arhyalon (arhyalon) wrote,

The Dreamers Whose Dreams Come True V 4657.3

(Okay, this isn't version 4657, but it's probably version 12 or something. ) 

For anyone who might be interested, here is the first chapter of the Corruption Campaign novel, as it stands now. I'm not sure what the novel or the series is going to be called. Were it up to me, I'd call the series The Corruption Campaign, but I suspect that won't fly, so maybe: Visions of Aryalon.  Not sure.

Anyway, I realize it is longer than most things people like to read on the web, but if you do read it all, could you please leave a comment. Even just the words "read it"? I'm just curious as to the number of people who see it.




Chapter One:  The Dreamers Whose Dreams Come True


    “I can’t believe they went off to confront the evil magician and left me watching the dog!” Victoria Woods exclaimed.

    She sat on her sleeping bag amidst the stately giants of the Sequoia National Forest. With one arm, she warded off the large black animal who strove to slaver his warm, wet tongue across her face. With her other hand, she stroked his shaggy fur, aware that she was comforting herself as much as she was soothing the dog.

    “Particularly,” she continued aloud, “considering that this whole trip was my idea. We wouldn’t be here, trying to save the world, if I hadn’t browbeat the other two into coming. And then, they leave me behind!” She rubbed the dog’s neck fondly. “But, then, you probably wish you’d gotten to go, too. Don’t you, Freki?”

    The dog whined softly, peering behind them in hopes of catching a glimpse of his missing master. Victoria followed his gaze. Seeing no sign of her friends, she turned back to the sunset.

    Ahead of her, the forest thinned, with cedar and ponderosa pine growing in among the giant sequoias. Just beyond, the trees parted to form an open and sunny field where tall blue meadow lupines hung over a gurgling stream. Beyond that, the setting sun painted the peak of the next mountain with rosy golden hues.

    Was it her imagination? Or was the sunset dimmer than it should have been at this time of the year? Surely it had not begun already? A pang of panic and sorrow squeezed her heart.

    Victoria sat up and glanced back over her shoulder, the way her friends had gone. She shivered. It was going to be dark soon. Where were they?

    The big black dog took advantage of her inattention and licked her from chin to ear.

    “Freki!” She wailed, giggling in spite of her concern. “Yuck!”

    As she wiped the dog spit from her face, Freki froze and perked up an ear. A stick cracked. Freki shot off like an arrow, barking joyfully. Leaping to her feet, Victoria caught of glimpse of Thomas’s tall figure, with his trench coat and fedora, and Bernard’s shorter, more portly one, draped in his cos-play cloak with his hand-carved staff in hand.

    With a shout of relief, she leapt to her feet and ran to greet them, hugging both men. Freki bounded around them, barking, overjoyed to see his master. Bernard bent down and greeted the dog in return, petting his shaggy neck and rubbing foreheads, Bernard’s black curls blending with the dog’s coat.

    “You’re back! You’re okay!” Victoria laughed, “You’ve been gone for hours! I wasn’t sure what to do if it got dark, and you still weren’t here.” She looked from one face to the other. Both men looked grim. “How did it go?”

    “Badly.” Bernard Starr hung his head dejectedly. He was not particularly tall, and the muscle from his high school wrestling days was beginning to turn to flab. Yet, his dark wavy hair and smooth olive complexion gave him a charm that still drew feminine attention, though not from Victoria. She had known him too long, since they were both in kindergarten.

    Ordinarily, Bernard radiated cheer. Victoria noted with some concern that his usual jovial spirit seemed oddly dampened. Freki noticed, too, and wagged his tail harder, trying to raise his master’s spirits. When that did not work, the dog dropped to his haunches and lay his head across Bernard’s foot, whining softly.

    “Wasn’t the Archmage there?” She asked. Her waist-long, chestnut hair was flying ever which way. She attempted vainly to smooth it..

    “Lessingham was there, all right,” Thomas Fairweather stated. “But the Archmage is not interested in saving the earth.”

    He leaned on his sword cane, watching Bernard and the dog. His gold-rimmed glasses gleamed in the dying light. He was tall and slender and dressed totally inappropriately for hiking. Under his open trench coat, he wore a pinstriped Oxford shirt with a tie, gray slacks, and loafers. Loafers. Victoria was certain he must have blisters.

    Of all the people Victoria had ever met, Thomas was the only one whom she secretly acknowledged might be more intelligent than herself. It was not that she was vain about her abilities, but she could not help noticing that most people took longer to grasp things than she did. Thomas, however, could discuss with ease subject even she found daunting. Like many intellectuals, however, he was fastidious and absurdly unconcerned with practical things. She both admired him and thought of him as helpless.

    Between Bernard’s good-natured cheer and Thomas’s odd mix of absentmindedness and brilliance, traveling with these two reminded her of what she had often imagined it would be like to have brothers. It was one reason she liked them both so much.

    The news her two friends brought now, however, was disturbing.

    “Not interested?” she objected, “But he lives here, too!”

    Bernard shrugged. “He said he doesn’t care whether the mortals are conquered or not, and if the sun goes out, he’ll just move somewhere else.”

    “Somewhere…that’s not the earth?” Victoria’s heart leapt. So there were other worlds! She knew it! She had always known it.

    “Yeah,” Bernard said, but his voice did not hold the ring of enthusiasm she would have expected.

    “Will he take the rest of us?” She asked eagerly.

     “No. He said we were welcome to leave,” Thomas stated, “if we could find our own way out.”

    “He’s supposed to be our Archmage!” Bernard sat down and ruffled his dog’s ears, his voice resentful. “He’s supposed to help!”

    Victoria looked back and forth between the two men. “This is…terrible! And you couldn’t find any way to change his mind? What did you offer him?”

    “Offer him?” Thomas snorted. “What would we have to offer an Archmage? We’re just a law student and a college student. What would we have that Lessingham might want?”

    Victoria’s mouth fell open. “Come on, guys…We’ve all read Bernard’s stories. We know what kind of a guy Lessingham is.”

    It had not occurred to her to discuss ahead of time what Thomas and Bernard were to say to the Archmage. The other two had read the same stories and, in Bernard’s case, played the same games she had. They could not fail to be aware of the treasure trove upon which the three of them sat. Surely, it had been as obvious to them as it was to her how to approached a man like Lessingham.

    “Yeah,” muttered Bernard, “He’s an arrogant SOB who commits human sacrifice to gain the favor of dark gods. I guess we shouldn’t have expected much.” He pouted, an exaggerated puppy-like pout that she knew was calculated to tug on her heart strings, and then flashed a quick grin. “At least we didn’t get sacrificed.”

    “We do know what kind of man Lessingham is,” Thomas stated. “That’s why we didn’t want you to come. He’s a dangerous man, and we did not have anything to offer him. Bernard is right. We are lucky we got out alive.”

    That’s why you didn’t want me to come!” Victoria cried theatrically, waving her hands. “What? Because I’m a girl? What happened to ‘Bernard wrote the stories and Thomas is our most elegant speaker, and someone has to watch the dog?’ How is leaving me behind going to help me when the dragon shows up to breathe on us all? Or when the sun goes out? Are you guys insane? Are you still living in the Middle Ages?”

    “Er…Thomas,” Bernard hissed from the ground, Freki’s head on his lap, “We agreed not to tell her, remember. You said yourself she’d fly off the handle. So ix-nay on the anger-day!”

    Thomas started to answer, but Victoria interrupted him.

     “You guys have gone crazy! You’ve lost it! ” Victoria rushed on like a runaway train, barreling over both men’s objections. “And if you ever do anything like this to me again – make decisions for me as to what danger I should or should not face – I’m going to…” She paused, her shoulders and chest heaving, “Well, I can’t think of anything bad enough, but, believe me, I will should the time come! As for, ‘didn’t have anything to offer him?’ Are you mad? What about all the stuff we’ve written? All the secrets we know?”

     “We know nothing,” Thomas stated. “All we have is conjecture.”

    “That conjecture found us Lessingham, didn’t it?” Victoria asked sharply. “All we had to go on was Bernard’s novel and the stuff he and I made up when we were kids…and we found him!”

    “You don’t need to shout,” Thomas said stiffly.

    “Don’t I?” Victoria exclaimed. “Guys, the world is at stake! The earth! Thomas, you told me Lessingham was an imaginary character who existed only in stories written by Bernard! Well, Lessingham’s not imaginary, is he? You just spoke to him!”

    “I admit I was wrong about that.” Thomas put his hands in his pockets.

    “She’s right,” Bernard rose to his feet. “She’s been telling you for two weeks now that the creature who devastated our troops at the Battle of Virginia – the dragon-thing that is now wrapped around the Washington Monument – was one of the Dread Star Leviathans from your “Conquered Stars” stories. And you kept telling her that it was coincidence; that our stories were not coming true; that she was drawing analogies where none existed.” He added sheepishly, “To tell the truth, I didn’t believe her either. I thought she’d gone bonkers.” He finished fondly, rubbing Victoria’s head as if she were the dog.

    “Thanks, Bernard,” Victoria laughed as her hair went flying. “Magic is real, Thomas! Lessingham is real! Chances are, the other stuff we’ve made up is real, too! You could have at least offered him some information from what we know.”

    “It didn’t occur to me that he might be interested in make-believe,” Thomas replied. “Besides, it’s still not magic. It’s merely a technology whose principles we do not yet understand.”

    Victoria shrugged. “If you told him it was from the same source that let you find him, he’d probably have found it quite interesting indeed!”

    Thomas frowned. “You make a good point.”

    Bernard squatted by his dog again, scowling belligerently. “If he doesn’t want to save the earth, we don’t need his help!”

     “But the earth is in danger!” Victoria exclaimed. She made a rapid throttling gesture in the air. “There’s a mind-reading dragon holding D.C. hostage, an occupying army from another dimension in Virginia, and did I mention the sun going out! We don’t have a lot of options left!”

    Thomas went right to the point. “What do you want us to do?”

    “Go back!” she cried, “Ask him again. Try to sell him something, anything! That’s the way he works – at least, if he’s anything like the made-up version. He’s dangerous, sure, but he’s honest – if you ask the right questions. He always keeps his word, and he believes in fair trade – the magic version. What did you call it, Bernard?”

    Bernard looked up from where he crouched with his arm around his dog.

     “Upholding the Balance?”

    “Yeah! That!” She waved in Bernard’s direction. Freki followed the motion of her hand and licked his master’s face.

    "Bleh!” Bernard laughed suddenly and wiped dog spit from his cheek. His ugly expression began to dissolve, though his face still held an uncharacteristically gloom.

    Looking at him, Victoria suddenly realized what was wrong. Bernard’s favorite character, the magician he had been making up stories about as long as Victoria could remember, had not come rushing to his aid. Bernard must feel betrayed. Perhaps, he had even secretly hoped that Lessingham would, upon seeing him, and instantly recognize Bernard for the kindred spirit he believed himself to be. She felt quite badly for him. She would have felt exactly the same way had it happened to her.

    Meanwhile, oblivious to Bernard’s plight, Thomas was shaking his head. “Victoria, we did our best. We could not get anywhere.”

    “So, what happens now?” Victoria put her hands on her hips.

    “We are just civilians. It’s not our problem. What if we angered him and turned him actively against the earth?” Thomas stated.

    “You mean, we do nothing?” She blinked back sudden tears.

    “No, we hand everything we know over to the government, the new Department of Interdimensional Affairs. The D.I.A. can take it from here,” Thomas replied.

    “But…we came all this way! I abandoned my summer internship. Do you know how hard I had to work to get that internship? Besides, we’re the people who know! We’re the people who can do something. Bernard,” she turned to him, pleading, “he’s your character! There must be something we haven’t thought of.”

    “I’m going to bed.” Bernard stood up and stalked toward his sleeping bag.

    “Bed? It’s not even dark yet!”

    “Bernard did not want to come at all, you know that,” Thomas stated. “He’s terrified of Lessingham. And he should know, considering that he is the one who made him up. He did rather well, nonetheless, I thought…though his attempt at corny jokes was not appreciated.”

    “Bernard did not want to come at all, you know that,” Thomas stated. “He’s terrified of Lessingham. And he should know, considering that he is the one who made him up. He did rather well, nonetheless, I thought…though his attempt at corny jokes was not appreciated.”

     “Terrified?” Victoria gaped at Bernard in disbelief. “But you’ve lived and breathed Lessingham and his brother Archmages since elementary school. Our best games were all about some permutation of him. Weren’t you dying to meet him?”

    Bernard frowned, his attention on his sleeping bag. He muttered, “It was the dying part I was afraid of.”

    Thomas stated, “Bernard was almost too frightened to talk to the man. I laid out the reason for Lessingham to help us, logically and clearly, but his answers were not to the point.”

    Bernard turned toward Thomas, “Sorry about that. I understood what he meant. Saturn is the god who eats his own children, and lead is the metal of Saturn, so when he was talking about the end of the world, he spoke in metaphor. 'In a coffin of lead the world is sent' and so on. It's magic talk. It is the magician's way.”

    Thomas looked at him sharply, “Why didn't you help me out? Why didn't you speak up?”

    “Well, Thomas, old buddy, I thought he was going to blast you. I mean, blast you to ashes and use the ashes for necromancy or something. The way you were in his face and such. Trying to defuse the situation with humor was the only thing I could think of. Only Lessingham doesn’t have a sense of humor.”     
    Bernard sighed. “Yeah, it is too early to go to bed. Let’s have some dinner.”

    “But, Bernard!” Still stunned, Victoria refused to let the subject dropped. “How could you be afraid of your own character?”

    “I know how deadly he is, how callused and uncaring,” Bernard replied. “I never intended to have to speak with him face to face…as me. He cares nothing for ordinarily mortals!”

    “Hadn’t realized that when the magic came, we’d be among the Muggles, had you, Bernard?” Thomas leaned on his sword cane. “Not that I blame you. I, too, am petrified of the man. Any sane person would be.”

    But I’m not. Victoria thought.

    The thought of confronting the Archmage did spark off a hurricane of butterflies in her stomach. But it was not terror that spawned them, so much as anticipation.

Lessingham was an evil man. He killed people to impress dark gods. Victoria was a vegetarian who did not even like to squash bugs. She drove her roommates crazy by her insistence that they catch spiders alive in a cup and put them out side. It did not make any sense for her to want to speak with a man who committed ritual murders.

    And yet she did. Because, deep down, like Bernard, she felt as if this dark, cold man was a kindred spirit. Someone she understood and could reach, when all the world around him cowered back in fear. Only, Victoria was wise enough to realize the foolishness of her dream. True, she liked Lessingham in Bernard’s stories, but that was Bernard’s version. The real man was bound to be far worse.

    So, even though it had broken her heart when her friends went off to speak with the Archmage without her, she had agreed to stay behind because she had feared her very eagerness would lead them to ruin. It made sense to let the calmer members of their trio go. Of course, it had never occurred to her that they would not know what to say.

     “Argh!” Victoria stomped off to gather food from their packs while Thomas started the stove. “Why didn’t I make you two go over what you were going to say before you went? You seemed so sure of yourselves!”

    “We never could have predicted that Lessingham would not care about saving the world.” Thomas stated from where he knelt beside the propane camping stove. “I thought perhaps he did not know about the danger. After all, he has no TV up here, and even if he did – if Bernard is right about technology and magic disagreeing with each other, a television probably would not work up here.”

    “I predicted it,” Victoria murmured under her breath. “Didn’t either of you pay attention to what’s in Bernard’s stories?”

*                                                          *                                                          *

    “If he would not help, what took you so long?” Victoria asked as she bit into her fire-melted grilled cheese sandwich. The stormy emotions that had taken hold of her at her friends return had vanished as quickly as they appeared. She was cheerful and brimming with hope again.

    Bernard leaned against Freki and chowed down on his hamburger, the smell of which hung in the air. Thomas leaned against a tree, fastidiously holding his burger over a tin plate.

    “Bernard asked Lessingham if he would consider taking him as an apprentice.” Thomas replied to her question between bites.

    “Really?” Her eyes went wide. “How did that go?”

    Bernard shrugged. “He didn’t say no, but he didn’t really say yes either.”

    “What did he say?”

    Bernard picked up a pebble from among the pine needles beneath them and held it up. “He showed me a rock and told me it’s true name, purlaith

    The word seemed to reverberate in the earth beneath them like a soft thrum and to ring off the three boulders that stood beside the stream. The three of them fell silent for a moment, listening in wonder.

    “Whoa!” whispered Victoria, wide-eyed.

    Bernard grinned. “Yeah. That’s cool, isn’t it?”

    When the thrumming died away, he raised his hand and gestured imperiously toward the distant mountains with hamburger. “Purlaith!”

    The earth trembled and the boulders rang again.

    “Sweet! Wouldn’t that have impressed those jerks back in junior high!” Bernard crowed. “Anyway, Lessingham told me that when I understood this pebble enough to be able to find it again, I would understand ‘rock.’ Then, he tossed the pebble into his gravel walk.”

    Victoria lowered her sandwich. “What happened?”

    Bernard pouted and turned his head, burying his face against his dog’s thick coat. He would not answer.

    “Bernard spent the rest of the afternoon looking for the pebble.” Thomas stated. He pulled out his gold pocket watch and examined it. “About five hours. One thing you can say for Bernard. He never gives up!”

    “Did you find it?” Victoria took another bite.

    “No.” Bernard murmured, his voice muffled by dog hair.

    Ah! His first test of magic, and he had failed. No wonder Bernard was grumpy! Victoria’s heart went out to him. She knew how badly she would have felt if she had succeeded in talking her two friends into spending all their savings to fly to California and hike up here into the redwoods, only to discover that Lessingham was not real after all. This was worse. Bernard had spent his whole life yearning for magic.

But she could not let the matter drop. The world still needed saving, and it was quite likely that the Archmage knew how to accomplish it. There had to be some way to salvage the situation. Maybe if she took another tack.

    She turned to Thomas. “What did you talk to Lessingham about while Bernard was searching.”

   Thomas scowled. “The man babbled nonsense. He told me the world was an illusion, made of spirits who merely pretended to be the objects we see around us. After that, we had nothing to say to each other. The man is mad.”

    “Doesn’t sound mad to me,” Victoria murmured softly, staring across the sloping meadow dotted with stalks of the blue lupines. “Not so different from what I believe.”

    “Let’s define our terms” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t call your religious beliefs ‘mad’. I believe the term I’ve used is ‘freakish’ Lessingham was mad.” He took a swig of water from the canteen beside him. “Be glad you weren’t there, Victoria. You would have been eaten alive!”

*                                                          *                                                          *

    The moonlight brought strange definitions to the meadow and mountains beyond. The great sequoias loomed like titans in the semi-darkness. Around her, everything was quite, save for the mournful hoot of a lone night bird. Thomas and Bernard were sleeping, even Freki twitched as he slumbered.

    Victoria, however, could not sleep. She lay awake, reviewing over and over what her friends should have said to the Archmage and railing at the injustice of it all. America was under attack by the forces of another world, whose dragon could slag tanks in one breath of super-heated plasma and knock out the engines of jets in flight with the yellow beams that came out of its eyes. And that was just their dragon! They also had sorcerer-priests who dazed and confused the US troops.

    And then there was the sun. Nothing showed yet, but scientists reported that it seemed be dying. Apparently, the dragon was killing the sun.

    Silently, Victoria slipped out of her sleeping bag and pulled on her sweater and hiking boots. She walked out into the moonlit meadow and stood staring down at the forest below. All was so silent, so peaceful; the natural world had no inkling of the horrors to come. It brought tears to her eyes.

    And now it would all be destroyed, and there was nothing they could do. The sun would go dark. The earth would freeze. And all this beauty would  perish. It would be as if the earth and all the trees and birds and millennia of history had never existed. If only she had insisted that the men take her with them to talk to the deadly magician.

    The tall meadow lupines, colorless now beneath the moon, bowed before a gust of wind. The breeze blew through the weave of her sweater, chilling her. She hugged her arms and turned, gazing back through the redwoods the way that her friends had gone. Lessingham’s house was not far, they had said. It would be a shame to come all this way and not even see it.

    After all, she had been waiting all her life for the magic to come, too. There had to be more to it than dead soldiers and a darkening sky.

    Silently as a fawn at midnight, she walked over the soft pine needles, a compass in one hand and a flashlight in the other. She did not switch the light on. The light of the full moon was bright enough to read the compass by, even in the forest. She moved as if in a dream, caught up in the chiaroscuro spell of the shadows and moonlight. She kept going until she could go no more, her way was blocked by a tall yew hedge.

    Circling the hedge, she came to where a cast iron gate stood open. It was fashioned into two leaping unicorns. Through it, she could see a gravel walk leading to a handsome brick mansion built in the Victorian style. The house had several gables and a long brick patio upon which various flowering plants grew in large urns. Elegantly-landscaped gardens flanked it. Beyond that lay close-cropped lawns upon which yews had been clipped into fanciful shapes: centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs. In the darkness, these topiary figures seemed like living things, Victoria would have sworn they rustled and moved.

            The scene beyond the gate was beautiful, magical…only when describing a place, the word “magical” usually meant that the scenery was reminiscent of what an enchanted landscape might be like, that it filled the viewer with a sense of wonder that lifted him out of his ordinary life. This place was actually enchanted. She wondered whether the word still applied.

    She placed her hand on the cast iron unicorn. It was cold beneath her hand. It would be foolish to walk forward, of course. And yet, if she turned back now, she would lose any chance she might have to save the world. True, they could give Bernard’s stories to Department of Interdimensional Affairs; however, they could never give them the information she held in her memory, the thousands of hours of playing with Bernard as children, making up details, little things, any one of which might be the key that could save the world. Even if the DIA people believed her, even if she talked to them for hours, she could not tell them everything she knew.

   But did she know enough? Closing her eyes, the cold iron still beneath her hand, she concentrated. Focusing, she poured over what she knew, details from Bernard’s stories, from Thomas’s novels, from works she had written herself. She searched mentally until she had identified three pieces of information that might be of interest to the Archmage of Earth.

    Of course, if she walked forward, if she passed this threshold and stepped into the magician’s lair, she might never come out again. The man within was both ruthless and callous. No appeal to decency or mercy would stir him. Was she ready to risk her life, to sacrifice whatever short time she might have left, for such a slim hope?

    Surely, she found her way here for a reason. She could not have figured all this out, discovered this hidden place, without there being some higher purpose to it. She owed it to that higher purpose to try: to that and to the world she loved so much.

    Victoria lifted her foot and stepped over the threshold onto the grounds of the enchanted mansion.

As she made her way up the walk, the gravel crunching softly under her feet – might that be Bernard’s lost pebble she was treading on? – she became aware that she was being watched. But she could not make out a watcher in the darkness. Arriving at the house, she climbed the stairs. The door swung open before her, silently, doing its part to maintain the illusion that she was trapped in a dream. From beyond poured out golden light and a faint scent of sandalwood.

     Victoria hesitated. She could not see anyone within, just warm light and rich wood. As she wondered whether she should call out or enter, footsteps echoed, and a shadow fell across the doorway. Then, he stood before her. Lessingham, the archmage whose life she and Bernard had traced out since they were children.

    He looked much as she had imagined he would, tall and stern, with a fierce hawk-like gaze. His jet-black hair was streaked with gray at the temples, and his icy blue eyes smoldered with an inner fire. He was clad in a dark suit from an earlier age, Edwardian, she guessed, with a diamond tie tack and matching cufflinks. Rubies glittered from two fingers of his right hand, and a diamond sparkled upon his left. In his right hand, he carried a staff of pale wood topped with an iron upside-down star.

    Victoria stared, enthralled. She had expected him to be imposing and severe. She had not expected that he would be so handsome.

    She opened her mouth and hesitated. No, she would not call him Lessingham. The others had done that. She needed another name, something more intimate that put her on a different footing than her friends. What had his mage title been in Bernard’s half-finished novel, the bird name by which the Archmages addressed one another?

    “Kestrel,” she bowed slightly.

    He raised an eyebrow and inclined his head in acknowledgement. “And you are?”

    Bernard had warned her never to give her real name to a magician. She gave him the name of a character she had played in Bernard’s roleplaying game. It seemed ironically fitting.

    “Lady Hawk.”

    Kestrel frowned and made a gesture Victoria recognized from Bernard’s book. With pinky and index finger extended, he reached over his head and then brought his hand down before his eyes, so that he gazed over his fingers. Victoria fidgeted, aware too late of where she had gone wrong. Upon hearing what sounded like the name of a bird of prey, Kestrel assumed she was claiming to be another mage. Now he was looking into the spirit realm to see if her boast were true, and, of course, it was not. No lemniscate, the crown of the Archmages, hovered mystically above her head. Well, it was too late to take the name back. She raised her chin and met his gaze unflinchingly.

    He examination lasted an excruciatingly long time. Victoria stood on the doorstep with her hands in her pockets, growing more and more aware of what he must be seeing: a slender young woman dressed in what would look to him like men’s clothing: a green sweater, black jeans, and short brown boots. Chestnut hair surrounded her like a cloud, cascading down her back to brush against her hips. In front, it was cut short; dark bangs framed hazel eyes that appeared slightly too large for her pale, freckled face. She knew she probably looked both unexpectedly vulnerable and fiercely determined.

    “What business do you imagine you have with me, So-Called Ladyhawk?” Kestrel Lessingham asked finally. His voice was cool and precise. “I already informed your traveling companions that I am not interested in coming to their rescue.”

    Victoria took a quick look at his face; he frowned more severely than ever. She glanced out over the topiary garden lit into a dark silvery life by the light of the moon. Now came the moment of truth. She had criticized the others for taking the wrong tack with the Archmage. But all her knowledge of him was based upon a story, a story that could be wildly inaccurate. Most likely, she thought wryly, she would also crash and burn, perhaps ending her life as a pile of ash in a necromancy spell as Bernard had suggested.

    But she had to try.

    Victoria drew herself up as tall as her short frame allowed and narrowed her eyes, considering what she knew of the fictional version of this man. Her normal effervescent manner would not do. She needed to present herself as cool and professional.

    Turning back to him, she spoke in a straightforward, business-like manner. “Of course. It’s not your responsibility.”

    He inclined his head but said nothing.

    “But if you wished to, you could, couldn’t you?” She asked casually, as if the matter were not of much importance. To emphasize this, she reached out and examined a leaf on a rose bush that grew on the trellis beside the door. Glancing at him sidelong, she added. “You know how it would be done.”

    “Naturally.” He clasped his hands behind his back.

    She faced him. “I have come to buy that information from you: the knowledge of how to save the earth.”

    A flicker of interest passed across his icy blue eyes, so quickly that if she had not been staring right at him, she would have missed it.

    “ Indeed?” he asked. “And what do you have to offer?”

    “Information. Secrets.” Victoria took a deep breath and plunged. “For instance, I know the true name of the dragon that is wrapped around the Washington Monument.”

    The Archmage gave a short laugh, hardly more than a snort. “If that is so, the dragon is yours to command. Why come to me?”

    “I know the name,” Victoria repeated, refraining from adding that this was untested conjecture. “But I do not know what to do with it.”

    “Ah” For the first time, a hint of amusement cracked his icy features. “We have much to discuss. Come in. Let us repair to the Winter Room.”



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