a stray bolt, and was launched to the far end of the arena. She hit the solid bedrock with a thud, and fell to the floor unconscious. Alice was instantly furious; the bond between Gatekeepers and their partners was strong, and to attack one was to incur the wrath of the other.

Alice dropped low and swept the legs out from under the necromancers who had encircled her. She leapt up, tucking and rolling into a sprint to where Cecilia had fallen. She cradled her friend for a moment, and then let out a great shout. Her dark skin glistened in the low light, and her eyes burned with a white-hot vengeance. She launched herself across the arena, tackling several necromancers as she flew.

She pulled two blades which followed the curve of her fists as she gripped the hilts from her boots and began slicing and shredding the robed men. Blood flowed freely along the stony floor, and she quickly stood to continue her rampage. By now, the necromancers’ numbers had dwindled to near half of their original host, and their confidence began to waver. They retreated to the back wall of the arena, and the Gatekeepers pressed in.

Alice continued her furious fight, while the other three pushed forward, boxing in the remaining necromancers. Finally, the only one who remained was their leader, the one who had addressed them mere minutes ago. He stood up on the balcony still, and began to clap slowly.

“Well done, Gatekeepers, well done indeed,” he mocked. “You have defeated my men, whatever shall I do?”

“Give up, dark one; your fight is lost,” Alistair shouted.

The necromancer’s face took on an even darker expression. “No! Not until you know why you have been brought here! Not until you realize that it is you who has lost. I want to look into your eyes as it dawns upon you that you are trapped here, and that there is no escape. Your rescue mission has been foiled by your own arrogance!”

The necromancer leapt down and rushed towards Alistair. Alice let loose a blood-curdling scream and stepped forward, slamming the tip of her blade into the necromancer’s chest. The man slumped to the ground, and Alice stood over him, with hate filling her eyes.

“Let’s see if your blood runs as black as they say it does, filth,” she growled.

Alistair reached over and calmly pulled her hand away from the man’s throat.

“That is enough, my daughter; go now and tend to Cecilia. She is in need of your aid. Her health is far more important than your revenge.”

Alice glared at the necromancer and slowly lowered her arm. She angrily shook loose of Alistair’s grip and jogged over to where Cecilia had fallen. Alistair knelt down and looked into the eyes of the necromancer. There was pity in his gaze, and it clearly infuriated the dying man.

“You have lost, I’m afraid; where are the women?” Alistair asked calmly.

The necromancer coughed and growled. “They are in the cells behind the arena. You may have freed them from their cells, but you have not won the day. You have simply changed the location of their slow, agonizing death. While you were busy fighting off my men, I laid dozens of spells upon the entrance; there is no escape, Gatekeeper. You will never break them all in time.”

Alistair sighed. “Why do you do this? Are you so uninformed about whom it is you stand against?”

“I know EXACTLY whom it is I fight, Alistair Mor! It is YOU who knows not that which stands against you!”

Alistair furrowed his brow. “What might that mean?”

The necromancer began to laugh, but was overtaken by a fit of coughing and gurgling. He was fading quickly, and he knew it. He spoke faster, rushing to his moment of triumph.

“You think you have been chasing necromancers all this time, but in truth, we are much more ancient than that. Our little disagreement goes back centuries, and now, I have brought balance to our feud. All this time, it has been the dark Druids who have been pulling the strings.”

Alistair went as white as a ghost, but quickly regained his composure. “No, this is impossible. Your bloodline was snuffed out hundreds of years ago.”

“That is what we have let you think, but we are many. Even if you find a way out of these caves, there will be no escape from our wrath. As long as there is still a single drop of our blood flowing in the veins of a dark Druid, Alistair Mor and the Gatekeepers will know no peace. You cannot run from us forever. We made an oath all those years ago, to find you and kill you for what you did to our ancestors; we fully intend to keep that oath. Watch your back, Alistair; we plan on showing the world that even the immortals can die.”

The dark Druid sputtered once more, heaved a loud, shuddering breath, and he was gone. Clive and Mordecai looked to Alistair.

“What does he mean, sir?” Clive asked tentatively.

Alistair shook his head. “Now is not the time; we must find the spellbinders and release them. We must ensure Cecilia is in good health. We must find our way out of this evil place. When we are once more underneath the open sky, I will explain everything.”

Mordecai walked away, looking along the wall for some sort of hallway or passage leading to the cells the dark Druid had spoken of. His mind was spinning. What sort of plot were they up against? Alistair seemed to believe what the dark one had said, so clearly there was truth to his words…

Mordecai shook his head, trying to clear his mind of the questions that swirled around inside. There would be plenty of time for that when they were free of this place. For now, their main concern was still escaping with the coven. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a silent prayer that they might still be alive. It would be utterly tragic to have come all this way just to find there was no hope in the first place…

Cursed Places (Alistair Chapter Three)

The two-day ride was grueling, as they went at a full tilt, stopping only to sleep and to water the horses. The journey took them swiftly across the open plains, and as the terrain shifted around them the closer they got to the mountains, so did the air they were breathing. Not only could they feel the change in altitude, but the closer they came to their destination, the more they could sense the darkness they were approaching. It was palpable, hanging on the wind, feeling almost like a wet cloth being pressed against their faces, making every breath feel like a struggle.

Finally, they arrived at the base of the foothills. The moon was beginning to dip behind the mountains ahead of them, and the sun had just begun to crest over the horizon at their backs. The four on horseback stared in the direction of the burial ground as Mordecai shifted back into his human form. Alistair sighed and leaned back in the saddle, his eyes pouring over every visible inch of the low peaks ahead. A narrow trail could be seen winding its way up through the rocky ground, rising up, weaving in and out of sight.

“They are indeed here,” he said after several moments of silence. “Their darkness exceeds even the weight of the cursed ground upon which they have made their camp. We will rest here for several hours, and then make our way on foot up to the burial grounds. I do not wish to take the horses; what we encounter there could be enough to kill them.”

Clive looked around. “Sir, I don’t mean to question your judgement, but where will we leave them, then? There are hardly any trees around us to which we could tie them, and if we leave them loose, they will surely wander away.”

A sly grin crept across Alistair’s face. “I do not believe this will be a problem, Mr. Lugosi. Do you see the ravens flying overhead?”

The other four gazed above, and saw a flock of black birds circling overhead. They quickly returned their gaze to Alistair, who met their quizzical looks with a soft reply.

“Friends of ours already know we are here. They have been tracking us ever since we entered the territory. They will arrive soon enough, and we can leave our steeds with them.”

Alice furrowed her brow even deeper. “And who might these friends be?”

Cecilia’s musical laugh floated softly through the air. “Why, the Ravens, of course.”

Alistair arched an eyebrow and nodded slowly. “Indeed; the Ravens.”

Knowing that Alistair would not explain further, and that Cecilia would not spoil the surprise, the others settled in and waited for these unseen friends to arrive. They set up camp, built a small fire on which to cook a quick meal, and sat down in the sand to rest a while. After nearly an hour, a small cloud of dust rose up in the distance, quickly drawing nearer to their camp. As it approached, they could make out seven figures coming their way.

When their guests arrived, Alice, Clive, and Mordecai were surprised to see they were equal in stature to Cecilia. The seven of them were clothed in deerskin leather similar to those worn by the local tribes, riding in on what appeared to be wild ponies. Their hair shone like gold in the sun, and their skin was dark and tan; it was their piercing eyes, though, that set them apart, as they glinted and sparkled like diamonds under the moon.

Alistair and Cecilia greeted them warmly with embraces and handshakes all around.

“Greetings, brethren,” Cecilia said.

Their leader, a female with a pendant of a black bird hanging from her neck, grinned at them. “Though we may be an unkindness, we come not with unkind intentions,” she said.

Alistair laughed. “I would hope not; after all we have been through together, you are more like family to us than many of our own blood.”

Turning to the three very confused people behind him, Alistair gestured to the seven newcomers.

“My friends, this is Lucrezia, the leader of the Ravens of Colorado.”

Clive extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you; I am ashamed to admit it, but I have not had the pleasure of hearing about you before now. Please, excuse my ignorance; any friend of Alistair’s is a friend of mine.”

Lucrezia shook his hand and gazed up at him. “The blame for that lies squarely on Alistair’s shoulders; I am a somewhat offended that he has not told you of my people’s exploits with the Gatekeepers by now,” she joked.

As she continued to shake the hands of the other two, Alistair explained.

“The Ravens are a group of Cecilia’s people who have chosen to live in our lands and to assist us in our fight against the dark forces in any way that they can. Their help has been invaluable on numerous occasions, and their presence today is deeply appreciated.”

Lucrezia turned to Alistair. “So you do need our help, then? I figured as much when you five rode in the way you did.”

Alistair nodded. “It appears a band of necromancers has kidnapped a coven of spellbinders, and they are holed up in the caves above the burial grounds.”

The elf crossed her arms and shook her head slowly. “I would love to assist you, my old friend, but you know we do not disturb those who are at rest. That land is sacred, and we dare not cross the spirits who guard it.”

“I understand that; I would never ask you to come with us. Rather, we are in need of someone to watch over our horses while we are gone…”

Lucrezia smiled softly. “That we can do for you. We will keep our eyes on the hills until you return.”

Alistair bowed his head slightly. “Thank you. I would pay you, but I am afraid we did not bring any gold with us on this journey.”

Lucrezia laughed, a high, whimsical sound not unlike Cecilia’s. “You should know by now that we do not require any payment from you other than your continued friendship. We stand allied in the same cause, and we know you would do everything you could to give us aid if the tables were turned.”

Alistair smiled wide. “This is true. Over and over again we have traded aid and assistance. Your help today is still greatly appreciated.”

“Of course, Alistair; who wouldn’t appreciate our help?” Lucrezia winked at Clive, and motioned for her men to take the reins of the Gatekeeper’s horses. When the steeds had been gathered, she remounted her own pony.

“We shall take good care of your mounts; they will be well rested and well fed when you return.”

With that, she urged her pony into a sudden gallop, and the other six riders followed suit. When the dust cleared, the elves were nowhere to be seen, and the Gatekeepers collapsed exhausted into the red sand for a short nap.

They awoke shortly after noon, and they quickly gathered themselves for the last leg of their journey. Without speaking, they all checked their weapons and prepared themselves for the battle that surely awaited them. Cecilia performed protective incantations on them all, and they set off up the path that led to the burial grounds.

The trail rose sharply, much more so than they had anticipated. The way was much steeper than it appeared from below. Within minutes, the five of them were breathing heavily, with sweat beading on their foreheads, dripping down and stinging their eyes. Still, they pressed on. They needed to get through the burial grounds and up to the caves before nightfall. Whatever wards and spells stood between them and the caves would be better faced in the sunlight; there was no telling what kind of danger they would be in if they were caught standing among the graves after nightfall.

Eventually, they reached a flat clearing, surrounded by a ring of smooth boulders. The large rocks were arranged in a pattern; limestone, then sandstone, then flint, all the way around the burial site. The path led through a gap between the stones; across the clearing, the path led out through an identical gap in the ring. From there, it wound its way up to the dark entrance to the caves. Alistair glanced around at his companions and stepped through the opening and into the sacred resting place…

Immediately, the sky cracked with lightning and thunder, though no clouds could be seen above. A heavy mist formed at the center of the clearing; it rose and began to take the form of a man. When it had taken shape, a voice that sounded like a strong wind howling through a canyon shouted out to them.

“WHO DARES WALK AMONG MY RESTING PEOPLE?!”

Alistair raised his hands with his palms facing outward as he replied, “Alistair Mor, of the Gatekeepers; with me are my fellow Gatekeepers, and we have come not to disturb this place, but to rescue some of our own who yet live. Men who use dark magic have taken peaceful women from their homes, and they have hidden them away in the caves above. We seek only to pass through that we may reach them before it is too late.”

The guardian spirit rushed over to where they stood, stopping mere inches from Alistair’s face.

“I know of whom you speak, Pale Walker, and they are taken by evil men indeed. Yet, I do not trust your word. I do not sense darkness in your heart, but I cannot be sure of your intentions. These men who have taken your women have soiled the ground where my people were lain to rest. They did not pass through the trials when they came, but instead, they manipulated the air to their will, using force to make their way to the caves. I am the guardian of this place, and I cannot allow you to disturb the peace of those whose bodies rest here. If you are truly honorable, then you will subjugate yourselves to the trials in order to pass with my blessing.”

Alistair bowed his head. “We shall endure the trials.”

The spirit growled. “Very well; we shall let the spirits decide if you are worthy to cross. Long ago, when I was a warrior among the living, my people were massacred, and their bodies laid to rest here. A great man of magic in my tribe laid a curse on any who would place his foot upon the graves here. He spent many weeks alone on this hill, speaking in spells and shouting incantations. When he had finished, he called forth my spirit to be the guardian of our brothers. I am the keeper of the trials.

“Of the trials, there are two. The first is a measure of the character of a man. Each of you will come face to face with your greatest enemy, and you must overcome both the enemy before you, and the enemy within. If you succeed, you will meet the trial of the righteous warrior. You must defeat the hounds of hell, whose only wish is to drag men down to the depths of the flames for judgement and damnation. Do you still wish to face the trials?”

Alistair stood tall and gazed straight into the face of the guardian spirit. “We do,” he said coolly.

The spirit grinned and chuckled. “Very well. Enter the curse.”

The five of them were suddenly wrapped inside a great cloud of smoke and mist, and none of them could see the others. Mordecai stood stock still, waiting for something to jump out at him from the unseen. Soon enough, the cloud lifted, and he was standing alone in the cemetery. Night had fallen, and the moon was heavy and full above him. On the other side appeared a man with a wild and crazy look in his eye: his twin brother, the man who had taken everything from him.

Mordecai was shocked. “B-Ben…?” he asked incredulously.

In response, his brother howled at the moon and raced towards him. Mordecai barely had time to put his fists up before his twin tackled him to the ground. They rolled around for a few seconds before Ben wound up on top. He pinned Mordecai’s arms to his sides and began slugging him across the jaw. Mordecai felt several teeth pop loose, and he desperately struggled for a way out.

Finally, he was able to get an arm free, and he grabbed his brother by the wrist. Ben instinctively leaned over to try and pry himself from Mordecai’s grasp, allowing Mordecai to pull his other arm up. They grappled like that for a minute or two, with Mordecai holding onto Ben’s wrists for dear life, as his mouth filled up with blood and his eyes began to swell shut.

With a great shout, he heaved his brother off of his chest and scrambled to his feet. Ben regained his balance first, and swung a big kick at Mordecai’s chest as he stood up. Mordecai latched onto Ben’s leg; he absorbed the blow and flipped his brother onto his back. He stepped back and tried to catch his breath while Ben stood once more.

Ben rushed at him with a shout, and Mordecai threw all his strength into a haymaker that connected with Ben’s left temple. Ben fell to the ground and rolled onto his back. Ben reached for the gun holstered on his hip, but Mordecai drew his first. The brothers were frozen like this, gasping for breath, as Mordecai’s gun was shakily aimed at his brother’s chest.

“Don’t you dare do it, Benji,” he said quietly.

Ben grinned evilly. “Do it. Pull the trigger. You know you’ve wanted to for years.”

Mordecai spat to one side and wiped the blood dripping from the corner of his mouth with his free hand. He panted there for a moment before responding. “You know, for someone who ain’t real, you sure pack one hell of a punch. Now, I ain’t gonna shoot ya, and I’ll tell you why. Even though you burned down the house, even though you killed momma and daddy, and even though you tried to have me hanged for it all, I ain’t gonna kill you. You’re still my brother, Benji, and I may hate you some days, or even most days, that fact don’t change.”

Mordecai reholstered his gun, and he was immediately enveloped in the cloud once more. When it lifted this time, he was surrounded by his friends. He rubbed his jaw, and found that all his teeth were where they belonged, and he was no longer bleeding. The guardian spirit looked at them all one by one, as if admiring them.

“Good,” he said. “You have all survived the first trial. You have proven yourselves to be of great character. No one who has attempted the trials has ever made it through the first. They have all given in to their vengeful desires, destroying their enemies and, in turn, destroying themselves. Now, for the second trial…”

The five of them glanced at each other, bracing themselves for what was to come. Lightning struck the ground at the far end of the burial ground, and the guardian spirit faded away.

“Fight! Fight or die!” he commanded as he disappeared.

From the smoking ground where the lightning had struck appeared a pack of snarling three headed dogs. They bounded towards the Gatekeepers, who scrambled to pull their weapons free. Mordecai squeezed off three shots before the pack overran them. The five of them were knocked over, and the dogs began to drag them all away. Mordecai dropped his six shooter and began punching and kicking the dogs around him. Cecilia attempted to cast several spells, but they simply bounced off the hides of the hell hounds they struck.

A black hole opened up in the ground nearby, and the pack worked their way towards it. Just as Clive’s boots slipped through the gaping space, Alistair shook free and stood. He thrust his hands out before him and shouted out an incantation.

“Yerelem, feust asconta midicus!”

A giant ball of blue flame fell from the sky and engulfed them all, burning bright and hot for several moments. When the flame died out, the dogs were gone, and the five of them sat panting in the dirt.

Alice fell onto her back and sighed deeply. “Dear god, Alistair; why didn’t you do that right away?!”

Alistair shook his head. “I-I…couldn’t…remember the spell.”

Mordecai laughed heartily; it rose up from his toes and erupted out through his lips, echoing through the foothills. He didn’t even really know why he was laughing; the stress and the panic of it all seemed to just escape him at that moment, and all he could do was laugh. Apparently, it was contagious, as within seconds, the five of them were lying on the ground, rolling in laughter as tears poured down their faces.

When they were finally able to get ahold of themselves, they stood again and dusted themselves off, fighting back the lingering chuckles and giggles. The guardian spirit reappeared before them, much less aggressive than before. He smiled at them as he spoke.

“I am amazed at what you have done here today. You have proven yourselves pure of heart and worthy to walk among the graves of my people. You may pass through without fear, as the curse is not meant for you. I hope that you will return again soon, victorious in your quest. May the light of all that is good go with you, and may no force of evil stand against you.”

With those words, the guardian disappeared into a cloud of mist, and the five of them made their way across the burial ground. When they reached the other side, they looked back across the clearing; everything was calm and quiet, and there was no evidence of the great struggle that had just taken place. As one, they looked up to the mouth of the cave above them and stared at it for a minute or two. God only knew what was waiting for them inside the mountain…

The Gatekeepers (Alistair chapter two)

Mordecai arrived at the cemetery a couple of hours sooner than he had expected. The Gatekeepers conducted their business all over the world, but the head honchos worked out of an old church in Lawrence, which was right next to one of the most feared places in America. The cemetery that sat next to the church was considered by many to be a gate that led straight to hell, and if Mordecai didn’t already know better, he would be inclined to believe it. He had seen some wicked things rise up out of those graves before; come to think of it, that might be the very reason the Gatekeepers had set up shop there. They made it their business to handle evil and darkness that the general public couldn’t understand.

Alistair had explained to him once that the Gatekeepers had been around for thousands of years, and that they were the group that was the primary defense for the human race against the more magical and mystical forces of darkness. He had also said some things about other realms and places, but he hadn’t really understood much of that. What he took away from the conversation was that the Gatekeepers were the good guys, and that was all that mattered to him.

As he trotted up to the church entrance, he shifted back into his human form. He slapped the dust away from his clothes with his hat and knocked his boots together. For whatever reason, he didn’t feel right tracking any kind of mess into the Gatekeepers’ office. As he finished dusting himself off, one of the younger Gatekeepers came outside and greeted him. A clean-cut, dark-haired man, Clive appeared to be in his early twenties, but Mordecai knew that he was well into his hundreds. Something about being a Gatekeeper gave you an exceptionally long lifespan.

Clive reached out his hand as he descended the two steps to the street where Mordecai stood.

“It’s good to see you, my friend,” he said. “I trust you were able to make the trip there and back in relative safety?”

Mordecai chuckled. “Well, I’m here, ain’t I?”

Clive smiled. “Of course; it was a silly question. Come inside and I’ll get you something to drink. Alistair will be pleased to know that you have returned.”

Mordecai nodded, and the two of them entered the church. Clive uttered a quick incantation, and the doors opened. The doors were guarded by magic to keep any unwanted or unexpected guests from entering their base of operations. Mordecai had never bothered to learn the incantation, as whenever he arrived, someone was always waiting and ready to let him in.

They stepped inside, and were presented with a view that always seemed futuristic to Mordecai. The sanctuary had been sectioned off into several rooms with a hallway that led down the middle between them all. Two-thirds of the way to the back of the building, the space opened up again, leading into a wide room with a large table in the center. The scene was something he never really got used to. It was all so organized, yet extremely busy, no matter what time of day or night. People and strange beings hustled and bustled about, caught up in the task at hand. The closest comparison he had been able to come to was that it reminded him of a bank or a newspaper press; people were always coming and going, busy with various projects, and at the center of it all, was Alistair.

Alistair sat at the head of the table, reading out of an old leather-bound book. He marked his place and looked up as Clive and Mordecai entered the room.

“Welcome back, Mr. Tressle. I trust you have good news for me today?”

Alistair stood and motioned for the two of them to sit. When they had all been seated, Mordecai replied.

“Well, yes and no. I know what happened to the spellbinders, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

Alistair sighed. “My suspicions were correct, then?”

“Unfortunately,” Mordecai said. “I was able to track them into the Colorado Rockies. From what I can tell, a band of necromancers has taken them hostage up in the old Indian burial grounds. I would have gone after them myself, but I hope you can understand why I came back here for reinforcements.”

Alistair steepled his fingers and pressed them against his lips for a moment. “Indeed; I would not dream of asking you to go up against necromancers by yourself, especially in territory such as that. You are sure that is where they are being held, though?”

Mordecai nodded silently.

Alistair sighed again. “Very well, we shall put together a team and go in after them. Clive, would you mind bringing in Cecilia and Alice, please?”

“Of course, sir.”

The slender man stood up from the table and walked down the hall to one of the small rooms, returning with the two women. Well, they were both females. Only one of them was actually human. Alice was a tall, thin woman with dark brown hair and piercing brown eyes; she had a faint scar on her left cheek where a gremlin had caught her off-guard with a knife (it didn’t end well for the gremlin, to say the least.) Her looks and mannerisms reminded Mordecai of a hawk; majestic and beautiful, yet terrifying and dangerous. She had been a slave before Alistair had freed her; he had paid a steep price for her freedom, and in return, she had joined the Gatekeepers.

Cecilia, however, was almost the complete opposite. She was very short, barely three and a half feet tall. Her long golden hair was tied back into a ponytail behind her head, showcasing her fair complexion and soft features. She was an elf, from one of those “other realms” that Alistair had told him about. Her quiet, calm appearance was rather deceiving, however, as Mordecai had seen her fight her way out of a bar once with nothing but a deck of cards. When it was all said and done, she had levelled thirteen full-grown men, cow-hands no less, without even mussing up her hair. Needless to say, neither of these two girls was someone to tango with. They could more than hold their own.

When Alice and Cecilia had taken their seats at the table, Alistair laid out his plan.

“Alright, Mordecai has told me that the missing coven of spellbinders has been taken hostage by a group of necromancers, and they have holed up in the Indian burial grounds in Colorado. I’m assuming they have retreated into the caves there?”

Everyone looked to Mordecai, who nodded, and Alistair continued.

“The five of us will travel out there as quickly as we can and free them. As I am unsure of the skill level of these necromancers, or exactly how many of them there are, I will be coming along. I can’t have my best agents getting themselves killed by walking into a trap. If you are going into an ambush, I would much rather be with you, if only to ease my own conscience.”

Mordecai cleared his throat. “While I was up there, I only seen a handful of them, maybe five or six at most.”

Alistair nodded. “We must assume that there are more of them in the caves. Between the five of us, I believe we could take on upwards of twenty of them, if need be. I have full faith in each of your abilities in the mystical arts as well as your own self-defense, but please indulge me; I would feel much more comfortable coming with you. If I were to await your return, I would be sitting on pins and needles until you came back.”

Alice cocked her head to one side and squinted at Alistair. “I don’t mean any disrespect, sir, but what aren’t you telling us? We’ve gone up against worse than just necromancers before, and you never batted an eye. What’s different about these guys?”

Alistair rubbed his eyes. “In all my years, I have only known necromancers to kidnap the magically gifted for one thing, and that is for sacrifice in their dark rituals. If that is indeed what is going on here, not only are their numbers going to be higher than reported, but they will be stronger than those you have faced in the past. If you add that to the fact that there has not been a report of a band of necromancers east of St. Louis in almost one hundred and fifty years, you will come to understand why this entire situation makes me uneasy.”

Cecilia sighed and shook her head. “It does seem curious,” she said, her soft voice floating over the room like the sound of a wind chime. “Where did they come from, and why are they performing this ritual now? It is not the full moon, nor is it the harvest, the times when the dark arts are the strongest. I agree with Alistair; taking immense caution in this situation is the best course of action.”

Alistair smiled softly. “Thank you, Cecilia. I have always valued your wisdom and your judgement, and the fact that you agree with my assessment of the situation bolsters my confidence in my decision. Now, I would like you three to finish whatever tasks require your immediate attention, and meet back with me in several hours. As for you, Mordecai, you look exhausted. We will get you a warm meal and you need to get some rest before we make the return journey. We have quite a task ahead of us, and I want all of you to be well rested and prepared for it.”

Everyone stood up as the meeting was adjourned, and while Mordecai made his way downstairs to the guest room that had been his home for the last several years, the others quickly got back to work, finished up their immediate projects and packed for the trip ahead.

Mordecai awoke to see Alistair and the other three Gatekeepers standing over him.

“Up and at ‘em, sunshine,” Alice said with a grin. “We’re going on a hunt.”

Mordecai jumped out of bed and jogged over to the water basin to quickly wash the sleep from his face before they left. As he patted his scraggly face dry, he noticed Alice was watching him with a thoughtful look on her face.

“What is it?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Nothing, really. I just noticed that even when you’re not in your other form, you move around like a wolf.”

Mordecai furrowed his brow and tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

Alice shrugged. “You move around quickly and quietly, almost kind of stealthy. I don’t know, you just remind me of a wolf or a coyote on the hunt.”

Mordecai laughed softly. “Thanks, I guess.”

Alice cracked a sly grin. “You’re welcome, I guess. Now, hurry up; we’ve got work to do.”

The five of them met outside, and the Gatekeepers mounted their horses. Alistair glanced around at them all. “Alright, are we ready?”

Everyone nodded, and he continued, “Very well; Mordecai, lead the way.”

Mordecai shifted into his canine form and took off running, with the Gatekeepers close behind, the five of them leaving a trail of swirling dust behind them as they sped off into the night.

Black Dog (Alistair, chapter one)

The Navajo called them black dogs; dark shadows that would hurriedly pass along the treeline, swift enough to make the scouts wonder if they had really seen them at all. When they did see them, they would always describe them the same way: black, smokey creatures, roughly the size of a small wolf, with big triangular heads, sharp ears, and bushy tails. If one  was lucky, they would catch a glimpse of their faces; faces with a singular, defining characteristic: glowing, red eyes.

These sightings were often shrugged off by the majority, as they were believed to be the result of sleep deprivation. Scouts would often report seeing the black dogs when they had been in the field for several days, and they were purely exhausted. The medicine men attributed a spiritual factor to the sightings, believing them to be the incarnations of death walking among the forest. A scout who had seen a black dog was usually quarantined for a while, as the superstitious ones believed they were going to die soon after seeing one.

The truth was significantly more simple. The black dogs were men with a special ability, as it were. They were spellbinders and dreamweavers who had trained in the art of transfiguration. They could transform themselves into dogs made of smoke and mist, allowing them to pass through more inhospitable areas with ease, or to travel among the wildlife more or less undetected.

Mordecai thought about this and smiled to himself as he kicked snow into the remaining embers of his fire from the night before. The smoke and steam began to billow as the small flames were extinguished, rising up into the cold, clear sky. He looked around him, preparing himself for the day’s journey. He had set up camp late last night, making himself a small fire thirty feet from the edge of the evergreen forest. He had intended to stop much earlier, but he had been spotted by a pair of scouts as he had descended out of the mountains, and had to slip far enough away from them in order to make the shift back into his true form before making his bed for the night.

He knelt down and folded up his blanket and stuffed his few belongings back into his sack. He had always wondered what happened to his possessions when he made the shift; it’s not like he was a dog wearing a backpack. He assumed that whatever he carried with him was simply carried by the smoke, and returned to him when he regained his human form. Perhaps he would ask one of the others about this when he got back to Kansas.

He stood again and looked out over the snow-dusted plain ahead of him. He had a long way to go before he was back home. Alistair had sent him into the mountains to scout out the location of a small coven of spellbinders. They had gone missing several weeks prior, and it was unlike them to stay out of contact for this long, especially during this time of year. It was suspected that a band of necromancers had crossed to this side of the Rockies and had taken them, though for what reason, no one really knew.

Mordecai had caught their trail, and it had led into a place he would rather not travel through alone; there was an old Indian burial ground just past the foothills, and legend had it that some pretty dark stuff had happened there when the Americans had first come through. Supposedly, there had been quite a battle; to hear some tell it, it had been more of a siege. In either case, when the Indians realized they were fighting a losing battle, they had cursed the land and any who dared cross it, and had holed away in the cave systems, never to be seen again.

Now, Mordecai wasn’t one to put much stock in legends, but when it came to dark magic like that, it was better to be safe than sorry. He would rather have a Gatekeeper there to back him up in case things went south. He didn’t know too much about the Gatekeepers, but he did know two things: first, they were exceptionally strong when it came to the mystical arts; second, they were an honest bunch, and could be trusted.

Their leader, Alistair, had pulled him out of a few tough scrapes several years back, so he had offered his particular set of skills as a way of returning the favor. He had performed dozens of these types of missions, obtaining information on situations that the Gatekeepers would otherwise be unable to get their eyes on. Mordecai was able to sneak his way into places Alistair and his men would never reach, and had been able to help them in a number of different ways.

Mordecai sniffed and wiped his nose; the morning was cold enough that he could even feel his eyebrows bristle and begin to freeze in place. It was days like this that he was thankful for the heavy coat of fur that he had while he was in his black dog form. It made travelling in inclement weather much more comfortable; most of the time, he couldn’t even feel the coldest of winds.

He threw his backpack over his shoulder and uttered the incantation, his words seeming to hang in the air like the fog from his breath.

De fumum ac fauillam, venit lupus.” 

Out of smoke and ash, comes the wolf.

As the last syllable left his tongue, he was enveloped in a cloud of smoke, and he felt himself begin to spin. The wind around him picked up briefly, and when it died down seconds later, where once stood a burly man, was a black wolf with glowing red eyes, smoke wisping and winding off every inch of fur.

He remembered when he had first learned to shift, the spinning had made him violently ill. It was something that took quite a bit of getting used to; now that he had been doing it for so many years, it was rather commonplace for him, but it still made his stomach turn a little bit from time to time.

He shook, as it had begun to snow again as the sun came up over the horizon. With any luck, he would be able to reach Salina by nightfall, and the next day, he would finish the trip. It would be an exhausting run, but he needed to get back to Lawrence, where the Gatekeepers were awaiting the news he brought with him.

He set off at a brisk trot for several paces, and then broke into a run. Another advantage to being a black dog was the ability to travel at dizzying speeds. Like a bolt of black lightning, he sped across the open plains, leaving the mountains behind him. He would not stop again until the sun had set again.