â€œWake up Riley, it is time,â€ the voice whispered, yanking her out of a deep sleep. Gasping, she jerked into a sitting position, clutching the covers to her chin. Heart galloping inside her chest, she looked around the bedroom, eyes straining to see in the darkness. No one was there. No voice whispered. Shrouded in shadows, the expectant quality
|Destiny's Challenge by Cali Rising|
of the silent room sent shivers dancing down her spine. Swinging her legs to the floor, stumbling towards the bedroom door, she encountered a pair of gleaming, green eyes in the darkness. Shrieking, she leapt backwards, fell over her bedside table, and landed hard on her backside on the hardwood floor. As she lay there, willing herself to start breathing again, a big form leapt on her, pinning her to the floor, its breath hot on her face. Almost gagging on the metallic taste of fear flooding her mouth, she pushed at the body on top of hers, her fingers sinking into silky fur. Two facts penetrated her terrified brain, fur and green eyes. â€œGod, Max,â€ she shouted, shoving her pet off her. Max, her black dog who looked suspiciously like a young wolf, stared at her with his disconcerting emerald green eyes. â€œWhat the hell are you playing at? Are you trying to scare me to death?â€ Riley snarled, pulling herself to her feet and rubbing her sore rear end. Frowning, she asked, â€œWere you the whisperer?â€ Realizing how ridiculous the words sounded, she shook her head and turned towards the kitchen. Chocolate. She needed chocolate. It would calm her heart which was still leaping around inside her chest. Opening the fridge, searching for the slice of leftover chocolate cheesecake, she jumped when a sudden gust of wind rattled the window panes. Lightning fled across the night sky with peals of thunder yipping at its heels. Angry raindrops clawed the glass desperate to enter and wrap its icy fingers around her neck. Shaking her head to dispel such fanciful imaginings, she scurried back to bed, hugging the plate of cheesecake to her chest like a security blanket. Max still sat on the bedroom floor. His intense stare made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong, boy?â€ Riley asked, reaching out to pat his silky head. â€œCome, we need to get going. It is time. We have been summoned.â€ Max growled. With slow, deliberate movements, Riley put her plate down. She must be asleep and dreaming. She must be. That could be the only explanation for her pet speaking to her in a gravelly, impatient voice. She pinched herself on the arm and shrieked. Since the pain was all too real then she must be wide awake. Maybe she hit her head when she fell earlier and she was hallucinating talking dogs. Maybe it was the stress of work that had landed her in this fix. She had been putting in a lot of long hours preparing year-end financial statements and budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year. Whoever heard of accountants ending up in the loony bin because of budgets? Burying her head in her hands, swaying back and forth, she began muttering, â€œOh God. Iâ€™ve lost it, Iâ€™ve finally lost it. Riley, logical accountant by day, raving mad, mental patient by night.â€ â€œWill you stop talking to yourself and just listen for a minute?â€ The gravelly voice sounded both amused and impatient. She raised her head and stared wordlessly at Max who stared unblinkingly back at her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she muttered over and over again, â€œGo away, go away, you are a hallucination, just a hallucination. Dogs donâ€™t talk, dogs donâ€™t talk. I am hallucinating.â€ After five minutes of steady muttering, and not hearing any more voices, she slowly opened one eye, and found Max still sitting on the floor, grinning at her. Taking a deep breath, Riley decided to play along. Either she would stop hallucinating soon or people with white coats would show up, bundle her into a straitjacket and cart her away. Muttering like a mental patient, even if she was one, was not helping matters. Schooling her features into an expressionless mask, heart beating like a bass drum, she said, â€œOkay, Hallucination, say your piece and then begone!â€ Max chuckled. â€œWho says â€œbegoneâ€?â€ â€œGreat. Not only a hallucination but a critic, too.â€ Riley rolled her eyes. â€œI am not a hallucination. Be quiet for a few minutes and all will be revealed.â€ Riley raised an eyebrow, amused in spite of the strangeness of the situation. â€œWho says â€˜All will be revealedâ€™?â€ Tilting his head to one side, Max began â€œYou are Riley Raine, Princess of Avalyss.â€ â€œWhat on earth is Avalyss?â€ â€œAvalyss is not on earth. It is a realm where the practitioners of light magic, Light Bringers, and dark magic, Dark Mages, live. You are the Princess of the Light Bringers.â€ Smiling, Riley nodded, â€œYes, yes, accountant by day, princess of a magical land by night. Got it. Everything is crystal clear. Now go away so I can stop hallucinating.â€ Max snapped, â€œYou are not listening, be quiet and allâ€¦â€ â€œYes, I know, I know, all will be revealed. You sure are taking your sweet time about it.â€ Suddenly, Max lunged towards her, a fierce expression on his black, furry face. Before she could move, he grabbed the collar of her pajamas in his massive jaw and she felt herself falling through space, whirling and spinning in a kaleidoscope of colors. Stomach lurching into her throat, Riley clamped her hands tightly around Maxâ€™s neck, and kept her eyes closed until her feet hit solid ground. Swaying, she fought to stay upright on wobbly legs. Opening her eyes she found herself standing on a narrow ledge jutting from an ivory white cliff soaring behind her. An angry ocean hurled giant waves at the cliff, spattering her with icy spray. Shivering, squinting in the sunlight glinting off the endless stretch of aquamarine water, she rubbed her aching temples. She had lost her grip on reality. Sane people did not suddenly find themselves transported from a perfectly normal apartment to this narrow ledge overlooking a furious ocean in the blink of an eye. A sliver of fear crawled up her spine. She turned towards Max, still not believing that she was conversing with her dog. â€œWhat is going on? How did we get here? Where are we?â€ Max stood motionless, staring out at the ocean, his black fur dancing in the wind. Rileyâ€™s nerves twanged like a bow as she waited for him to speak. â€œWelcome to Avalyss, Riley. Come with me and all your questions will be answered.â€ He turned towards the cliff and vanished. Riley blinked and sucked in a lungful of air. Pets, even annoying, talking ones, did not just vanish like smoke. Slowly, she looked around the ledge. No Max. Clamping down on the wave of panic rising within her, she strode towards the cliff wall, looking for any hidden entrances but found nothing. â€œMax, Max!â€ She yelled until her voice cracked and her throat ached. She was alone, except for the howling wind and the roaring ocean. Pulling her foot back, she was about to kick the cliff when common sense intervened. Why add a broken foot on top of her other problems? Anger whooshed out of her body leaving her spent and broken like a discarded toy. Uncertain as to what her next move should be, she sat on the ledge, her back pressed against the cliff wall, hugging her knees to her chest. With a loud bang and a bright flash a man appeared in front of her. Startled, she jumped to her feet, ricocheted off the cliff wall, and felt herself slipping over the edge. Arms flailing, she grabbed at the manâ€™s outstretched arm, felt the corded muscles beneath her fingers tense and coil as he pulled her to safety. Shaking, she stood in the circle of the strangerâ€™s arms, inhaling his unique scent of leather and lemons laced with a healthy dose of danger. Her blood sang, her pulse thrummed and her heart beat a fast tattoo as waves of desire washed over her. The urge to press her body into his made her senses spin. Shocked by her sudden physical reaction she wrested herself from his arms. Confused, cheeks flaming, she snapped, â€œWho are you? You almost killed me!â€ He raised an eyebrow. â€œI believe I just saved you from tumbling over that cliff. You are welcome, by the way.â€ The sound of his voice, dark and smoky like whisky caused her heart to do flip flops. Flustered by her reaction, she stared at him. He towered over her, his wavy lustrous hair, the color of wild honey, tumbled over broad shoulders. Blessed with chiseled cheekbones, an aquiline nose and full kissable lips, his strong face wore an amused expression. Watchful amber eyes stared back at her. Lionâ€™s eyes, she thought. Suddenly it hurt to breathe. â€œWho are you?â€ she repeated, wondering why her voice sounded high pitched and a little squeaky. A slow, sexy grin spread across his face, revealing dimples deep enough to drown in. Bowing, he said, â€œCole Dalton, Lord of the Dark Mages, at your service. And you must be the Princess of Light.â€ His whisky voice strummed her already heightened senses. â€œPrincess? Have you been talking to Max? Where is he?â€ â€œAccording to an ancient prophesy the Princess of Light and the Lord of the Dark Mages will fight on opposite sides in an epic battle. One is destined to kill the other.â€ She gaped at him. Gorgeous but crazier than a loon, she thought. Shaking her head, she said, â€œDonâ€™t be ridiculous. You are crazy but I certainly donâ€™t want to kill you.â€ He just stood there grinning at her in an infuriating way. His eyes traveled the length of her body and she stiffened as his eyes glimmered with laughter and his lips twitched. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she followed his downward gaze and discovered that she was dressed in fuzzy leopard print pajamas with matching bedroom slippers. Mortified, she cursed Max under her breath, vowing to inflict severe bodily harm on him the moment he returned. The idiot had not given her a chance to change before dragging her to this forsaken place. â€œNice outfit,â€ Cole drawled. â€œIn that getup you will not need to kill me. Iâ€™ll probably just die laughing.â€ Turning varying shades of crimson, she gritted her teeth. â€œShut up! What is this place? Is it a mental institution filled with talking, disappearing dogs and half-witted Lords? Max! Max, come here at once. I want to go home!â€ Lightning rent the cloudless blue sky and a snarling Max materialized between Riley and Cole. Coleâ€™s grin widened but he took a step back. â€œAh, your protector has come. I must bid you farewell, Princess. Till we meet again.â€ Bowing, he whirled and vanished. Livid, Riley dug her nails into her palms to stop herself from strangling Max on the spot. She hissed, â€œHome. Now!â€ Concerned green eyes stared into hers. â€œDid he hurt you?â€ â€œWho? Cole? Why would he hurt me? Stop this nonsense. Take me home this instant!â€ â€œYou are home.â€ He turned, but before he could disappear again, Riley leapt forward, grabbed him around the neck, and once again felt herself falling and spinning through space. CHAPTER 2 Thudding into a hard surface, she rolled a couple of times until she smacked into a wall. Winded, cheek pressed against the cold stone floor, she opened her eyes and looked around. Dozens of tall, elegant candles decorated a small altar, covered with fresh flowers. The pungent smell of incense permeated the air. White marble walls encircled the small room. Frescoes decorated the south facing wall, the colorful images shimmering in the candlelight. Pushing to her feet, Riley first checked to make sure that all her body parts were still intact. No broken limbs or fresh blood but she was sure that she was covered with black and blue bruises. She opened her mouth to say something cutting to Max but he stood in front of the fresco covered wall, head tilted to one side, totally lost in the painted images. Curiosity battled and triumphed over annoyance and she moved to his side. The paintings were done in a series of panels, each depicting a different scene. In one of them, a beautiful woman sat astride a large black wolf, a giant version of Max, all muscled power and sleek sinew, black fur gleaming in the sun. Bolts of lightning hurtled from her raised hands towards the man standing on the ground, looking up at her, a gleaming ball of fire hovered in the air between his palms. Riley gasped as she realized that his sharply drawn profile belonged to none other than Cole. A tingle ran up her spine as she stepped closer to the wall to get a better look at the woman who somehow seemed eerily familiar. Her hair fell in a rich cascade below her shoulders, straight and dark as midnight. Her skin was bronze, and her strange bi-coloured eyes blazed with power. Riley knew that one eye was aquamarine and the other the exact shade of teak. They were her eyes, and it was her face but somehow different; it radiated power and purpose. Falling to her knees, she whispered, â€œA battle scene between the Lord of the Dark Mages and the Princess of Lightâ€. â€œYes,â€ Max replied. â€œIâ€™ve been trying to tell you but you are so convinced that you are either dreaming or are in a mental institution that you are not paying attention.â€ With a furrowed brow she tuned towards him. â€œIâ€™m listening now.â€ Pacing back and forth, he began. â€œThis is Avalyss. Two types of beings live here, Light Bringers and Dark Mages. The latter are wizards skilled in the black arts. The Light Bringers rule this land but the Dark Mages are allowed to practice their black arts under controlled conditions. It has always been this way. But years ago an Oracle prophesied that a dark mage would be born with the power to overthrow the Light Bringers, and the Dark Mages would rule Avalyss. The Oracle also predicted that a Princess of Light will be born to the Light Bringers, that she would be the only hope for the Light. An epic battle will take place between the Princess of Light and the Lord of the Dark Mages. One will defeat the other.â€ â€œWhich one?â€ Rileyâ€™s voice quivered. â€œThe prophecy did not say. Either the Light Bringers will continue to rule or the Dark Mages will rise to power.â€ Max replied. â€œThatâ€™s ridiculous. Donâ€™t tell me that you actually believe that drivel? I cannot be this Princess of Light that the prophecy speaks of. I am an accountant not a warrior. I cannot fight, except for some kick boxing moves I learnt in an aerobics class a long time ago. Unless your Lord of the Dark Mages is somehow susceptible to a well-crafted and deadly budget I will be useless in an epic battle.â€ Max narrowed his green eyes. â€œBe serious. This is no laughing matter. Besides, you have powers, magical powers.â€ â€œPowers? You mean I can â€˜leap tall buildings in a single bound? So now I am Riley accountant by day, super hero at night. Where is my costume and the nearest phone booth?â€ â€œStop babbling, we have no more time to waste.â€ Max started to advance towards her. â€œHere we go again.â€ Riley groaned before once again she was falling and whirling through space. She smelled the salty tang of the ocean before she opened her eyes. She was standing on the rooftop of a tall, narrow tower, thrusting from the wild sea below and reaching towards the sky. Irritation rose within her as she realized that she was once again all alone. She intended to strangle the wretched Max the next time she clapped eyes on him. Tiptoeing to the edge, she looked down at the swirling, seething, roiling sea below. â€œBe careful, one false step and you could be sleeping with the fishes.â€ A cool voice remarked. Startled, she almost lost her balance, but managed to right herself just in time. Turning, she stared into Coleâ€™s ruggedly handsome face, his honey hair whipping around his face in the brisk ocean breeze. â€œCole! This is the second time that you have almost killed me! Are you trying to get rid of me before the epic battle? Afraid that I might just win? Guess I should not expect fair play from the Lord of the Dark Mages.â€ His laugh sounded more menacing than amused. â€œHeard that you had a smart mouth. Sorry to disappoint, Princess, but I am not Cole.â€ Staring in disbelief, she was about to ask him if he thought she was stupid, when she noticed that his eyes were not amber but a soft, baby blue. He grinned. â€œYou really should close your mouth, unless you plan on catching some flies. I assure you they are not that tasty around here.â€ â€œWho are you? Coleâ€™s evil twin?â€ â€œClose, he is my evil twin. I am Crane Dalton, Light Bringer, and one of your humble subjects.â€ Riley frowned. â€œIf you are twins, why are you on opposite sides?â€ â€œGood question. No one knows. The Oracle spoke of twin boys, one destined to be the Lord of the Dark Mages and the other the consort of the Princess of Light.â€ Riley felt her spine go rigid. â€œWhat? You are destined to be my husband? I barely know you!â€ â€œWe donâ€™t have to be married right this moment.â€ His grin grated on her nerves. Tilting her head to one side, Riley studied him closely. He had the same wavy, honey colored hair as Cole, the same muscular build. They were identical except for the eyes. While Cole had the wild dangerous eyes of a lion, this man had the guileless eyes of a new born babe. His expression was a little on the smarmy side. Maybe she was being her usual contrary self but she found him a little too smiley for her liking. His presence made her uneasy. Suppressing a shiver, she asked, â€œWhy did Max bring me here? Where is he anyway? He has a nasty habit of dumping me places and then disappearing. What am I going to do if he never re-appears?â€ â€œPerhaps you should learn to use your mind to move yourself from one location to another. Itâ€™s called teleportation.â€ â€œIsnâ€™t that a bunch of hooey and science fiction?â€ she asked â€œYes, so are talking dogs, and other realms.â€ Her eyes narrowed as she fought the urge to smack the condescending smile off his face. â€œWhy donâ€™t you stop smirking and tell me how this teleportation thing works?â€ He bowed. â€œMy pleasure. First close your eyes, and then focus your mind on where you want to go. It is essential to get as clear an image of your destination as possible.â€ â€œHow can I get a clear image of the location if I have not been there before, or could I only teleport to areas I have already been?â€ Impossibly his smile widened further. â€œGood question. You are as smart as you are beautiful.â€ Rolling her eyes at his obvious flattery, she waited silently for him to answer her question. â€œJust focus on the locationâ€™s name or if you are trying to locate someone just focus on the person.â€ Shrugging, Riley closed her eyes and focused on her apartment. Nothing happened, she did not fall or whirl through space. Instead she was still standing motionless on the rooftop with Crane studying her like if she was a new species of bug. â€œCan I only teleport within Avalyss?â€ â€œ â€œNo, once you master teleportation, you will be able to teleport yourself anywhere. However, as a beginner, you may want to try within Avalyss first. It will be easier. Also, you may want to try attaching some emotion to it. An urgent desire to go to that particular place or to see a particular person.â€ Once again, Riley closed her eyes, picturing Maxâ€™s furry face and his piercing emerald eyes. She fell, not through space but flat on her butt on the stone floor. Sitting up, she glared at the laughing Crane. Slapping at the hand he held out to her, she picked herself off the floor. â€œThatâ€™s it. No more teleportation lessons today. My rear end is already black and blue and probably other colours of the rainbow right now.â€ â€œIt would be a shame to further mar such a beautiful part of your anatomy, Princess.â€ His eyes raked her body with an intensity that repulsed her. â€œI must leave you now, Princess. We will resume our lessons tomorrow.â€ â€œLessons? What are you talking about?â€ â€œI am charged with teaching you how to access and use your powers.â€ â€œAgain with these mysterious powers. What are they?â€ â€œTill tomorrow.â€ He bowed and vanished. Once again she found herself all alone. Not knowing quite what to do next, she focused on Maxâ€™s face, but this time she imagined wringing his neck, could actually feel his soft fur beneath her fingers. Nothing happened for a minute then she felt the familiar sensation of falling and whirling through space. CHAPTER 3 Riley landed on a warm mass which yelped and thrashed around causing her to roll off. In a flash something gripped her in its jaws, its breath hot against her face. Dangling helplessly in the air, scared senseless, she looked down, and saw Max staring up at her, green eyes shining with laughter. â€œPut her down Shamus,â€ he told her captor. The jaws slackened and Riley fell on a pile of smelly clay. At least, she hoped it was clay. Springing to her feet, she surveyed her surroundings. She was in some kind of giant cave. Its marble white walls glowed with a strange blue light. Looking up, she saw her captor for the first time and shrieked in surprise. Towering over her, the creature looked like the giant wolf she was riding in the painting on the temple wall. A carbon copy of Max, except for its monstrous size. Its smile was friendly but the giant rows of evil looking, razor sharp, yellow teeth were anything but benign. Backing away slowly, Riley hissed, â€œMax, do something.â€ He jumped in front of her, bowed to the monstrosity and said, â€œGreat One, allow me to introduce Riley, the Princess of Light.â€ Riley tried to bow but managed a stiff bob instead. â€Pleased to meet you, Great One.â€ â€œAh, finally, the Princess of Light. You gave me quite a shock falling on top of me like that,â€ the monstrosity said in a rusty sounding voice. â€œSorry.â€ Rileyâ€™s laugh sounded nervous and a little high pitched to her own ears. The creature was huge; it could easily squash her like a bug under its giant paw. She whispered to Max, â€œWhat is this place? Who is this?â€ â€œSit, Princess,â€ the monstrosity said, â€œAll will be revealed in good time. Would you like some refreshment? By the way, my name is Shamus, not â€˜the monstrosityâ€™.â€ Turning a peculiar shade of red, Riley stammered, â€œExcuse me, Great one, I mean, Shamus, did you just read my mind?â€ â€œYes, it is something that you could do as well, Princess. Now sit and tell me what you would like to eat.â€ With some surprise she realized that she had not eaten since her arrival in this strange place. She had no idea how much time had elapsed since Max kidnapped her from her apartment. Her stomach rumbled right on cue. â€œGot any chocolate?â€ she asked. â€œAh, the food of the gods and Princesses,â€ Shamus chuckled. He waved his giant paw and a tray of chocolate pastries appeared in front of her. She pounced. After she came up for air, she looked at Shamus with a sheepish grin. â€œThank you. I really was famished. Sorry, you must think I am a pig.â€ â€œOf course not. It is good to see you eat. You are just a scrawny thing.â€ Thinking that anything weighing less than a ton would be â€œscrawnyâ€ to Shamus, she smiled. He smiled back and she remembered that he had the ability to read minds. Blushing, she asked, â€œShamus would you please explain things to me. What is this place? How can you read minds? What did you mean when you said I could read minds as well? What are you?â€ Shamus settled down beside her, rested his big head on his paws. â€œMax and I belong to an ancient race. We are the Guardians of the Light Bringers. Each Light Bringer is bonded to a Guardian. Our purpose is to serve, protect and defend. The bond between a Guardian and Light Bringer is unbreakable. A Guardian will sacrifice his life in order to protect his Light Bringer.â€ Gazing at Max in wonderment, she murmured, â€œYou are my Guardian.â€ Max sprang to his feet and bowed deeply. â€œYour Guardian and trusted friend.â€ Smiling, she hugged him. â€œYou have always been my friend Max, but I do not like the idea of you dying to protect me. Consider yourself relieved from that duty.â€ Maxâ€™s eyes filled with tears. â€œYou cannot ask that of me. It is not just my duty, it is my purpose. If you take that away I may as well be dead.â€ His tail drooped and his head slunk to the ground. â€œOkay, Okay, feel free to die for me anytime you want. Just donâ€™t sulk. It is not a pretty sight. By the way, how come you are so puny in comparison to Shamus?â€ Grinning, he put his head in her lap, â€œGuardians can choose to be any size. You will soon understand everything in our world.â€ â€œWould someone please tell me about this grand destiny that everyone keeps talking about?â€ she begged. Shamus nodded. â€œPrincess, I trust you already know that the Oracle prophesied a great battle between the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages.â€ â€œYes, but why have I been chosen to battle the Lord of the Dark Mages? Why not someone from your own world? I am an accountant. I have no powers. And why do you keep calling me Princess?â€ â€œBecause you are the Princess of Avalyss. Our world is your world. But once the Oracle revealed your destiny, it was no longer safe for you to remain here. Several attempts were made on your life while you were still a babe. So your parents, the King and Queen, decided to hide you. The world you grew up in, what the humans call Earth, exists in a different dimension, a parallel Universe if you will, a place which the dark forces of our world cannot penetrate. You were hidden there so that you would be able to grow into maturity and into the fullness of your powers. The time has now come for you to return home and to claim your destiny. While you were away, the Lord of the Dark Mages was also coming into his full powers. His strength is almost at its peak and when that happens, he will be able to conquer the Light Bringers. It is up to you to stop him.â€ Riley felt the gooseflesh creeping along her arms and neck. â€œHow am I supposed to do that? I do not possess these powers you speak of.â€ â€œHow did you get into this cave, Princess? Did you not teleport yourself here?â€ â€œYes, but it was a total fluke. Not sure if I could do it again. Besides Cole could also teleport so how would learning to do that defeat him?â€ â€œYour powers are inside you, Princess. They have always been there. You just need some training on how to access and control them.â€ â€œI already had my first training session with Crane. Tell me more about the twins.â€ â€œAh, the twins. Their origins are mysterious. They appeared in Avalyss at exactly the time and place as the Oracle predicted. All we know is that one serves the Light and the other, the Darkness. At an early age Cole expressed an affinity for dark magic, blood magic. He was sent to the Dark Tower, a school for Dark Mages, while Crane continued to dwell and train with the Light Bringers.â€ â€œWhy was Cole given a chance to hone his craft? Why help him gain mastery in the dark arts if the Oracle predicted that he could overthrow the Light Bringers?â€ â€œThose of us that serve the Light will only kill to defend ourselves and our world. We could not kill an innocent baby who was no threat at the time. Besides, killing Cole is your destiny.â€ Riley rubbed her throbbing head. â€œHow do I kill him? He is a master of dark magic. I have no magic.â€ â€œThatâ€™s where I come in Princess,â€ a droll voice interrupted. She turned and saw Crane leaning against the cave wall, eyes gleaming in the caveâ€™s strange blue light. Wondering how long he had been standing there, eavesdropping on the conversation, she suppressed a shiver. Damn! The man gave her the creeps. â€œI will teach you how to access your powers,â€ he declared, approaching Riley and her two silent companions. â€œWhy have you come here, Crane?â€ Shamus asked. â€œFor my student,â€ he replied, extending his hand towards Riley. Puzzled by Shamusâ€™ cold tone, Riley looked at him for direction. His expression was unreadable. Max was staring at Shamus and some kind of mental conversation seemed to be taking place. Finally, Shamusâ€™ sigh broke the taut silence. â€œGo Princess, Crane has been chosen as your trainer.â€ His tone made it clear that Crane would not have been his choice. He held out his giant paw. â€œYour most important weapon is your heart Princess. Always remember to follow your heart and you will never be lost.â€ Ignoring his paw, she hugged whatever part of his huge body she could reach. â€œThank you Shamus.â€ â€œCome, Princess. It is time to meet your parents.â€ Crane grabbed her arm and once again she felt herself falling and spinning through space. CHAPTER 4 Riley landed on her feet for once. But she suspected that this was due to Craneâ€™s firm grip on her arm than to any mastery on her part for teleporting. The room they were in was made entirely of glass, walls, ceiling and floor. Gaping, she wondered if they were in a fishbowl. Through all four walls, she could see huge waves writhing like snakes turning the ocean into an angry Medusa. Looking up she saw a swatch of grey sky marred with black clouds, pregnant with rain. â€œWelcome ,Daughter.â€ Whirling at the sound of a womanâ€™s voice, Riley stared into dazzling eyes, the color of mercury. The womanâ€™s ebony hair swirled around her face while the rest of her stood still. She possessed a luminous, almost ethereal beauty. It hurt to look at her; almost like looking directly at the sun. Standing ramrod straight, the man next to her, just reached her shoulders. The harsh, white light in the room reflected off his bald head. His bi-colored eyes were cool and hard. He exuded strength, confidence and power. Crane saluted then bowed. â€œYour Highnesses.â€ Riley had always known that she was adopted and had fantasized about meeting her birth parents. She felt nothing, only a strange numbing sensation. The woman glided forward, pulled Riley into a warm embrace, her strong arms tightened for a moment then loosened. Riley felt tears on her face. Reaching up to wipe them away she discovered that her own eyes were dry. She stepped back and looked into mercury eyes, shining with tears. The man stepped forward, extended a stiff hand. His grip was strong, almost bruising. Stifling a gasp, she yanked her hand away. A small smile hovered about his lips. Swallowing, she said, â€œIâ€™m not sure what to call you. Mom and Dad does not seem appropriate somehow.â€ â€œI am not your father,â€ the man said. His wintry voice sent shivers racing along her spine. â€œHe was my brother. I am Mylor, the King of Avalyss. Allow me to introduce you to my Queen and your mother, Sarri.â€ His eyes narrowed and Riley had the impression that she had been studied and found wanting. Stiffening, she asked â€œWhere is my father?â€ â€œDead and unmourned.â€ â€œMylor, stop.â€ Sarri wrapped an arm around Rileyâ€™s shoulders. â€œI think I should tell her the rest. Come, child.â€ Lightning flashed and Riley found herself in a lush garden, exploding with fragrance and color. Bending over a twelve petalled flower, she stroked its purple silken blossom and inhaled its intoxicating scent. Straightening up, she looked over at rows and rows of the most exotic and beautiful flowers she had even seen. Sarri sat on a wooden bench, patted the seat next to her. â€œThis is my favourite place.â€ She touched Rileyâ€™s cheek, her eyes glistening with fresh tears. â€œI have missed you, Daughter. Nothing but my concern for your safety would have induced me to part with you.â€ Riley squeezed Sarriâ€™s hand. â€œDonâ€™t cry. My parents were good people. My childhood was very happy.â€ Sarri nodded. â€œI know. Max often brought back news.â€ Riley frowned as she remembered Maxâ€™s many mysterious disappearances, sometimes for a couple of hours, sometimes for days. She had been worried sick the first time he disappeared but when he returned, he looked into her eyes and somehow she knew that he would always come back to her. Why did she not think that was strange at the time? Riley sighed, certain that many events in her past will no doubt have new significance when looked at from her new perspective. Part of her still felt trapped in a dream that she could not wake up from. â€œTell me about my birth father.â€ â€œHe was the love of my life and the most powerful Light Bringer in Avalyss. When we learned the Oracleâ€™s prophecy, he became obsessed with protecting you. Believing that the only way to do so was to increase his powers, he turned to dark magic.â€ Sarri pushed to her feet, started pacing. â€œIn our world, no mage is allowed to learn both White and Dark magic. It is considered a grave crime. Once he was found out, the Higher Echelon, they regulate all magic in Avalyss, stripped him of all his powers. This is the highest disgrace a mage could suffer. He jumped from the top of the White Cliff into the raging ocean. His body was never recovered.â€ Sarri stood still, hands clenched at her sides, eyes fierce. â€œPlease understand. Your father was a good man. Only his love for you could have made him stray from the path of Light.â€ Riley, tears rolling down her cheeks, hugged Sarri while she sobbed. She felt the mantle of her destiny settle firmly around her shoulders. Her father died because he was trying to protect her, she could not shy away from her path. She would face her destiny with every bit of courage and resolve she possessed. He deserved no less. Squaring her shoulders, she released Sarri and dropped to the stone bench. â€œHow can I become the saviour everyone expects me to be? How can I possibly defeat the Lord of the Dark Mages?â€ Sarri sat next to her, patted her hand. â€œYou learn how to use your powers. They are already very strong. You have used them before.â€ Seeing Rileyâ€™s puzzled look, she asked, â€œHave you ever woken up one morning with a pimple, wished it away, and discovered that it had disappeared the next time you looked in a mirror?â€ Riley nodded. She remembered the first time it happened. A huge pimple had sprouted on her face, the day of her sixteenth birthday party. She had stared at her face and imagined it pimple free. Then the next time she happened to look into a mirror to check on its size, it had disappeared. She had been so overjoyed that she had not spared a thought as to why. Perhaps she had imagined the pimple, but there had been others, and each one had disappeared as if by magic. She had shrugged it off and with the innocence of a child had accepted it as just one of those things. â€œGreat,â€ Riley laughed, â€œso my power is popping pimples magically. Iâ€™m sure the Lord of the Dark Mages will be suitably impressed, especially if he happens to be having an acne breakout during our epic battle.â€ Sarri smiled but her voice was serious. â€œThe power lives inside you. It is yours to access at will. Up till now you have only used it to pop pimples. You will be taught how to channel it properly and use it to help you fulfill your destiny. Let us begin.â€ Sarri touched her arm, and Riley flashed out of the garden and onto a wide expanse of sandy beach. CHAPTER 5 The waves roared up to the shore and spat foam high into the air. The sun heated her skin and the wind whipped her hair about her face. The sheer wild beauty of the desolate beach left her breathless. She waded into the water, her toes sinking into soft, powdery sand. Her entire body exhaled. She loved the beach. It always had the power to make her feel at peace and achingly alive. Was she dreaming? How could any of this be real? How could she possibly be a Princess destined to be a savior of a world she never knew existed? It was all so surreal. Deep down, she had always known that she was different. As a child, she knew that she could somehow do things which would not be considered normal. Making pimples disappear was only example. She had also known what others were thinking, even if what they were saying was the exact opposite of their thoughts. This had scared her so she had somehow learned how to block that ability. She also could get things just by thinking about them very intently. Once, when she was very little, all tucked up in bed, she had asked for a glass of water, but her mother had refused, thinking that she was just trying to delay going to sleep. But she could not stop thinking about water, and somehow a glass of water had appeared in her hand. She was so scared that she had almost dropped it. The next day she convinced herself that she had dreamed the whole thing. But deep down she knew, and she had buried this knowledge as deep as she could. She did not want to be different, a freak. All her life she had wanted to fit in. And yet as hard as she tried, she never felt like she truly belonged. Did she finally belong here? â€œReady for your lesson, Princess?â€ a silky voice interrupted her musings. Looking up, she saw Crane standing on the beach, honey locks flying in the wind, a wide smile plastered on his face. A prickle of unease ran through her. Although, they were twins, Crane did not have his brotherâ€™s sexy dimples. Was that why she found his smile disturbing? Shrugging the feeling aside, she walked towards him. After all, he was one of the good guys. â€œAllow me to change your clothes.â€ Riley looked down and realized that she was still wearing her leopard print pajamas. Crane waved his hand, and the pajamas turned into a sequined, gold halter top that clung to her generous curves like a second skin, a matching short skirt, with deep slits on both sides and knee high gold leather boots with 6 inch stiletto heels. â€œPerfectâ€ he drawled, letting his eyes linger a little too long on her breasts. With her skin now crawling with gooseflesh, she gritted her teeth, focused fiercely, and smiled in satisfaction when the halter top changed into a tunic, and the skirt morphed into leggings. She kept the boots but got rid of the impossibly high heels. Whoever heard of fighting an epic battle in stilettos? The man was an idiot and beyond creepy. She hoped that his teaching skills were better than his fashion sense. â€œVery good, Princess. You just aced your first lesson.â€ Riley bent her head to hide a smirk. Annoyance and surprise had flashed into his eyes for a moment. She had astonished herself. But her desire to get out of that ridiculous outfit had given her the incentive to access the power that Sarri said lived inside her. It suddenly clicked that in order to access it, she not only had to think about what she wanted to manifest but her desire for the object had to be absolute. â€œYou see, Princess,â€ Crane continued in a pompous tone, â€œthe power is within you but it also exists outside you. The power is in everything, the ocean, the trees, that rock, the earth, the very ground on which you stand. When you want to manifest something, draw on the power inside yourself, which is what you just did, but you could also draw on the power outside yourself as well. True mastery lies in being able to draw on both at the same time. However, our lesson today will focus not on your magical powers but on your physical prowess. You need to learn basic fighting skills.â€ He stepped towards her. â€œPunch me in the face.â€ Without hesitation, she feinted with her left hand and when Crane dodged, landed a perfect right hook on his mouth. Swearing, he dropped to his knees, his face in his hands. Blue eyes blazing, he pushed to his feet and charged. Spinning out of his path, she kicked him in the butt as he sped past her. He landed flat on his face, choking on a mouthful of sand. Loud laughter filled the air. â€œHope you were paying attention, Princess. You are in the presence of a true master. Perfect way to teach her what not to do, Crane.â€ Riley turned and looked into Coleâ€™s grinning face. Her heart beat a little bit faster and her breath caught in her throat, he was even more handsome than she remembered. Except for the eyes, both men were identical but Crane seemed to be a poor copy of his brother. Cole throbbed with vitality and sheer masculinity. His eyes locked with hers and she was trapped in those amber eyes, she felt a pulling sensation and dropped into darkness. Her eyes fluttered open. She was in a dimly lit cavern, lying on a rough blanket. Cole loomed over her, his amber eyes fixed on her face, his expression unreadable. She sat up, brushed her hair from her eyes. â€œDid you bring me to your lair, Lord?â€ â€œScared?â€ â€œCertainly not. I whipped your brotherâ€™s butt today, I am sure I could whip yours just as easily.â€ â€œNot so easy, perhaps, but youâ€™ll enjoy it more.â€ His smile, slow and wicked, sent delicious shivers up her spine. Her pulse quickened and she flushed. Annoyed at her physical reaction to the man, she snapped, â€œâ€œWhy have you brought me here?â€ â€œWhy indeed? It is against the rules. I expect your rescuers will come charging in soon. We donâ€™t have much time.â€ â€œTime for what?â€ â€œCertainly not for this.â€ Desire flamed into his eyes, turning the amber into molten fire as he pulled her towards him. His mouth touched hers with surprising gentleness. With a soft sigh, her lips parted in invitation. Unable to resist, he deepened the kiss, devouring the sweet taste of her. Senses reeling, Riley responded with a fervor that surprised her. Her body melted into his lean, muscled frame as she wrapped her arms around him. His heart beat in tandem with hers as their tongues danced. Swept away on a tide of passion, she moaned softly when his hand caressed her breast, his clever fingers had her arching helplessly against him. With a ripping sound, her tunic fell to the floor. Stifling an oath, he pushed to his feet and strode to the other end of the cavern. Dazed, her body still on fire, she sat up, her eyes filled with confusion and passion. â€œThat is not why I brought you here.â€ He waved his hand and Rileyâ€™s ripped tunic repaired itself. Lightning and thunder filled the room as a horde of bodies materialized. A black wolf hurled itself at Cole, all snarls and gnashing teeth. Cole twisted his body causing the sharp fangs to pierce his shoulder instead of his neck. He threw a fire ball at the creature and disappeared. Riley saw the body crumple and fall to the ground. â€œMaxâ€ she cried, leaping up and running towards him. Before she could reach him, Crane grabbed her. â€œDid Cole hurt you? What did he want?â€ She tore her body from his grasp, and dropped to her knees in front of an unconscious Max. Hot tears stung her eyes as she softly caressed his silky fur. She felt an arm on her shoulder. â€œDonâ€™t worry, Daughter, he will be fine.â€ Lightning flashed again as Sarri teleported Riley and Max to her private suite in the castle. A large king sized canopy bed filled the guest bedroom, the walls were richly decorated with paintings showing various battle scenes. Max lay in the middle of the bed, still motionless. Riley swiped at her tears. â€œCole almost killed him. He was just trying to protect me. He told me once that he would die for me and he almost did.â€ Sarri slid an arm around her. â€œDonâ€™t worry. Max will be fine. He has been stunned, he will snap out of it in a couple of hours. Cole could have killed him if he had wanted to.â€ â€œCole spared him. Why?â€ â€œCole is a mysterious man, Daughter, one who is destined to walk a dark path. You would do well to stay away from him.â€ Riley blushed, wondering if Sarri knew what had transpired in the cavern before she and the others had arrived. â€œCan you read minds as well?â€ she asked. Sarri looked at her speculatively. â€œNo, and I did not realize that you could.â€ â€œYes,â€ Riley stammered â€œI used to be able to as a child, but I blocked it somehow. And I have not tried to do it since.â€ â€œIt is not a common power only the Guardians can do it. They can also communicate telepathically. Can you do that?â€ â€œI donâ€™t think so but I believe Max has communicated thoughts to me in the past, although I did not realize what he was doing at the time.â€ â€œIf you could receive Maxâ€™s thoughts, then you have the ability to send thoughts as well.â€ She bent over Riley, whispering urgently. â€œDonâ€™t tell anyone about this particular power. I will find someone to train you on how to use it properly.â€ Confused, Riley opened her mouth to ask Sarri why she had to keep this power secret. Wasnâ€™t the Princess of Light expected to have powers? What was so special about telepathy? But a loud pounding on the door, caused her to shut her mouth with a snap. â€œEnter,â€ Sarri commanded. Mylor strode into the room looking like a thundercloud. â€œSarri what on earth are you playing at, whisking that girl away like that? We need to question her.â€ Without waiting for a response, he turned on Riley â€œWhat did Cole want? What did he tell you? What did you tell him?â€ Puzzled by these questions, Riley could only stare at him wordlessly. He grabbed her by the shoulders, proceeded to shake her, and yelled â€œAnswer me, you foolish girl. Answer me now!â€ â€œMylor, stop.â€ Sarri pulled him away from Riley. â€œShe needs to rest. Later, your questions will be answered later. Leave, now.â€ Mylor spun around quickly and Riley thought for one horrible moment that he was going to strike Sarri. She stood her ground and stared him down with her strange mercury coloured eyes. Without saying another word, he walked out. Riley let out a breath that she had not realized that she had even been holding. â€œWhy was Mylor asking those particular questions?â€ â€œNever mind. I will deal with Mylor. You rest now.â€ She kissed Riley on the cheek and disappeared. CHAPTER 6 Riley woke to total blackness, and immediately realized that she could not move. Something warm and heavy pinned her to the bed. Tentatively, she put out a hand and her fingers sank into warm, silky fur. She realized that most of Max was sprawled over her body. Pushing at him proved useless, he refused to budge and continued to snore softly. Taking a deep breath, she focused her mind on moving him. Nothing happened. Remembering Craneâ€™s words, she focused on the power within, picturing it as a bright white light, then she visualized moving Maxâ€™s body off hers. Concentrating hard, she felt a tugging, tingling sensation and Max flew straight up in the air, his head mere inches from the ceiling. Surprised, Riley could only stare at him, as he hung motionless for a minute or two, floated to the right and left, then dropped like a stone, hitting the floor with a loud thump. Squealing in surprise and pain, Max lay in a tangled heap. â€œIâ€™m so sorry. Are you hurt?â€ Riley ran to his side, stroked his head. â€œI am dying,â€ he moaned â€œYouâ€™ll live, Iâ€™m terribly sorry, I tried to move you just a couple of inches to the empty side of the bed, but I dropped you instead.â€ Max opened one eye and glared at her balefully. â€œYou what?â€ â€œCole stunned you and youâ€™ve been unconscious for hours, then I dropped you.â€ Standing up slowly, Max walked around the room, checking to see if all his limbs were still intact. â€œIt appears that I am sound in body but not so sure that I am sound in mind. Whatâ€™s all this nonsense about stunning and dropping?â€ Riley leaped towards him, catching him in a bear hug. â€œSame old Max. I am so glad that you are not hurt. For one terrible moment, I thought that you were dead.â€ â€œYou canâ€™t get rid of me that easily. Now stop strangling me and fill me in on whatâ€™s been happening.â€ Sitting on the floor, with his head in her lap, she recounted the past events. Max growled when he learned that he had been stunned, but the most intriguing part of the story was Rileyâ€™s use of her powers. For a first attempt, she had done very well, even if she had dropped him. He always knew that she was special. After all, she was the Princess of Light. But he had a feeling that he, along with everyone else, would be blown away by her when she gained mastery of her full powers. â€œGood Morning.â€ Sarri spoke softly so as not to startle them. She had been observing in silence for a little while. The morning light streaming through the windows, highlighted Rileyâ€™s soft beauty, her arm around the black wolf with the gleaming green eyes. At first glance, just an innocent and beautiful tableau of a girl and her dog but both were more powerful than they appeared to be, more powerful that they themselves realized at the moment. Riley smiled. â€œMax is fine. Only his pride is hurt.â€ â€œAnd my posterior where you dropped me.â€ Max grinned. â€œCome.â€ Grabbing hold of both Riley and Max, Sarri transported them to the giant cave with marble white walls, where she had first met Shamus. A giant while wolf stood in the middle of the cave awaiting their arrival. â€œToom, thank you for coming. Allow me to introduce my daughter, Riley.â€ â€œWelcome Princess of Light,â€ the white wolf bowed. Bowing in return, Riley straightened up to find herself impaled by sober green eyes. Max bowed stiffly. â€œWhat are you doing here Toom? I thought you were still in exile.â€ â€œI asked her to return,â€ Sarri replied. â€œShe is to train Riley in the proper use of telepathy. You knew she had this gift didnâ€™t you Max?â€ â€œYes. I have told no one. I know this power is a rare one. I am surprised that you would share this special knowledge with this traitor.â€ Max spat in Toomâ€™s direction. â€œMax, you know as well as I, that the Higher Echelon was divided as to Toomâ€™s guilt.â€ â€œBut she was punished, exiled to another realm. You are breaking the rules, Queen. I will not let her near Riley.â€ Max growled. â€œDonâ€™t overstep your bounds Max,â€ a sharp voice intoned. Turning, Riley noticed Shamus leaning against the far wall of the cave. â€œShamus, you approve of this foolish plan?â€ Max asked. â€œIt was my idea.â€ He held up a paw before Max could interrupt him. â€œToom excels in telepathy. She is the best possible trainer for Riley.â€ Max tilted his head to one side, and Riley knew that he was communicating telepathically with Shamus. Not just communicating but arguing, judging by Maxâ€™s expression and body language. Shamus appeared to win the argument since Max bowed his head, and said, â€œVery well, but I will go with them.â€ â€œNo, we are taking a risk sending Riley with Toom. We cannot send you as well.â€ Sarri hugged Riley. â€œTake care, Daughter.â€ Shamus held out a paw to Riley. â€œYou are in good hands.â€ Max said nothing, his green eyes bored into Rileyâ€™s bi-coloured ones, and she heard his voice clearly in her head. â€œIf you need me, just focus on me, and I will come. Rules be damned.â€ â€œCome, child, we must go. I dare not stay away any longer.â€ Toom put her great paw on Rileyâ€™s shoulders and she once again felt the familiar sensation of falling and whirling through space. A blast of cold air hit her. Shivering, she opened her eyes and gazed upon a land of ice and snow. Riley stood on a frozen lake, surrounded by snow covered mountains. As a bitter wind knifed through her, she realized that she was not dressed for this weather. As soon as the thought formed, her clothing changed. A warm, thick parka now covered her entire body and her feet were clad in knee high fur trimmed boots. Lost in the frozen and barren landscape, she almost missed seeing Toom slip through a crevice. She followed and found herself in a cozy cave. A warm fire crackled from the hearth, and the furniture consisted entirely of bear skin furs. Toom sat on the rug nearest the fire. A bowl of steaming stew appeared in Rileyâ€™s hands . Suddenly ravenous, she made quick work of the stew and happily accepted another bowlful. Satiated, she lay in front of the fire, too full to talk. Her companion had not yet said a word since they had come to this place. She, too, lay in front of the fire, blending so fully into a white bear skin rug that Riley could not tell where the wolf ended and where the rug began. Her white fur gleaming in the fire, eyes closed, she appeared to be asleep. Riley felt her own eyes closing, and let sleep claim her. Once in the night, she thought she heard the sound of urgent whispering, but before she could rouse herself, sleep gripped her like a wave and pulled her under. In the morning, Riley awoke refreshed, energized and ready for action. Looking around and not seeing Toom, she crawled to the crevice opening and stepped out into a frozen world. The morning light gave the place an eerie glow. Snow and ice blanketed every surface. Whatever had Toom done to be exiled to this frozen land? â€œThat is a long story but one that needs to be told.â€ Toomâ€™s voice spoke in her head. â€œToom? Where are you?â€ â€œNo, child, you must speak with your mind. Your lesson in telepathy has begun.â€ Unsure of how to proceed, Riley closed her eyes and pictured the words in her mind. â€œTOOM CAN YOU HEAR ME!â€ â€œNo need to shout. That is a good first effort, but it is not enough to just picture the words in your mind, you need to have a clear picture of the person to whom you are trying to communicate with.â€ Concentrating deeply, Riley tried again. â€œToom, can you tell me why you were exiled?â€ â€œWhy donâ€™t I show you instead?â€ Images flooded into Rileyâ€™s mind like scenes on a movie screen. Enormous waves crashed onto a rocky shoreline, whipping the shore then retreating back into the ocean. An object floated in the angry waters. A wave grabbed it and hurled it straight towards a nasty looking jagged giant rock which would surely have ripped it to pieces but just before it landed, the object magically launched itself over the rock, coming to land high on the beach, far from the oceanâ€™s reach. Minutes later, Toom appeared in the distance, running along the beach, heading straight for the object, and stopped in front of it. Seeing the object through Toomâ€™s eyes, Riley saw a plain, scarred wooden chest, securely fastened. As Toom focused intently on the lock, the chest flew open, revealing two babies wrapped in blankets. One sucked gently on its fist, eyes closed, sleeping peacefully while the other was screaming, little fists punching the air. This scene faded from view, and another scene unfolded in Rileyâ€™s mind. Eight serious looking people dressed in white flowing robes, seated around a large table. Toom stood near the head of the table, scowling fiercely. â€œNo outsiders are allowed in Avalyss, Toom. You knowingly broke that sacred oath by bringing the twins here,â€ growled a tall, thin man sitting at the head of the table. â€œWith all due respect Elder Murrin, the ocean brought the twins here, not I.â€ â€œWe have been over all of this before. By taking them in, you afforded them the protection of our realm. Now they cannot be cast out. You were well aware of the Oracle. You have brought evil into our world, you must be punished.â€ Looking around at the other members of the Higher Echelon, he continued, â€œI move that Toom be stripped of her position of Chief Guardian, and that she be exiled to a place outside our realm.â€ Seven heads nodded in agreement. The scene disappeared. â€œThatâ€™s unfair!â€ Riley exclaimed aloud, forgetting to use telepathy. â€œYou were exiled because you took in the twins. What would they have you do? Abandon them? Let them die on that desolate beach?â€™ â€œAh, spoken with all the compassion of a Princess of Light.â€ Toom appeared suddenly in front of Riley, startling her. â€œSome people, including the Higher Echelon, believed that I should have walked away, left the babies to die. But I am not sure that death was a certainty, they were destined to come to Avalyss so I think they would have survived without me.â€ â€œExactly what is this desolate place?â€ Riley asked. â€œIt is not the Isle of Paradisi.â€ Toom replied. At Rileyâ€™s blank look, Toom continued. â€œParadisi is to Avalyss what Heaven is to Earth. It is the home to wise and powerful beings.â€ Riley opened her mouth to ask more questions about the Isle of Paradisi but Toom spoke first. â€œCome, child, let us call it a day. You have done well, your powers are incredibly strong. I am sure that the Dark Mages have under-estimated your strength.â€ CHAPTER 7 Riley did not know how much time she had spent in this lost, frozen world. Every day, she practiced telepathy, and she could now communicate exclusively with Toom without using her voice. Todayâ€™s lesson would be the toughest so far. â€œYou have mastered reading and transmitting thoughts to another personâ€™s open mind, child. But most people have shields that they put up so that those of us with telepathic power cannot see into their minds. You must remember that telepathy is a power that should be used only for good. You should not invade another personâ€™s mind just out of mere curiosity. You should obtain permission first if you can. However, in extreme cases, you could break a mental shield if you needed to.â€ â€œHow can I do that?â€ Riley spoke directly into Toomâ€™s mind. She was sitting cross-legged on the frozen lake, eyes closed, concentrating hard. Her silky hair blowing in the bitter wind, still dressed in her heavy parka. Her face was thinner, she had lost weight, since there was nothing to eat but stew. She had not had a bite of chocolate for weeks. Also, Toom had her running 6 miles every day. She subscribed to a â€œstrong body, strong mindâ€ philosophy. At first, Riley had protested, but Toom gave her no choice. â€œThe destiny of Avalyss rests on your shoulders, child, you need to be ready to face that destiny.â€ She admonished, the first time Riley had slept in and not shown up to run. Since then, she had not missed a day. â€œIn order to keep a mental shield up, one has to dedicate a certain amount of life energy to that task. The shield holds even if a person is asleep or unconscious. Breaking through someoneâ€™s shield is very difficult. You can shatter the shield completely, but then the person you are trying to read will be aware of what you are doing and will immediately put up a new shield. But if you do not want the person to be aware of what you are doing, you need to slip inside the mental shield. You can do this by cracking the shield instead of shattering it. That way you can slip unnoticed through the crack. This requires a great deal of skill and stealth. In order to create a very faint crack in someoneâ€™s mental shield some of the personâ€™s life energy that is currently keeping the shield in place needs to be diverted, the energy must be directed elsewhere. This can be done in moments of great pain or great pleasure. You need to stay alert for or create such moments, then slip in quickly.â€ â€œAre you saying that I need to either torture someone or seduce him in order to crack his mental shield?â€ Toom chuckled. â€œNo need to sound so indignant, child, remember extreme situations call for extreme measures. Also, bear in mind that if the person becomes aware of what you are doing, they can close the crack, thus trapping some of your energy. If this happens, you will be even more vulnerable to attack since all of your life energy is not available to you.â€ â€œWhat should I do if that happens?â€ â€œSince the person is now aware of what you were trying to do, discontinue all attempts at subtlety and shatter his shield immediately. When a person is in mortal peril, all of his life energy will be focused on fighting for his life. His shield is most vulnerable at this point. You can shatter it simply by focusing on the outcome intently.â€ â€œAll this is making me dizzy. Up until a few short weeks ago, my head was filled with financial statements, forecasts, and budget proposals, now my head is consumed with teleportation, telepathy, and epic battles!â€ â€œEnough for today, you need toâ€¦..what are you doing?â€ Toomâ€™s voice was sharp. Not aware that she was doing anything, Riley opened her eyes, and looked around. She was still sitting cross- legged but she was now floating a couple of feet above the frozen lake. Shocked, she hovered in mid-air for a second or two before crashing down to the icy surface. Toom was at her side in a flash. For the first time since she had met her, Toom smiled. â€œWell, child, looks like you also have the power of levitation.â€ Riley lay in her bed roll wide awake, listening to Toom snoring softly from the other side of the cave. She still did not know how she was able to levitate. She had done it quite unconsciously. Toom had assured her that all she had to do was picture herself floating above the ground, and she would. Riley had tried but had not moved an inch. Toom said that she was thinking about it too much that she just had to have a clear image of herself floating above the ground, then surrender. Riley had no idea what that meant. Surrender to what? She did not know exactly how levitation would help her in the upcoming epic battle. So much had happened since Max had brought her to Avalyss. The whole thing still felt surreal, like if she was having a very vivid dream. She was just Riley, not some Princess of Light, savior of Avalyss. She wished she was back home instead of in this frozen land, trying to master powers that she did not understand and did not want. Powers, which according to Toom, were her birthright. Suddenly, she became aware of a shadow in the crevice opening. Before she could move, the shadow was right beside her, amber eyes gleaming in the darkness. Pretending to be asleep, she opened her mind and called for Toom telepathically. Bright light flooded the entire cave and Toom was standing over her, snarling and growling at a huge lion. He was an impressive specimen, luxurious golden mane surrounded a massive head atop a sleek, muscled frame. If it came to a fight between Toom and the lion, Riley did not know which one would fare better. Physically, they appeared to be equally matched. The lion regarded Toom impassively, backed away, and sat back on its haunches. Unsure as to if the lion was friend or foe, she gazed from Toom to the lion. Total silence screamed within the cave. No one spoke, no one moved, it was as if a cocoon of silence had wrapped itself around the cave. Unable to stand it anymore, Riley asked â€œWhat is going on here? Toom do you know this lion?â€ The lion turned to her, amber eyes lingered on her face. â€œShe does. As do you, Princess,â€ the lion replied in Coleâ€™s whisky voice. Stunned, Riley could only stare as the lion leaped to its feet and transformed itself to Cole. Grinning, he tossed back his honey locks, and bowed low. â€œFeel free to applaud.â€ â€œCole, by coming here, you are endangering the Princess. No one can find out that she is here. You must leave immediately.â€ Toom declared. â€œNot without her. She must come with me.â€ â€œNo!â€ Riley shrieked. Ignoring her, Cole faced Toom, â€œYou must let me take her, it is the only way.â€ â€œShe has been entrusted to my care. You will have to go through me first to get her.â€ Toom replied. Cole stared at Toom for a long moment, then nodded â€œSo be it.â€ â€œNo.â€ Riley sprang between Cole and Toom. â€œI will not be fought over like a piece of meat. Cole, I will not go willingly, you will have to take me by force.â€ Coleâ€™s grin turned devilish â€œWith pleasure, Princess,â€ he purred. â€œShe is not ready.â€ Toom growled. â€œShe must come with me. You know that.â€ Sighing, Toom turned to Riley. â€œI am sorry, child, someday you will understand why I have to do this.â€ Toomâ€™s green eyes held Riley transfixed, she could not tear her eyes away. A wave of dizziness hit her, and she fell into those green depths, deeper and deeper till she lost consciousness. Riley awoke to the soothing sound of the ocean. She lay in a hammock. Sitting up, she looked around at what appeared to be some sort of tropical paradise, gentle aquamarine waves gently kissed a powder white beach. Inhaling deeply, the salty ocean air filled her lungs. Springing out of the hammock, she buried her toes in the smooth sand. Unable to resist the oceanâ€™s siren song, she plunged in head-first, the water cool and silky against her skin. After swimming for a while, she floated on her back, trying to spot shapes in the white fluffy clouds that hovered motionless in the electric blue sky. A favourite childhood game. A feeling of utter peace and calm descended over her, she felt ready to face anything. She back-stroked to the shore, and made her way back to the hammock. Immediately, her mind filled with questions. Where was she? How did she get here? Was she alone in this place? Where was Cole? Could she teleport to Toomâ€™s cave? Closing her eyes and focusing hard, she pictured Toom and the cave in her mindâ€™s eye while reaching for the core of power inside her. She felt nothing. The power was not there. She had felt it within her, growing stronger ever since Max had brought her to Avalyss. It was like tapping into electricity. But now it felt like the electricity had been turned off. The power was no longer there. Opening her eyes, Riley stared at the ocean in despair. What was she going to do now? â€œPenny for your thoughts, Princess?â€ Cole drawled. Gasping in surprise, she would have tumbled out of the hammock if Cole had not grabbed on to it. â€œI was just thinking that you always turn up like a bad penny.â€ Riley quipped, pretending a calm she did not feel. Dressed only in swimming trunks, his body was hard and muscled. With his honey hair framing his leonine face, he exuded sex and danger. He chuckled, a soft, seductive sound that made her tingle all the way to her toes. His amber eyes darkened as they raked her body. Her wet clothes clung to her curves. Unable to resist, he reached down and gently cupped one full breast, strong fingers gently kneading the soft flesh. His mouth crushed hers, his tongue plundering the sweetness within. Rileyâ€™s entire body melted into his, senses spinning as a wave of heat and passion swept her under. Riley knew she should stop but his mouth, hot and wet against her heated flesh, made her want more. Branded, she thought, as she pulled him into the hammock. As his body covered hers, his hungry mouth feasted on her breasts. Lost in the frenzied dance of their mutual passion, they were unaware of the hammock tilting dangerously to the left, until it swung too far, tumbling them both onto the sand. His head thudding hard against the sand brought Cole back his senses. He rolled to his feet, his expression unreadable as he gazed at Riley, her mouth bruised and swollen from his kisses, cheeks flushed and eyes filled with desire. â€œLetâ€™s get you out of those wet clothesâ€. His voice sounded hoarse and cracked. Waving his hand, her wet tunic and leggings turned into jeans and a white T-shirt. Shocked by her wanton behavior and his rejection, she snapped, â€œI am not your dress up doll, Cole.â€ Breathing hard, still fighting for some semblance of control, Cole put some more distance between them. â€œI am sorry, Princess. I should never have mauled you like that.â€ Stung by his cool demeanor, and cursing herself for a fool, she said with as much venom as she could muster. â€œWhat do you want? Did you bring me here to be some sort of sex toy?â€ His eyes turned cold. â€œI already apologized.â€ Turning on his heel, he stalked away. â€œNot so fast, buddy.â€ Riley raced after him. Cole stopped and waited for her to catch up. Breathless, she asked â€œWhy am I here?â€ Shrugging, he looked out at the turquoise ocean. â€œHave you ever wondered if we could refuse the path that destiny has chosen for us? Can we choose a different path?â€ â€œYou want us to find a way to thwart our destiny? To not have to battle each other?â€ He turned towards her, amber eyes full of some emotion she could not identify. â€œIt is worth a shot, donâ€™t you think?â€ Pacing back and forth, hands thrust in the pocket of her jeans, she thought about his words. It was certainly an interesting idea. Smiling, she said, â€œYou and me against the world right?â€ â€œNeither one of us chose this path. We are mere symbols of the ongoing battle between Good and Evil. Why should one of us be sacrificed?â€ â€œWhat can we do? Hide away on this island paradise and let the battle rage on without us?â€ â€œNo. Maybe we can find a way to stop the battle before it even begins.â€ She stopped pacing and turned towards him. Framed by the afternoon sun, he seemed to be surrounded by a halo of light and his strange amber eyes sparked. Her breath caught in her throat. Damn, the man, and his physical effect on her. She held out a hand. â€œI am willing to try if you are.â€ Grinning, he ignored her hand, and embraced her, pressed his lips to her hair. Rileyâ€™s body melted into his. In his arms I am home, the words rushed into her mind and heart. He stepped back. â€œI will call the Others.â€ â€œWhat others?â€ She asked looking around. â€œThe Others are a renegade group who wants to stop the battle. Tonight we will meet on the beach. Get some rest, Princess, it will be a long night.â€ His expression unreadable, he slowly faded from view. CHAPTER 8 Riley woke to the hiss and crackle of a bonfire. Looking down the beach, she saw emerald green flames leaping into the inky sky. Total darkness wrapped itself around the island, no stars twinkled in the sky, and no moon lit the way to the meeting place, only the eerie green fire disturbed the darkness. As she approached, she heard strange chanting sounds, and as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, she saw 8 robed figures encircling the fire. She felt a presence behind her, and turned to find a hooded figure, looking at her with gleaming amber eyes. Stifling a gasp, she took the hand he held out and allowed him to lead her to the circle. As they both sat, the chanting stopped, and an expectant silence took its place. It seemed as if the silence would last forever. Restless and a little freaked out, Riley was on the verge of speaking, when she felt Coleâ€™s fingers digging into her arm. Wrenching her arm away, she turned towards him, and almost missed the flash that appeared in the fire. A tall, hooded figure shimmered within the fire, its arms raised to the sky. Its hood fell back, revealing long white hair floating around a beautiful pale face. She smiled, revealing sharp, white teeth and said in a musical voice â€œWhy have you summoned me? I was busy dreaming, creating worlds within worlds.â€ â€œWe need your wise counsel, Diara. Avalyss is on the verge of an epic battle, we seek your help to stop it from happening.â€ Cole spoke, his tone respectful and humble. Diara looked at Cole, her steel grey eyes glowing in the darkness. â€œI cannot help you.â€ â€œPlease, Diara,â€ another voice spoke up, â€œwe believe that Cole is right. The epic battle between the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages will destroy Avalyss. We cannot sit idly by and allow it to happen. What purpose will it serve?â€ â€œAre you forgetting that there are two sides to this battle? What of the Princess of Light? What is her position?â€ Unable to speak, Riley could only sit and stare. Who was this Diara? She looked like a woman but she was no mere human, Riley was sure of it. Suddenly, she became aware that everyone was looking at her. She felt Coleâ€™s fingers squeezing hers and realized that they were still holding hands, a flash of pleasure arced through her. Taking a deep breath, she said, â€œI agree that this battle should not take place.â€ Diaraâ€™s grey eyes bored into Rileyâ€™s. â€œPrincess, it is a pleasure to meet you, at last. So you are siding with Cole? Do you ever wonder what dark arts he has employed to get your agreement?â€ â€œNo dark arts, it just makes sense.â€ â€œAh, Princess, you should know by now that the Universe rarely makes sense to mere mortals. It operates in its own way, within its own laws. Perhaps time has run out for Avalyss. Why not accept your destiny with grace and dignity?â€ â€œWhat is dignified about accepting defeat? Why should so many lives be sacrificed, including Coleâ€™s and mine? What purpose will it serve?â€ â€œAh, I have heard about your fire, Princess. Maybe you are the one who has ensorcelled Cole? â€œ â€œNonsense, we are trying to save our world. Help us or not but donâ€™t stand there spewing drivel.â€ Shocked gasps filled the air and Coleâ€™s fingers tightened against hers. Diara stared at her for a long moment, then she threw back her head and laughed, a rich, booming sound that echoed along the beach. â€œI like your Princess of Light, Cole. Very well, I will help you. But there are beings more powerful than I am, and they want the battle to take place. The only way to stop the battle is for Cole to become a Prince of Light or for you, Princess, to become a Dark Mage. Which will it be? â€ â€œThe Princess will become a Dark Mage,â€ the robed figures huddled around the fire, chorused in unison. â€œNo!â€ Riley cried. â€œThere must be another way. Why canâ€™t both the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages rule Avalyss together? Why must it be one or the other?â€ Silence greeted her speech. Then muttering sounds in a language she did not understand. Cole withdrew his hand from hers. â€œI assumed that you would side with the Dark Mages.â€ â€œWhy? I never assumed that you would join the Light Bringers. Canâ€™t you see that Balance is the only solution?â€ â€œBright as well as beautiful. The Light Bringers have chosen their champion well but maybe too well,â€ Diara said. â€œPrincess, your proposal is a difficult one. You will have to convince both the Dark Mages and the Light Bringers and this will be no easy task. But, perhaps, the most important person you have to convince is Cole.â€ Coleâ€™s amber eyes were flat and hard, â€œIt is late. We will continue this discussion tomorrow.â€ He disappeared and so did all the other black robed figures. Only Riley and Diara remained around the bright green fire. â€œBe careful Princess, Cole will try to change your mind. He wants to win and he wants you. To him the only solution is for you to join the Dark Mages. He will not back down without a fight. Be prepared and be strong. And, remember, always follow your heart. It will not lead you astray.â€ A blinding flash rent the night sky and Diara was gone. With a sputter the green fire suddenly died. Only Riley remained, a slight figure shrouded in darkness. Riley awoke to the sound of waves crashing along the shore. Her eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep. It had taken her a long time to fall asleep because her mind kept spinning in circles. Giant waves pounded the shore, the wind whipping the ocean into a frothy, seething mass. Storm clouds scuttled across the grey sky and the air felt hot and sticky. As she walked towards the waterâ€™s edge Riley mused that the angry ocean mirrored her inner turmoil. She had no idea what to do next. Cole was stubbornly set on her becoming a Dark Mage. That was the wrong path for her. Her feelings for Cole also added to her confusion. She could not deny the physical attraction between them. She only had to look at him, and her body hungered for his. Only in his arms did she become achingly alive. Almost as if her thoughts had summoned him, she saw Cole sitting on the beach a few feet in front of her. With his windblown honey hair streaming behind him, and dressed only in pair of faded jeans, he looked like a sexy, shipwrecked pirate. Her mouth suddenly became dry and she her heart thundered in her chest. He looked up, trapping her in his amber gaze. She felt herself falling into darkness, summoning every ounce of will power she possessed, she managed to tear her eyes away from his, breaking the spell. Dizzy from the effort, she sank to the sand. â€œWhat the hell was that? Were you trying to ensorcell me?â€ Masking his surprise at the strength she had shown in breaking the enchantment, he drawled, â€œNo. I think that you are the one who has ensorcelled me.â€ When she said nothing, he turned to look at her, studying her profile, her cute upturned nose, generous mouth, flawless bronze complexion, straight midnight black hair flying in the wind. His breath caught in his throat as her lush beauty assaulted all his senses but she was not destined to be his. He was determined to thwart destiny with or without her help. â€œWe both agree that an epic battle is not the answer,â€ he began. â€œWhat are your objections to joining the Dark Mages? With our combined power, you and I could accomplish great things.â€ Staring straight ahead, Riley huffed. â€œWhy not join the Light Bringers? Together we could accomplish great things.â€ Cole sighed in frustration. â€œTouchÃ©. But a Dark Mage could never become a Light Bringer. It is an unwritten rule in our world. A Light Bringer, however, can choose to join us. It has been done before.â€ Riley stood, stretched her legs. â€œWhy must we choose? Why canâ€™t the Dark Mages and the Light Bringers join forces?â€ She turned towards him, eyes pleading. â€œThat is the only way to stop the battle.â€ â€œThe time of the Dark Mages is at hand. We have waited centuries to rule. You donâ€™t know what it has been like for us, banished to the Dark Tower, reviled and barely tolerated. It is our turn to rule Avalyss.â€ â€œSitting there, spouting canned rhetoric, you sound like some kind of fanatic. You are an intelligent man. Use your brain to think outside the box, outside the future that others have mapped out for you. You asked me to choose a different path, now I am asking you the same thing.â€ Surging to his feet, Cole grabbed her, his fingers digging into the soft flesh of her arms. â€œHow dare you imply that I am some sort of puppet? I am the Lord of the Dark Mages and destined to rule Avalyss when I defeat you. I will fulfill that destiny.â€ Lowering his head, he crushed his lips against hers, forcing his tongue into her mouth, punishing, devouring, staking his claim. Shocked, Riley tried to push him away, but that only caused him to pull her tight against him. As she continued to struggle, they fell to the ground with Cole landing on top of her. His lips burned a fiery trail from her lips to her breasts. Rileyâ€™s need rose to meet his. Losing the battle for control, her fingers raked his bare back as she wrapped her legs around his waist, and twined her fingers in his hair. His mouth scorched not only her skin but her very soul. Her heart shuddered and surrendered to him willingly. Love and passion overrode her and all she knew was him. Mad with desire, they rode the wave of pleasure together. A wild scream burst from her throat and she collapsed against his chest. He held her close and gently kissed her hair. Rileyâ€™s heart ached. Destiny had set her on collision course with the one man, the only man she could ever love. She pressed her lips against his neck, inhaling his scent. Relaxed, she stretched like a cat, her body fluid and boneless. She had never before felt such physical bliss. Past lovers had never fit her so perfectly before. It was almost like he was custom designed for her, and she for him. Riley woke in Coleâ€™s arms, her midnight hair spread across his chest, their limbs entwined. Untangling herself, she stood and looked at him. His handsome face, innocent in repose, wore a soft smile. Tearing her eyes away, she walked towards the ocean. The wind had died, and the waves no longer roared but whispered against the shore. Dipping her toes into the water, and finding it warm, she plunged in and began to swim. She struggled with her feelings for him. Did she really fall in love mid coitus? Of all the stupid things she had ever done, this was the mother ship! He had made it clear that he wanted to rule Avalyss. She could not let that happen. Swimming faster, pushing her body to the verge of collapse, she tried to dispel the jumble of thoughts in her head but they continued to tumble round and round. Exhausted, both physically and mentally, she pulled herself out of the water and collapsed on the beach. A shadow appeared over her, honey hair tumbling over his shoulders, his face in shadow. Smiling, she held out a hand to Cole, but he remained motionless, his eyes moving slowly over her naked body. Suddenly he was on her, his mouth everywhere at once, wet and hot against her breasts, lips grinding into hers, tongue pushing into her mouth. Shocked by the sudden assault, Riley tried to push him away. Her entire body shuddered with revulsion. Suddenly, his weight shifted off her. Leaping up, she saw two figures rolling on the sand, both with honey blond hair. Crane, she thought, it was Crane who had been on her. Cole must have woken up, seen what was going on and pulled him off her. Helpless she watched as the brothers wrestled. Crane managed to straddle Cole, punching him repeatedly. Cole wrapped his legs around Craneâ€™s neck, flipped him, grabbing him by his hair, ground his face in the sand, then pulled him to his knees. â€œIf you ever lay a hand on her again, I will kill you. Now apologize to Riley,â€ he growled Crane, pale blue eyes defiant and full of hate, spat out a mouthful of sand. â€œWhy should I apologize for claiming what is mine? I am destined to be her mate. She should be apologizing to me for being such a shameless hussy. Just look at her standing there stark naked.â€ At his words, Rileyâ€™s body was instantly covered with jeans and a T-shirt. Cole yanked Crane to his feet, a murderous gleam in his eyes. For one moment, time stood still before exploding with sound, light and a flurry of movement. Figures clad in both white and black robes floated above the beach, a black furry body hurled itself at Riley, knocking her to the soft sand. Riley hugged the trembling body. â€œMax! I am so glad to see you.â€ No one else spoke. Cole still held Crane by the hair, his expression stony, his amber eyes blazing. Craneâ€™s face quivered, pale blue eyes bright with fear. Another explosion, and all the black robed figures along with Cole vanished. One of the white robes approached Riley, â€œPrincess, are you unharmed?â€ She recognized him as Elder Murrin, a member of the Higher Echelon, the one who had banished Toom. â€œYes,â€™ Riley met his eyes. â€œThanks to Cole. He stopped Crane from raping me.â€ A shocked gasp echoed from the group of white robed figures. Murrinâ€™s eyes, a flat mud brown, glowed with anger and disapproval. â€œWith all due respect, Princess, you have been under Coleâ€™s influence for many days. Donâ€™t you mean that Crane saved you from Cole?â€ Shoving Max off her, she pushed to her feet. â€œWith all due respect, Elder Murrin, I am in complete control of all my faculties. Cole did not harm me. But Crane attempted to. I demand that he be punished to the full extent of whatever passes for law in Avalyss.â€ Silence greeted her words. Murrin bowed stiffly. â€œWe will hold an emergency meeting of the Higher Echelon, Princess, to rule on this matter.â€ Another loud explosion, and this time Crane and all the white robed figures vanished. CHAPTER 9 Max stood guard over Riley as she slept in the guest bedroom of Sarriâ€™s suite in the castle. In the huge canopy bed, she looked thin and frail, her mouth swollen and bruised. He growled deep in his throat and vowed that the next time he saw Crane he would rip his throat out. How dare the bastard harm her? Light footsteps interrupted his dark thoughts as Sarri slipped into the dimly lit room. Her face was a bone white blob dominated by huge mercury eyes, smudged with dark circles. She tugged the blanket over Rileyâ€™s sleeping form. â€œIt is all my fault. I should never have sent her with Toom.â€ Max nudged her with his head. â€œDo not blame yourself, my Queen, you were only trying to help her gain mastery of her powers. The twins are to blame. Cole for taking her to that place, and Crane for attempting to ravish her.â€ Sarri, concerned at his outraged tone, pleaded for caution. â€œWe do not know what took place on that beach.â€ Max growled again, this time louder. â€œJust look at her, there are bruises all over her body consistent with fingers pressing into her soft skin, even her lips are bruised and swollen.â€ Sarri frowned. â€œYes. But those bruises could also have been made in the heat of passion and with Rileyâ€™s full consent and participation.â€ Max pinned his ears back, his expression fierce. â€œDid you not hear what Riley said, my Queen? She accused Crane of attempted rape. Are you saying that she lied? Or are you buying that idiot Murrinâ€™s opinion that she was under Coleâ€™s spell?â€ Sarri reached out and stroked his head. â€œSpoken like Rileyâ€™s protector and true friend. But how can we know for sure that she wasnâ€™t ensorcelled?â€ â€œBy choosing to believe her. She is strong enough to break any spell of Coleâ€™s.â€ Looking thoughtful, Sarri sat on the bed. â€œI think you are underestimating Coleâ€™s powers. But I also believe that Rileyâ€™s powers are greater that everyone suspects.â€ Loud knocking on the door caused Sarri to put her finger on her lips, signaling Max to be quiet. The knocking continued, louder and louder, then a slight pause, followed by what sounded like a battering ram pounding on the door. Mylor yelled. â€œOpen this door at once. The King and the Higher Echelon need to question the Princess.â€ Sarri transported herself out of the room and faced the crowd in front of the still tightly sealed door. No one could enter her private suite without her explicit consent. â€œRiley has been through quite an ordeal. She needs her rest. There will be time to question her tomorrow. For now let her sleep.â€ Mylor stamped his foot. â€œDamn it, Sarri. Do not try to be a mother to that girl now by coddling her. The charges she brought against Crane must be dealt with at once. At once, do you hear me? Now get out of our way. We are going in.â€ Sarri stood her ground. â€œNo. It will not harm Crane to spend the night behind bars. You dare to speak to me about coddling? No one has coddled Crane more than you, Mylor. Sometimes I wonder why he is such a favourite of yours?â€ All but foaming at the mouth, Mylor would have charged her, but Murrin pulled him back. â€œWe beg your pardon, your Majesty, we will yield to a motherâ€™s wisdom. We will question the Princess tomorrow.â€ Bowing low, Murrin waved his hand and they all vanished, leaving Sarri alone in the hallway. Sighing in relief, she teleported back to Rileyâ€™s side to watch over her during the night. Max felt himself spinning in a slow circle. Opening one eye, he closed it quickly as soon as he realized that he was in mid-air, high above the bedroom floor. Hearing a soft giggle, he opened both eyes this time, and spied Riley grinning up at him from the bed below. He started to spin faster, stopped suddenly then flew across the room at warp speed. His eyes tightly shut once more, heart stuck in his throat, he mentally pleaded with her to put him down. His body executed a perfect figure eight, stopped and descended rapidly. Bracing himself for impact he floated the last few inches to the bed. He gulped in some air. â€œHave you lost your mind?â€ Riley ruffled his fur. â€œSorry, just practicing my levitation skills. Did you notice that I did not drop you this time?â€ â€œThank goodness for small mercies.â€ He noted that her lips were still swollen. â€œAre you in pain?â€ She put her hand to her mouth. â€œNot much. Crane did not cause any physical damage. Cole stopped him before he could do that.â€ He stared at her, his emerald green eyes bright with curiosity. â€œSo the bruises are marks of passion? And not made by Crane?â€ Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she sighed. â€œStop pretending that you canâ€™t read my mind. You know the truth.â€ â€œI cannot read you. Your block is strong, hard to break or crack. Toom is an excellent teacher. Donâ€™t look at me like that, I had to try. You were hurt, I needed to know what was going on. So tell me what happened.â€ She turned her face away from his hypnotic gaze, fighting the urge to pour out her soul. She felt too raw to talk about it. She accepted that she had fallen in love with Cole. But he did not love her. Did he even really desire her? Or was he just trying to seduce her to join the Dark Mages? He had only kissed her when she refused to join him. Flushing, she recalled how she had acted in the throes of passion. She was no stranger to sex but it had always been mildly pleasant, little more than a release of tension. Never had she experienced such intense physical pleasure before. It had been wild, exciting, even magical somehow. Just thinking about it, she could feel her body responding. She needed to see Cole, needed to talk to him, needed his touch, his kiss, hisâ€¦.she pinched herself to stop her thoughts from heading in that particular direction. Max growled his impatience. â€œSo are you going to dish girlfriend or what?â€™ Laughing, she kissed the top of his head. â€œPromise me never to say that again. It sounds ridiculous coming from a big, scary black wolf.â€ Sarri appeared in front of them, her expression somber. She touched Rileyâ€™s cheek. â€œYou look well rested, Daughter. That is good. It will help to give you the strength to deal with my news. Crane has been cleared of all charges by the Higher Echelon.â€ Surging to her feet, Riley cursed under her breath. â€œThatâ€™s inexcusable. They cannot do that. They have not even heard my testimony.â€ â€œThey can and they did. The Higher Echelon can do whatever they please. Their decisions are absolute and usually made in the best interests of Avalyss.â€ Riley pushed her hair out of her face. â€œBut banishing Crane is the right thing to do. He is not worthy of being a Light Bringer.â€ Sarri nodded. â€œI agree. Brace yourself, I have more bad news.â€ As two pairs of bright eyes bored into hers, she continued. â€œCrane petitioned for your marriage to take place as soon as possible and the Higher Echelon granted his request.â€ â€œWhat?â€ Riley gasped. â€œI wonâ€™t marry him. He is a repulsive toad. Is it a common practice to marry women against their will in this realm?â€ Sarri shook her head. â€œNot at all but Crane is your destined mate. Also, he convinced the Higher Echelon that Cole bewitched you and that marrying Crane is the only way to break the spell.â€ â€œNever in a million years. They cannot force me into a loveless marriage. I am not under any spell and I am not convinced that Crane is my destined mate, on the contrary, I am certain that he is not.â€ â€œI am afraid that you have little choice, Daughter. The Higher Echelon is the supreme ruling body in Avalyss. No one can openly defy a direct order.â€ Riley arched her brow. â€œReally? By contacting Toom did you not defy a direct order? â€œ Sarri winked at her. â€œI said â€˜openly defyâ€™. I will help you but we have to make haste. They will come for you soon. It is surprising that they are not here already. Mylor and Crane wanted to stop me from breaking the news to you but the others felt that it was a motherâ€™s duty.â€ Max stared at Sarri. â€œYou will be punished for helping her. Mylor and Crane will both see to it.â€ Sarri nodded. â€œI will do anything to help my daughter. Their punishments mean nothing to me.â€ Riley grabbed her by the shoulders. â€œNo. I will not run away and leave you to be punished in my stead. But, first tell me, what is your plan?â€ â€œI will send you back to your world, to Earth. The Higher Echelon has no power over there and they cannot force you to come back here against your will.â€ Max rose to his feet. â€œI will take her back, your Majesty, that way you cannot be blamed. Just say that I took her before you could stop me.â€ Riley beamed. â€œThatâ€™s a great idea.â€ But Sarri only shook her head. â€œNice try, but it will not work. I have the power to stop you and everyone knows that.â€ Without warning Max lunged forward and sank his teeth into Sarriâ€™s neck. She crumpled to the floor, blood pooling around her body. Horrified at Maxâ€™s brutality, Riley froze in terror. At the same time footsteps sounded in the hallway. Max spun, grabbed Riley by her shirt collar, and she felt herself falling and whirling through space. CHAPTER 10 They landed in a heap on the floor of Rileyâ€™s Vancouver apartment. Still numb with shock, she lashed out at Max, kicking, punching, screaming herself hoarse. He made no move to defend himself, just let her fury and grief run its course. Finally, she collapsed in exhaustion. Tears still streaming down her face, eyes heavy with sorrow, she croaked, â€œWhy? Why did you kill Sarri?â€ Slowly, Max got to his feet, his whole body aching. â€œShe is not dead, wounded, yes. She will have a nasty scar but she will live.â€ Riley sat up, eyes wide with disbelief. â€œAlive? Are you sure? Blood, so much blood.â€ â€œI had to make it look good. A mere nip would not have convinced Mylor or the other members of the Higher Echelon.â€ He winced when she hurled herself at him, squeezing him tight. She drew back. â€œSorry, I should not have hurt you. I should have had more faith in you. I know that you will never hurt me or those that I love.â€ Max looked away. It was true that he could not hurt her. Guardians were incapable of hurting their charges. But he would hurt someone she loved if that person was a threat to her. His sole reason for being, his purpose, was to protect her. She had a destiny to fulfill and he was charged with keeping her alive. Riley moved around her apartment with a sense of disbelief. It felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Not quite a stranger in her home, but not completely at home either. She felt so different from the person who had had lived here, who had moved around these rooms, who had touched these things, who had picked out the furniture. Walking into the kitchen, she realized how hungry she was. Rummaging in the fridge, she sniffed at the carton of milk, fixed herself a bowl of cereal, and opened a can of dog food for Max. Watching him wolf down his meal, she asked, â€œWhat now? Do we hide out here forever? What will happen between the Dark Mages and the Light Bringers if I do not return to Avalyss?â€ â€œWe wait.â€ â€œWait for what?â€ â€œA sign.â€ Riley stared at him in exasperation. â€œWhat sign? Why are you being so bloody cryptic?â€ Sighing, he walked over to her, put his head in her lap. â€œAll I know is that we have to sit tight until we are summoned.â€ â€œWell, that helps a lot. What shall I do until then?â€ He walked over to the door. â€œSince we donâ€™t know how long weâ€™ll have to wait, why donâ€™t you go to work? The bills need to be paid and we have to eat.â€ Her mouth fell open in surprise. â€œWork? Good God, do I still have a job? I have been gone for weeks.â€ â€œTime moves differently in Avalyss. In this world, you have only been gone a few hours.â€ She looked out the window, the sun was just peeking above the horizon, the sky tinged with pink, crimson and orange. She stood motionless for a minute, drinking in the beauty of the sunrise. Shaking her head in disbelief, she set about getting ready for work. Although it was still early morning, the streets of downtown Vancouver were already clogged with traffic, the city throbbing with activity and urgency. It took Riley twenty minutes to walk to work from her apartment in the English Bay area. She worked in the Accounting department of a large financial firm nestled on the top floor of a tall office building near the Waterfront. From her office window, she had an excellent view of the cruise ship terminal, watching the ships arrive and leave. Staring at her overflowing in-tray, she reflected on how different her life had been in Avalyss where she had discovered and learned how to use her powers. Suddenly she sat up straight, a sneaking suspicion forming in her mind. Concentrating on her open filing cabinet while reaching for what Toom had called her inner power center, she felt something shift inside her, and the file that she wanted leaped into the air, flew across the room and landed at her feet, the contents spilling out on the carpet. A thrill coursed through her. It was real and not a dream, as the logical part of her mind kept screaming over and over. Hearing a sound, she looked up and saw Polly leaning against the doorjamb, wearing a surprised look. Wondering how long she had been standing there, and how much she had seen, Riley greeted her as normally as she could. Polly rubbed her eyes and laughed. â€œGood Morning, I must be imagining things. I thought I saw a file folder flying through the air.â€ Riley bent to retrieve the folder, hiding her sudden flush. â€œFlying file folders? Sounds like you have been working too hard.â€ A self-proclaimed workaholic, Polly laughed. â€œNo such thing. Work is fun. People who say that accounting is boring have no sense.â€ Rail thin with big, owl like glasses, a mane of shiny hair, and wearing an odious orange sweater sprinkled with pink bows, one of her own outlandish hand knit creations, Polly Fila was not only a fellow accountant but a friend. Riley longed to tell her about Avalyss but stopped herself. Logical, practical Polly would not believe a word she said and would probably fasten the straitjacket herself. â€œYour 9am appointment is here,â€ Polly interrupted her thoughts. Riley scrambled for her appointment book. â€œWhat? I donâ€™t have any meetings scheduled.â€ Polly grinned. â€œHe is a potential client, wants to know more about our accounting set up. Offered to fill him in myself but he specifically asked for you. Some girls have all the luck.â€ At Rileyâ€™s blank look, she continued, â€œhe is a serious hunk, straighten your blazer, brush your hair and wipe that lipstick off your teeth.â€ â€œI donâ€™t have time for hunks. Need to finish up the quarterly financial statements.â€ â€œTrust me this one is worth making the time for. Heâ€™s waiting for you in the Boardroom.â€ More than a little annoyed, Riley stalked down the hallway. Hunk or no hunk, she considered this a huge waste of her time. He was looking out the window, dressed in a snug business suit, his hair snaked back in a ponytail. Ponytail? She mused, some hunk. As he turned her heart whooshed to her throat, she stumbled and he grabbed her arm to steady her. She jerked her arm free as his fingers seared her flesh. His amber eyes burned into hers, branding her soul. She flushed at the memory of their last encounter, heard the blood pounding through her veins as all her senses sprang to life. Embarrassed at her physical response, she sank into the nearest chair. â€œWhat are you doing here?â€ Coleâ€™s physical reaction to her had been swift and unmistakable. He was sure all his blood was no longer in his head. The look of fear in her gorgeous bi-coloured eyes sickened him. Pretending a calm he did feel, he replied, â€œI need your help.â€ Her mouth flew open in surprise. â€œHow can I possibly help you? I donâ€™t even know how to help myself.â€ â€œExactly. Neither one of us can deal with this mess on our own, we need to work together. We need each other.â€ In more ways than one she thought, then quickly flushed. â€œThings did not go well the last time we agreed to work together. You were not willing to compromise.â€ He nodded. â€œYou have to understand, I was raised to believe that I would rule. Over and over I was told that my destiny was to usher in a new era. The time of the Dark Mages was at hand. I still believe in that destiny.â€ She opened her mouth to interrupt but he continued, â€œFor now, let us agree to disagree. We have different objectives in Avalyss. But here our objective is the same, we are being hunted by both the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages. To survive we must join forces.â€ â€œHunted? How do you know this? The Higher Echelon has no power here. I assumed the same was true for the Dark Mages.â€ â€œIt is true that they cannot cross over to this realm, but there are creatures that can cross over and either take us back by force or kill us.â€ â€œLike the Guardians?â€™ â€œThey can cross over but only to protect the Light Beings they are bonded to. They cannot be compelled to harm either one of us but there are other creatures that can be persuaded. Powerful creatures. Alone we are vulnerable but with our combined powers we stand a chance.â€ Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. â€œHow did you cross over?â€ â€œWith the help of a friend.â€ â€œWhat friend?â€ â€œI cannot say. If it were to become known that she helped me, her life would be in danger.â€ She pushed to her feet, moved to the window, watched a tug boat chug by. â€œWhy would they want to kill us? Each side needs one of us on their team in order to win the epic battle.â€ â€œYes, but there are renegades on both sides who want things to remain unchanged. Without us, things will continue as they are now. With the Light Bringers holding the majority of power and the Dark Mages relegated to the Dark Tower.â€ She turned, a somber expression on her face. â€œWhat happens if only one of us dies? The other side automatically rules? So the Light Bringers can kill you or the Dark Mages can kill me?â€ â€œOne side will gain supremacy over the other only if one of us kills the other. Or if both of us choose one side.â€ Fear flitted across her face. â€œSo if you kill me right now, you win. You get to fulfill your precious destiny. How do I know you wonâ€™t do the deed the minute my back is turned?â€ His eyes narrowed in anger. â€œI am a warrior, not a coward. You have my word that I will not kill you by stealth.â€ She studied him for a moment, the sun flooding through the window, turning his hair and skin to gold. â€œAnd you have my word as well. Okay, temporary truce. So what is our next step? How do we protect ourselves from these creatures you mentioned?â€ â€œGiven that the two of us are more powerful together than apart, we should stick together at all times.â€ Noting her arch look, he amended, â€œOr as much as possible. So it looks like you just got yourself a roommate.â€ A shiver ran up and down her spine at the thought of living in such close proximity to him. She was not sure she could keep her hands to herself. â€œMy place is not big enough for the two of us. Plus Max will not like the idea.â€ Cole threw back his head and laughed, a sensual throaty sound that caused her heart to beat faster. â€œThatâ€™s the understatement of the year. He will want to rip me apart. You need to convince him of the validity of this plan otherwise he will attack the moment he sees me. I do not want to hurt him.â€ Anger flashed through her as she remembered the last time he and Max had met. â€œIf you hurt him again, I will kill you and not by stealth.â€ â€œYou have my word that I will not attack him but I will defend myself if he attacks first, so you need to have a conversation with him first.â€ She nodded. She only hoped that Max would not attack her when he heard this crazy plan. â€œCan I still work or do we have to hole up in my apartment?â€ â€œYour apartment is the safest place for us. It is a kind of sanctuary. It would be very difficult for us to be attacked there. Our enemies will be reluctant to go up against both us and Max, at the same time.â€ â€œOkay, I will take some vacation time, and talk to Max. I donâ€™t like the idea of us all living together in such cramped quarters. We are bound to get on each otherâ€™s nerves.â€ She had an uneasy feeling that the danger may very well come from within rather than without. Dusk had fallen by the time she stepped out of the office building. A few cars were on the road, headlights puncturing the twilight. Pulling her coat tighter against the chill of the night air, she hurried home, heels clicking on the sidewalk. She wanted to break the news to Max before Cole showed up. She was still not sure if she could handle living with him since any time she clapped eyes on him, she just wanted to jump his bones. But this was the only plan they had. Preoccupied, she did not see the shadow slip beside her. It attacked in a flurry of snapping teeth and biting claws. Choking on its fetid breath, she tried to run, slipped and hit the pavement with a thud. Catching only a glimpse of baleful yellow eyes, the taste of fear sour in her mouth, she somehow managed to teleport herself to her apartment. All her breath was knocked out of her body as she slammed into the hardwood floor. Struggling to sit up, her heart stopped as a warm body hurled itself at her. Screaming, she struck out wildly and hit Max on the nose. He reared back, took in the blood on her face, shredded clothes, and the look of wild-eyed terror in her eyes. Fear sliced through him. â€œWhat happened?â€ She gasped, â€œattacked by something, not sure what.â€ With a noise like thunder, the creature flashed into the room. It had a manâ€™s body, scales instead of skin, the head and tail of a bull, and its hands were clawed like an eagleâ€™s foot. Its mad yellow eyes focused on Riley. Roaring to reveal huge, jagged teeth, it charged straight at her. Max leapt on its back, biting deep into its neck. It shrugged him off as if he were a mosquito and he flew through the air and landed in a crumpled heap. As he stumbled to his feet, Cole materialized, took in the situation at a glance, and hurled a fire ball at the creature who howled in agony as the bright blue flame consumed it. Cole turned towards Riley at the same time that Max lunged for his throat. â€œNo!â€ Riley screamed, levitating Cole so high in the air, that his hair brushed the ceiling. Max growled as his target floated beyond his reach. â€œPut him down so that I can finish him.â€ â€œNo. We have to talk. Cole will be staying here for a while.â€ â€œOver my dead body.â€ Riley scrambled to her feet. â€œWill you listen for minute? I am trying to tell you that Cole is on our side.â€ â€œHe is here to kill you.â€ Snarling, teeth gnashing, Max leapt in the air but Cole was beyond his reach. Riley glared at Max. â€œStop. Listen. Dammit, you can be so stubborn sometimes.â€ Cold green eyes stared back at her. â€œAnd you can be so bloody trusting.â€ Their angry gazes locked and held. Engaging in a heated mental conversation, they forgot about Cole who was still suspended in mid-air. As Rileyâ€™s anger escalated, Cole started to spin, slowly at first then faster and faster. Dizzy and nauseous, Cole closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths and yelled at the top of his lungs. â€œPut me down at once!â€ Oblivious, Riley and Max were motionless, wearing identical angry expressions, they continued to engage in a furious verbal combat. Cole, now a whirling dervish, fought desperately to hang on to the contents of his stomach. While his mind reeled in panic, a cold, calculating part of him noted the strength of Rileyâ€™s raw power, and how potent it could be if it was controlled and focused. He suddenly stopped in mid- spin then floated gently down. Sinking to his knees, he grabbed his stomach, and looked at his companions. Riley grinned. â€œSorry.â€ Max, ears pinned back, tail down, shoulders hunched, regarded him with murderous green eyes before stalking out of the room. Coleâ€™s eyes filled with concern. â€œYou are bleeding.â€ He gently touched her cheek. His fingers were warm at first, then burning hot, she tried to jerk away but he held her fast. The gash on her cheek closed and the feeling of wet blood on her face disappeared. He smiled, flashing those sexy dimples. â€œI have the power to heal. You wonâ€™t even have a scar.â€ His touch became gently caressing as hungry amber eyes devoured her face, coming to rest on her generous mouth. He bent his head, and touched his lips to hers. She leaned into the kiss, savouring the wild, dangerous taste of him. She moaned as his hand cupped her breast, searing the soft flesh through the silk of her blouse. Lost in a tide of love and passion, Riley jumped as an unearthly howl filled the air. Max, stood in the doorway, howling, his gaze flat and accusing. She started towards him, but his sudden snarl stopped her. â€œAre you out of your mind? Cole is the enemy.â€ Riley sighed in frustration. â€œWeâ€™ve already had that discussion. Temporary truce, combining forces against a mutual threat, any of this sound familiar?â€ â€œSorry, did not realize that a temporary truce meant that you planned on slobbering all over each other. Your taste in men is deplorable, by the way.â€ â€œEnough!â€ Cole stepped between them, ignoring Maxâ€™s warning growl. â€œWe need to stick together, work as a team, if we are to evade the creatures that are hunting us. Riley could have been killed today. We have to be prepared for the next attack.â€ Max glared at them. â€œDoes this preparation involve you two pawing each other? You do realize that you could have been attacked while your tongues were stuck down each otherâ€™s throats.â€ Riley flushed, trying desperately to dampen the flames of desire that still coursed through her. The passion between them burned white hot like a lit match igniting gasoline. Her eyes met Coleâ€™s, his face an inscrutable mask, she could not tell if he, too, was struggling for self-control. â€œYou are both aware that I do not like this arrangement. But given the attack today, working together is a necessary evil. We have to be alert at all times. We need to set some ground rules. It is dangerous game you are playing and deadly if you are caught with your pants down, literally speaking.â€ Max growled. Cole strode to the window, the night air cool on his face. â€œI give you my word that I will not touch Riley until we can get out of this situation.â€ Riley huffed out a breath. â€œNow that we are all on the same page, what is the next step? How can we prevent future attacks? What the hell was that creature?â€ Cole turned to face her, his face shadowed by the darkness seeping through the window. â€œIt was a saphyr, a race created and used by the Dark Mages as assassins. It must have been sent by a renegade faction. But it should not have gotten inside the apartment, how did that happen?â€ Max prowled around the room. â€œWhen it attacked her on the street, she teleported here. The magical energy she used left a trail which it followed.â€ She stopped pacing. â€œWhat? Are you saying that these creatures can find us if we use magic?â€ â€œThis apartment is magically sealed. I have seen to that. No one, except you or me, could teleport inside but when you use your powers you create a momentary opening in the seal.â€ Max arched his brow in Coleâ€™s direction. â€œHow were you able to get inside?â€ â€œShe gave me the key.â€ Cole replied. â€œI did not! What key are you talking about?â€ â€œDonâ€™t you see that by trusting him, by agreeing to the truce, you provided tacit consent for him to breach the seal? Be careful who you trust in the future. All our lives depend on it.â€ Max intoned in a preachy voice. The throbbing in Rileyâ€™s head mushroomed into a raging fire which threatened to engulf her entire skull. â€œMy head is about to explode. This is all too much. I am going to bed.â€ Wanting to follow her in into the bedroom, Cole drew on every ounce of will power he possessed to stop himself. His body hungered for hers. A menacing growl interrupted his thoughts as green eyes glared into his before Max loped after Riley. Cole had the uneasy feeling that the wolf had read his mind. Obviously, Max did not trust him. In order to get to Riley, he would have to go through Max but if he harmed him, she would never forgive him. Somehow he had to gain Maxâ€™s trust. His entire plan depended on Rileyâ€™s co-operation. Without her help, he would never rule Avalyss. He intended to rule. CHAPTER 11 Sunshine poured through the bedroom window creating a shimmering aura around Rileyâ€™s sleeping form, the golden light danced in her ebony hair. Crumpled bedsheets hinted that her sleep had been troubled and restless. Feeling the warmth of the morning sun against her body, she woke slowly. She yawned, stretching her tense muscles. Since her return from Avalyss, she had not exercised, her body craved a run. Sitting up, she spied Max lying in front of the closed bedroom room. Grinning, she launched a pillow at him. â€œWhat are you doing? Guarding my honor?â€ â€œSomeone has to. You donâ€™t seem to be doing such a good job of it yourself.â€ He yelped as a barrage of pillows rained down on him. He leapt straight at Riley, pinning her to the bed. Squealing, she grabbed his neck trying to twist him off. Wrestling, they both fell to the floor, shrieking with laughter. Drawn by all the hoopla emanating from the room, Cole stood silently in the doorway. It looked like they had wrestled for years, the giant wolf gentle with the slight human woman. The camaraderie existing between the two was something he had never experienced. For the first time he realized how isolated his life had been. All of his time had been spent studying, training, working towards fulfilling his destiny, eschewing any close personal relationships in a single minded pursuit of his goal. Shrugging off the jealousy that knifed through him, he snapped, â€œStop behaving like children, we have work to do.â€ Two pairs of laughing eyes met his frigid stare as a pillow sailed through the air and rapped him on the ear. Turning on his heels, he stalked out of the room, assaulted by fresh bursts of laughter. Minutes later, Riley emerged, dressed in running gear. â€œMax and I are going for a run. Do you want to come?â€ The red t-shirt and black running shorts hugged her body, showcasing each perfect curve. She looked slender, lithe and delectable. Shaking his head to stop his thoughts from drifting in a dangerous direction, he snarled, â€œHave you lost your mind? You cannot go running, we are being hunted, remember?â€ She started to do some warm up stretching exercises. â€œI refuse to be cooped up here indefinitely. Besides we should be in top form in order to face the creatures that are hunting us.â€ Cole reluctantly agreed but insisted that the three stay together at all times. Running on the seawall in Stanley Park, a stoneâ€™s throw from Rileyâ€™s apartment, the trio made a striking picture. The majestic black wolf loping along, the graceful woman runner, and the tall, handsome man running with ease and power, honey hair flying in the ocean breeze. Flushed, cheeks glowing after the run, Riley declared that she was ravenous, and elected to stop at the corner donut store. The pimply cheeked, greasy haired clerk behind the counter snapped to attention as she entered. Staring at her chest, licking his cracked lips, he smiled, revealing yellow, broken teeth. Riley, focusing on the vast selection of donuts, did not notice the direction of the clerkâ€™s avid stare but Cole did. He leaned over, and whispered viciously in the clerkâ€™s ear, â€œPut your eyes back in your head otherwise I will pluck them out.â€ Bristling with indignation, he opened his mouth to swear at Cole, but one look into those frigid amber eyes and his anger died, replaced by a cold, numbing fear. With shaking hands, he filled Rileyâ€™s order, keeping his eyes fixed on the floor. â€œThat guyâ€™s a creep,â€ Cole said as they headed back to Rileyâ€™s place. â€œWayne? Heâ€™s a bit of a lech but harmless,â€ she replied, munching on a Boston CrÃ¨me donut, savoring the creamy filling. She held out the bag to him. Cole picked one, took a huge bite, gagged and promptly spat it out. â€œDisgusting. It tastes just as vile as liver.â€ She choked on her donut. â€œDid you just compare donuts to liver?â€ â€œActually they are worse than liver, since liver is good for you.â€ â€œA life without donuts is a life not worth living.â€ Chuckling, Cole realized that he was enjoying himself. He relaxed his guard a little. He walked right past the hooded figure and would have missed it entirely if he had not stopped to look at some jewelry in a window display while Riley and Max entered the apartment building. Catching the reflection in the glass, he gasped, and spun to face the man cloaked in black. His mentor, head of the Dark Mages and the closest thing to a father that Cole had, Tyror, stood in front of him looking so out of place on the busy street that Cole wondered why no one was staring. Then it clicked that Tyror was not there in the flesh, just his projected image which would be invisible to everyone else. He was taller than Cole by a few inches, skinny, almost emaciated looking, with a stern forbidding face, thin lips, and glossy black eyes. Since he seldom spoke, his voice was rusty. â€œWhat is taking so long? You must return immediately. Our plan needs to be put into place.â€ Cole mumbled beneath his breath. â€œI need more time. She is not ready yet, and I cannot bring her back against her will. Her Guardian is always around. I need to get her alone. Just give me more time.â€ â€œHurry. We cannot delay much longer. Kill the Guardian if you have to. You cannot force her to come but you can trick her. Make it happen and soon.â€ His image slowly dissolved, until only his eyes were left floating in space. They slowly faded, and Cole was all alone, dark thoughts swirling in his head. Cursing under his breath, he reflected that the day had lost all of its beauty and charm. How could he have been enjoying himself? Acting like a bloody tourist, like if he was on holiday. He liked Riley, hell, he was even beginning to like Max, but he had a job to do, a mission. He could not let feelings stand in his way. His destiny was at stake. Riley stood in the shower, hoping the warm water would wash away her thoughts. She had enjoyed spending time with Cole. He was charming, clever and devastatingly handsome. Her heart kept doing little flip flops. There was one moment when he had donut crumbs on his lips, and she had fought the urge to stand on tiptoe and lick them off. She was both in love and in lust, pure unadulterated lust. She turned off the hot water and finished her shower with ice cold water. Wrapped in a towel, she stepped out of the bathroom and straight into Coleâ€™s arms. Her heart stood still as his eyes raked her body, they seemed to see through the towel. The punch of arousal knocked the breath out of her body. She leaned into him, tilted her head up, heard him groan just before his lips crushed into hers. His mouth ravished hers. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him back, her hunger matching his. Savouring the wild taste of him, she put her arms around his neck, letting her towel fall to the floor. Abruptly, Cole stepped back, retrieved her towel, dropped it around her shoulders and stalked off without saying a word. Riley stood gaping after him, reeling from hurt, confusion and embarrassment. Still feeling the pressure of his mouth on hers, the passion and promise of his kiss, she wrapped the towel around her chilled body and hurried to her room. Max paced the living room, sneaking occasional glances at Cole and Riley, sensing that something had happened between the two. They were meeting to come up with a game plan, to figure out the best way to deal with future attacks. So far no one had said much. Sitting in the rocking chair, Coleâ€™s face was an inscrutable mask while Riley sprawled on the sofa, biting her lip. Sighing, Max said, â€œAny ideas?â€ Cole stood, walked around the room, peered through the window at the westering sun. â€œI was not entirely honest with you.â€ Seeing Maxâ€™s narrowed eyes and hearing Rileyâ€™s gasp, he continued, â€œonly the Light Beings are hunting me. The Dark Mages sent me here to bring Riley back.â€ Riley sat up straight, a look of fury on her face. â€œYou came here to kidnap me? Why?â€ He shook his head. â€œNo, you must come willingly. When the Dark Mages heard of the Higher Echelonâ€™s decree that you marry Crane, they sent me here to convince you to marry me instead.â€ Max snarled, â€œOver my dead body.â€ Riley got unsteadily to her feet, heart thundering in her chest, wondering if he loved her after all. â€œYou want to marry me?â€ He turned, his eyes frozen pools of amber. â€œIf you marry me, then our destinies will be joined. We cannot then be forced to battle each other. We will be on the same side. The Dark Mages will rule Avalyss.â€ Pain knifed through her while anger hit her like a fist. How could she be so foolish to even think that he loved her? â€œYou mean you will rule Avalyss. That has always been your goal.â€ â€œYes. But will marrying me be such a hardship? You cannot deny the physical attraction between us.â€ Riley stalked towards him, face tight, fists clenched. â€œSex and power. Is that all you are interested in? I do not want the Dark Mages to rule. I do not seek power only balance and harmony.â€ Cole, his own anger rising, kept his face and voice neutral. â€œStop being so naÃ¯ve. Power is the only path. Will you come back to Avalyss with me?â€ The setting sun turned her ebony hair red and orange giving her a fierce and fearsome aspect. â€œI will not.â€ Cole bowed. â€œVery well. You give me no choice.â€ Raising his arms, he muttered strange nonsense words, whirled and transformed into a huge yellow lion. Tossing his luxurious mane, throwing back his impressive head, he roared, a blood curdling sound that echoed eerily around the small room. Without warning, Max charged but the lion batted him away with a gigantic paw. Max fell on his back and before he could get to his feet, the lion leaped on him, roaring in triumph as his enormous teeth descended towards Maxâ€™s throat. The lionâ€™s amber eyes met Rileyâ€™s and spoke in Coleâ€™s whisky voice â€œEither you come with me or he dies. The choice is yours.â€ Max tried to free himself but he was securely pinned. â€œNo, he cannot take you against your will.â€ He howled in pain as the lionâ€™s paw slashed his face, blood poured from the wound. â€œShall I finish him? Or will you come? â€œ The lion growled, his teeth bone white against the deep black of Maxâ€™s fur. Helpless, tears streaking down her face, Riley nodded. â€œI will go with you. Please donâ€™t hurt him.â€ Growling again, he hurled himself at her, grabbed her by the scuff of her neck, his breath hot against her skin. Wincing at the sharp pain as his teeth scraped her flesh, Riley fell into darkness. Max watched as they disappeared. Howling in rage and despair, he dragged himself to his feet. He had not been hurt except for the gash on his face. He had to go after them. Cole had taken her to Avalyss but he did not know where. Besides he had to hurry. The magic Cole used had created a huge rent in the fabric of protection around the apartment. Not liking his chances of taking on a horde of saphyrs by himself, he teleported to Avalyss. CHAPTER 12 The restless voice of the ocean roused Riley. Sitting up she noticed that she was on a rooftop, a wide circular space with a concrete floor and iron railing. The night sky, unadorned by stars, surrounded her, pressing in on her so she felt that she was suspended in space, adrift on a sea of darkness. Creeping to the railing, she looked down at the inky ocean encircling the narrow thin structure thrusting skyward. The sea and sky merged into one vast dark space, pulling her into its void. Furtive rustling sounds shook her out of her disquieting reverie, eyes adjusting to the dark she saw a shadow gliding towards her. Chilly fingers of fear clutching her heart, blood thundering through her veins, she froze as the shadow rustled closer. Stopping mere inches away from her, it clapped its hands and a ball of golden light appeared, floating above their heads. Unmasked by the light, the shadow became a woman with blond curls, ivory skin, and sherry brown eyes. She wore a scornful expression and a red silk gown which rustled when she moved. Her eyes raked Riley from head to toe, lush lips curling in disapproval. â€œSo you are the famous Princess of Light,â€ she sneered in a falsetto voice. Dressed in a T-shirt, and jeans, Riley felt shabby next to this lovely vision in red. Holding her head high, she said, â€œIn the flesh. And you are?â€ Ignoring her question, the woman continued to examine Riley who was beginning to feel like a new species of disgusting insect. Nodding her head once, as if she had come to some kind of agreement with herself, she said, â€œCole belongs to me. I will not let you waltz in here and take my fiancÃ©e away from me. Stay away from him or I will kill you.â€ Stunned, Riley gaped at her. Coleâ€™s fiancÃ©e? But he had asked her to marry him, had made exquisite love to her. The bastard, he would do anything to rule, including cheating on his fiancÃ©e. And she had foolishly hoped that he might love her or at least want her. With a smile full of venom, the woman grabbed her arm. â€œCome with me. The Council will see you now.â€ Riley fell through darkness and landed in a clearing in the midst of a wooded area roughly shaped like a circle. A blue fire burned in the center. Massive trees surrounded the circle, trunks so close that they appeared joined together, leaves forming a canopy overhead. It was almost like if the trees were guardians of the clearing, protecting its secrets. A chill wind blew, whipped her hair across her face and tore at her shirt. Seeking warmth she moved closer to the blue fire. The wind did not affect the woman in red, her blond curls remained undisturbed. The wind was everywhere except where she was. Pondering on the strangeness of this phenomenon, Riley almost missed the head that appeared in the fire. Startled, she rubbed her eyes, and looked again. The head was still there, with its white hair shimmering in the fire and merry steel grey eyes, grinning at her. Gasping, she realized that she knew who this head belonged to. â€œDiara, is that you?â€ â€œGreetings, Princess of Light. Have you decided to join the Dark Mages?â€ â€œNo. I still think both the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages should govern Avalyss together. Cole brought me here. Can he force me to marry him?â€ Before Diara could reply, the woman in red pushed between Riley and the fire. â€œExalted one, she is not worthy of your help. She is the enemy.â€ Diaraâ€™s grey eyes turned to chips of ice. â€œPaisley. I am surprised that you are here since Cole intends to marry the Princess of Light. Why would you help him?â€ Paisley laughed, a harsh sound that ripped through the clearing. â€œHelp him? Not bloody likely. I am here to stop him! There are other ways to accomplish his goal, he does not need her.â€ â€œAnd you think that he needs you? Time for you to give up. He does not love you and never will.â€ Tossing her curls, wiggling her hips, she smirked. â€œHe loves me just fine.â€ Pain knifed through Riley as an image of Cole lying naked in Paisleyâ€™s arms flashed into her mind. Silver streaks of light filled the air accompanied by strange whistling sounds as a circle of hooded, dark robed figures appeared in front of the fire. Grabbing Rileyâ€™s arm, Paisley hauled her closer to the fire. Pulling away, Riley rubbed at her arm where Paisleyâ€™s long nails had dug into the soft flesh. One dark robed figure stood in the middle of the circle, and beckoned to her. Recognizing the flash of amber as the figure turned its head, she moved to Coleâ€™s side. The rest of the dark robed figures were seated around them, chanting, an eerie sound that echoed around the clearing, raising the hairs on the back of Rileyâ€™s neck. Coleâ€™s hand slipped into hers, warm and strangely reassuring, given that they were on opposite sides. The chanting stopped, replaced by a silence so alive that she could almost hear it breathing, a harsh guttural sound. Cole stepped closer to the fire, pulling Riley along with him. His whisky voice shattered the silence. â€œGreetings, Exalted One. Thank you for heeding our summons. The Council has decreed that I must marry the Princess of Light and we need you to perform the ceremony.â€ Paisley, standing beyond the circle, gasped and let out an involuntary â€œNo!â€ Ignoring her, Diara studied Cole with somber grey eyes. â€œIs this also the Princess of Lightâ€™s decision?â€ Coleâ€™s grip tightened on Rileyâ€™s hand. â€œShe agreed to come here, to the province of the Dark Mages, therefore the Council has the power to make this decree.â€ Glittering grey eyes swiveled in Rileyâ€™s direction, eyebrows raised. â€œDid you agree?â€ Wrenching her hand from Coleâ€™s grasp, she replied, â€œYes but he threatened to kill Max if I did not!â€ Before Diara could respond, Cole said, â€œShe agreed. The reason why is not important.â€ Throwing back her head, Diara shrieked with derisive laughter. â€œPriceless. Technically, you are correct but I am disappointed. How could you let your ambition make you stoop so low? Among the Dark Mages, you are known for your honor and integrity. In your heart, you know that this marriage should not take place until you have her whole hearted agreement. I cannot countenance this decision. You do not have my blessing.â€ One of the dark robed figures shouted, â€œWith all due respect, Exalted One, we do not need your blessing. There are others who will perform the ceremony.â€ The strength of the wind increased, fanning the flames of the blue fire into a whirlwind. Cole dragged Riley back as sparks flew around the clearing. Whirling, he spun towards the circle of Dark Mages, his face twisted in anger. â€œWhich one of you idiots said that? We cannot afford to lose Diaraâ€™s favour.â€ Facing the fire once again, he yelled above the wind, â€œExalted One, we beg your forgiveness.â€ With a sputter, the fire shrank until it was nothing but a wisp of flame. Diaraâ€™s face hovered above it, sparking with fury. â€œI have been more than generous to the Dark Mages. But be warned my benevolence could be halted at any time. Do not insult me again. You are free to have someone else perform the ceremony but it will not be in your best interests. May I offer a suggestion?â€ Cole nodded. â€œI want only you to perform the ceremony, Exalted One. Please what is your advice?â€ â€œWait a while. Keep the Princess of Light here. Show her around, let her see the ways of the Dark Mages. Try to win her over to your side. Given time she may come around.â€ Diaraâ€™s image vanished, along with what was left of the fire, plunging the clearing into darkness. Strong hands wrapped around Rileyâ€™s neck, squeezing tight. Struggling for breath, she tried to shout for help but no sound escaped her throat as the squeezing intensified. Desperation gripped her as consciousness faded, kicking out she connected with bone, heard her assailant swear but the grip around her neck did not loosen. The waiting blackness surged up and claimed her. Burning pain yanked Riley awake. Slumped on the ground with her wrists pinioned behind her back, she was in a small, cylindrical room with a steel door. A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling, casting a dull glow which intensified the shadowy atmosphere. A dripping sound made her look up. Water leaked from an overhead pipe into a puddle near her feet. She took in a lungful of stale, dank air, choking on its metallic taste. Dragging herself to a sitting position, she tried to free her wrists but they were bound with a thin circle of wire that tightened the more she struggled. She had no idea where she was but she was certain that Cole would be looking for her. He needed her to fulfill his precious destiny. To alert any would be rescuers, she tried to shout but emitted only a hoarse croak, her throat was still sore from almost being strangled. Trapped and helpless, all she could do was wait and hope that Cole would find her soon. Closing her eyes, she sought relief from the pain by falling into a deep sleep. . Riley dreamed that she was in a bathtub, the water warm against her skin, jasmine scented bubbles permeating the air. Relaxed, she leaned her head against the wall and immediately it slipped beneath the surface. Gasping, water in her nose and mouth, she dragged her head up and woke to the dire reality of her situation. She was sitting in freezing water up to her neck, smelling an odor redolent of dead skunk with her wrists still bound. Choking on the fetid smell, she saw that the dripping pipe was slowly filling the room with water. Death by drowning would be her fate if she did not find a way to escape. Terror granted her a strange kind of calmness, her mind focusing on only the need to survive. Standing, the water was almost up to her hips, she was not sure how much time she had left. She could not wait to be rescued, her survival depended on her. Trying not to breathe too much of the rank air, she waded to the steel door. Earlier, she had assumed that it was locked, and although she still believed it to be, she still had to try. Twisting her body so that her bound wrists faced the door, she turned the knob. It refused to yield, but the act of turning the knob tightened the wire around her wrists causing her to cry out as fresh waves of pain shot up her arm. Taking a deep breath, she tried to think in spite of the tight band of fear clutching her heart. Panicking was a luxury she could not afford. Chilled by the steadily rising water, dizzy from its foul odor, she looked around the room for a possible route of escape. None was visible, the walls and ceiling were concrete columns. Sagging against the wall, she could almost feel Deathâ€™s bony fingers reaching out to her, its rancid breath hot on face. A bitter laugh burst from her frozen lips, drowning in a room full of stinking water was to be the grand destiny of the Princess of Light after all. She almost smacked herself on the head as the knowledge slammed into her. She was the Princess of Light and she had powers. Maybe she could use them to save herself. But what if they didnâ€™t work? She had to try. Closing her eyes, she reached for her power center and tried to teleport herself out of the room but nothing happened. She did not move, not even a wobble. Perhaps the room itself prevented teleportation much the same way that Sarriâ€™s room allowed only her to teleport in and out. Allowing herself a small sigh of despair, she noted that the water was now at shoulder level. She did not have much time left. Shivering in the freezing water, teeth chattering, she found it hard to think. Numb except for the fiery band of pain around her wrists, she could almost hear the seconds ticking away. Teleportation did not work but she had other powers. Closing her eyes, she pictured the wire band binding her wrists and reached for her power center. The wire band jiggled, a movement so slight that she thought for a moment that she had imagined it. Hope rising, she tried again, putting everything she had into it, and this time the wire band lurched into the air, and fell with a splash into the freezing water. Her brief laugh of triumph, tinged with rising hysteria, ricocheted off the concrete walls. Even with her hands now unbound she was still no closer to getting out of the room. With the water now licking her neck with its icy tongue, intent on devouring her, she cast about in desperation for some way out. Her eyes fell on the steel door. Closing her eyes once again, focusing fiercely, she tried to levitate the door. Nothing happened. The door remained stubbornly in place, her guard and her executioner. Weak from fear and cold, the strength of her powers were dwindling. Despair swirled around her, for one brief moment, she had grabbed at a ray of hope, only to watch it elude her grasp. Tears filled her eyes, ran down the frozen slab of her face, and salted her tongue. She was going to die, alone and defeated. With what little remained of her will to live, she roused herself from her pity party, she had to fight. Since her only hope for escape was through the impenetrable steel door, she studied it. Water covered most of it. Maybe she had enough power left to levitate the doorknob. She needed a clear picture of the doorknob in her mind so she took a deep breath and ducked under the freezing water. Unable to see through its murkiness, she groped blindly for the doorknob, exploring it with her fingers, discovering that it was smooth, round and held together with four screws. Lungs screaming for air, she surfaced and discovered that she had to stand on tiptoe to breathe, the water level appeared to be rising at an alarming rate but maybe it was just her fevered imagination playing tricks. Dampening down the rising panic, she closed her hers and pictured the doorknob floating to the ceiling. It did not budge. Desperate she tried again and achieved the same result. Defeat settled around her shoulders like a mantle of steel pushing her to her knees. Submerged in the foul water, she waited for Death to claim her. Suspended in the nether world between life and death, she heard a soft voice command, â€œLive or Die. Choose. It is your choice. Choose now.â€ â€œLife. I choose life.â€ Rileyâ€™ shouted but the words were little more than a whisper. White blinding light filled the room and she found herself floating on the surface, the ceiling of the room about a foot above her head. If she stood, the water level would be above her head but if she continued to float she could still breathe, at least until the water filled the room completely. She still had time to find a way out. The word â€œscrewsâ€ slipped into her mind. Yelping as sudden understanding flooded through her, she focused on one of the screws affixed to the doorknob, reached for her power center and pictured the screw leaping into the air. With a whooshing sound, the screw rose into the air and hovered over her head. Bursting with elation, she made short work out of the remaining three screws. As the last screw leapt to join the others, she heard a clunk as the doorknob fell to the floor. It was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard, until she heard the sound of water rushing through the hole where the doorknob used to be. The water level in the room started to drop. The water rushed out as Riley wrenched the door open. Tumbling, swallowing some of the disgusting sludge, she struggled to her feet. Soaked, smelly and shivering, she wondered if she had really heard a voice in the room? It did not really matter, she was alive, blessedly alive and grateful to the voice, imaginary or not. Grinning, she looked around. She appeared to be in an underground tunnel, serpentine in shape with the walls and ceiling covered in moss. Seeing a light in the distance, she walked towards to it ignoring the flutters of anxiety running up her spine. Turning the corner, she discovered a big cave, flooded with sunlight pooling from a hole in the roof. Momentarily blinded by the harsh light, she blinked a couple of times as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. Spotting an iron door embedded in one cave wall, she hurried over, but could not find a doorknob or keyhole. The door appeared to be just a solid sheet of iron. Hearing footsteps, she jumped back, stifling a yelp. Heart thudding in panic, she looked around for a place to hide. She considered running back down the tunnel but that would lead only to the cylindrical room, a dead end.Looking up at the opening in the roof, she jumped grabbed an edge and hauled herself through the hole just as the door slid open. Crouching on a web of massive rocks, almost deafened by the roar of the ocean glittering in the distance, she strained to listen to the voices echoing from the cave below. â€œShe should be drowned by nowâ€, announced a high-pitched female voice that sounded vaguely familiar. â€œYou have done well. You have earned your reward.â€ The second voice was male. â€œEven without the reward I would have done it. The bitch deserved to dieâ€. The womanâ€™s voice was filled with venom. â€œYou are quite the hellcat. I am glad that we are on the same side. Cole may suspect you, I think he already does. He knows that you did not agree with the Councilâ€™s decree. You were quite vocal about it.â€ â€œLeave Cole to me. I know how to handle him. When he hears my plan he will thank me for saving him from a fate worse than a thousand hells.â€ Peering over the edge of the opening, Riley saw a head of blonde curls. Paisley. Paisley had tried to kill her, she should have guessed. Rage surged through her as she vowed to wring Paisleyâ€™s scrawny neck at the first possible opportunity. She did not recognize the tall man with the hatchet face and thick black beard whose cold grey eyes brimmed with admiration as he looked at Paisley. Paisley strutted towards the tunnel, blond curls bouncing. â€œCome, it is time to take out the trash.â€ Riley leapt to her feet. In minutes they would discover that she had escaped, she had to find a place to hide. Clambering down the rocks, she raced down the rocky trail towards the ocean. Legs pumping, panting, still weak from her experience in the cylindrical room, she tried to teleport by closing her eyes and picturing Max. Nothing happened. She heard shouts in the distance and the sounds of pursuit. A sudden flash appeared directly in her path causing Riley to stumble and fall. The flash faded leaving a smirking Paisley in its place. Holding a fire ball in one hand she advanced towards Riley. â€œWhere do you think you are going, Bitch? Straight to Hell thatâ€™s where!â€ As she raised her arm to hurl the fireball, Riley, desperation and terror giving her strength, managed to teleport to the person that popped into her mind in what could have been her final moment of life. Paisleyâ€™s mouth fell open as Riley disappeared. Screaming in fury, spittle running down her chin, she hurled the fireball at a tree, watched it burst into flames and incinerate. She had to stop Riley from telling Cole the truth. She had risked everything for power. She could not lose now that victory was almost within her grasp. CHAPTER 13 Cole paced his bedroom as furious and impotent as a caged lion. He had searched everywhere for Riley using both physical and magical methods. He remembered the cold fear washing over him that night in the clearing when she had turned up missing. Fury and guilt had now joined fear, the triad of emotions roiling in his gut. If any harm came to her, it would be on his head. He had brought her here ruled by ambition and a lust for power. Rubbing his throbbing head, he crashed to the floor as something slammed into him. Swearing, flat on his stomach, he appeared to be pinned by a solid object. He could feel its warmth seeping into him, the sensation not all unpleasant. Puzzled, he reached a cautious hand back, and yelped as his fingers encountered soft flesh. Grunting, he shoved the object off him, pushed to his feet and whirled to face it. A hoarse cry ripped from his throat as he recognized Riley lying motionless on the floor, not breathing. He dropped to his knees, pressed his face against hers, and heard the soft sibilant intake of breath. Joy dancing in his heart, he picked her up and strode over to his bed. Tucking her in with a tender caress, he kissed her brow and went in search of the medic. Icy water surged over her head, struggling for breath, desperate for oxygen, she swam to the surface but just before she reached it, something grabbed her leg, pulling her under. Thrashing, she opened her mouth to scream and the filthy water rushed in. A piercing scream rent the air and yanked Riley out of the nightmare. Sunlight, like molten gold, poured through the open window along with a soft breeze fragrant with jasmine. Lying on a four poster king sized bed, red silk sheets cool against her fevered skin, she was in a large room ringed with windows all boasting a view of the azure ocean, shimmering in the sun. Thunder filled the room as Cole appeared in a flash of blinding light, face pale and anxious, amber eyes lashed with fear. Perching on the bed, he took her hands into his trembling ones. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong? Heard you scream. Are you okay?â€ Words tumbled out in a rush of anxiety. â€œSorry. I was dreaming.â€ Riley croaked, gasping as a burning pain encircled her throat. Cole poured a glass of water from the glass pitcher resting on the nightstand, held it to her lips as she drank. Although it was difficult to swallow, the water helped douse the ring of fire in her throat. Anger flooded his eyes as he glanced at the blue-black finger shaped marks marring her neck. â€œHow are you feeling? You have been asleep for three days. I was worried.â€ Riley drew back in surprise. He was worried about her. She felt light-headed not sure if it was caused by her recent ordeal or because his warm hand clasping hers, fingers moving across her palm in an unconscious caress, causing a delicious tingle to run up her spine. â€œDo you know the bastard who did this?â€ He gently touched her neck with one finger. Fighting to control the physical sensations his touch evoked, she hesitated. She remembered everything, but would Cole believe that his fiancÃ©e had tried to kill her? Fear flickered over her as she realized that Paisley would be motivated to silence her before she could tell the truth. If she had been unconscious for three days, how come Paisley had not yet gotten to her? She just had to look into the fierce amber eyes of the man in front of her to know the answer. Cole had installed himself as her protector; no one would harm her while he was around acting like a mother bear. Riley stifled her laughter at the ridiculous image that flashed into her head. Taking a deep breath, she plunged into the story, beginning with someone trying to strangle her in the clearing and ending with Paisley poised to throw the fireball. Cole listened without interrupting, his face impassive but when she got to part of the story featuring the cylindrical room, he jumped to his feet and started to pace. After she finished, a gossamer web of silence hung in the air, neither occupant willing to break it, as if they sensed that once the conversation resumed, something fragile, precious and newborn would shatter. Sighing, Cole turned away from the window. â€œHow did you get here, to my bedroom?â€ Riley frowned. â€œIâ€™m not sure, itâ€™s all jumbled together. I was in a panic, and must have thought of you while trying to teleport at the same time.â€ â€œPaisley said that she teleported you. A rebel group of Dark Mages were chasing you and she got you to safety before dealing with them.â€ A snort of derisive laughter escaped her lips. â€œSo it comes down to her word against mine. Of course, you will believe your fiancÃ©e.â€ â€œPaisley is not my fiancÃ©e. My destiny is linked with another.â€ His amber eyes glowed with intensity as he looked at her. Flushing at the unexpected warmth of his gaze, a wave of relief overwhelmed her. â€œWhy donâ€™t you believe me? I have no reason to lie.â€ Cole pushed a stray lock of honey blond hair out of his eyes. â€œItâ€™s not that I donâ€™t believe you. By your own admission you were cold, tired and scared that you were going to die. Perhaps you misinterpreted the situation. You saw Paisley with the fireball and assumed that she was aiming at you instead of the rebels.â€ Irritated at how easily he had swallowed Paisleyâ€™s story, she asked, â€œHow would you explain the conversation I overhead between Paisley and the tall grey-eyed man?â€ He grinned. â€œEasy. You were cold, tired and scared that you were going to die.â€ Stony faced, she thumped her fist against the bed. â€œGod! You are the most infuriating man. Youâ€™ve swallowed that womanâ€™s entire cock and bull story. What about these bruises?â€ She thrust her neck in his direction. â€œDid I imagine these too?â€ He clamped down on his rising anger, reminded himself that she had recently escaped a harrowing situation. â€œYou could not see who was choking you. How could you be sure that it was Paisley?â€ Hearing her strangled gasp, he continued, â€œEnough. We will talk more tomorrow. Get some rest.â€ He vanished without the fanfare that had accompanied his earlier arrival leaving Riley gritting her teeth in frustration. Loud whispers drifted through the open window, pulling Riley out of a fitful sleep. Curious she edged towards the window. Moonlight danced on the ocean, the sky burst with stars, she let the intoxicating beauty of the night wash over her until the rustling whispers once again captured her attention. Peering down, she spied two figures under the window, spotlighted in the moonlight, dressed in hooded dark robes, standing close, practically touching. She strained to hear the conversation. â€œDid he believe you?â€ The first voice was low but unmistakably male. â€œYes. I can be very convincing when I need to be.â€ The second voice belonged to a woman. The man chuckled. â€œYes, I am aware. Cole is a lucky man.â€ â€œSo what is our next move? The danger of exposure has been contained for now but the Princess of Light knows that I want to kill her. She will be wary of me,â€ the woman said. How very astute of you, Paisley, Riley thought. â€œWe have to bide our time for now. Lay low and do nothing. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to make her death appear as a tragic accident.â€ At the manâ€™s words, Riley fisted her hands as anger hummed through her veins. â€œAgreed. In the meantime, I will be the picture of charm and friendliness. Maybe she will come to doubt her recollections.â€ Fat chance, Riley mouthed the words. â€œIt couldnâ€™t hurt. I am grateful that she did not see me. Cole must not know that I played a part in this.â€ Riley smiled. So the tall, grey-eyed man did not know that she had seen him. She must find a way to use that knowledge to her advantage. Paisley pressed her body against the manâ€™s. â€œAll this intrigue turns me on.â€ His hood fell off as he stepped back, moonlight turning his black beard to grey. â€œWe shouldnâ€™t. We must exercise self-control until the time is right. If Cole suspects, both our livesâ€¦..â€ His words came to an abrupt halt as Paisley opened her robe and let it fall to the ground. Wearing nothing but a smile, her voluptuous, naked body shining in the moonlight, she held her arms out to him. Growling, he sprang at her, slamming her against the wall of the building, a savage expression twisting his face, he ground his mouth into hers. Paisley moaning in pleasure, wrapped her arms around his neck obviously relishing his rough treatment. A bright flash momentarily blinded Riley and when she was able to see again, they had vanished. Climbing back into bed, Riley had to admit that she was a little surprised that Paisley and the tall man were lovers. Paisley had been so possessive of Cole that Riley had assumed that she loved him. Perhaps she only coveted the power that would come with being his consort. If that was the case, then she suspected that Paisley would use any available means, including her body, to fulfill her ambition. It made sense then that the tall man must be integral to Paisleyâ€™s plan otherwise she would not be seducing him. Riley vowed to find out exactly what Paisley was up to. Maybe she could somehow use that knowledge to help her escape from the Dark Mages and Cole. And if she could somehow find a way to thwart Paisleyâ€™s plan then that would be a sweet bonus. Riley swatted at the fly but missed. It landed on her nose, brushed her cheek, and lingered on her lips. Opening her eyes in annoyance, she looked straight into Coleâ€™s laughing amber eyes, his lean finger still whispering across her bottom lip. Heart cartwheeling in her chest, her eyes fastened on his mouth, a lazy smile played across his well-shaped lips. Her own lips parted as a wave of desire washed over her, her tongue darted out and licked his tormenting finger. The teasing light in his eyes morphed into a shouldering fire. He bent his head, brushed his lips against hers, the kiss gentle and featherlike. Hungry for more, Riley crushed her mouth against his, her tongue flicking his. Groaning, he deepened the kiss, probing her mouth, feasting on her sweetness. Lost in a haze of passion, yearning for more than kisses, she pulled him on top of her. His muscled body hard and heavy against hers, she heard him groan as he rolled off her. Dazed, senses still scrambled by desire, she looked into veiled amber eyes as he rose from the bed and looked down on her. His face a stone mask, mouth unsmiling, he ran a hand through his hair. â€œSorry. I did not intend for that to happen.â€ His voice was cool and dry. He regarded her in silence, desperately tamping down his red hot desire. The way she kissed him, how could any red blooded male be blamed for not taking all that she offered so willingly? But he could not give in to lust while his future and the fate of the Dark Mages hung in the balance. He had to convince her to join forces with him, to do that he had to capture her mind not her body. That would come later. He turned away to hide his smile. â€œWould you like a tour of the Dark tower? It is the home of the Dark Mages.â€ Studying his impassive face, she wondered at the motive behind his offer. Shrugging, she agreed, figuring that the tour could give her a chance to plot her escape or to ferret out Paisleyâ€™s plan. The tower, Cole explained, was many centuries old. Pure ivory, shaped like a rocket, it thrust majestically into the sky. The Dark Mages all trained in the school that occupied the lower floors. Only the most gifted were chosen for advanced study of the dark arts. Long, narrow corridors slithered through the tower, changing directions at a momentâ€™s notice, so that the route to a particular room was always different. Struggling to keep up with Cole who moved with the grace and agility of a lion, Riley asked, â€œDifferent? How come no one gets lost?â€ He grinned. â€œMany do, wandering the corridors for days. It is part of the curriculum. Mastery of the maze of corridors is essential to becoming a master Dark Mage.â€ â€œHow is this mastery achieved?â€ â€œAh, I am not allowed to divulge the secrets of the maze; it reveals its secrets to those it deems worthy.â€ â€œWorthy of what?â€ â€œAll who come here are talented but not all are worthy of learning all the secrets of the dark arts. Only the deserving are allowed to continue along the path.â€ They turned a corner and entered a dimly lit circular room. A giant cauldron dominated the room encircled by a bevy of dark robed bodies who were busy throwing unidentifiable objects into it. Hissing, the cauldron bubbled and belched a bright purple cloud, with the unmistakable odor of rotten eggs. Covering her nose and mouth, trying not to breathe the putrid air, Riley glanced at Cole who was studying the purple cloud with an odd intensity. In complete silence, eyes blank and staring, each Dark Mage continued to feed the cauldron, hands moving in a strange rhythm. Gradually, the thick cloud dimmed into a pale purple with a faint wisp of blue in its midst. The tension in the room intensified as the wisp grew bigger turning the cloud from purple to blue. Sensing that something big was about to happen, she moved closer to the cauldron, stepping into the circle of Dark Mages. A high pitched shriek filled the room and the cauldron along with the almost blue flame vanished. A dozen angry eyes swung in Rileyâ€™s direction as the room began to vibrate with the buzz of furious whispers. She did not know what would have happened next if Cole had not grabbed her arm and thrust her out of the room in a single motion. Shaking, she leaned against the wall, listening to his whisky voice quell the buzzing. Minutes later he emerged and stalked down the corridor without glancing at her. Hurrying in his wake, she tugged on his arm until he stopped. Whirling towards her, he shoved her into the wall, his face a mask of fury. â€œWhat were you playing at? Do you realize how close you came to being hurt or worse?â€ Her own anger rising, she pushed him away. â€œI have no idea what happened back there. Care to explain or do you want to slam me into walls some more?â€ Breathing hard, he stepped back. â€œI thought you had more sense than to interrupt any magical spells.â€ â€œWhat would have happened if the spell had not been interrupted?â€ Riley asked, burning with curiosity. He was silent for such a long time that she feared that he would not answer. â€œThey were trying to conjure the Flame of Truth.â€ Seeing her puzzled frown, he continued, â€œWhen the entire flame turns blue, it becomes the Flame of Truth. Anyone holding it must tell the truth. It is very difficult to conjure, and almost impossible for one wizard to do it alone. The group back there,â€ he jerked his head in the direction of the circular room, â€œwas closer than ever before. That is why they were so angry.â€ He did not tell her that the cauldronâ€™s reaction was bizarre. He did not know if it reacted to Rileyâ€™s presence or to something in the spell itself. Arriving at a fork in the maze, Cole turned left, closely followed by Riley. Only one room opened off the maze, shrouded in shadow, an eerie chanting issued from the open doorway. Wary, because of her earlier experience in the circular room, Riley peeked around Coleâ€™s shoulder. At first, she was unable to see anything but as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw the outline of a figure sitting cross-legged in the center of the room, arms raised, facing the wall. As the chanting rose, the wall started to shimmer and a hole appeared in it, small at first but gradually growing larger. A green light danced within the hole, coalescing into a face with yellow eyes, horns and a hooked nose. Stifling a gasp, she stared in fascinated horror as the face opened its slash of a mouth, revealing a set of fangs. â€œWhy have you summoned us?â€ The face asked in a whispery, hissing voice. â€œOur world is in grave danger. I need your help to get rid of the threat,â€ replied a low male voice. The yellow eyes flicked towards the doorway, licking its lips with a forked tongue. â€œThis threat that you speak of, is she as lovely as they say? Come closer, Princess, so that we can feast on your beauty.â€ The man in the middle of the room made a quick motion with his hands causing the face to vanish, the wall to regain its solidity and the room to fill with light. As he leapt to his feet, Riley recognized the hatchet faced man that she had seen with Paisley on two memorable occasions. Cole grabbed the manâ€™s shoulders. â€œWhat is this threat you speak of? Surely you are not referring to the Princess of Light?â€ â€œNo!â€ The man stammered. â€œIt misunderstood. I was trying to identify the person who kidnapped the Princess of Light from the clearing.â€ Cole only stared at him, knuckles whitening as his grip tightened. â€œBrother, you must believe me.â€™ The man continued with a nervous laugh. Cole pulled the man into a bear hug, slapping him on the back. Facing Riley, he said, â€œAllow me to introduce Baltrac, he is like a brother to me.â€ Bowing, Baltrac, instead of shaking the hand she held out, kissed it. â€œPleased to meet you, Princess.â€ Suppressing a shudder at the touch of his oily lips on her skin, knowing that he was unaware that she had seen him before, she concealed any hint of recognition from her eyes. â€œNice to meet you. I only saw one demon, why did it refer to itself as â€˜weâ€™?â€ â€œHavenâ€™t you ever heard of the royal â€˜weâ€™? Demons are considered royalty in their world.â€ He took a step back, his eyes roving her body and whistled. â€œWord of your beauty has not done you justice, Princess, you are even more beautiful than I expected.â€ She shrugged of his simpering flattery. â€œCan the demons tell you who kidnapped me?â€ â€œSometimes they know things. But the price they command is high.â€ â€œYet you were willing to pay it to find out the identity of my kidnapper. That is mighty noble of you.â€ Baltrac forced a laugh. â€œIt is important to identify and expose the perpetrator of that atrocity. Your safety is my only concern.â€ â€œNo need to sell your soul to the demons, I know who kidnapped me. Trust me those responsible will be exposed.â€ A hint of fear appeared in Baltracâ€™s grey eyes. â€œAre you saying that more than one person was involved?â€ Rileyâ€™s gaze never left his face. â€œPerhaps. It just seems highly unlikely that one person could have acted alone.â€ Mopping his brow, he turned to Cole. â€œWhat do you think? Do you agree with her?â€ Veiled amber eyes locked with Rileyâ€™s bi-coloured ones. â€œIt is all speculation at this point. Do not worry, I intend to get to the bottom of this kidnapping plot myself.â€ Paisley sashayed into the room. â€œI will help you. Nothing is more important than the Princessâ€™s safety.â€ She bowed in Rileyâ€™s direction. Returning the bow, mimicking Paisleyâ€™s false charm, Riley looked at the bandage on Paisleyâ€™s arm, stretching from her wrist to her elbow. â€œDid you hurt yourself?â€ A faint blush stained her ivory complexion. â€œIt is nothing.â€ â€œNothing!â€ Baltrac exclaimed. â€œShe got hurt defending you from the rebels, Princess.â€ Riley stifled her gasp of disbelief. She knew that Paisley was faking the injury to add credence to her lies. â€œHow noble of you.â€ She fought to keep her expression as guileless as possible but from the knowing look in Paisleyâ€™s sherry brown eyes, she knew that she had not succeeded. She opened her mouth, intending to challenge her directly, but Cole interrupted. â€œExcuse us, we have somewhere to be.â€ Grabbing, Rileyâ€™s hand he dragged her out of the room. She did not struggle but let him propel her along the corridor in silence. Eventually they came to a balcony. They were about 20 stories high, the shimmering ocean shimmering below. Leaning against the iron railing, the wind in her hair, the sun on her face, she took a deep breath of the salty sea air. Coleâ€™s eyes followed Rileyâ€™s to the pair of bald eagles soaring in the cloudless sky, moving with grace and power. Almost hypnotized by their smooth almost effortless flight, she jumped when Coleâ€™s voice sliced through the bubble of peace that had wrapped itself around her as soon as she had stepped on to the balcony. â€œYou almost accused Paisley of kidnapping you. I thought we had resolved the matter.â€ Still gazing at the eagles pirouetting above, she kept her voice as calm as possible. â€œPaisley kidnapped me and tried to kill me. Thatâ€™s the truth whether you choose to believe it or not.â€ He grabbed her arm and spun her towards him, amber eyes swimming with anger. â€œStop this nonsense. Paisley is a close friend, she would never thwart my plans.â€ She smiled, her bi-coloured eyes filling with cold fury. â€œRemember Paisleyâ€™s cohort, the tall grey-eyed man? I just met him and he is such a close friend that you consider him a brother. Is loyalty not a quality you look for when choosing your friends?â€ She started in surprise when he threw back his head and roared with laughter. â€œNow I am certain that you were mistaken. Baltrac would never betray me.â€ â€œDammit, why wonâ€™t you listen? Baltrac and Paisley are not your friends. Wake up before it is too late.â€ She whirled and ran down the corridor. No longer laughing, face expressionless, Cole watched as she disappeared into the shadows. CHAPTER 14 Gasping for breath, Riley continued to plunge headlong down the corridor, intent on putting as much distance between her and Cole as possible. Feeling a stitch in her side, she stopped and sank to the floor, burying her head between her knees. She had no idea how long she had been running, looking around she saw that she was in a narrow, shadowy corridor. Frowning, she realized that she had not come across any rooms or people, just a seemingly endless corridor, full of twists and turns. Squealing, she leapt to her feet as she remembered Cole telling her that it was quite common to get lost in the maze of corridors, sometimes for days. Suppressing the wave of panic that threatened to overwhelm her, she took deep, calming breaths. What else had Cole said? Something about the maze revealing its secrets to those it considered worthy. She did not know if she would even be under consideration since she was not a Dark Mage. She started to yell for help, figuring that someone might hear her. Perhaps Cole was looking for her. Time flashed by, her shouts had not attracted the least bit of attention and now only a faint croaking was issuing from her parched throat. Sitting cross legged on the floor, she rubbed her throbbing head and tried to think. Cole had referred to the maze as if it was a living organism. If she asked it for directions, would it respond? It was the only plan she had. Feeling foolish, she spoke aloud, â€œHi, my name is Riley. I am lost. Would you please lead me to Cole?â€ Nothing happened. Disappointment curled in her gut, part of her had hoped that somehow she would have been magically transported to Cole. She smacked herself in the head as it occurred to her that she had not tried to teleport herself out of her maze. But she suspected that teleporting would not work since many mages had been trapped for days and would have certainly tried to teleport themselves out. But it could not hurt to try. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, reached for her power center but connected with something else instead. Her entire body throbbed with heat, drowning in a river of fire, she tried to break the connection but something held her fast. A voice whispered, â€œRelax. Just let the river take you where it will.â€ Having no other options, she complied. Immediately, the heat became less intense, and she was weightless, floating not on a river of fire but on a river of energy. She intuited that this was all taking place in her mind, not to her physical body. Abandoning all resistance, she relaxed into the energy, merging with it. Aliveness, vitality and peace surged into her. Voices, sometimes muted, sometimes loud, sung to her in an ancient language that her soul understood. When the revelation came, it did not strike like a lightning bolt but unfolded like a butterflyâ€™s wing. The river of energy was a source of immense power. Neither inherently good nor evil, the source just was. But its power could be harnessed for good or evil purposes. Opening her eyes, she found herself still sitting cross-legged in the corridor but it was no longer dim. A finger of light glowed in the distance. She got up and began to walk towards the light which kept moving, darting down one corridor and up another, turning left, right and left again. Hurrying, Riley followed the light, sometimes when she lagged behind it waited for her to catch up before dashing off again. Winded, she stopped to catch her breath, and watched the light stop at the end of the corridor. Scratching her head, she studied the wall in front of her wondering why the light had brought her here to this dead end. She looked up at the light but it provided no answers, it just hovered in the air, shining on the brick wall. Turning back to the wall, she realized that it was made up of individual rectangular red bricks. None of the other walls were like this one. Suspecting that there may be a hidden opening, she started to tap on the bricks, and on her third tap, a brick moved and the whole wall slid up, revealing a huge room shimmering with rainbows. Stunned by its sheer beauty, she smiled when she saw that the walls and ceiling were made of crystal and the light reflecting off the crystal produced the illusion of dancing rainbows. Clapping her hands, she spun round and round totally delighted with the room, peace and joy oozed from its walls. Looking up, she saw a white crystal sword suspended in the air, its curved blade slicing the rainbow light, colorful jewels festooned its hilt. It was the most beautiful sword she had ever seen, she reached up and plucked it out of the air. She barely had time to register that it fit her hand perfectly, almost as if it had been made for her, before she felt herself being whisked away, whirling and spinning in a kaleidoscope of colors. Landing on her feet, sword held high, she found herself standing in a great hallway filled with Dark Mages. Cole was to her left, his mouth wide open as if he had stopped speaking in mid- sentence. Ears ringing with silence, she stared at the dozens of eyes goggling at her. Gradually, a buzzing sound filled the room, followed by a crescendo of voices crashing over her. She swayed and Cole grasped her arm, yelling for quiet. Her eyes met Coleâ€™s incredulous amber gaze, his face white with shock. As the crowd quieted, a dark robed figure seated at the table in the front of the room, walked forward and gestured for the sword. She tried to give it to him but the sword clung to her hand. She felt rather than heard the collective gasp that shook the room. Stepping back, he said, â€œAllow me to introduce myself, Princess. My name is Tyror. I am the head of the Council of the Dark Mages. Would you mind telling us where you got that sword?â€ Confused and a little scared, Riley swallowed. â€œSorry. I did not mean to take the sword. It was so beautiful, I just wanted to hold it, but when I grasped the hilt, somehow I found myself here in this room.â€ â€œWhere did you find it?â€ Tyror asked. â€œIn a crystal room.â€ Shouts greeted her words. â€œSilence!â€ Tryor held up his hand, his black eyes glittering with fury. He turned back to Riley. â€œYou found the crystal room? How?â€ Taking a deep breath, she quickly related her adventures in the maze. As she finished, Paisley rushed up, screaming. â€œImpossible. It is a trick. That is not the crystal sword.â€ She tried to wrest the sword from Rileyâ€™s hands. The sword rose into the air, arced towards Paisley, sliced off one blond tendril of hair, then flew back towards Riley and nestled itself in her hand. Screaming as if her head had been cut off and not just a wisp of hair, Paisley fell to her knees clutching her head. Tyror whirled towards Riley, face twisted in anger. â€œHow dare you attack one of us?â€ â€œI did not! The sword did. Stop shrieking Paisley, your fool head is still attached.â€ Cole stepped forward. â€œEveryone please calm down. Tyror, I think we should dismiss the assembly and call a Council meeting in a couple of hours. Give everyone time to figure out what our next step should be.â€ Tyror looked out at the crowd of Dark Mages, their voices still buzzing, faces mirroring a myriad of emotions. Still rigid with fury, he nodded, gave an imperceptible signal and the Dark Mages all vanished. He pulled the still crying Paisley to her feet, and they both disappeared. Only Riley and Cole remained, swallowed by the vastness of the hall. Decked in marble walls, stained glass windows and a fresco covered ceiling, the hall wore its splendor well. Looking around in awe, Riley exclaimed, â€œItâ€™s magnificent.â€ Cole nodded. â€œYes. It is used for assemblies and great events. We convened an emergency assembly today to discuss how to get you out of the maze.â€ With a pointed look at the crystal sword in her hand, he continued, â€œLooks like we need not have bothered.â€ She frowned. â€œWhy is everyone getting so worked up about this sword? Iâ€™ve already explained that I did not mean to take it from the room. Here, take it, maybe you can return it to the crystal room.â€ She extended her hand but her fingers remained locked around the hilt. With the other hand she tried to pry them loose but they remained tightly clasped. Her eyes full of fear and confusion, she asked, â€œWhat is happening? Why canâ€™t I let it go?â€ â€œThe sword chooses its holder. You will not be able to give it away. It belongs to you and it will act only to protect you.â€ Her frown deepened. â€œWhat do you mean it belongs to me?â€ â€œTake a seat. It is a long story.â€ With an expectant expression on her face, she sat on a cushioned bench built into the window recess, the stained glass shining on her black air turned it into a riot of colors. Cole started pacing, his expression grave, and in a sonorous voice began. â€œYou hold in your hands the fabled crystal sword. Rumored to be hidden in the tower of the Dark Mages, many have sought it but all have failed. Some told stories of finding a crystal room with the sword suspended in the air but when they tried to grab it, the air held it fast and would not relinquish it.â€ â€œSo I was able to pluck it out of the air, what is the big deal?â€ He stopped pacing, turned to face her and took a deep breath. â€œLegend has it that the sword grants the power of immortality to its holder.â€ The implication hit her immediately. â€œImmortality? Does this mean that I cannot die in the epic battle? I would think that you would have tried to find the sword. Immortality practically guarantees victory.â€ Cole shrugged, an enigmatic smile tugging at his lips. â€œDonâ€™t automatically assume that your victory is guaranteed, Princess.â€ Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. â€œWhat are you not telling me?â€ He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her towards him. Bending his head, he crushed his mouth to hers. The kiss was brutal and rough, signaling his intent to punish and not to pleasure. Beating her fists against his chest, she tried to wrench herself from his grasp but he was immovable. His tongue probed her mouth bruising the soft flesh, and as she winced in pain, she felt his hands drop away, freeing her. Stepping back, she saw Cole standing motionless with the tip of the sword pressed against his throat, a trickle of blood oozing down his neck. â€œStop!â€ she yelled. And the sword, like a trained puppy obeyed, soared into the air and returned to her hand.â€ â€œAre you okay? Did it hurt you?â€ she asked. â€œIâ€™ll live. Your pet sword just nicked me. Make sure you report back here for the Council meeting in two hours. And bring that demon sword with you.â€ He gave a curt bow and vanished. Sighing, she sank to her knees, still clutching the sword, wondering what she was going to do. The sword was a problem. She could not get rid of it. She certainly did not want it. All the Dark Mages resented her for possessing it. Coleâ€™s dark, cold fury scared her senseless. She had no allies here, no Max to offer advice. Alone, and frightened, she huddled in the great hall, a tiny speck of humanity guarded by a sword with a bloody tip. Lost in despair, she almost missed the husky whisper. â€œYou are not alone.â€ Startled, she looked around but saw no one. Just as she was about to dismiss it as a figment of her imagination, the voice whispered again, â€œYou are not alone. I will help you.â€ The voice spoke directly in her mind. She leapt to her feet as she realized that someone or something was communicating with her telepathically. â€œWho are you? Where are you?â€ she asked silently, using her mindâ€™s voice. â€œMy name is Shalimar. I am the sword.â€ Startled, she almost dropped the sword. Staring at it, she shook her head in disbelief. She must be losing her mind. A talking sword? Impossible. â€œVery possible.â€ The voice was whispery and feminine. Half convinced that her mind was playing tricks on her, she asked, â€œAre you female?â€ A trill of laughter echoed around the hall. â€œThat is a very human question. My answer is this: I represent the feminine essence.â€ The sword leapt from her hand and sketched a lazy pirouette in the air. â€œWhy did you choose me? I do not want to be immortal. It is not a fair way to win the epic battle.â€ Shalimar swooped low, hovering in front of her. â€œHow do you know that Cole was not chosen?â€ Riley rubbed her throbbing head. â€œWhat am I missing? You chose me not Cole.â€ A stream of thoughts swirled through her mind, faster and faster, until one surfaced, shocking in its simplicity. Eyes wide, she stared at Shalimar. â€œCole was chosen but by a different sword. Why did he not tell anyone? But how could there be two crystal swords? The legend speaks of only one. What does this all mean?â€ Shalimar sighed. â€œYou spend too much time asking questions when you should be listening instead. In stillness all will be revealed.â€ It was Rileyâ€™s turn to sigh. â€œYou sound like Max.â€ â€œRest now, Princess. You will need all your strength for the upcoming Council meeting. Trust that you will know what to do when the time is right.â€ Shalimar zoomed towards Riley and tapped her three times on the head. A wave of fatigue crashed over her, yawning, she curled up on the window seat and fell into a deep sleep. CHAPTER 15 Sharp fingers prodded Riley awake. Annoyed, she struck out at the tormenting fingers, but hit something much harder instead. Opening her eyes, she glared at the jeweled hilt poking her in the side. â€œRise and shine, Princess. The Council meeting will begin soon.â€ Rubbing her eyes, Riley sat up. Glancing out of the window, she saw a crowd of grim faced Dark Mages lined up outside. A shudder ran through her as she realized that the Dark Mages believed that they would lose the epic battle because the crystal sword gave her immortality. But Cole also had a crystal sword. She still had no idea what it all meant. She had no time for further reflection as Cole teleported into the room, followed by the eight Council members who seated themselves at the table on the dais located in the front of the hall. Amid ominous rumblings the rest of the Dark Mages flooded into the hall. Without meeting her eyes, Cole walked over, took Rileyâ€™s hand and led her to the dais. Riley swallowed as faint stirrings of terror coursed through her. â€œ Trust yourself.â€ Shalimar whispered, attaching herself to Rileyâ€™s other hand. Tyror stood and raised both arms, his black eyes glittering in the flickering candlelight. A vacuum of silence filled the hall, as if all sound had been sucked out of it. Then the chanting began, soft at first, rising to a shattering crescendo then falling into sudden silence again. Shivering, Riley glanced at Cole who was staring straight ahead, his cold fingers still entwined with hers. Tyror stepped forward. â€œWe have all heard the story from the Princess of Light of how she found the crystal sword. We all know the legend. However, it is imperative that we verify the authenticity of the sword.â€ â€œHow do you propose to do that?â€ Riley asked. â€œBy conducting a simple test. We will tie you to a pole and a Dark Mage will throw the sword at you. The crystal sword the legend speaks of will not harm its holder.â€ Mutterings and cheers broke out among the crowd. â€œNo! That is insane. She could be hurt.â€ Cole shouted, advancing on Tyror. â€œThat is exactly the point. The real crystal sword will not hurt her.â€ Tyror frowned, gazing at Cole. â€œUnless you have some reason for believing that the sword is fake?â€ Cole swallowed, shook his head and stepped back, avoiding Rileyâ€™s eyes. Tyror waved his hands, and a pole appeared next to him. He motioned Riley forward. Stiff with fear, she stood rooted to the ground, her legs refusing to move. â€œStep up to the pole, Princess. You have nothing to fear if what you claim is true. Do you wish to recant your story?â€ Tyrorâ€™s cold voice held a note of triumph. Head held high, she stepped forward, telling herself that she had nothing to be afraid of. She knew the truth. But icy shivers of fear tickled her spine. Tyror extended his hand for the crystal sword. Shalimar did not budge. â€œYou need to tell the sword that its participation in this test is mandatory. This is the only way the Dark Mages will accept your story.â€ Shalimar whispered in Rileyâ€™s head. â€œYou will not survive this test, Princess. I am only one of two crystal swords and you are only one of two that have been chosen. I may be able to buy you some time but eventually I will have to land where thrown.â€ Numb with terror, Riley asked, â€œWhat can I do?â€ â€œI cannot take part in this test unless you instruct me to. But I can get you out of here. Just say the word.â€ Riley forced her panicked mind to think. Where would she go? Back to the Light Bringers? She would not be any closer to getting the two sides to compromise. A desperate plan unfolded in her mind. But in order for it to work she needed the other crystal sword and Cole. Could she count on him? Quickly, she glanced at him. He was staring straight ahead, his face blank, amber eyes lifeless. She moved towards the pole. â€œShalimar, do what Tyror says. This test will take place.â€ Shalimar hummed with disapproval. But she could not disobey a direct order from Riley. Soaring into the air, she landed in Tyrorâ€™s waiting hand. Two Dark Mages appeared on the dais and strong arms lashed Riley to the pole. They stepped aside and a hooded Dark Mage emerged from the crowd, striding with confidence and purpose, gripping a fiery sword. Riley blinked. The mage was holding Shalimar, and the candlelit hitting her jeweled hilt created the impression of a rainbow colored fire engulfing the entire sword. Mesmerized, Riley almost missed the familiar smirk on the mageâ€™s face. Taking a closer look, she gasped as the mage drew back her hood, revealing dancing blond curls and sherry brown eyes gleaming with an unholy light. Paisley stopped several feet from Riley and prepared to throw Shalimar. Staring at Cole, Riley willed him to do the right thing. His amber eyes were now locked with hers, his expression inscrutable. She attempted a smile, trying to signal that she trusted him to step forward. Tearing her gaze away from Cole, she looked at Paisley whose face was now split by an evil grin. Riley held her breath as Paisley threw the sword at her heart with all the strength she possessed. Her aim was true, and Shalimar stopped an inch away from Rileyâ€™s heart, frozen in mid-air. â€œIf you have some sort of plan, Princess, execute it now. I can only remain still for a few more minutes.â€ Shalimarâ€™s frantic voice exploded in her head. Out of the corner of her eye, Riley spied a blur of movement, and suddenly a black crystal sword zoomed forward and knocked Shalimar to the ground. The crowd gasped and all eyes devoured Cole as he stepped to the dais, next to Riley. Paisley rushed towards Cole, her face an explosion of fury. â€œWhat is the meaning of this? It is obvious to all that the crystal sword is a fake. If you had not interfered it would have pierced her heart.â€ Turning towards Tyror and the other Council members she continued, â€œThis changes nothing. The Princess of Light tried to trick us. I demand that she be punished.â€ Cole raised his hands and a hushed silence descended over the hall. Riley screamed as the black crystal sword headed straight towards her, its sharp blade gleaming in the candlelight but it merely slashed the ropes that bound her to the pole. Rubbing her wrists, she moved to Coleâ€™s side just as the black crystal sword winged its way to his uplifted hand. At the same time Shalimar landed in Rileyâ€™s hand. Tyror advanced on both Cole and Riley, his cold voice slicing through the silence. â€œCole, what is going on here? Explain yourself.â€ Cole whispered to Riley. â€œFollow my lead, Princess.â€ Facing Tyror and the crowd of Dark Mages, he said, â€œPlease. I beg your indulgence. The tale I must share with you is a long one and there are many parts of it that I donâ€™t understand myself. Many years ago, when I was first admitted to the Dark Tower, I went on a quest for the crystal sword. I found a room with two crystal swords suspended in the air, one black and one white. When I gripped the black sword, it slid easily into my hand. But I could not budge the white one even though I tried for many hours till I was beyond exhaustion. I left the crystal room but vowed to go back the next day and try again for the white sword. At first, I said nothing about the black sword because I was so sure that I would free the white sword the next day. However, I could never find the crystal room again. The legends spoke of only one sword not two. What if the white sword was the one? I did not know what the black sword meant if anything. So I continued my search. Finding the white sword has been my obsession for many years. When the Princess of Light found the white crystal sword, I was mostly convinced that it was the sword the legends spoke of but part of me still pondered the meaning of the black sword. That was why I tried to stop the test. When the white sword stopped an inch away from her heart something clicked in my head, and I realized that the legend got it wrong. There are two crystal swords, not one.â€ A chorus of shouts ripped through the crowd. Tyror called for silence. He frowned at Cole. â€œThis is the first time Iâ€™ve heard of two swords. How can you be so sure that the legend is wrong?â€ Cole smiled, his amber eyes sparking in the candlelight. â€œThe swords exist that is all the proof I need. I saw them together, side by side many years ago. But since both the Princess and I each have a sword, then neither one of us can die in the epic battle since we are both immortal. That means neither side can win.â€ Paisley started yelling. â€œThatâ€™s a lie! The Princess of Light is not a Dark Mage, the crystal sword cannot choose her. It is a trick!â€ Without warning, she jumped on Riley and tried to pry Shalimar from her fingers. A melee erupted on the dais as Cole attempted to peel Paisley off Riley while Baltrac rushed over and started stomping on Rileyâ€™s hand, the one clutching Shalimar. The other Council Members jumped in to restore order. Amid bright flashes of light, a crashing sound reverberated throughout the Great Hall, rendering everyone motionless. The two crystal swords had formed a cross in mid-air, surrounded by a halo of white light. A deep voice broke the silence. â€œMy name is Sultan. I am the black crystal sword. Shalimar is the white crystal sword. Cole is wrong. Neither side can win the epic battle only if both swords participate. But we are of one mind and one heart, we will not fight on opposite sides.â€ Pulling Riley to her feet, Cole asked, â€œIs it possible for either one of us to cede his or her crystal sword to the other?â€ Shalimar gave a little bob, rainbow light dancing off her jeweled hilt. â€œYes. But the person ceding control must do so voluntarily. No coercion must be involved.â€ Cole turned to Riley, his voice urgent with appeal. â€œGive me Shalimar and I will take you back to Earth. With the power of both crystal swords and the entire force of Dark Mages behind me, I will rule Avalyss without having to resort to either an epic battle or a marriage to you.â€ Rileyâ€™s bi-coloured eyes sparkled with grey and blue fire. â€œSorry that marriage to me is so disgusting to you. That was all your idea, by the way. I will not give you Shalimar. I still believe that both the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages should govern Avalyss together.â€ Before Cole could speak, Sultan zoomed between them. â€œThe two of you must find a way to work together.â€ Sultan and Shalimar, still in the shape of a cross, moved directly over Riley and Cole, highlighting them in a cone of brilliant white light. As the light began to swirl, so too did Cole and Riley, spinning faster and faster, until they both vanished along with the crystal swords, leaving the Great Hall in awed silence. CHAPTER 16 Punching the pillow under her head in a vain effort to make it more comfortable, Riley yelped in pain. Rubbing her hand, she opened her eyes and saw that the pillow was Coleâ€™s shoulder. He was fast asleep, a lock of honey hair covering one eye. Smiling, she snuggled closer. She recalled being back in the Great Hall and starting to spin. Cole had grabbed her hand, holding on fiercely to her. A feeling of exhilaration had gripped Riley at first but as the spinning intensified, she grew dizzy. Her stomach lurched into her throat, and nausea overwhelmed her. Just as she felt her gorge rising, the spinning stopped and blackness claimed her. Sitting up, she saw that they were in a rustic log cabin, small but cozy. Climbing out of the king sized bed, she went exploring. The bedroom opened into a long, narrow living room area furnished simply with a plump couch and a couple of armchairs, a narrow hallway led into a roomy kitchen. Opening cupboards she found them all fully stocked with supplies. Shaking her head she wondered how long they were supposed to camp out here. She stepped out of the back door and on to a white sandy beach that sloped gently down to the ocean. Strolling down to the waterâ€™s edge, she looked back at the cabin noticing that it sat on top of a hillock. Her mouth fell open as she realized that the hillock was really just a minute island, totally encircled by the ocean. Blood pounded in her ears as fear and anger flooded through her. â€œShalimar! Sultan! Where are you? Come here at once. Why did you bring us here? Shalimar! Sultan!â€ Cole came running out of the cabin and slammed into her, knocking her off her feet. â€œAre you okay? I heard your shouts.â€ Lying on her back, gasping for breath, she glared at him. â€œCanâ€™t you watch where you are going?â€ With a sheepish grin, he pulled her to her feet, and started to dust sand off her clothes. â€œSorry. Your yells yanked me out of a deep sleep. I thought you were in danger so I was just trying to get to you in a hurry.â€ She slapped his hands away as they lingered on her butt. â€œNo need to get fresh!â€ His expression was pure innocence. â€œExcuse me, but I am only just trying to help you brush off the sand.â€ She continued to glower at him. â€œYes, you are a helpful fellow, helping yourself to a handful.â€ He laughed, gazing at the part of her anatomy under discussion. â€œSurely you canâ€™t blame me given the generous temptation.â€ She looked as if she was going to take a swing at him so he hurriedly changed the subject. â€œIt does not appear that you are in danger. Why were you yelling?â€ Her irritation with him melted away as she was reminded of their situation. â€œLook around. Do you have any idea where we are? Why would Sultan and Shalimar bring us to this speck of an island?â€ The teasing light in Coleâ€™s amber eyes went out as he took in their surroundings. â€œDo you remember them telling us that we had to find a way to work together? I think this is their way of ensuring that we do just that.â€ She frowned. â€œThey cannot abandon us here. We can teleport off this excuse for an island.â€ He shook his head. â€œI am afraid that is impossible. When you yelled I tried to teleport here but could not that is why I ran instead. It appears that we have been stripped of our powers.â€ â€œThey cannot do that!â€ Cole, his expression bleak, looked at the roiling ocean, a perfection reflection of his emotions. â€œThey can and they have.â€ â€œWhat are we going to do now? Will they leave us here forever?â€ Riley asked, her voice a thread of sound. Fighting for calm, he turned back towards her, his eyes veiled. â€œThey will return, perhaps in a week or two. In the meantime we need to either figure out a way to work together or come up with another option that will satisfy them.â€ She sank to her knees. â€œThatâ€™s impossible!â€ Her voice held a touch or rising hysteria. â€œNothing is impossible, especially on a full stomach. Come, I will make us breakfast.â€ Cole strode back to the cabin. Riley watched him walk away. Panic, fear, anger, depression, hopelessness all tumbled through her, each vying for supremacy. Her entire head throbbed with pain. It felt like a million sharp needles piercing her brain all at once. She remained on the beach for a while, rubbing her head, and staring out to sea with sightless eyes. Breakfast was a delicious affair. Cole whipped up a batch of buttermilk pancakes and sausages. Riley almost swooned when she sniffed the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She did not have much of an appetite but managed to polish off the huge plateful that Cole placed in front of her. Refusing seconds, she said, â€œThank you. That was tasty. I had no idea you knew how to cook.â€ Cole, working on his third helping, grinned. â€œCooking is a required course at the Dark Towers. Magic is the preferred method used in food preparation. Or most of us just take food pills which are also magically produced. However, since magic is a privilege and not a right and the skill level varies from individual to individual, we must all learn to cook the traditional way. Never know when it can come in handy.â€ He pointed at his plate. Riley moved over to the sink, and started to wash up. Her headache had dulled a little but her thoughts were chaotic. During breakfast, she had grasped a mere thread of a plan but needed to refine it before she could have any hope of convincing Cole to go along. Cole watched her in silence over the rim of his coffee cup, trying to gauge her mood. He had come up with an idea but he needed her to be receptive. His mouth opened but he snapped it shut. No need to rush things, he decided to adopt a â€œwait and seeâ€ approach. When she pleaded a headache and went off to take a nap, he prowled the cabin. Without his magical powers he felt lost, incomplete. As soon as he convinced Riley that his plan was the best for all concerned, his powers would be returned to him. However, he had no idea how to do that so he continued to prowl like the caged lion he was. Riley struggled but strong arms held her fast. Her head snapped back, exposing her throat to the black crystal sword that hovered above her. Her struggles grew frantic and she managed to see the amber eyes of her captor just as the sword swooshed towards her, its sharp blade grinning with evil intent. She woke to the sound of a bloodcurdling screams. Leaping up in terror, it took her a minute before she realized that the nightmarish sounds were issuing from her own throat. Heart thudding in her chest, she collapsed on the bed. As her heartbeats returned to normal, she noticed that her clothes and skin were clammy with sweat and fear. She padded to the bathroom, stood under a hot shower until her skin turned pruny but part of her remained chilled. The nightmare lingering in her mind, filled her with disquiet. In the closet, she found clothes in her size. Quickly donning jeans and a sweatshirt she went in search of Cole. Sniffing the air, like a bloodhound, she followed the tantalizing aroma out to the beach. Cole was hunched over a campfire shaking a sizzling frying pan. Hearing her approach, he looked up and grinned, cheeks glowing from the heat of the fire. Waving one hand, he indicated the red checked blanket to his left. â€œSit, dinner will be ready soon.â€ Bright plastic plates, cutlery and wine glasses were laid out on a blanket along with a wicker basket of rolls, a bowl of salad and an ice bucket containing a bottle of white wine. â€œYou have been busy. What is that delicious smell? Is there anything I can help you with?â€ Cole shook his head. â€œJust sit back and relax. I spent the afternoon fishing. Hope you like fried fish.â€ She nodded, picked up a roll and bit into it. Warm, tasty and definitely homemade. â€œDid you bake this?â€ With a deft flick of his wrist, he flipped the fish in the frying pan. A teasing smile tugged at his lips. â€œDonâ€™t sound so surprised. I have many talents.â€ Rolling her eyes, she looked out at the calm ocean. The sun painted the sky in brilliant shares of crimson, pink and orange. She could not believe that she had slept for most of the day while Cole had been fishing, baking, cooking and who knew what else. She still had not fleshed out her plan. â€œHope you are not scowling at my bread?â€ Coleâ€™s voice interrupted her musings. Pulling herself out of her reverie, she smiled. â€œNo, itâ€™s delicious. I just have a lot on my mind.â€ â€œWe both have a lot to think about. But, just for tonight, let us just enjoy dinner and each otherâ€™s company. I propose that we defer all serious thinking till tomorrow.â€ Clinking her wine glass against his, she murmured, â€œTill tomorrow then.â€ Dinner was spent primarily in companionable silence, punctuated by spurts of desultory conversation. They enjoyed the food and the spectacular display as the sun bade its daily adieu in a blaze of glorious color. As darkness fell, Cole suggested a walk along the short beach. A soft breeze caressed their faces as they strolled hand in hand. Neither spoke, preferring to listen to the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore, a sweet, ancient melody that stirred Rileyâ€™s soul. Sighing with contentment, she stopped and stared at the moon, looming bright in the night sky, its kiss turning the ocean silvery. â€œItâ€™s so beautiful.â€ â€œExtremely.â€ Cole agreed, but he was staring at Riley, her beauty ethereal in the moonlight. Almost in a daze, he reached out and caressed her cheek. Turning towards him, lips parted in invitation, eyes bright, she stood on tiptoe, intending only to brush her lips against his but a jolt of electricity hurtled through her as their lips touched, igniting the fiery passion between them. Desire raged, hot and uncontrollable, burning through all her defenses and her common sense. Totally lost in the blistering kiss, she pressed closer to him, knowing that she could deny him nothing. He let go of her so suddenly that she almost fell. He stood staring at her, breathing hard, his expression unreadable. Still reeling with desire, she gaped at him in total incomprehension. With a slight shake of his head, he turned on his heel and strode away down the beach, away from the cabin. Humiliated and confused, cursing herself for a fool, Riley ran back to the cabin, tears coursing down her cheeks. Hours later, a shadowy form hovered in the doorway, watching her sleep, her tear stained cheeks the color of mercury in the moonlight streaming through the open window. Moving toward the bed, he brushed her ebony hair from her eyes and stared at her in the darkness for a long time, his amber eyes inscrutable. Riley woke to the delicious aroma of bacon. Stomach rumbling with hunger, she took a quick shower and hurried to the kitchen. Cole dished out bacon and eggs, while she buttered the toast. After a brief greeting, they breakfasted in awkward silence, avoiding eye contact. As Riley chewed on her last piece of bacon, Cole cleared his throat. â€œAbout last night,â€ he began. Swallowing quickly, she waved him to silence. â€œPlease, donâ€™t. It was embarrassing. I donâ€™t wish to re-live it.â€ He studied her flushed cheeks, then nodded. â€œIt is time to discuss our next move. Sultan and Shalimar should be checking in soon. We need to come up with a plan that will satisfy them in order to get off this island.â€ â€œLetâ€™s talk on the beach.â€ Riley grabbed her coffee and stepped outside. Gowned in shimmering turquoise, the ocean caressed the shore. Squinting in the bright sunlight, she perched on a rock and sipped her coffee, trying to unfurl her plan from her jumbled thoughts. It was critical for her to get Coleâ€™s agreement. Taking a deep breath, she plunged ahead. â€œIt is obvious that Sultan and Shalimar want us to work together. What if we refuse? I propose that we challenge each other to a duel with the winner taking control of both the crystal swords. The swords will refuse to fight each other. Then they will have no choice but to take us off this island and restore our powers.â€ Coleâ€™s brow arched in surprise. â€œAn interesting but dangerous plan. What happens if the swords call our bluff?â€ â€œIt wonâ€™t come to that. But if it does, we duel.â€ Speculation brightened his amber eyes. It was a brilliant plan. The swords would never duel, he felt certain about that. But if he was wrong, he knew that he would win the duel. He had been trained in swordplay since childhood. Her plan was indeed better than his. His intention was to seduce her into giving him Shalimar. But last night when she had so willingly stepped into his arms, when he had once again tasted her sweetness, he could not go through with it. That was why he had walked away. In spite of his consuming ambition, he could not bring himself to use her that way, as a means to an end. â€œOkay.â€ He nodded. â€œIâ€™m on board. But what happens afterwards?â€ An enigmatic smile tugged at her lips. â€œLetâ€™s just take it one hurdle at a time.â€ She succeeded in keeping a note of triumph out of her voice. He had taken the bait. First rule of fishing, her father had always told her, make the bait irresistible and the fish will be eager to bite. Riley drowsed in the late afternoon sun, watching the hypnotic rhythm of Coleâ€™s arms as he swam. He had been at it for a while, his honey blond head bobbing far from shore. She was tempted to join him, the promise of the cool water against her skin almost too enticing to resist but the heat made her lethargic. Yawning, she closed her eyes and drifted off. Wet, sloppy kisses tugged her awake. Coleâ€™s back from his swim, she mused sleepily, giggling as his tongue tickled her ear. Opening her eyes, she gazed straight into huge purple eyes attached to a small, furry body. Her scream shattered the silence, startling the creature which skittered away. Cole, just emerging from the sea, came charging up the beach. Panting, he grabbed hold of her. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong? Are you okay?â€ Bone white, still screaming, she pointed a shaking finger behind him. Turning, he saw bulging eyes peeking out from behind a rock. Getting up, he started to walk towards the creature when Riley seized his arm, fingers digging into his skin. â€œNo! It could be dangerous.â€ Her eyes were wide with alarm. Smiling, he gently disengaged his arm, strode to the rock and pulled the creature out. At once, it snuggled against his face, making a chattering sound. Riley stared in amazement but shrank away as Cole brought the creature to her. â€œNo need to be afraid. This creature is a sikko, it is as harmless as a puppy. You scared it half to death.â€ â€œLikewise.â€ Still wary, she took a closer look at the shivering creature whose eyes were brimming with curiosity and intelligence. It looked like a miniature rabbit, except for its moss colored fur, purple eyes and skinny rat like tail. The more she looked, the cuter it became. Slowly she extended a hand, and the creature hopped on to it, snuggling up to her. Stroking its fur, making soothing noises, she grinned at Cole. â€œTell me more about sikkos.â€ â€œThey live near the ocean, feed on fish and rarely show themselves. This is the first time I have ever actually seen one. I gleaned the little knowledge I have about them from books.â€ Cole took a closer look at the sikko. â€œThis one is a female since the males are blue.â€ â€œItâ€™s adorable.â€ Riley chuckled as the sikko began to lick her neck. Cole perched on the rock. â€œAccording to ancient lore, sikkos are magical creatures with the unique ability of sharing their magical powers with others. Althoughâ€¦.â€ A loud cracking sound startled Riley. Looking up, she saw that everything seemed to be frozen, almost like if time had come to a standstill. Cole, sitting motionless, mouth agape, caught in mid-sentence. The ocean was eerily still, with one wave frozen just as it crested. Even the breeze had stopped. Icy fingers of fear crawled along her spine, as she realized that everything stood still but her. A chattering sound from behind her almost made her heart stop. Whirling, her eyes locked with huge purple ones, bright with merriment. Grinning, the sikko bowed low. â€œAllow me to introduce myself, my name is Meeka. It is an honor and a privilege to meet you, Princess. Forgive me for showing off a little but I wanted to give you a demonstration of my magical power.â€ She leapt on to Rileyâ€™s shoulder and hung a purple stone attached to a black cord around her neck. â€œMy power is to freeze time. It is yours whenever you need to use it. Just rub the stone and time will stand still. It will only work for you. Also, the purple stone is visible only to you.â€ Riley fingered the stone which was cool to the touch and the exact color of Meekaâ€™s eyes. â€œThank you. I appreciate your gift but why would you want to share your power with me?â€ Meekaâ€™s expression turned sober. â€œAll sikkos are a wee bit precognitive. I can see that your path will not be easy. You will travel through many dark places, face untold dangers and meet foes masquerading as friends. There are times when you will feel like giving up. You will need to use all the powers at your disposal, magical and non-magical, in order to face the numerous challenges winging their way towards you. I love Avalyss. It is my home. I share your vision of its future. You do me great honor by accepting my gift, by allowing my small gift to be used in forging that future.â€ Meeka snapped her fingers and instantly time flowed. The cresting wave crashed against the shore, the ocean breeze blew, refreshing in the afternoon heat and Meeka ensconced on Rileyâ€™s shoulder, licked her neck intently. Cole finished his sentence with blithe unawareness of what had had just occurred. â€œâ€¦I have yet to hear of a verifiable case of a sikko sharing its power with another.â€ Riley stared at Cole, tempted to confide in him but yelped as Meeka bit her ear in warning and scampered off. Rubbing her ear, she scowled at the furry retreating form, wondering why Cole was to be kept in the dark. Cole laughed. â€œTemperamental little buggers, arenâ€™t they?â€ CHAPTER 17 The moonless night was a predator waiting to pounce, its hunger palpable. Riley could almost feel its hot breath against her skin, sharp teeth clawing at her flesh. Shivering, she shook her head to dismiss such fanciful thoughts. Alone on the beach, the eerie silence spooked her. Even the voice of the ocean seemed hushed, as if the volume had been turned down. Brilliant explosions of light shattered the darkness. Blinking in the bright light, Riley spotted Shalimar and Sultan hovering above her head. Drawn by the commotion, Cole emerged from the cabin. Sultan spun lazily in the air. â€œHave you agreed to work together?â€ Riley took a deep breath, crossed her fingers, and prayed that she could trick the swords into taking her and Cole off the island and restoring their powers. â€œNo. We propose a duel, with the winner gaining possession of both swords.â€ â€œImpossible!â€ Shalimar cried, spinning around their heads. Adopting a reasonable tone, Cole asked, â€œWhy? We cannot come to an agreement so our proposal is simple. Only one of us must control both of you. Since neither of us wish to cede our sword to the other then a duel is the only way.â€ Shalimar continued to spin, whirling faster and faster, until she was nothing but a blur churning the humid night air. â€œCut that out!â€ Sultan commanded and Shalimar fell at Rileyâ€™s feet, lying limply in the sand. Sultanâ€™s ebony blade gleamed in the halo of white light spotlighting the quartet on the beach. â€œYou are bluffing.â€ Riley picked up Shalimar and adopted a fighting stance. â€œWe are prepared to duel. Just say the word.â€ Her voice was devoid of all emotion. Cole reached up to grasp Sultanâ€™s hilt but the sword evaded him, soaring high into the night sky, merging into the darkness beyond the circle of white light, rendering himself invisible to the two pairs of eyes below that strained to spot him. â€œWhat hare brain plan have you cooked up?â€ Shalimarâ€™s urgent whisper flitted across Rileyâ€™s mind. â€œBe careful. You are playing a dangerous game. I am sure that you know Sultan and I cannot duel. We were created to work together not against each other, as were you and Cole.â€ Riley did not respond. Her entire plan revolved on Sultanâ€™s next move. She was sure that he would not call her bluff. Shalimar had just confirmed it. But would he come up with something else that would put her entire plan in jeopardy? Tapping her foot, she waited with barely concealed impatience for Sultan to re-appear. What would he do? What would her counter move be? Her thoughts fused into a seething, jumbled mass causing her head to pulse with pain. Sultanâ€™s chill voice cut through the night like a guillotine. â€œYou win. We have no choice but to take you back. Shalimar and I cannot be forced to duel therefore we will be useless if you insist on forcing an epic battle. We can only help you if you join forces and work together. Yet you stubbornly refuse to do so. So you are back to square one. You have gained nothing. I am disappointed.â€ In one smooth movement, he descended from the sky and Shalimar leapt out of Rileyâ€™s hand to meet him. Joining together, in the shape of a cross, the two swords moved directly over Riley and Cole, highlighting them in a cone of brilliant white light. As the light began to swirl, so too did Cole and Riley, spinning faster and faster, until they both fell through endless dark space and landed on a hard surface in a heap of tangled limbs. Winded, Cole picked up himself up and helped Riley to feet. â€œAre you okay?â€ â€œYes, where are we?â€ They were lost in a sea of darkness. Shivering, Riley pressed closer to Cole, all her senses tingling with alarm. She could feel an expectant and eager presence, watching them from outside the eerie blackness. â€œI think we are back in the tower of the Dark Mages, the Great Hall,â€ Cole said. It was late and the Great Hall was deserted. He put his arm around her shoulders. â€œLetâ€™s get some sleep. We will have to face the Council tomorrow and we will need to be well rested.â€ Stepping out of his embrace, Riley turned to face him. In the darkness, she could barely make out his features. â€œI am leaving tonight.â€ â€œLeaving? You cannot leave. Nothing has been resolved. We have much to discuss.â€ A faint sigh escaped her. â€œNo amount of discussion will help. We are entrenched in our respective positions. I need to know more. Toom spoke of the Isle of Paradisi. I believe that the answers I seek can be found there.â€ Stunned, Cole gaped at her. â€œAre you crazy? No one knows how to get to the Isle of Paradisi. Many believe that it is a fictional place.â€ â€œIt exists. I suspect that you know that. Diara will help me get there.â€ Riley raised her arms. â€œDiara, this humble supplicant beseeches you. Once you granted me a boon. I claim it now. Please help me get to the Isle of Paradisi.â€ Nothing happened. Everything was still. Riley held her breath, picturing Diara in her mindâ€™s eye. Brilliant blue light flooded the Great Hall. Riley heard Cole gasp. Bone white, his face twisting in surprise, he stretched out a hand to her, just as a giant hand reached out from above and whisked her away. Cole was left all alone, his mind writhing with questions. What happened? Had she really gone to the Isle of Paradisi? Had Diara helped her? How would his plans to rule Avalyss be affected by this unexpected development? Was she in danger? He punched the air in frustration. He needed answers and he needed them now. There was only way to get them. He had to follow her. He had to make sure that she was okay. She had come to mean a lot to him. He dared not explore his feelings further. He just knew that he had to find her. He just had no idea how. Lying face down in the palm of the giant hand, Riley could hear her heart thundering like hoofbeats. The hand felt light and gossamer, it was like lying on a bed of moonbeams. Terror and excitement had coursed through her as the hand had plucked her out of the Great Hall, then it had moved at a such a fearsome speed, she thought that she might be sick. She had curled herself into a ball and squeezed her eyes shut. She gradually became aware that the hand had stopped moving. She remained motionless for a while longer then pulled herself to her feet and looked around. She was in a land of swirling mists, stretching out endlessly, enveloping her and obscuring her vision. A feeling of overwhelming peace permeated the atmosphere and perfumed air filled her nostrils. Sweet singing assaulted her ears, the melody so beautiful that tears sprang to her eyes. A slight figure stepped out of the mists and approached her. Swallowing a quick sliver of fear, she stepped forward to meet it, her eyes straining to see through the moving mists. â€œWelcome to the Isle of Paradisi.â€ The voice was musical and redolent of summer nights. It belonged to a tall, slight, apparition with reams of platinum hair and aquamarine eyes, dressed in a flowing silver robe. Rileyâ€™s eyes widened at the exquisite loveliness of the being standing before her. Although, it looked like a woman, it appeared to be made of light, not flesh and blood, and floated rather than walked. Smiling, the being said, â€œMy name is Nehe. Come with me and I will help you find the answers you seek.â€ Riley felt her fear evaporating in the waves of joy, peace and power that rolled off Nehe. Without speaking, she took the hand that Nehe offered and followed her through the whirling mists. Despite her insubstantial appearance, Neheâ€™s hand felt solid in Rileyâ€™s but it was as cool and smooth as marble. The roaring sounds of a waterfall drowned out the sublime singing with its own divine music. Chanting in a language that Riley did not comprehend, Nehe lifted her arms high and the mists parted to reveal the most glorious sight she had ever seen. A wide, deep, river rushed to the edge of a cliff and plunged thousands of feet below, creating the largest waterfall Riley had ever seen. But its most remarkable feature was its color, a rosy hue like the blush of a rose in springtime. â€œThe River of Life.â€ Neheâ€™s voice, although a murmur, could still be heard over the sounds of the rushing river and roaring waterfall. â€œItâ€™s beautiful. Why does it have that red-pinkish color?â€ An enchanting and enigmatic flitted across Neheâ€™s face. â€œReally? It looks green to me.â€ Rileyâ€™s eyes snapped towards the river. It was now a brilliant green, the color of sparkling emeralds. Speechless, she gaped at Nehe. â€œThe River of Life is alive just like you and me. It is a living, breathing entity and can change its color whenever it wishes to.â€ Nehe answered Rileyâ€™s unspoken question. â€œTo find what you seek takes a triple dose of courage. Courage to begin the quest, courage to hear the truth and courage to act upon that truth. Do you possess such courage, Princess?â€ Staring deep into Neheâ€™s dazzling aquamarine eyes, Riley nodded. â€œThen follow me.â€ Nehe dove headfirst into the raging river. Helpless, Riley stared in horror as the rapid current swept Nehe up and tossed her towards the plunging waterfall, she tumbled over the edge and disappeared in water which was now the deep red color of freshly spilled blood. Riley had no idea how long she stood there, just staring at the river, her feet rooted to the ground, drowning in the flood of fear that washed over her. Her heart beat against her chest like the wings of a thousand caged birds desperate to escape. Blood pounding, mouth dry, she crept closer to the river. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself, and tried to think. She had come here looking for answers. Nehe said that courage was needed to find those answers just before she had thrown herself in the river. What options were left to her now? She could go back without any answers. But how? By appealing to Diara again? Would Diara help her if she did not have courage? Perhaps Diara had sent Nehe to help her. Riley rubbed her throbbing head. Or she could stop cowering in fear and follow Nehe into the river. Face set with resolve, she saluted her fear and leapt into the river. The river seemed to reach out and pluck her out of the air. Instead of sinking into a frigid, seething mass of churning water, she was embraced by warmth, the water silky against her skin. The river was now the pale blue of a summer sky. She felt herself floating over the edge but instead of terror, bliss and serenity settled over like a cloak. The next thing she became aware of was someone shaking her. Sitting up, she found herself on a ledge behind the waterfall, the water plummeting downward in a column of molten silver. â€œYou have courage, Princess. For an anxious minute back there I did not think that you were going to jump.â€ Neheâ€™s voice held a tinge of amusement. A wry smile tugged at Rileyâ€™s lips. â€œNeither did I. But I have not come this far just to slink away like a whipped dog. I need answers. Can you help me?â€ â€œI will do my best. But you need to know that some questions are not meant to be answered at all. Some answers you will need to find on your own. And others will only be revealed when the time is right.â€ Riley frowned. She hoped that Neheâ€™s answers were not all going to be that cryptic. Sighing, she plunged ahead. â€œAre you an angel? What exactly is the Isle of Paradisi? Toom said that it is to Avalyss what Heaven is to Earth.â€ â€œHeaven is a concept that means different things to different people. To some Heaven does not exist at all. What I can tell you is that the Universe is vast with an infinite number of worlds. Earth, Avalyss and the Isle of Paradisi are all different worlds. Heaven may or may not be a world. Or it could just be a concept created by humankind.â€ Rileyâ€™s frown deepened. Staring at the sparkling silver curtain of the waterfall, she mulled over Neheâ€™s words. Sitting so close to tons of roaring water, she should have been scared but instead she felt safe and protected. Maybe it was intuition or a gut feeling but she knew she could not be harmed in this place. â€œSo you are not an angel or a goddess?â€ Neheâ€™s sweet smile emphasized her exquisite otherworldly beauty. â€œThe beings that live on the Isle of Paradisi or Avalyss possess powers or abilities that humankind has long attributed to their gods, angels and even demons. All life forms are essentially energy, emanating from the same source.â€ â€œYou mean God?â€ Riley asked. Nehe shrugged. â€œAgain God means different things to different people. All I am saying is that all life forms come from the same source. You are free to call that source what you will.â€ Rileyâ€™s head ached as she tried to make sense of all this. It was like trying to carry water using her bare hands, precious drops kept trickling through her fingers. â€œIs the battle between the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages a battle between Good and Evil?â€ â€œNo. It is important that you realize that not all of the Light Bringers represent the forces of Good and not all Dark Mages are evil. Power, whether of the light kind or the dark kind, can be used for both good and evil purposes. I believe one of Earthâ€™s great thinkers once said â€˜power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.â€™ That statement accurately sums up the struggles that are currently occurring on Avalyss.â€ Riley pushed to her feet and began pacing, her brow furrowed in concentration. â€œSo both white magic and dark magic serve a purpose, both are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of Avalyss. I believe that balance could be achieved if both the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages govern together. But no one will listen, least of all, Cole. What can I do to convince him and the others? If an epic battle is not my destiny then what is?â€ She sank to her knees, holding her throbbing head in her hands. â€œDo you believe that you were created for a specific destiny or purpose? Or do you believe that you get to choose your own? Rest now, Princess. To face the challenges that lie in wait you will need all your strength and courage.â€ Nehe laid a cool hand on Rileyâ€™s forehead. Immediately, the stinging pain disappeared and her eyes closed. CHAPTER 18 The rain fell in straight vertical sheets, pumping down from the sky in total, eerie silence. Icy droplets stung Rileyâ€™s skin, pulling her out of a deep sleep. She woke up alert and drenched to the bone. Leaping up, she sprinted for the nearest available shelter, a nearby cave. She frowned in puzzlement. The last thing she remembered was talking to Nehe on the ledge behind the waterfall. How then had she come to awaken under an open sky? Despite the limited visibility due to the unrelenting downpour, she saw a carpet of sand covering the ground. Shivering, she moved deeper into the cave seeking warmth. It was damp and gloomy, permeated with a faint, unpleasant odor. Wrinkling her nose in disgust, she pressed forward, almost numb with cold. The chill seeping into her bones made her teeth chatter. A faint blue light emanating from the cave gave it a spectral glow. An uneasy feeling crept over her as if she was being watched by unseen eyes. The mouth of the cave was narrow but as Riley continued to advance it widened into a huge, roomy chamber. A fire crackled in its midst. Ignoring, her initial instinct to rush headlong towards it, Riley halted. Instead of beckoning in the usual manner of crackling fires it emitted a hint of menace. She shivered again. The blue flames started to swirl and brighten and a shadowy form stepped out of the fire. â€œGreetings, Princess. Tell me how do you like the Isle of Paradisi thus far?â€ The figure tossed her long white hair and regarded Riley with impish grey eyes. Riley breathed a sigh of relief. â€œDiara! Thank you granting my request.â€ Diara frowned as she looked at the still shivering Riley. Heat filled the cave and Rileyâ€™s wet clothes dried instantly. Murmuring her thanks, Riley moved closer to the fire, its blaze now cheerful. â€œHave you found the answers you were seeking?â€ Diara asked. Riley shrugged. â€œNot sure. Some of the answers were cryptic and others spawned even more questions.â€ Diara threw back her head and laughed, a wild cackle that bounced off the walls of the cave. â€œThat sounds like Nehe. Sheâ€™s incapable of giving a straight answer.â€ â€œIs she a friend of yours?â€ Diara snorted. â€œNemesis would be a more fitting description. I must caution you, Princess, do not be so quick to believe any beings that you encounter here. Each has its own agenda and will not hesitate to use you to further that agenda.â€ Riley raised her brow. â€œIncluding you?â€ Diara laughed again, a dark sound that had Riley shivering anew. â€œAlways knew you were smart. Yes, especially me.â€ â€œWhat is your agenda?â€ Riley wrapped her arms around herself in a futile attempt to warm up. The fire was now pumping out cold heat. â€œDid Nehe explain that the beings who live here have powers that other life forms attribute to gods and goddesses? If some life forms believe that I am a goddess, then that belief enhances my powers thus enabling me to become more powerful than other beings and able to garner their powers as well. With all that power I can do what I will.â€ Diaraâ€™s eyes gleamed with a lurid light. Riley frowned. â€œIf you are only interested in accumulating power, why did you agree to help me find a way for the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages to govern Avalyss together?â€ â€œYou misunderstood Princess. I said that I would help you stop the battle. Assist Cole to become a Prince of Light or help you join the Dark Mages. By allowing me to create an Avalyss that consists entirely of Light Bringers or Dark Mages, you would have made me very powerful indeed. Your idea of bringing balance to Avalyss would only dilute my power. I cannot allow that to happen.â€ A fierce gust of wind sprang up, extinguishing the blue fire and plunging the cavern into sudden darkness. Riley gasped as the wind reached out icy arms and tried to rip her from the floor. Straining to see through the encompassing blackness, she called out to Diara but all she heard was the roaring sound of the malevolent wind. The entire cavern started to vibrate and chunks of rock rained down from the ceiling. Riley yelped as she received a stinging blow to the arm. She tried to head for the cave opening but she could not see through the thick curtain of darkness and stumbled around, hands held out to keep from banging into the walls. A bright flash pierced the blackness and Riley caught a quick glimpse of honey hair and amber eyes before the brief light faded. â€œCole, over here. We need to get out.â€ Riley headed towards the spot where she had seen him but, before she could reach him, a chunk of rock hit her on the side of the head and she collapsed. Cole sat cradling Rileyâ€™s motionless body in his arms, his face twisted in anguish, his hand caressing her fevered cheek. He stared blankly at the crystalline brook babbling next to him. He had no idea how he had gotten to this forest glade. The last thing he remembered was hearing her cry out then everything had started spinning and he had ended up in this picturesque spot with an unconscious Riley sporting a nasty looking bump on her head. He had tried to teleport back to Avalyss but could not. He had petitioned Diara for help but his pleas had gone unanswered. He believed that he was still on the Isle of Paradisi. After witnessing the unsettling spectacle of Riley being plucked out of the Great Hall by a giant hand, he had called on Diara to take him to the Isle of Paradisi. Nothing had happened for hours. He had given up and had gone running in the courtyard of the Dark Tower. He was in mid run when he felt a sudden tugging sensation then he was in a dark cave with rocks falling from the ceiling and had heard Rileyâ€™s cry of pain. He could not remember the last time he had felt so helpless. He had no idea what to do next. His grip tightened on Riley. She had become very important to him in her own right and not just as a convenient means to furthering his ambition. Hell, he liked her. Even more than liked her. As for how much more he could not let himself go down that road just yet. Not now. Not while she was in danger. She was the most infuriating and fascinating woman he had ever met. He could not lose her. â€œSentiment is a dangerous thing. It often thwarts ambition.â€ The silky voice broke into his thoughts. Startled, he looked up and relief flooded through him as Diara materialized near the brook. â€œDiara! Where have you been? Have you not heard my pleas? The Princess is hurt, please help her.â€ His voice cracked with emotion. Diara, dressed in a shimmering grey robe that matched her eyes, stood motionless. Her face could have been carved in stone, it betrayed nothing. â€œDonâ€™t just stand there. Do something!â€ Cole shouted. â€œWhat would you have me do?â€ Cole stared at her, his expression incredulous. Panic clutched at his throat. â€œWe donâ€™t have time for games. She could die. Help her!â€ Icy grey eyes bored into Coleâ€™s. â€œThink! Use your brain. Turn off your emotions. If she dies, what happens?â€ Cole stared at her, confusion coursing through him. He tried to marshal his jumbled thoughts. â€œWhy are you asking me a question that you already know the answer to, especially at a time like this? If she dies, then the status quo remains the same in Avalyss.â€ Diara nodded. â€œNow tell me what happens if she were to die at your hand?â€ His confusion gave way to horror as the full impact of her words dawned on him. â€œAre you crazy? You canâ€™t be serious!â€ â€œDeadly serious. You know that if you kill her, the Dark Mages will gain supremacy in Avalyss. The only other way is for her to join forces with you. That will not happen. I have spoken with her. She is stubborn and single minded. If you want to rule this is the only way.â€ Diaraâ€™s expression was blank and her voice devoid of all emotion. Stunned, Coleâ€™s amber eyes flooded with revulsion. If he had not heard it with his own ears he would never have believed that Diara could make such a callous suggestion. His gaze softened as it rested on Riley. She looked so vulnerable lying in his arms, as still as death and as white as bone. He knew in his heart that he could not do what Diara suggested. He could not kill her while she lay helpless. Hell, he didnâ€™t think that he could kill her under any circumstances, even in the heat of battle. But that was a matter for another day. He fought to keep his voice steady. â€œI cannot. I promised her that I would not kill her in stealth. I think killing her while sheâ€™s unconscious would be considered a breach of that promise.â€ Diara laughed, an ugly, hollow sound. â€œPromises are meant to be broken. She would not be aware that you broke your promise.â€ â€œNo but I would. And it is not just because of the promise. I cannot kill her.â€ â€œFool!â€ Diara spat. â€œCoward! Weakling! You will not take your destiny when it is offered to you so easily. I thought you were better than that.â€ â€œI am better than that. Only a rank coward would kill a defenseless person. Or even suggest it.â€ Coleâ€™s voice was tight with anger. â€œTread carefully. You do not want me for an enemy. For now I will leave the Princess and yourself to the Fates.â€ Diara vanished in a puff of smoke. Fury surged through Cole. He swore to himself that he would make Daira pay for this. He touched Rileyâ€™s brow, the fever still raged within her. â€œThe brook. It has healing powers. Put her in the brook.â€ The voice was a mere whisper. Cole looked around. He saw no one. He and Riley were the only ones in the glade. He frowned. Was he hearing voices? Maybe he was losing his mind. Shaking his head, he told himself that he had to keep it together. Riley needed him. â€œPut her in the brook. Now! She does not have much time left.â€ This time the voice held a note of urgency that could not be denied. Shrugging to himself, Cole picked up Riley, and strode to the brook. Wading in, he placed her entire body in the water, except her head. With one hand, he cupped some water and sprinkled it on her face. The water was surprisingly warm and silky. Cole watched in fascination as the water in the brook started to change color. First it turned the color of spun gold, then a deep sapphire blue, switched to grass green, shifted to a deep purple, and finally it turned clear again. Riley stirred and a faint moan escaped her lips. Her eyes fluttered open, blank at first, then recognition dawned in them. â€œCole! Where are we?â€ She took in their surroundings. Surprise flitted across her face. â€œWhat are we doing? Swimming?â€ Cole threw back his head and laughed. It sounded slightly manic to his ears but he felt euphoric as his entire being flooded with relief. He tightened his grip on her as he waded out of the brook and collapsed on a carpet of soft grass. Riley rolled to a sitting position. â€œStop that infernal laughing! Have you gone mad?â€ She shook him, her face full of concern. â€œNo, Princess.â€ He grabbed her hand and kissed it, his lips warm against her skin. â€œI have never been so worried before. Thought that I had lost you.â€ His eyes devoured her face, taking in her flushed cheeks and parted lips. Lowering his head, he pressed his lips to hers. His pulse quickened as she moaned and melted into his arms, her body fusing with his. â€œLet us get you out of these wet clothes. Wouldnâ€™t want you to catch a cold.â€ His grin was wolfish as his fingers fumbled for the buttons on her shirt. Rileyâ€™s breath caught in her throat as he peeled her shirt from her body, his hand brushing against her bare skin sent tingles down her spine. Heat flooded through her as his fingers and mouth flicked across her heated flesh until she was rabid with desire. Burying her hands in his hair, she surrendered to the tidal wave of pleasure that he alone could give. Afterwards, Cole held her close, murmuring words of tenderness. He had been so terrified of losing her that he had desperately needed to touch her, kiss her, and make mad passionate love to her. Her moans of pleasure, the way she clung to him, and begged for more all proved that she was very much alive. Burying his face in her silken ebony hair, inhaling the sweet essence of her, he knew that his hunger for her was only slightly abated and that he would need to slake his desire, again and again. He was insatiable where she was concerned. He never wanted to let her go. She filled a void deep within his soul that he never knew existed. With her he was whole, without her he was not. The realization hit like a ton of falling bricks, he was in love with her. Madly, deeply, impossibly in love. Stunned, Cole gently disentangled himself from the sleeping Riley, and staggered towards the brook, his eyes troubled. Love. He had never dreamt that he could feel such an emotion, especially for this particular woman, his nemesis according to the prophecy. A growing sense of confusion mingled with terror overwhelmed him. Squatting, he splashed some water on his face, barely noticing that it was ice cold and red tendrils of color were beginning to spread atop its crystal surface. If it came down to an epic battle between the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages he would have to kill Riley in order for the Dark Mages to gain supremacy. He could not strike that fatal blow. The only other option was for her to join he Dark Mages willingly and that she had refused to do. All was lost. Everything he had worked and trained for his whole life. His entire self-concept was wrapped up in him being the leader who ushered in the age of the Dark Mages. It was what he was born to do. His destiny was his life. Without it he was nothing. He raked his fingers through his hair, cursing himself for being the worst kind of fool. How had he let this happen? His eyes were tortured as he looked at her. How could he choose between his destiny and the woman he loved? He almost collapsed under the weight of his mixed and conflicting emotions. A desperate thought slithered into his head. People fell in and out of love all the time. Maybe what he felt for Riley was a weak sort of love although the strong feeling in his breast belied that hope. He knew several Dark Mages who had brewed successful love potions. Perhaps it was possible to brew a potion that would help someone fall out of love. Cole knew he was clutching at straws but he had to try. He could not give up his destiny without a fight. It would mean that his entire life up to his point had been a waste. He strode back to Riley and stared at her intently, trying to burn her image into his brain, memorizing every perfect feature, from her almond shaped eyes, to her sculpted cheekbones and generous mouth. Leaning down, he brushed one finger across her cheek. He felt his resolve weaken fought the desire to hold her close, to pledge his love to her and to choose her over his destiny. But some dark force within him stirred and would not let him yield. He turned away, his jaw set, his eyes stony with resolve, he commanded, â€œDiara, take me back to the Dark Tower. I will not give up my destiny without a fight.â€ A blanket of darkness fell over the glade, almost as if someone had flicked off the sun. Then as suddenly as it had vanished, the sun was back, shining brighter than before. And Cole was gone. Riley stretched like a cat, her body boneless and relaxed. One of the perks of lovemaking, she thought, grinning wickedly. Propping herself up on one elbow, she looked around for Cole. A slight frown marred her brow as she wondered where he had disappeared to. Her expression turned dreamy as she recalled the details of their shared activities the night before. The man certainly knew his way around a womanâ€™s erogenous zones. Just remembering made her breath catch and her pulse quicken. She frowned again. Did his disappearance have anything to do with her whispering those three words â€œI love you?â€ Did she really whisper them? She knew they had been on the tip of her tongue and she had tried to bite them back, maybe they had slipped out. Almost from the beginning, a part of her had known that she loved him, every annoying, difficult and contrary inch of him. If she had indeed blurted out her true feelings, how did he feel about her? He desired her. The attraction between them was undeniable. She believed that they were friends in spite of their differing and conflicting objectives. She hoped she meant more to him than a good time in bed. Her cheeks turned crimson. What if that was all she was? How else to explain him disappearing without even saying goodbye? She moved towards the brook, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. The water was blood red she noted absently. Riley sank to her knees and sobbed. She had been an utter and complete fool, confusing passionate sex with love like some naÃ¯ve teenager. Abruptly, the sobbing stopped and her bitter laughter echoed around the glade. â€œPrincess.â€ The musical voice ripe with summer overtones silenced the laughter. Nehe appeared, her platinum hair brushing the ground and her aquamarine eyes full of compassion. She laid a slender hand on Rileyâ€™s shoulder and squeezed gently. â€œMost of the pain you are feeling right now comes from your own speculation and not from any true knowledge of the facts.â€ Widening her eyes in surprise, Riley asked, â€œAre you saying that Cole loves me?â€ Neheâ€™s smile was enigmatic. â€œAll I am saying is that there is no need for you to make yourself so miserable when you donâ€™t know how he really feels. Do not leap the gun, as the humans are fond of saying.â€ A chuckle escaped Rileyâ€™s lips. â€œJump the gun,â€ she corrected. Nehe laughed a bright, sparking sound. â€œYes, thatâ€™s it. Why suffer needlessly now? Wait until all the facts are in before you choose to suffer or not.â€ â€œYou think that suffering is a choice? But no one chooses to suffer. No sane person anyway.â€ Nehe smiled her enigmatic smile again. Riley rolled her eyes, that particular smile was beginning to grate on her nerves. Nehe sank down to the grass beside Riley. â€œTell me what is your next step? Your plan?â€ Riley pushed her hair away from her face. â€œMy plan was to come here in search of answers. I am not sure what comes next. Do you know where Cole is?â€ â€œI asked about your plans. Not Coleâ€™s. You can only control your actions not someone elseâ€™s. I suggest that you worry about your actions and let Cole worry about his.â€ Riley remained silent. In response to Neheâ€™s inquiring look, she said, â€œJust waiting for your enigmatic smile. You end most of your profound statements that way.â€ Her own smile was teasing. Neheâ€™s grey eyes glimmered with laughter. â€œYou have a good sense of humor, Princess. The ability to laugh at yourself and others will help to lighten many burdens. Humor is an excellent weapon to have in your arsenal.â€ This time Riley did not have to wait for the enigmatic smile. It flashed across Neheâ€™s face so fast that Riley would have missed it if she had blinked. Riley grinned. So advanced beings had a sense of humor too. Although Diara didnâ€™t seem to have much of one. Thinking of Diara made her scowl. â€œI am confused. What is Diaraâ€™s stake in all this? She said that she would be more powerful if she was allowed to create an Avalyss that consisted of either all Light Bringers or Dark Mages. But if an epic battle were to take place, she is prepared to assist the Dark Mages. Wouldnâ€™t she be more powerful if either side won?â€ Neheâ€™s face grew solemn. â€œDiara serves only one mistress, herself. She wants to be the most powerful being in the entire Universe. She can do this by accumulating so much power that the rest of us will be unable to stop her. She will only make an offer that serves her best interests. If you and Cole had accepted her offer to make him a Light Bringer or you a Dark Mage, you would have surrendered your free will to her. She would have had complete control over both you and Cole. Essentially, she would have become your puppet master. In the case of an epic battle scenario, Diara will want the Dark Mages to win since she derives much of her power from them worshipping her. If the Dark Mages rule Avalyss, her powers will increase exponentially.â€ Riley paled. â€œShe tried to kill me.â€ Nehe shook her head, her platinum hair glowing. â€œShe wants you dead. But she wonâ€™t kill you. If she does, Avalyss remains the same as it is now with the Dark Mages holding the minority of the power. She will try to convince Cole to kill you.â€ Riley looked startled. â€œHe may not be in love with me but he doesnâ€™t hate me. He will not kill me.â€ â€œDo not be so sure, Princess. Cole is a troubled soul. There is good in him but evil too. He craves power. He believes that ruling Avalyss is his destiny.â€ â€œSo if he If he tries to kill me, then I must kill him first? I will not let it come down to a kill or be killed situation. I need to come up with a plan.â€ Rileyâ€™s pace quickened matching the tempo of her thoughts. She had no idea what to do next. She needed help and wise counsel, someone trustworthy and thoroughly familiar with Avalyss. But who? She stopped pacing and smacked herself in the head. Of course! She trusted Sarri and Max with her life. They would help her without hesitation. She spun towards Nehe. â€œCan you take me to Sarriâ€™s private suite in the castle?â€ Nehe smiled her enigmatic smile again. â€œAre you not forgetting something, an important something?â€ â€œWhat?â€ â€œWhy did you leave the castle the last time?â€ Rileyâ€™s frown deepened further as she remembered that she had left because the Higher Echelon had ordered her to marry Crane. No one was allowed to openly defy a direct order. If she went back, the Higher Echelon had every right to enforce the order. Her face mutinous, she said, â€œI will not marry that toad. Is there any loophole I could wriggle through? Any possible way to circumvent the order?â€ â€œYou will need Shalimarâ€™s help.â€ Riley brightened. â€œYes! Thatâ€™s brilliant! The Higher Echelon will believe that victory in the epic battle is guaranteed because I have Shalimar. They donâ€™t know about that there are two crystal swords. I can use that belief to get them to nullify the order. Where is Shalimar? Will she even help me? Both crystal swords were unhappy because Cole and I had not found a way to work together.â€ â€œShalimar will always help you, except in the epic battle if it were to take place. I will summon her.â€ Nehe pulled her into a warm embrace. â€œBe careful, Princess. Always remember who you are. This knowledge will help you find your way back if you should ever lose your way.â€ Amid an explosion of bright color, Riley felt herself whirling and falling through space. CHAPTER 19 She landed with a thud in Sarriâ€™s private suite in the castle. She was in the guest bedroom, sprawled in the canopy bed with Shalimar by her side. The moon, a thin sliver high in the sky, shone weakly into the room, enhancing the shadows that lurked there. Light footsteps sounded in the hallway and a dark shape filled the doorway. Riley froze as the figure sped towards her, the scream dying in her throat as Sarri wrapped her arms around her. â€œDaughter, I have been so worried about you. Did Cole hurt you? I knew that he would have taken you to the Dark Tower but no Light Bringer can breach its defenses.â€ The room glowed with a warm, yellow light as she drew back and studied Rileyâ€™s face, her mercury colored eyes full of concern and relief. Before, Riley could reply, a black shape hurled itself at her knocking her flat on her back. Its breath hot on her face, she caught a sight of huge white teeth as it lowered its mouth towards her neck. Bracing for the bite, she was surprised when it dragged its tongue over her face, leaving her cheeks a sopping wet mess. Squealing, she pushed at it, her fingers tangling in the thick fur. â€œMax! Stop! Are you trying to lick me to death?â€ Max stopped licking and sat on her stomach, staring at her with intense green eyes. Since he was the size of a small car, she could feel the breath being squeezed out of her. She pushed at him again. Taking the hint, he shifted the bulk of his weight off her. â€œIf licking and crushing me to death are any indications, I am guessing that you are glad to see me.â€ She muttered wryly, rubbing his stomach. â€œSorry, forgot that you are such a puny weakling. You are looking well. Your adventures appear to have caused you no harm.â€ His eyes narrowed. â€œNo physical harm at least.â€ Riley tore her eyes from his, flushing as she remembered that Max could read her mind. As her Guardian he was uniquely tuned into her, sort of like a radio frequency, and he could and would always be able to see into her heart and mind. She saw his frown and knew that he did not like what he was seeing. Trying to distract him, she touched the bald, jagged scar on his face where Cole, in lion form, had slashed him. â€œI see you are still are as ugly as ever. And this does nothing to enhance your appearance.â€ â€œAh, my badge of honor. I wear it proudly.â€ He bumped her chin with his head. â€œI have missed you. And the Queen has been frantic with worry.â€ â€œWhatâ€™s been going on around here? Did you get in trouble for taking me to Earth and biting Sarri in the process?â€ She turned towards her mother and saw the raw scar marring the creamy perfection of her neck. Sarri traced the scar with one finger, a faint smile on her lips. â€œThat was an unexpected but clever move on Maxâ€™s part. The Higher Echelon did not believe that I had helped you. Who would suspect that I would have volunteered to have my throat split open?â€ â€œYou didnâ€™t. Max acted on his own.â€ Riley shivered as she remembered the initial horror she had felt at Maxâ€™s quick but brutal act. Sarri touched Rileyâ€™s face, her hand warm and gentle. â€œBut I would have volunteered. I would do anything to protect you.â€ â€œI was reprimanded upon my return. Things could have been worse for me if the Queen had not pleaded my case. Since my purpose is to protect you, she argued that by helping you I was fulfilling that purpose even if that meant disobeying the Higher Echelon.â€ Max grinned as he remembered Craneâ€™s fury when the Higher Echelon chose not to exile Max as Crane had advocated. Riley ruffled his fur and kissed the top of his head. â€œI am glad that you were not exiled. I would miss not seeing your ugly mugâ€ Max growled playfully, jumped on her and they started to wrestle. Riley squealed as they both tumbled out of the bed onto the floor. Sarri shook her head and smiled. Overgrown cubs, the both of them. â€œIs that giant fur ball killing you, Princess? Do you need me to whack his head off?â€ Everyone froze and stared at the white crystal sword hovering above their heads, its jeweled hilt sparkling and its curved blade gleaming in the butter yellow light that filled the room. Max, with his ears lying flat against his head and his hackles raised, bared his fangs. Sarri stood motionless, her expression a mixture of astonishment and awe. â€œThe crystal sword! Do you know what this means? Since you are the holder of the crystal sword, the Higher Echelon will not dare force you to marry Crane. This is wonderful! Where did you find it?â€ Riley smiled and pushed a stray strand of ebony hair behind her ear. â€œIt is a long story. But, first, I must tell you that there are two crystal swords. Cole is the holder of the black crystal sword known as Sultan.â€ Max shook his head, a look of disbelief on his face. â€œImpossible! The legend does not speak of two crystal swords, only one.â€ Sarri looked thoughtful. â€œAccording to the prophecy either you or Cole must be killed by the otherâ€™s hands during the epic battle. What happens now that you both have the power of immortality?â€ â€œIf there is a battle, the swords will not fight against each other. They want Cole and me to find a way to work together. I have been trying to convince Cole that Avalyss will be best served if neither side seeks power over the other but govern together.â€ â€œImpossible!â€ Max snorted. â€œNeither side will agree to that. Light Bringers and Dark Mages alike live, breathe and die all in the eternal quest for increasing levels of power.â€ Riley batted at him in annoyance. â€œWill you stop saying that? Maybe it is impossible but we have to try. I believe that we can convince the Light Bringers and the Dark Mages to work together before Avalyss is embroiled in a civil war. I need to come up with a plan that could achieve the impossible. Will you both help me?â€ Sarri nodded. â€œI learned a long time ago that nothing is impossible. A battle will be the worst possible thing that could happen to Avalyss. There will be a lot of suffering, dying on both sides. If there is a chance we can avert that fate, then we have to try.â€ Max nodded, although he still looked skeptical. â€œOkay, Iâ€™m in. You will need some massive brain power aboard this sinking ship!â€ And then he skipped adroitly out of the way as Riley aimed a playful cuff at him. Riley did not realize that she had been holding her breath until she exhaled. Relief flooded through her. She did not know what she would have done if they had not agreed to help her. â€œOur first order of business is dealing with the Higher Echelon. I had hoped that we would have time to formulate a strategy but it is not to be. Here they come now.â€ Sarri could not quite keep the anxiety out of her voice. A loud banging on the door heralded their arrival. Rileyâ€™s shoulders tightened as tension coursed through her body. She could feel a cold sweat beading her brow. Her stomach twisted in knots as she remembered her last encounter with Crane. That despicable toad. Maybe she could whack his head off with Shalimar. She smiled. Her smile grew wider as Shalimar squawked in protest. â€œDonâ€™t even think of sullying my pristine blade with his unworthy blood!â€ The door flew open and the entire Higher Echelon marched in, Mylor and Crane at the forefront. Crane, a wide smile on his face, advanced towards Riley, arms open. She stepped aside to avoid his embrace. For a moment the wide smile disappeared and his eyes flashed with hatred, but he recovered quickly and the smile returned wider than before, his pale blue eyes devoid of emotion. â€œNow, Now, Princess. Is that any way to greet your husband to be?â€ His tone, though warm and welcoming, rang with insincerity. A finger of revulsion crawled up her spine. â€œI will not marry you even if you were the last man left in the entire Universe.â€ Again, there was a crack in his smiling faÃ§ade, which he quickly suppressed. His smile was so wide and so fake that it reminded Riley of a cheap plastic mask. He opened his mouth to speak but Mylor stepped forward. â€œStop! This conversation is pointless.â€ Holding his short, stocky body at military attention, he favored Riley with a stern gaze. â€œPrincess, I speak on behalf of the entire Higher Echelon, we are glad that you have returned. We know that you are not familiar with the ways of our world, with our rules and laws, so we are willing to overlook your defiance of our direct order. However, the matter is not up for debate, the order must be carried out. The Higher Echelon decides what is best for the Light Bringers. You will marry Crane. You have no choice in this matter.â€ â€œI beg to differ. The Princess has a choice. I am giving her that choice. If she chooses not to marry Crane, then the Higher Echelon is powerless to stop her.â€ Shalimarâ€™s voice resounded around the room but since she had made herself invisible they had no idea who the voice belonged to. They craned their necks, trying to see the mysterious speaker. Mylor sneered. â€œShe cannot defy a direct order. Who or what are you? Show yourself!â€ â€œConsider your authority over the Princess overridden.â€ â€œBy whom?â€ Mylor scoffed. â€œBy me!â€ Shalimar suddenly winked back into existence. A halo of bright white light surrounded her, emphasizing her sharp, curved crystal blade, her jeweled hilt sparkled and sizzled with an inner fire, blanketing the room with brilliant, radiant rays of myriad colors. â€œThe crystal sword!â€ The entire Echelon chorused in unison. They stood rooted to the floor, wide, shocked eyes staring at Shalimar. Craneâ€™s face twisted with fury and envy, as he spun towards Riley. â€œImpossible! You cannot be the wielder of the crystal sword.â€ Rileyâ€™s smile was triumphant. â€œAs you can clearly see, it is possible. Allow me to introduce Shalimar.â€ She gestured towards Shalimar who bowed deeply in the direction of the Higher Echelon. â€œIf the Light Bringers want to win the epic battle they cannot afford to alienate the holder of the crystal sword. I refuse to marry Crane and demand that the Higher Echelon withdraw that direct order at once.â€ She could not keep the disgust out of her eyes as she glared at Crane. She felt the gorge rising in her throat as she remembered his hands pawing at her naked body. His entire body throbbing with menace, Crane stalked towards Riley. In a flash, Shalimar was at his throat, pressing hard against the soft skin until a faint red line bloomed under the tip of her blade. Eyes filled with fear, he forced himself to remain motionless. â€œNo need to attack us with that infernal sword. We concede.â€ With a curt nod in Rileyâ€™s direction, Mylor grabbed Crane by the arm, and marched from the room. After a momentâ€™s hesitation, the other members of the Higher Echelon turned and followed him, looking just like a brood of baby chicks filing behind their mother hen. Over the next couple of weeks, Riley focused on learning what life was like for the Light Bringers by observing their ways, customs, and daily routines. They lived in rustic cottages dotting a rugged coastline protected by an unpredictable, moody ocean throbbing with magic and mystery. Their lives were dedicated to mastering Light magic. Dark magic was strictly prohibited. Dark magic drew on the energy of fire, earth and blood magic whereas Light magic utilized the energy of air and water. Some even went so far as to say that Dark Magic was evil and Light Magic was good. Riley believed that that magic was power and power corrupted both evil and good alike. How was she going to convince them that evil not only lived but thrived amongst the Light Bringers? She suspected that a faction of Light Bringers used Light Magic for evil purposes. If she could unmask them maybe she could finally convince everyone that Dark Magic and Light Magic could be integrated for the greater good of Avalyss. But how? CHAPTER 20 Giant waves crashed against the shore, spraying the three figures ambling along the beach. Oblivious to the cold droplets clinging to her hair and clothes, Riley continued talking, raising her voice a little so that she could be heard above the pounding surf. As the sun slipped out of the sea, preparing to begin its daily climb into the heavens, she was voicing her suspicions to Sarri and Max of an evil faction within the Light Bringers. She barely noticed the pink, orange, and red tendrils suffusing the dawn sky. â€œWhy are you so sure that such a faction exists?â€ Sarriâ€™s eyes were troubled. â€œCall it a gut feeling or intuition. Actually it is more than just a feeling, itâ€™s a knowing, a certainty. I know it is true but I donâ€™t know how I know or where this knowledge comes from. Am I making sense? I sound like a rambling idiot.â€ Riley pushed wet strands of hair off her face and breathed in a huge lungful of the salty ocean air. â€œSuch knowledge, a deep inner knowing, must not be discounted. Our inner voices sometimes know things that our conscious minds do not. It is always wise to heed that voice, Daughter.â€ Max grunted his agreement, loping along in the choppy surf. â€œWe take the inner voice seriously here in Avalyss. On Earth it is largely ignored and dismissed. But we cannot go to the Higher Echelon and say that your inner voice told you about this faction. We need proof.â€ He suddenly stopped and shook himself vigorously, fat droplets flying from his thick black coat, sprinkling Riley and Sarri. Squealing, Riley skipped away from him. Max and the surf were doing an excellent job of soaking her to the bone. She shivered slightly from the chill. She turned towards Sarri. â€œDo you have any idea who could belong to the faction?â€ â€œNone at all.â€ â€œCrane, I think Crane is definitely a member,â€ Max said. Riley wrinkled her nose. â€œCrane is unpleasant. There is something off about himâ€. â€œHe may not be what he pretends to be. But is that a good enough reason to suspect him?â€ Sarri asked. Max sat on his haunches, his green eyes intense. â€œThis brings us back to finding the proof we need.â€ Riley scratched her head, staring at the ocean for inspiration. Garbed in radiant emerald, it was angry today, relentlessly hurling its huge waves at the shoreline. â€œWe could lay a trap for them.â€ Maxâ€™s eyes narrowed and he gave her a sidelong glance. â€œWhat exactly do you have in mind?â€ â€œI propose that we tempt the faction with Shalimar. They would seize any opportunity for Shalimar to fall into their hands. Shalimarâ€™s power will be irresistible to them.â€ Max shook his head. â€œBut Shalimar belongs to you. Her power can only be accessed by you. Besides, she will not let anyone take her by force.â€ Riley stood still, moved forward, then stood still again as she tried to formulate a coherent plan from her tangled thoughts. â€œWho said anything about force? What if I offer up Shalimar to the Higher Echelon? Tell them that such power should be shared, should not just belong to me. They will jump at the offer. I am counting that the faction will try to get its hands on Shalimarâ€™s power before I can hand her over.â€ â€œSo let us say that the faction takes the bait and approaches you, what is your plan then? With Shalimarâ€™s power they will be unstoppable.â€ Sarriâ€™s voice trembled a little. â€œShalimar will not siphon her powers to the faction under any circumstances. The purpose of the plan is to unmask the faction members. Even if we are approached by only one, we can get him or her to reveal the identity of the others. Once we know who the faction members are, then we will provide this information to the Higher Echelon.â€ â€œYou make it sound so simple. But remember even the simplest plans could get complicated in a heartbeat.â€ Sarri said. Riley impulsively hugged her. â€œDonâ€™t worry. Iâ€™ll be fine. With Max and Shalimar watching my back, what could possibly go wrong?â€™ In silence Sarri returned the hug, trying to stifle the uneasiness that threatened to overwhelm her. The moonâ€™s glow turned Rileyâ€™s ebony tresses to burnished silver as she sat alone on the desolate beach, lulled by the oceanâ€™s mournful song. Riley felt her body stiffening with tension as time passed and nothing happened. She had come here, alone, as instructed, certain that she had been summoned by the faction. Wiping her clammy hands on her white robe, she blew out a breath and strove to quell her rising anxiety. About a week ago they had put their plan in motion. Although eager to accept, protocol demanded that the Higher Echelon convene an emergency meeting to discuss the ramifications of Rileyâ€™s offer. The meeting had been going on for days. Finally, today she had gotten a note, asking her to come here to this desolate beach, to answer some urgent questions. The note purported to be from the Higher Echelon. But if so why all the secrecy? Why did she have to come here all alone and in the dead of night? It was the faction, she knew it. Most of her was elated that her plan appeared to be working but a small part of her chittered in doubt. Despite her reassurances to Sarri, she felt that some vital component of the plan had been overlooked, something that could mean the difference between success and failure. Motionless, she lost herself in thought as the silver glow of the moon staved off the deep blackness of the night. The sound of heavy footsteps brought her back to the present moment. A shadow emerged out of the darkness standing just outside the circle of moonlight so she could not see its face. It stared at her for what seemed like an eternity. Then it stepped closer, threw back its hood, and Riley stifled her gasp of surprise. Mylor stood in front of her, his posture ramrod straight, wearing a smile that stopped short of his eyes. Shock coursed through her. Mylor? Her uncle, her motherâ€™s husband? How could he be part of the faction without Sarriâ€™s knowledge? The possibility that a member of the faction was also a member of the Higher Echelon had not crossed her mind. The Higher Echelonâ€™s function was to make sure that everyone followed the rules. The faction played outside the rules. She wondered if Mylor was the only one or if there were others. She tried to smile in an attempt to mask her suspicions. â€œFollow me.â€ His brusque voice cut through her musings. Turning on his heels, he strode into the darkness. Riley hurried after him, stumbling across the rocky shore. She could barely make out his silhouette ahead. If it were not for the weak moonlight bouncing off his bald head, she was certain that she would not have spotted him at all. Where was he taking her? She could feel the fear rising in her throat but she tamped it down and followed him, determined to get the proof that she needed. Then suddenly he vanished. She could no longer see his bobbing, bald head in the darkness. Whirling, she peered through the dark curtain of the night, trying to spot him. She was still on the deserted beach but near a mound of heavy boulders. Where did he go? He was just there, over by the mound. She crept closer, the hairs on the back of neck standing up, her arms covered with goose bumps. Extending a hand, she reached out to touch one of the boulders and her arm went straight through it. A startled yelp burst from her throat and she jumped back clutching her arm. It appeared unharmed. She flexed it, raised it and twisted it this way and that. Turning back towards the boulder, she took a deep breath, and walked straight through it. Blinded by a brilliant light, she briefly closed her eyes for a moment. Opening her eyes, her mouth fell open at the sight that greeted her. A dozen mages were grouped in the middle of a natural grotto, hemmed in by walls made of boulder. Some wore white robes, others black. Riley was stunned as she realized that the faction comprised both Light Bringers and Dark Mages. The mages formed a circle around Mylor and Riley. Wearing hoods and masks, they radiated waves of menace. Her pounding heart drowned out the unnerving silence. She shuddered once. Swallowing her fear, nails biting into her palms, her chin came up and she stood straighter. â€œGood work, Mylor,â€ said one of the white robed mages. His deep voice sounded familiar. Assuming a bravado that she did not feel, Riley turned towards Mylor. â€œWhat is going on here? My offer was made to the Higher Echelon and this is not it. Who are you? What do you want?â€ Mylor gave her a mocking bow. â€œYou know what we want. As for who we are that is none of your concern.â€ â€œOf course, it concerns me. Do you think I will hand over to Shalimar to just anyone?â€ An amused smile tugged at his hard mouth. â€œYou speak as if you have a choice. You will give us the crystal sword or else.â€ â€œOr else what? Your threats do not scare me.â€ â€œThey should. Give me Shalimar or they die!â€ He gestured with his arm and the circle of mages parted, revealing Sarri and Max floating inches above the floor, both were motionless, eyes closed. Axes were suspended over their heads, aimed directly at their necks. . Riley fisted her hands, anger and panic thrumming through her, she spun towards Mylor. â€œRelease them now!â€ â€œYou really are in no position to make demands, Princess. One command from me and the axes will fall, beheading them instantly. Now, give me the crystal sword.â€ He extended his hand for it and frowned as he finally noticed that she was not accompanied by Shalimar. â€œWhere is it?â€ he asked. â€œShe will come when called.â€ â€œCall her. Now!â€ His voice rang with command, eyes boring into hers. Fear, helplessness and fury all roared through her, drowning out her thoughts. She forced herself to take deep, even breaths as she tried to make sense of the chaotic mass of thoughts that whirled through her mind. In her original plan Sarri and Max were supposed to follow her and help capture the faction members. â€œI want the crystal sword. I will not ask again.â€ In his harsh face, his cold eyes glittered with venom. Both axes went into a vertical free fall for about a foot and stopped. Rileyâ€™s heart plummeted in time with the axes and lurched to a sudden halt when they stopped. â€œCalm down. Breathe. Be strong.â€ She heard Maxâ€™s voice in her mind. Gulping in a huge lungful of air, she bowed her head to mask the sudden relief flooding through her. â€œMax! Are you both okay?â€ she asked telepathically. â€œWe are fine. We are under an immobility spell so we cannot move. But they do not suspect that you have telepathy so try not to clue them in.â€ She sank to her knees, put her head in her hands, the picture of despair and dejection but she was really stalling for time as she tried to figure a way out of this mess. â€œWhat can I do? I cannot let both of you die and I dare not give them Shalimar. If I do, what is to stop them from killing all of us once Shalimarâ€™s power belongs to them?â€ â€œThey cannot let us live. We know too much.â€ â€œI could try teleporting all three of us out of here but I have only practiced teleporting just myself so not sure if I could pull it off.â€ â€œNo. That wonâ€™t work. Even if you were a master of teleportation, the immobility spell renders us incapable of being teleported Ask Shalimar for help.â€ â€œShalimar?â€ Didnâ€™t you just agree that I cannot hand her over?â€ Riley fought to quell the panic rising within her. â€œWho said anything about handing her over? Talk to her using telepathy.â€ Closing her eyes, she focused on Shalimar. â€œWe need your help.â€ She transmitted a mental image of the scene in the grotto. â€œPrincess.â€ Shalimarâ€™s voice dropped into her mind like pebbles in a pond. â€œI could come there, stun them all, and get the three of you out. But timing is everything. It would have to be quick so Mylor does not have a chance to drop the axes.â€ â€œEven a little risk is too much. I will not put their lives in peril. It could take less than a second for the axes to drop.â€ Rileyâ€™s voice held an edge of panic. â€œHow about a diversion?â€ Max interjected. â€œThatâ€™s an excellent ideaâ€, Shalimar agreed. â€œLeave it with me, Princess. Meanwhile, try to stall.â€ Still in a kneeling position, Rileyâ€™s face was buried in her hands, still projecting an attitude of despair. The entire conversation with Max and Shalimar had taken only seconds, mind to mind communication was much faster than verbal communication. She had no idea what Shalimar was planning but she had been instructed to stall and she intended to try. She blew out a breath, and looked up at Mylor. He was standing over her, scowling, hands akimbo, signaling his impatience by the insistent tapping of his left foot. Carefully keeping her face devoid of expression, eyes blank, not wanting even a glimmer of hope to show through, she pulled herself to her feet and hunched her shoulders. â€œIf I call Shalimar, what guarantee do I have that you will let us all go?â€ Mylorâ€™s smile was a travesty. â€œNo guarantees, Princess. I am, no, we are calling the shots here. Whether you live or die will depend on whether you want to join us or not. But that is for later. For now, I am done talking. The crystal sword.â€ He extended his arm, his eyes eager. â€œIf you are going to kill us anyway, why should I give you Shalimar? Go ahead, kill us all!â€ Inside she was trembling but outside she was the picture of defiance, head thrown back, eyes blazing, chin jutting forward. She was still trying to stall. Mylor took a step back, his face going slack with surprise. Two bright red spots of anger appeared on his cheekbones. â€œDammit, girl. You are as stubborn as your father. His stubbornness led to his death and it will lead to yours as well.â€ Dizzy, Riley leant against the wall of the grotto to steady herself, her eyes huge pools of color in her suddenly pallid face. Swallowing the big lump that had lodged itself in her throat, she stammered, â€œWhat are you talking about? My father killed himself.â€ He laughed. The chilling sound echoed off the walls of the grotto. â€œNo. I killed him. He found out about the faction. He was going to ruin everything. He had to be stopped.â€ A white robed mage stepped forward. â€œStop, Mylor. This is neither the time nor the place. What is the point of raking up the past now?â€ With a wave of his hand, Mylor dismissed him. He was bursting to tell of his greatest triumph. The words spewed out of him. He told of how he had killed his perfect brother, claimed his wife, succeeded in banishing his brotherâ€™s child by urging his wife that it was necessary for the childâ€™s protection, and assumed his brotherâ€™s position in the Higher Echelon. He was proud of what he had done. He had kept it a secret all these years. Now he wanted everyone to know what he was capable of. Riley wanted to rip Mylorâ€™s smirking face off his body. Anger vibrated within her until she was ready to explode. A jolt of pure power surged through her and a lightning bolt appeared in her palm. Mylor stepped back, his face a study in shock and disbelief. â€œStop! Before you could even hurl that thing, I will sever the heads of those you love!â€ Trembling, full of power and anger that could not be released, she collapsed into a heap. The lightning bolt vanished. She was stunned. She had not known that she could summon lightning bolts. She remembered seeing a picture on the temple walls of a woman shooting lightning bolts from her hands, a woman who looked like her. But she had summoned them unconsciously in a wave of blind rage. Could she learn to summon them consciously? She closed her eyes, feeling weak and nauseous. Summoning lightning bolts obviously consumed huge amounts of energy. The white robed mage, who had tried to stop Mylor, stood in front of Riley and stared at her through the eye holes of his mask. His eyes glittered with hatred. Removing his mask, his honey hair tied in a ponytail, he attempted a reassuring smile but it ended up being a mere stretch of the lips. Her stomach lurched again as for a split second she thought it was Cole but it was Crane. â€œMake no mistake, Princess. We will kill you all if we have to. But that is not our objective. We only want the crystal sword. Hand it over and I will convince the others to let you go. You have my word.â€ Riley threw him a mocking smile. â€œOnly a man of honor will abide by his word, and as we both know, you are without honor.â€ He took a step towards her, his hand raised to strike but he went flying across the grotto instead, slamming into the wall, he slid to the floor, eyes glassy. Cole had flashed into the grotto, another fireball already forming in his hand. He stood in front of Riley, shielding her body with his. Face twisting in fury, he glared at his brother. â€œDonâ€™t you ever raise your hand to her again. The next time I promise you the fire ball will not be set on stun.â€ It had happened so fast, Coleâ€™s appearance, and Craneâ€™s astonishing flight across the grotto. In that shocking instant when everyone was distracted, the two crystal swords, Sultan and Shalimar appeared. Wasting no time, they blasted the axes into smithereens. The noise of the blast shook everyone out of their frozen immobility. Before the faction could comprehend what was going on, the two swords crossed in the air and shot arrows of yellow light at the faction members who dropped to the floor unconscious. But Mylor was quick. He sized up the situation in an instant, rushed to Craneâ€™s side, grabbed his arm, and they both vanished. CHAPTER 21 Riley stood on top of the White Cliff staring at the serene ocean. It appeared almost still, radiating a peaceful, calming energy, its brilliant turquoise color glittered in the sunlight. She breathed in the sweet, fragrant air. An aura of innocence permeated the atmosphere. It did not look like a place that would bear witness to a murder. Her father had died here, had been pushed from this cliff into the ocean below. A tear drifted down her cheek. She never got a chance to know him. She was just a baby when he died so she did not remember the sound of his voice, his touch or what he looked like. From the pictures she had seen of him, she had inherited his eyes and his determined chin. He had a kind, laughing face, a face which his daughter would never see because Mylor had killed him. She felt anger surging through her, nails biting into her palms with such force that they drew blood. She fought for control. Not now. But she will avenge her fatherâ€™s death. The Higher Echelon was hunting for Mylor and Crane. But they also had their hands full dealing with the other members of the faction. The last couple of days had been a whirlwind of activity for Sarri, Max and Riley, attending meetings with the Higher Echelon and testifying against the faction. Since a few Dark Mages were also members of the faction, their fates, along with the fate of the rest of the faction, were now in the hands of the Higher Echelon and the Council for the Dark Mages. The story leaked out in dribs and drabs. The faction was pooling their knowledge of both dark magic and white magic, becoming experts at blending the two types of magic, a practice called Universal magic. They intended to stage a coup with the ultimate goal of ruling Avalyss. Riley sensed his presence an instant before he appeared next to her. Cole. Over the past few days, they had been polite almost formal in each otherâ€™s company. Both were careful not to be alone together. Every time she looked at him, she remembered their shared passion on the Isle of Paradisi, next to the crystalline brook. Her heart still ached at the memory of him disappearing without saying goodbye. She wanted to ask him why. Was it because she had foolishly blurted out her true feelings for him? How did he feel about her? But the questions remained unasked. Her body thrummed with passion and need. Determined not to betray her feelings, she favored him with a polite smile and attempted to engage in small talk. â€œIt is a beautiful day.â€ Cole put his hands on her shoulders and turned her towards him. His lips tightened as he took in her tear stained face. Putting one finger under her chin, he tipped her head up so that he could look into her eyes, bottomless pools of pain and hurt. Anger flared in his amber eyes as he vowed to make Mylor pay for what he had done to her family. â€œCome, it is not good to dwell on the past. On things we have no control over. Such brooding is not productive.â€ His voice was husky with tenderness. Riley stiffened and pulled away from him. â€œI am not brooding. My father was murdered here. I had to come, needed to see what he last saw, needed to experience this place, to fix it in my memory and my soul.â€ â€œSorry. I did not mean to be insensitive. I just donâ€™t like seeing you in so much pain.â€ She raised a brow. â€œIs that why you keep disappearing after we have been intimate? Every time I think we have shared something special, I wake up alone. No explanation. No note.â€ â€œWhat is there to discuss? We succumbed to the mutual attraction between us, had some fun. Passion runs its course, then itâ€™s over and the real world intrudes. Afterwards, we are still very different people with conflicting goals and objectives.â€ He raked his hand through his waves of honey colored hair. â€œI fail to see how all the talking in the world can change that.â€ Riley forced herself to remain motionless during his little speech. At first his words had stung, little poison darts piercing her heart. By the end, she was livid. She spun towards him, two bright spots of color on her cheekbones, and slapped him hard across the face. She could see the imprint of her fingers clearly against his skin. His eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared as he grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled her body hard against his, bent his head and crushed his mouth against hers. His tongue plundered her mouth, seeking only to punish. His emotions in turmoil, he only knew that she drove him crazy, this impossible woman who he wanted to hate but his traitorous body and heart would not let him. Riley struggled against him, beating her fists against his shoulders, trying to wrest her mouth from his. But she could not break his vise like grip. As the blistering kiss went on and on, desire surged through her and her body melted into his. She returned his kiss arching her neck to so that he could plumb the depths of her mouth. Moaning as pleasure ripped through her, she felt her knees go weak, as his hand cupped her breast. Completely lost in each other, they did not hear the noise at first. It sounded a second time. Cole drew back, looked around with dazed, passion filled eyes. Max stood next to them, making throat clearing noises, his green eyes inscrutable. â€œStop that Max! Are you choking on a chicken bone?â€™ Riley pulled away from Cole, moved towards Max and thumped him on the back, hard. Max wanted to rip Coleâ€™s head from his body but Riley appeared to have been enjoying the manâ€™s tongue down her throat. It went against all his instincts, as her Guardian, not to charge. His senses quivered, telling him that this man was capable of hurting Riley and his mandate was to protect her. He would bide his time. Cole stared at Max. He could feel the Guardianâ€™s desire to tear him apart. He did not want to hurt Max but he would have no choice if he was attacked. He decided to leave so he would not have to make that choice, at least not today. He bowed stiffly to both Riley and Max and disappeared. Riley stopped thumping Maxâ€™s back and glared at him. â€œDonâ€™t! Donâ€™t say it! I know what you are going to say. And believe me Iâ€™ve said the same things to myself many times. I donâ€™t need you to point out what a complete and utter fool I am!â€ Then she burst into tears, clinging to Maxâ€™s neck, burying her face in his silky, black fur. Max froze. Riley had never been prone to emotional outbursts. She was always practical and logical, just like Max himself. Now she was having an emotional crisis and he was at a loss as to how to deal with it. He cursed Cole under his breath. Riley awoke in the darkened room to the susurrus of voices. Her crying jag had exhausted her and she had sought relief from her roiling emotions in sleep. She was lying sprawled across the canopied bed. She stretched languorously, flushing as she remembered her emotional outburst. A smile flickered across her face when she thought about poor Maxâ€™s reaction. He had brought her back to Sarriâ€™s suite, and told her in a gruff voice to sleep it off. The same advice he would have given if she had been in an alcoholic haze. The smile vanished, a frown taking its place as she realized that recovering from a drunken state would have been much easier than recovering from her current state of unrequited love. Flipping over, she buried her face in the pillow. She was a fool, a moron, a world class, super duper idiot. Sighing, she sat up and threw the pillow across the room. Marinating in self-pity was a luxury she could not afford. More pressing matters were afoot such as the future of Avalyss. She needed all her faculties to face the upcoming challenges. She could not let herself fall apart because of a broken heart. It would heal in time. She crossed her fingers. She needed to find out if Mylor and Crane had been captured as yet. And there was still the pesky issue of the epic battle to deal with. Painful as it would be see him again, she needed to reach some kind of agreement with Cole. She had not changed her mind as far as the epic battle was concerned. It could not take place. Although, some traitorous part of her whispered that one way to avoid the battle would be to join Cole, to become a Dark Mage, thereby allowing the Dark Mages to gain supremacy. It was what he wanted. But she couldnâ€™t. Giving in to him would not make him love her, and she would be going against what she believed was right for Avalyss. No matter how great the temptation, she could not join the Dark Mages. Instead, she would try to convince Cole to help her create an Avalyss where both Dark Mages and Light Bringers co-existed in harmony, where the power was shared equally. Taking a deep breath, she rolled out of bed and moved towards the voices. She could make out Sarriâ€™s dulcet tones, and Maxâ€™s deep rumble. â€œDonâ€™t worry, Max. She will be fine. She is a fighter.â€ â€œI know that. But I have never seen her act like this before. And over that man. It is galling.â€ â€œShe loves him.â€ Max snorted. â€œLove. How she could love such an appalling creature is beyond me.â€ â€œWe do not get to choose who we fall in love with. It just happens.â€ â€œShit happens! Not love. Why are you not more upset over this? Donâ€™t you think that Cole will somehow find a way to use her love to further his own selfish agenda?â€ â€œMy daughter will not willingly let herself be used that way. She is no oneâ€™s pawn. I am surprised that you think that.â€ â€œI think only the best of her. But Cole is devious enough to manipulate her without her being aware of it.â€ Riley stepped into the room. It was a sitting area, simply furnished with comfortable leather sofas and armchairs. Sarri sat in an antique rocking chair and Max sprawled on a bear skin rug, the deep blackness of his fur gleaming against the stark whiteness of the rug. The room glowed with a soft yellow light. â€œI think you should credit me with having more sense than that.â€ Rileyâ€™s tone was a little sharper than she intended. Max jumped. â€œPrincess! I did not mean to implyâ€¦.I just meant that Coleâ€™s powers of manipulationâ€¦â€ Under her baleful glare, his words dried up. He hung his head, and gazed up at her with woeful green eyes. â€œDonâ€™t try the puppy dog stare on me. It wonâ€™t work, you big fur ball.â€ She sat on the rug and put her arm around him. â€œItâ€™s okay. I know you are just concerned.â€ Her eyes met Sarriâ€™s mercury gaze. â€œBoth of you.â€ Wanting to steer the conversation off Cole and her feelings for him, she asked, â€œHave Mylor and Crane been captured yet?â€ â€œNo word yet. They are both still in the wind,â€ Max said, his long tail sweeping the floor. Riley pursed her lips. â€œIsnâ€™t it just a matter of time before they are captured? All Mylorâ€™s plotting and scheming has been for naught. He cannot possibly dream of success now. Why has he not given himself up? Thrown himself at the mercy of the Higher Echelon?â€ â€œMylor will not give up without a fight. He is clever, resourceful, ruthless and obsessed with power. He will never surrender. Remember, there can be no mercy for a man who murdered the King.â€ Sarriâ€™s posture was taut, her mouth tight, her mercury eyes huge with fury and grief. Her eyes swimming with unshed tears, Riley leapt to her feet, ran over to Sarri and hugged her. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I did not stop to think how awful this has been for you. Thinking all these years that my father killed himself, only to find out that he was murdered by his brother, and that you had married his killer. It must be like losing my father all over again.â€ â€œI have never stopped grieving for your father. I never loved Mylor, only married him to fulfill my duty. But it makes me sick to know that I have shared my bed with your fatherâ€™s killer.â€ â€œMylor will pay for what he has done to you and your mother.â€ Maxâ€™s voice was fierce, his green eyes shining with fury and purpose as he placed his head on Rileyâ€™s knee. The three huddled together, united in their grief and desire to bring the murderer to justice. Unable to sit still any longer, Riley pushed to her feet, prowled the room. â€œI have been thinking ever since we learned of the factionâ€™s true purpose that Mylor may have been on to something with his focus on Universal magic.â€ She spun towards Sarri and Max. â€œI understand that Universal magic is a blend of both Light and Dark magic. Do you know why Universal magic is prohibited Avalyss?â€ Sarri nodded. â€œThe two types of magic practiced in Avalyss are Light Magic and Dark Magic. Mages are restricted to the study of only one type since a mage with an expert knowledge of both types will be more powerful than one schooled in only one type alone. Universal magic, by blending the two types of magic, can confer immense power to a mage who gains mastery. Such power is dangerous in the wrong hands. It can be used not only to control other mages but to control Avalyss. Undoubtedly, this has been Mylorâ€™s master plan all alongâ€ Max circled the room, his green eyes thoughtful. â€œBoth Light Bringers and Dark Mages have been consumed with accumulating more power, each side trying to gain more than the other side. It is a common misconception that white magic is clean magic, the only pure magic. Mages with an affinity for white magic have been revered. There is a certain cachet to being a Light Bringer. Dark Mages have long been considered evil, the practice of dark magic foul. That is why they have been confined to the Dark Tower. The Light Bringers have always held most of the power in Avalyss. That is why the Oracle has been so seductive to the Dark Mages since it gives them the hope of assuming control of Avalyss.â€ Riley frowned, pursed her lips. â€œWhat if everyone in Avalyss was allowed to learn Universal magic? There would be no Light Bringers and no Dark Mages, just Mages. All would have access to the same amount of power. No one person or group could hoard it all or control it. The power will be shared equally. Initially, my vision for Avalyss was to have the Dark Mages and Light Bringers rule together. Now I see why that wonâ€™t work, each side will be constantly striving for supremacy over the other. Balance will be impossible to maintain. But if we eliminate Light magic and Dark magic, combine both so there is only one stream of magic, Universal Magic, accessible to everyone. The ruling bodies, the Higher Echelon and the Council of Dark Mages, can be combined into one body. They will be charged with ensuring that the magic is used only for good purposes, punishing those who try to use it for evil.â€ Sarri raked her hand through her hair, her face alive with interest. â€œYour idea may work. Of course, some will oppose it, those who only want to hoard the power and not share it. But most will see the advantages that Universal magic could bring.â€ She paused, her eyes widened as the full impact of the scheme hit her. â€œWait. If this Universal magic system was implemented, then there would be no need for an epic battle. No side will need to gain supremacy since there will only be one side.â€ She jumped to her feet, paced the room. â€œBrilliant. It will work.â€ Max stopped circling, stood motionless for a few seconds then sat down with a loud thump, staring at Riley with unblinking green eyes. â€œWell Iâ€™ll be damned! That will work. Only someone, who is not concerned with power, who only wants what is best for Avalyss, could have come up with such a brilliant and inspired plan. I am astounded. You impress the pants off me sometimes, Princess. It has been my privilege and honor to be your humble Guardian.â€ He bowed low, practically genuflecting. Riley stared at him, red with embarrassment. Then she started to giggle. â€œStop talking nonsense. You donâ€™t wear pants!â€ All three burst into laughter. Rileyâ€™s mind was already racing ahead. She would have to convince both the Higher Echelon and the Council of the Dark Mages of the merits of her plan. It would not be easy but the critics would only be betraying their true nature. By objecting too much, it would be a clear signal that they were concerned only with increasing their own powers. No one who cared about Avalyss would want the epic battle. It would not be easy and a great deal of wrinkles needed to be ironed out but it would work in the end. Peace and shared power would reign in Avalyss. The thought hit with the force of a sledgehammer, shattering Rileyâ€™s excitement and wiping the smile off her face. Scowling, she turned towards Max and Sarri. â€œWait a minute. We are getting carried away. Coleâ€™s approval is necessary for this plan to work.â€ Her legs suddenly shaky, she sat on the sofa. Without Coleâ€™s agreement, the Higher Echelon and the Council of Dark Mages would not listen to her. As the subjects of the Oracle, if they both chose Universal Magic over an epic battle, then the Higher Echelon and the Council would have no choice but to go along with them. Without Cole her plan was doomed. With him, it was assured. Would he agree? Fear settled like a rock in the pit of her stomach as she realized that she would have to battle his stubbornness and his single minded focus on ruling Avalyss. She fisted her hands, as a wave of determination rolled over her. She had to convince him that Universal magic was the only viable option open. She just had to, failure was not an option. CHAPTER 22 The giant waves hurled themselves against the White Cliff with a vicious ferocity while the howling wind threatened to rip the slight figure standing on top and throw her to the clamoring ocean. On this moonless night, the darkness stretched endlessly seeming to merge into everything. Riley could feel its icy fingers trying to claw its way into her being. She shuddered and wrapped her arms around her body. Nature appeared to be conspiring against her. Maybe it was a portent of the outcome of her upcoming meeting with Cole. She had asked him to meet her atop the White Cliff at midnight thinking that the time and location would afford privacy, and perhaps that her fatherâ€™s spirit might help her find the words that she needed. But alone, except for the hungry waves and the whistling wind, she was beginning to have second thoughts. Maybe the spot where her father was murdered was not a good omen. Should she have asked Max to accompany her? No, his animosity towards Cole would not have helped their cause. She needed to do this alone. Whatever course of action chosen this night would affect both their destinies and the destiny of Avalyss. She shook off the fear that had settled over her like a cloak and prayed for strength. She looked at the ocean with bleak eyes, her white robe flapping like a live thing in the strong wind. Taking deep breaths of the cold, salty air in an attempt to calm down, she jumped when a hand clutched her shoulder. Heart thumping, she whirled and confronted a figure cloaked in black. At his arrival the darkness intensified but as she stared the clouds parted, and a full moon appeared, spotlighting the two figures atop the White Cliff. Riley battled the familiar currents of awareness that ran through her body at his proximity. Her attraction to him was intense and undeniable. Of their own volition, her lips parted and her body leaned towards his. Hands tightening on her shoulders, he bent his head and she felt the hotness of his breath against her face. But before their lips could touch, he stepped back, letting his hands fall to his sides. â€œI beg your pardon, Princess, I am sure that you did not summon me for a midnight assignation,â€ he drawled, his voice mocking. Riley flushed and cursed her traitorous body. She had not intended to get sidetracked by any physical entanglements with him tonight. It would only complicate an already complex situation. But it went far beyond physical attraction, she loved him and it scared and excited her at the same time. Her heart ached for this complicated, mysterious and impossible man. Fate had placed her in an untenable situation by asking her to choose between duty to her world and the man she loved. It was a choice she could not make. And hopefully after she outlined her plan to him, that choice would be rendered moot. Keeping her tone even, she said, â€œI know that you want to stop the epic battle as much as I do. I have the perfect solution.â€ Cole smiled and his amber eyes shone with triumph. â€œI knew it. You will join the Dark Mages after all. It is the only solution. I knew you would make the right choice.â€ He moved towards her, arms outstretched. Riley stepped aside to avoid his embrace, a deep frown marring her forehead. â€œWait. Let me finish. I have no intention of becoming a Dark Mage. There is another way. It has to do with Universal magic. The solution is so simple. It was right in front of our eyes the whole time. We just never saw it. If everyone is allowed to practice Universal magic, then there will be no power struggle between the white and dark mages. All will have access to equal power. Everyone will be on the same side and peace can finally reign in Avalyss.â€ Coleâ€™s smile drained from his face. The storm still raged, turning the ocean into a seething cauldron, and whipping the winds into a frenzy. A storm raged within him as well, threatening to rip him apart. He heard the hope in her voice. Did she have to be such a goddamned idealist? Advocating for peace and shared power. Over his dead body. It was his destiny to rule Avalyss, to usher in a new age of the Dark Mages. He could not allow anyone to rob him of it. Not even the woman he loved. After he left the Isle of Paradisi, he had tried to find a magical cure for love but there was none. He had spent many sleepless nights searching, studying and brewing one useless potion after the other. He talked to many beings even demons. But none could help. During his search, his love had grown stronger, and he had missed her more every day. Many times he thought he had seen her out of the corner of his eye, heard her voice or caught a whiff of her scent. She haunted his days and nights, his endless yearning for her drove him to distraction. If this constant craving for another was love, then he wanted no part of it. All his life he had needed no one, but himself and his drive to achieve his destiny. Now he had to choose between the woman he loved and his destiny. He had deluded himself that he could charm her into joining the Dark Mages but she had just clearly stated that she would not. She loved him. Maybe her love was too strong to be denied. It was worth a shot. He whirled towards her, his face expressionless. â€œInteresting solution. But it is not the only one. If you join the Dark Mages then the epic battle will be averted as well. If you really love me, you will not ask me to give up my destiny, everything I have worked for since childhood. Join me. Together we will usher in a new age of the Dark Mages.â€ A sensual smile tugged at the corner of his full mouth. Rileyâ€™s eyes were wide, huge pools of color in her suddenly pale face. She gulped in some air, trembling with fury, her hands curled into fists. It was all she could do to stop herself from striking him. â€œHow dare you ask me to prove my love for you by choosing a path that will serve only to further your ambition? You selfish, power hungry jerk! It is all about you. Your destiny. Your thirst for power. Your desire to rule. You are so wrapped up in yourself that you cannot take a step back and choose the path that serves Avalyss which is what a good ruler would do.â€ Cole narrowed his eyes and deliberately softened his tone. â€œYou called this meeting to pitch a course of action. I have heard you and have suggested an alternative path. Choose between joining the Dark Mages or an epic battle. Which will it be?â€ â€œDo you realize what you are saying? If I choose to battle, then you would have to kill me in order for the Dark Mages to gain supremacy and for your destiny to be fulfilled. Are you prepared to do that? Can you kill me?â€ Riley almost choked on the words, eyes wide with shock, her expression incredulous. â€œYes. I will kill you if I have to. But there is a third option, Princess. You could always concede defeat. That way you avoid the epic battle and you wonâ€™t have to compromise your idealistic principles by joining the Dark Mages, and I still get to rule Avalyss.â€ Coleâ€™s expression was inscrutable, his tone firm and assured â€œYou are bluffing. You cannot kill me.â€ Riley spat the words at him, unable to believe her own ears. â€œI will rule Avalyss. It is my destiny and it will be fulfilled. So, make no mistake, Princess, I will kill you, if that is the only option left. But I will not have to. You will concede.â€ He was bluffing, he could not kill her but he had to make her believe him. It was the only way to achieve his destiny without actually killing her. â€œDonâ€™t be so sure, you arrogant bastard. Besides if I choose to battle, I could very well kill you.â€ She could not reason with the man standing before her. He was a stranger, a monster who would do anything to achieve his precious destiny, despite the costs. â€œYou cannot kill me. You love me, remember?â€ Rileyâ€™s hand itched to strike him, to wipe that smug smile from his face. She was furious with him and with herself. Damn the man. He was right. She could not kill him. But she believed that he could not kill her as well. She suspected that he cared more for her that he was willing to admit. Many lives would be lost if the battle was fought. She could not risk those lives on a belief that she was right. What if she was wrong? What if her suspicion was just wishful thinking? She was a Princess of Avalyss, and all who lived here were her people. It was her duty to protect them. Cole watched the emotions play across her face. He had won but the knowledge made him sick inside. Riley stood her ground, looked him straight in the eye. â€œOne last question, do you love me?â€ â€œNo. And I do not believe that you love me. You are confusing lust with love. I have enjoyed our encounters, but physical satiation was the only goal. If you are honest, you will admit that to yourself as well. Let us waste no more time on this useless talk of love. Will it be war or will you concede?â€ Riley felt her heart crumble into dust leaving behind an aching emptiness. She had hoped that he loved her even a little. But all she had ever been to him was a warm and willing body. His words left her shattered and shaking and her whole world in chaos. Unwilling to let him witness the devastating effect his words had on her, she fought to conceal her inner turmoil by standing perfectly still and donning an expressionless mask. â€œI need some time. I would like to discuss my next move with Sarri and Max.â€ She was surprised at how normal she sounded, her voice revealing none of the pain that was flooding her entire body. He nodded. â€œYou have twenty-four hours. But why postpone the inevitable? We both know that you will concede.â€ Without bothering to reply, she inclined her head in his direction and vanished. Cole stared at the spot where she had been, his expression bleak. Filled with self-loathing, he stepped to the edge of the White Cliff. He had just broken the heart of the only woman he had ever loved because of his thirst for power and control. It was the bait that had dangled tantalizingly in front of him since childhood. So when it was within his grasp he had pounced with a cruel disregard for those who might get hurt in the process. It had been necessary to convince her that he was an unfeeling monster who had used her only to satisfy his physical cravings. He was certain that she did not suspect his true feelings. Within twenty-four hours he would rule Avalyss, he should be filled with elation but instead he felt dead inside. Instead of a heart, he had possessed a hole in his chest which lusted for power and control until Riley had entered his life and awakened him. His heart had stirred to life, blossomed with love. But love and power could not co-exist, he was compelled to choose. For a while he had deluded himself into thinking that he could have both, his destiny and her. But she was too idealistic. While part of him cursed that part of her, it was one of the reasons he loved her. She was like a spring rain to his arid landscape. He had his precious destiny but he did not have her. His future stretched before him, a bleak, endless void filled with the knowledge that the woman he loved hated him and that it was all his doing. He tried to convince himself that he had made the best choice for him. Love did not belong in his world, a world where power and magic were everything. Why then did it feel so wrong? As if by some unseen signal, the moon slipped behind the clouds, plunging the night into darkness again. He could feel the darkness entering his soul as he entered the darkness. CHAPTER 23 Riley stood on the balcony of her room watching the sun slowly emerge out of the ocean, painting the sky in brilliant hues of orange, crimson and pink. To the fanciful observer, the sky appeared to be a maiden blushing from her loverâ€™s kiss, admiring her reflection in the pellucid waters below. Riley smiled at the irony of witnessing the birth of a new day while her heart was dying. She saw a reflection of herself in the window, her extreme pallor a mockery to the bright colors illuminating the sky. She cursed her foolish heart for believing that she and Cole would end up together in spite of the obstacles they faced. That somehow true love would triumph in the end. But it was not to be. Her heart twisted into a knot of agony, shooting arrows of pain into her body and soul. Tears coursed down her cheeks. She was surprised that she had any tears left after her all night crying jag. After her disastrous meeting with Cole, she had locked herself in her room, needing to be alone, unwilling to let herself be consoled by Sarri and Max. She heard them talking in worried whispers all night long, pacing outside her room. At one point, Max had howled, an eerie sound that resonated with the agonizing pain of lost love. Somehow it had soothed her a little. Drying her eyes with the back of her hand, she breathed deeply of the clean, crisp, morning air. Perhaps in time the ache in her heart would become less intense. It was the best that she could hope for. But at the moment her desire to skulk in her room and wallow in self-pity could not be indulged. She had to pull together the tattered remnants of her soul and do what was best for Avalyss. Conceding was the only option. She lifted her chin, gulped in some more air, then turned and strode out of her room, intent on performing her duty. Riley paced the meeting room while the members of the Higher Echelon watched her restless movements in silence. It had taken a couple of days but she had finally convinced them that conceding was the only answer. She had been surprised that some had wanted the epic battle to take place, trying to convince her that she had no choice but to go through with it because of the Oracleâ€™s prediction. Others had called her a fool, saying that there was a chance that the Light Bringers could win but by conceding, defeat was assured. The Light Bringers had ruled Avalyss since the beginning so they were reluctant to give up their supremacy. The discussion had raged for days but Riley finally ended it, by declaring that it was not a debate. It was her decision to make. Without the Princess of Light to champion their cause, the Light Bringers had no choice. They were concerned about their fate when the Dark Mages took control. Would they be banished from Avalyss? Riley had promised that she would discuss the matter with Cole. Perhaps they would be allowed to continue practicing Light Magic in a designated section of Avalyss. Word had been sent to Cole in the Dark Tower that she was ready to concede. That was the reason for the grim assembly in the Higher Echelonâ€™s chamber room. They had been waiting for hours. â€œWhere is he?â€ Riley muttered, for the umpteenth time. Anxiety had a choke hold on her and she had difficulty breathing. Had he changed his mind? Did he want the epic battle to take place after all? That made no sense. By her conceding, his victory was assured whereas if a battle took place, he could lose. All her instincts were on high alert, signaling that something had gone wrong otherwise he would have been here by now. She stopped pacing, spun to face the Higher Echelon. â€œSomething is wrong. I know it.â€ â€œHe is late, thatâ€™s all. Must you be so impatient?â€ Elder Murrin snapped, glaring at Riley. He had been the most vociferous advocate for the epic battle, arguing long and hard, as the head of the Higher Echelon, he had the most power to lose. â€œI agree with Riley.â€ Sarriâ€™s gentle voice filled the room. â€œIt has been hours since the message was dispatched to the Dark Tower. Once he received the message there would be no reason for him to delay claiming his victory.â€ â€œDo you think that the message has been intercepted?â€ Max asked. He had been sprawled on the floor but was now sitting up, ears pricked, green eyes alert. â€œNonsense. Like Daughter, Like Mother. Obviously patience does not run in your gene pool. Letâ€™s just wait a while longer.â€ Murrin sat back and folded his arms. â€œHow much longer shall we wait?â€ The voice belonged to Sharyl, deputy head of the Higher Echelon. She had a curly cap of white hair and sharp brown eyes. â€œPerhaps Cole never received the message. Let us send a second message.â€ Everyone agreed with the suggestion except Murrin who continued to glower. Finally, he threw up his hands in disgust. â€œFine. I will send another one.â€ Riley shook her head. â€œLet us try a different method this time. I will ask Shalimar to contact Cole directly.â€ She closed her eyes, furrowing her brow in concentration and conveyed the message to Shalimar telepathically. In her mindâ€™s eye, Shalimar bobbed once and disappeared. When she opened her eyes, she found that once again she was focus of all eyes. â€œWell?â€ Murrin barked, his long thin fingers tapping the table. â€œWe wait. Shalimar will only be a moment.â€ With a long suffering sigh, he leaned back in his chair, his bald pate shining in the afternoon sun pouring through the glass walls. Riley circled the room, feeling a little less anxious. She had wanted to send Shalimar from the beginning but Murrin had told her that they needed to go through the proper channels. Her breath quickened as she took in the spectacular view. The Higher Echelonâ€™s meeting room not only occupied the top floor of the palace but all its walls were made of glass so that the ocean could be seen from every direction. The most fascinating aspect, Riley noticed, was that the ocean wore a different mood depending on which direction she looked. When she looked east, huge waves crashed along a rocky shore. Spinning to the west, she viewed calm turquoise water, as still as glass. To the north, the ocean was playful, sending gentle swells to lap the sandy shore. And, finally, to the south, the oceanâ€™s mien was sulky, grey and dull with listless waves. Shalimar winked into the room without any fanfare, the sunlight reflecting off her jeweled hilt showering the room with sparks of rainbow colors. Paisley, Tyror and Baltrac also appeared, wearing identical somber expressions. Riley emitted a strangled cry. â€œNo! It cannot be.â€ And as thirteen pairs of eyes swung in her direction, she stammered. â€œShalimar just told me that Cole is missing. No one knows where he is.â€ â€œIt is true.â€ Paisley strutted to the middle of the room, blood curls bouncing, red robe clinging to her curves and swirling around her ankles. Riley rolled her eyes when she noticed Murrin had a sickly, lovesick expression on his face. â€œWe thought he was here with you. He left early this morning. We only realized that he was missing when Shalimar showed up a few minutes ago.â€ Paisley said, basking in the admiring male glances. Baltrac stepped forward, a scowl on his hatchet face. â€œWhat have you done to him? Release him at once!â€ Shocked, everyone could only gape at him. Finally, Murrin broke the silence. â€œI assure you, sir, we have no idea where he is. We have been sitting here for hours waiting for him.â€ Max growled, green eyes furious. â€œWhy would you automatically assume that we have done something to him? How do we know that you have not done something to him?â€ Tyror held up a hand for peace. â€œWait. Let us not argue among ourselves. The most important thing is finding Cole. Does anyone have any ideas where he could be?â€ Puzzled, Riley asked, â€œWhy would Baltrac think that we had something to do with his disappearance? What could we possibly do to him? He cannot be killed, not while he has Sultan.â€ She smacked herself in the forehead. â€œHow stupid of me. Sultan will know where he is.â€ She spun towards Shalimar. But the white sword remained frozen in the centre of the room. Riley walked towards her, grabbed her by the hilt and shook her a little. â€œShalimar! What is the matter? Where is Sultan? He will know where to find Cole.â€ Shalimarâ€™s musical voice sounded a little tinny, pitched so low that everyone had to strain to hear her words. â€œYes. Sultan knows Coleâ€™s whereabouts.â€ â€œThatâ€™s great news.â€ Riley exclaimed. â€œI was beginning to worry. Tell Sultan to bring him here.â€ â€œSultan wants you to come to him.â€ Riley looked startled. The feeling of something not being right returned but she ignored it and nodded. â€œFine. Take me to him.â€ Shalimar shook a little. â€œNo! I am sorry, Princess. But Sultan has switched sides. He is working with Mylor.â€ The room throbbed with silence. Fear and fury flooded through Riley. â€œWhy?â€ â€œSultan wants both dark magic and white magic to remain in Avalyss. Mylor is offering that through Universal magic.â€ Riley tried to speak but could not force the words through the cold lump of terror lodged in her throat. Max voiced what was on her mind. â€œNow that Sultan has defected, does this mean that Cole is no longer immortal?â€ â€œYes.â€ Shalimar bobbed once. â€œMylor is.â€ â€œWhat?â€ Rileyâ€™s power of speech returned. â€œHow is that possible? Sultan chose Cole!â€ â€œYes, Princess. But he can also renounce him. That is what he has done.â€ Riley stared at Shalimar, feeling sick to her stomach. â€œAre you saying that you have renounced me as well?â€ â€œSultan wants me to. But I stand by my choice,â€ Shalimar replied. Riley breathed a sigh of relief. â€œThank you.â€ Shalimar continued, â€œYou also pushed for Universal magic. In your plan, Universal magic would have been accessible by everyone. But under Mylorâ€™s rule, it will be restricted to only a select few. Your plan is better.â€ â€œWe have to rescue Cole. Letâ€™s go.â€ Rileyâ€™s voice pulsed with impatience. Sarri held up a hand. â€œWait. Not so fast. What does Mylor want? Why did he capture Cole?â€ â€œMylor claims that he will release Cole in exchange for the Princess.â€ Shalimarâ€™s tone was flat. â€œNo!â€ Max protested, leaping to his feet. â€œHe is lying, he will kill her.â€ â€œWe do not know that. I have to go if there is the slightest chance that he will let Cole go. Besides, Shalimar has not renounced me, so I cannot be killed.â€ Rileyâ€™s eyes shone with determination. She kept her tone even, concealing the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. She could not let Cole die without trying to save him. Maxâ€™s eyes narrowed in suspicion. â€œIt could be a trick. Shalimar could just be pretending that she is still on your side just to get you into Mylorâ€™s clutches.â€ Shalimar launched herself into the air and started to spin, faster and faster. â€œCrystal swords do not lie. You have my word Princess.â€ Riley nodded. â€œI trust you. Let us go.â€ â€œWait, Daughter. You cannot go charging in there without a plan. I know Mylor. He is up to something. You still have the power to stop him. And so would Cole if he lets him go. I am sure he intends to kill both of you.â€ Sarri spun towards Shalimar. â€œAre Mylor and Sultan aware that you are still on Rileyâ€™s side?â€ â€œNo. But I may have given them the impression that I am on their side.â€ â€œGood. We can use that to our advantage. We need to come up with a plan to rescue Cole without Riley having to surrender.â€ Sarri paced the room, eyes thoughtful. â€œWe are running out of time. Mylor will kill Cole. Riley should go, pretend to surrender while the rest of us work on a plan.â€ Paisley suggested with a guileless smile. Max raised his hackles and growled at Paisley, a feral glint in his eyes. â€œYes. You would like that wouldnâ€™t you? Sending her off like a lamb to the slaughter. How do we know that you are not working with Mylor?â€ â€œThatâ€™s a lie, you filthy cur! How dare you accuse her of treachery? I will cut your foul tongue out of your mouth before I let you slander her again!â€ Baltrac jumped in front of Max, brandishing a sword in his face. Max pounced, grabbed Baltrac by the neck and shook him, hard. â€œMax, Stop!â€ Riley commanded. He glared at her and dropped Baltrac, his menacing growls echoing around the room. Paisley helped Baltrac to his feet. His eyes were wild, a small spot of blood glistened on his throat. â€œSee, that beast tried to kill me. You are all witnesses. I demand that he be punished.â€ As Maxâ€™s growls intensified, Tyror intervened. â€œBaltrac, get a hold of yourself. You threatened him first. No need to overreact, you just have a flesh wound. Why are we fighting among ourselves instead of rescuing Cole? That should be our primary focus.â€ Riley was stroking Maxâ€™s silky black fur, trying to calm him down. She looked at Shalimar, a worried expression on her face. â€œHow long will Mylor wait before he kills Cole?â€ â€œHe will not kill Cole before you surrender. He wants both of you. Trust me on this, Daughter,â€ Sarri said. â€œI think Paisleyâ€™s idea might work,â€ Riley said. â€œWhat? Are you out of your mind?â€ Max growled, still trembling with rage. â€œShush!â€ Riley pressed her face against his and kissed his nose. â€œHear me out. We know that Mylor cannot kill me because Shalimar has not renounced me. But he does not know that. I will try to stall by getting him to brag. Right now he thinks he is in control. With Sultan giving him the power of immortality he is certain of his invincibility. He will not be able to resist boasting of his brilliance, crowing about how he turned the tables and bested us all and how he would now rule Avalyss. My father stood in his way and he killed him, now Cole and I stand in his way and he will kill us too. He will want to savor his triumph by humiliating us with the knowledge that our stupidity was no match for his brilliance. While he is busying rubbing it in our faces, the rest of you could launch a surprise attack. We have a good chance of defeating him. He only has Crane on his side.â€ â€œBut with Sultan, Mylor is unbeatable.â€ Sarriâ€™s voice shook a little. â€œI have Shalimar. And the crystal swords cannot fight against each other.â€ â€œThat is true. Sultan will be able to protect Mylor from everyone but you. But you will have to battle Mylor on your own without any help from me. He is a very powerful mage in his own right,â€ Shalimar said. Riley smiled. â€œSo am I. Let us go I am ready.â€ Baring his teeth, Max glowered at her. â€œAs your Guardian, I am sworn to protect you. I cannot let you do this. Mylor has been stockpiling his knowledge of Universal magic for years. We do not what he is capable of. You are not powerful enough to fight him on your own.â€ â€œDonâ€™t you see? His overconfidence will be his mistake. He will underestimate me. I promise you I will take him by surprise. I will do what needs to be done.â€ She knelt and looked into his eyes. â€œTrust me.â€ â€œI trust you. It is Mylor I do not trust. If you insist on being foolhardy, then I intend to go with you.â€ As Riley opened her mouth to protest, he shook his head. â€œIt is not a request, Princess.â€ Maxâ€™s tone made it clear that he would brook no argument. Riley nodded. â€œI will feel better knowing that you have my back.â€ Sarri took Rileyâ€™s face in her hands. â€œPlease be careful. Mylor killed your father. I cannot lose you too.â€ Her grey eyes bright with unshed tears, she kissed Rileyâ€™s cheek and pulled her into a tight embrace. Riley returned Sarriâ€™s hug. Icy fingers of fear clutched at her heart as her blood pounded through her veins. She could not let them see that she was afraid just as she could not let fear stop her from rescuing Cole. Pulling away from Sarri, she looked at everyone in the room, a brave smile on her face. â€œI will go play my part. I trust that you will play yours. Hope to see you soon.â€ She turned towards Shalimar. â€œI am ready. Let us go.â€ A bright flash filled the room momentarily blinding everyone. When they could see again, Shalimar, Riley and Max had vanished. Sarriâ€™s face was grave as she stood at the west wall and looked out unseeingly at first, then her eyes focused on the view. Gasping, she spun around and faced east, then north and finally south. A startled cry burst from her lips. â€œWhat is wrong?â€ Murrin asked. Trembling, Sarri pointed at the view. â€œThat has never happened before!â€ Every pair of eyes turned towards the glass walls. In each direction, the ocean wore the same forbidding aspect, a tempest of churning swells with mammoth, white capped waves hurling themselves at the shore. CHAPTER 24 Clinging to Shalimarâ€™s hilt, Riley felt her feet touch solid ground. Opening her eyes, she could see that she was in a huge cave with a sandy floor. Bright sunlight flooded in through an opening in the ceiling. A feeling of dÃ©jÃ vu came over her as she realized that she had been here before. She was in the cave she where she had first seen Baltrac, the one she had found right after she had escaped from the cylindrical room where Paisley had imprisoned her. She heard the ocean pounding in the distance and sniffed the salty tang in the air. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the brightness of the room, she saw that she was alone except for a bundle of old rags in the corner. The bundle groaned startling her. She stood still for a moment then started to move towards it, Max by her side. As she got closer, she saw a figure amidst the old rags. She rushed forward, her heart pounding in her chest, praying that she was not too late. Cole lay flat on his back on the floor, almost buried under a pile of old blankets, eyes closed, face soaked with sweat. She put a hand on his forehand and could feel him burning up. At her touch he moved a little and groaned again. She turned towards Max. â€œWe cannot wait for the others. Cole, can you hear me? Everything is going to be okay. We are taking you out of here.â€ â€œHeâ€™s not going anywhere and neither are you.â€ The voice purred with satisfaction. Riley jumped and looked up, straight into Mylorâ€™s bi-colored eyes. He was standing in the middle of the cave flanked by Sultan and Shalimar. Riley put out her hand to restrain the growling Max who looked ready to rip Mylorâ€™s too pleased expression off his face. â€œWhat have you done to him? Heâ€™s sick. He needs medical attention.â€ She glared at Mylor, too worried about Cole to feel any fear. â€œHe is under a fever spell. It is not lethal. Fever weakens his powers. It is the only way I can hold him against his will. His skills in Dark magic are exceptional. His extreme power and intelligence make him a dangerous enemy. I cannot allow him to live.â€ Riley sank to her knees. She had to keep Mylor talking till reinforcements arrived. He appeared to be in an expansive mood. â€œShalimar told me that you would release Cole in exchange for me. I expect you to keep your side of the bargain. Let Max take him back to the Higher Echelon.â€ Riley managed to keep her voice steady, not wanting to betray the hatred coursing through her. Mylor threw back his head and laughed. â€œIs it possible that you are really so stupid? Like father, like daughter. He was foolish enough to trust me too. Cole stays here and so do you.â€ Rileyâ€™s eyes blazed with fury. â€œHow dare you mention my father? He was a man of honor, you are not.â€ Mylor shrugged. â€œWhat is honor compared to power? The quest for power has been my lifeâ€™s goal.â€ He rubbed his hands together, his eyes shining with anticipation. â€œAnd soon, it will all be mine. I will be the ruler of Avalyss.â€ â€œYou have already killed for that goal. So what are two more lives? I assume that you plan on killing me as well?â€ â€œAh! So there is a spark of intelligence in you somewhere.â€ He paused, studied her for a moment. â€œIf you knew that, why are you here alone? Not plotting something, are you?â€ He laughed again, a short joyless bark. â€œPlot all you want, but as you can see,â€ he gestured at Sultan and Shalimar, â€œboth crystal swords are mine. I am invincible.â€ Sultan, the sunlight accentuating his sharp black blade, glided towards Riley. â€œShall I put her under a fever spell, too?â€ Mylor looked at her appraisingly. A dismissive look appeared in his bi-colored eyes. â€œIt is not necessary. I have seen no sign of great power or magic in her nor have I sensed any.â€ â€œIt is unwise to underestimate her. After all, the Oracle did decree that she was the champion of the Light Bringers.â€ Sultan said. Mylor smirked. â€œAh! Yes. The famous Oracle. That is an amusing and interesting tale. Remind me to tell it to you sometime.â€ Riley frowned, wondering what was so amusing about the Oracle. But Mylor continued, â€œIt is all coming together. Everything I have worked for all these years. Here I stand before you, owner of both crystal swords, poised to gain control of Avalyss while you and Cole are both at my mercy.â€ Cole groaned again. Riley turned to him, brushed his damp hair away from his forehead, and murmured gently, trying to soothe him. Was it her imagination or did his skin feel cooler? Mylor watched her ministrations, an amused glint in his eyes. â€œI should probably kill you both right now. Put Cole out of his misery. But I promised Crane I would leave that pleasure to him.â€ Riley stiffened. â€œWhere is Crane? You would be wise to not place too much trust in that miserable toad. He will do anything to get his hands on the kind of power that you are so sure that you possess.â€ Mylorâ€™s lips curled in a mocking smile and he winked at Riley. â€œCrane and I are very much alike so are Cole and I. Perhaps more alike that you know.â€ Riley sensed that he had some secret knowledge which he wanted to keep and share at the same time. â€œObviously, there is something that you are dying to let out. Go ahead. Cole canâ€™t hear you. And even if he could, we will both be dead soon. Who can we tell?â€ Mylor gave her a calculating look. He was about to speak when Crane teleported into the cave, a big grin on his face. The grin grew wider as he spotted Riley. He walked towards her, a malevolent gleam in his blue eyes. â€œI knew that you would be foolish enough to fall into our trap. I am going to enjoy killing both you and my brother. But I plan on having some fun first.â€ He leant close to her, ran a cold finger along her cheek, the look on his face simultaneously hungry and cruel. Her entire body recoiled from his touch. She saw a flash of anger flood his eyes before he spun on his heel and faced Mylor. â€œI have good news. I have just come from the Palace. The Queen and the Higher Echelon have been imprisoned.â€ At Rileyâ€™s gasp, he whirled towards her, white robe swirling around his body. â€œSurprised? There was a traitor in your midst and you were too stupid to realize it. Get ready for a long night of fun, my sweet, there will be no rescue party.â€ His face shone with an unholy light. â€œWho?â€ Riley could barely force the word through her lips. â€œWhy, that would be me.â€ Paisleyâ€™s voice oozed with venom as she suddenly appeared next to Crane, a saccharine smile plastered to her face. Rileyâ€™s hand tightened on Maxâ€™s neck to stop him from attacking Paisley. Baring his teeth, emitting bloodcurdling growls, green eyes aflame with fury, he was a fearsome sight. Paisley took a quick step back. â€œYou should have listened to that miserable cur after all. He was right about me. I have been an important member of the faction for many years. I was Mylorâ€™s â€œeyes and earsâ€ within the Dark Mages. I was also assigned to spy on Cole.â€ Riley gave her a cold look. â€œIs Baltrac part of the faction as well?â€ â€œNo. I used Baltrac to help me keep tabs on Cole. He thought I was working against Cole to try to put him in power. He was only partly right. I am working against Cole but it is not Baltrac I want in power.â€ She turned and wrapped her arms around Crane, and pressed body against his. He bent his head and crushed his lips to hers. Riley felt slightly queasy. Glaring at Crane and Paisley, Mylor cleared his throat and they sprang apart, Crane looked contrite while Paisley smirked. â€œWho exactly do you want in power, Paisley? I thought the plan was to establish Mylor as ruler of Avalyss not Crane.â€ Rileyâ€™s tone was mocking. Paisley scowled at her. â€œSupporting Crane is the same as supporting Mylor. Crane, of course, will be Mylorâ€™s successor.â€ Riley looked at Mylor. â€œI would be careful if I were you. The vultures are already circling.â€ Mylor frowned and a suspicious gleam appeared in his eyes. Shooting a venomous look at Riley, Crane pulled away from Paisley, walked towards Mylor and placed a hand on his shoulder. â€œDonâ€™t listen to her. She is trying to spread dissension among us. We cannot allow her to make us suspicious of each otherâ€™s motives.â€ His voice dripped with sincerity. â€œYou are like a father to me. I pledge my allegiance to you as the new ruler of Avalyss. You have my word that I will never plot to dethrone you.â€ Mylorâ€™s shoulders were rigid, he glared at Crane for a moment longer, then a warm smile split his face and he embraced him. Glowering at Riley he spat, â€œYou have a poisonous tongue. Be careful otherwise I will cut it off myself!â€ Paisley shot her a triumphant glance. And when Crane stepped away from Mylor, his expression mirrored Paisleyâ€™s. The three moved to the farthest corner of the room and conferred in low voices. Riley mused that the relationship between Mylor and Crane was unusually close. She sensed an odd dynamic between them. She wondered about the story attached to the Oracle that Mylor had alluded to. Sighing, she realized that she had no idea what to do now. Since Sarri and the rest of the Higher Echelon were imprisoned, no surprise attack would be launched. She had been prepared to face Mylor alone. She did not think that she could battle Mylor, Crane and Paisley by herself. She heard Maxâ€™s growling protest in her mind. Smiling, she apologized telepathically, assuring him that she had not forgotten his presence. Cole thrashed and moaned. Rileyâ€™s worry increased. She did not trust Mylorâ€™s assurance that the fever spell was non-lethal. He could be lying. She felt Coleâ€™s forehead again, and this time she was sure that he felt noticeably cooler. Frowning, she looked at him. His eyes were still closed but his skin had lost some of its pallor. â€œHeâ€™s fighting it.â€ Maxâ€™s voice in her mind sounded certain. â€œIs it true that a fever spell is not lethal?â€ â€œYes. But the suffering is great. Sometimes a quick death would be more merciful.â€ â€œIs there anything we can do to help him? Can you lift the spell?â€ Riley asked. â€œNo. Only the person who cast the fever spell in the first place can remove it. I know of a few instances where a person under the spell managed to break it but it takes great power and strength of will. Cole is a powerful mage, maybe even more powerful than Mylor realizes, I think he can break it. He is trying and his fever seems to be abating.â€ â€œIf he breaks it, will he be restored to his full strength right away or will he be weak for a while?â€ Riley asked, taking care to keep her face expressionless so that Mylor and his cohorts would not guess that she was communicating with Max telepathically. They did not know that she possessed the power of telepathy and she did not want to lose any advantage that she had. â€œIt depends. In Coleâ€™s case, I believe that he will be weak at first but his strength will return rapidly.â€ Riley bent her head to hide her smile of relief. â€œGreat. Then it will be the three of us against the three of them. Max you take care of Paisley, Cole will handle Crane and I will deal with Mylor.â€ â€œWhat about Sultan?â€ â€œSultan will not help Mylor if I am the one to fight him. Remember I have Shalimar, and the swords can never do battle against each other. Besides, Sultan has no specific loyalty to Mylor. He will be loyal to the person who promises to make Universal magic the only type of magic in Avalyss.â€ â€œWonder what they are whispering about?â€ Max asked, looking at the far end of the cave, where Mylor, Paisley and Crane still huddled. â€œWhatever it is, it canâ€™t be good for us.â€ Riley glanced at Cole and froze as he stared back at her with lucid eyes, an indefinable emotion swimming in those wide pools of amber. He quickly veiled his eyes as Rileyâ€™s gaze met his. He opened his mouth to speak but Riley shook her head, touched one finger to her lips and inclined her head towards the group still whispering in the corner. Coleâ€™s face twisted with fury, and his lips firmed into a straight line as her looked at them. Their discussion seemed to be getting more animated. Crane, gesticulating wildly, exclaimed, â€œNo! You promised. Let me finish this!â€ Then he lowered his voice again, and the discussion continued with an even greater intensity. Max moved, positioning his body so that he was screening both Cole and Riley from the trioâ€™s view. â€œWe need to act while we have the element of surprise on our side. They cannot know Cole has broken the spell until we attack. We need to find a way to communicate our plan to Cole.â€ Maxâ€™s thoughts dropped into Rileyâ€™s mind. Riley smiled as she started to scribble with her finger in the sandy cave floor. Maxâ€™s quick glance out of the corner of his eye revealed that she had drawn a crude pictogram of their plan. It depicted three pairs of dueling figures, a stick dog facing a woman, a bald man facing a woman, and two identical figures facing each other. Propped on one elbow, Cole studied the drawing, frowned briefly and nodded. At the same time, Mylor, Crane and Paisley broke apart, their faces glowing with self-satisfaction. Quickly Riley mimed for Cole to pretend that he was asleep and he dropped back to the ground in one fluid motion, snapping his eyes shut. Riley swiped at her crude drawing with the back of her hand as Crane approached, his face suffused with an almost unholy joy. â€œIn case you are curious, we were discussing if we should kill you all now or wait till Mylor takes control of Avalyss. I wanted to kill you now but you will be relieved to learn that Paisley and Mylor have convinced me that killing you in front of the people will be a powerful lesson of the fate that awaits all those who oppose the new regime. But I can still have some fun.â€ Craneâ€™s eyes raked Rileyâ€™s body, his eyes brimming with hate and lust. â€œI intend to make you my whore the way my brother made you his. Before the end of this night I will make you beg for mercy. Beg for death. The name on your luscious lips will be mine, not my brotherâ€™s!â€ He vowed. Coleâ€™s body twitched. He found it impossible to lie still when every particle of him cried out to attack Crane. Sickened by his brotherâ€™s intentions, he almost choked on his desire to rip him apart. He felt Maxâ€™s tail strike his foot once, then twice, and at the third strike, he leapt at Crane, ready to unleash his fury, a savage light in his amber eyes. Barely registering Craneâ€™s look of utter amazement, Cole landed on top of him, toppling them both to the floor. Straddling him he punched Crane in the face, heard the satisfying crunch of breaking bone, and felt the shock of the blow all the way up his arm. With blood streaming from his broken nose, Crane grabbed Coleâ€™s neck and squeezed with all his strength. When Cole attacked Crane, Max launched himself at Paisley, landing on her in mid-air, knocking her to the ground. Caught by surprise, she had no time to scream before Maxâ€™s sharp teeth were at her throat. Sherry brown eyes wide with fear, she froze. With one snap of his powerful jaws, he could have ripped out her throat but he hesitated, and she struck without warning, plunging a dagger deep into his side. Howling, Max sank his teeth in her throat, felt her tense, brief struggle. His grip did not loosen even though she continued to twist the knife while the life slowly drained from her body. When she was finally still, the knife falling with a thud from her lifeless fingers, Max slid to the floor, blood leaking from his side, pooling all around him. He lifted his head to see the remaining two dueling pairs but the four moving figures swam in and out of focus. He felt like he was watching from a great distance and through a smoky screen. Strangely, he could hear nothing, the battle scene was a deadly ballet set to silent music. Shock flooded across Mylorâ€™s face as Max and Cole simultaneously attacked Paisley and Crane. Eyes flitting from one dueling pair to the other, he froze, then his mouth firmed, and he raised his hand. Before he could cast a spell, Riley flung herself at him. Falling to the sandy cave floor, they rolled around for a moment before Mylor freed himself and sprang to his feet, quick as a snake. Jumping to her feet, Riley faced him. His eyes throbbed with hate and an unpleasant smile curved his lips. â€œThis is a colossal waste of time. Only a few more seconds of your miserable lives can be gained by these pathetic attacks. You cannot win. I am invincible.â€ He snapped his fingers and Sultan swooped towards Riley like a ravening bird of prey, ebony blade gleaming in the sunlight streaming through the opening in the cave roof. â€œFinish her.â€ Mylor commanded, eyes wild with triumph. Before Sultan could obey, Shalimar appeared at Rileyâ€™s side, her jeweled hilt showering the room with rainbow light. The swords hovered on opposite sides, facing each other. No words were spoken but Riley knew that they were communicating telepathically. She could imagine Sultanâ€™s fury at Shalimarâ€™s apparent betrayal, and Shalimarâ€™s insistence that she had never agreed to join Sultan and Mylor. After what seemed like hours but was only a couple of seconds, both swords zoomed to the side, leaving only Mylor and Riley facing each other. Gaping at the swords, expressions of outrage and confusion flickered across Mylorâ€™s face. â€œWhat is going on? Both of you chose me. You need to obey me. Kill her. Kill her two allies. Now.â€ â€œI did not choose you. Sultan did. I chose the Princess of Light. Surely, you know that Sultan and I cannot fight against each other. Given that we are on opposite sides we have to sit this one out. If you insist on fighting each other, then you are on your own. Neither one of us can help you.â€ Mylor shook his head, a look of disbelief on his face, and for the first time a glimmer of fear appeared in his eyes. â€œNo! Sultan chose me. He has to do what I say. He has to.â€ His voice was frantic, pleading. â€œI do not have to do anything. Shalimar just explained to you why I cannot help you. You killed the father, surely, you can kill the daughter too.â€ Mylor took a deep breath and regained control of himself. He looked at Riley, a vicious smile twisting his face. â€œSultan is right. I donâ€™t need him to kill you.â€ His smile grew wider and his eyes shone with glee. â€œI am going to enjoy this.â€ Whirling to the left, he threw a fire ball at her. Reaching out with her mind, she reversed the direction of the fireball, sending it straight back to him like a boomerang. Yelping, he skipped away at the last moment and it was caught and extinguished by the sandy cave floor. A small smile flitted across Rileyâ€™s face at Mylorâ€™s shocked expression when the fire ball zoomed back at him. He had refused to believe that she was powerful but he would soon learn how badly he had underestimated her. She ducked and spun as Mylor waved his hand and dozens of arrows flew at her. She was not quite quick enough and one arrow nicked her right arm, drawing blood, and stinging like an angry wasp. She hurled a lightning bolt, and watched Mylorâ€™s smirk disappear as he barely dodged it. Hurling another fireball at her, he gasped, as Riley jumped straight into the air to avoid it and hovered. Once again she had managed to surprise him by using a power he had not known she possessed. His face became a dark cloud of fury. Another lightning movement of his hands and streams of boiling liquid squirted towards Riley who cried out as a few drops landed on her, blistering her wrist. As the pain shot through her hand, she wished she knew in advance what weapons he would be hurling at her so she would be ready for them. Her eyes gleamed as the thought sailed into her head. She could use telepathy to read his mind. Frowning, she tried to remember Toomâ€™s lesson on breaking another personâ€™s mental shield. Levitating until her head skimmed the roof of the cave, she flung another lightning bolt in his direction. As Mylor rolled away from it, she launched a series of quick lightning bolts in his direction, forcing him to focus on evading them. Focusing, she sent a tendril of thought into his mind and gently pierced his mental shield, slipping unnoticed through the tiny hole. Most of her was concentrating on throwing lightning bolts at Mylor while a small part of her prowled quietly through his mind, eavesdropping on his thoughts. â€œStupid Bitch! I think itâ€™s time to transform, call on the power of the Black Lion.â€ Riley was puzzled. Transform? She thought that only dark mages had the power to shape shift. But then she remembered that he was skilled in both types of magic, dark and white. She would be ready for whatever fearsome beast he could transform into. Heedful of Toomâ€™s warning that she could be trapped inside his mind if he discovered what she was up to, she was about to pull out, when one of his thoughts jumped up and slapped her. â€œBitch! How does she have the power to hurl lightning bolts like that? How did she get all those other powers? What the hell is going on here? The Oracle was a falsehood which I invented. She is no champion. I made it all up.â€ Riley was so stunned by this knowledge that the part of her inside his head must have given off some signal, alerting him to her presence because, suddenly, she felt a constricting pain jolt through her body. Mylor had closed the hole in his mental shield, trapping some of her life energy inside his head. Immediately, she felt weaker and the steady stream of lightning bolts she was hurling at Mylor turned into a trickle before dwindling to nothing. Darting a quick glance at him, she saw that his face was furrowed in concentration, a triumphant glimmer in his eyes and a gloating smile tugged at his lips. Panic raced through her, scattering her thoughts and constricting her breathing while a small could of darkness hovered on the outer periphery of her mind. She knew that she was on the verge of passing out, and if she did, Mylor would move quickly to finish her. She felt the hot breath of a fire ball as it whizzed by her left ear, a stray spark singed her lobe, and she choked on the smell of her charred flesh. Dizzy and nauseous with the strength oozing out of her body, she fell to her knees, and heard Mylorâ€™s triumphant laughter. Summoning the little strength she had left, she threw one more lightning bolt. She heard Mylorâ€™s surprised yelp, and knew that somehow this last, desperate strike had injured him. Keeping a wary eye on the darkness that had blanketed most of her mind, she focused the tiny part that was still clear on shattering Mylorâ€™s mental shield as she felt the strength and power draining from her. She pictured in her mindâ€™s eye Mylorâ€™s shield as a giant, translucent egg shell, and gathering all the power she still possessed, aimed it like a missile at the egg shell, shattering it into fragments, freeing her trapped life energy, and watched it soar like a falcon and wing its way back to her. Immediately, her strength returned, the darkness clouding her mind disappeared and the world stopped spinning. Opening her eyes, she saw Mylor cradling his right hand which was red and looked like a lump of raw meat, the skin hanging off it in tattered shreds. His face was an agonized mask and little mewls of pain escaped his gasping mouth. Pulling herself to her feet, still reeling from the shocking truth she had discovered in Mylorâ€™s mind, Riley tried to keep her voice steady. â€œThe Oracle was a lie. Cole and I were never destined to fight an epic battle. It was all a lie.â€ As Craneâ€™s strong fingers tightened around his neck, Coleâ€™s lungs burned for oxygen and his consciousness started to slip away. Gathering his remaining strength, he changed into lion form. The thick, muscled neck of the huge lion easily slipped out of Craneâ€™s clutching fingers. Roaring, he tossed his golden mane, and ripped Craneâ€™s throat out in one fluid motion. With his muzzle stained red from his brotherâ€™s blood, feral amber eyes brimming with bloodlust, he bounded off Craneâ€™s lifeless body and loped towards Riley and Mylor just in time to hear Riley call the Oracle a lie. The shocking declaration stopped Cole in his tracks. Pawing the ground, tossing his mane, he threw back his head and roared mightily, causing the cave walls to shake. Roaring again, he transformed back into human form, waves of fury rolled off him as he stalked towards Riley and Mylor who were staring at him with wide eyes and gaping mouths. â€œNonsense! The Oracle is not false.â€ He glared at Riley through heavily lidded eyes. Her skin prickled under his blistering gaze. â€œIt is false. I read his mind.â€ She jerked her head in Mylorâ€™s direction. â€œAsk him if you donâ€™t believe me.â€ Cole turned disbelieving eyes towards the smirking Mylor. â€œTell her. Tell her that the Oracle is true. It cannot be false.â€ Still cradling his injured hand, Mylor nodded. â€œYes. It was a brilliant ploy for me to become the ruler of Avalyss. Everyone was so preoccupied with the upcoming epic battle and the champions that no one paid any attention to my actions, leaving me free to become an expert in Universal magic. Once I attained mastery, I planned to seize control by staging a coup dâ€™etat. By the time everyone realized that they had been duped, it would have been too late.â€ Mylorâ€™s voice was manic, his eyes shining with an unholy light. â€œIf the Oracle was a lie, then my whole life was a lie. A terrible lie. It was never my destiny to rule Avalyss.â€ Coleâ€™s voice shook. â€œThe Oracle predicted the mysterious arrival of the twins. Where did you get Cole and Crane?â€ Riley asked, casting a concerned glance at the pale and trembling Cole. Mylor threw back his head and laughed, a wild, mad sound reverberating eerily around the cave. â€œMy sons, my twin sons.â€ Coleâ€™s mouth dropped open and he became even paler as the blood drained from his face. â€œYou are my father.â€ â€œYou were willing to kill your own son, your own flesh and blood, in order to rule Avalyss.â€ Rileyâ€™s voice shook with fury. Mylor shrugged. â€œI still had Crane. Remember I have two sons, an heir and a spare. Cole became too obsessed with power. He was a liability. He needed to be eliminated. It was not the original plan. I intended to tell him everything but he never would have agreed to give up his wondrous destiny. He had to be eliminated. Just look at him.â€ He gestured towards Cole, his eyes full of scorn. With a stricken look in his amber eyes, Cole was swaying like a wind tossed tree. Rileyâ€™s heart twisted with pity. She knew that Coleâ€™s destiny was everything to him. Mylor had just shredded his sense of self and his sole purpose in life. â€œCrane knew everything. I told him the truth years ago. He would never have turned against me. He would have waited his turn to rule.â€ Peering deeper into the cave, Mylor shouted, â€œCrane, my boy, where are you?â€ At the sight of Craneâ€™s crumpled body lying in a pool of blood, he yowled and rushed towards him. He shook Crane and kept yelling for him to get up. Finally, with a horrible keening sound, he threw himself on Craneâ€™s lifeless body. Riley watched in silence as Mylor poured out his grief for his favorite son. His other son, the one he had planned to kill, stared at him, face expressionless. Cole had stopped shaking but occasional spasms wracked his body. Riley wanted to reach out to him but she knew that her concern would not be welcome. As if sensing her gaze, his eyes locked with hers, trapping her in turbulent pools of amber bereft of all hope. She felt a yawning abyss open up between them. Lost in Coleâ€™s agonized gaze, Riley failed to notice the sudden silence as Mylor stopped wailing. A prickle of unease crawled along her neck and she turned just in time to see Mylor hurl a fire ball straight at Cole toppling him to the ground. Screaming, panic clawing through her, dropping to her knees, she cradled his head in her hands. A sob of relief escaped her clenched lips when she heard his soft, hitching breaths. â€œThe fire ball was set at stun. A quick and painless death is too good for him. He needs to suffer. I will make him watch while I torture you. Before I am finished he will beg me to kill you. And I will be happy to oblige. Then I will torture him till he pleads for death.â€ Mylorâ€™s voice was flat, his eyes burning with hate and a hint of madness. Shaking with rage, Riley pushed to her feet. â€œBastard! Only a coward would attack without warning. If he dies, I will kill you.â€ Mylorâ€™s mocking laughter filled the cave. â€œDeluded fool. You are not powerful enough to kill me.â€ Faster than a striking cobra, he aimed a fire ball at her face. Reflexes honed by adrenaline, Riley twisted and spun out of its path. Before she could hurl a lightning bolt at him, he snarled and transformed into an enormous black lion, with canine teeth the size of hunting knives, gleaming whitely in his fearsome face. His black mane, surrounding his head like a giant halo, brushed the roof of the cave. Riley hesitated, staring at the mammoth beast who stared back with hate-filled bi-colored eyes. Taking advantage of her hesitation, he pounced, knocking her off her feet. His fetid breath hot against her face, she watched transfixed as his razor sharp fangs hovered mere inches above her neck. Pinned to the cave floor, almost crushed by the monstrous beast, waves of terror crested through Riley as she waited for the fatal attack. Mylor was in no hurry, feral eyes dancing with triumph, he threw back his massive head and roared causing the entire cave to shake, sending clouds of sand flying through the air. Invading her nostrils and throat, the sand choked Riley, stung her eyes and whipped her till her skin was raw. Shrouded by veils of sand, Mylor looked like a mirage. The sand subsided revealing the terrible reality of the snarling beast, foaming at the mouth, ready to slash, rip and tear her flesh into threads. Riley felt nothing, almost like she was a disinterested observer and not a victim on the verge of being ripped apart. To Rileyâ€™s numb mind, the scene unfolded in slow motion. Mylorâ€™s head started to descend, huge jaws wide, knife like teeth inching closer. A tormented roar shattered her trance, causing time to speed up. A golden bundle of fury hurled itself at the black lion knocking it off Riley. Icy bands of horror tightened in her chest when she saw Cole, in golden lion form, facing Mylor. Growling, teeth bared, Cole leapt straight at Mylor who easily batted him away with one giant paw, sending Cole flying through the air. He landed on all four feet, whirled and hurled himself again at Mylor, sinking his fangs into Mylorâ€™s neck. Tossing his gargantuan head, Mylor shook Cole off, sending him crashing to the cave floor. Before Cole could jump to his feet, Mylor pinned him to the floor, his razor sharp claws biting into Coleâ€™s neck, drawing blood. Helpless, Riley watched the battle between the two lions, eyes wide with fear, certain of the inevitable outcome since Mylor, in lion form, outclassed Cole in sheer size and ferocity. She considered throwing a lightning bolt but quickly rejected that idea because she could hit Cole by mistake. But she had to do something. How could she just stand there and watch Mylor kill the man she loved? Her heart somersaulted then froze when Mylor lowered his head, saber teeth poised like twin daggers ready to slice open Coleâ€™s abdomen. Unable to move, Cole looked at Riley. She saw no terror in his amber eyes at his impending death, instead they pulsed with love. A jolt ran through her. Cole loved her. All this time she had believed that he had loved only his destiny and had merely desired her. But at the very end when all was lost, his heart was in his eyes and she saw the depth of his love. Their shared glance was poignant with sorrow, and she choked on the bitter taste of regret. Cole winced as one of Mylorâ€™s lethal canine teeth sliced through his tunic, scraping the tender flesh of his stomach. Mylorâ€™s features twisted in an evil parody of a smile at the enjoyment of toying with his victim. With a quick intake of breath, Riley realized that, in another instant, he would plunge his fangs deep into Cole, slashing him wide open. Frantic, she wished that she could somehow stop the horrible scene from unfolding before her. Her desperate desire pushed the memory to the front of her mind and suddenly she knew what to do. Heart thudding, she ripped the black cord off her neck, grabbed the purple stone and rubbed it furiously. A cracking explosive sound nearly deafened her. Time froze. Sobbing, relief surged through her. She had remembered Meekaâ€™s gift, the power to freeze time, in the nick of time. A wry smile tugged at her lips at the bad pun. Shuddering at Coleâ€™s near brush with a grisly death, she rushed towards the frozen figures. Knowing that she only had a few minutes before time unfroze, she pushed at the mammoth body of the black lion with all her strength, trying to get him off Cole but he did not budge. Grunting, sweat leaking down her brow and stinging her eyes, she tried once more. She could hear time ticking while she redoubled her efforts. Exhausted, dropping to her knees, she felt like she had been straining for hours when it had only been less than a minute. Pushing was futile since she was not strong enough to dislodge Mylorâ€™s body. The ticking clock in her head grew louder and her heart mimicked its rhythm. She could almost see time speeding past on winged feet. Pushing her sweat soaked hair off her face, she tried to think of another way to move Mylor without using physical strength. When the idea crept into her mind, as stealthy as a thief in the night, her heart lurched to a stop before racing like a herd of wild thoroughbreds in her chest. Closing her eyes, breathing deeply, she gathered all her mental energy and focused on shifting Mylor. She felt the energy gather into a tight ball and explode outwards, knocking her off her feet. Snapping open her eyes, she saw Mylor hovering a few inches above Cole. Darting forward, she pulled Coleâ€™s body from under Mylor just as time unfroze. Mylor fell back to the floor with a loud thud, landing on all fours. With a quizzical expression on his face, he stared at Riley and Cole, both lying spread eagled on the floor. With a blood curdling roar, bloodlust in his eyes, Mylor surged straight at Riley, giant jaws wide open, razor sharp canine teeth glittering in the sunlight streaming through the opening in the cave roof. Shocked into immobility, Riley could only stare while snarling death flew like an arrow towards her. Morphing back into human form, Cole unfroze at the same time as Mylor. Disoriented, head spinning, he looked up in time to see Mylorâ€™s flying leap towards Riley. With one quick flick of his wrist, he tossed a fire ball, striking Mylor in mid-air, knocking him backwards. His body fell with a thud, bi-colored eyes, wide open and staring. Cole looked at Riley who was motionless staring at Mylorâ€™s unmoving body. Worried, he started towards her when he caught a flicker of movement on his right side. Whirling, he raised his hand, ready to throw another fire ball when Riley screamed at him to stop. Pausing, he saw Max dragging his body over to Riley, thick blood along with a clear green liquid oozing from a knife wound on his flank. With a broken cry, Riley ran towards Max, threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his black fur. Max, green eyes glassy almost lifeless, licked the tears from her face. â€œMax! Donâ€™t you dare die on me, you great big galoot. Donâ€™t you dare! Iâ€™ll kick your sorry butt all over Avalyss if you do. Please donâ€™t die.â€ Cole hovered helplessly, his own heart breaking as he witnessed her raw pain and terror at the thought of losing Max. Swaying on his feet, bloody and bruised, he fought the abyss of blackness which tried to claim him, took one faltering step in Rileyâ€™s direction, fell flat on his face and slipped into unconsciousness. CHAPTER 25 On her way back from yet another meeting, Riley paused to catch her breath. The last few weeks had been a whirlwind, filled with marathon meetings and strategy sessions as the system of Universal Magic was introduced to Avalyss by amalgamating Dark and White magic. Given that the Oracle was false, it had not taken much convincing for everyone to realize that a system of Universal magic would be best for the continued future and success of Avalyss. Despite some initial conflicts, the Higher Echelon and the Council of Dark Mages, after years of distrust and enmity, ceased their endless power struggle and were working as a harmonized team. Riley had been busy, acting as adviser, advocate, mediator, and hand holder. It felt good to stop for a minute. Taking a deep breath of the tangy ocean air, she sat on a piece of driftwood, listened to the susurrus of the gentle waves, and watched a hawk gliding in the periwinkle sky, sunlight gilding its feathers. The color of sapphire, the ocean glittered and spangled as if bejeweled. Her heart leaped into her throat as a shadow appeared in front of her, a dark shape blotting out the ocean. Recognizing Max, a quick sigh of relief escaped her. Max licked her face, sat on his haunches and rested his huge head on her knee. Smiling, Riley curled her fingers in his silky fur. Since that dreadful moment in the cave when she had believed that he was going to die, she needed to reassure herself that he was still alive by touching him whenever she saw him. She could not imagine life without her faithful companion and protector. Shuddering, she remembered the terror that had gripped her when she saw his blood, his life force, oozing out of his wounded flank. When Cole had fainted, a red carpet of blood under him, her terror had intensified. The events that happened afterwards were a blur, the details fuzzy. She had a vague recollection of Shalimar and Sultan winking into existence and teleporting them all back to the castle. She found out later that Sarri and the Higher Echelon had managed to overpower Baltrac and escape, just as the swords returned with their precious cargo. Riley had slept for twenty four hours straight. When she had awakened, she learned that the swords had healed Max and he had recovered. But Cole remained unconscious. A devastated Riley had begged the swords to heal him too. Shalimar assured her that they had healed his physical wounds, but Coleâ€™s extended lapse of unconsciousness was his bodyâ€™s way of dealing with emotional trauma. Only Cole could pull himself out of his self-induced coma. Shalimar explained that the prolonged rest was necessary for him to regain his strength, both physical and emotional, in order to face the aftershocks of recent events. Finally, she had been persuaded to leave Coleâ€™s bedside, to focus on instituting the system of Universal magic. Whipping Rileyâ€™s hair into her face, the sudden wind jolted her back to the present moment. At once she felt the familiar presence of worry lying like a clenched fist in the pit of her stomach. Cole had not yet regained consciousness despite Shalimarâ€™s assurances. She desperately wanted him to wake up since she was convinced that they could bridge the gap between them. She had not forgotten the look of love in his eyes when he believed that he was going to die. He had managed to hide his love from her but now she knew the truth. He loved her. She loved him. Sighing, a dreamy expression on her face, she wondered if their wedding would take place on Earth or on Avalyss? Maybe they could have two weddings since she could not possibly invite her friends from Earth to Avalyss. Two weddings meant two honeymoons. She hoped that when he finally awoke that he would be well rested since she intended to wear him out by engaging in marathon lovemaking sessions. She blushed as her pulse quickened. She yelped as a gentle nip on her knee interrupted her daydreams. She frowned at Max. â€œTwo weddings? Arenâ€™t you getting ahead of yourself? You donâ€™t know for sure what Cole wants. Or if he feels the same.â€ â€œHe loves me. I know he does.â€ â€œBut will it be enough to overcome his devastation at the loss of his grand destiny?â€ Riley nodded, although she shivered a little. â€œLove is always enough, even more than enough, to overcome all obstacles.â€ â€œSometimes it isnâ€™t. Cole is a complex man. You cannot predict his behavior. I donâ€™t want you to get hurt.â€ â€œYou worry too much. Cole and I love each other and we will get married. You can be my bridesmaid!â€ At Maxâ€™s comical expression, Riley threw back her head and laughed. An infectious laugh radiating outwards so, for a moment, the ocean, the air, and the shore all vibrated with happiness and joy. Even Max felt happiness bubbling up inside him. A cracking sound cut off Rileyâ€™s laughter as suddenly as a guillotine severing a personâ€™s head. Sarri stood in front of them, her face a mask of worry and concern. Riley jumped to her feet. â€œMother! Whatâ€™s wrong? Has something happened to Cole?â€ â€œHe is gone.â€ â€œGone! Where?â€ â€œI donâ€™t know. Shalimar informed me that he was awake and appeared to be doing well. But when I popped into his room, I found it empty. I searched the entire palace but could not find him.â€ Without a word, blood draining from her face, she teleported into Coleâ€™s room. Empty. Why? Where? What? Rileyâ€™s mind seemed only capable of spitting out one word questions. The room spun, her head throbbed and blood thrummed through her veins. Cole was gone. He had left without saying goodbye. Maybe she had imagined the look of love in his eyes. Had she seen what she had wanted to see? Pain engulfed her, drowning her entire being in its intensity. Gasping, she clutched at her throat, and fought for breath. Sarri and Max teleported into the room just as she toppled over right into Sarriâ€™s arms Buffeted by the unforgiving winter wind, Cole stood transfixed, staring at the icy landscape while fat snowflakes fell in sheets around him. The bleak desolation of this world beyond Avalyss had seemed a perfect place for his self-imposed exile, yet it possessed a harsh beauty all its own. Shivering, his thin cloak providing little protection from the frigid climate, he refused to seek shelter since the coldness within his soul matched the coldness in the outer world. His life was now a barren wasteland just like this land he surveyed. He had been shocked to the core when he learned that the Oracle was a lie, a vicious fabrication. All his life he had worked towards becoming the ruler of Avalyss believing that it was his destiny. He had completely identified with this destiny, believing that without it, he was nothing, less than nothing, a rudderless boat adrift on an unfamiliar, savage sea. Worse he had sacrificed everything including the woman he loved. He was filled with shame, humiliation and self-loathing. How could he face Riley knowing that he had rejected her for a lie? She was the best thing that had ever happened to him and he had thrown her love away, hurting her in the process. He would never know the warmth of love and happiness since he did not deserve them. That was the sole reason he had chosen this gelid land as a refuge and a punishment, a cruel reminder of what he had lost, what he had given up. He was surprised to feel a tear gliding down his cheek. The wind howled mimicking the howling of his soul. He had been lost in his thoughts, staring at the frozen scene with unseeing eyes when a sudden movement in the distance made him blink and focus. A portion of the white landscape detached itself from its surroundings and loped towards him. His breath caught in his throat, a frisson of fear pricked his spine as the massive white shape hurtled forwards. A jolt of surprise darted through him when he recognized the giant white wolf, Toom. Assuming that her exile had been revoked due to the new circumstances in Avalyss he was surprised to see her. Skidding to halt, Toom regarded him with inscrutable green eyes. â€œI can sense the depth of your pain.â€ Coleâ€™s throat tightened and he could not speak. â€œRiley is hurt that you left without saying goodbye. She believed that you loved her. Your rejection shattered her heart.â€ Cole felt his heart wrench. â€œShe is better off without me. Besides, I am sure that she no longer loves me. How could she after I chose a lie instead of her? She must hate me. Not that I blame her, I deserve to be hated.â€ Titling her head to the side, Toom tossed him an amused glance. â€œCan I come to your party?â€ He frowned. â€œParty? What are you talking about?â€ â€œThe big pity party that you are throwing for yourself.â€ Toom laughed. Glaring at her, he snapped, â€œStop laughing. None of this is funny.â€ â€œYou are standing here in this frozen wasteland, marinating in self-pity, beating yourself up for past misdeeds when you could be holding the woman you love, planning a future with her. That my friend is funny.â€ Cole shook his head. â€œI am telling you, she does not love me. And even if she does, she deserves better. I cannot accept her love. I donâ€™t deserve it.â€ â€œMaybe you should let her decide if you are undeserving or not. No one chooses who to love. She is aware of your foibles and weaknesses and she loves you in spite of them. To borrow a saying from the Earth dwellers, she loves you, warts and all.â€ Coleâ€™s heart galloped like a thoroughbred racing to the finish line. A tendril of hope stirred within him. Stubbornly, he continued to shake his head. â€œNo. It is too late for us.â€ Toom sighed. â€œYou really are the most infuriating man. Listen to me. I can see into her heart and her mind. She loves you still. Yes, she is trying to forget you. But she cannot. It is never too late for true love to triumph.â€ Cole could feel his frozen heart begin to melt. Could it be true? Did she still love him? He had never met anyone like her. She had captivated him with her innocence, intelligence, courage, sass and beauty. He had never felt that way about any other woman. She was an enigma, one he wanted to spend his whole life solving. â€œYou once believed in your destiny and it turned out to be a mistake. I understand why you are afraid to believe in anything ever again. Believe in Riley. Believe in the love that you have for each other. Believe.â€ Looking up, Cole saw a rainbow shimmering in the grey sky. CHAPTER 26 Lungs bursting, muscles straining, Riley ran along the seawall, legs pumping to the beat of the waves crashing along the shore. The seawall spanned the perimeter of Vancouverâ€™s historic Stanley Park, and was usually crowded with bikers, joggers, walkers, and roller bladders but as night yielded to the dawn, it was as deserted as a ghost town. Running at daybreak every day afforded her the solitude that she craved. Alone she reveled in the beauty of the mountains cleaving the sky and the shimmering ocean. Together they acted as a balm, soothing her tortured soul. Since running anesthetized the torment of her shattered heart, she ran as fast as she could for as long as she could, pushing her body beyond endurance, wishing she could run all day and night so that the pain that tore at her heart would never return. Inevitably, her stride shortened, slowed and stopped. Bending at the waist, she touched her knees, took in huge lungfuls of the crisp, salty air. Jumping off the sea wall, she landed on the beach and removed her running shoes. Burying her toes in the soft silky sand, still damp with the morning dew, she walked to the waterâ€™s edge. The ocean was a deep inky blackness against the dark navy of the sky. The westering wind whipped the waves into huge, frothy swells before they fled screaming towards the shore. As the numbing effects of running began to wear off, she felt her hear twisting inside her chest, the knifing pain made her gasp. It happened daily but she was always surprised at the intensity of her heartache, the wound always fresh, never dull. She had finally accepted that Cole had never loved her. She had been guilty of wishful thinking. Sarri and Max had tried to help, but she could not bear their concerned looks. She had needed to be alone in order to heal so she had come back to Vancouver a month ago hoping that time and distance would hasten the healing process but the pain of rejection and unrequited love was still as fresh as ever. She had tried as hard as she could to forget Cole and to glue the pieces of her broken heart together. But it proved impossible. She missed him. Nights were the worst. His amber eyes, full of the love she had glimpsed in the cave, haunted her passion filled dreams. His hands on her body felt so real that she woke up in the middle of the night, tangled in the sheets, sweaty and aroused, his burning touch still lingering and her mouth bruised from his hungry kisses. The rest of the night was spent in sleepless torment while her loins and heart ached for a man she could never have. Hot tears stung her face while she waited for each dawn and the brief respite from pain that her daily run would bring. A screeching gull streaked past her head startling her back into the present moment. She dashed away a tear that clung to her lashes, surprised that she still had any tears left since she had cried a river over Cole. Dipping her toes into the ocean, she suppressed a shudder as the frigidity sent a jolt of pain surging through her body. She welcomed it since it distracted her briefly from the constant ache in her heart. She wished she could forget Cole and the passion they shared. She believed that such passion only came around once in every lifetime. She would never feel such passion and longing again. Maybe she could find someone else but she knew that what she would feel for him would be a pale version of what she felt for Cole, like the moon is a pale reflection of the sun. A tingle of awareness raced through her body, she spun on her heels and her eyes locked with Coleâ€™s. Blinking, certain that she was seeing a mirage, a mere trick of the rising sun climbing out of the ocean, its slow kisses inflaming the dawn sky causing it to blush in myriad rosy orange hues. But the image of Cole lingered, standing several feet in front of her, at the exact spot where sea met sand, oblivious to the waves tumbling over his feet. His flowing honey colored hair tossed by the playful breeze, his amber eyes brimming with love. Hardly daring to believe her eyes, she snapped them shut, and counted to ten before opening them again. He was still there, the same expression in his eyes. Smiling, flashing his adorable dimples, he held out his arms. Suddenly, she was running, faster than a starving leopard giving chase to its prey, running towards him even as he was racing towards her. She jumped the last foot that separated them and he caught her in his strong arms, biceps bulging, as he spun her round and round. Riley wrapped her arms and legs around him, pressed her body against his. Laughing, she tilted her head back, stared into his laughing face, and her breath caught in her throat as his smoldering amber eyes fastened on her lips. Bending his head, he kissed her gently but the passion flared and the kiss grew hungrier as each tried to devour the other. He loved her. It was in his kiss, his eyes, the way his hands roved her body. Joy exploded within her. No words were spoken. The kiss spoke volumes. Cole lost in the sweetness of her, rejoiced that this incredible woman belonged to him. And he belonged to her. He had found his true destiny at last.