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by Margo Fallis
The Pass

“Here we are at Steffer Pass.” Corin said with confidence. “We can’t go much higher than this!”

     Cafania, Fingal and Gorbal walked a few steps ahead of the two larger men, stopping at t he edge of the pass. Gorbal stopped abruptly and folded his arms over his chest. “I am not crossing over that. You must be nuts. The drop must be five miles deep on each side. I can’t even see the bottom and let’s not forget this tiny tidbit, the path is only about three feet wide. Why, I can hardly fit my body on that.  Nuh uh. I am not going. Phooey on the wizard.”

     “It’s a Lord, Gorbal; the Lord of the Heavens, not a wizard.” Fingal stuck his tongue out at the gnome.

     Corin grabbed the gnome by the back of his filthy shirt. “You have no choice. We’ve all been summoned. Stop being a coward.” Corin walked on, dragging Gorbal along with him.

     “Let me go! Let me go, you brute!” Gorbal tried to kick Corin, but his legs were too short.

     Fingal walked next to him, keep his distance so Gorbal couldn’t kick him over the edge. “Stop being a baby, Gorbal. Baby, baby, baby.”

     Corin dropped the gnome. “Here are your choices. You can go with us, or you can go over the side, right now. I don’t think you’ll like the last choice. At the bottom of one side of the pass is the Valley of Eternal Suffering. If you fall, or get pushed, or dropped, you will never hit bottom, but fall, and fall, and fall, forever; your body burning, getting all black and crispy and blistery as your drop through scorching heat.” Corin sneered. The others in the group gulped with horror. He continued. “On the other side is the Valley of Pendricles. On the valley floor are thousands of jutting, pointed rocks. They say if you look down you can see the bodies of many impaled on the points.”

Fingal crawled on his hands and knees to the edge to look down. “Ugh.”

     “Uh, Braden, Corin, I don’t think I want to cross the pass either; no matter how angry the Lord of the Heavens gets,” Cafania said, frightened by the danger ahead.

     “That goes for me too,” whispered Fingal.

     “Who’s the fraidy cat now, Fingal? All right. I’ll go, but let it be known that the only reason I’m going is because you threatened me.” Gorbal stood and brushed himself off.

     “Okay you three, listen good. We are all going and that’s that! We’ll help you and we’ll be very careful. I’ll go first. Fingal, you will follow me, then the gnome, the woman, and then you, Braden will be the last. Is that all right with you all?” Corin didn’t want to cause further tension by being bossy, but he thought it would be best for the group.

     Braden, being of pleasant nature, agreed, and the group began their trek across the dangerous dirt path. Braden, in the rear, noticed that the three in the middle kept glancing from side to side. In exasperation, he sighed. “It is going to be a long five miles. I hope nobody loses their balance or trips.”

     Mist seeped into the valleys, filling them inch by inch. It was impossible to see any thing in the Valley of Eternal Suffering, and on the other side, all that could be seen were a few jagged pinnacles jutting out from the clouds.

 They’d only traveled a mile when Gorbal’s clumsy feet caught and he tripped on a rock. He toppled over the side, falling towards the Valley of Eternal Suffering, but before he’d fallen too far, he grasped some clumps of weeds growing along the edge of the path. “Help! Help!”  The others made their way to the spot where Gorbal hung for dear life. “Help me! Please help me!”

Cafania tried to grab Gorbal’s arms, but all she ended up doing was scratching him. “Braden, please help him. Corin, save him!”

Having a six foot four body of pure muscle, Corin used his strength to grab Gorbal by his red tuft of hair and pulled him up onto the path.

 “Oooowwwww! My hair!” The gnome shouted in pain.

Corin dropped him on the dirt and snarled, “Why you ungrateful gnome!  I ought to toss you back over the edge; whining and whimpering about your hair?”

Gorbal whispered, “No, please don’t. I’m sorry. You hurt my head though.” He rubbed the sore area.

“Be more careful, you clumsy gnome.” Corin snapped as he pulled red hairs from his fingers.

Cafania and Fingal didn’t say a word. Both were dealing with the shock of Gorbal’s near-death encounter. Braden slipped his muscular arms around Cafania’s shoulder. “Take a few deep breaths. Now, let’s all slowly and with care, make our way across Steffer Pass. Watch your feet on those loose stones.”

Cafania felt shivers go through her body at Braden’s touch. She smiled at him and thanked him for caring.

They made their way across the pass. The only other problem they encountered was when Cafania and then Fingal screamed. “Look! A man is pierced on one of the pinnacles jutting up from the Valley of the Pendricles. The rock has gone right through the center of his body. Gross! His intestines and his other innards are hanging out.” Fingal gagged when he saw the man’s tongue dangling to the side of his mouth and two giant bats eating the eyes. The legs were nothing but bones and what was left of him was covered with large purple ants the size of Fingal’s fist.

The sight even caused Braden to feel a little ill.

Corin had seen worse. It didn’t affect him. “Nothing we can do for him now,” he muttered, and kept walking.

  *  *  *

     The rest of the walk across Steffer Pass was problem free, until they came within twenty feet of the end. Something, or someone, had knocked out the last part of the path. It wasn’t there.

 “Great! Just great! Now what do we do?” Corin turned around and looked back at the path they’d just taken, running his hands through his long hair.

     “We can’t just stay here, and I’m not going back!” Gorbal moaned and sat in the dirt. “I’m not going back!”

     The silence, full of despair and tension, weighed heavily on each of them as they tried to think of a way to resolve the problem. Disrupting the quiet, Fingal’s high voice sounded. “Look! Look over there, Corin. Look at that big black thing flying towards us. What is it Corin? Is it a giant bat?”

     All the others turned to look. Braden said, “It’s a dragon. I haven’t seen one in years, but I know it’s a dragon!”

     “A dragon?” Gorbal asked, not quite sure he heard right. “Do dragons eat things, like us, for instance? Never mind. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”

     “Yes, they do, and they especially like to eat clumsy, fat gnomes,” Corin said.

     “What are we going to do?” Cafania glanced over at Braden.

     “Did any of you bring weapons?” Corin interrupted with a loud voice.

     “I brought my bow and arrows,” Cafania said.

     “I brought my dagger.” Braden pulled it out of his belt.

“Well, I’ve got a sword and a knife,” Corin added. “My I suggest we get them ready to use, right now!”

     The dragon swooped down on them. Fingal and Gorbal fell to the ground, lying on their bellies. The dragon, a glossy black color, swooped at them over and over again; its rubbery wings longer than its scaled-body length. Huge, sharp claws stuck out from its three-toed feet. Its lime-green eyes glowed with fury.  Its teeth were covered with chunks of rotting flesh and filth. The dragon blew fire through its nostrils, most of it roaring over the sides and avoiding them. Cafania shot arrow after arrow. A few pierced its thick hide, but did little damage. It never got close enough for Corin or Braden to use their weapons.

     After an hour of dodging flames and sharp claws, Cafania ran out of arrows. The dragon swooped down for the final attack. The group curled up in a tight ball, awaiting their doom, when suddenly they found themselves in a dark room and no longer on the lofty path facing them menacing beast.

                   *  *  *

“Hey, what happened? Where are we? Just a second ago we were fighting a dragon and now here we are,” Fingal rambled on, taking deep breaths.

“Shut up, dwarf,” a familiar deep voice ordered.

The room was as dark as a moonless night. Braden stomped on the floor; a cold slab of rock. A whispery draft seeped from an airway. He crawled on his knees towards the cool breeze. Reaching up, he felt a piece of damp wood. “I think I found a door.”

At almost the same instant, the others asked, “Where are you?”

“Follow my voice over here,” Braden said. Within a few seconds they had gathered around him. “This seems to be a door. Corin, Gorbal, help me push. Maybe it will open. I feel a draft coming from underneath.”

For several minutes the men and the gnome agonizingly pushed. It didn’t budge. They made a second attempt to open the door and this time they succeeded, though totally exhausted. The door creaked open. The one foot thick wood rotted away from dampness. A gush of cold air flowed into the room, causing Cafania to shiver.

Fingal was just about to run out through the small opening but Corin stopped him, grabbing him by the neck. “Not so fast friend,” he whispered. “Let me draw my sword and go through first, just in case.”

“Just in case of what?” Darkness devoured Fingal’s words.

Corin squeezed through the opening. It led into a long dark hall with many similar looking wooden openings on each side. He walked on a few steps and checked the first few doors. After attempting to open others, only to find them also locked, Corin said, “Come on, it’s safe.” One by one they left the dark, damp room. High up on the wall, were several slotted windows that allowed a little sunlight to filter through. The hall, drafty and bitter cold, at least offered enough light to see where they were going.

From behind him, Cafania softly spoke to Braden. “Where are we? How did we get here?”

A confused Braden shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.”

They made their way down the hall, passing door after door, each being checked to see if they were locked. All were. When they got to the end of the hall, they found steps that obviously led to some other rooms. In single file they climbed with caution, both Braden and Corin holding their daggers in front. A door stopped their ascent.

Being in front, Corin turned the knob and opened the door.

“Welcome my friends. I have been expecting you.” A crackling voice called to them. “Enter.”

Corin turned and looked at the others, who filed through the door. Once inside they stood in a semicircle around a large wooden table.

Sitting on one of the uncomfortable chairs sat the Lord of the Heavens. He looked to be about ninety years old, had a long gray beard, and was dressed in a long, baggy, dark blue robe with a loose fitting hood. His eyes sparkled as bright as the stars that he ruled over. His fingers were bony and long, as were his fingernails. His skin was wrinkled and a pale off white. “You, young lady,” he said to Cafania, “do not let my looks deceive you. I am powerful still in my years.”

She flushed, stepping back, wondering how he knew what she was thinking.

“You are all here.” He gazed at the group. “A dwarf? I didn’t send for a dwarf. Who brought you here?”

Fingal ran and hid behind Corin.

“Ah, so Corin, it was you. I only hope he doesn’t interfere with the plans I have made for you.”

“What plans?” The frightened dwarf whispered.

“He won’t, Lord.  He won’t.” Corin assured him.

     *  *  *

     As the conversation went on inside the Temple, outside the wolf lay, hiding in a thick bush. In his front paws he held what was left of a large animal. He ripped a hunk of

raw, fresh meat off and chewed it voraciously. Blood-matted fur lay all around, as did the horns of their owner. He was willing to wait for darkness to fall so he could enter the building and prey on the people inside.

     *  *  *

     “You are all wondering why I sent for you. Please, be seated.” The Lord of the Heavens pointed to several old and not too supportive looking oak chairs. “Hundreds of years ago, in a far away land, was a kingdom known as Pinea. Peace reigned in the kingdom for many, many centuries. There was no evil, just peace and happiness. Princess Serba, daughter of the king, was out walking in the woods alone and was attacked by an unknown. He was a human, but had dark hair, which was an unfamiliar sight to those of Pinea. Unfortunately Princess Serba became pregnant by this human and later gave birth to twin boys. She named the first born Kolin. His hair was as black as coal like his ‘father’.” The Lord of the Heavens hesitated as he said the word ‘father’. “The second son was named Kile. His hair was fair like his mothers.

     “Kolin was always in trouble, even as a little boy. Kile, however, was a delight. He brought joy and laughter to all he was near. Everyone loved him. Because Kolin was so troublesome and so irresponsible, the king ordered that when he died, his grandson, Kile, should become the next king of Pinea. Kolin became very angry and slew his twin brother. As a result, he was banished from the kingdom. One of the boy’s cousins became king and peace continued to rule the land. Princess Serba died, sad, alone, and heartbroken from the loss of her twin sons, one to murder, the other to evil. Stories came to the land of how Kolin had made pacts and signed covenants with evil witches and sorcerers in return for everlasting life. Strange and horrible things began to happen in Pinea. Children would disappear while outside playing. Animals vanished too, but the odd thing is that it was always the first-born son of a family that would turn up missing.

     “In despair, the people of Pinea called upon their own sorcerer for help. He came to their aid by tracking down Kolin and returning him to the kingdom. The sorcerer gave Kolin a choice. He could be killed now or he could have a curse put on him forever. The people of the kingdom just didn’t have the heart to kill Princess Serba’s son, so seeing this weakness, Kolin chose the curse, which was that he was no longer to be a man. He was cursed forever to be an animal. If the body he possessed ever died, he could simply enter another. Nothing could ever stop this. He’d been given the choice of which animal he would be. He chose a wolf. ‘So be it!’ The sorcerer called and Kolin ceased to exist as a human being. ‘To tell you from the other wolves so no one will be tricked, I curse you with eyes as red as the blood of your brother, Kile’s, that you shed.’

     “The sorcerer gave the Book of Spells he’d used for the curse to his friend, a gnome named Andoor; no doubt some relation to you.” He nodded at Gorbal. “The only way to ever have this curse released would be through a spell in this book. The gnome swore never to reveal the spell, nor to let the book out of his possession. When he died, he was to pass it on to his son, and so on.”

     Gorbal put his hand in his pocket and felt the Book of Spells. He thought to himself, “Is this it? Is this that Book of Spells?”

     The Lord of the Heavens continued. “I have summoned you here because word has come to me from the stars that Kolin is roaming our lands now. We don’t know where, but…..”

     “The wolf!” Fingal interrupted. “The wolf you tried to kill with your knife on the Plains of Marsol. Remember Colin? Remember? It had red eyes. I saw them.”

     “He’s right,” Corin said to the Lord of the Heavens.

“I have obtained information that someone has the Book of Spells in their possession. One of you four.” The Lord of the Heavens’ gaze moved from one to another.

     The small group looked around at each other. Gorbal swallowed hard and said, “Lord, Sir, it is I who possesses the Book of Spells. It has been passed down from generation to generation for many hundreds of years. I didn’t know until just now of its importance, nor do I know of any spell like that.”

     “Of course not, that is why I summoned you. Over the years, Kolin has gathered strength and power, and gains more with every drop of blood he swallows. We need to stop him. He does not yet know about the spell and we need to destroy him before he finds out. The lives of many now, and in the future, depend on you four. Gorbal, bring me the book!” Lord of the Heavens commanded the gnome. Gorbal placed it on the table. “Now, I will consult with the Lord of Nature, the Lord of Love, the Lord of the Earth, and the Lord of the Seas. We will study this book and let you know more in the morning of what we demand of you. Please, go and rest now. There are cots and blankets in the next room. You will also find food and wine. Be comfortable and we shall speak again when the sun rises.”

      *  *  *

     Nobody had noticed the hunchbacked man sitting in the corner. He stood and at his master’s nod, led the five to a room that had several cots lined up against the damp, moss-covered walls. As they left the room, Gorbal nudged Fingal. “He is too a wizard.”

Each chose his and her cot and lay down on it. Corin chose the one near the window, which was only a narrow slit in the thick stone wall. Fingal, of course, took the cot next to Corin’s. Gorbal took the cot in the other corner. Braden and Cafania were left the cots next to the door. Cafania didn’t lie down in her cot as the others did. She stood still, shivering, tears running down her face. Braden jumped off his cot and took Cafania in his arms. He lowered her next to him and held her all night as they both slept.

     The five Lords sat in the other room. Candles flickered and incense burned, filling the room with a smoky sweet smell. “Nature, you may begin your dream. The gnome is your subject. He must be tested for his worthiness. He is rightful owner of the Book of Spells and only he can break the curse.”

     “As you wish,” the Lord of Nature spoke, and then he stood. His long, dark green cape dragged the ground as he walked to the table. A glass ball sat in the center. It glowed as clear as the flowing spring waters of a mountain stream. The Lord of Nature put his bony hands on the ball and closed his eyes.

     Gorbal’s cot rattled. His dream began. He found himself walking through a grove of evergreens. The sun’s rays filtered through, sending him streams of light. As he walked he came upon a nest made of straw, feathers and grasses. Inside it laid five sky blue eggs, speckled with various other colors. He reached for one, picking it up in his chubby hands, thinking them to be robin’s eggs. The shell had a velvety texture. He held it up to his face, caressing it. When he put the egg back in the nest a crack appeared and a black beak pecked its way through. The shell then burst into pieces and there lay a baby green dragon. Gorbal’s eyes bulged in horror as he watched the other eggs crack. Realizing this must be the nest of a dragon, much like the one the group had encountered at Steffer Pass, he shook with fear, wondering what he should do when the other four eggs broke open and four more small green dragons appeared. Their soft screeches were non-threatening and innocent, yet Gorbal was near tears. Should he leave immediately, before the mother came back, or should he just kill the five creatures before they grew up into big dragons? He looked around for a large stick to beat them with. He found one about two inches in diameter, picked it up and walked over to the nest. With the stick raised to smash one, Gorbal hesitated. His heart softened. The squirming dragons were living creatures, so he let nature take its course. He turned and walked away.

     “He has passed the test of Nature. Had he killed the baby dragons he would have failed. A life is a life, whether it be a useful animal or not.” The Lord of Nature removed his fingers from the large ball.

     In the other room, Gorbal lay still, sound asleep.

     *  *  *

     “You may be seated, Nature. Earth,” who sat with his deep purple robe draped on the cold stone floor, “you are next.” The Lord of the Heavens nodded. “You will be testing the one they call Corin. He is a strong, mighty man with much power and force.”

     In the other room Corin tossed and turned. In his dream he found himself sitting on a large jagged rock. Sand surrounded the rock, spreading thirty feet in diameter away from the boulder, where it changed to the consistency of hard clay material. With a suspicious heart, Corin searched his pockets for something he could toss. He felt a stone that he’d picked up at Steffer Pass. He took it out of his pocket and threw it into the sand, where it sank. Corin looked around. There was nothing he could use to walk on or swing over the quicksand with. All he had with him was what he was wearing. How was he going to get out of this mess? He sat for an hour contemplating his problem and then it came to him. He knew how to get to the firmer dirt.

     Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a mouse. He’d had Suska as a pet for a few months. None of the others, not even Fingal, knew he had a pet mouse. “Sorry old pal to do this,” he said to Suska, petting its forehead. He grabbed its tail and swung it above his head in a circle. After doing this for about five minutes, a giant bat flew towards him. It worked. The bat smelled the mouse. As it came closer, Corin planned how he’d get it near enough to grab its legs. He put the mouse, which was now dead, on top of his head. The bat flew down to pick up the mouse. Corin noticed its fifteen foot wingspan, big enough to carry a big man like him. Its claws came down to grasp the mouse and quickly Corin grabbed them and held on tight. The bat shrieked in anger, trying to pull itself free from Corin’s hold. It lifted into the air with Corin attached, and flew back towards where it had come from. Corin let go as soon as it had flown past the quicksand. He fell to the hard ground.

     “He has passed the test of the Earth. I like the way he used his head in those kind of circumstances; no pun intended; no panicking, no fear, just thoughtful calculation,” said the Lord of the Earth. “In reality, the mouse is running through the woods near Corin’s home. He released it before leaving on his journey.”

     “Very well done, Earth. Love, it is your turn.  You may test the female now,” the Lord of the Heavens said.

                   *  *  *

     Corin once again slept peacefully. Cafania began to fuss. As the Lord of Love placed his hands, draped in the red sleeves of his robe, around the glass ball, she moved about in Braden’s arms.

     In her dream she found herself lying in a field of clover. In the distance she heard a horse riding in her direction and looked up to see the long awaited rider. It was Braden, his brown hair blowing behind him. He dismounted and she ran into his arms. “Braden, I’ve waited so long. I feared you wouldn’t come.”

     “My darling, nothing could keep me from you.” They embraced and kissed with passion. From out of the nearby grove of trees darted a large teeth-bearing bear. It moved towards the couple at lightning speed. Braden saw it approach through the corner of his eye and threw Cafania to the hard ground. The bear came upon him and tore at his arm. In sheer terror, but more afraid for her lover, Cafania ran to the animal and pounded her fists on its back.

     “Get away, Cafania!” Braden screamed. The bear turned, leaving a wounded Braden to destroy Cafania instead. As hard as he tried, Braden couldn’t distract the bear. Soon there was nothing left of Cafania but a few bones.

     Cafania stirred in her cot.

     “As I knew she would, Cafania has passed the test. She sacrificed her life to save someone she loved.” The Lord of Love removed his withered hands from the ball.

                        *  *  *

“That leaves only the one called Braden. Though I am sure he will pass your test, you may proceed, Lord of the Seas, with your dream,” the Lord of the Heavens said.

     A nimble, but small man stood and walked towards the other four. His gray cloak dragged across the hard rock floor. “I see no need to test this one. He is as brave and as self sacrificing as the others.” He nodded his head back and forth.

     “Very well then, that is your choice. They are ready for the quest. All are worthy and have the qualities needed to fulfill our needs. A lot depends on them. Lord of Love, bring me the stone.” The Lord of the Heavens commanded him. “They must get the Healing Stone to Princess Jasmine before it is too late.”

     The Lord of Love placed the round stone on the table. It was about three inches in diameter and glistened as a diamond. “My Lord, here it is.”

     “Princess Jasmine will die if it is not given to her within four days. The group must pass through many dangers to get there; and now there is yet another danger, Kolin. He has grown more powerful and more evil than can be imagined. Word has come to me that he is nearby. The group will awaken soon and we will meet with them.” The Lord of the Heavens dismissed the other four Lords.

     In the other room, the group continued to sleep, having no idea that it was the last good night’s sleep they’d get for a long time.

                        *  *  *

The wolf lurked outside the castle. He had searched for hours but found no way in. Up high, he saw windows aglow with light. He could never reach them and get inside. Growing angrier by the second, he walked towards a cave he’d spotted earlier.

     Inside was dark and dam and it didn’t go back very far. The wolf lay and slept, waiting for sunrise so he could once again pursue the group.

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