*I'm back with the 'lost chapter' recovered completely! I suppose, given the rating, a slight warning for moderately graphic violence may be appropriate. No animals will be harmed, but I've said nothing about what harm animals might do.*

Ch 2 Cemetery Gates

The doors to The Rookridge Inn rattled inwards, allowing a rain-saturated gust of wind to blast across the threshold, bringing with it the nearby sound of rushing water and the heavy tread of boots. From his place behind the bar, Tom the Pot boy gave a shiver, and looked up from beneath his low fringe to observe the latest customer. She gave a significant glance in the direction of the innkeeper, then strode across the wooden floor to sit down in a corner booth, opposite the space occupied by the tall-hatted spinner box vendor, the only regular patron present.

Shuffling about in an uneasy manner, the innkeeper set out a tray and added to it a fresh baked pie, a foaming mug of the potent brew known as the Yellow Fairy and, rather incongruously, a single stalk of celery. He was about to lift it, when Tom nudged him.

"Here, Bob, let me take that for you."

"All right lad. Remember this is a special client." The weight of his words held the strong implication: you'd better not mess this up.

Receiving the tray with eager hands, Tom turned to walk carefully towards the corner table. At last! He'd seen the woman at the inn on many previous occasions, and this was the first time he'd been entrusted to serve her. But as he grew closer, his nerves grew, and the tray began to shake perceptibly. The huge, grey hound at her feet raised its head, and gave the faintest of growls.

He tried to calm himself by not looking directly at her. Instead he focused his gaze on the hilt of the great curved sword that was slung in a baldric from her back. He'd heard Bob say that such blades were manufactured only in the lands of the East, and were often employed by fell pirates to butcher their victims. The cutlass was balanced by the tall stock of a flintlock rifle on her other shoulder. Both weapons looked to be of superior design, and contained duel slots for the magic augment stones made by the gypsies. Even one such talisman cost more gold than a pot boy was likely to see in his lifetime.

Allowing his thoughts to dwell on the prospect of far-flung adventures bolstered his courage, but also distracted him, so that as he put down the tray, he stumbled slightly, causing a small amount of the Yellow Fairy to slosh from its tankard.

He heard Bob give a sharp intake of breath.

"S... sorry, I …"

"Don't let it worry you, boy." Her voice was pleasant enough, with a natural ease of manner that reassured him enough to look up.

His breaths came quickly, and his heart thumped. Her eyes, so dark as to be almost black, were on him, casting a spell that froze him to the spot. Her face seemed to him that of an angel, so perfect and noble that it emanated a kind of radiance. He felt himself suffused with a feeling that was partly terror and partly ecstasy.

"…I …"

He was intensely aware of every detail of her appearance. Her hair was tightly confined into an ornate cap, in the style commonly adopted by Will Users, but her eyebrows were dark brown and somewhat arched above a retrouse nose and full-lipped mouth. The long outer robe she had not bothered to remove shimmered with the costliest blue and white dyes, the lapels and sleeves decorated with embroidered silk. Her thigh boots and gloves were of the finest leather. The silver bracelets on her arms, the gold rings on her fingers and piercing her ears were studded with rubies, sapphires and diamonds that looked to him the size of eggs.

He sensed from the impatient frown gathering on her brow that she was about to dismiss him in a caustic manner. Don't just gape like an idiot!

"I've seen you here many times before." He could scarcely believe he'd managed to speak, however lamely.

"Yes … and?"

"I've often thought to have words with you."

"What about?" Her tone continued mild enough, but behind him the innkeeper's breathing had come to resemble that of an apoplectic Balverine about to spring.

"Tom, come back here and stop bothering the hero."

"It's all right, Bob." Spoken with a firmness that defied anyone to say it wasn't. "He's plucked up the courage. Let him speak his piece."

Scarcely able to believe his opportunity had arrived, Tom blurted, "I've a mind to go adventuring, like you do."

The woman paused for a moment, the tankard halfway to her mouth. Then she burst out in a great gale of laughter. The laugh had a rich fullness to it, shot through with an edge of mockery. With such laughter the gods might ridicule the pretensions of mere mortals.

"Adventuring … ah, me!" She gasped for air. Tom's face had grown the colour of beet. "What's your name, boy?"

Barely able to stammer, he managed, "Tom, so please you."

"Well, Tom, I would send you away post-haste with your tail between your legs, but for one thing. I was once an urchin lowlier even than you, scavenging the streets of Bowerstone. Yet there's an important difference. The blood of heroes flows in my veins. I very much doubt it does in yours."

"Yet I would seek revenge for …"

"The bandits who killed your family … something of that kind? It's a pretty common story. And I know what it is to desire vengeance. Yet in itself it's not enough. Summers and winters uncounted have followed the downfall of the Heroes guild, and the old skills of Strength, Skill and Will are forgotten by all but a few. Without them you can hope at best to be a guard or town watchman … maybe even a bandit yourself."

"Teach me these skills, and I'll follow you anywhere!"

"Well now," she said, somewhat wryly. "You have something of a soft tongue in your head after all. But I don't need another stalker. Any follower of mine must be of unswerving courage, not a love-sick fool."

"I …" he could say nothing in denial; she had so easily divined his thought. "If devotion and loyalty leads to bravery, then I have it."

She laughed again, this time a more silvery sound. "Well-spoken for a pot-boy! Perhaps you have at least a drop of hero blood. But talk is one thing … real guts another."

Without breaking the rhythm of her speech, she began to mutter in a tongue unknown to Tom, though the sounds had a harshness and ugliness to them that set his teeth on edge. Beneath the table, the dog gave a strange whine, the hairs on its back rising. Tom felt his own respond in sympathy.

The temperature around him was dropping rapidly. The lights in the tavern seemed to have dimmed, and a strong draught was rattling the tables and chairs. There was a faint sound in the air, like a whispering or hissing.

And then white shapes began to form in the air, changing and billowing, gibbering like lost souls.

Through the chattering of his teeth, he heard the innkeeper's shout. "Hero, please! No Shadows in my place!"

One of the phantasms was snuffling around Tom's leg, slit eyes glowing hungrily, ghostly clawed hands groping and passing through him, He remained petrified but paralysed, as one might at the approach of a large, fierce dog. He was uncertain whether self-control or blind terror was preventing him from running screaming from the inn. He felt sick.

With a suddenness that was almost as jarring, the spectral shapes vanished, and the room was as before.

Sweat was pouring from Tom's forehead. Looking round he saw the innkeeper also resembled a Fairfax cheese that had been out too long. Jenny the barmaid was cowering beneath a table, her knees knocking.

The woman gave a short laugh. "Well, at least you didn't run like a frightened rabbit. The very minimum needed to pass the test." She rose to her feet. "Come with me a moment, come outside."

When she stood next to him, her almost unnatural tallness was apparent. In a daze, Tom took several shaky steps towards the doors, which she was holding open against the wind. He glanced at the innkeeper, who returned him a grim look, and shook his head.

Turning back to meet her compelling eyes, Tom felt he had no choice in the matter. On the front porch, rain was sweeping over the darkened landscape, scudding clouds obscuring the moon. From the height of the inn, the land fell away dramatically, and the churning mill sent water foaming down the falls and into the river course, winding past the rebuilt bridge and onwards to the distant flats of the seashore. But it was to the high crags, where another arching span bridged a chasm, that the woman's gaze was presently turned.

"Do you know that building yonder?"

The moon shone from behind the clouds, silhouetting the desolate, ruined church against a ghastly white nimbus, gleaming through the tall, empty windows.

"The … the Temple of Shadows? Of course I know it!"

"Would you follow me there?" Tom's tongue stuck in his mouth, but the woman merely chuckled. "Don't worry, that's not my destination, not tonight anyway. But if you should go with me, you may encounter greater terrors soon enough." She turned and faced in the opposite direction. "Tomorrow I travel to Bowerstone Cemetery for a special ceremony. If you wish to see bandits die, that'll be your chance. Providing you're up by daybreak, that is. And now I would eat and sleep."

Heavy rain had continued to lash down during the hours of darkness, but dawn showed the curtains of precipitation drawing aside, and as he pushed back the inn doors, Tom inhaled the sweet scent of the flowers nestling against the cliff edge. She was waiting there for him, the dog sitting panting at her side.

The innkeeper had bidden him farewell without rancour, promising to keep his position open as long as possible.

"But if you take my advice, you'll not go trailing after heroes. It never leads to any good."

Tom had thanked him without comment.

"So, you've come." She smiled faintly. The dog gave a quizzical sounding bark. "This is Canis Major. That means 'Big Dog' in the ancient tongue, or so Therese tells me. I usually just call him Major. Major meet Tom."

Tom ventured to cautiously pat the animal, which gave only the slightest of growls.

"And how shall I call you?"

"As we're travelling together I guess we can drop formal titles like Blade, Lionheart or whatever. You may call me Celeste." She regarded the heavens. "The weather's cleared, and I see no reason for further delay."

They swiftly descended the twisty path towards the rebuilt bridge. Tom gave an apprehensive look at the tall conical spire of the crooked tower looming over them. Rumour spoke of tunnels beneath inhabited by hobbes who stole away children. He had never cared to investigate, and that thought sat ill in his present circumstances. Some hero he was!

Then he saw the bodies lying in the soft mud. There was something pathetic about their misshapen forms, like the cadavers of deformed infants.

"Cleared the little buggers out the way last night to save time. But they'll make more of their kind in their underground lairs."

Tom felt the morning chill seep into his bones. As they passed the rain-soaked corpses and crossed the bridge, he raised his eyes to where the road wound upwards between the hills and the sea, and out of sight.

Celeste pointed. "See that old arch before the turn. A favourite place for an ambush. But stay close to me, and you ought to survive. Probably."

She set out towards the cliff-path at a good pace, and Tom was forced to quicken his. Life as a pot boy had inured him to long hours standing, but not to rapid exercise. By the time they approached the curve in the path his breaths were coming in fast pants, a mixture of fear and exertion.

Movement ahead near the arch, a flash of garish red, resolving itself into two or three figures, bristling with weapons.


The sharp crack of the flintlock rifle came as a shock. He had not even witnessed Celeste unsling and raise it to her shoulder. One of the bandits fell without a cry, dropping his own firearm.

Celeste had already re-slung the rifle and was running forward, drawing the scimitar from its sheath with a whisper of steel. Stark cold with terror, but fearing even more to be left alone, Tom plunged wildly after her.

Celeste met the foremost of the bandits at full charge, her sword held in both hands. Using her forward momentum, she swung the blade with immense power and speed, completely smashing aside the rogue's feeble attempt at a parry, and carving downwards to split him apart from shoulder to hip, the two halves of the body falling in different directions.

The remaining two bandits moved to position themselves either side of her. Tom, rushing up behind, came to an abrupt halt. Close quarters didn't improve his view of her adversaries. They were big men with big cutlasses, and a layer of filth on their persons that couldn't quite hide the old scars. They favoured flashy, cheap jewellery and loose, colourful clothing, bandanas wrapped around their heads and faces.

Celeste stayed quite still, seemingly unconcerned with her opponents manoeuvrings. Her dog remained at her heels, growling fiercely.

"Look out!" Tom had seen the bandit behind her begin a lunge.

Reacting as though she had eyes in the back of her head, Celeste almost casually swung back her sword to brush aside the attack. Then as the second bandit chopped at her, she brought her weapon forward swiftly to deflect his downward stroke, sending him reeling off balance. Instantly she had grabbed him from behind, swinging him to use as a human shield, and holding her blade across his neck. While his comrade hesitated, she cut his throat from ear to ear, letting the body slump in a torrent of blood.

The man gave an outraged cry. "You murdered me mate! You'll pay for that, bitch!"

Celeste offered him a cool smile. "Au contraire, you'll shortly both be dog food."

With a roar the bandit charged her, lashing out in a whirlwind of cuts. Celeste backed off a little, meeting each frenzied stroke with a precise parry, as though she took a gleeful delight in showing her mastery of swordplay. Then as the onslaught slowed, she stretched out to deliver a fast low slash, hamstringing her opponent. He collapsed, and Major instantly pounced, tearing open his throat to the accompaniment of horrible screams.

"You and your little doggy are gonna die. No one kills my lads and gets away with it."

Tom turned in alarm to see who had spoken. The bandit emerging from behind the arch seemed much larger than the others, although this could've been because he wore a peculiar iron helmet, surmounted by the horns of a stag, and the bulky protection of padded leather armour.

Celeste gave a quick wink in Tom's direction. "Saving the best for last is always more entertaining."

This time she did not hesitate to take the initiative. As the bandit chieftain attempted a lumbering advance, she attacked swiftly, the air singing as she wove a glittering ring of steel around him, driving him backwards. The sound of blade on blade increased, as he was forced to defend himself on the very edge of the cliff. A final desperate lunge exposed his back, whereupon Celeste grabbed his shoulder, planted her boot against his backside and thrust him out into empty space. A long trailing cry followed, abruptly cut off.

Celeste paused a moment for breath, then began to laugh a little in fits and starts.

"Some say people who fall from a great height are dead before they hit the ground. Fear stops their hearts. Does that sound likely to you, Tom?" When he did nothing but continue to breathe hard, she added with a hint of contempt, "What, too pumped up to answer me?"

"You …" his words were still separated by pants. "You … enjoyed that."

For an instant her face showed consternation, then broke into a mocking smile. "Oh, Tom, I thought I had a follower, not a moral philosopher! This is what I do. Adventuring amounts to killing people. A lot of people."

"Maybe so. It still doesn't make it right."

For the first time, she showed a flash of anger. "You dare to stand there and judge me, you who …" Then with a noticeable effort at self-control. "Enough! I'm bored with this already. Perhaps it will suit you better to hang back while I clear the paths ahead. I'll travel faster that way. I'll meet you at the cemetery gates after moonrise." Lowering her voice seductively, she added, "I'll be very disappointed if you don't show up."

Sheathing her sword, she sprang swiftly away.

A dense, mist hung about the tall, iron gates, wisps curling around the grotesque gargoyles perched atop them. Darkness had covered the land for several hours, and the rising moon shone in faint luminescence through the swirling fog.

Tom approached the graveyard entrance with hesitant steps. He had resisted the strong urge to return to the Rookridge Inn, though exactly what had drawn him to follow Celeste thus far was still unclear in his mind. Curiosity? The shame of being thought a coward? Or, however improbably, the hope of winning her favour? Whatever the answer, he had a set a doggedly steady pace throughout the hours of daylight, following the twining paths towards Bowerstone, never catching sight of her again, though he knew she had passed from the occasional bodies of bandits scattered in his way. With that assurance of her promise to clear the route of danger, he had persisted, even when the coming of night had turned the road through the forest into a fear-filled passage between darkly overhanging boughs, shadowy trunks and the sinister rustling of leaves.

To enter the cemetery alone, however, was something else entirely. Not perhaps in daylight, when the sun shone warm on the white stones, filtering brightly through the verdant green of bushes and trees. But at this hour all the tales he'd heard of ghouls, ghosts and banshees were instantly brought to mind. Had there not been reports even lately of the unquiet dead thronging amidst these very precincts, summoned hence by foul necromancy?

He was not destined to discover whether he had the courage. The mist had parted to show that before the iron gates sat a great, grey hound, so still that it might itself have been one of the staring gargoyles. And standing on its right, a tall, robed figure that in the cheating light could have been part of the statuary. But the shapes of sword and gun, and the faint blue lines illuminating her form in the darkness told him that the appointed tryst had been met. A feeling of strong relief hastened his steps forward.

"Tom, my courageous if conscience-stricken follower." Her words of greeting gave rise to no feeling of pride, tainted, in his mind, with cynical mockery.

"What kind of funeral would take place at this hour?" He marvelled that he could speak to her with such cold abruptness.

"A most apt question. But I said nothing of performing rites for the recently deceased. If you want to find an answer to the mystery, step within."

The silent, eeriness of the fog-shrouded graveyard, its tombs and statues looming out of the mist as though closing in on every side, was enough to chill the blood of someone far braver than Tom. Yet the difference made by Celeste's presence, whatever his doubts about her, brought at least some firmness to his steps. Without further hesitation, he followed her as she strode deep into the heart of the burial grounds, past a bent over iron statue, stopping at last before the open door of a time-weathered mausoleum, with the head of a lion carved above its lintel.

"This place will be sufficient for the casting."

"What casting? And why here?"

"This place is old. Its roots go deep, back to the time of the remotest of our remote ancestors. When shaman chanted to appease the lingering souls of the dead, before even the Guild came to be."

Tom, watching her face pale and intent in the fog-damped moonlight, thought that she looked young, yet sounded at this moment so much older.

"How can you know this from so long ago? You speak almost as if you were there."

"In a way, I was. My lineage is an ancient one, my blood passed untainted from parent to child over all the years spanning from that time to this. I feel the call of the distant dead; I hear their long-forgotten voices. There is power in them."

"Power for what?"

"Power to bend and twist space. All spells are strong here. And I need that power, Tom." There was something new in her expression, a craving that frightened him. "Despite what you see here …" she traced the spider-web of glowing lines on her palm, "and the gossip of commoners and the wild boasts of bards, my strength of Will falls short. Most of it lies in the summoning of shadows, which cause little damage to my enemies, serving mainly as a distraction. Not enough to feed on itself, to build on itself. And not enough for this spell."

"What spell … you still haven't told me!"

For the first time Celeste bared her teeth in a grin that Tom in his perturbation interpreted as somewhat demented.

"I'm about to attempt a conjuration so powerful, unpredictable and perilous that the Heroes Guild banned its use. Fortunately a certain order of hermits preserved the secret over the centuries. If I can control it, I will summon a force that can shatter the bonds of time and space."

"If you can control it …?"

Celeste sighed. "There's the difficulty. I may need even more help to do so. And I'm afraid that's where you come in."

"Me, I don't know anything about magic!"

"You don't need to. What I require is an additional energy source that I can draw on during the casting. The life force of a suitable individual ought to do the trick."

"Life force? You mean you're gonna sacrifice …"

"I hope it won't come to that. You are young, and life is strong in you. You may well survive, but unfortunately there are no guarantees." She shook her head. "I'm sorry to have deceived you, but the opportunity presented by your absurd desire to follow in my footsteps was too fortuitous to ignore."

Tom had been backing away from her for some time. "You're completely mad ... I won't do it!"

"I don't require your consent." Celeste lifted her arm, the palm of her hand flattened and held outwards. An invisible force seized Tom and hurled him against the mausoleum wall, knocking the breath from his body. "That was only the weakest version of this spell, but I've sufficient Will to repeat it over and over if necessary. Remain still and I won't have to."

Gasping, Tom gingerly regained his feet. He cast a fearful glance towards Celeste, but she was no longer looking in his direction, ignoring him as one would an insignificant bug. Slowly she stretched her arms upwards and outwards in a gesture of welcome. She spoke, and at the first word Tom held still as a statue, such was the sheer power and authority that she commanded.

"Adeo mihi, phasmatis! Adeo mihi, spiritus mortuorum! Adeo mihi, Orbis Mundos!"

The invocation rolled away into the fog, and for a moment there was silence. Then Major, the dog, pricked up his ears and gave a little whine. Tom strained to hear, yet could sense nothing, until he felt the faintest of vibrations through his stout wooden clogs. It grew slowly until a distinct rumbling could be heard, gathering power until the ground itself began to shake. The sound of Celeste chanting in the strange language was almost drowned out by a drumming from deep within the earth. Her voice rose and fell, at times taking on the musical tone of a singer, but the words could no longer be distinguished.

From somewhere high and far up light flared through the fog as if from the passage of a shooting star. Tom flinched and ducked as something whizzed rapidly past his head. Wisps of light were darting and circling amidst the mist, the arcs of their passage centred upon Celeste. As her summoning incantation reached its climax, the phosphorescent glow of the phantasms burned brighter while they whirled ever faster, and the air was heavy with the energy of a storm about to break.

"Orbis Mundos, vocavi te!" At her shout, the agitation of the ground ceased, and she knelt down with her arms cradled as though to lift something heavy. When she rose again, there shone between her fingers a scintillant gleam of light like the reflection of a star in the brightest of gems.

As soon as the petrified Tom was able to look up, he saw that she held between her hands a glowing, silvery sphere, resembling the crystal balls used by gypsy fortune tellers. But it seemed to seethe and change both in shape and colour, so that at times it warped into an oval, at others an almost formless blob of light. Tom became aware that were signs of great strain on Celeste's face, and perspiration ran from her brows.

"Orbis Mundos, ego te praecipio!" And then, suddenly desperate, "I cannot … I cannot hold it!"

The light of the sphere grew so brilliant that Tom was forced to shut his eyes. At the same time he heard Celeste's voice, half-pleading, half-commanding.

"Spiritus mortuorum, et vitam te offero!"

Suddenly Tom felt light as a feather, as a wisp. His physical senses seemed to be slipping away from him, as though something was tugging his soul out of his body. He opened his eyes.

He was surrounded by spectral shapes resembling those Celeste had summoned the previous night, trying to catch hold of him, to pull him in all directions. And Tom knew with the certainty of one facing death that the thing they sought for was his very life. Visions from his early childhood flashed in front of him: of playing with his sister, his mother calling him to dinner, his father lifting him up in his arms. But their faces were pale and shrouded in gloom. He sensed his vitality draining away, being chanelled in one direction only. Towards Celeste.

She spoke in a voice firm and clear.

"Orbis Mundos, sit perfectum."

As the darkness closed around him, Tom caught a last glimpse of Celeste's face: beautiful, bright, triumphant.

His skin was cold, ice cold, and the surface he was lying on hard and stony, pressing hard into his vertebrae. So this was what it was like to be dead? To sleep forever entombed without warmth or comfort on a bed of marble. He let out a groan of despair … then realised he'd inhaled to do so. His heart was beating, although faintly. He was still alive.

He opened his eyes. He was lying on a flat, horizontal tombstone, close to the mausoleum with the lion's head. Celeste knelt above him, wisps of fog drifting above her head. She held a vial in her hand, half full with white liquid. His first reaction was to flinch away from her.

She made a soothing gesture, smiled. "Welcome back, Tom."

He could taste the liquid in his mouth already. She brought the flask to his lips, allowing some more to drop between them. The warmth of it spread deep within his chest and stomach, then onwards to his limbs. He found himself able to sit up.

Celeste gave a satisfied nod, got to her feet. "You'll be fine. Try to stand up."

Astonishingly his legs responded. He staggered upright, and Celeste steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Wh … what happened?" His voice was hoarse at first, like a zombie talking. But he no longer felt like one. He found he could stand easily.

Celeste removed her hand, moved away from him slightly, staring as though entranced.

"I did it, Tom!" She sounded as though in the throes of ecstasy.

"You … what did you …?"

"I summoned the Orb of the Worlds. I opened a door that has been shut for centuries: the door between universes. I hold the key to time and space. Look! It moves at my command. It moves."

She flung an arm out dramatically. Tom followed her gesture, and started. Not a dozen feet away, a glowing silvery orb floated in mid-air. It appeared to be the very same he had seen materialise out of the ground. As he watched, it began to drift silently towards Celeste, bobbing like a balloon tugged by a child on an invisible string.

He jerked away from it instinctively. Instead of fluctuating in shape as before, it now formed a perfect sphere. Its depths were still crystalline and mysterious, and it seemed to him that it drew the eye within, as though he were staring down the wrong end of a telescope of infinite length.

Teasingly she said, "Are you afraid of it? I tell you it's perfectly under my control. My spell was strong enough to stabilise it completely."

Memory was returning to him. "How … how could you do it?"

"I told you … the power of the spirits combined with …"

"I meant … how could you … use me like that?" Now he had his anger, he couldn't let it go. "You burned up my life like it was some kind of fuel!"

She sounded a trifle sorrowful. "I saved your life, Tom. I didn't have to."

He felt himself becoming hysterical, barely managed to control his words. "But you were going to sacrifice me … offer me to your damn spirits. Why?"

She turned partially away from him, then looked back again, her dark eyes meeting his own with a sad expression.

"I asked myself the same questions the day my sister Rose died, murdered by that bastard Lord Lucien. I asked how he could do it, and why. The first is easy enough to answer: because we humans are capable of any degree of foulness to get what we want. And the second … I still don't really know after all this time. Your case is better. You still have your life, and I'm going to tell you why I took a gamble with it.

I need help Tom. Not the ordinary sort of help, the kind that only another hero can provide. I told you I lacked force of Will. To defeat someone as powerful as Lucien I need the Hero of Will at my side. I thought I'd found him, a man named Garth, but at the last moment Lucien's Commandant snatched him away from me, imprisoned him in the Spire his master is building.

There's only one way to rescue him from somewhere like that. I need to pass the test of the Crucible: eight rounds against the toughest fiends, bandits and assassins, with the prize of becoming one of Lucien's guards. And then I must enter the Spire itself. An impregnable enchanted structure in the midst of the ocean. Without magic far greater than I can call on, what chance would I have of freeing Garth from such a place guarded by so many hardened warriors?

I've lost Garth. There's only that pathetic idiot Hammer, the so-called Hero of Strength. If she had guts the size of her stomach, she'd have agreed to go with me. Anyway I'd rather go alone than listen to her wittering on. I need someone else, another Will User. But there's no one powerful enough … no one in this universe, that is.

Tom, I'll tell you the secret the hermits kept all those years. There are other universes existing alongside our own, an infinite number. Whenever events in our world reach a branch, a decision point, the universe splits creating new ones where all the different possibilities exist. That's why many of the universes are similar to our own, but they exist separately like bubbles in an infinitely large room. The only way to cross between them is to summon the Orb of the Worlds.

This I have done, as you've seen, using part of your life force to cast the spell. And somewhere amidst those infinite universes is the Will User I seek."

Tom only dimly comprehended her words. This stuff about multiple universes … it was too much, too fanciful. But his mind had seized on one important point.

"I don't give a damn."

Celeste sighed. "Haven't you listened to anything I've said?"

"Yes. And I still don't give a damn. I don't give a damn about Lucien. He's done nothing to me, and he can go on building a hundred spires as far as I'm concerned. I don't give a damn about your infinite universe bubbles either, they can burst for all I care. I only know that you tricked me to get what you wanted, just so that you could get your revenge. You lured me on, you … you Jezebel!"

She shook her head. "You men are such hypocrites. You make us the object of your unasked for lusts, then curse us with demeaning names when we disappoint you."

"The only hypocrite here is you. You betrayed me, and I'm going to make you pay for it. I'll tell everyone you're a black sorceress, a necromancer."

Again she shook her head. "I'm sorry, Tom, I really can't let you do that."

His anger still held mastery over his fear. "Just try to stop me. Everyone will see you as you really are."

He realized his mistake. Her sword had come whispering from its sheath.

"I could kill you … so easily."

Major was leaning forward, hairs pricked up to increase his apparent size, barking loudly and fiercely. Tom remained frozen, his entrails turning to ice. Every nerve screamed at him to run, but where to?

"Do it then!" It was a taunt brought on by utter desperation.

She sounded as if she was debating with herself. "It would be so simple. But I dislike killing the innocent, even an innocent fool like you, if it can be at all avoided." She pointed with her sword. "Follow me."

If he hadn't been so afraid, Tom might have had a greater appreciation of the extraordinary nature of the procession that made its way through the dank mists swirling around the ancient, lichen-stained gravestones. Celeste strode in front, her tall, erect form head and shoulders above his own cringing one, the shoulder padding and expansive folds of her robes making her seem even larger than life. Behind him came the grim, grey shape of the hound, almost treading on his heels, snuffling like a following nightmare. And last and strangest of all, the Orb floating silently and obediently in the rear.

For a time they left the burial plots to walk the smooth, time-worn paths that lay between. Then, without warning Celeste turned aside through a broken fence into a forlorn and neglected part of the cemetery. They walked amidst moss-covered, cracked tombstones and crumbling statues of angels, their half-broken wings curving protectively. A path led steeply downwards beneath a tall arch. Passing through, they emerged into an almost circular dell. Around its edges were shapes that at first seemed part of the iron fencing. As they came closer, Tom realised they were wheeled cages. The door of the nearest was ajar.

Celeste pointed again with her weapon. "Inside."

"No!" Tom tried to recoil, but a terrific growl came from behind him.

"Or Major can tear you to pieces."

He fell to his knees. "Please, I don't want to be a slave! Have mercy!"

"I'm sorry; you've left me with little choice."

The dog's breath was hot on his neck, growling like a whole pack of hell hounds. Sweat soaking his clothing, he scrambled across the muddy ground away from it. The cage loomed before him.

"Get inside, Tom." Her expression and voice were unrelenting.

He climbed inside. The cage door clanged behind, the lock clicked. He turned around to grip the bars, but Celeste was already walking away, her dog and the silver orb following at her heels, until they too vanished like phantoms into the mist.

By the arch, Celeste stopped and gave a low whistle.

"Hey Mickey, where the hell are you?"

A small, hairy, bow-legged man scuttled out from behind the masonry. He wore an eye-patch, and his features were coarse and hard.

"Got another one for me, Celeste?"

"This one has to disappear completely. I don't want to hear from him again … ever."

Mickey's voice was a throaty whisper, in which the greed was ill-disguised. "That could be difficult … and costly."

Reaching within her robe, she dropped something with a heavy chink, prompting an ugly chuckle.

"He'll give you no further trouble … I guarantee it. And me and the lads know when to keep our mouths shut."

In the half-light of the fog-wreathed moon, Celeste's long elegant shadow towered over his squat, misshapen one. She lifted him easily off the ground by his lapels.

"You'd better. Make no mistake about it. I find your services convenient … no more than that. Remember that you're all very expendable." He gave a croak as she released him.

"Now, get out of my sight."

*I'll meet you at the cemetery gates: A little tribute to Morrissey. I've been to those same gates in Manchester Southern Cemetery. Well, unless they replaced them or something.

Spell-casting: perhaps my old Latin master might've approved of the spell being in the classical tongue, but he would've certainly been disappointed I wasn't up to the translation myself. And not wishing to pay someone else, I've had to fall back on online translator programs, notably Google's new one. It may be a little unreliable.

Adeo mihi: come to me.

Phasmatis, spirituous mortuorum: spirits/dead souls.

Orbis Mundos: Orb of the Worlds.

Vocavi te/ego te praecipio: I summon you/I command you.

Et vitam te offero: I offer you this life.

Sit perfectum: Be whole/complete.

Mickey the Spider: Being away from home, I've no image of Mickey, though he's supposedly so called due to his hairy legs. I guess being bow-legged could qualify as well; basically he's not much of a looker. The eye-patch was a wild guess. And there aren't actually any slaver cages there, I know. Writer's licence.

Even though I said it wasn't a song fic, there's definitely something musical going on. Hey Mickey, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind! Bet no one remembers that one! And as you'll see from the title of the next chapter, where worlds collide and the story really begins! Thanks for reading thus far!*