Beyond the Veil

by Ben Books Schwartz

converted to story format by smartkitty314

Disclaimer: This is a mere recounting from memory, and again, it follows the tale that I know best. Apologies if names, events, or conversations are recorded somewhat inaccurately. I make no claim to the creation of this story; I only seek to record it to serve my own memory of said events.

Our story begins in the Veil Mountains, with two warring tribes, the Dema and the Votha. This hatred, this grudge between the tribes traced back many generations, three hundred years, when Aleron ruled the land.

Aleron. Scorpion king. The most powerful sorcerer the world had ever seen, the peaceful warlord, the benevolent dictator. For Aleron conquered all of the known land, from the oceans of the West to the Veil Mountains of the far East. He conquered them not by brute force, or blood and death, but by gathering his armies outside of an opposing city, casting a mass sleep spell, and taking all their weapons and occupying them. None could resist, and soon the whole land was united under him in peace. He build his citadel in the Veil Mountains, and ruled for many years, kindly and fairly. Culture flourish, and it was a golden age for the Empire of Alar.

Until one day, as all people must, Aleron died. His son was nowhere near as powerful a sorcerer as he had been-in fact, there was no one strong enough to hold his empire together. Without him to enforce stability, the conquered tribes remembered their anger and fell back to squabbling, fighting, a thousand factions trying to carve their own kingdoms out of the wreckage of a once-great civilization.

Aleron's son, however, took his servants and his nobles and his guards and fled to the Veil Mountains in an attempt to preserve his life. They learned to survive, thrive even, in the harsh conditions, and became a tribe of their own-the Dema tribe. However, the Votha, who lived there already, were especially upset as they were the last conquered, and the two tribes entered a war of their own.

Three hundred years have passed. The animosity still burns strong, sure, but surviving in the Veil Mountains is no mean feat. There simply weren't enough resources to support constant warfare. Slowly, the towns began trading, and although there was still tension, as if everyone expected a war, they had settled into a grudging peace.

Everyone, that was, except for sweet innocent Eliana, daughter of Mazin, princess of the Dema tribe, and direct descendant of Aleron. She was also a powerful healer, and she would often go and visit the Votha tribe, conduct trade with them, and help their healer, Taon, as sort of an honorary apprentice. She offered her talents freely, despite how...painful...healing magic could be, for both parties involved. As it was, she got to be very good friends with most of their village. She had actually gone out today with the intention of collecting some herbs and helping Taon make poultices for the coming flu season. That was, until the Votha found her first.

She didn't feel like a good friend, or even a respected guest now, though. Not with her hands tied behind her back, being escorted into a field in the middle of nowhere by a group of the Votha's best warriors, and, of course, their ruthless scheming leader, Mazik. She stumbled across the field in the uncomfortably heavy and unnervingly ornate red robe, unable to use her arms to steady herself. Still, she held her head high. "You're never going to get away with this, Mazik!" she shouted, as bravely as she could.

He turned, forcing her to stop abruptly to avoid running into him. "Oh, dear child, but I think I will." He took another step forward, uncomfortably close. "Kneel."

Eliana bit her lip and glared at him.

"Kneel!"

She obeyed.

"I am sorry this had to be you, dear child, but you have to understand, this is for the good of the entire Votha tribe."

"Do you ever wonder if what's best for your tribe is what's best for everyone else?" she snorted under her breath.

"You will not speak of my family like that! I would do anything to protect them. Anything." He glared down at her, but lowered his hand. Turning, he addressed the rest of his assembled warriors. "You may wonder why we have gather here today in the middle of nowhere, with the lovely Eliana. I have been searching through the old scrolls, and I found a ritual of Aleron's that will provide me-provide us-with the ultimate power. We could crush our enemies and reclaim our home for once and for all!"

Silence greeted his little speech. He grinned, flashing teeth. "Now someone give me their sword."

Sword in one hand, stick in another, he carved a circle into the dirt around Eliana, who was slowly beginning to realize what was going on.

"Please. You don't have to do this!" she said.

"I'm sorry, dear child, but my family comes first."

She spit at his feet, and tried to wipe her cheeks on her shoulders. "Then I won't give you the pleasure of seeing my die crying!" She squeezed her eyes shut, and began to whisper under her breath an old prayer, one that she had learned as a child to concentrate her healing powers. Mazik only laughed.

"Your prayers won't help you now, princess. Nothing can stop Aleron's ritual!" And he opened his mouth to begin.

"Wait! My lord!"

"What?" Mazik whirled around, scowling.

Taon stepped forward and kneeled down. "She's only sixteen, my lord. Please, isn't there some other way?"

"Would you take her place?" Mazik sneered.

Taon was silent for a moment, then solemnly replied, "Yes, my lord."

Mazik scowled in disgust. "A noble sentiment, but misplaced. We'll have need of your talent in the coming days, and besides, she has something far more potent than mere healing power. Aleron's blood runs in her veins. She shall be our sacrifice."

At this, Eliana's facade cracked, and she let out a strangled sob before continuing with her quiet chanting. Then Mazik began to speak the words of power, and the ritual began.

She remembered staring up through wet eyes at sympathetic faces, guilty faces, uncaring faces, all a blur. She remembered the harsh grate of Mazik's voice in her ears. She remembered at one point screaming, "Help me! Somebody help me!" only to hear Mazik laugh and say, "There's no one to hear you. There's no one coming, princess."

The ritual might have blurred together under tears and hyperventilation, but she remembered with perfect clarity the moment when Mazik stepped forward, his sword pointed at her throat.

I'm going to die now, she thought with perfect clarity. I'm going to die.

Then Vorda and Taon stepped in front of her, blocking her from Mazik, with their swords unsheathed.

"You would fight me for her?" Mazik hissed.

"We would," Vorda replied. Eliana slumped to the ground in relief.

"CHARGE!" Across the field came an angry battle cry as the Dema, lead by Eliana's father, Mazin, sprinted towards where the girl kneeled.

"There's no time for this," Mazik hissed. "Votha, attack!" And he leapt across the circle, slitting Eliana's throat in one terrible blow as he charged into battle.

But everyone stopped running as she tried to gasp, arched back, and slumped to the ground, unquestionably dead. Then, as if the world had started up again, they all ran to her body.

The Votha reached her first, as they were closer. Vorda cradled her body as Taon tried desperately to heal her, but the fatal wound was beyond his talents. They were there crying as Althion arrived and took the body in his arms. Tears fell from his eyes, replaced by anger. As Mazin's apprentice, everyone expected him to rule the tribe one day, side by side with Mazin's daughter, his heir. Now they would never have their future together.

"I'll kill whoever's responsible for this!" he screamed, and with that, the Dema attacked.

The battle was short and bloody. A Votha was swiftly cut down. Mazik and Mazin circled each other, but the father's rage gave him the extra energy to fight superior. Mazik, on the other hand, only looked confused. "Something's wrong. Something's terribly wrong. Where is the power? Why isn't the ritual working?"

Mazik crouched on the ground, looking at the blood and the bodies, cradling his own wounds. "Why didn't the ritual work?"

There was a moment of pure silence. Then Eliana sat up, and began screaming.

"You! You lunderhead! You spineless wumpfish!" She staggered to her feet, stabbing a finger in Mazik's direction. "You murdered me! You murdered me, and you messed up the ritual. You idiot, you've broken death! Do you know what this means? Do you know what this means? You get a wound in battle, and it begins to fester, but you don't die. As your limbs rot off, as you starve, still you don't die. Your entire existence becomes horrible pain, and suffering, as rotting bodies will be all that populate the earth. You broke death, and now we've only got this nightmare world to live in." With that, she collapsed to the ground, sobbing.

Both villages gathered around her, and turned to glare at Mazik. Something caught her eye, though: the body of one of the dead warriors, his intestines strewn across the ground, his throat slit. He was gurgling. He had been making said noises for the past five minutes.

She and Taon hurried around the field, healing whom they could, trying to save their strength for the worst injured. Despite his fairly serious wounds, they ignored Mazik.

Finally, he gathered the courage to speak up. "So what can we do? How can we fix it?"

"It's Aleron's ritual. He's the only one who would know, and he's the only one powerful enough to actually be able to fix it. If we can find Aleron, we might be able to make things right again."

Mazik wrinkled his brow. "Aleron? Aleron's dead."

"Yeah. And thanks to you, I know the way to death. This won't be easy, and it probably won't be particularly safe, but everyone who wishes may follow me." And Eliana led every single one of them up a winding path, further into the mountains, around, until they reached the mists at the edge of the world, and the gate that lead on.

"Gatekeeper," she called out softly. "I'm back."

A low, deep laugh sounded beyond the gate, and the mists cleared out a little, revealing a man clad in black sitting in full locus position on a long, dark bridge over swampy mists, clutching a rotting staff in his left hand.

"I sent you away once today," he said, not even bothering to open his eyes. "And now you're back. Even more, you have brought the living with you. Why?"

"Because I brought the man responsible for this."

And all the villagers parted, leaving Mazik standing, looking forlorn, at the end. He made his way carefully through the people to kneel before the Gatekeeper. "So you're the one who broke Death," the Gatekeeper growled. "How?"

"It was a ritual. One of Aleron's rituals," Mazik began to explain, cut off as the Gatekeeper hissed,

"Aleron? You tried to use one of Aleron's rituals? You fool!"

"I am here to seek to redress the wrong I have done," he continued insistently.

"And how would you do that?"

"Please, Gatekeeper," Eliana asked, "if you have any knowledge of where Aleron is...it was his ritual, and he was so powerful...surely he could fix it."

"You think that you can summon Aleron? Pah," the Gatekeeper scoffed.

"I am the direct descendant of Aleron," Mazin piped up, and for the first time, the Gatekeeper appeared interested.

"The direct descendant? Then perhaps it is possible after all. It will be a perilous journey. We must collect objects of power, guarded objects, from deep inside of Death, and only then will we have a chance to summon his spirit. You must pass through my gates, and that means that you may never return to the land of the living."

"Pass through your gates?" Mazik glanced around nervously. "But...how? Death is broken. I thought that was the whole problem here."

The Gatekeeper grinned, a feral smile full of sharp teeth, and without even turning slapped his hands by his left ear, then showed all the oozing body of a mosquito on his palm. "These are the gates. This is my realm. I control life and death here. Are you ready to die for what you've done?"

Mazik swallowed, then nodded. The Gatekeeper's grin widened as he lowered his hand to Mazik's head. The once proud leader's body convulsed and he screamed silently before falling like a limp puppet to the ground, and fading. Then, the mists behind the Gatekeeper reformed into his figure.

"Who's next?"

One by one, Eliana watched her friends and family step forward and die, until at last only she and the Gatekeeper remained. He smiled, and beckoned to her. "Come, princess. You have already died once today. You may enter my realm freely."

The Realm of Death was a very strange place, dark skies overhead, mist, strange noises in the distance. Color seemed leeched from the surroundings, from clothing, from faces, and all cheer leeched from the soul.

"What's wrong, my lord?" Vorda's voice sounded behind Eliana.

"It's cold. So, so cold."

Eliana turned to see Mazik walking beside her aimlessly, hugging himself and shivering. She didn't even think he noticed her there. She was torn between pity at seeing him this vulnerable, and anger still at what he had done.

"Death is cold. I would know," she said curtly.

He gave a start and looked at her, truly looked at her as a fellow human being for the first time that day, and the reality of all of it came crashing down on him. She could almost see the burden settle as his shoulders slumped and his eyes fell to the floor. "I-I am so, so sorry."

And with that she knew that she could not stay angry at him for long. "Look, Mazik, you murdered me, I called you some pretty nasty names back there, but we're going to have to work together if we ever want to set the world right. So let's call it a clean slate?"

He gave her a weak smile. "Let's." Then they both sped up in silence to rejoin the main group of the tribes.

The Gatekeeper led them down twisting paths to an amphitheater, and bade them to lay their weapons aside and sit and listen.

"You have broken Death, and this must be remedied as quickly as possible. Without death, the world will dissolve into madness, chaos! Life needs death." He paused for a moment. "And you wish to raise Aleron. Well, Aleron had two...items of invested power. If you fetch them for me, I can use them to raise his spirit. His crown, and his sigil of the scorpion. You."

He pointed one finger at Mazik.

"Step forward."

Once again he put his hand on Mazik's head, but this time, although Mazik stumbled, he did not fall to the ground.

"Now you know the path, but tarry not. If you do not return with the crown, but are lost in the mists, then we will forget about you. Split yourselves into two, and accompany him or me."

Eliana glanced at the Gatekeeper, for her father had headed towards him, and he smiled at her. "Princess." She nodded and hurried forward to join that group.

"Did you know him?" Eliana asked as the Gatekeeper led them on another path through the mists. "Aleron, I mean. Did you ever see him?"

"I have seen many spirits," the Gatekeeper said.

"Oh, well he was my childhood hero, you know?"

"He was the childhood hero of many."

Eliana smiled blithely, and continued, "When I was younger, I always used to dream that I would grow up to be the most powerful healer to walk the earth, powerful enough to heal the hate from the hearts of men. Then I could unite the land in peace. I've never told anyone, because I thought they would laugh at me, you know? But Aleron wouldn't laugh. He had the same dream."

The Gatekeeper walked a few more strides silently, then turned to them all. "We are here. As I cross this line, I will be possessed. The Guardian will explain the rest to you."

The Gatekeeper stepped across the glowing line of magic and, suddenly, he too began to glow. "So you seek the sigil?"

"Yes," replied Mazin, taking a step forward.

"Stop! Do not cross this line. For all who touch this soil shall be driven insane, until they claw their own eyes out, trying to drive the visions of nightmare from their heads. And all who touch the sigil without protection from this insanity shall instantly die." He chuckled. "Or, at least, the closest way you can die in death: your soul ripped apart, and the feathery pieces left to burn and smolder in the fires beneath."

"We must seek the sigil," Mazin insisted.

"Very well. There is a way to retrieve in unscathed, a test of will per say. You must complete the triangle, draw strength from the three pillars of sanity which uphold these lay-lines, and only then will you be protected from the insanity within."

"What if he falls?" Eliana asked.

"Then he loses his mind." But the Guardian saw the innocence, the love of the fear, written clearly on her face, so he relented. "Step inside, child. He will go mad if he touches you, too, once you have entered the triangle, but it will be a far more forgiving madness."

Eliana gulped and stepped forward, only to see the mists form disks underneath her feet, keeping her slightly elevated off the glowing dirt. She help up her hands, ready to catch her father.

He made his way across the first glowing line, although there was a waver in his step. His eyes narrowed in concentration, as if he could see things, hear things, that none of the rest of them could.

Then he made it to the first pillar, sagging to it in relief.

Then he took a deep, shuddering breath, and stepped onto the next layline.

This one was obviously far harder for him, as his eyes flicked from side to side and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. The line, too, started shaking, slowly at first but faster and faster as he began to falter.

Then he was falling.

Eliana lunged forward, trying to reach him, anything, but her arms passed through the empty space where he had been but a moment before.

He fell to the ground, and froze.

No horrified screaming. No instantaneous madness. Just a confused look upwards.

"Quickly, quickly now. Out of the lay lines. I am holding off the magic, but I cannot forever!" the Guardian said.

Mazin scrambled to his feet, and quickly backed away, outside of the glowing triangle, clutching his head.

"The madness, you feel it, do you not? The visions, on the edge of your sight. I have blocked what I can from you. But if you dare try again, even step on the lay line, it will be your doom."

"Then I will try." Althion stepped forward, looking slightly scared, but determined. "Is it not my duty to follow in my master's footsteps?" Slowly, carefully, he unlaced his boots and stepped, barefoot, onto the glowing line.

His eyes latched upon Eliana, he made it to the first pillar quickly. He then turned to continue on the second lay line.

This one was more of a struggle for him; she could tell. His whole body trembled and he swayed from side to side, but still, his gaze was steady and his steps were true, and he made it to the second pillar.

He was halfway across the third line when the Guardian finally saw fit to comment. "Well, what do we have here? Will the apprentice succeed where the master has fallen?"

Althion grinned, and in two huge steps, crossed the last of the length to slap his hand down on the final pillar. "I think yes!" he said, triumphant. He stepped forward into the circle and the mists parted, but the ground below his feet did not harm his, and he strode to the center and snatched the scorpion sigil from its pedestal.

There was a gasp as the Guardian fell limply to the ground, then pushed himself up again, wearing a familiar scowl. The Gatekeeper was back. "Ah. Good. You've managed to succeed. Let's go see if you friends have fared as well."

Meanwhile, Mazik's party, too, crossed the cold mists on a twisting path to another strange arena. The crown lay on the ground in the center, underneath two crossed swords.

Nothing moved. The air seemed unnaturally still. Even the mist had frozen, almost like great walls of ice. Mazik could sense his group stopped behind him, waiting for him to make some sort of move.

So he stepped forward onto the stone, as confidently as he could, to pick up the crown.

His group watched in horror as he collapsed to the ground, shaking, then stood, a sword in each hand.

A twenty-pound sword in each hand.

And he was grinning.

The test of Strength. They would have to defeat him in armed combat. Even worse, unanswered questions flitted across their minds: What would happen if one of them died? What would happen if they wounded him? Would they be forced to hurt their friends?

The battle was bloody, and many were wounded, but they discovered two vital facts: this...possessed version of Mazik, he couldn't step off of the stone, and his swords were his strength. The remaining few managed to disarm him, and took the sword out of his reach, then the fight was fair again.

Well, somewhat fair. At this point, there were only about five of them left. Ten on one would have been fair, but five weakened, bloodied, tired fighters? Mazik only seemed to be getting stronger by the minute.

In one last frontal assault, they managed to disarm him, and quickly pinned him down, away from the sword.

The village psychopath quickly leapt forward and scooped the crown up. Everyone else rose slowly, their wounds healed. Only Mazik kept shaking and shivering. For a Guardian Spirit might possess a Gatekeeper of Death with little harm to the host, but a mere mortal cannot contain such a powerful entity and remain unscathed.

The Gatekeeper gathered all of the warriors around him in a circle. Although they did not realize it, their mere presence, their life force, held off the curling mists of death and gave the Gatekeeper the energy vacuum he needed to continue.

"Good. Link hands. Now bring me the sigil."

Althion stepped forward and the circle closed behind him. With deliberate slowness, he walked to the center and knelt, handing the Gatekeeper the sigil, then returned to his place.

The Gatekeeper grinned.

Whispers passed around the villagers, as they squeezed each other's hands. Anxiety permeated the air. Suddenly, this all seemed like a very, very bad idea.

The Gatekeeper seemed oblivious to their discontent. "Now, Aleron's heir, step forward and crown me."

The protests grew louder-"Stop!" "Are we sure this is a good idea?" "We don't know if Aleron will help us." "Wait a second-Aleron's ritual involved the sacrifice of an innocent girl? Maybe we shouldn't summon him." "Who is this Gatekeeper? Why should we trust him?" "Stop!"

Mazin sneered, stepping forward proudly as the magic of the ritual held all of the other villagers in place. With great ceremony, he placed the crown of silver, turquoise, and bloodstone onto the Gatekeeper's head, then quickly stepped back to his spot.

Nothing happened. No spirit appeared. Just silence, and a large gasp, as the Gatekeeper inhaled.

Exhaled.

Inhaled.

Then began to laugh.

"Air. Sweet air. You have no idea how much you would miss it, when you haven't breathed for over three hundred years."

And suddenly, the magic holding them in place was gone, and the whole circle began to back away. Everyone except Eliana, who stepped forward.

"Aleron? Is that you?"

"Aleron." The-well, not the Gatekeeper-he chuckled. "Aleron. I was called by that name once, yes."

"Can...can you do it? Can you fix it, sir? Fix death?"

Aleron wheeled towards her, still chuckling, but Eliana stood her ground until a hand yanked her back. She turned, surprised, to see Mazik grabbing her. "Keep your distance until we figure out if he's friendly," he hissed.

Aleron just grinned. "You want me to fix death? Let me tell you a story. It's a story you probably all know, in your histories, about a Scorpion King who rose and conquered the world, then ruled benevolently from his Citadel. But the story that you're familiar with doesn't mention his ambitions. The story that you're familiar with doesn't mention his research. It doesn't mention his...rituals.

"Oh, yes. Aleron may have seemed like a good king, but really, he was a smart king. Who would care about ruling the world, when you could become immortal? When you could become a God? So he conquered the lands with his magic, and set about working on a ritual that would drain the life force from every single one of his subjects, and the combined power would catapult him to Godhood."

Aleron plowed right on, ignoring the expressions of surprise on the villagers' faces, the quiet gasps, the tears pouring from Eliana's clear eyes. "But as I assume you are familiar with, the ritual is very easy to mess up. That type of dark magic? Very volatile. Very dangerous. And something went wrong. It backfired. Aleron could feel it first draining all of his magic, then all of his life force.

"But he was a sorcerer like no other, and wrested his magic back, and clung to life even as the ritual sought to pull him into death. He was too powerful to kill, and yet not powerful enough to claw his way back into life. His very presence disturbed the balance between life and death-what had once been a plane to cross had become a narrow gate. And for three hundred years, he styled himself as Gatekeeper."

Aleron paused. "Yes, I can fix death for you. There, it is done. You can all die now, and the peasants of your precious living world can die again. But I have something far more intriguing for you-the end of the story.

"You see, I've been waiting three hundred years for idiots like you to try my ritual again. I've had three hundred years to collect my power, to trap and drain the souls of the dead. Haven't you wondered why death was so empty? Yes, I controlled death, and the pathway into it, but it wasn't enough. I could never cross back into life, where the real power was. And look what you've done. You've left the gate wide open for me."

He stalked in a circle, piercing all of the villagers with his gaze. Why they weren't all running and screaming now, Eliana wasn't sure. Perhaps it had something to do with the horrible dread curiosity. Something in this man had her frozen to the spot.

"I will rise again, and destroy your puny planet, and from the ashes I will ascend to godhood!" He grinned. "And any of you with darkness in your hearts may step forward now and join me."

The entire circle held its breath, glancing at one another, the unspoken question heavy upon the air: who would be the first to betray his brothers and sisters?

Then Mazin stepped forward.

"Daddy! No!" But Mazik's firm grip held Eliana back.

Mazin didn't look back. He fell to his knees before Aleron. "I have always dreamed of re-conquering the lands in your name. I would be honored to serve you, my lord."

"Good. Rise and take your place at my side."

Two more warriors stepped forward, and they, too, pledged their allegiance to Aleron.

Eliana could feel Mazik trembling next to her, as his grip on her arm loosened. "No," she whispered fiercely. "NO! Not you, too."

Mazik took a full step forward.

"Stop right there. Stop it. You owe me! You owe me your life!"

She tried to rush forward and grab him, stop him, but there were other arms in her path as other villagers pushed her back. She could only watch in horror as Mazik, too, kneeled before Aleron.

As Aleron's hands descended onto his shoulder. "Yes, I sense much darkness in your heart."

As Mazik's eyes narrowed, and he leapt back to his feet, whipping out his sword and slicing Aleron deeply across the midsection. "Sense this."

Aleron backed up and wiped his lip, looking down at the blood upon the pale skin of his hand. Then, with a casual wave of magic, he flung Mazik thirty feet across the field into an unmoving heap. "Well, if no one else wants to join me...Kill them all!" he snarled, then rushed forward, twin swords appearing in his hands, the wound on his chest vanishing.

Pandemonium erupted as Aleron and his lieutenants charged into the villagers, and the whole world seemed once again a whirlpool of chaos and death. Eliana looked around her fearfully as she saw Althion fall to Aleron, then his lifeless corpse explode back upwards as his spark of magic blasted through him, healing him, then disappeared. She saw her father, and the other lieutenants, fall.

Then her eyes landed on Mazik, who was stirring slightly. Trying to drag himself up. She quickly gathered up her skirts and began to make her way across the field, trying to stay away from-

"Oh, Princess."

Aleron.

She turned, dread tightening her throat.

"Princess, you too have my blood running in your veins. Come and join me, Princess. You belong by my side."

"Never!" she screamed. "Never! You-you were my hero! You were my hero, but-" She cut off abruptly as he took a step forward, his swords trailing from his hands.

"What were you saying, Princess?"

"I. Will. Never. Join. YOU!" she spat. "I would rather die first."

He took another step forward, as if to say that, that could be arranged.

Eliana backed up, her breath coming in shorter and shorter gasps. This was it. This was definitely the time that she was going to die today. Again. Well, technically, for the third time. She was starting to stumble, trying to get away from him more quickly, but she didn't dare turn her back on him, lest he blast her with magic.

Then suddenly, just as she thought she was about to trip, three villagers sprung up in front of her.

"Stop."

"Get away from her."

"Run, Princess! We'll hold him off!"

She didn't move, bound by some vague hope to use her healing powers to help them. Aleron swiftly cut one down, then the second in the backhand blow. "Oh, Princess, you're losing bodyguards awfully fast."

She turned and ran.

She sprinted all the way to where Mazik lay on the ground. He looked up at her, his eyes filled with frustration and anger and pain.

"Stop moving," she ordered. "This is going to hurt. A lot. And it's probably a Very Bad Idea to try to speed up healing like this, but right now, the world needs you." She took a deep breath, sucking her consciousness into a near-meditative state, and acting purely on instincts, drew all of his pain and his hurt into her body.

Then she collapsed to the ground, unable to move, and it was him crouching over her.

She glanced down at herself. She looked fine. She felt-well, she felt like every bone in her body was broken, her lungs were punctured, and her intestines were bleeding out to boot. But physically, she was unharmed.

"This...is why we heal slowly," she hissed, grimacing in pain. Then, she looked up, noticing that Mazik was still there. "What are you waiting for? You're their leader. Together, you might all be able to take Aleron. We need a hero right now, and it looks like it's going to be you."

Then something shifted in Mazik. His eyes cleared, his gaze sharpened. Determination instead of confusion shone out from the lines of his face. And Eliana felt something, too-the weight of knowledge in her heart. That it wasn't magic that could heal hate, it was trust. Trust and forgiveness.

"Now go."

She managed to hold herself up, stay strong, to watch Mazik sprint off a few feet, before she collapsed again, screaming silently in the pain. Great shudders wracked her body, until she felt she would shake apart, and then-

Then her healing power began to kick in, and she could watch through vision blurred with tears as Mazik scrambled over to Mazin's body and tore the crown, the circlet from his head. As he led the charge of the remaining villagers, first disarming Aleron, binding his magic down with the very sigil of his descendants, and separating him from his objects of power. She could see Aleron not ten feet away from her, pinned to the ground by fifteen swords through his back, and still cursing and writhing.

Then there was a warm hand on her shoulder. Althion. "Are you okay?"

Leaning on him heavily, she managed to hoist herself up. "Fine." He helped her walk over to where the remaining villagers stood with their swords stabbing through Althion's flesh, pinning him to the ground. Mazik stood with a look of intense concentration on his face, holding the dangling circlet.

"I can't keep him like this for too long," Mazik hissed. "His magic is too powerful to contain, and if he gets free, he'll kill us all again. Eliana, what do we do?"

Surprise and fear washed through Eliana's body as everyone's eyes swiveled to her, full of questions and hope. She swallowed, then in her most confident voice, said, "We need to purify the two objects of power, and Death, of Aleron's taint."

No one seemed to be questioning her.

Her mind raced. Really, she had absolutely no clue what to do. Obviously, somehow there was earthly magic in these items that Aleron twisted. His ritual had bound them to him, so maybe-

"We need to perform a ritual. Hold hand and form a circle, please."

That sounded right. Except all the rituals that she had seen-or been sacrificed in-today had been sort of...evil. And this needed to be an evil-cancelling ritual.

Suddenly, her mind's eye flashed back to the first ritual, where she had been the sacrifice. And the prayer that she had been whispering under her breath. An ancient prayer of purification and new life, older than time itself.

"Well, actually, it's more of a prayer than a ritual. I'll start, and chant along as soon as you pick it up with me."

Om tara tu tara tu rae so ha.

Om tara tu tara tu rae so ha.

OM TARA TU TARA TU RAE SO HA!

Eliana could feel the power growing, surging through her, and the lines of power around Aleron weakening. He struggled against the swords, ranting about how he would break free and kill them all, but she could feel his shouts and his rage quieting.

She could feel his power draining-into her.

And she knew what she had to do.

She turned to the circle around her, and it quieted. Then, with an ironic sense of deja vu, she said softly, "Now someone give me their sword."

Taon placed a blade in her hands. The first time she had ever held a sword.

She stepped forward, and kneeled next to Aleron, feeling as if she were moving in slow motion. She brushed the hair out of her face, tucking it beside her ear. She leaned down, so that her warm breath tickled his ear.

"I am so, so sorry about this," she whispered.

Then she ran the sword smoothly across his throat.

The villagers watched in perfect silence as she stood again, handed the sword back to Taon, and the sigil and the crown appeared in her hands.

"Rise, all of you," she commanded. "I know the ways of death. I can lead you back to life."

The rest of the tribe-even the fallen, even her father, stood and gathered behind her, but Althion remained frozen in place. "Not all of us. One of us is going to have to remain, and become the next Gatekeeper of Death. Am I right?"

Eliana smiled. "Oh, Althion, my sweet Althion. Do you not see? Aleron's blood runs in my veins, and stains my hands. The gods have spoken. I am the next Gatekeeper of Death."

"And I'm not going to leave you here! I refuse!" As he spoke, he seemed to grow bigger, more brightly defined, as if something lit him from within.

"The gods have spoken, yes, but perhaps they do not speak only to you," Mazik said. "We've seen how much trouble one Gatekeeper of Death has gotten into. Perhaps it's time for balance to be restored. Perhaps we need a Guardian of Life."

Eliana and Althion stared at each other for a few long moments, then Eliana looked away, towards the ground. "Come. The gate will close shortly, and you do not want to be trapped here."

She led then quickly through the mists and into the realm of the in-between, the thin bridge that twisted across a murky swamp. She stopped them, though, before they could pass into life.

"Wait. I want to say goodbye." Her voice rang out, and slowly but surely, all of the conversations quieted.

"I always dreamed that I would see the day that our two tribes could put aside our petty grievances and work together to do something great. And I didn't quite live to see this day-" She wiped tears from her cheeks furiously, continuing without stopping, "But at least I saw it!

"Remember what you have accomplished working together. Remember the seedlings of friendships, the trust, the blood shed together. Don't let this all have been in vain. Don't go back to your pointless squabbling. Go out, together, and build a better future!

"And remember me." Her voice was quiet, now, barely above a whisper, and you could hear a pin drop in the silence of the crowd. "Remember those of us who stayed behind, and we will remember you, and see you again at the end of your life.

"Goodbye."

Everyone surged forward, crying, hugging, making promises. Vorda and Taon hugged Eliana, promising to pass her story on, and to teach the children, so that her people would never forget her. Mazik and Mazin clasped arms, declaring themselves brothers, and ending the feud between the Votha and the Dema for once and for all. Mazin turned, somewhat embarrassed, to Althion, and apologized, saying how his apprentice had surpassed him in more ways than one. Then, as they clasped hands, Mazin forced his own spark of magic into Althion, giving up all of his powers to grant the boy his abilities back. Then he stepped through the gate.

"I...I..." Althion sputtered. "When I see you again, I'm going to punch you in the face. Then I'm going to hug you."

But soon, far too soon, the two tribes had passed back through the gate, leaving the bridge empty and silence once more.

Empty except for the new Gatekeeper of Death, and her Guardian of Life.

The Guardian of Life turned to the Gatekeeper of Death. "You know, I still sort of fancy you."

"Well," she replied with a sly smile, "we've got all of eternity here together to figure it out."

~fin~