Aglanthol 3

The Castle of Saelethiel

(The Law Cannot Be Shaken)

by Dolores Esteban




Prologue


No man can avoid his destiny. This law is written in the book of time.

The Castle of Saelethiel lies high up in the Western Mountains. It was founded in the mists of time. The castle guards secrets that are far beyond a man’s understanding. The guardians of the castle watch out and enforce the law. The law is timeless and it cannot be shaken. But only those who are ready are summoned to face the truth.

The Castle of Saelethiel is hidden from the eyes of an average man. Only the wise men know where to find it. The brethren watch out and enforce the law. When time has come man must face the truth. He is summoned to look into the abyss of his soul. Man must undergo a trial.

No man can avoid his destiny, however hard he tries. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken.

~~**~~



01

Dran looked up and glanced around. An uneasy feeling had taken hold of him. However, he did not see anything unfamiliar. The peasant Dran turned back to digging up his field.

A man on a horse watched him from the shadows. The man hid in the forest on the top of the hill that was near Dran’s farmhouse and fields. The man looked through the leaves. He was dressed in a long and black robe and his face was hidden by a hood. The man’s face showed no expression. Only his slightly narrowed eyes indicated his hostility. The man looked down the hill and gazed at the peasant.

So this man, a peasant, an average and simple man had retrieved Norlorn’s sword from the ground. The hooded man gazed at Dran. Dran, however, did not notice him. Ogol compressed his lips. It was just not fair. But what could he do about it? He could not turn back time and change the course of events. Ogol gave a dry laugh at his thought.

He had located Norlorn’s sword just a bit too late. The energy, however, had still been strong when Ogol had found the place. Ogol had tracked the energy lines. One had led to the peasant Dran. His spies had watched the man for a while. One of them, disguised as a merchant, had even talked to the man. He had subtly inquired the man, but all he had learned was that Dran had had an accident in the wood. His neighbour had found him and had saved his life. The peasant apparently suffered from amnesia. Ogol was sure that the peasant had retrieved the sword and someone then had sealed his memories in order to save the man from his disturbing memories.

His reflections had led Ogol to the wizard Neldor who lived at the royal court of Aglanthol. The retrieved sword had released Khaalindaan’s energy that had been banned for a thousand years. Ogol had come to release this energy in order to use it for his advantage. But when he had finally found the place, the energy had already been released and absorbed and only energies from a fight had remained. Who had fought against Khaalindaan? Who had neutralized the energy? Ogol was sure that a powerful wizard had absorbed it. He was sure that the wizard Neldor had had a hand in it. The peasant down there digging up his field was no threat to Ogol. Neldor, however, was a threat. He could endanger Ogol’s aspiring plans. The wizard Neldor was the one he had to watch.

Dran looked up again and looked around nervously. He felt cold despite the warm spring sun. The uneasy feeling had returned and he was not able to shake it off. Dran looked at the edge of the forest. Ogol tensed as the peasant looked in his direction. Did he see him? Ogol was not sure, but he doubted it. The trees hid him from the sight of the man. But the peasant had retrieved Norlorn’s sword. Who knew what the powerful magic had done to him? Who knew if not Norlorn’s magic had changed the peasant’s perception. Ogol sat motionless on his horse and studied Dran. No, the man was not able to see him. The peasant looked around and did not fix his gaze on the mighty wizard of the Khalindash clan.

Dran turned back to his work. Ogol watched him for another while, but then he lost interest in the man. No, the man would not endanger his plans. It was a pity that the simple man had stumbled upon Norlorn’s sword and had retrieved it from the ground. Ogol had been looking for the sword for many years. He had planned to retrieve it and absorb the spirit of Khaalindaan. 

Khaalindaan had been the mightiest wizard of the Clan of Bre who later called themselves the Clan of Khalindash, the avengers of Khaalindaan. Only one man had been more powerful than Khaalindaan: the man who had defeated the wizard.

Ogol gave a disdainful hiss. Norlorn, the mighty wizard of the Aglanthol, had defeated Khaalindaan in the final battle. However, he had only been able to ban Khaalindaan’s spirit for a thousand years. Then the spirit could be released again by retrieving Norlorn’s sword from the ground. Ogol gave another hiss. The thousand years had passed and he had planned to retrieve the sword for he found that he was Khaalindaan’s worthy successor.

Ogol’s magic was indeed powerful. He was the mightiest Khalindash wizard in centuries and Khaalindaan’s spirit would have ultimately made him invincible. Unfortunately, the peasant had retrieved the sword and Khaalindaan’s spirit had been absorbed and neutralized by Neldor, the old Aglanthol wizard.

Ogol let out another hiss.

“I must not deceive myself,” he said to himself. “This would endanger me and my plans. I must think clearly and with cold logic. Neldor neutralized Khaalindaan’s spirit. This man is a real threat to me, not that peasant down there who has no clue. I must find Neldor and...” Ogol gave a laugh. “...and neutralize him before I follow through with my ultimate plan.”

Ogol’s horse shook its head and shuffled its feet. Ogol pulled on the reins. And then he turned his horse and disappeared into the forest.

~~**~~

Dran wiped his forehead. It was covered with sweat.  The hard work was exhausting him. The exhaustion reminded him that he was not a young man anymore. The work on the fields grew more tedious every year. Dran looked at the edge of the wood. At least the uneasy feeling had finally gone. He shook his head. The feeling had reminded him of the day in winter when his neighbour Magath had found him in the wood. He had been lying on the ground, unconscious and his body numb.

Magath had told him that he had had an accident. His neighbour Gwyn had supported Magath’s story. Dran had had no reasons to doubt their words. He had trusted his neighbours. But, as time had passed, he had found the explanation was all too simple. He was sure that Magath and the old woman Gwyn had agreed to conceal something from him. He had wanted to ask them to tell him more of what had happened that day. Something, however, always stopped him from asking. Whenever he opened his mouth to ask questions he forgot about them from one second to the other and only later remembered what he had wanted to ask. This disturbed Dran a great deal. But he ascribed it to his age. His father had suffered from the same malady. Dran hoped his malady would not get worse. He did not want to end up like his father. The man had been confined to bed in his latest year before death had released him from his fate and had released his mother from a sorrow.

Dran did not know that magic concealed the truth from him. The wizard Neldor had sealed Dran’s memories in order to save the man pain, bad dreams, and disturbing thoughts. Only an uneasy feeling told Dran that the truth was hidden from him. It was the same feeling that he had had a few minutes ago. Dran looked absent-mindedly at the edge of the wood. Then a rustle distracted him. Dran blinked and then recognized a rider coming down the path from the wood to his field. Dran watched him approaching.

Magath dismounted and greeted Dran. Dran looked at him mischievously for a moment. Had the man hidden in the forest on the top of the hill? Had his neighbour watched him furtively? Dran’s suspicions disappeared, however, when Magath smiled and acted as usual.

“How are you doing, Dran?” Magath asked.

“Digging up the field,” Dran said.

Magath nodded.

“A good day for doing it. I also started with it this morning. I have seeds left over. That’s why I came here. Are you interested, Dran?” he asked.

Magath pulled a bag from the horse and opened it. Dran looked inside and took a handful of grains. He looked at them closely. Then he smelled at them.

“Barley. Good quality. I’ll take the bag. What do you want for it in exchange?” he asked.

“I heard you still have plenty of maize. I’m running out of stocks,” Magath replied.

Dran nodded.

“I have plenty of maize. The harvest was good. And the Khalindash did not come and steal my bags,” he said.

Dran stiffened. He looked at the edge of the wood. The uneasy feeling had returned.

“Is anything wrong?” Magath asked at the sudden change of Dran’s behaviour. His eyes followed Dran’s look up the hill. He looked at the edge of the wood.

Dran shrugged.

“Just an uneasy feeling,” he said. “I was thinking of that day in winter. I cannot say why. I cannot shake off the thought.”

Magath watched Dran closely. So far, the man had never inquired on what had happened on that particular day. Neither he nor his neighbour Gwyn had ever revealed it to him. They had done what the wizard Neldor had told them. Magath, however, had never felt good with concealing the truth from Dran. He had made it a habit to visit his neighbour regularly. Once a week he rode over to Dran who lived alone in his farmhouse on the other side of the hill. He visited Dran just to make sure that the elderly man was all right.

“An uneasy feeling?” Magath asked, watching Dran out of the corner of his eye.

Dran shrugged. Magath looked at the edge of the wood again. He saw nothing unfamiliar.

“Whatever happened that day, I don’t really want to know,” Dran said defensively. “But I know it was a bad day. Something evil was lurking out there. This afternoon, I had a feeling that the evil had returned,” he said.

Magath tensed inwardly. He gazed at the edge of the wood and then turned his eyes back to his neighbour. Dran looked up the hill grimly.

“Why?” Magath asked. His voice was tensed and he was unable to conceal it.

Dran gave him a piercing look.

“You know more than you tell me,” he said grumpily. “Mind you, I do not want to know. But perhaps you should investigate up there,” he said, pointing up the hill.

Magath nodded briefly.

“I will,” he said. “I’ll ride up and have a look.”

They measured each other for a second. Then Dran gave a brief nod.

“Come,” he said. “I’ll give you a bag of maize.”

Dran led Magath to his house and went to get a bag of maize from the storeroom. Magath left a short while later. He rode up the hill like he had said.  Dran looked after him grimly.

“Mind you, I do not want to know,” he said to, his eyes fixed on Magath’s back. “But you’ll better check. You’ll better watch out.”

Dran watched Magath ride up the hill. Then he turned around and went into his house.

Magath sensed Dran’s eyes on his back. He felt nervous. He had never admitted it to anyone. But he had always had a feeling that the jinx was not yet buried once and for all.

~~**~~



02

Dusk had come. Magath was sitting on the wooden bench in Gwyn’s house. He had offered part of the maize to his neighbour. The old woman had invited him for dinner in return. Magath had gladly accepted. He sat silently, watching the woman. Gwyn covered the table. She placed mugs, a jug of water, corn bread and plates with scrambled eggs on the table. Then she sat down in a chair. She took a wooden fork, yet did not eat. She looked at Magath instead. Magath held a wooden spoon in his hand and gazed at the plate in front of him.

“Once again, please, Magath,” Gwyn said. “What did Dran say? I am not sure I understood it correctly.”

Magath looked up. He placed the spoon on the table, took a piece of bread and broke it.

“He said he had had an uneasy feeling in the afternoon. It had reminded him of that day in winter. He said something evil had been lurking out there that day. And he felt that the evil had returned,” he said.

Gwyn looked into the room for a moment. Then she looked back at Magath.

“I do believe him,” the old woman said seriously. “In all honesty, Magath, we have never returned to our normal lives, have we? I always felt as if I was waiting for something. I can’t really explain what I mean. A disturbing feeling, a sense of foreboding perhaps.

They exchanged a long look. Gwyn gave Magath a nod and smiled at him warmly.

“Eat, Magath,” she said.

Magath looked at his plate for a second, and then he started to eat his scrambled eggs. Gwyn took a piece of bread. Yet, instead of eating it, she just held it in her hand. She looked at Magath’s plate, thinking.

“What is it, Magath?” she asked with concern.

Magath shrugged.

“I tried to convince myself that I was just waiting for Qildor’s return,” he said.

He raised his eyes and looked at Gwyn. The old woman just looked back for a moment. Then she nodded in understanding.

“This feeling, however, did not disappear when Qildor came back. It had nothing to do with him,” Magath carried on.

Gwyn nodded slowly.

“He came back three months ago,” Magath continued. “He stayed with me and left only two weeks ago for the royal court to arrange a few things. He plans to come back and lead the fortress close to Tanmil. If his plan works out well, he will be back soon. I could feel at peace. But the disturbing feeling has not left me. I cannot explain it myself.”

Gwyn nodded again.

“I had a bad dream last night. It was the first bad dream that I ever had since that day in winter,” she said. “I struggled to get into a room. But I did not find a door. I felt very desperate. Suddenly, I was inside of the room, yet was not able to get out of it again. I felt very worried when I awoke. I could not go back to sleep for some time.”

They looked at each other. Magath nodded slowly.

“You feel it and I feel it and even Dran has an uneasy feeling. I fear, Magath, that something is going on,” Gwyn continued. “I have a sense of foreboding.”

Magath swallowed. He had never admitted it to anyone. But he had always had a feeling that the jinx was not yet buried.

“Qildor will be back in two weeks. Perhaps he has news,” he said.

Gwyn nodded. They ate silently, each of them lingering on their own disturbing thoughts.

~~**~~

Two weeks passed. Qildor returned to the village of Tanmil. He had managed to convince the king to send him back north for the summer. So far, the Khalindash had not crossed the frontier again and the king and his counsellors still didn’t consider the clan a threat to the kingdom of Aglanthol. But Qildor’s explanations had been convincing. He had long thought of them. He had managed to convince the king that his presence was required in the fortress that the Aglanthol had built in the north in order to protect the frontier. Only few soldiers had been sent there. The men had little to do and had turned to a lazy style of living. The discipline was lax and Qildor intended to enforce it.

His main intention for travelling north, however, had been a different one. Qildor was well aware that he had deceived the king. His main intention was to be near Magath. Severe discipline in the fortress would only counteract his plan. Leading by example would not mean the leading officer sneaking out of the fortress in order to meet his lover. Qildor felt guilty, but he shrugged the feeling off. His plan was poor and rather obvious. Was it his fault when the king did not see through it?

Qildor arrived at Magath’s house and dismounted. He would stay with Magath for the night and ride to the fortress the following morning. He led his horse into the stable. Magath’s skinny mare was inside. Qildor saw to his horse and then walked to the door of the house. The door swung open and Magath smiled at him. Qildor dropped his bags and embraced the man.

“I had a feeling you’d come today,” Magath said.

“I followed through with my plan,” Qildor replied cheerfully.

Magath gave a nod and then stepped back. Qildor picked up his bags and walked inside. Magath closed the door. Qildor placed his bags on the floor and took off his cloak.

“The ride was long. I did not stop very often. I lack sleep and I am hungry,” he said. He looked down his body. “I fear I’m in need of a bath as well.”

“I suspect you want to eat first,” Magath said with a smile.

Qildor laughed heartily. He was in fact hungry. He had not eaten for hours. An hour later, they had finished their meals. Qildor pushed back his plate and then lifted his mug and took a sip.

“No news then?” Magath asked.

Qildor leaned back. He shook his head.

“No, no news,” he said. “Nobody at court mentioned anything about the Khalindash that we do not already know. The king and his counsellors don’t consider them a threat. The clan lives far in the north and the clan is small. They only cross the frontier in order to steal Aglanthol goods. Ordinary villains in the eye of the king and his counsellors. Not worth to waste too many thoughts. The fortress shall remind the people of the king of Aglanthol. This is the main reason why it was built. Tracking down villains is more a side effect. The discipline is lax. This is bad for the people, yet good for my plan. However, I will enforce the discipline. I have not just come here for personal reasons.”

Qildor weakened his last words with a smirk. 

“The wizard Neldor is still working on his book. He is writing down his discoveries,” Qildor continued. “Neldor is in good health. He thought he’d die within a few weeks after leaving the Castle of Saelethiel and he hurried to write his book. But he’s as fresh as a daisy. I think the adventure was a fountain of youth to him. I talked with him the day before I left the royal court. He had no news either. He asked me to convey greetings to you.”

Magath gave a small nod in return. Then he leaned back and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“We all tried to get back to normal, but none of us ever really managed,” he said. I remember every detail of that day in winter. And so does Gwyn. We do not talk about it. We mention the day only rarely. But the day changed our lives. However hard we try, we cannot forget or pretend those things have never happened. We moved on with our lives, yes. But we still cannot go back to normal.”

Magath paused for a while. Then he shrugged.

“That’s life. Never go back, always move ahead. Some people learn it fast. Some never,” he said.

“Wise words,” Qildor replied with a smile.

Magath returned the smile.

“I have had a lot of time to ponder,” he said. He paused for a moment before he continued. “Neldor’s magic concealed the truth from Dran. But the man never really got over it. He has uneasy feelings. He is suspicious sometimes. He told me recently that I was concealing the truth from him.”

Qildor pondered.

“I can’t blame you for your feelings,” he said. “I also feel bad sometimes. Guilty. You all got involved in this because of me. But I cannot make it undone.”

Magath shook his head.

“Neither Gwyn nor I blame you for what happened, Qildor,” he said. “It is as it is. Things in life happen. You did not involve us. Fate involved us. It is not your fault. Even worse things can happen in life. It’s just that we feel that it is not yet over.” Magath shrugged. “We’re overreacting perhaps.”

Qildor rubbed his chin.

“I’ll be riding to the fortress tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll inquire the soldiers there. Perhaps they have heard some rumours. Perhaps they have observed someone or something. I could send out a few men and have them investigate. I’ll see to this tomorrow. I’ll stay with you tonight.”

Magath gave him a smile and a nod.

~~**~~

Like he had said, Qildor rode to the fortress the following day. To his surprise, he was welcomed by the men. Qildor put up training hours and sent the men out to the frontier in order to investigate and explore the area. The men did not object. On the contrary, they followed his commands gladly. They were glad to finally have something to do. The men had been bored. The weeks had passed slowly. Nothing spectacular had happened in months.

A week later, two soldiers reported to Qildor that they had seen a group of Khalindash riders close to the frontier. Qildor sent out more men. The eager men made a captive and brought the man to the fortress. In order to fill a boring evening, the ragged looking Khalindash man was inquired thoroughly. Like many Khalindash living close to the frontier, he spoke broken Aglanthol. The man confessed that he had been sneaking about. He denied, however, that he had had plans to break into an Aglanthol farmhouse. He insisted that he had only been hunting and had accidentally crossed the frontier. Qildor’s men, unhappy with the man’s recount, inquired the man for two or three more hours. The unfortunate man told them weird stories that made no sense at all. He was set free the following day. Qildor had taken notes of everything the man had said. However, he considered the man’s words were only made-up stories, lies, and bare nonsense

~~**~~



03

Qildor rode to Tanmil in the evening to meet up with Magath. He had just entered the house when they heard a knock at the door. Magath opened it. Gwyn stood outside with a basket of eggs in her hands.

“Oh, I did not want to intrude,” she said when she spotted Qildor.

“You don’t intrude, Mistress Gwyn,” Qildor said, hurrying to the door in order to greet her.

Magath asked Gwyn in. The woman placed the basket on the table cautiously.

“I would have brought more eggs if I had known know you were here, Qildor,” she said.

She looked between the two men. Qildor smiled at her warmly.

“Why don’t you stay with us for dinner, Mistress Gwyn?” he asked.

“Yes, stay with us, Gwyn,” Magath said. “Vegetable soup and fried eggs. And corn bread, of course. How does that sound to you?”

Gwyn smirked.

“Not the best of combinations,” she replied. “But I’ll accept your offer, Magath. Thank you.”

The three of them sat down at the table and while they ate their meals, Qildor told them of the captive they had made.

“We set him free,” he said. “The man did not tell us anything important. Just some made-up weird stories to satisfy my soldiers' curiosity. Bare nonsense. Fantasy tales.”

Qildor gave a laugh.

“He said he was a farmer, but I rather think he was a Khalindash story-teller. He had a talent for storytelling. Rather crude stories, indeed.”

“What did he tell you?” Gwyn asked. The old woman was a good storyteller. This explained her curiosity.

“His stories can’t compare to yours,” Qildor said. “The man told us stories that he most likely made up the very instant he told them. When one of my men asked him what he thought was the biggest threat to Aglanthol, he said the biggest threat was a magical tool that was guarded in an ancient palace. He made quite a fuss about it. Once released, the powerful magic would bring doom and destruction to Aglanthol. When one of my men asked him where that said palace was, he just shrugged and gazed into the room. However, he insisted that the time of doom was near. I asked him where and when he had learned of it. Overheard, he said. He had overheard it when the black rider had talked to himself.”

Qildor gave another hearty laugh and looked at Magath. The man, however, did not look back at him. He gazed at Gwyn instead. Qildor followed Magath’s look. He fell silent instantly at the sight of the old woman. Gwyn’s face was as white as snow and her lips trembled slightly. The woman pressed the palms of her hands together. Gwyn looked like in a state of shock.

“Mistress Gwyn?” Magath asked in a worried voice.

The woman’s eyes flickered as she tried to fix her eyes on Magath. Magath poured a mug of water and reached it out to Gwyn. The woman reached out her hand and seized the mug. She drank the water slowly while the two men watched her anxiously.

“Mistress Gwyn?” Qildor asked. “What’s wrong?” He was feeling confused at the woman’s reaction to his words.

Gwyn swallowed and a tear ran down her cheek.

“We all felt it coming,” she said. “The end of time is near.”

Qildor and Magath exchanged a glance. And then Magath placed his arm around the fragile woman.

~~**~~

“What happened, Mistress Gwyn? What does distress you?” Magath asked softly.

Gwyn looked at him sadly.

“The man did not make up the story. I know it as well,” she replied.

“It’s just a fantasy tale,” Qildor said, looking between Gwyn and Magath.

Gwyn gave Qildor a reproachful look.

“How can you say so, Qildor?” she asked. “You in particular must know that many stories tell the truth. Wasn’t the legend of Khaalindaan all true? You have seen Norlorn’s sword with your very eyes. You saw Khaalindaan’s spirit at work. The spirit aimed at Aglanthol’s doom and destruction. It almost killed Dran. It almost killed Magath.”

Gwyn fell silent. Then she took a deep breath.

“It almost killed me,” she said in a low voice.

Qildor lowered his eyes. He felt guilty again. The woman spoke the truth. She had told them the legend of Khaalindaan. And the legend had proven to be true.

“Yes, Mistress Gwyn,” Qildor admitted in a pressed voice. “It was all true.”

He fell silent and avoided Gwyn’s eyes and Magath’s reproachful look. Magath leaned in to the woman once more.

“What is this story about, Mistress Gwyn?” he asked softly.

“I heard the story many years ago,” Gwyn started. “My aunt told it one Winter Solstice evening. Nobody considered it true. Everybody just took it as a warning.”

“A warning of what?” Magath asked softly.

“A warning of pride and haughtiness, of cupidity and voraciousness,” Gwyn said. “Let me tell you the story.”

Gwyn took a breath and then continued.

“A long, long time ago, aeons ago, mighty and powerful wizards lived among the people. Their magic was powerful and they could have used it for the good or the evil. But those men were wise and they acted for the good of mankind. They had a gathering and they discussed their powers. And then they decided to hide the most powerful magical force from the eyes of men so that this force would never be used. The wise men knew that all men were imperfect. Sometimes they act for the good, and sometimes they act for the bad. And some men decide to do evil always. There are even wizards and magicians that do evil. Those are called the black magicians. A magical talent is a gift. This talent should be encouraged. But when the magical power augments, then also does the temptation. The magician feels tempted to go astray and use his power for his selfish goals instead for the good of all mankind. The bigger the power, the worse it can be used. The wise men knew of this temptation and they feared that their biggest power would ultimately be used for doom and destruction. And so they hid the magical tool in the palace without entrance.”

Gwyn’s lips shivered slightly.

“Oh, I dreamed that I struggled to get out of a room. But I did not find a door. I was feeling desperate. I awoke and I felt very worried. I could not go back to sleep for some time,” she said in a worried voice.

Gwyn let out a sigh.

“The story is all true and the palace is real. Oh, I fear that some black magician will find the place and then will seize the magical tool. I fear he will use the most powerful magic for selfish reasons. This will ultimately bring about the end of the world.”

Gwyn fell silent. Magath and Qildor exchanged a long look. Magath patted Gwyn’s shoulder.

“There’s no evidence this story is true, Mistress Gwyn,” he said softly. “Just because the Khalindash man told it also, it does not mean it is true. This story really sounds more like a fantasy tale.”

Gwyn lowered her hands. She looked at Magath seriously.

“My reasoning seconds this, Magath. But my feelings do not,” she said. “My dream frightens me. It was so real.”

Magath glanced to Qildor. Qildor gave a barely visible shrug. Gwyn looked between them. She was suddenly feeling silly and insecure.

“I apologize. I’m just an old woman, suffering from nerves probably,” she said, rising to her feet.  She avoided the men’s eyes.

“I’ll take you home,” Magath said quickly, rising to his feet as well.

“No,” Gwyn said, shaking her head. “I’ll go on my own. I was just suffering from nerves. I do already feel better.”

The old woman left. Magath looked at Qildor.

“What do you think?’ Magath asked.

Qildor shrugged.

“It really sounds more like a fantasy tale. I would not take Gwyn’s story seriously, if she were not Gwyn. I mean her stories are not made-up. She knows all the old legends and tales. And we do know that the legend of Khaalindaan was true.”

He paused for a moment, thinking.

“I admit that I find it hard to believe her story. But I witnessed a lot of things I had never believed to be true. The Castle of Saelethiel, for instance, is real. If I had not accompanied Neldor to the castle, I would shrug it all off,” he said.

He leaned forward and looked into the room for a while before he turned his eyes back to Magath.

“I know for sure, Magath, that the Castle of Saelethiel was built aeons ago. I was there. I saw it with my very eyes. The books in the castle are old. They are ancient. The castle guards immemorial secrets. The wizards Norlorn and Khaalindaan were the last of the big wizards. They lived a thousand years ago and they were the last of their kind. Only Neldor was able to decipher Norlorn’s scripts and follow his instructions in a thousand years. I thought Neldor was the most powerful wizard in these days. But perhaps he is not the only one.”

Qildor looked into the room thoughtfully. Magath watched him.

“This does not necessarily mean this weird story is true also,” Magath said. “Where would this ancient palace be? And who would be the one looking for it in order to release and misuse the power? There are many villains roaming the country. The Khalindash have often crossed the frontier and attacked the villages in the north of Aglanthol. Gwyn is sensitive. I told you how we all feel about it. We have uneasy feelings, a sense of foreboding. This explains Gwyn’s reaction. However, I think she was overreacting. This story sounds very unreal.”

They looked at each other. Qildor nodded.

“Dran had an uneasy feeling also. He said that something evil was lurking out there,” Magath added.

Qildor took a deep breath.

“I cannot act on feelings,” he said.

He grimaced at his own words, knowing that he often trusted his gut feelings and acted on them. Qildor shrugged and made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Not much to trust in, in fact,” Magath admitted. “But let me remind you. It’s just like it had been that winter when we decided to investigate on Khaalindaan.”

Qildor gave Magath a piercing look.

“So what do you expect me to do? Send out men and explore Khalindash territory? What am I supposed to tell them? Look out for a hooded man who is talking to himself about a palace without entrance? They would declare me insane, Magath.”

“Why not inquire the wizard Neldor?” Magath suggested.

Qildor rubbed his chin, pondering.

“I’ve just arrived. I cannot leave again so soon and travel back to the royal court. But I’ll send one of my men to Neldor with a message. If anybody, then the wizard must know of this palace and the magical tool,” he said.

They sat in silence for a while, each of them lingering on their own thoughts.

“How do you feel about it?” Magath asked finally.

Qildor grimaced. He looked at the ceiling for a while before he turned his eyes back to Magath.

“I hate to say it, Magath, I really do. But my gut feeling tells me to act instantly and not waste time anymore,” he said.

A faint smile crossed Magath’s face.

“Yes,” he said. “I second this. We must not waste time. I feel very much the same.”

~~**~~



04

Neldor looked at the piece of paper in his hand. He had read Qildor’s message twice. The wizard looked at the paper and then he read the message once more. Neldor looked into the room. He looked at the shelves that were filled with leather-bound books. Was the man kidding him? No. Neldor doubted the man had sent him a message in order to just fool him around.

The old wizard placed the paper on the table that was covered with old parchments and manuscripts. Neldor usually spent his time with research and studies. He barely left his chamber in the tower and he rarely visited the royal hall. When he had returned from the Castle of Saelethiel, he had started to write a book. Neldor wrote down the results of his studies. He wrote down his experiences in the castle where he had deciphered Norlorn’s code and, following Norlorn’s instructions, had turned back time and had accomplished a mission.

The leather-bound book that he had filled with his report and reflections was placed on the table. Neldor had placed a quill on it. He had been writing all morning. He had written the last sentence a few minutes ago and then he had closed the book. Nostalgic feelings had overwhelmed him. He had finished his last task and had completed his mission. Neldor had folded his hands and had closed his eyes. He had just given in to his nostalgic feelings when a knock at the door had disturbed him.

Reluctantly, he had risen to his feet and had opened the door. A royal servant had led a man to his room. The man had been dressed like a royal soldier and had claimed that Qildor had sent him with a message for the wizard. The man had looked tired and he had smelled like a man who had ridden fast and for many days. Neldor had believed him, but he nonetheless had scanned the man’s motives with his sixth sense. The man proved trustworthy and Neldor had taken the sealed paper that the man had held out to him.

As soon as Neldor had seized the paper, the messenger and the royal servant had turned and had hurried down the stairs of the tower. Neldor had looked after them grumpily. Did the men not know how to behave before a royal magician? Neldor had closed the door sourly. The current king had promoted a younger man and Neldor was only the former royal magician. This, however, Neldor found was no excuse for the men’s disrespectful behaviour.

Neldor looked at the shelves that were filled with books. One book particularly attracted his attention. The wizard’s eyes rested on it. He rose to his feet, crossed the room and pulled out the book. Neldor stopped, wondering what he was doing. He had no idea what the book was about. He turned it in his hands and read the title ‘Words of the Wise Men’. Neldor let out a sigh.

“Good Lord, where and when did I get this book?” he asked himself. Neldor shook his head. “I can’t remember I have ever read it.”

He went back to his chair and sat down. He placed the book on the table in front of him. Was this ever coming to an end? He had finished his report only today. He had written down in detail what he had found out in the Castle of Saelethiel. He had described in detail his discoveries and his journey back in time. He had felt satisfied when he had written the last sentence. He had felt his mission was finally completed. He had intended to enjoy the last days of his life. He had just given in to some nostalgic feelings and memories. Why had the messenger disturbed him?

Neldor compressed his lips. He was seventy-six years of age. He had been certain he would die as soon as his mission was completed. However, he was in good health. In fact, he felt better than he had ever felt in the previous fifty years.

“Good Lord, why must fate summon an old man? This task is certainly meant for a younger man,” Neldor grumbled.

Then he leaned forward and read Qildor’s message again.

“The palace without entrance,” he said slowly, his mind already working and looking for connections. “So be it,” he said grumpily.

Neldor took the book and opened it. He studied the table of contents. The book was hand-written. The hand-writing was delicate.

“It looks very much like the books in the secret chamber of the Castle of Saelethiel,” Neldor said with surprise.

And then it hit him like a bolt from the blue. The book had been a farewell gift. He had received it from the master of the library when he had left the castle after his training had been finished.

“Oh, good Lord,” Neldor said with another nostalgic feeling. “What a precious gift. I have not thought of it in decades.”

Neldor turned the pages slowly and read a few paragraphs. He vaguely remembered the words. Yes, he had read the book many years ago. Neldor studied the table of contents again and then he opened page nineteen and started to read chapter two. The chapter was titled ‘The Palace without Entrance’.

An hour passed. Neldor was still sitting at his table. He had closed his eyes and folded his hands. The book was placed in front of him. The wizard opened his eyes and slowly looked around in the room. He took in every detail and then he rose to his feet and started to pack his things.

“I may never return,” he said almost apologetically to the books in the shelves. “I cannot take you along, unfortunately.”

Neldor opened the door and looked back one last time.

“I may never return,” he said calmly. “If this is true, then I must not waste time. Fate has summoned me. I’ll do what I can. But my chances are small. I could very well fail.”

Neldor nodded at his books. His look was sad.

“Farewell,” he said in a low voice. And then he left the room quickly.

Neldor headed for the royal stables. He had not informed anybody of his departure. He doubted anybody was interested anyway. The king had discarded him and had chosen a new magician. Neldor found that the man was no more than an adept. But luckily the adept had refused to live in the tower. And so they had let the rooms to Neldor. The wizard was grateful for this.

Neldor mounted his horse and rode out of the stable. He had shot the stable-boy a dark look when he had entered it. The young man had stayed away from him and had not even helped him mount his mare. Neldor shot him another dark look when he left the stable. The man made two steps back. Neldor smiled wickedly. He felt pleased at the effect of his dark look.

Neldor rode out of town. Nobody stopped him. Those who saw him stepped out of his way. It was early in the morning. The air was fresh and cool. The morning sun shed an encouraging light. It raised Neldor’s spirits greatly. Neldor smiled and looked ahead. He was on his way to Tanmil.

~~**~~

Ogol, the Khalindash magician, had retired to a secret place, a cave that only he knew the way to. He held a crystal orb in his hands and he focused his mind on the inside. Yet, however hard he tried, no images formed in the orb. Ogol put the orb on the ground and gazed into the darkness angrily.

His confidants at the royal court of Aglanthol had spied on the wizard Neldor. The current king had discarded the man and had promoted a younger magician. Neldor was old and the king did not trust his abilities any longer. However, the wizard had permission to stay in his tower where he lived a solitary life. Ogol’s confidants had reported that Neldor spent his time researching and reading old scripts and documents.

“He’s not a fool,” Ogol said, gnashing his teeth. “He set up a ward apparently. I cannot perceive any images of the man.”

Ogol narrowed his eyes and then a mischievous smile spread on his lips. A thought had occurred to him.

“I’ll get you anyway,” he said.

He took the orb and touched it with the palm of his hand.

“If not concrete images, then energy patterns,” he said.

Ogol concentrated. A blue light suddenly emanated from the orb and a violet spot of light moved within it. Ogol smiled. His magic had worked. He had managed to track the wizard’s energy. Ogol watched the violet spot of light inside the orb. It moved slowly to the right and then back to the centre of the orb. There it remained motionless for a while.

“I have access to your life force pattern,” Ogol whispered to himself. “You have not thought of this magic, my dear fellow magician. You forgot to put up an appropriate ward,” he said with a pleased voice.

Either the old wizard did not know of that magic or he was not able to put up a ward that hid him from curious eyes. The violet spot of light moved to the right again, remained motionless for a minute, and then moved back to the centre of the orb.

“What did they say?” Ogol mused. His spies had reported him that the old wizard spent his time mainly in his chamber reading old books. “Apparently so,” Ogol said. “I suspect he moves to his shelves and then back to his table. I’m going to watch the movements for a few days, just to make sure that I am not mistaken.”

Ogol activated the orb several times in the following hours. The violet spot repeated its movements. It moved only rarely far to the left. But when it did, it remained there for a considerable amount of time.

“That’s when he goes to the royal hall, I suspect,” Ogol mused. “They told me that once or twice the week he attends the royal gatherings or dinners.”

Ogol relaxed. He would keep an eye on Neldor. Never underestimate your foe. Ogol was aware that Neldor most likely was the only one who was able to stop him. He doubted meanwhile, however, that the old magician was really a threat. He had gained access to Neldor’s life force, yet the old wizard apparently had not taken notice of Ogol’s intruding. So much the better, Ogol thought.

Ogol deactivated the orb. He rose to his feet and left the cave. Ogol blinked. He had spent two days in the dark place and the morning light blinded him. As soon as his eyes had adjusted, Ogol moved forcefully through the wood. He entered a clearing. Five men instantly rose to their feet. Ogol looked at the men who were all dressed in black. Their faces were hidden by hoods. Ogol had summoned them to come to the clearing, early in the morning that day. Ogol clapped his hands. He gave the men a piercing look.

“We will be leaving now. Get your horses ready,” he said in a loud and determined voice.

The men instantly followed his command. Ogol watched them. He had hired the men to scout and stop anybody from coming too close and watch Ogol’s ways. The men were villains, greedy for money. Ogol would pay them as soon as they had reached the Western Mountains. He did not trust the men. But he knew that they were intimidated by him. They would not dare to stab him in the back. Ogol had decided to refrain from using magic while he was on his journey west. This would have only warned the brethren. Ogol did not want to attract attention. Not yet.

He stood motionless, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He stood upright. An aura of menace radiated from him. Ogol’s robe was of a singular black. It seemed as if the colour absorbed the light and thus made the wizard almost invisible. The five Khalindash men did not dare to fix their eyes on Ogol too long. Something radiated from the wizard that appalled the men. However, the magician paid well and that was why the men followed him. Ogol watched them. He had decided to not use magic on the way and travel conventionally. He needed a life guard and scouts. That was the only reason why he had hired the men. He would get rid of them as soon as possible.

Ogol’s face was hidden by a hood. His look was piercing and a satisfied smile played almost invisibly on his lips. An aura of menace radiated from him.

~~**~~

Neldor was sitting on a rock. The wizard chuckled. Neldor finished his bread and then rubbed his hands. One more day on the road. A few more hours, to be exact. Then he would arrive at the village of Tanmil.

Neldor once again looked at the violet crystal in his hand. Now and then a light emanated from it. Neldor nodded. He felt amused.

“You still have not seen through it, my dear fellow wizard,” he said mischievously.

Light emanated from Neldor’s crystal whenever Ogol activated his orb and observed the movements of the violet spot. Neldor’s crystal indicated when Ogol watched the energy clone that Neldor had left behind in his chamber. Neldor chuckled. As a matter of prudence he had taken precautions. The old wizard was happy that his plan had worked out. Neldor put the crystal back in the pocket of his robe. He rubbed his hands.

“Now at least I know that you, whoever you are, are out there. And I know that you are scheming plans. And you think that I could stop you. You think I could endanger your plans. So what are your plans that only a wizard can stop you?” Neldor mused.

He rose to his feet and went to his horse.

“I must talk to Qildor. We must find out more about our invisible enemy,” he said pensively.

He looked at the sky. The sun was high. It was about noon.

“The weather is good. I will make it to Tanmil today,” Neldor said, and then he mounted his horse.

~~**~~



05

Dran stood on his field, shielding his eyes from the sun. He looked up the hill and gazed at the edge of the wood. The uneasy feeling had returned. Dran felt cold despite the warm spring sun. He felt an urge to retreat to his house. Yet, almost automatically, Dran started to walk up the hill. He fixed his eyes at the edge of the wood.

Dran entered the forest and moved on slowly. He reached the place where Magath had found him last winter. Dran did not remember what had happened to him. They had told him that he had been lying on the ground, unconscious. Dran stopped and gazed at the clearing. They had not told him the entire truth. Dran had always had an uneasy feeling.

Dran almost jumped at the sudden noise of approaching horses. He quickly hid behind a group of small trees. Six riders entered the clearing. They were dressed in black robes. Their faces were hidden by hoods. Dran recognized from their robes that the riders were Khalindash men. So the Khalindash had crossed the frontier again and had entered Aglanthol territory. What did they have in mind? What were their plans? Dran stood motionless and barely dared to breathe. He gazed through the leaves and watched the men.

The riders stopped their horses and dismounted. Their leader walked deeper into the forest. The remaining men gathered and started to talk.

“I do not like him,” one man said. “As soon as he has paid me, I will quit.”

Another man gave a laugh.

“He’ll pay us as soon as we have reached the Western Mountains. That’s what he said and I do believe him. He just needs an escort. We must find a path that no Aglanthol man does tread,” he said.

“This should be easy,” a man replied. “We’ll just move westward through the woods and then cross the plain quickly As soon as we have reached the mountains, we are free to ride back.”

“What is it that he hopes to find in the mountains?” one of the men asked.

The others shrugged.

“Something that will make the Khalindash clan the most powerful in the world,” one of them answered.

“And it will make him almighty,” another man said mockingly. “At least this is what I guess from his crude words.”

“So be it,” one man said in a bored voice. “I don’t believe him. He’s a fanatic. But he pays well. So be it then.”

“I would not mind if he found something that will finally make Aglanthol fall,” one man said. “They drove us out of our homeland. We’re bound to live in the inhospitable north of the land. It’s time for revenge. I want to see Aglanthol fall. It’s time to punish them.”

The men laughed. Their laughter was disdainful. Dran stood petrified. He did not move. He just gazed through the leaves with widened eyes.

“I heard the royal soldiers of Aglanthol made a captive recently,” a man said.

One man made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Just a peasant. They set him free. Those lazy bastards had one busy day in months. I heard they sleep day and night in their rotting fortress. Deadly boredom drove them out of it. But I assure you the event exhausted them. They have already fallen asleep again and they will continue sleeping. They are no threat to us,” he said.

The men laughed heartily, yet fell silent instantly when their leader returned. Ogol shot them a piercing look.

“This is the place. But nothing of Khaalindaan’s energy has remained,” he said.

The men exchanged questioning looks. Ogol made a dismissive gesture with his hand and shot them a disdainful look. The men returned to their horses. Ogol mounted his horse as well.

He did not quite know why he had come to visit the place again. Nothing of Khaalindaan’s energy had remained. The wizard Neldor had absorbed it. Retrieving Norlorn’s sword had been Ogol’s goal. He had come too late. When he had found the place, the sword had already been removed. The wizard Neldor had won. The place reminded Ogol of his latest failure and it fuelled his thirst for revenge. That was the reason why he had come here again. Vengeance drove him. The sight of the place, the sight of his failure had recharged him. Now he was ready to accomplish his mission. Now he was ready to follow through with his plan.

Ogol looked around and his eyes rested for a moment on the tree that hid Dran from view. Dran saw Ogol’s piercing eyes. Ogol’s look was dark, menacing, and evil. Dran made a step back. Ogol lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes. At this instant, a crow cried and flew up. Ogol looked up and then pointed west.

“A sign,” he said triumphantly.

He spurred his horse and then left the clearing. His men followed him quickly.

Dran stood motionless for a couple of minutes. Then he turned around and walked back the way he had come from. His mind was blank, his heart was filled with fear, and his feet moved automatically. He left the wood and hurried down the hill. He started to run and only stopped when he reached his field. Dran looked around, yet did not perceive anything. He stood petrified until a familiar voice shook him out of his almost trance.

“Dran!” Magath called out.

Dran looked at Magath who had dismounted his horse and stood in front of him.

“Dran, what’s wrong?” Magath asked, his voice slightly shaking at the sight of the deranged man.

Dran pointed at the edge of the wood.

“I was up there and I saw them,” he said in a ragged voice. “Their leader is the devil himself.”

Magath moved closer. He placed his hand on Dran’s shoulder. First, the man stiffened, but then he relaxed. Magath led Dran to his house. They sat down on a wooden bench in front of it. Dran reported his observations.

“For heaven’s sake,” Magath said. “So we are right.”

“What?” Dran asked in confusion.

Magath looked at the confused man. He placed his hand on Dran’s shoulder again.

“You’ll better come with me, Dran,” he said. “I’ll take you to Gwyn. She has some remedies. She will help you.”

Dran grimaced and shook Magath’s hand off.

“I do not need the help of an old woman,” he said grumpily.

Magath did not reply. Dran grumbled some more. But then he went to the stable and returned with his horse.

“I’m going to pay her a visit. Haven’t seen the old lady in a while,” he said. “Guess we have much to talk over.”

Magath smiled.

“I guess so,” he said. “Good idea, Dran.”

Dran gave a brusque nod. Magath rose to his feet and went to his horse. Dran followed him. They mounted their horses and took the path that led around the hill. They avoided the path up the hill and through the forest. Half an hour later, they knocked at Gwyn’s door.

~~**~~

Gwyn kept cool at the sight of the deranged man. Magath said in a low voice that he would speak to her later. Gwyn was worried, but she hid her concern. She welcomed the man warmly. She had just started to cook a meal. And so she invited the man to eat with her.

Dran was a bachelor and not a good cook. Gwyn’s invitation was tempting. The prospect of a delicious lunch made Dran relax and it raised his spirits. Gwyn made an opulent meal. Soup, meat and vegetables, and fruits for dessert. Dran helped himself. The uneasy feeling had gone. He started to recount his story.

Gwyn and Magath exchanged a furtive look now and then, but both of them did not comment much. They just listened to Dran. Magath finally took his leave for he expected Qildor to come to his house in the afternoon. Dran, unsure whether he should leave or not, rose to his feet also. Gwyn, however, offered him tea and honey cake. Dran sat down again quickly.

Magath recounted Dran’s story to Qildor.

“Our feelings were not deceiving us,” he said. “Something is going on and now we have evidence of it.”

“I have no idea who the man is,” Qildor said pensively. “Back then, Neldor and I were speculating. We thought that the Khalindash had a powerful leader, but we finally dropped the thought since we had no evidence of it. I even travelled north to find the ancient town. But neither did I meet a wizard nor did I hear any rumours about one.”

Qildor shifted his position in his chair.

“Of course, I have not talked to many people. I had entered Khalindash territory and I travelled secretly. But the two or three men I met did not mention anything,” he said.

Magath leaned back in his chair.

“They would not have told you anything. They knew you were an Aglanthol man,” he replied.

“Sure,” Qildor said with a nod.

He leaned back as well, thinking.

“We should not have dropped the thought. We should have inquired Leandor, the librarian of the Castle of Saelethiel. He could have told us of the man probably,” he said.

“Why? Do you think the man visited the castle?” Magath asked.

“If he is a magician, he probably has. The castle holds magical secrets. I suppose the man was there to learn. The Castle of Saelethiel is the training centre of the magicians,” Qildor explained.

“He’s just a fraud perhaps. He’s not necessarily a wizard,” Magath replied. “He heard of the castle perhaps. He wants to get hold of a treasure. Or he is just a common villain. The group that Dran watched was probably just another Khalindash group scanning the area and looking out for a future target for their attacks.”

They looked at each other.

“I’m not so sure,” Qildor said. “Why would they gather in a wood on Aglanthol ground and then leave without having accomplished anything? Dran saw them leave and ride west. I don’t think they were scanning the area.”

“They were maybe looking for Norlorn’s sword. They don’t necessarily know that it was retrieved,” Magath said in a dismal voice. “What if the black rider was a Khalindash magician? A man powerful enough to seize a mighty magical tool that is hidden from mankind since the time of the early wizards. He must have lived in secrecy, preparing his plans. Who would be able to stop him?”

“Neldor would be able to stop the man,” Qildor said. “If only Neldor had replied to my message.”

He had just finished his sentence when they heard a knock at the door. Magath rose to his feet and opened it. The wizard Neldor stepped in.

“Speak of the devil!” Qildor said.

“Mind your words,” Neldor said brusquely.

The wizard dropped a bag and took off his cloak.

“I thought I come and reply to your message in person,” he said.

~~**~~



06

Magath and Qildor gazed at Neldor. The wizard joined the two men. He skipped any introductory words and came straight to the point.

“The palace without entrance guards a powerful magical tool. Only those who are summoned are able to see it. It must not fall in the wrong hands,” he said.

Magath and Qildor gazed at him. Neldor looked between them grumpily.

“I really don’t know why fate summons an old man. So be it. We must find the man,” he said.

Qildor cleared his throat.

“Err, Master Neldor, so far we have no evidence that anybody is looking for that said palace,” he said.

Neldor made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Somebody is watching me. But so far I have fooled him,” he replied.

“What?” Magath and Qildor asked at the same time.

Neldor told them of his crystal and the energy clone that he had built up to deceive the observer.

“Why should he watch me? He suspects I could stop him. He is a trained wizard, this I can say,” he said.

Magath leaned forward. He recounted Dran’s story.

“And you say we don’t have evidence,” Neldor said.

He straightened in his chair.

“I was suspecting that the Khalindash had a powerful magician, wasn’t I, Qildor?” he asked in a sharp voice.

Qildor just nodded.

“Unfortunately, we dropped this thought,” Neldor said. “What a fool I was. I should have inquired Leandor. He must know the man.”

Neldor grimaced at his mistake.

“Do you think he was trained in the Castle of Saelethiel?” Magath asked

Neldor nodded slowly.

“He knows how to gain access to somebody’s life force. This is what you learn at the castle. He must have been there. Years ago probably. He has augmented his skills and probably planned to retrieve Norlorn’s sword in order to release Khaalindaan’s energy. He seeks power. However, he apparently found out that someone has already retrieved the sword and neutralized Khaalindaan’s energy,” he said.

“That’s why he plans to gain access to the palace without entrance,” Qildor mused.

“The palace is hidden from men’s sight. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. I can only speculate, but I suspect the palace is hidden in the Western Mountains like the Castle of Saelethiel is,” Neldor said. He paused. “The palace and the castle are most likely one and the same.”

Qildor and Magath exchanged a long look.

“How did this man find out about the hidden tool?” Qildor asked finally.

“I don’t know how he found out about it. Perhaps he received the same gift that I got,” Neldor said.

“Gift?” Magath asked.

Neldor rose to his feet and fetched his bag. He took a book out of it.

“Look,” he said, holding the book out to Magath.

Magath took it cautiously. The book looked old, almost ancient. Qildor leaned forward to have a look also.

“Words of the Wise Men,” Neldor said. “I received this book as a farewell gift when I had finished my training and left the Castle of Saelethiel. The palace is mentioned in it.”

Magath turned the pages cautiously.

“I can’t read the words,” he said.

“Ancient Aglanthol,” Neldor explained.

“Like the books in the secret chamber of the castle?” Qildor asked.

“Yes,” Neldor said. “There’s a brief chapter in it about the palace. A brief passage only, revealing no deep secrets or mysteries. It’s not like Gwyn’s story,” he said, referring to Qildor’s message. “The woman’s story sounds more like a fantasy tale.”

The wizard scratched his head.

“I was puzzled and I was wondering. I think Gwyn’s story was built around the words of the wise men. I think that in ancient times these words were not a secret to man.”

Qildor looked at the wizard.

“What are these words?” he asked curiously.

“It’s a poem actually,” Neldor said.

He took the book from Magath and opened it. He read the poem to the two men.

“All is vanity and chasing after wind
One thing ends and another begins
In every beginning an end is implied
What we now see is soon out of sight

What we build up now, will crumble to the ground
In every truth something false can be found
A good thing is evil from another point of view
What is bad for me might be good for you

So, your heaven might be my hell
I hear a demon while you hear a bell
Who knows which way is the righteous way?
Can you say for sure that on all other paths we go astray?

Can you say for sure that death is the ultimate end?
Or is rather life the time that in deep sleep we spend?
When in darkness we go, we don't see a light
When the light is bright, we don't think of the night

Yes, all is vanity and chasing after wind

All is null and all is naught
Every laughter, every look, and every single thought
But even vanity will come to naught
And thus reveals to us the beauty sought
                          ∞
Whoever has ears ought to hear
Whoever has eyes ought to see”



Magath and Qildor exchanged a look.

“Very unlike Gwyn’s story,” Qildor said.

“And it reveals no secrets and mysteries?” Magath asked. “In all honesty, Neldor, I did not understand the meaning of the verses.”

Neldor looked up.

“You did not?” he asked. “But it’s rather obvious. Plain to see.”

Magath and Qildor exchanged another look.

“I did not hear that the palace was mentioned,” Qildor said.

Neldor looked at Qildor. Then he looked at the book again.

“Right,” he said. “It’s not mentioned in the verses. The palace is only mentioned in the title of the poem. The title actually is The Palace without Entrance.”

Qildor and Magath exchanged another long look.

“I can’t see any connections to Gwyn’s story,” Magath said. “Except of the title.”

Qildor nodded.

“So what do you think, Neldor?” he asked. “After all, this poem made you leave the royal court at once and travel to Tanmil.”

Neldor scratched his head.

“I was thinking. In all honesty, I can’t believe the wise men left a poem with that particular title for future readers to enjoy their musings,” he said. You can in fact read a lot from the verses. But what intrigued me most was that the title does not seem to fit the poem at all. Also, the words are written in an ancient book that looks like the secret books that you can only find in the castle. I was wondering.”

Qildor sighed. He saw Neldor’s next words coming.

“Yes, I fear we must go there again,” Neldor said. He put the book on the table and folded his hands on his belly. “This man is after something. I have not yet figured out what it is. But from Dran’s observations, from the words that the Khalindash man overheard, I must suspect that the unknown man is looking for the palace. If we want to find out more about it, then we must visit the Castle of Saelethiel once more.”

Neldor looked at the two men seriously.

“I don’t know why fate summons an old man. This journey won’t be easy,” he said.

The three of them looked at each other.

“You mean, Master Neldor, we have to follow that man?” Magath asked.

Neldor nodded.

“I have to follow him, yes. I am the only one who can stop him,” he said in a sober voice.

Magath and Qildor exchanged a look. Neldor watched them. He read their minds with ease.

“In all honesty, I do not want to brag about it, but my magical skills are far above average,” he said.

Magath and Qildor exchanged another glance. Qildor turned his eyes back to the wizard.

“The skills of that man might exceed yours,” he said.

“So you want to let him do what he likes?” Neldor asked grumpily. “I, for my part, won’t sit and wait. Don’t you see that he is ahead of us?”

“He left only a couple of hours ago. We could surely catch up with him,” Magath said.

Neldor took the crystal out of the pocket of his robe and placed it on the table.

“He used to watch me at this time of the day. Wait and see,” he said.

A few minutes passed and then beams of light emanated from the crystal. The three of them looked at it until the light had faded. Qildor and Magath looked at the wizard. Neldor took the crystal and put it back into his pocket.

“I suspect he has no idea where to find the palace. But his plans are wicked and he fears that someone could take notice of them,” Neldor said.

“I understand,” Qildor replied. “This is why he is watching you. If you left your place, this would be a warning to him.”

Neldor nodded.

“My energy clone will be deceiving him for another while. But sooner or later he’ll notice the pattern of the energy movements, and then he will get suspicious. For now, he is focused on my energy clone. We must take advantage of this and we must follow him quickly,” he said.

“This means we’re heading for the Castle of Saelethiel?” Qildor asked.

“I’ll be travelling tomorrow,” Neldor said.

“I will come with you,” Qildor replied.

“I’m in, too,” Magath said.

Qildor looked at Magath with surprise. But then he nodded.

“So be it,” Neldor said with a grave look.

Qildor gave a serious nod and a cold shiver ran down Magath’s spine.

~~**~~



07

The three of them left the following morning. They bid Gwyn farewell. The worried woman gave Magath an amulet that she had inherited from her mother. Gwyn told Magath the amulet would protect him from any evil and only in case of emergency should he open it. The amulet was fixed to a cord and Magath put it around his neck in order to please the old woman.

Gwyn had had another vivid dream. She had dreamed of the amulet and a voice had told her to hand it to Magath. The old woman believed in legends and tales. And she also believed in vivid dreams. So she had done what the voice had told her. It had said that the amulet contained a remedy that helped to see more clearly. Gwyn had opened the amulet, yet had not found anything inside. However, she trusted her vivid dream. The old woman looked after the three men. All worried, she watched them leave.

Neldor, Qildor, and Magath had ridden for about an hour when suddenly a cold wind got up and heavy clouds darkened the sky. Neldor looked at the sky thoughtfully and then pulled out the crystal from the pocket of his robe. No beams of light, however, emanated from it. Neldor put the crystal back into his pocket. He looked at the sky again. The heavy clouds were threatening and the air was chilly. The wind freshened and the first rain drops fell.

Magath wrapped his cape tighter around his shoulders. Was the bad weather a warning? An early sign that their journey was ill-fated and they were doomed to fail? Magath exchanged a worried look with Qildor.

“We must not overrate things,” Qildor said calmly to Magath. He looked at the wizard.

“No,” Neldor agreed. “I do not think the man changed the weather. Nor did anybody change it to give us a warning. But, nonetheless, we must watch out. Our journey is long and it won’t be easy.”

They rode on in silence. The wind was cold and the rain fell in a drizzle. The weather did not raise their spirits.

~~**~~

Ogol and his men rested on a clearing in the wood. They were one day ahead of their followers and many miles lay between them. But they also observed the sudden weather change. Ogol looked up and watched the dark clouds. The heavy clouds looked threatening. A cold wind blew and rain fell in a drizzle. Was the bad weather a sign or a first warning?

Ogol took out his orb and activated it. Light emanated from the orb. The orb showed the familiar energy pattern. The violet spot inside of the orb moved slowly.

“I must calm down,” Ogol said to himself. “A weather change is not necessarily a warning.”

He mounted his horse and made a gesture with his hand. The dark riders moved on.

~~**~~

The Castle of Saelethiel was high up in the Western Mountains. It was guarded by a mighty ward. The castle was hidden from the sight of an average man and only the wise men knew where to find it.

Leandor stood by the window and watched the dark sky. The heavy clouds were threatening. His hand seized a silver amulet. The metal was cool in his hand. Leandor had opened the amulet a few minutes ago. It contained a message that was ancient and had not been read by anyone for many years. The amulet was passed on from one master of the library to the next and with it was passed on the order to open it when a sign was given to the brethren that the time had come to enforce the law. Leandor looked out of the window. The time had come.

Leandor had stepped into the main hall just when a black crow and a white dove had flown inside through the window that was guarded by a ward and that rejected entrance to all mortal beings. The birds had sat down on the ground. Leandor realized in an instant that he witnessed the sign that called the brethren to act. Leandor had gazed at the birds and the birds had gazed back at him. Then they had flown up and had left the hall again. The black crow had first flown out of the window and the white dove had followed it quickly.

Leandor had stood motionless for a couple of minutes. He stood almost petrified and he felt cold. Then a shiver ran up his spine and he seized the amulet that was fixed to a cord and was placed around his neck. Leandor walked to the window and opened the amulet. He found a folded piece of parchment inside. Leandor unfolded it with trembling hands. He held it up right in front of his eyes. Letters were written on it. Leandor recognized the ancient language of Aglanthol. The letters were clear and good to read, although the parchment was very old. The hand-writing was elaborate and the letters were neat and very small. It looked like the hand-writing in the ancient books that the castle hid from the outside world. The paper contained a message from the early times. It was a message from the first and most powerful wizards.

Time had come to enforce the law that was written in the book of time. Two birds had flown through the hidden window. Time had come for two men to face the truth. Fate had summoned them to look into the abyss of their soul. The two men were on their way to the castle. They were ready to undergo the trial and the brethren, the guardians of the Castle of Saelethiel, were called to enforce the law.

Leandor read the message from the early times. He read the words aloud solemnly.

“No man can avoid his destiny, however hard he tries. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken,” he read in a low and grave voice.

Leandor placed the parchment back into the amulet. He closed the amulet and seized it tightly. Then he rang a bell and summoned a meeting. The guardians of the castle gathered in the main hall and Leandor announced that the time had come. He recounted the incident with the two birds and then read the ancient words to the brethren. None of them commented on them, but each of them instantly went and, following the ancient rules, the guardians of the ancient secrets locked away the holy books and magical tools. They built up powerful wards to guard the castle and its treasures and then the brethren gathered again in the main hall.

The hall was illuminated by candles. The brethren formed a circle. They stood silently. Then Leandor raised his voice.

“No man can avoid his destiny. This law is written in the book of time,” he said gravely.

“This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken,” the brethren replied solemnly and in one voice.

The brethren sat down in a circle and focused their minds on the imminent event. The first magicians from the early times had spoken to them. The brethren focused their minds until they were in deep meditation. Non-natural silence fell upon the castle. The Castle of Saelethiel was waiting for the summoned men in order to put them on trial.

~~**~~



08

A few days passed. Ogol and his men had crossed the vast northern wood and had reached open land. Ogol stood, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his lips compressed and his eyes narrowed. His companions had ridden ahead and were scouting the area. Ogol stood and looked west. A steppe-like area stretched in front of him, a wide plain as far as the eye could see. The ground was hard and had dried from the sun. Only weeds grew in this part of the country.

Ogol saw the Western Mountains on the horizon. The mountain ridge stretched far from north to south. The mountains were high and the highest peaks were covered with snow. The sky was blue and the sun shed a warm light. Yet the mountain ridge looked cold and menacing. And the vast and dry plain was not inviting for a ride at all.

Ogol’s eyes wandered along the mountain ridge. The palace was hidden somewhere in the mountains. Ogol had read about it twenty years ago when he had sneaked about in the library of the castle. He had stumbled across a book that was written in the ancient Aglanthol language that Ogol had learned in the castle. The words had been mysterious. He had not really understood them. All he had read from the text was that the Palace without Entrance held a mighty magical tool. Seizing this tool was Ogol’s ultimate goal.

Ogol planned to discard his men as soon as they had reached the mountain chain. He would then enter the mountains and move on alone. First, however, he would first visit the Castle of Saelethiel. Ogol felt repulsed by the idea, but the mountain chain was vast and the palace was well hidden. He needed more information on it. Else he would only waste time with a long and fruitless search.

Ogol stood and looked west. The mountains looked cold and menacing. Ogol bit his lip. He had sworn to never visit the castle again. A long time ago, Ogol had studied in the castle. He had been an aspiring adept and an enthusiastic young man. Until that day when his enthusiasm had turned into hate. Thirst for vengeance now was the only motive that drove Ogol on. Everything had changed when the brethren had humiliated him.

Ogol glared at the Western Mountains. He felt bitter and hatred overwhelmed him. He hated the castle, the brethren, all magicians and aspiring adepts. Ogol felt hatred against Aglanthol and against the whole world. Ogol stood, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his lips compressed and his eyes narrowed. He looked at the mountains grimly.

Ogol was forty-five years of age. He had come to the Castle of Saelethiel twenty-five years ago. Ogol had been born in the north of the land. His father had been an average Khalindash man. Ogol’s magical talent had shown early and his father had taken him to a Khalindash shaman. He had asked the man to teach his son and further his talents. The Khalindash shaman was skilled. However, his magical abilities were limited. But the man recognized the boy’s talents and he sought for a way to further and promote the young man.

The Khalindash had been driven out of their homeland by the Aglanthol a thousand years ago. Their most powerful magician Khaalindaan had been banned by the Aglanthol wizard Norlorn. From that time on, the former Clan of Bre had called themselves Khalindash, the avengers of Khaalindaan. From that time on, they had lived far in the north of the continent where the climate was harsh and the crops were bad and the lives of the people were more painful than pleasant. From that time on, only holy men and shamans lived amongst the Khalindash. Never again a Khalindash man had developed skills that matched those of the mighty wizards. Until the day the boy Ogol was born.

The shaman recognized Ogol’s talents and saw a chance to finally change the fate of the Khalindash. Once Ogol had become a mighty and powerful wizard, the Khalindash would finally be able to stand up against Aglanthol and win. The shaman trained the boy for five years and he planted hopes and high goals in the heart of the young man. The shaman knew the legend of the ancient castle and, almost against his own belief trusted that the legend held a truth. The shaman told Ogol the legend of Khaalindaan. He praised the ancient wizard’s skills and talents and again and again compared the young man to him. When Ogol turned twenty years of age, the shaman took him on a long journey westward. He told him of the Castle of Saelethiel.

The Castle of Saelethiel, high in the Western Mountains, was built aeons ago to train the young and talented adepts, regardless of their origin. The castle meanwhile was within Aglanthol territory, but mighty wards hid it from the eyes of an average man. The castle guarded secrets that were far beyond a man’s understanding. It was not only a training centre. The Castle of Saelethiel also enforced the law.

Ogol stood and looked out on the Western Mountains. He recalled the day when he and his mentor had left the wood and had reached the open land. Twenty-five years ago he had also looked out on the Western Mountains, his heart filled with enthusiasm, ambition, curiosity, and joy. His mentor had left him that day and had told him to travel on his own and look out and find the castle. His mentor had said that he was just a simple shaman and an average man and therefore would not be able to see the secret castle. Ogol, however, was a true magician and therefore would find the castle on his own. His mentor asked him to never forget his origin, his clan, and their fate. And Ogol had promised the man to come back one day and work for the good of his clan. Then they had parted and Ogol had travelled on alone. He had looked for the castle for many weeks. He had never grown disillusioned and his ambition had never left him. Ogol had trusted in his abilities and he had believed in his fortune and fate.

Ogol stood and closed his eyes for a moment. And then he recalled the day when he had found the castle. One morning, he had found a path, untread and covered with weeds. Ogol had sensed in his heart that he was close to his goal. He had followed the path until its end. He had stopped and looked out and, although he saw nothing, Ogol had known that the castle was near. Ogol had stood motionless the whole night and had focused on his goal. Strange noises and shadows had tried to disturb him. But Ogol had only smiled inwardly at those, in his eyes, simple attempts to make him turn and run from the castle. At daybreak, the weather had changed. Heavy clouds had covered the sky and a cold wind had gotten up. Lightning had flashed and thunder had rolled and heavy rain had fallen down on him. Ogol had stood motionless and had waited for what was to come.

The sky had finally cleared up. Ogol had watched the area. Silence had fallen. No noise was to be heard. He had curiously waited for what was coming next. But nothing had happened for many hours. For the first time, Ogol had felt insecure. Just when this feeling arose, a man stepped out from the shadows. He was dressed in a black robe, his face covered by a hood. Ogol had not seen him coming. He had felt nervous and even frightened a bit. The man had approached him and without a greeting or introduction had asked Ogol questions as to who he was and where he had come from and why he was there. Ogol answered the questions in all honesty and the best he could. And then the man had disappeared from his sight from one second to the other. For the first time, Ogol had felt disillusioned and sad. He had doubted his goal.

The day had passed and also another night. This time, Ogol had sat down on the ground. He had listened into the night and had gazed into the darkness. This time, the nightly noises had frightened him. Ogol had thought of his mentor and his motives. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Faith can move mountains,’ the man had said before he had parted. Ogol had pondered on these words for the whole night. He grew exhausted. He was hungry and he was dehydrated. And as the hours passed on, his thoughts had become incoherent and his mind had become more and more dominated by his conflicting feelings. At daybreak, Ogol had felt like in a trance, yet not a trance that helped him focus. He rather felt as if he was wrapped in cotton wool. He felt like in a cocoon that was made of only feelings and emotions.

Ogol had risen to his feet. His legs had trembled from exhaustion. He felt small against the high mountains. He felt alone and left alone. His high ambitions had left him. Ogol felt like a child that had trusted some incalculable and wayward adult. He had entirely lost faith in his mentor’s words. He felt fooled and deceived. He was disillusioned and sad. And then Ogol had turned angry. He had scolded himself a fool and a simpleton. For an hour or two, he grimly spoke magical spells and applied some magical tools. The castle, however, remained out of a sight. Ogol then ranted against the mountains until he felt entirely ashamed of himself. That was when Ogol gave up and planned to travel east to a seaport and hire up on a vessel. Ogol stood for another half an hour and gazed at the cold and menacing mountains. A bird in the sky finally distracted him. A white dove crossed the sky. Ogol watched the bird and admired its ability to fly. He watched the bird against the blue sky. The sun warmed his skin and he smelled the scent of flowers. A smile spread on his lips and he felt joy in his heart. When he had lowered his eyes, the Castle of Saelethiel had materialized in front of him.

Ogol stood and looked out on the Western Mountains. He recalled the day when the castle had opened its door to him. Ogol felt wistfulness in his heart as he sensed a long gone joy. The magician suddenly felt insecure. Was it right to invade the castle and look for information on the ancient palace? Was it right to disturb the peace of the brethren who had nothing evil in mind?

Ogol thought of the day when his fellow Aglanthol student had said to him that, no matter how talented he was, Ogol as a Khalindash man would never make a career. Ogol had turned to their teacher, hoping the man would scold his fellow-student. But the man had smiled mildly at Ogol and had said that a career perhaps was only something for a haughty man. His eyes had rested warmly on Ogol and then the man had said that a simple shaman could do so much good to the people. From that day on, Ogol had hated the man. He hated the castle, the brethren and all Aglanthol men. Ogol’s heart was broken and he turned bitter. However, he finished his studies. He was dedicated and committed. He absorbed the castle’s knowledge with new motivation. As a highly skilled and trained magician and as man with a new and high set goal, Ogol had returned to his clan. From that day on, Ogol had worked on his rise and on the rise of his clan. And now, twenty years after he had left the Castle of Saelethiel, Ogol finally felt on the brink of success and close to his ultimate goal.

Ogol looked at the Western Mountains, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his teeth gnashed and his eyes narrowed. A crow cried and Ogol shot it a dark look. The bird flew up and Ogol’s eyes followed it. Ogol smiled.

~~**~~

Neldor, Qildor, and Magath reached the open land two days later. However, they spent the night in the wood for it protected them from the sight of the riders and the sight of any random travellers. They sat together and ate cheese and bread and drank water from water skins that they had filled on their way with water from the brooks in the wood. They had abstained from starting a fire. It would have only attracted attention.

“I suspect the men are already crossing the open land. They are faster than we are and therefore they are ahead of us,” Qildor mused.

“Yes,” Neldor said. He took his crystal out of the pocket of his robe. He looked at it for a while. But no light emanated from it.

“Do you think he found out meanwhile that we are following him?” Magath asked the wizard.

“I cannot say for sure,” Neldor replied. “I checked the crystal and I observed that now and then light is emerging from it. This means the man is still watching my energy clone’s movements. I suspect that he would have stopped checking on me if he had already figured out the trap.”

Silence fell for a while. Neldor looked at his crystal until he finally put it back into the pocket of his robe.

“How far is the castle?” Magath asked into the darkness.

“Four more days until we reach the mountains,” Qildor replied. “And then two more days until we reach the Castle of Saelethiel. We’ll have to walk. The path up to the castle is steep and hard to go. We’ll need to lead the horses on the reins.”

Qildor recalled the day when he and Neldor had climbed the mountain until they had stood in front of the castle. An old man, Leandor, had opened the door, answering Neldor’s coded knocks. Their guide had shown them to a hall and then had led the wizard to a secret chamber. The room was filled with old books that were ordered chronologically from the time of the early wizards to the time of the wizards Norlorn and Khaalindaan. Neldor had studied the ancient books and finally had deciphered Norlorn’s code. Qildor had been shown to a chamber, a monk’s cell, where he had spent three nights and two days. The chamber had been small and the air had been stifling. Qildor had felt like in a trap or in a prison. He had almost gone insane.

“I have no doubt that the castle is ancient and holy. However, I find they could make their guests’ stay more comfortable,” Qildor said in a thoughtful voice.

Neldor did not reply. He remained silent. Magath turned his head to Qildor. Qildor sensed his questioning look.

“I told you,” Qildor said. “I felt like imprisoned. Not welcomed at all. I spent three nights and two days in a small chamber. They brought me food and water now and then. But nobody talked to me. I wonder why they let me enter the castle at all.”

“They could barely dare to not ask my companion inside,” Neldor said.

“Why?” Qildor asked with surprise. “Wasn’t it a risk to let me in? I now know where the castle is located. I know how to open the door. I saw the main hall. I spoke to Leandor. Yes, I saw only little. But I could tell the whole world of the secret castle and I could lead others there. I do remember the way very well.”

“Even if you did tell others of the castle and they would set out to seek it, no one would ever find it, because mighty wards protect the castle from the sight of an average man,” Neldor said in a sober voice.

Qildor opened his mouth for a reply. But he refrained from saying anything when the wizard rose to his feet and looked up at the nightly sky. Magath had chosen to not get involved in the conversation at all. Something about the wizard disturbed him. His last words had sounded like an offence to him. More so the tone in which he had said them. Magath gazed at the dark figure of the wizard, wondering if he was oversensitive and therefore distrusted the man.

Neldor stood and gazed at the sky. The moon was almost full and shed an opalescent light. Something emanated from the wizard. Magath and Qildor looked at the figure. There was an eerie silence.

“I’ll leave the forest and look out on the mountains. The night is clear and my eyes can see far. Perhaps I can see the light of a fire or something that indicates where the man and his companions are,” Neldor said finally.

The wizard left the clearing. Qildor and Magath watched the figure disappear in the darkness. They remained silent for another while, each of them lingering on their own thoughts.

“I should ride back,” Magath said finally. “I cannot be of help. I only hold you up.”

Magath’s voice was rough and hollow. Qildor turned his eyes to him with surprise. Magath did not turn his head to Qildor. He looked ahead instead.

“Why so?” Qildor asked in a baffled voice.

Magath did not reply for a while. Qildor kept looking at him.

“Because I’m just an average man,” Magath said finally. “I won’t be able to see the castle whereas it will not hide itself from you and Neldor’s sight. I’d only hold you up. So I’ll better ride back to Tanmil tomorrow.”

Qildor looked at Magath. He felt a knot in his stomach. Qildor moved closer and placed his arm around Magath’s shoulder. Magath tensed under his touch.

“Don’t listen and do not believe all he says,” Qildor said in a low voice. “I was inside the secret castle. I spent three nights and two days there. I spoke to Leandor, the master of the library. And I am only an average man myself. But they let me in anyway and so I can say for sure that the castle is real.” He patted Magath’s shoulder. “They’ll let you in also, I am sure of this.”

Silence fell. The two of them looked into the darkness.

“Who knows what’s going to happen? Who knows what lies ahead of us? So far, we have not even found out who the man is and what he is up to,” Qildor said. “We need to be confident. We will find our way.”

Neldor meanwhile had reached the edge of the wood. He stood and looked out on the open land that lay in darkness. He sensed the Western Mountains far in the distance. He sensed a cold and menacing aura. Neldor could not really make out anything in the dark. He had just found an excuse to spend some time on his own. Neldor sensed the Castle of Saelethiel. Its sphere of influence reached until the edge of the wood, although it was still far away. Neldor sensed a strong energy radiating from the castle.

A powerful energy summoned him. Neldor sensed it. It was not just an illusion. Something was going on and it confused him. The energy that was radiating from the castle was strong and had an unfamiliar quality. It was not just the usual ward that guarded the castle. The guardians had built up an additional energy field. Why had they done it? Neldor pondered. Had they been warned? Did they wait for the man? Was the man a real threat to the Castle of Saelethiel? Was he, Neldor, summoned to intervene? The brethren, the guardians of the castle, would not go to war. Their codex prohibited it and the brethren followed the law.

A shiver ran up the wizard’s spine at his thoughts. He raised his eyes and looked into the darkness. The brethren followed the law that had been enforced in the beginning of time. Neldor shivered inwardly. Some laws were valid for all times. Some laws could not be shaken. Neldor sensed the energy that was emanating from the castle. It summoned him to do what had to be done. Although he had not yet seen through the plan, Neldor had heard the call that came from beyond or from the depth of time or from a place where neither time nor space existed. Neldor had heard the call and he had answered it. Fate had summoned him and he would not avoid his destiny.

When Neldor returned to their camp, Qildor and Magath had already fallen asleep.

~~**~~

Silence had fallen in the Castle of Saelethiel. The brethren sat in deep meditation. Their states of mind were neutral and their hearts were free of emotions. The brethren followed the ancient rules and built up an atmosphere of strict neutrality.

The spirit in the room gathered and built up and emanated from the hall throughout the whole castle. It emanated from the castle, enwrapped it whole and spread in all directions like the beams of light from the sun. The brethren continued their meditation for many hours, throughout the day and throughout the night. Their bodily functions reduced to a minimum. The brethren needed neither food nor drink nor sleep. The life force of each man concentrated in his solar plexus. From there it radiated and connected with the life force of the others. A mighty spirit built up that nurtured on the brethren’s willpower and their power to live. Together, the brethren built up an aura, a spirit that guarded the castle.

When the mighty ward was established, the brethren deepened their trance. They built up a second energy field that spread in every direction. This energy was not a ward. It served a different goal. The energy was strong and after it had reached its major dimension, the energy started to condense. It concentrated and consolidated. As the hours passed by, it became more compact and concrete. The brethren focused on the ancient symbols that the early magicians had left to them. Their gathered minds focused on the symbols in the exact order the ancient wizards had specified. Each symbol was connected with an image. And when the brethren visualized one symbol, then the related image formed in their minds. The image was sent out to the outer sphere where it started to condense. The image became more concrete and compact. As the hours passed by, the images materialized. The images came to life outside of the castle.

When Ogol looked out on the Western Mountains, the outside energy field had just formed. Two days later, when Neldor looked out into the night, the images had already started to materialize. When Ogol and his men reached the mountains, the materialized world was complete. The guardians of the ancient Castle of Saelethiel had built up a second and far more powerful energy field.

But so far neither Neldor nor Ogol had a clue of it. They headed west, convinced of their own goals and motives. However, the closer they got to the Western Mountains, the more they sensed the presence of the ancient castle and they sensed an aura that they both had never sensed before. Both wizards were powerful and skilled. They both sensed that menace emanated from that aura. They shied away from it, but at the same time it drew them in. Both men had a sense of foreboding. Ogol did not tell his men of his observations and Neldor did not speak to Qildor and Magath.

Ogol and his men reached the mountains two days later. Ogol paid his men and discarded them. And then he climbed up the mountains, drawn to the place where the aura emanated from. Neldor and his companions arrived another two days later. Neldor had become unapproachable and reclusive. Qildor and Magath felt almost repelled. They followed the wizard reluctantly up the path that led into the mountains.

~~**~~



09

Neldor, Qildor, and Magath soon reached the point where the path got steep. They dismounted. Neldor handed the reins of his horse to Magath and without a word turned away and walked a short distance up the path. He stopped and looked at the mountains. Qildor and Magath stood and watched the wizard from the distance.

“What is it with him?” Magath asked. “I find he has changed a lot since we have left the wood. Something is radiating from him. It is disturbing me.”

“I don’t know,” Qildor replied. “He’s grumpy sometimes. I witnessed that. However, I agree, there’s something disturbing about him. I think it’s time we talk with him.”

After a while, the wizard returned. He looked at them, his face showing no emotions. Qildor cleared his throat.

“Master Neldor,” he started. “I suspect the man has already reached this path. He most likely already went up there. Don’t you think he can see us from where he is? Should we not better hide from his sight?”

“He can’t see us,” Neldor replied. “I put up a ward when we reached the open land. It will shield us from his sight. The man cannot see us.”

Neldor turned away and looked up the path again. Qildor and Magath gazed at the wizard.

“You didn’t tell us. You did not talk a lot anyway,” Qildor said.

Neldor turned back to them and gave Qildor a piercing look.

“Good man, I was occupied. I sensed a strange aura when we left the wood. The aura is strong. It is powerful, cold, and menacing. It grew stronger with every step that we took. It radiates from there,” Neldor said, pointing up the path.

Magath and Qildor looked in the indicated direction, yet they did not see anything.

“I tried to figure it out all the way from the wood to the mountains. I meanwhile know for sure where it radiates from. It radiates from the castle,” Neldor said.

Qildor and Magath gazed at him. Then Qildor looked up the path and Magath’s eyes followed his look. Finally, Qildor looked back at the wizard.

“I can’t see the castle up there. Are you sure that the energy radiates from it? Perhaps the man sends out the energy,” he said.

Neldor grimaced and made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Why would he send out an aura like this and thus draw attention to him? He probably protected himself from the sight of others also. But a ward that makes one invisible to others naturally cannot be sensed by others. The effect would be counter-productive to the intent,” Neldor said grumpily.

Qildor just nodded.

“All right,” he said. “I do not sense this aura. I cannot say where it radiates from.”

“I don’t feel anything either. Just a disturbing feeling that I thought came from your odd behaviour,” Magath said to the wizard.

Neldor compressed his lips and shot Magath a dark look.

“Odd behaviour. Good man, I was concentrating. And when I do, I cannot chatter and prattle,” he replied with a frown.

“All right,” Qildor said in an attempt to calm the situation. “Tell us, Master Neldor, what have you found out?”

Neldor took a deep breath and straightened.

“The aura radiates from the Castle of Saelethiel. I am sure of this meanwhile. The aura is strong and it reaches far. I have never sensed an aura like this. By all means, I have experienced a lot and I have sensed many kinds of energies,” he said.

“All right. Carry on,” Qildor said.

“The guardians of the castle put up an additional ward,” Neldor said. “And this is evidence enough.”

“Evidence of what?” Magath asked, measuring the wizard.

“I suspect that someone or something warned the guardians of someone or something evil approaching the castle. The castle is hidden from the sight of an average man,” Neldor said. “Usually,” he added when Qildor opened his mouth.

Neldor raised his hand and Qildor refrained from replying. The wizard continued.

“The ward that usually guards the castle sufficed for thousands of years. So why would the guardians put up an additional ward? Because they fear the first ward will not suffice? And why would it not suffice? Because someone or something is approaching the castle. Someone who is far more skilled than an average man. Someone who would know how to pass the usual ward. Someone who knows the castle well. A wizard whose power is big. A powerful magician who threatens the castle,” Neldor mused. “Just one line of my thoughts.”

Magath could not help but look the wizard up and down. Magath’s behaviour clearly revealed his thoughts. Neldor gave him a scornful look.

“Good man,” he said grumpily. “I can see through you with ease. Why would I tell you of my observations if I was the one planning to intrude into the castle?”

“You may have your reasons, Master Neldor. And by the way, this was your original plan. You planned to intrude into the castle,” Magath said defiantly.

“Pah,” Neldor hissed. He shot Magath another dark look.

“Why would the guardians draw attention to their additional ward?” Qildor asked quickly.

Neldor turned his eyes to him.

“This was exactly what I was trying to figure out. The aura is strong, cold, and menacing. The guardians let the intruder know that they see him coming. It’s an open challenge, I suspect,” he said.

He looked up the path thoughtfully. This was only one explanation for what he was observing. Neldor found it sounded plain and far too simple. But why disturb the two men with his musings? They would not understand them anyway. In all honesty, Neldor did not believe that the man was powerful enough to threaten the castle. The brethren, however, had reacted. They had sensed the man coming and had put up an additional ward. In case the energy field was a ward. Neldor meanwhile doubted it.

“Then this man is most likely sensing the aura also,” Qildor mused.

“Most likely,” Neldor said thoughtfully.

“But he won’t give in?” Qildor asked, distracting Neldor from his thoughts.

The wizard looked at him.

“I do not know,” Neldor said. “He is after the powerful magical tool that is hidden in that mysterious palace. I suspect the castle holds the secret. I think the ancient palace is just another term for the castle itself.”

“But I still don’t understand why the guardians reveal their ward. Why warn the man and not just wait and destroy him?” Qildor asked.

Neldor shrugged. This was exactly what he was trying to figure out.

“I suspect there’s more to it. Like I said, I was trying to see through this oddity. But so far, I have not figured out the reasons,” he said.

“Perhaps we should move on and just visit the castle,” Magath said.

“Since you’re not a hostile intruder, they will probably let you in,” he added with another sceptical look at the wizard.

“This is exactly what I have planned and intended to do. Ant I think I mentioned this plan right in the beginning before we set out for our journey,” Neldor said grumpily.

He turned away from the two men and looked up the path. Up there lay the Castle of Saelethiel, hidden from the eyes of an average man. The brethren had built up an additional energy field. What was its purpose?

Qildor and Magath exchanged a long look. Magath frowned and compressed his lips. Qildor made a gesture with his hand in an attempt to calm Magath. Magath just grimaced.

Neldor turned back to them.

“I want you to watch out and pay close attention to whatever seems odd, strange, or unnatural to you. You’re a scout, Qildor. You walked this path once and even saw the castle. Try to spot anything that is unfamiliar. And you,” Neldor said, turning to Magath. “You could watch out for any unfamiliar weather signs or plants that are not fitting the season or the like. You must have paid attention to those kinds of things all your life. So make good use of your abilities.”

Magath opened his mouth, but closed it again at Neldor’s piercing look.
“I must concentrate on the invisible energies and must watch the realms that are invisible to your eyes,” Neldor said drily. “I must trace the man and find out who he is and what his intentions are. I must find out what it is about the brethren’s energy field. And therefore I must focus my mind and concentrate and work with my magic.”

Neldor gazed at Magath grumpily. Magath frowned back at him. He definitely didn’t like the wizard’s behaviour and his haughty attitude. But why pick a quarrel with him? Magath was aware that he could only lose.

“All right,” he said resignedly. “Weather signs and plants then. All right, I’m going to watch out and check the area a bit.”

Magath walked away. He needed some alone time. He needed to sort things out. Qildor looked after him. He turned to Neldor and gave him a sharp look, and then he followed Magath. Neldor looked after them. Then the wizard raised his eyes and looked at the mountains.

“Why do they reveal the ward to the man? Why do they not just trap him? There must be more to it. I must find out about it soon,” he said pensively.

~~**~~

Ogol had climbed the path that led up the mountain. He had not visited the Castle of Saelethiel in twenty years. But he remembered exactly the path that led to it. Ogol was sure that he had taken the correct path. He moved along the path at a steady pace. After a few hours, however, he stopped and took a deep breath. The path was steep and he felt exhausted. Ogol had left his horse behind. His men had taken it with them. Ogol walked on for another while. Then he stopped again and looked at the mountains.

The aura had grown stronger. Ogol had sensed the energy all his way west. A cold and menacing energy was radiating from the mountains. It was radiating from the Castle of Saelethiel. Ogol meanwhile was sure of this. He was not sure, however, if the aura was just the castle’s usual ward or if maybe the guardians had enforced the energy. When he had come here as a young man, he had not sensed anything. When he had left, his extrasensory perception had been developed and he had sensed the castle’s mighty energy. Was it the same energy? Ogol was trying to figure it out and he finally came to the conclusion that the aura that he sensed now was much stronger than the energy he had sensed when he had left the castle.

Ogol looked at the mountains with his arms crossed in front of his chest and his eyes narrowed. He pondered.

“They put up an additional ward,” he said finally.

Ogol gave a dry laugh and looked at the mountains mockingly.

“So you sensed me coming,” he said.

A disdainful and at the same time triumphant smile appeared on his lips.

“This is evidence enough. You guard a powerful secret and you know I’m coming to get it. So you think me capable of stealing it,” he said to the mountains.

Ogol gave another laugh.

“Do you really think this will stop me? How foolish a thought. I now feel a lot more encouraged to follow through with my plan. At least, I know now that I must find a way into the castle. There you either guard the secret of the ancient palace or...”

Ogol’s smile broadened as a thought occurred to him.

“...or the castle and the palace are just different terms for the same place,” he said.

Ogol nodded slowly. He narrowed his eyes.

“Or are you just trying to fool me around? Do you want me to walk right into a trap?”

Ogol glared at the mountains. Disdain and hatred filled his heart. His mind was working fast.

“Too simple an intent, I think. There must be more to it. Or not so? Do you want me to think complex in order to entangle myself in my own thoughts?”

Ogol’s face turned motionless. He looked at the mountains for a considerable time without really perceiving his surroundings. Ogol sank in deep meditation. His mind was focused and like a razor blade it cut off every thought that led into the wrong direction. Ogol’s mind worked fast and efficiently. And when he moved his body again, Ogol’s mind had formed a plan.

~~**~~

 

10

Magath and Qildor calmed down. They went back and joined the wizard. The three of them moved on. Afternoon had already come. The sun had been out all day, but now it was low and the air grew chilly.

“Where is the cave where we spent the night last time?” Qildor asked out of a sudden, turning to Neldor. “Shouldn’t we have reached it meanwhile? I thought we could stay there for the night.”

Neldor stopped abruptly and turned to Qildor. His look was alarmed.

“We should have reached it meanwhile? Are you sure?” he asked in an urgent voice.

Qildor gave Neldor a questioning look. Magath looked between them.

“I may be mistaken,” Qildor said. “But I don’t think we walked this long. Perhaps we move more slowly. This would explain why we have not yet reached the cave.”

“I have not looked out for the cave,” Neldor said. “Are you sure we did not miss it?”

“I did not see a cave either,” Magath said in a slightly unnerved voice. “I looked out for natural things like you had instructed me. But I did not spot any cave.”

Neldor rubbed his chin. He was thinking.

“And you don’t think you are mistaken?” he asked again.

Magath rolled his eyes. The wizard apparently did not trust them a bit. Perhaps they should just turn and leave the old wretch alone. Qildor felt attacked also.

“No,” he said brusquely to the wizard. “No, I am not mistaken.”

“This supports my assumption,” Neldor said in a sober voice.

“What?” Qildor and Magath asked at the same time.

Neldor looked between them.

“Like I said, I was trying to figure out the guardians motives. An idea had occurred to me, but so far I had no proof it was true,” he said. “However, this supports my assumption.”

“Tell us, please, Master Neldor,” Qildor said impatiently.

Magath just gazed at the wizard.

“I was thinking,” Neldor started. “The guardians put up a ward. The energy stretches far. We have entered the energy field when we left the wood and reached the open land. The aura grew stronger on our way to the Western Mountains. It is very strong meanwhile. It feels almost condensed. But have we seen or sensed any effects?”

“In fact,” Qildor said. “The energy did not stop us from moving on. So what is it about this energy field? I’m afraid I cannot say anything about it, because I do not sense the aura.”

“Neither do I,” Magath tossed in. He shrugged. He did not sense anything and he had no idea what the wizard was talking about.

 “We have already entered the energy field. The guardians of the castle did not stop us. We will reach the castle tomorrow,” Qildor said.

“Only if we took the right path,” Neldor said mysteriously.

“We took the right path,” Qildor replied, meanwhile feeling slightly unnerved also. “I recalled the forms of the vast rocks at the bottom of the mountain.”

Neldor looked at him thoughtfully.

“The path resembles the path we took last year, yes,” he said. “I also recalled the vast rocks at the bottom of the mountain. And so far I did not see anything unfamiliar. But my eyes are bad and...”

“I thought they were good,” Magath interrupted him. “Didn’t you say you were able to see far in the night?”

Magath frowned at the wizard. In all honesty, he did not like the man.

Neldor frowned back at the young man. Why was the man so aggressive towards him? Neldor shrugged impatiently.

“My inner eyes, good man. I can see far with my inner eyes,” he said brusquely.

Magath did not respond. He turned his eyes away and looked at the bushes and trees that grew along the path.

Neldor turned back to Qildor.

“I am looking for something that indicates that the path we’re on is not the path we took last year,” he said. “Anything unfamiliar. Like the cave that we have apparently missed.”

Neldor gave Qildor a meaningful look. Qildor felt a cold shiver run down his spine as the truth dawned on him.

“We did not find the cave. We should have reached it meanwhile,” he said slowly. “We did not miss it. It is simply not there.”

The wizard nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “The path has changed.”

Magath looked between Qildor and Neldor. He was trying to figure out what they were talking about.

“Yes,” Neldor repeated. “The material world has changed. This is what I have suspected. This was why I asked you to watch out for unfamiliar things.”

“What do you mean?” Magath asked finally. He was feeling like an idiot.

Neldor turned to him and looked at him kindly.

“The guardians have changed the surroundings. They changed the material world within the energy field. This path is not the path Qildor and I took last year. This path won’t lead us to the Castle of Saelethiel,” he said. “I have no idea where it would lead us to.”

Magath gazed at the wizard. The news sank in slowly. The news frightened him.

“You mean all that we see, hear, and sense is entirely unreal?” Magath asked, his voice slightly shaking.

“Not unreal,” Neldor said. “Different. Changed. Whatever path we take, it won’t lead us to where it once led us to. We’re trapped in an energy field that materialized an entire new reality.”

“Good Lord,” Qildor exclaimed. “They let us walk in and won’t let us walk out anymore. How long do you think are they able to sustain this new reality?”

Neldor shrugged.

“I don’t know. I am able to sense the aura. It is radiating from where the castle was supposed to be. I suspect the artificial reality turns back to normal when the aura stops radiating from the castle,” he said.

“How are they doing it?” Qildor asked.

“They are focusing their minds,” Neldor said simply. “Don’t forget that the castle has been the centre of magic for aeons. All magical secrets are guarded there. The guardians have access to the knowledge of the early times. You may think the guardians are only librarians, but they are also teachers of magic. They are powerful magicians themselves. They probably also guard the magical tool that the man is after. There are about twenty men in the castle at all times. These twenty men have gathered and combined their magical forces. They sensed him coming.”

Neldor gave a laugh.

“Twenty against one. They do not even conceal their energy field. This man should give up instantly,” he said. “He won’t stand a chance.”

Silence fell for a while as the words sank in. Qildor looked up the path in the direction of where the castle was supposed to be. Another cold shiver ran down his spine. Magath’s shoulders had slumped. He frowned at the wizard.

“And what about us?” he asked. “We’re trapped also.”

Qildor turned to Magath. They exchanged a look. Neldor rubbed his chin. He did not respond.

“Perhaps it was not a good idea to follow this man,” Qildor said finally.

“We could go and find a safe place and then wait until the guardians of the castle have finished him,” Magath said with a shrug. “When the guardians have dissolved the ward, we’ll ride back to Tanmil. Simple as that.”

“I doubt it is so easy,” Neldor said.

“Why?” Magath asked in an unnerved voice. “We cannot do anything, can we?”

“The guardians aren’t warriors. They won’t finish the man, like you said,” Neldor explained.

“But they can’t sustain the energy field forever,” Qildor mused. “Can they?”

Neldor shook his head.

“They let him enter the energy field. They let us enter it as well. They could have stopped us, if they wanted, believe me,” he said. “So they let us in for a reason.”

“Finish the man,” Qildor said grimly. “They want us to finish him.”

“Simple as that,” Magath added.

Neldor’s face was motionless as he turned his eyes back to the mountains. He doubted the brethren wanted them to finish the man. Neldor winced inwardly at the term. The brethren had called them for a reason and this reason slowly dawned on him. Neldor, however, refrained from any explanations. The two men would not understand his musings. The younger man was overly aggressive already anyway. And even Qildor was suspicious. Neldor turned back to them.

“In a sense,” he said slowly.

 “So you better figure out soon how to finish him, Master Neldor,” Magath said coldly.

The wizard did not reply. Qildor looked at Magath. He felt worried at his rude words. Magath turned away and pretended to see to his horse. Qildor looked at Neldor. But the wizard turned away also. Qildor joined Magath.

“What is it?” he asked in a low voice. “Why are you so rude to him?”

“Don’t you think the guardians are capable of defeating this man? Why would they trap us also? This is just complicating things,” Magath said brusquely.

Qildor glanced back at the wizard who had turned his back to them. He looked back at Magath.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Perhaps they are just leading us astray,” Magath said.

He turned his head to Qildor and looked him straight in the eyes.

“See clearly, Qildor,” he said. “They led Neldor astray also. He ran into the trap like the man who we are following. And, by the way...” Magath lowered his voice even more. “Do we really know that this man is ahead of us? Do we really know he entered the mountains and thus the energy field?”

Magath leaned in to Qildor.

“Do we really know this man is trapped also? Or are we the only ones who ran into the trap?”

They exchanged a long look. And then Qildor nodded.

“All right, I understand your fears, although I still do not think that Neldor has evil intentions. But, I agree, we better watch out. And we must find a trace of the man in order to finally have evidence of him,” he said.

“What annoys me most is that you and I are trapped also,” Magath said. “What do we have to do with this crap?”

A small smile appeared on Qildor’s lips.

“Well, he wanted to go on his own. We volunteered,” he replied.

Magath rolled his eyes. But then he nodded.

“Yes,” he agreed grudgingly.

Neldor looked at the mountain ridge for a while. His thoughts followed new tracks. He finally returned to Qildor and Magath who were waiting for him near their horses. From their faces he knew that the men were suspicious. He could not really blame them for it.

They moved on silently for another hour. Then Qildor set out to look for a place for the night. The sun was low meanwhile. The shadows had grown longer and the air was cold.

Magath and the wizard stood next to each other. Both of them felt uncomfortable. Both of them did not know what to say.

“You distrust me,” Neldor said finally.

Magath did not respond.

“I said there was more to this energy field. You are aware of it also. You have a sense of foreboding. We must consider all and not neglect anything. So watch out for all that is unfamiliar,” Neldor said.

Magath stood motionless for a while. He did not look at the wizard. Yes, he had a sense of foreboding. He was afraid of something. He was not able to say what it was and why it frightened him. But he felt as if a dark shadow threatened him. Magath looked ahead, and then he straightened and gave a brief nod.

“All right, Master Neldor,” he said.

~~**~~

11

Ogol was sitting in the shelter of a rock. Night had meanwhile fallen. He was pondering. The guardians of the castle had put up an additional ward and they had not concealed it. His first impulse had been to intrude into the castle. But he meanwhile had refrained from this plan.

The guardians were many and they were powerful and they had access to the ancient magic. Ogol would not stand a chance. He would not be able to enter the castle. However, he did not intend to give up. And so he pondered on what the guardians would do if he did not turn and leave the place. Ogol mused. The guardians would not be able to sustain the mighty ward for a very long time. He could just wait until the energy field weakened. Ogol knew, however, this would not happen in the near future. And he did not have enough provisions in order to survive a very long time. Ogol had tried to materialize food, but he had found that this magic did not work here. The energy field prohibited it.

The guardians were powerful magicians, but they were not warriors. Ogol was certain they would not attack him. The energy field served a different purpose. But so far, he had not yet figured it out.

Ogol leaned back against the cold rock. He closed his eyes. He would not retreat and the guardians would not attack. So they had probably summoned someone to find and stop him. Ogol took the magic orb out of his pocket and activated it. The violet spot of light moved inside. But this time Ogol did not just check. He watched the movements for a long time and then he recognized a pattern.

“Like I thought,” Ogol said grimly. “What a fool I was. I watched the movements of an energy clone.”

He gazed into the night. It was all so obvious now. Neldor was after him. The old magician had learned of his plans. The wizard had seen through him and had fooled him around. Or had the brethren summoned him? Ogol wondered if the man had already reached the Western Mountains.

“I suspect he’s close,” he said into the night. “Only one step behind or two.”

Ogol shook his head at his stupidity. He gnashed his teeth and frowned into the night.

“They summoned an old man. Does this mean an old man is the only one who could stop me?”

Ogol narrowed his eyes.

“This will never happen. Never,” he grunted.

Ogol grimaced and gave a dry laugh.

“I now know what to do. I must confuse Neldor and make him seize the tool. Then the guardians will turn against him. I must be clever and act cautiously. Then I can find a way to take the tool from the old man. It won’t be easy,” he said in a resigned voice. “By no means easy. I need to be one step ahead always.”

His musings were flawed. But Ogol did not notice. He was driven by hatred and vengeance. He looked up at the nightly sky. The moon shed a pale light. Ogol gazed at the moon for a while. Something disturbed him about it. Had the moon not been almost full a couple of days ago? Why did the crescent still look the same? Ogol shook his head and shook off the thought. The crescent of the moon was by no means his primary problem.

~~**~~

 
The guardians of the Castle of Saelethiel still sat in deep mediation. They had finished materialization and now sustained their created world. With their inner eyes they watched the energy of four men moving through the mighty energy field. The guardians knew exactly where the men were located. But the brethren did not interfere. They just watched the men’s movements.

The guardians of the castle had created the world according to the instructions of the early magicians. The brethren had woven the ancient magic. They had woven a magic web that would only let those men escape who were worthy. Two of the four men were summoned to undergo a trial. The world itself would challenge the men. The brethren only watched out and enforced the law.

When his time has come, man has to face the truth. He is summoned to look into the abyss of his soul. But only those who are ready are summoned. These men have to undergo a trial. No man can avoid his destiny. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken.

The brethren sat in deep meditation and their web hung like a trap in a cage.

~~**~~

Qildor had found a sheltered place for the night. They had prepared their camp between two big rocks. Qildor and Magath sat next to each other. Neldor had left the place and stood alone in the night. He tried to identify the energies. He tried to track his opponent.

Magath leaned in to Qildor. Qildor placed his arm around Magath’s shoulders.

“Will we ever find a way out of here?” Magath asked.

“I have no doubt of this,” Qildor replied. “As soon as this is over, we’ll return to Tanmil.”

Magath gave a laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” Qildor asked in confusion.

“Because I know what you are thinking,” Magath replied. “You think of Tanmil as an idyllic place. But Tanmil was never such a place. Life is hard there. We have to work from morning to night. The climate is harsh, although not as harsh as it is farther north. That’s why the Khalindash attack the Aglanthol villages. Tanmil was also attacked once. The Khalindash stole food and cattle.”

“Who sees to your field?” Qildor asked.

“One of my neighbours, a good man. However, he expects me to be back in two or three weeks. That’s what I told him. I was being naive,” Magath said.

Qildor patted Magath’s shoulder.

“It might work out,” he said in a reassuring voice. “We’ve been away for a week now. We need one week to travel back. This means we have one week to fight the evil.”

“Fight the evil according to schedule,” Magath said with another laugh that sounded sarcastic. “Look, Qildor, so far we have not even found a trace of the man.”

“Neldor is working on it,” Qildor said. “And tomorrow I will set out and scout and look out for the man. He may have put up a ward and therefore is invisible to us. But he must have left a trace. Broken twigs perhaps, something he dropped maybe. I’ll find him, I promise.”

“He could find us first,” Magath said. “He is using magic.”

“I’m not sure magic works within this energy field,” Qildor said slowly. “I watched Neldor.  But I did not see him using magic. He is at a loss like we are. Honestly, I think he has no clue of what is going on.”

“Perhaps his abilities are useless here,” Magath mused. “How can he then fight the man?”

They looked into the darkness for a while.

“I must find the man,” Qildor said in a determined voice. “We must find out if his magic works or if it does not. I must know if my opponent is superior. I must know how he fights. I need to know his motives and goals. Then I can trap him like in a conventional war.”

“He had five companions,” Magath said. “That’s what Dran said. He saw six riders. Dran heard that their leader wanted to discard them when they had reached the mountains. Did he do so? Are we following one man or six men?”

Qildor straightened.

“I’ll be leaving early in the morning. Distract Neldor. I do not want you to move on. Pick up a quarrel or whatever. Just stop him from doing anything,” he said.

They exchanged a look.

“It is time we act and do not simply react,” Qildor said.

Magath nodded.

“I’ll distract him. All right,” he replied.

They fell silent when a figure approached. Neldor returned to the camp. He sat down and let out a resigned sigh.

“I cannot track him. All I sense is Saelethiel’s energy field. It either absorbs his energy, or the man knows how to perfectly hide himself,” he said.

“Are you sure his magic works within the castle’s energy field?” Qildor asked.

Neldor made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“You are right, Qildor. I have noticed it already. It seems my magic doesn’t work properly. I tested various magical techniques. Some do work and some do not. And the techniques that work, do not work all the time. But I have not yet figured out the pattern,” the wizard said.

“Do you think the man is having the same problems?” Magath asked.

“I think so, yes,” Neldor replied. “But like I said, some techniques work, albeit not always.”

“Which ones work?” Magath asked.

“Mind focusing techniques seem to work now and then, yet no simple magic like spells or the like, starting a fire with a snap, for instance,” Neldor said.

“With a snap?” Magath asked. He gaped at the wizard.

“A snap, yes,” Neldor said. “A very useful technique sometimes. Materialization of concrete things does not work either. I tried to materialize some food – you see, we’ll run out of supplies in a few days – but unfortunately it didn’t work out.”

“What can you do with mind focusing techniques?” Magath asked curiously.

“The most difficult I ever did was turning back time,” Neldor said.

“Can’t you just do this now?” Magath asked enthusiastically. “You could take us back to Tanmil.”

Neldor made a defensive gesture with his hand.

“It would not solve the problem. I could not stop the man with it, unless I prevented his very birth. I cannot do this,” he said.

Silence fell.

“You could do it, but you won’t do it,” Magath said finally, looking at the wizard.

“It would definitely be the wrong step. Don’t you feel this yourself, good man?” Neldor asked, returning to his grumpy attitude.

Magath refrained from further inquiring the wizard. But he looked at the man with new curiosity. Starting a fire with a snap. This fascinated Magath. If ever they got out of here, he would ask Neldor to teach him this – how had he called it – simple technique.

They finally stretched on their blankets. Neldor and Qildor fell asleep. Magath, however, looked up at the nightly sky and pondered on magic and mind focusing techniques.

~~**~~

Not far from them, Ogol sat and leaned against a rock. He had also tried in vain to track his follower. And he had also found out that only certain magical techniques worked out well. He looked at the moon in the sky. Something about the crescent disturbed him. But his thoughts soon distracted him. Ogol schemed and planned.

~~**~~

 

12

Qildor left the camp at dawn and went all the way back down. He moved fast and after only three hours he had reached the bottom of the mountain. He looked around, yet he did not see any changes. The beginning of the path looked exactly like he remembered it. Qildor climbed the path again, carefully scouting and watching out for the man’s traces.

Neldor had grown angry when he had discovered that Qildor was gone. He wanted to leave the camp also, but Magath stopped the wizard from doing so. Instead of picking up a quarrel, which he could have easily done, he inquired the old man and asked him to tell him more about mind focusing techniques. Neldor calmed down. He had never had an apprentice and the young man’s interest flattered him. Although he found that mind working techniques were far above Magath’s understanding, he explained the basics to him and as an example visualized the image of a frog. The image hovered between them. Magath was smitten.

“I cannot materialize it, though,” the wizard said. “It does not work here.”

“You mean you could make this image real?” Magath asked curiously.

Neldor nodded.

“Yes, I could make that frog jump into your lap. But like I said, the magic does not work here. The image must suffice as an example,” he said.

Neldor dissolved the image with a gesture of his hand. Magath gazed at him in awe. The wizard smiled at him.

“Would you like to visualize an image?” Neldor asked to his own surprise and against his belief to never reveal too much about magic to an average man.

Magath was enthusiastic about it. Neldor explained the technique again. And for two or three hours, they focused on the exercise. With the help of the wizard, Magath finally managed to visualize the image of a beetle. The image lasted for only a few seconds. But they both saw it clearly.

“Magnificent,” Magath exclaimed.

“Magic,” Neldor said drily.

He looked at Magath with new respect. The young man was apparently talented. What a pity he had been raised among peasants. If someone had found out about the man’s talent early and had taken him to a skilled and trained man, then the man would perhaps have become a shaman or a healer or an expert in herb lore maybe. Neldor smiled absent-mindedly.

“What is amusing you?” Magath asked.

“I was just thinking,” Neldor replied. “Tanmil is an odd village. The villagers are very talented, it seems. Gwyn fought against Khaalindaan. The peasant Dran had a foreboding of evil. And now you visualized an image after only a few hours of training.”

Magath smiled back.

“Despite me being an average man,” he said.

Neldor nodded.

“Not so average, it seems. Fate summoned you on this journey, after all,” he said seriously.

Magath looked at the wizard. A shiver ran down his spine.

“And Qildor saw the Castle of Saelethiel that is hidden from the eyes of an average man,” Neldor mused. “Very odd all.”

They sat in silence for a while.

“Can we do it again?” Magath asked finally.

Neldor gave him a questioning look.

“Another image,” Magath said. “Qildor will be away for some more hours. We need to pass away time.”

Neldor smirked. He straightened and then they resumed their exercises.

~~**~~

Qildor had meanwhile walked half the way back to their camp. So far, he had found no trace of the man. But he was sure meanwhile that the man had entered the mountains on his own. Six men would not have been able to move up the narrow path without leaving a trace. Qildor climbed higher and then he stopped at the sight of two boulders in the distance. 

‘A perfect place for the night,’ he thought.

He left the path and moved into the direction of the rocks. He checked the place carefully. And then he finally found what he had been looking for. A few broken twigs and a trampled flower. Qildor knelt down and had a closer look.

“Two days ago,” he said.

He straightened and looked around. He doubted the man was still anywhere near. But his gut feeling told him to be careful. Qildor approached the boulders. He investigated the place. He saw nothing at first. He took his time, however, and checked the place carefully. Suddenly, he spotted a wool thread on one side of the boulder. Qildor removed it from the stone cautiously and held it in front of his eyes.

‘Black wool. Rough, old, worn. From a robe probably. He must have leaned against the rock,’ Qildor thought.

Qildor investigated the place for some more time, yet did not find any more traces. He returned to the path and resumed climbing it. He was certain now that the man had walked up there two days ago. Close to the place where they had looked for the cave, Qildor found another wool thread in a bush. It was the same material. Qildor looked around and then looked at the path. Their horses had left no traces. This meant Neldor’s ward hid their horses also. This magic, at least, worked well.

‘Luckily,’ Qildor thought. ‘But I suspect we left more traces than he did. If he came back, he must have found them. I suspect he knows that we are at his heels.’

Qildor moved on. He reached their camp in the afternoon. He turned around the rock and stopped short when he saw Neldor and Magath sitting next to each other and gazing at the opposite rock. Their eyes were narrowed and their looks were piercing. Qildor’s hand automatically seized the handle of his knife that was adjusted to his belt. Qildor turned around slowly and looked in the direction that Neldor and Magath were gazing. He jumped at the sight of a huge spider hovering between the rocks. His sudden movement caused a noise. Neldor and Magath turned their eyes to him. The huge spider disappeared instantly.

“Goodness,” Qildor exclaimed. “What was that?”

“Just an image,” Neldor said soberly. “An image of a spider, to be exact. We produced it as an exercise.”

“Produced it?” Qildor asked. He looked warily in the direction where the spider had been.

Neldor and Magath rose to their feet. The wizard smoothed down his robe.

“Have you found anything?” he asked Qildor.

Qildor, still bewildered, took the wool threads out of his pocket. He told them where he had found them.

“He entered the mountains two days ago. He spent the night down the path between two rocks. From there he went up the path the following day. I’m sure he passed the place where we spent last night. There was no other sheltered place along the path. And I doubt he is here among us,” Qildor said.

They fell silent at his words and looked around warily. Neldor shook his head.

“Magath and I spent hours here. I doubt he watched us. A sign, however subtle, would have revealed his presence, I’m sure,” he said.

Neldor reached out his hand to Qildor. Qildor handed him the wool threads. Neldor had a close look at them.

“Khalindash wool,” he said.

He handed the wool threads to Magath. Magath nodded.

“Rough. Definitely not Aglanthol wool,” he confirmed.

“We have evidence now,” Qildor said. “One man, a Khalindash. He reached the Western Mountains two days before we arrived.”

“Dran’s story is true then,” Magath said. “The riders he watched were Khalindash men. They were headed for the Western Mountains. Their leader planned to discard the men as soon as they had reached the mountains. This is what Dran overheard.”

Qildor nodded.

“If he moved on at the same pace, he must be far ahead meanwhile,” he said.

“If he moved at the same pace, he would have already arrived at the castle. But the castle is hidden and reality has changed. He meanwhile must have found out about it,” Neldor said.

“If he went back the path, he might be very close,” Qildor said.

“Luckily, the ward that makes us invisible works very well,” Neldor replied. “It also conceals our voices and the noises we make, have I already said this?”

Qildor looked at Neldor with surprise. The information was new to him. However, it made sense. Concealing one’s sight and not one’s voice would not be very productive at all. Qildor returned to his previous thought.

“Nonetheless he might have found our traces. I found his trace. And we are three. We must assume that he meanwhile knows that someone is at his heels,” he said.

“Doubtlessly,” Neldor replied. “He must have concluded this from the additional ward alone.”

Qildor gave Neldor a questioning look. But they were interrupted by Magath.

“Master Neldor,” Magath called out.

Qildor and Neldor turned instantly. Qildor startled again, but Neldor clapped his hands.

“Magnificent,” the wizard exclaimed.

Qildor writhed with disgust at the sight of the huge spider now hovering right next to him.

“Magnificent,” Neldor exclaimed again, and then he walked right through the image.

~~**~~

Ogol stood not far from them and looked down at their camp. He gazed at the huge spider that was hovering in the air. The image had shown up and had disappeared. A few minutes later it had shown up again. Ogol, however, did not see the man who produced the image. Ogol gazed at the spider grimly, but then a mocking smile appeared on his lips.

“You put up a ward that makes you invisible. But you forgot that I can see the image. How inconsiderate. Don’t you realize you’re acting foolish, old man,” Ogol said mockingly.

The image of the spider dissolved finally. Ogol watched the place for some more time, but no more images showed up. He left his observation point and returned to the place where he had spent the previous night. He sat down on the ground and leaned against the rock.

‘He’s also having problems with his magic,’ Ogol mused. He had also meanwhile found out that only certain techniques worked well.

‘He can’t materialize either,’ Ogol thought. ‘He can only produce an image. The image was not good either. Not perfectly three-dimensional. And it did not last long and it hovered way too much. In fact, it looked like a beginner’s image.”

Ogol’s smile broadened. He smiled contently.

“Or like the image of a very old man who has lost his ability to concentrate,” Ogol said triumphantly.

Ogol leaned back more. He sensed the cold stone in his back. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked up at the sky. Ogol relaxed.

“He’s having problems also. He’s off guard and careless. And his magic does not match mine,’ he thought. ‘It should not be difficult to defeat the old man.’

Ogol smiled. He had planned to wait and let Neldor make the first move. His plan had worked out well. Neldor had revealed himself and had already given away very much.

Ogol yawned. He shifted his position. He was tired. He needed a rest. He had felt under pressure for days. But now his tensed body relaxed. Ogol drifted to sleep.

~~**~~

13

Silence hung over the Castle of Saelethiel. The guardians sat quietly. Yet, like on an unheard command, the brethren stood and then changed seats. The threads of the web changed their position, subtly yet fast. The brethren sat down again. They sat in deep meditation. Silence hung over the Castle of Saelethiel. Yet the energy field and the outside reality had changed.

~~**~~

Magath was the first to notice it when he rose in the morning. Dawn was just breaking and the sun had not yet risen. Magath stood and wiped his eyes tiredly. And then his heart jumped.

“Master Neldor,” he called out in confusion.

The wizard, still half-asleep, opened his eyes. He rose to his feet slowly. Qildor had also awoken. He jumped to his feet at Magath’s cry.

“Master Neldor,” Magath called out again. His voice showed utter fear.

Neldor and Qildor joined the man and looked in the direction Magath was pointing.

“What?” Neldor asked.

Qildor looked in the direction warily.

“Don’t you see it?” Magath called out.

“What?” Neldor asked again in confusion.

“That boulder over there. It wasn’t there yesterday. Where does it come from? Who put it there?” Magath asked.

The wizard gazed at the huge boulder that lay across the path. Qildor gazed at it in disbelief and then hurried to the stone. Neldor and Magath followed him slowly.

“Goodness,” Qildor said while walking around the boulder. “It must have rolled down from the mountain at night.”

“I beg you, Qildor,” Magath exclaimed. “We would have heard a stone rolling down from the mountains.”

Neldor stood and looked at the boulder. He looked up at the mountain and back at the stone. The wizard rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“It must have rolled down from,” Qildor insisted. “Where else could it have come from?”

“Stop,” Neldor said in an urgent voice.

Qildor and Magath turned to him. Neldor gave them a meaningful look.

“Do you have an idea, Master Neldor?” Qildor asked.

“I do hope I am mistaken. But I fear I am not. I fear the surroundings have changed at night. This boulder is proof,” the wizard said.

“What do you mean?” Magath asked anxiously.

“I suspect the energy field changed at night. The energy radiating from the castle materializes this world. The energy changed and with it the surroundings,” Neldor said.

Magath and Qildor looked at Neldor for a moment in utter confusion.

“Why did it change?” Qildor asked finally. His voice sounded worried. He rejected the idea. But the truth already dawned on him.

“In order to confuse us and lead us astray,” Neldor said mysteriously.

“You mean the brethren put the boulder there?” Magath asked.

“Not deliberately,” Neldor replied. “I suspect they randomly changed the energy threads. The boulder appeared here as a random result.”

Qildor gazed at the huge boulder once more. Magath looked around nervously.

“The boulder would have killed us, if it had appeared out of nowhere in our camp at night,” Qildor said in a shaken voice. “Will they do it again?”

“I fear they will,” Neldor said soberly.

“This is their form of attack then,” Qildor said in a dismal voice. “The brethren aren’t harmless at all.”

“I told you they were powerful magicians. They all have sworn to guard the castle and the secrets it holds. And they will guard it, no matter what happens,” Neldor said.

“They would kill us if necessary,” Qildor concluded.

“They would not. It is against their codex. However, we could die, if we were led astray. But this would be our own fault only,” Neldor said mysteriously.

He turned away and joined Magath who had walked up the path. Qildor looked after Neldor, pondering on the wizard’s words. Finally, he followed him and joined the two men.

“I found another discrepancy,” Magath said.

He pointed at a bush. Neldor and Qildor looked at it.

“Rowan berries,” Magath said. “You usually don’t find them in spring.”

Magath paused.

“I cannot say, though, if the bush appeared at night or if maybe it was already there yesterday,” he said.

Neldor walked to the bush and picked a berry. He smelled at it.

“Rowan berries,” he confirmed.

“Very good, Magath,” he said, turning to the man. “You have an eye for this. That’s why I asked you to look out for unfamiliar things.”

Magath’s cheeks blushed slightly. He gave a nod.

“You suspected that those things would happen?” Qildor asked the wizard.

“I thought it possible, yes,” Neldor admitted. “However, I hoped these things would not occur so soon. I thought that if maybe we find the man and drive him out of the mountains, we could avoid facing this kind of magic. But I was mistaken.”

“That’s why you can’t materialize things,” Magath mused. “They don’t allow you to fix the flaws.”

Neldor gave a laugh.

“Exactly, Magath,” he said. “Good reasoning.”

The wizard felt pleased.

“How can you be so cheerful at the chaos we are bound to face?” Magath asked. “Just imagine the brethren change the energy threads each night. We soon won’t be able to find our way around.”

“Yes,” Neldor said. “They are building up kind of a labyrinth. A very interesting magical technique. I feel almost magically drawn to it. I would like to learn more about it.”

Neldor’s eyes sparkled. This kind of magic truly fascinated him. It was complex, not a simple magical technique like starting a fire with a snap. The wizard’s investigating mind was drawn to complex mysteries and riddles.

Magath’s eyes narrowed at Neldor’s words. He measured the wizard and studied him closely.

“Master Neldor,” he said.

Neldor looked at him. “What?” the wizard asked in confusion.

“Master Neldor, I fear you’re losing your way,” Magath said almost coldly.

Neldor was taken aback at Magath’s words. His first impulse was to scold the man. But then the wizard’s face turned pale.

“Thank you for reminding me,” he said. “Indeed, we must face the facts. We must not get lost in dreams. We must concentrate and focus.”

The three of them looked at the boulder gloomily. What was going on here? What had the brethren in mind?

~~**~~

Ogol stood and looked down the path, wondering where the wizard was and what he had in mind. Finally, Ogol turned around and went back to the place where he had spent the night. He stopped short and gazed at the place in confusion. Green grass covered the place in front of the rock. Ogol was sure that the previous day the ground had been covered only with dust. He moved closer, crouched and touched the grass. He picked a stalk and smelled at it. Ogol rose to his feet and turned around slowly. He looked at the surroundings closely. The truth dawned on him. The crescent of the moon came to his mind. Ogol now knew what had disturbed him. The moon had not changed for a couple of days.

“Goodness,” Ogol said in shock. “They materialized the surroundings. And they constantly change it. This world is not real. The brethren have formed it.”

Ogol’s heart beat faster. He realized that he had run into a trap. He kicked a stone aside and then frowned at the mountains.

“What a cheap trick! What a miserable attempt to confuse me and lead me astray,” he hissed.

He breathed heavily, yet then calmed again. He was thinking hard while he gazed at the mountains.

“Neldor is having the same problems, after all,” he said to himself finally. “I witnessed his attempt to materialize things. He can’t do it. He has no advantage over me.”

Ogol kicked another stone aside. He frowned and looked around grimly.

“I must not wait any longer. I’d only waste time,” he said. “I must find a way to act to my advantage as long as this artificial world is still stable and as long as the old man has not found me.”

Like Neldor, Ogol had come to the correct conclusions. The brethren had materialized the surroundings and they were able to change it. They had changed it at night and probably would change it again very soon. They would continue changing it until Ogol had entirely lost his orientation.

“I can’t get out of here. I can only lose my way. So what is it you want? Do you want me go insane?” Ogol hissed at the mountains.

A cold shiver ran down his spine. He looked grimly and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“This will not happen,” he said in a clear and distinct voice, stressing every single word of the sentence.

Ogol narrowed his eyes and frowned at the mountains. Hatred and thirst for revenge filled his heart.

~~**~~

 

14

“What are we supposed to do now?” Magath asked. “We can’t just wait until this whole world is upside down, can we?”

Qildor and Magath stood, feeling at a loss. The wizard watched them silently.

“Yes,” Qildor agreed. “What do the brethren have in mind? We can’t find the castle. And we can’t just wander around. It doesn’t make sense, does it?”

“What would you do?” Neldor asked, looking between the two men. “What is your first impulse?”

“Find the man and finish him,” Qildor said grimly. “And thus put an end to it all.”

Neldor looked at Magath.

“What about you?” he asked.

Magath shrugged.

“I don’t know.  I’m at a loss,” he replied. “What was your first impulse, Master Neldor?”

“I wanted to figure out how the brethren’s magic works,” Neldor said slowly. “I felt tempted to explore the brethren’s powerful magic. But it would have distracted me from what I need to focus on. It would have stopped me from finding out what is really going on here.”

 “Just an assumption,” Qildor said.

“Not a wrong one, I think,” Neldor replied.

They looked at each other. Qildor finally gave a brief nod.

“All right,” he said. “So what do you suggest? What can we do?”

“We must wait for the man’s move,” Magath said. “We must hope that he acts on his first impulse and then runs into a trap”

“What if he also just waits for us to make the first move?” Qildor asked.

“The man has a goal. He wants to seize the magical tool. Sooner or later he must act,” Neldor said in a determined voice. “I’m sure he has also realized that the surroundings have changed. He will draw conclusions.”

Qildor shrugged.

“I just don’t hope a boulder will suddenly appear out of nowhere and smash me to pieces while I idly sit and wait for something to happen,” he said drily.

Neldor smiled faintly. He shook his head.

“This will not happen as long as we keep cool and mind our steps. But let’s have breakfast now. We have not yet eaten,” he said.

The wizard walked back to their camp. Qildor and Magath followed him.

~~**~~

Ogol walked down the path. He was impatient. He looked out for signs that indicated that the wizard Neldor was around. But Neldor’s ward worked well and hid him and his companions perfectly. Ogol moved to the place where he had seen the hovering image of the spider. Neldor had spent hours in the place, exercising his magic. Ogol’s ward worked well also and hid him from sight. Ogol took a bold decision. He entered his follower’s camp, unseen and unheard by his followers. Ogol walked around and investigated the place. He did not see the three men and he found no trace of the wizard. Neldor and his companions were sitting on the ground, eating and talking. They had no clue that Ogol was around.

~~**~~

Like on a command, the brethren stood and changed seats. They sat down again and sank in deep meditation. The threads of the web changed their positions and the material world changed according to the threads of the energy web.

~~**~~

Magath cried out loud at the sight of a man who had appeared out of nowhere and stood right in front of him. The man was dressed in a black robe. His face was hooded. His lips were compressed and his look was grim. The man gazed at Magath and then his eyes widened. He reached out his hand and pointed at Magath.

“Who are you?” he shouted.

Magath did not reply. He rose to his feet and glanced at Neldor and Qildor. The two men looked at him in confusion. They did not see the hooded man. Qildor was about to rise to his feet, yet Neldor placed a hand on his arm and stopped the man from moving. The wizard leaned in to Qildor and whispered to him. Qildor gave a nod. And then the two men sat silently. This happened in just a few seconds. Magath watched them out of the corner of his eye. And then he understood. The man in front of him did not see Qildor and the wizard.

‘It’s him,’ Magath thought, his eyes now fixed on the unknown man.

“Who are you?” Ogol shouted again. He had expected to find the wizard Neldor. Instead, he had found a simple and average looking man.

“None of your business,” Magath shouted back.

He kept looking at the unknown man. Ogol gazed at him grimly. Suddenly, he gave a laugh, turned around abruptly, and then retreated. Magath looked after him. The man stepped on the path that led up the mountain, and then, from one second to the other, he disappeared from Magath’s sight. His ward worked again. Ogol was invisible.

Ogol hurried up the path and went to the observation point from where he had watched his follower’s camp the previous day. He looked down at the camp. The man had disappeared from his sight. His ward worked again. Unsure if his own ward worked properly, Ogol made a step back in order to hide himself from the sight of the man.

He finally returned to his own camp farther up the path and leaned against a rock. His heart was beating fast and his breathing was heavy. He had expected to find the old wizard Neldor. He had found a young man instead. Who was this man? He looked average and he was dressed like a peasant. Had this man exercised down there the previous day? The man was young. His image had been rough and imperfect. The man was not a skilled and trained magician.

Ogol closed his eyes for a moment. His thoughts were running. Finally, he took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down.

‘Not the wizard Neldor followed me, but a young man, an adept,’ he thought.

Ogol gave a mocking laugh.

“This man was the only one you could mobilize?” he said with a disdainful look at the mountains. “Did you not summon Neldor or did the old man decline because he knew that he would not stand a chance?”

Ogol gave another laugh.

“An adept! You summoned an adept to chase and stop me? And the man answered your call and came here instantly?” he asked with a cold look at the mountains.

Ogol compressed his lips and narrowed his eyes. His look was grim and hate-filled.

“This man must be a fool,” he hissed.

He shook his head, and then he straightened. He returned to his cold demeanour. With his arms crossed in front of his chest, he leaned against the cold rock and looked into nowhere. Ogol was thinking.

~~**~~

Qildor rose to his feet. He approached Magath and placed his arm around the man’s shoulders. Magath was petrified. His muscles were tensed.

“I saw him,” Magath uttered. “I saw the man.”

Qildor patted his shoulder.

“He’s gone. Calm down, Magath,” he said in a reassuring voice.

Neldor approached them.

“What have you seen?” the wizard asked urgently.

“He appeared out of nowhere. He suddenly stood right in front of me. He glared at me and shouted at me. He wanted to know who I was,” Magath recounted.

Qildor patted Magath’s shoulder again.

“What else?” Neldor insisted.

“Did you not see him?” Magath asked back. “A tall man, dressed in a black robe, his face hidden by a hood. His look was grim. He shouted at me. And then he went and disappeared from one second to the other. Over there,” Magath said, pointing at the path.

“It’s him. The man that Dran saw on the clearing,” Qildor said.

He kicked a stone aside and looked around warily.

“We have evidence now. The man is here,” he said.

Neldor nodded thoughtfully. He looked at the point where the man had disappeared.

Magath sat down on the ground and startled again.

“Look,” he called out, pointing at the daisies that had grown in the place.

Neldor and Qildor turned to Magath. Qildor gazed at the flowers. Neldor bent down and picked a daisy. He held it in front of his eyes.

“I sensed a very strong energy,” he said thoughtfully. He dropped the flower. “It faded when the man had disappeared. I suspect the brethren changed the energy threads again. A change has occurred in this place,” he said, pointing at the flowers.

“Why did we not see him?” Qildor inquired.

“We were sitting over there. The energy change did not affect us,” the wizard said. “However, the energy change weakened the ward that I had put up in order to hide us from the man’s sight. Magath became visible to the man because he was sitting on an energy thread that changed its position.”

“Yes. I don’t think he saw you,” Magath said slowly. “He did not glance aside.”

“Qildor and I did not see him either,” Neldor replied. “Only you became visible to the man. And he became visible to only you. You and the man were right in the place where an energy thread changed its position.”

They lingered on their thoughts for a while.

“He now knows that someone is after him,” Qildor said

“He knows of Magath,” Neldor said pensively. He rubbed his chin. “This might confuse him.”

“Why?” Qildor asked.

“For I am sure that he had expected to find me or at least another very skilled and trained man,” Neldor said.

Qildor nodded.

“Why me then?” Magath asked in a worried voice. “He saw me. I am his target now.”

“So much the better,” Neldor said calmly.

“What?” Magath exclaimed.

Neldor raised his hand.

“Think,” he said. “And don’t take my words as an offence. He saw a peasant, not a skilled wizard. He saw a man who is no danger to him and his plans.”

Magath opened his mouth to protest. But Qildor raised his hand.

“He’s right, Magath,” Qildor said. “This could develop to our advantage. He might act more careless now and could be more off guard.”

Neldor nodded. Magath looked between Qildor and the wizard. Finally, he gave a nod.

“Provided another energy change does not reveal your presence to him,” Qildor said to Neldor.

“This will not happen as long as I mind my steps,” Neldor said seriously.

Silence fell.

“Anything else you have observed?” Qildor asked after a while.

Magath pondered. He shook his head.

“He is the man that Dran saw in the wood. Dran’s description fits well,” he said. “He’s dark and menacing. He has a grim and piercing look. He was sneaking about in our camp. Yet he was also shaken when he saw me. The event took him by surprise. He had not expected to see me.”

“Yes. And we know one more thing now. His magic does not work properly either,” Neldor said.

“I find he acted careless,” Qildor said. “I mean, wasn’t it risky to sneak about in our camp?”

“Why did he come here anyway? How did he learn of our camp? We were hidden from his sight, weren’t we?” Magath asked.

“Good question,” Qildor replied. “Perhaps he had no idea and was just investigating the place.”

“No,” Neldor said in a grave voice. “I made a mistake. He saw Magath’s images. I forgot to hide them.”

Qildor and Magath turned to the wizard. Neldor looked at them seriously.

“Goodness,” Magath said. “It never occurred to me.”

Neldor did not reply. His look was absent-minded for a while. Then a smirk spread on his face.

“No harm done,” he said. “No harm done at all.”

“Why?” Magath asked. Neldor’s sudden change of attitude confused him.

“He saw a beginner’s image. This will only support his assumption that you are not a skilled magician. He must think you are an adept, but nonetheless a man with magical ambitions,” Neldor said.

 “Since when is Magath a man with magical ambitions?” Qildor asked.

“Since he asked me to teach him,” Neldor said seriously.

“You did what?” Qildor asked, turning his eyes to Magath in bewilderment.

Magath shrugged.

“Yes, I asked him to teach me how to visualize images. These mind focusing techniques fascinate me, I have to admit,” he replied.

“He’s talented,” Neldor said.

Qildor looked between Magath and Neldor in disbelief. Had he missed a thing? When had the two men become friends?

“Talented,” he repeated the wizard’s word.

“Talented,” Neldor said in a sober voice. “I’m leaving you for a while. I need to ponder and meditate.”

Qildor and Magath looked after the wizard.

“Don’t say it’s true,” Qildor said, turning his eyes to Magath.

Magath shrugged. He smiled vaguely.

“He says I’m talented. I do not know. I have never felt drawn to magic and I have never observed anything unusual. Apart from what we witnessed in the wood last year, that is,” he said. “But starting a fire with a snap...well, this really intrigues me. And also the hologram thing.”

Qildor looked ahead. He was not sure what to make of it. Magath, a man with magical ambitions? Qildor shook his head in disbelief. Conflicting emotions overwhelmed him.

~~**~~

 

 
15

Ogol sat silently for a while, looking into nowhere. He was pondering. Finally, he took the orb out of his pocket. But instead of activating it, he looked at it for a considerable amount of time. He turned the orb in his hands. An idea had occurred to him. Ogol sensed the energy field that the guardians of the castle had built up. The energy radiated from the castle in all directions.

“The castle is the centre,” Ogol said, turning the orb in his hand. “It radiates from the centre in all directions and it forms a gigantic energy orb.”

Ogol raised the hand with the orb. He imagined beams of light radiating from its centre. Ogol saw a three-dimensional web of energy.  He saw the lines with his inner eye. The energy threads emerged from the centre of the orb. Close to the centre, the threads were close to each other. The distance between the threads was bigger, the farther away from the centre the lines were. Ogol turned the orb in his hand.

“They changed the energy field again,” he mused. “Exactly where the man and I stood, an energy thread shifted its position. This change produced an effect. Our wards did not work any longer. Last night they changed the energy field, too. This had an effect on the ground in front of the rock where I spent the night. The dusty ground turned into a lawn. However...”

Ogol straightened.

“The change did not have an effect on the total of the world. The surroundings only changed along the streaks of energy,” he mused. “However, the energy doesn’t cover the world like a blanket. In fact, the energy field is rather built up like a three-dimensional web. The distance between the threads is bigger, the farther away they are from the centre. This means that far from the centre the discrepancies in the material world are only few.”

Ogol took the orb with both hands and raised it in front of his eyes.

“There should be many discrepancies close to the centre as the threads there are close to each other. They form an almost ring there.”

Ogol put the orb on the ground and leaned back against the rock.

“The Castle of Saelethiel is the centre of the radiating energy. I must be far from it. The energy field has already changed twice, but I have not witnessed many material discrepancies. If I want to find the castle, I need to follow a thread to the centre. I know I’m close when more discrepancies occur. This should not stop me. On the contrary, I must go where things are upside down most.”

Ogol looked ahead for a while, thinking.

“The threads form a ring close to the centre. The energy is high there and, most likely, it is difficult to pass,” he mused.

Another thought occurred to him. A smile played on his lips.

“Now I see clearly. The inner ring is the usual ward that the brethren put up in order to hide the castle. A strong energy that is almost impassable, at least for those who have no clue of how to pass it.”

Ogol narrowed his eyes. His mind was working.

“The castle reveals itself only to those who are worthy. However, I’m sure there are ways to bypass the ward. I doubt the material world inside the castle changes every time the guardians change the energy field. No, an energy change does not influence the castle itself. The castle itself is stable.”

 Ogol took up the orb again. He looked at it intently.

“I must move closer to the centre. I must seek for more discrepancies in the material world. They show me the direction I’m headed for.”

He put down the orb and looked into the distance. His eyes were narrowed.

“Then I must bypass the castle’s ward. I was once taught about this ward. Every spell can be broken and also every ward. I need to find its flaws.”

A content smile played on Ogol’s lips.

“Once in the castle, the brethren’s energy field cannot affect me any longer. Once inside, they won’t be able to stop me, for then I have broken their most powerful ward,” he said.

A shiver ran through Ogol’s body at his own words. He straightened. It hit him like a bolt from the blue.

“Good Lord,” he said. “The energy field! You are demonstrating the use of your mightiest tool and the most powerful magic that the castle guards. The palace is the castle itself. It is just another term for the Castle of Saelethiel.”

Ogol gave a laugh that sounded almost hysterical.

“Indeed, this magic would make me the most powerful wizard and it would make the Khalindash clan invincible. Just imagine an Aglanthol army trapped in a reality that constantly changes. We could effortlessly destroy them whenever we wanted.”

Ogol leaned back and looked up at the sky. Nothing indicated a change. The sky was blue and the day was peaceful. However, this was not the natural world. And appearances were deceiving.

Ogol rose to his feet. He had come to a conclusion

“I need to find the hidden castle. I must provoke another energy shift,” he said in a determined voice.

~~**~~

Ogol walked down the path. He returned to his observation point and looked down at his follower’s camp. The place looked deserted. Nothing indicated that the man was around. But Ogol suspected that the man’s ward worked again. If he was lucky, then the man was still down there in his camp.

Ogol concentrated and focused his mind. He formed an image with his inner eye and then transported it to the outside. The image of a fly hovered in the air.

‘It works,’ Ogol thought with satisfaction.

Ogol dissolved the image. He made a step back and then looked at the ground. He focused his mind and concentrated. Another image formed above the ground. The image grew larger and more three-dimensional. Ogol’s piercing eyes were fixed on it. His mind was clear, sharp, and perfectly focused. A huge, black spider formed on the ground. It was perfectly three-dimensional. Every detail was formed realistically.

Ogol looked at the image for a while. He regretted that he was not able to materialize it. This would have been far more amusing. Ogol fed the hologram with more energy. The spider started to move over the ground. The image looked realistic, only a trained eye would realize that the spider was only a hologram.

Ogol made the spider move to the edge of the rock. He followed it and looked down at the man’s camp. Then he made the spider crawl down the slope. If the man was down there, he would soon catch sight of it. Ogol smiled with excitement.

~~**~~

Qildor spotted the spider first.

“Goodness,” he called out, jumping to his feet and his hand moving to the knife on his belt.

Neldor and Magath looked up and jumped to their feet as well. The three of them gazed at the huge spider that was crawling down to their camp.

Neldor stepped forward and made a sign with his hand.

“Quiet,” he hissed. “It’s just a hologram. He wants to provoke a reaction.”

Neldor made a sign to Magath. Magath hurried towards him.

“I must not react. Else I reveal myself. But this is a chance to track down the man. I can trace him and identify his energy pattern,” Neldor said.

“What do you want me to do?” Magath asked in confusion.

“The longer he keeps up his image, the more time I have to trace him. Produce an image, Magath. This will distract him. He will play with his hologram in order to show you that he is superior to you. Make your image rough, have it hovering. Don’t make it perfect at all. And hurry to the path and work from there,” Neldor said urgently.

The wizard hurried to Qildor. Magath looked after him.

“As if I were able to produce a perfect image,” he said drily.

He looked at the huge spider. Fear overwhelmed him. He had exercised only one afternoon. Would he be able to form an image? Magath looked aside. He saw Qildor running to their horses. Qildor led them to the path. Magath remembered Neldor’s words and followed Qildor quickly. Then he turned around and looked out for the wizard. Neldor hurried towards the spider. The wizard disappeared into the hologram. Qildor stood a short distance away from Magath. Magath looked at him. Qildor made a sign with his hand.

“Stay where you are,” he said urgently. “The spider might provoke another energy shift. That’s what Neldor said. That’s why we left the place.”

“Neldor disappeared into the hologram,” Magath said.

“He knows what to do,” Qildor said shortly. “Magath, do start now,” he said urgently.

Magath remembered the wizard’s instructions. Fear overwhelmed him again. Qildor’s urgent look, however, shook his fear off. Magath concentrated and focused his mind like the wizard had taught him.

The image of a spider appeared in the air. It was barely three-dimensional. The image was rough and the edges were fringed. The image hovered heavily in the air.

Ogol gave a loud laugh at the sight of Magath’s image. He focused on his own image and made his spider move quickly in the direction of Magath’s hologram. Magath concentrated more. He managed to move his image on the ground. However, the spider looked more like a cockroach.

Qildor watched Magath and the holograms. Then he tried to make out Neldor. The wizard hurried up the slope. Despite his age, the man moved quickly.

Ogol’s spider was approaching. It was huge and black. The hairy legs moved quickly. The claws were big and sharp. Qildor shuddered at the sight. If he had not seen Neldor enter the hologram, he would have turned and run.

Magath stood, focusing his mind. He remembered the wizard’s words. ‘Keep up the image as long as you can.’

Neldor had meanwhile reached the top of the slope. Unseen by Ogol, he approached the man. The hologram and the man were connected by an energy thread that Neldor had identified and had followed. He stood right behind the invisible man and scanned his energy pattern. Ogol was distracted by the images. He had made his spider attack Magath’s miserable hologram. The man was a fumbler who was barely able to keep up his image. However, the man did not give in. He continued feeding his image with energy. This amused Ogol greatly. The man would not be able to stand a chance against him, but it was fun to play with him and fool him around. Ogol stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest and looked down the slope. He was chuckling.

Ogol made a step back. He felt a strange shiver that distracted him for the split of a second. Neldor had immediately stepped back at Ogol’s movement. However, for the briefest of a moment, the two invisible men had touched each other. Neldor retreated. He had learned all he had wanted. He hastened to the path that led down the mountain. He hurried down and made a sign to Qildor as he passed the man. Then the wizard joined Magath who stood motionless with his eyes narrowed and his hands clenched. He bit his lip. Sweat covered his forehead and blood dropped from his lip, but Magath did not realize it.

Neldor reached out his hand and touched Magath’s elbow lightly. A jolt of energy rushed through Magath’s body. Magath’s eyes widened. Neldor took over and dissolved the image. He then withdrew his hand from Magath’s elbow. Magath stumbled and almost fell to the ground. Qildor hurried towards him.

“Take him out of here,” Neldor said. “Take the horses and walk down the path to the place where you found the wool thread. I’ll find you there. I must wait and see what is going to happen now.”

Qildor gave a brief nod. He led Magath away. The two men moved down the path.

Neldor stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He looked at their former camp grimly. Ogol’s spider was still in the place. However, it had stopped moving. The man was apparently waiting if his opponent reformed his image. Neldor looked up the slope to where the man stood. Although he did not see his physical body, Neldor now was able to locate him. Each energy pattern was unique. Neldor now knew how to trace the man. With his sixth sense and despite the brethren’s strong energy field, Neldor was able to locate the man’s energy pattern.

Ogol stood and looked down. He felt disappointed. The man had given up. And no other energy shift had occurred. The surroundings were unchanged. The material world was unaltered. Ogol flew into a rage. He kicked a stone down the slope and fed his hologram with the energy of his rage.

Neldor watched the stone rolling down the slope. He raised an eyebrow and turned his eyes to the spider. It happened exactly what he had expected. The man had flown into a rage and channelled the destructive energy into the hologram. The spider grew bigger and turned into a monstrosity. The hologram filled the whole place of the camp. Neldor retreated in order to escape the sphere of influence of the destructive energy.

~~**~~

The brethren sat silently and did not react. The energy field remained unchanged and with it the material world. Silence lay upon the castle and the web hung unchanged.

~~**~~

Neldor waited until the hologram had disappeared. He focused his sixth sense on the man’s energy pattern. The man had left. He was not around anymore. Neldor entered the place and scanned it carefully. He found the surroundings unaltered. No changes had occurred. Neldor nodded thoughtfully. He went back to the path and walked it down. He joined Magath and Qildor who were waiting for him.

“His plan failed miserably,” Neldor said. “I suspect he wanted to provoke a reaction. But nothing happened. The brethren did not react. I, however, due to his imprudence, was able to identify his personal energy pattern. I’m now able to locate him. I just need to concentrate and focus. And I now know his name.”

Qildor and Magath hung on his lips.

“His name is Ogol,” Neldor said. “A man’s name is inscribed in his personal energy pattern. I read his name. However, I have never heard of the man. I suspect that he was trained in the castle many years after I had been there. He must have been hiding, preparing his plans. The brethren, however, should know the man.”

~~**~~

Ogol returned to his place farther up the path. He was enraged. He was barely able to breathe. He kicked a stone aside and hit his hand several times against the rock that sheltered the place. Ogol hissed and cursed. He glared at the mountains and he spat on the floor. But finally, he calmed down. He leaned against the rock and took a deep breath. Then he closed his eyes for some time until his rage had gone.

“It was too obvious a plan,” he admitted grudgingly. “No surprise the brethren did not react. I must act more subtly in the future. It was a mistake, nonetheless. I challenged the brethren and they know I did.”

Ogol looked grimly into the distance. He felt like an idiot, a mere beginner who had devised a flawed plan and then had failed miserably. Ogol gnashed his teeth. The insight enraged him again. He made a few steps ahead, kicking more stones aside.

“This novice, at least, now knows he cannot compete with me. Perhaps the man flees. And if not so, well then, I’ll finish him with ease,” he said in a defiant voice.

He refused to think deeper and more thoroughly. He refused to give in or alter his plan. Ogol crossed his arms in front of his chest. He stood and frowned at the mountains. He pretended to ponder and he convinced himself that he did. However, he did not see that he was pouting.

~~**~~

 

16

Night fell and no sound was to be heard. Silence hung over the castle that was hidden from sight entirely. The mighty ward worked well and hid the castle. The powerful energy spread from its centre where in the main hall the guardians had gathered. The brethren formed a perfect circle. The centre of the circle was the centre of the gigantic energy field.

At midnight, the brethren stood like on a command and dissolved their circle. They stood in a line, and while they did, the energy stopped radiating in all directions. The spherical energy field dissolved. The energy now spread like a line and in only two directions.

After only a minute, the guardians resumed their former formation. They sat down in a circle again. Like before, the energy spread in all directions from the centre of the circle that the brethren had formed. A spherical energy field built up again.

The brief interruption, however, had sufficed to change the material world considerably. An abyss had formed that spread from north to south, a huge and long canyon, deep and with steep slopes. The walls and the bottom of the canyon were made of gray rocks. The abyss looked dangerous, cold, and menacing.

Neither Ogol nor Neldor and his companions had noticed the change of the world, for all of them had been fast asleep. Ogol spent the night in the place that was located in the west of the canyon. His follower’s place was east of it. The abyss had divided the world and had separated the opponents. But, so far, they were not aware of it.

The night was peaceful. No sound was to be heard. The full moon shed an opalescent light. The brethren sat in deep meditation and silence hung over the Castle of Saelethiel.

~~**~~

Ogol discovered the abyss when he looked down the path in the morning. His camp was high up in the mountains. Ogol looked in the direction of the other man’s camp when he caught sight of the canyon. The sight hit him deeply. Ogol was shaken. The abyss was vast and stretched from north to south as far as the eye could see. The canyon was huge, long, and deep and the slopes were steep. Another energy shift had occurred and had produced an abyss at night.

Ogol stood startled for a while. His eyes followed the line of the canyon. The camp of the man who had come to chase him was on the other side. If the man had not moved up farther the path, which Ogol doubted he had, the man now was on the other side of the abyss. Ogol was wondering why the brethren had produced the material shift. Was this another attempt to protect the castle? What had the brethren in mind? What was their plan? Why was he not able to see through it?

Ogol’s eyes followed the line of the canyon. His thoughts followed a new track. Was he mistaken? Had he climbed too high? Was the castle on his side or on the other side of the abyss? Another thought occurred to him. Ogol straightened. What if the canyon itself indicated the position of the castle? Could it be? Was it really that simple? Ogol looked at the abyss.

He moved down the path. He was still pondering. If the canyon indicated the castle’s location, where exactly was it? More to the north or more to the south? This question confounded Ogol. Were his reflections correct or was he mistaken? He finally reached the abyss. He stopped and then stood, pondering and gazing down into the canyon.

~~**~~

Neldor and his companions caught sight of the canyon a short time later. Qildor moved up the path in order to spy on their former camp. He detected the altered landscape. The surroundings had changed drastically. Qildor saw new formations of rocks as far as the eye could see. Startled, he climbed the path until he reached the edge of the abyss. The sight of it made him gasp with fear.

Qildor stood at the edge of the canyon. He looked down to the ground. The abyss was deep and the slopes were steep. The bottom and the canyon walls were made of dark gray rocks. Qildor looked left and right. The canyon stretched as far as the eye could see. Qildor looked on the other side of the abyss where Ogol was supposed to be. The abyss had divided the world and had separated them from the man they had followed.

Qildor hurried back and informed Neldor and Magath. They all hastened up the path. They stood at the edge of the canyon and gazed down in utter bewilderment.

“We’re standing at the edge of an abyss,” Magath said.

“A remarkable insight,” Neldor replied in a thoughtful voice. “The brethren are not without humour, I must say. Although I find their demonstration is a bit dramatic.”

Qildor and Magath looked at the wizard.

“You mean this abyss is a symbolic message?” Qildor asked.

“It’s very drastic and distinct. The meaning is not hidden at all,” Neldor replied. “Clear enough for all to see. I’m wondering what Ogol will read out of this message.”

“The same that you read out of it?” Qildor asked. “I can’t read anything out of it. I just see a canyon. It separates us from Ogol. How, by all means, shall we now chase and stop the man?”

“We sometimes miss the forest for the trees,” Neldor replied slowly. His words sounded entirely out of place.

Magath looked at the wizard for a second, and then turned his eyes away. He gazed down at the bottom of the canyon. The mere size of the abyss overwhelmed him. Neldor’s eyes rested on the young man for a while. The abyss had another meaning that Neldor had not revealed to the men. It contained a message for Magath and Neldor wondered if the man was able to read it.

Neldor turned away and followed Qildor who had walked along the side of the canyon. The wizard nodded his head as he moved on. They had all been summoned for a reason and stopping Ogol was not the primary one. Neldor stopped and looked on the other side of the canyon. The wizard felt reassured. All things would be at exactly the right place very soon.

“It’s vast,” Qildor said when Neldor had approached him. “Do you think we need to cross it?”

“This depends on many things,” Neldor said mysteriously.

Qildor gave him a questioning look, but Neldor did not respond. A vague smile showed on the wizard’s lips. He looked absent-mindedly on the other side of the canyon.

~~**~~

Magath stood looking out into the canyon. The abyss intrigued him, yet it also frightened him. Absent-mindedly, he fumbled the amulet that Gwyn had given to him. Magath looked at it. The amulet reminded him of the village of Tanmil. Magath felt a longing. He longed for his home. He could sit now with Gwyn and listen to her stories. He could ride over to Dran and talk with the man. He could see to his field or finally repair the roof of his house. Instead, he stood in some artificial world and looked out on a huge, cold, and menacing canyon.

Magath asked himself why he had accompanied the wizard. He felt helpless. What could he do to stop Ogol? Magath suddenly found that their mission was of no importance at all and bound to fail anyway. So far, they had not managed to track down the man. The abyss that had formed at night would make their task even more difficult, if not impossible at all. Magath wondered why the brethren did not stop the man. Their magical power was big. Magath felt involved in a game that was unfair and that he was not able to see through. Or did he just not understand the rules?

Neldor’s magic did not work well. So far, the wizard had not been able to do much. If Qildor had had a chance to track the man down, he would certainly have already found him. What game were the guardians of the castle playing? Magath had an evil thought. Perhaps the brethren were just feeling bored and were making fun of them.

Magath looked on the other side of the canyon. Somewhere over there was Ogol, the black magician. What had the man in mind? What were his plans? Had he really come here to seize a magical tool? Magath wondered what kind of magic the man was after. Was there really a tool that would make him invincible? What did he aim at? Aglanthol’s ruin?

Magath shrugged and shook his head slightly. He didn’t understand the man’s goal. All things passed and came to an end. The goal of the man’s journey was clear. Death would ultimately defeat the man and put an end to his power. All was null and naught in the end.

He turned his head and looked at Neldor who was talking to Qildor. The wizard was an old man. He had spent decades researching on symbols and a secret code. Yes, in the end, he had deciphered the code and this had allowed him to turn back time and change the course of events. Magath shrugged. If the wizard had acted properly and had come to Tanmil in time, then he would have not had to turn back time and correct his mistake. Then again, if had he not spent decades on his research, he would not have been able to correct his mistake once he had made it. Magath found himself in a vicious circle. And yet, he thought that all arguments were true in a sense.

“In every truth something false can be found,” Magath said thoughtfully.

He seized the amulet again. His own thoughts were disturbing him.

 ‘All these wizards claim to have knowledge that is far above the understanding of an average man,’ Magath thought. He shrugged. So far, neither Neldor nor Ogol had had success and the powerful guardians had done nothing but establish a mighty energy field. ‘What good comes from magic?’ Magath thought. ‘I’ve seen imaginary spiders and I’m trapped in an unreal world.’

Magath found that magic was of no use in the real world. Yes, starting a fire with a snap would doubtlessly save time and thus would really be helpful. But creating images and have them hovering in the air? Sure, a huge spider could frighten people and maybe stop an army. But once people had seen through the use of images and their applications, these images would neither stop nor frighten them anymore.

Neldor had said that he was able to materialize things. But so far, he had not been able to do so. Perhaps he was not able to do it at all and had just found an excuse to deceive Magath. Yes, the brethren were able to change the material world. But the major thing that they had produced was the vast canyon in front of him. Magath found this abyss was of no use at all.

“Magic is of no use at all when there comes no good from it in the real world,” he said aloud.

A white dove flew up and crossed the sky. Magath’s eyes followed it. He watched the bird cross the sky.

When he lowered his eyes again, he saw a golden light far in the distance on the other side of the abyss. The light condensed and formed an image. It was the image of a palace. Magath gazed at it. The energy condensed even more. The palace grew three-dimensional. It looked solid and realistic and it even cast a shadow. Magath gazed at the palace in bewilderment. But then he noticed a detail that made him suspicious. The palace had no entrance. Magath crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Just another perfectly formed hologram,” he said. “I see through it. I won’t give in to temptation.”

The image dissolved instantly. The surroundings looked unaltered.

Neldor watched the young man from the distance. He had seen the palace as well, but he had not mentioned it to Qildor. Qildor had not shown any sign that indicated he saw the image of the palace. The building was hidden from the man’s sight. The wizard studied Magath. He had underestimated the young man who had been summoned here for a reason. He had been summoned here to meet his destiny.

Magath finally joined Neldor and Qildor. He did not mention the palace and acted as if nothing had happened. Neldor kept the secret to himself as well. Inwardly, however, the wizard was shaken. Magath stood next to Qildor. He placed his hand on the man’s arm. Qildor turned his head and smiled at him. He placed his arm around Magath’s shoulders. Magath felt safe again. He meanwhile spoke to the image of a palace and it did not deem him insane. It was time to finally ride back to Tanmil.

~~**~~

 

17

Ogol looked down into the canyon. He felt magically drawn to the bottom of it. Eager to find the truth at the bottom of the abyss, Ogol more skidded than climbed down the slope. He didn’t pay attention to his scratched hands and his half-twisted ankle that was the result of a risky jump. Ogol ignored the pain and his exhaustion. He eagerly sought his way down to the ground. He sensed an energy that was strong and tempting. Ogol felt that he was close to his goal.

Night had fallen when Ogol reached the bottom of the canyon. He sat down on the ground. He was tired and exhausted. He had hurried. He had forgotten to take along food and water. He tried in vain to materialize some supplies. Ogol was sitting on the ground. He was thirsty and hungry. His euphoria, however, still kept him in high spirits. His thirst for power was unquenchable. He ignored his physical thirst, albeit it was the first warning.

~~**~~

Neldor, Qildor and Magath had returned to their camp. Night had fallen. Qildor and the wizard were fast asleep. Magath, however, was wide awake. He turned from one side to the other, unable to calm his running thoughts. Why had he come here? What was this all about? He tossed and he turned. He felt nervous and anxious. Finally, he rose to his feet and left the camp.

He climbed the path that led to the abyss. The full moon shed a ghostly light and the world looked creepy. Magath felt drawn to the canyon. What was going on here? He felt the need to unveil the secret. He had a feeling that the abyss held the truth. Magath reached the canyon and looked down to the ground. Yet the bottom of the abyss lay in dark shadows.

~~**~~

The brethren stood and changed seats again. And then they drew their chairs closer to the centre. The spherical energy field immediately shrank. The field condensed and centred. An immediate shift in the material world followed instantly. Heavy clouds covered the nightly sky and hid the stars and the moon. The night turned black and threatening and an electric storm came up out of nowhere. Saelethiel’s powerful energy raged. A magical storm materialized and broke loose without a prior warning. The walls of the canyon crumbled. Stones and boulders rolled down.

Ogol jumped to his feet and started to run. He slid and then fell to the ground. Stones slid next to him and suddenly Ogol found himself lying on the ground and stuck between two stones. Magath fell when the wall of the canyon tumbled. Along with stones and boulders he skidded down the slope. Half-way down, he was lying on the ground. He was also stuck between two stones.

The night was pitch-black. The rain was pattering and a mighty storm was blowing. Both men were lying on the ground, stuck and unable to move.

The brethren stood and opened their eyes. They raised their hands like in prayer. The time had come. The two men were ready to face the truth. They were ready to undergo the trial.

~~**~~

Magath was lying on his back. His right leg was stuck between two stones. He struggled to sit up and finally managed to do so. But, however hard he tried, he could not move the stones.

The rain poured heavily down on him and soaked his clothes. Cold rain ran down his face. The ground was rocky and the stone was cold. Magath’s body soon felt cold as well. He sat in an uncomfortable position, yet he did not dare to lie back again. He feared to lose his conscience or simply fall asleep because of exhaustion.

Magath did not see anything. The night was dark and it was pitch-black in the canyon. He listened into the darkness. But all he heard was the heavy rain and the storm that raged above him. At least, no more stones and boulders were rolling down the slope. Magath wondered why he was unharmed. A boulder could have easily killed him.

He sat for a while, unsure what to do. Crying for help would be entirely useless. The rain was too heavy and the wind blew too loud. Neldor and Qildor would not hear him. Magath guessed, however, that his companions were already looking for him. The crash of the canyon wall could not have gone unheard. Neldor and Qildor, however, were fast asleep. The energy shift had not affected them. No noise had left the area where the energy had condensed. Neither did the wind blow in their place nor did rain fall down on their camp.

After a while, Magath struggled once more to free his leg. The effort was in vain. Magath breathed heavily. His body trembled because of the cold and because of the sudden fear that overwhelmed him. He tried to calm down. Dawn would be breaking in just a few hours. Then, at the latest, his companions would come for his rescue.

Magath shifted his position until he sat more comfortably. He listened into the darkness and wondered why the walls of the canyon had tumbled. The brethren had changed the energy field again. Why had they done it? In order to kill him?

Magath felt angry. Who were the brethren to decide on his fate? Who were these men who hid in a castle that was hidden from the eyes of an average man? Magath gnashed his teeth. How he hated this term. From the eyes of an average man. Neldor had said it several times. Neldor, the wizard, who, so far had gotten nothing accomplished. Magath instantly felt guilty at his thoughts. The wizard was haughty and arrogant sometimes, but he had taught him the mind focusing technique. He had spent hours exercising with him. It was unfair to blame him. Why was he always blaming Neldor and never the man they had followed?

His thoughts shifted to Ogol. He had seen the man in their camp when his ward had not worked for a while. The man was grim, dark, and evil. Why had he come here? And, more important, why had they followed the man? He could have stayed home and could be enjoying his life. Why had he accompanied Neldor and Qildor? A dubious quest had led him here. Now he sat stuck in an abyss. Perhaps he would never find a way out of here. Why had he set out on this quest?

Magath’s thoughts stopped abruptly. “Because I volunteered,” he said sourly.”My fault only. I was being naive. Why, by all means, did I go with them?” He pondered. He had had various reasons. He had wanted to stay with Qildor. He had not wanted to see the man go and perhaps never return. And he had also felt a thirst for adventure. He had never left Tanmil in all his life. The Western Mountains were far away and the Castle of Saelethiel was a place of mystery that had fuelled his fancy.

‘The castle. Always the castle,’ Magath thought. His feelings towards the place were ambiguous. The secret place intrigued him greatly. But meanwhile he held a grudge against it. The castle withdrew from them. He was certain meanwhile that he would never see it. After all, it was hidden from the eyes of an average man. Magath frowned. The brethren were to blame. They had caused his predicament. And yet, he had to admit that their powerful magic intrigued him. “Goodness!” Magath called out. “Am I going insane? Instead of thinking of a way to free myself, I sit in the pouring rain, thinking of the magical castle.

Magath pushed his thoughts aside. He tried to free his leg again, but the effort once again was in vain. Magath gave up. He sat silently, resigned to his fate. Help would come in just a few hours. Dawn would come and morning would break very soon.

The hours passed by, but dawn was not breaking. Magath started to worry. His worry turned into utter concern and he had a sense of foreboding. The awful truth slowly dawned on him.

~~**~~

Ogol was lying on his back. He was not able to sit up, however hard he struggled. A stone pressed his right hip on the ground. He was able to seize the stone with his hands, yet he was not able to push it aside.

The heavy rain poured down on him. Ogol was thirsty. He had not drunk in many hours. He licked the rain from his lips, but this barely sufficed to satisfy his thirst. The rain ran into his eyes. Ogol wiped the water off and gazed upwards, but he did not see anything. The night was dark and it was pitch-black in the canyon. Ogol closed his eyes. He needed to find a way out of here.

Since his physical efforts had proven useless, Ogol turned to ponder on magical techniques. Magic did not work well in the brethren’s energy field, but creating an image had been very easy. An image, however, would not get him out of his predicament. But Ogol had not yet tested all the magical techniques and spells that he knew of.

He tried to concentrate, yet he got distracted by his own thoughts and feelings. He was angry. He could barely suppress the emotion. Ogol tried a few spells. When none of them worked, he was not able to hold back his feelings any longer. Ogol flew into a rage. He cursed and ranted aloud. This, apparently, was the brethren’s work. What an unworthy effort to stop him.

‘They are acting like common criminals,’ Ogol thought. ‘Why not challenge me to an open fight? Why not kill me? Why throw me to the ground and get me stuck? Hell, what is this all about?’

Ogol tried to sit up again, but he was not able to. The effort exhausted him. His whole body hurt. Ogol forced himself to calm down. He would find a way to free himself. It should not be too difficult. He just needed to concentrate and control his emotions and feelings. Ogol tested a few more spells. But they did not work either.

‘All right,’ he thought. ‘I must think of a high magic approach then. There are a few techniques that might work. Luckily, I do remember them all.’

Ogol lay back on the ground. The rain poured down on him and Ogol licked his lips. His thirst was distracting him. It had become painful meanwhile. If only more of the rain ran into his mouth.

Ogol concentrated again. He went through all the magical techniques that he had learned in the past. He finally found an approach that he was sure would work out well. He would channel the energy of the rising sun into the stone that pressed his hip down. He then would elevate the stone until he was able to free himself. Under normal conditions, his life force would have sufficed to elevate the stone. But Ogol did not deceive himself. He was exhausted. His body was weak. He decided to not rely on his life force alone. The morning sun would solve the problem. Its light would soon reach the ground.

Ogol was lying on his back on the ground. His body meanwhile felt cold and numb. His physical condition was bad and his thirst was unquenchable. The physical need tormented him and had already started to blur his mind.

Ogol waited for the rising sun. But the rising sun did not come. Ogol realized the fact despite his blurred mind. Ogol lay stuck on the ground of an abyss and slowly the truth dawned on him.

~~**~~

 

18

Qildor and Neldor awoke. The sun had already risen and shed a warm light. They soon found out that Magath was missing. They called out for him and searched outside the camp. But they didn’t find a trace of the man.

“I must go and find him. He cannot have disappeared,” Qildor said in utter concern He felt a knot in his stomach. His gut feeling warned him.

They hurried up the path, calling out Magath’s name.

“I’ll kill the man if he has a hand in it,” Qildor hissed while they hastened along.

Qildor stopped short. He did not believe his eyes. His heart almost stopped at the sight in front of him. He saw a mirage, a Fata Morgana. Qildor gaped at it in utter confusion.

Neldor looked at the sight that unfolded before him. He had expected it, yet not so soon.

“The Palace without Entrance,” he said in a low voice. “The brethren have materialized it at night. So be it. The time has come.” The wizard’s voice sounded serious. It was almost solemn. Neldor stood in awe.

“What? What do you mean?” Qildor uttered in total confusion.

The canyon had disappeared and a building had replaced it. A majestic palace with high walls and towers. The palace was splendid and beautiful. The walls were painted in blue and the roofs were golden and reflected the light of the sun. The palace was big and the towers stretched to the sky. A warm and golden light emanated from the building. But there was something disturbing about it.

“No windows, no doors, no entrance at all,” Qildor said. “Is Magath inside? How did he get into the building? I must instantly find him.”

Qildor hastened farther. He did not wait for Neldor’s response. The wizard followed Qildor. His eyes were fixed on the palace. The palace looked splendid. But Neldor knew all too well that appearances were deceiving.

Qildor had meanwhile reached the building. He touched the wall with his hand. He ran along it, looking for a way to get into the palace. Neldor watched him calmly. The man would not find an entrance.  His efforts would be in vain. Qildor finally stopped. He was breathing heavily and his face showed fear and concern. The wizard approached Qildor slowly. Qildor ran up to him.

“What is it?” he uttered. “I need to get into it. Please, Neldor, I beg you, do try some magic.”

Neldor shook his head. He gave Qildor a meaningful look and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“I cannot do anything, Qildor. Ogol and Magath, both men, were summoned to meet their destiny here,” he said.

Qildor shook off Neldor’s hand. He frowned at the wizard.

“Your wise words are of no help, Neldor. And your magic doesn’t work either. I don’t know why the brethren do this. It doesn’t make sense to me at all. Anyway, with your help or without it, I will free Magath. I have no doubt that he is trapped in there,” he hissed.

He ran back to the building and started to surround it again.

Neldor watched him. He let the man do what he thought he had to do. But Neldor knew that Qildor’s efforts would be in vain. The wizard sat down on the trunk of a tree. He looked up. A crow and a dove flew up in the air and together they crossed the sky. Neldor nodded in understanding. The time had come, no doubt.

Qildor finally joined the wizard again. He was desperate and totally exhausted. It had taken him an hour to surround the building. He had tried to climb a wall where he had thought he had seen a window. But it had just been the shadow of something.

“What is it about this palace?” Qildor asked desperately.

Neldor rose to his feet and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. This time Qildor did not shake it off.

“Come, Qildor, let’s go back to our camp. There I will tell you all about the Palace without Entrance,” he said.

~~**~~

“The Palace without Entrance is not real. The term is just symbolic. The palace doesn’t exist in the real world,” Neldor started.

“It’s real,” Qildor said impatiently. “We’ve just returned from it. We saw it up there just a couple of minutes ago.”

“It is not real,” Neldor said calmly. “This world is not the real world, is it?”

Qildor gazed at Neldor for a second, and then he gave a brief nod.

“Is Magath inside of the palace? Will he get harmed?” he asked.

Neldor gave him a serious look.

“He must undergo a trial that might be tormenting and painful. However, whatever the outcome will be, he will be released in the end,” he said.

“A trial? Tormenting and painful?” Qildor asked. He rose to his feet.

Neldor raised his hand.

“Sit down. You cannot do anything, Qildor. Let me explain. You can only help Magath when you do understand what he is going through right now,” the wizard said.

Qildor sat down again. He gazed into the distance. He felt like an idiot. Or perhaps he had gone insane. Finally, he turned his eyes back to the wizard.

“Continue,” he said brusquely.

Neldor nodded.

“We all are destined to meet our destiny. Every man and every woman. There is no exception to this rule,” he said.

They exchanged a look. Qildor nodded. Neldor carried on.

“Whatever you believe – that a higher power destines your fate or you make it yourself; there are many beliefs – it does not really matter. No man can avoid his destiny. This is all that matters in the end,” the wizard said.

“What are you aiming at?” Qildor asked impatiently.

“Fate summoned the two men to undergo a trial. This is part of their destiny,” Neldor replied.

“I thought Ogol was a black magician. Aren’t we aiming at stopping him?” Qildor asked in confusion.

“This is what we thought in the beginning. I changed my mind, however, when I observed what was going on here. Just stopping the man...this could have been done easier,” Neldor said.

Qildor gazed at him. Magath’s words came to his mind. ‘This is getting far too complicated.’ Qildor gave a nod.

“Too many odd things are going on here. No target, no goal. I do not see a reasonable plan,” he admitted.

“The way is dangerous when you go astray,” Neldor said. “In other words, we sometimes do not see the forest for the trees. This can lead us to false conclusions.”

“What are the right ones then?” Qildor asked desperately.

“The Castle of Saelethiel is the centre of magic. It is hidden from our eyes. Even I cannot find the way to it now. The energy field does not allow it. We wanted to travel to the castle. I suspect that Ogol wanted to go there, too. However, the castle was never our destination,” Neldor said.

“What’s it all about then?” Qildor asked. He shifted his position impatiently.

“Magath and Ogol were summoned here. The Palace without Entrance was their destination. We just accompanied Magath. Ogol travelled on his own,” Neldor said.

Qildor did not reply. The wizard carried on.

“We led Magath here. Magath would have never left Tanmil alone. He would have seen no reason to do so. The castle once revealed to you. Thus you could tell Magath of it. I would have never spoken to the man about the castle. But somehow fate found a way to speak to Magath. The castle intrigued him,” Neldor said.

“That’s what he said, yes,” Qildor admitted. He started to trust the wizard.

Neldor nodded.

“Ogol was driven by vengeance. This was the motive that led him here,” he said.

“And what are they looking for?” Qildor asked, gazing at the wizard.

“The door to their fate,” Neldor replied with a serious look.

 “I saw no door,” Qildor said simply.

“Not on the outside,” Neldor replied. “The palace doesn’t exist in the real world. Bear in mind that we are not in the real world.”

“Where exactly are we then?” Qildor asked.

“The energy field is a highly magical field. We’re in a magical world, not the outside world you know, an inside world you could say,” Neldor replied.

Qildor gaped at him. This was definitely beyond his understanding. The wizard smiled faintly.

“Magath and Ogol are facing their inner world. They are confronted with their own thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions form images in our mind. They can become very realistic. The inside of the palace stirs emotions like fear, rage, falsehood, arrogance, pride, cowardice, shame and more. These emotions form images. You can take them for real. The magical energy field, which the brethren hold up, is condensing these energies. The brethren will hold it up until the trial is over,” Neldor explained.

 “And why do they have to face this trial? Why do the brethren torment them?” Qildor asked. He still did not understand.

“The brethren do not torment them. They just help Ogol and Magath to undergo the trial fast and in a short time,” Neldor replied.

Qildor leaned forward and looked at the wizard. Neldor continued.

“The rapid change of thoughts and emotions makes them understand their own mind. They’ll understand the power of their mind. They’ll realize that they themselves produce the effects. At the end of the trial, they will have experienced the whole range of emotions. But only then the trial will end,” Neldor said.

“What if they don’t come to this realization? Will they be trapped forever then?” Qildor asked with new concern.

Neldor shook his head.

“A man is only summoned to undergo the trial when he is ready for it and when he is bound to realize,” he replied. “However, they will have to make a decision.”

“What kind of a decision?” Qildor asked. He felt confused and impatient again.

“They will decide on their future path. They will make their own destiny,” Neldor replied.

A shiver ran through Qildor’s body. He had an idea of what Neldor was talking about, yet he hesitated to ask the old wizard.

Silence fell for a while. Neldor’s eyes rested on Qildor. He watched the man patiently.

“I thought Ogol finished his training in the castle,” Qildor said finally.

“You’re on the right track,” Neldor replied. “The Castle of Saelethiel offers a path.”

The wizard straightened.

“I suspect that Ogol did not undergo the trial. The trial usually is the end of the training. But there are always men who leave the castle earlier. Some of their own accord and some have to leave,” he said. “Anyway, Ogol and Magath are ready to face the trial.”

“Magath has never undergone a magical training,” Qildor said. “Why is he summoned? He won’t stand a chance.”

“Some people never undergo a magical training. Nonetheless, they are destined for the trial,” Neldor replied.

“Like some of the soldiers,” Qildor mused. “There are men who never had a military training and nonetheless they join the army. They are accepted because they are good warriors. They are volunteers, in a sense.”

Neldor nodded slowly.

Silence fell again.

“Did you undergo this trial as well?” Qildor asked.

Neldor gave a nod.

“At the end of my training, yes. But we did not use the term ‘Palace without Entrance’. In fact, I only learned of the term when I reread the book that I had been given as a farewell gift. The description was vague. It was a poem. I did not connect it to the trial. It only dawned on me when we had arrived here,” Neldor said.

“Back then, at the end of your trial, you took a decision?” Qildor asked.

Neldor nodded almost absent-mindedly.

“I made my own destiny, yes. I followed a solitary path. I did not know that in the end it would lead me back to its beginning,” he said.

Neldor smiled. He almost chuckled. Then he looked at Qildor again seriously.

“I cannot say what decision Magath will take. Just be there for him when the palace opens its door. The trial can be disturbing,” he said.

They exchanged a long look. Qildor nodded seriously.

“What do you think? How long will it take?” he asked in a stifled voice.

Neldor shrugged.

“Time inside and time outside the palace is not the same. Two days might pass there, while only an hour goes by here,” he said.

Qildor rose to his feet.

“I’m going up the path then. I will be waiting there,” he said.

Neldor nodded. He rose to his feet as well. He saw to their horses and packed supplies. And then he followed Qildor.

~~**~~

19

The brethren stood and with their inner eyes watched out. Silence hung over the castle.

The Castle of Saelethiel lies high up in the Western Mountains. It was founded in the mists of time. The castle guards secrets that are far beyond a man’s understanding. The guardians of the castle watch out and enforce the law. The law is timeless and it cannot be shaken.

When time has come, man must face the truth. He is summoned to look into the abyss of his soul. Man must undergo a trial.

The brethren raised their hands and stepped closer to the centre of the circle. The energy field reacted instantly. It condensed and the magical energy concentrated in the centre. The material world changed at once. The magic wove a tight web inside of the Palace without Entrance. The inside changed in order to challenge the trapped men.

“No man can avoid his destiny. This law is written in the book of time. When time has come, man must face the truth. He is summoned to look into the abyss of his soul,” Leandor said in a grave voice.

“No man can avoid his destiny, however hard he tries. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken,” the brethren replied solemnly.

The brethren fell silent. Silence hung over the Castle of Saelethiel. And the trial began.

~~**~~

Magath was lying on his back on the hard ground. He looked up into the night or whatever this darkness was. His whole body hurt. His limps felt numb and he felt cold. His mouth was dry despite the rain that poured down on him. Magath licked the rain from his lips. However, it did not suffice to quench his thirst.

He had waited for hours for something to change. But the darkness lasted and the rain kept pouring. First, Magath had tried to convince himself that he was just mistaken. He had come to the abyss earlier than he had thought. Morning would definitely come within a few hours. But morning had not broken.

The pouring rain got on Magath’s nerves. The splash of the raindrops was all he heard. Magath tried to ignore the sound. However, he was not able to. As time went by, the sound of the rain seemed to even get louder. His hearing had taken control of his sense perception. His eyesight was of no use in the darkness. His sense of touch was useless also since Magath was stuck and could not move. All he sensed was the hard ground and the rough stones when he moved his hands along them. Magath lay with his eyes closed. Now and then he opened his eyes and gazed into the darkness.  

Magath’s mind finally accepted the truth. Morning had not broken. He was trapped in some unreal world and he did not know how to escape it. Magath still hoped his companions would find him. But his confidence was more and more shaken as time went by. Magath finally felt totally hopeless.

His mind went back to previous times. He thought of his former life. He thought of Tanmil and his home. He saw the village and his house in all detail. Magath mentally wandered through his house. He looked at all the things that he had left behind. He wondered why he had not repaired the roof and why he had left a mug on the table. Magath left his house and went over to Gwyn’s place. He knocked at her door. The old woman opened it and smiled at him warmly. She asked him in and offered him lunch. Gwyn had just finished cooking. Magath accepted gladly. He followed the old woman inside.

Rain ran into his eyes again. Magath wiped it off and briefly opened his eyes. The darkness still had not gone. The sound of the rain was unbearable and his body hurt and felt totally numb. Magath closed his eyes again and plunged back into his dream that gave him shelter and made him feel warm. Like she had done so many times before, Gwyn covered the table. They ate scrambled eggs and then they talked. Magath felt at home. He felt safe and comfortable.

A thunder rolled and shook him out of his dream. Startled, Magath opened his eyes. Had the thunder rolled above the canyon or had he just imagined it? Magath was confused. His confusion frightened him.

~~**~~

Ogol was lying on his back on the hard ground. He suffered from dehydration. It blurred his mind and Ogol noticed it. He fought against it with mere willpower. Since he was trained on focusing his mind, his efforts worked out for a while. Ogol realized that he found himself in a trap. The brethren had changed the energy field. He knew that whatever magic he thought of, it would not work out in the end. Ogol admitted this to himself. He knew that he would only waste time with deceiving himself. He focused his mind on the Castle of Saelethiel and he tried to see through the brethren’s plan.

The sound of the pouring rain unnerved Ogol. But he was able to ignore it. He was also able to ignore his aching body. His thirst, however, was tormenting him and it disturbed his mind. Involuntarily, images of brooks and springs formed in his mind. They were tempting and they drew him in. Ogol tried to push the images aside. But the images returned and subtly filled his conscious mind until Ogol, against his will, plunged into the image of a spring of water. He dived into the water and drank of it. The water was cool and quenched his thirst. The water refreshed him and revived his spirits. Ogol felt filled with new energy. He felt ready to act on his aspiring plans and he was ready to step into the future.

A thunder rolled. Startled, Ogol opened his eyes. Reality caught up with him. He found himself in the trap again. It was pitch-black in the canyon and the rain poured down on him. His body hurt and his thirst tormented him. Ogol looked up and listened into the night. Had the thunder rolled above the canyon or had he just imagined it? Ogol forced himself to focus his mind. Yet, subtly and yet unnoticed by him, fear crept up his spine.

~~**~~

Magath was lying on his back on the ground. Fear had taken hold of him. He gazed into the darkness with widened eyes. He ignored the rain that ran down his face. What if nobody came for his rescue? What if this unreal world lasted forever? Magath’s heart was beating fast. Sweat covered his hands and his body was numb. The sound of the rain did not disturb him any longer. He paid no more attention to it.

Magath started to think the impossible. If nobody came for his rescue, then he would remain trapped in the canyon. How long would he last before death would come upon him? Time was running out. Magath was fully aware of it. Despair took hold of him.

Why had he followed Neldor on his quest? The wizard had tempted him. The wizard had bragged about his skills. But the wizard had not accomplished anything. He had not stopped Ogol. He had not found the castle. Even his magic did not work properly. He, Magath, had fallen for a fraud who had led him here. The wizard had led him into this unreal world. He had led him into a trap. And now he would let him die here all alone. Magath finished his inward rant and opened his eyes in despair. He gazed into the darkness. His limps were stiff. His body was cold and his mind was almost blank.

The image of the palace that he had seen the previous day came to his mind. His cheeks blushed at the thought. At the sight of the image, he had sworn he would not give in to temptation. But his own words meant nothing to him the following day. He was just a loudmouth, a liar, a fool. He needed a scapegoat for whatever went wrong in his life. Why the hell did he always blame Neldor for whatever did not work out? Probably to distract himself from his own flaws.

The wizard had not forced him to set out on the journey. He had volunteered. It had been his own decision. It was his own responsibility. He had been naive. He most likely still was. But it was up to him to learn and to grow. After all, ignorance was no excuse in law.

The wizard had not thrown him into the abyss. He had gone to the abyss in the dead of the night. He had stood on the edge when the wall had tumbled. Did he really want to blame the wizard for not watching each of his steps? After all, he was not a three-year-old. Magath blinked and he swallowed hard. Perhaps he was no more than a naive child.

He turned his head aside and closed his eyes. Magath swallowed and tears filled his eyes. Magath felt despaired and ashamed.

~~**~~

Ogol was lying on his back on the ground. He had given up his attempt to see through the brethren’s plan. The guardians of the castle had demonstrated their power and had made clear to him that he would not be able to stand a chance. The brethren had not fought a long fight. They had woven a magic that involved no losses. At least not on their side. Ogol was the only one to lose. He realized that he had never had a chance. He had been bound to lose from the very beginning, since he had come up with his pretentious plan. The brethren had won and Ogol had fallen. He had fallen deep. The brethren had thrown him into the depth of an abyss where he would soon end his miserable life.

Ogol gave a bitter laugh. The brethren were not without humour. He was lying on the ground of a deep abyss. He could not have fallen deeper. What a sarcastic image the brethren had chosen in order to make his total failure clear to him. Ogol’s thoughts stopped short as the facts occurred to him. The brethren had not thrown him into the canyon. He himself had climbed down to the bottom of it, eager and greedy to steal the brethren’s magical tool and willing to betray the oath that he had once sworn in the castle.

Ogol turned his head aside and closed his eyes as the bitter truth dawned on him. His own greed and vengefulness had led him here. His unquenchable thirst for revenge had ultimately sealed his fate. His unquenchable thirst tormented him. Ogol finally realized. He closed his eyes in shame and despair.

~~**~~

 

20

Time passed by. Magath was lying on his back on the ground. The feelings of despair and shame slowly faded. Magath gazed into the darkness. He ignored the rain. Time was running out and it was too late to alter the course. The past was gone and could not be undone. It did not matter any longer anyway. Time was running out. Time had starting ticking. There was no future for him. There was only one door. With every hour that passed, he stepped closer to it. Soon he would place his hand on its knob. Soon he would step through the ultimate door.

Magath swallowed. Was death really the ultimate end? Or was it just a threshold, a passage? Magath thought of what he would have to leave behind: Tanmil, his home, and the people he loved. His neighbour Dran. Gwyn, the old woman who had always been supportive and kind. Neldor, the wizard, who had taught him the mind focusing magic. And above all...

Magath let out a sob and tears filled his eyes. He would have to leave behind the man he had loved more than all others. Qildor. They had barely had time to get to know each other. Magath let out another sob. He regretted so many things. He would miss all the people. He would miss Qildor so much. Fate was cruel. It had not even granted him a final farewell. Magath’s heart broke and he started to grieve. Deep sadness took hold of him. Magath grieved his own death. He mourned his own loss. The feeling was aching and painful. Close to his death, he pitied himself. The feeling was bitter and cruel.

~~**~~

Time passed by. Ogol was lying on his back. The feelings of despair and shame slowly faded. He looked into the darkness. His body felt numb and his mind was more and more blurred. Ogol knew that his time ran out. The path ahead was short and he would soon reach the ultimate door.

Ogol took a deep breath. Images of his past came to his mind. They were vivid and lively. They appeared randomly and there was no obvious connection between them. Ogol looked at them. He made no further attempt to escape or even bring down the brethren. His time had come. Ogol already sensed the knob of the door that would lead him out of here in the end.

Ogol watched the images that came to his mind. Images from his childhood. They showed happy days with his parents and friends. He had been a cheerful boy, curious and smart. Images showed him with his mentor, the Khalindash shaman who had taught him and had set his hope on him. Ogol had been eager to learn. He had been greedy for knowledge. He was open-minded and welcomed the world. He had had plans for the future. Ogol swallowed and his eyelids flickered. What had become of him?

Another image showed up and showed a classroom that was filled with students. Ogol winced at the sight of the image. He remembered the day very well. The image did not dissolve. Ogol was forced to look at it. An Aglanthol boy, about fifteen years old, stood in front of him. Ogol was the oldest in his class and he felt uncomfortable among the young boys. His Aglanthol fellow-student sensed Ogol’s insecurity and he started to tease him. The boy grinned at Ogol and told him that, no matter how talented he was, Ogol as a Khalindash man would never make a career. Ogol turned to his teacher, hoping the man would scold his fellow-student. But the man smiled mildly at Ogol and said that a career perhaps was only something for a haughty man. His eyes rested warmly on Ogol and then the man said that a simple shaman could do so much good to the people.

Ogol cringed. He gazed into the darkness with widened eyes. His hands and his lips shivered. A foolish boy had teased him. A fifteen-year-old loudmouth had fooled him around. Why? Why had Ogol believed him?

Ogol swallowed. He licked his dry lips. His teacher had not insulted him. The wise man had given him a subtle warning. Pride comes before a fall. The words echoed in Ogol’s mind. This was the warning. Ogol now understood. He had misunderstood the man’s words. He had stepped on a path of revenge without reasons. He had wasted twenty years of his life. It was his own fault. The blame lay with him.

Ogol gave a grunt. He took a deep breath. Why had he never pondered again on his teacher’s words? All his life was built on self-deceit. As a simple shaman he could have done so much good to the people.

Ogol turned his head aside. He felt regret, remorse, and deep sadness. He had wasted his life and no one was to blame for it but him. Ogol thought of the brethren. Was his old teacher among them? Did he see him now? Did he see Ogol’s ruin? Did the man despise him? Or did he pity him?

Ogol closed his eyes. He felt sorrow and grief for his own wasted life. However, the feeling lasted only a short time. Ogol had not accepted his fate for twenty wasted years. He would not waste another minute with deceiving himself. He would accept his failure and his defeat. Inwardly, Ogol straightened and lifted his chin.

“No man can avoid his destiny,” he repeated the law that he had once learned in the castle. Ogol’s voice was rough and hoarse. He could barely utter the words.

He swallowed and licked the rain from his lips. And then he straightened again inwardly. Ogol repeated aloud the words that he had once said, many years ago in the castle.

Ogol had been ready to undergo the trial that ended the training of the magicians. But then he had left the castle one night and without a word. He had taken a decision. He would not let the brethren judge on him. He would never bow to these men. He would not undergo the trial.

Ogol swallowed and then he repeated the ancient and holy words.

No man can avoid his destiny. This law is written in the book of time. The Castle of Saelethiel lies high up in the Western Mountains. It was founded in the mists of time. The castle guards secrets that are far beyond a man’s understanding. The guardians of the castle watch out and enforce the law. The law is timeless and it cannot be shaken. When time has come, man must face the truth. He is summoned to look into the abyss of his soul. Man must undergo a trial. No man can avoid his destiny, however hard he tries. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken.”

Ogol’s voice broke and tears filled his eyes.

“This law cannot be shaken,” he repeated in a low voice.

He straightened and inwardly turned to the Castle of Saelethiel. He bowed deeply to the brethren who stood in front of him and looked at him solemnly.

“No man can avoid his destiny. This law is valid for all times,” he said to the brethren.

“This law cannot be shaken,” the brethren replied in one voice.

Their grave eyes rested on him as Ogol turned away and walked upright to his final goal.

The brethren’s words echoed in Ogol’s mind as he stepped through the ultimate door. His mind drifted on. Ogol’s limps went totally numb. The sound of the rain finally stopped. Ogol’s mind levitated and rose high up into the air. Ogol blinked at the sight of the sun. Joy filled his heart. A crow and a dove crossed the blue sky. Ogol rejoiced. He let out a cheerful cry. And then, his heart filled with joy, Ogol followed the birds to the castle.

~~**~~

Magath was lying on the ground. He felt hollow and empty. All thoughts and emotions had finally left him. He moved his hands and seized Gwyn’s amulet. His cold and stiff fingers opened it. It was too dark to see what it contained. It was too late anyway. Magath pressed the amulet against his heart. It would help him now to make his final step. Magath felt ready and inwardly straightened. And then he walked to the ultimate door.

“No man can avoid his destiny,” Magath said in a low and hoarse voice.

The door in front of him opened wide and Magath stepped through the door.

His body went numb. The darkness lasted no longer. Magath felt airy and light. He rose high up in the air. The sudden light almost blinded him. Feeling amazed, however, he looked into the light. A dove and a crow crossed the blue sky. Magath rejoiced at the sight and he followed the birds a short way to the castle. But then he turned away, his heart singing with joy, and he flew east in order to cast one last glance on the village of Tanmil.

~~**~~

“No man can avoid his destiny,” Leandor said. His voice was solemn and grave.

“This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken,” the brethren replied in one voice.

The brethren stood motionless.

Silence hung over the Castle of Saelethiel.

“The law is satisfied,” Leandor said.

The brethren lowered their hands and dissolved their circle. The magical energy field dissolved and the material world returned to their original shape.

~~**~~

 

21

The palace disappeared from one second to the other. Neldor and Qildor jumped to their feet. The abyss had disappeared. The material world had returned to their original shape. The sky was blue and the sun was out and shed a warm light.

Ogol and Magath were lying on the path that led up to the Castle of Saelethiel. They did not move. Their bodies were lifeless and numb.

Qildor instantly started to run. He hurried to Magath. Neldor took a deep breath. A shiver ran through his body. The ultimate truth revealed to the old wizard. He finally understood why fate had been summoned here. He finally understood his mission. Neldor hastened his steps.

Neldor hurried to Ogol. He crouched down beside the lifeless man. Ogol was unconscious. He did not move. Neldor placed his hand on Ogol’s forehead. Energy streamed from the wizard to the shattered man. The man’s eyelids flickered and Ogol opened his eyes slightly. He looked into Neldor’s eyes. The old wizard looked at him gravely.


Qildor crouched by Magath’s side. He stroked the man’s forehead softly. After a while, Magath opened his eyes. His eyes filled with tears at the sight of Qildor’s face. Qildor smiled at him warmly and bent down to him. He kissed Magath’s forehead softly. Magath closed his eyes at the touch of Qildor’s lips. Warmth flooded his body.

Qildor helped Magath rise to his feet. He led the exhausted man to a place in the shadows. Magath sat down on the ground and leaned against a rock. Qildor rose to his feet in order to get the supplies that Neldor had carried along. He took a water skin, then hurried back to Magath and helped him to drink of the water. Magath’s mouth and throat were dry. He was barely able to open his lips. He was barely able to swallow. The water moistened his lips. Magath drank a few drops and then he swallowed the water eagerly. Water ran down his chin and his neck. Qildor brushed back a strand of hair from Magath’s forehead. Magath’s hair was dirty and soaked with sweat.

“How are you feeling?” Qildor asked softly.

Magath closed his eyes for a moment. He opened his eyes again and looked at Qildor. He swallowed hard. Magath gave a brief and barely invisible nod.

“I am alive. This is all that matters to me,” he said in a low voice.

Qildor simply nodded. He did not inquire more. Now was not the time for questions.

 

Neldor’s eyes rested on Ogol’s face. The wizard did not speak and his look was grave. Ogol looked into Neldor’s eyes. He had recognized the old wizard. They understood each other without the need to speak and say any words. They understood each other from their look in their eyes. Fate had summoned the old man in order to pick the fallen man up from the ground and Ogol was fully aware of it.

Neldor channelled energy into Ogol’s body. After a while, the man was strong enough to sit up and rise to his feet. Neldor helped Ogol move to a place in the shadows. The man sat down on the ground and Neldor went to fetch water for him. Ogol looked after the wizard, and then he spotted Magath and Qildor on the other side of the path. Ogol recognized the man he had seen in the camp. He had thought that the man had come to chase him. The man looked wretched and exhausted as well. He was half dead like he was himself. Ogol stared at Magath. Had the man undergone the trial as well? A shiver ran through Ogol’s body as he realized the truth. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. What a fool he had been, what a naive and blinded man.

Neldor returned and helped Ogol drink water from a water skin. The water finally satisfied Ogol’s unquenchable thirst. Ogol swallowed it. Water ran from his lips and down his chin. But Ogol ignored it.

 

Magath closed his eyes for a while. His mind was blank and he refused to think. He still felt empty and hollow. But he sensed the water on his lips and he sensed Qildor’s hand as the man stroked his forehead. Magath still felt petrified and numb. His experiences in the pitch-black canyon had shaken him to the core. Qildor continued stroking Magath’s face. His hand touched Magath’s forehead. His finger ran down his temple. The touch felt good and it made Magath feel warm. The shock slowly faded. Magath had experienced the darkest night of his life. He felt a lump in his throat. He swallowed hard and tears filled his eyes. Qildor held him tight as he could not hold back any longer. Tears ran down Magath’s cheeks. He let it all out. Magath cried.

 

Neldor attended to Ogol until the man had recovered a bit.

“Do you feel strong enough to walk?” Neldor asked. “We need to climb up the path. We need to walk for a few hours.”

Their eyes met. Neldor’s look was grave. But he gave Ogol an encouraging nod.

“The Castle of Saelethiel is your destination, isn’t it?” Neldor asked gravely.

Ogol blinked and swallowed hard. He gave a brief nod, and then he closed his eyes.

“I’ll take you there,” Neldor said in a sober voice.

The wizard felt no animosity towards the man. He knew what the man had gone through for he as well had, albeit a long time ago, undergone the trial.

Ogol gave the old man a faint and grateful nod. Then he closed his eyes once more and let it all sink in. His mind was still blank and he still felt empty and hollow. A deep feeling of respect towards the brethren, however, filled his heart and his soul. Ogol swallowed hard and tears formed in his eyes. And then Ogol wept silently. Neldor looked at the wretched man. His eyes rested on Ogol’s face for a while. Then Neldor stood and walked over to Magath and Qildor.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Qildor saw the wizard approaching. He looked up when the man stopped next to him. Neldor and Qildor exchanged a serious look. Neldor crouched beside Magath and placed his hand on the man’s forehead. Magath opened his eyes and looked at the wizard.

“How are you feeling, Magath?” Neldor asked softly.

Magath swallowed. He took a deep breath.

“I’m all right, Master Neldor,” he said in a low voice.

Neldor nodded at him.

“We’ll talk in just a few hours, Magath. I will be there for you soon. Will you wait here with Qildor until I will have returned? I must help the man over there first. Do you understand this?” he asked.

Magath looked over to Ogol. The man sat with his eyes closed. Magath felt no animosity. He glanced from Neldor to Qildor and back at the wizard.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I need to take Ogol to the castle,” Neldor said.

Magath looked over to the man again. Ogol leaned against a rock. He looked wretched and exhausted. Qildor turned his head also. So far, he had not paid attention to the man.

“What has happened to him?” he asked.

“Magath can tell you while I am away,” Neldor said.

Qildor’s face showed confusion. But he pushed the feeling aside. He turned back to Magath.

The wizard and Magath exchanged a knowing look. Magath gave a faint nod.

“I will be waiting for you. When will you return, Master Neldor?” he asked.

“Tomorrow evening, I suspect. Perhaps earlier,” Neldor replied.

Magath nodded.

“Do you take him to the brethren? Will they punish him?” Qildor asked.

“No,” Neldor said, shaking his head. “They won’t punish him. The trial is over.”

Qildor glanced at the wizard for a moment. Then he looked aside. He turned his attention back to Magath. He placed his hand on Magath’s hand.

“I’ll take you down the path to our camp,” Qildor said softly.

He turned to Neldor.

“There you can find us,” he said.

Neldor nodded, and then rose to his feet.

“Yes, go down the path with Magath. I’ll climb the path with Ogol now,” he said.

Qildor gave another brief nod. Magath closed his eyes.

Neldor crossed the path and crouched beside Ogol.

“Can you rise to your feet? Are you ready to walk?” he asked.

Ogol nodded faintly. He straightened and rose to his feet. Neldor had channelled energy into his body. The energy had strengthened him. He now felt strong enough to climb up the path. He felt strong enough to meet his destiny. Neldor watched the man rise to his feet. Ogol struggled, but he was determined. He did not want to wait any longer. He had already wasted twenty long years.

Neldor and Ogol set off. They climbed the path slowly. Qildor and Magath looked after them.

“I wonder what they will do with him,” Qildor mused.

“He wants to go there. He wants to go to the castle. This is his greatest wish. I understand that Neldor helps him. Ogol is all on his own,” Magath said.

Qildor turned his head to him. He felt confused at Magath’s sympathetic words towards the man, yet Qildor refrained from inquiring Magath.

“Come,” he said instead. “I’ll help you up and then we move down the path slowly.”

Magath gave a faint nod. Qildor reached out his hand. He placed his arm around Magath’s shoulders. Magath struggled, yet then he managed to rise to his feet. Qildor led him to the path, and then they followed the path slowly down to their camp and down to the bottom of the mountain.

~~**~~

Ogol and Neldor climbed the path that led up to the Castle of Saelethiel. They walked at a steady pace. They walked silently and they did not talk. The old wizard’s presence, however, reassured Ogol. Neldor’s company encouraged the shattered man.

They finally reached the Castle of Saelethiel. It was visible and it looked mighty and awe-aspiring. An aura of immemorial power radiated from it. The two men stopped for a moment and looked at the castle. Then Ogol straightened and walked to its door. Neldor followed him. Ogol knocked at the door. It opened instantly. Leandor stood in front of them. He looked between the two men. Then he turned to Ogol. His grave eyes rested on him.

“No man can avoid his destiny,” Leandor said solemnly.

“This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken,” Ogol replied in a grave voice.

Leandor stepped aside and made a gesture with his hand. He invited them to enter the castle. Ogol and Neldor stepped inside. They stood in a dark hallway. The door was closed behind them.

Leandor made another gesture with his hand. He turned and walked ahead. He moved down the dark corridor. Only a torch that was fixed to the wall shed a light that barely illuminated the hallway. Ogol and Neldor followed Leandor. Leandor led them to a steep staircase that led to the main hall of the castle. Leandor climbed the stairs and Neldor and Ogol followed him. They entered the hall.

Candles were lit and shed a dim light. The brethren stood in a circle. Leandor stepped into the centre of the circle. Neldor and Ogol stood by the door and watched Leandor’s movements. Leandor raised his hand. The brethren moved until there was a gap between two of them. Leandor turned to Ogol and Neldor. He made a gesture with his hand. He invited the two men to join their circle. Neldor stopped forward and stood between the two men. Ogol straightened. He followed Neldor and stood next to him.

The brethren’s circle was completed. Silence hung over the castle and an aura of timeless holiness filled the main hall.

Leandor raised his voice.

“No man can avoid his destiny. This law is written in the book of time,” he said.

“No man can avoid his destiny, however hard he tries. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken,” the brethren replied in one voice.

~~**~~

Qildor and Magath walked down the path. They walked slowly and stopped several times. Magath was still shaken. However, he managed to walk at a steady pace. Qildor’s presence calmed and reassured him. They reached their camp that was far down the path. There they stopped and sat down in the shadows. Qildor unpacked food. He handed bread and cheese to Magath. Magath ate slowly.

“How are you feeling?” Qildor asked.

Magath tilted his head. He scanned his body and mind.

“I feel all right,” he said finally with a brief nod at Qildor.

Qildor smiled. They exchanged a long look. Magath smiled faintly.

“It was the darkest night of my life. But with you by my side I feel happy and grateful. I see the light again. I see the sunshine and the blue sky above me. I sense the air on my skin. And I do enjoy this old cheese and bread,” he said.

Qildor gave Magath another smile. He moved a bit closer. Their bodies touched. And this sufficed for the moment.

“I want to go home,” Magath said suddenly. “I have enough of this journey and this adventure. I want to go home and enjoy my life.”

Qildor gave a cheerful laugh. He leaned in more to Magath.

“We’ll be leaving in two days. Neldor will be back tomorrow evening. The following morning we will definitely leave. I will not stay any time longer. I’m fed up with it, too. Magic is not my thing, I fear,” he said.

Magath gave a laugh.

“Neldor’s images intrigued me, I must admit. But I can definitely do without images and visions. I had my share, really. I don’t want more of it,” he said.

His voice had turned dark. Qildor gave him a push and an encouraging smile.

“Starting a fire with a snap. Knowing how to use this technique could be really helpful,” he said cheerfully.

Magath made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“I can do without it,” he replied. He paused and thought for a moment. “But perhaps I’ll ask him to show me the technique sometime. However, not in the near future. For the time being, I’m fed up with that crap.”

Qildor laughed heartily. Then he looked for more food in the bag.

~~**~~

 

22

Neldor and Leandor stood in the main hall. The only window in the room had been opened. Light fell into the hall and illuminated it. The brethren had left the hall and they had taken Ogol with them.

“I thank you, Master Neldor, that you followed the call,” Leandor said.

“Unfortunately, I understood a bit late why fate had summoned me here,” Neldor replied.

Leandor smiled.

“You understood it all in time, Master Neldor,” he said.

Leandor pointed at the window.

“A ward guards this window. Two birds passed the ward. A black crow and a white dove flew into the hall,” he said.

Neldor nodded in understanding.

“The time had come for the two men,” he said.

The two old men stood in silence for a while.

“Where do they take Ogol?” Neldor asked.

“To a chamber, a cell, where he can meditate until he is ready to work with the brethren,” Leandor replied.

Neldor nodded slowly.

“He will stay in the castle and not leave it again?” he asked.

“No, he won’t leave it again,” Leandor said in a sober voice like stating an obvious fact. “This is the decision he took. This is his fate and his destiny that is written in the book of time.”

Neldor gave another nod. The old men exchanged a look. Leandor smiled.

“I will take you to a chamber where you can rest for the night. Tomorrow morning we will talk again before you will leave the castle. Your task is not yet finished,” he said.

Neldor smiled.

“I wonder why fate summoned a man of my age,” he said with a sigh. “But, yes, I will accompany the two men back to Tanmil. I need to reassure the poor man. He must have faced the darkest night of his life.”

Leandor returned a faint smile.

“He could have stepped on the path of magic. But his heart decided differently. His soul wished to face the truth early. His wish was granted. This is the law,” he said.

“The law cannot be shaken and is valid for all times,” Neldor completed Leandor’s sentence.

“Yes,” Leandor said simply.

He made a gesture with his hand and then led Neldor out of the main hall. He led him to a small chamber where the wizard stayed for the night.

Neldor departed at noon the following day. He had not seen Ogol again. The wizard walked slowly. He was pondering. All had happened in the right place and at the right time. The old wizard felt content and at peace.

Neldor reached the camp in the afternoon. He found Qildor and Magath in an unexpected good mood. Neldor smiled inwardly. Qildor had raised the shattered man’s spirits. The man had already accomplished half of what Neldor had thought was his task.

‘No man can avoid his destiny and every man has a mission,’ he thought as he entered the camp.

~~**~~ 

Ogol meditated in his chamber and explored the depths of his soul and his heart. An old man worked with him for many weeks and initiated him into the secrets of Saelethiel. When all was said and all was done, the old man suddenly fell ill and within one day died of his illness. But fate had in time summoned his worthy successor. Ogol took his final oath.

Twenty men always live in the castle like it has been since the time of the early wizards. The guardians of the castle watch out and enforce the law. The Castle of Saelethiel is hidden from the eyes of an average man and only the wise men know where to find it.

~~**~~

Neldor, Qildor, and Magath left the Western Mountains and rode back to Tanmil. Neldor and Magath now and then talked, but Qildor was the one who reassured Magath and raised his spirits again. They arrived in Tanmil a week after they had left the mountains. Neldor spent two days with Qildor and Magath, and then the old wizard bid them farewell and returned to the royal court of Aglanthol.

Qildor spent a few days with Magath. Then he rode to the fortress. The soldiers had returned to their lax discipline. They had not expected Qildor’s return so soon. Qildor resumed his efforts to enforce discipline and he tried to be leading by example. The men set out and explored the area. They watched out and guarded the frontier.

The Khalindash had waited in vain for the return of their powerful magician. A few men tried to take Ogol’s place and augment their own power. They fought each other. But the disputes and quarrels weakened the Khalindash even more. As time went by, the Khalindash gave in and stopped their attacks, and some of the Khalindash even retreated farther north.

~~**~~

Magath finally repaired the roof. He resumed his daily routine and it reassured him. Slowly, step by step, Magath recovered. He had experienced the darkest night of his life and this experience had left a mark on him. Magath did not forget. He remembered every detail of what he had experienced in the pitch-black abyss. Magath, however, was not a man who made a lot of words. He kept the details all to himself. He was not a man who pondered and brooded for many long hours. But his experience had touched him deeply and it influenced his outlook on life and his outlook on certain things and persons. It influenced his judgement as well. But Magath felt no need to talk about his insights and musings. He did not discuss them, neither with Qildor nor with his neighbour Gwyn.

The old woman had soon given up on questioning him. She realized that Magath preferred to keep his experiences to himself. The woman did not press him to reveal his reflections and musings, but Gwyn realized that a shadow had crossed Magath’s heart. She tried to reassure Magath and make him feel happy again. And the old woman did it her way.

One morning, she stood outside and looked up. A cold wind was blowing and heavy clouds covered the sky. Gwyn wrapped her cape tighter around her shoulders. She looked at the sky with concern. She feared that heavy rain would soon fall and that hail would devastate her vegetable garden. Gwyn spotted Magath who was just coming back from a visit that he had paid his neighbour Dran. Gwyn waved her hand and called out his name. Magath turned around and spotted her. He waved back and smiled at the woman, and then he approached her.

“I rode over to Dran,” Magath said. “He’s doing fine. How are you doing, Mistress Gwyn?”

Gwyn smiled at him.

“I’m fine, Magath,” she said, yet then she pointed at the sky worriedly.

“I fear heavy rain or even hail will spoil my vegetables,” she said.

Magath followed her look.

“Cant’ you just cover the beds with some planks?” he asked.

Gwyn shrugged.

“I fear the rain is getting heavier soon. I can’t arrange the planks so quickly,” she replied.

“Don’t worry, Mistress Gwyn,” Magath said cheerfully. “I know where the planks are. I’ll arrange this for you.”

Magath hurried to the back of Gwyn’s house. He took the planks from a wooden hut and quickly put them up. He rubbed his hands.

“Just in time,” he said with a look at the sky.

“Thank you, Magath,” Gwyn said with a smile. She felt very grateful. “I was just wondering. Would you like to come in and have lunch with me?” she asked.

Magath smiled and accepted Gwyn’s offer. It did him good. They had picked up on their daily habits and routines. He followed Gwyn inside and sat down on the wooden bench. He watched the woman cover the table. Gwyn placed plates, mugs, and a jug of water, wooden spoons and forks on it. Then she brought a pan filled with ham and scrambled eggs. She brought radish and cucumber and a loaf of bread. Gwyn sat down in a chair. She smiled warmly at Magath and pointed at the food in front of them.

“Eat, Magath. You must have left early this morning. You must be very hungry,” she said.

Magath smiled. He took a wooden spoon and pushed ham and eggs from the pan on his plate. He poured water from the jug in their mugs. It felt good to sit and eat with Gwyn. His life was going back to normal. They ate and talked about the weather, the fields, and the harvest. They talked about the fortress, the Khalindash, and their endeavours to cross the frontier and steal the crops. When they had finished their lunch, Gwyn made tea and offered honey cake to Magath.

“I need to give you back something that you gave me some time ago,” Magath said out of a sudden.

Gwyn gave him a questioning look. Magath pulled Gwyn’s amulet out of the pocket of his tunic where he had kept it since he had returned to Tanmil. He held the amulet out to Gwyn.

“It made me see in the darkest night of my life. It made me see where I belong. Thank you, Mistress Gwyn,” Magath said. His voice sounded serious, yet he smiled at the old woman.

Gwyn looked at the amulet, and then she raised her eyes and looked at Magath. Magath just looked back. Gwyn looked at the amulet again. She nodded, and then she reached out her hand and took the amulet from him.

“I’m glad it helped you through that night,” Gwyn said. Her voice was shaking slightly.

Her dream had spoken true. A shiver ran through Gwyn’s body. She looked at Magath. His look was serious and grave. Gwyn nodded in understanding. She placed the amulet on the table. She did not say a word or comment on Magath’s revelation. Gwyn knew all too well that some things went without words.

“Any more tea, Magath?” Gwyn asked warmly.

“One more cup of tea would be fine. Thank you, Mistress Gwynn,” Magath replied.

His serious look had disappeared. Magath smiled again.

~~**~~

Leandor and Ogol were standing in the main hall of the castle. They were looking out of the window.

“When in darkness we go, we don't see a light. When the light is bright, we don't think of the night,” Leandor said thoughtfully.

“When all is null and all is naught, when the darkest hour for a man has come, when all things end, then the ultimate truth is revealed to us,” Ogol said.

Leandor turned to Ogol. He gave a grave nod.

“The wise men know,” Leandor said. “But this truth is not hidden from the sight of an average man. It only waits to be revealed. Whoever has eyes ought to see.”

Ogol gave a serious nod, and then the two men continued looking out of the window.

Silence hung over the Castle of Saelethiel.

 

THE END







© 2012 Dolores Esteban

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First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction