The Path Opens

      Lord Fear sat alone in the throne room of Marblehead, wondering for the umpteenth time whether it was worth taking the lift up to the tower to see what was happening in the levels. As usual, he decided not to bother. Since the path had closed seven years ago there was little for him to do. He had really enjoyed attempting - and usually succeeding - to kill, capture or in some other way defeat the children Treguard had had the nerve to send against him.

      Yes, always children - Knightmare was only - he corrected himself: had only been - a game. Lord Fear had always considered the Powers that Be foolish to think of it as such, but he knew, deep down, that they were right, though he constantly tried to convince himself they weren't.

      He wondered what might have happened if it was real in their dimension. He entertained himself with thoughts of dungeoneers being scared out of their wits by the rotting corpses of the dead hanging all over Level Three, or grimacing as they saw the two his minions had captured (was it only two? Had his servants really been that incompetent?) being tortured behind him as they watched him through spyglasses. He cackled evilly. There was no one to hear him, but he enjoyed it.

      No one to hear him...yes, Marblehead was a lonely place now. Not that Lord Fear had ever had any friends, but he liked bullying underlings. Now, Hands had gone back to his 'work' for the Honourable Guild of Thieves and Beggars, Lissard had gone back to Atlantis and Raptor had just gone - Lord Fear didn't know or care where. The only other residents of Marblehead were the goblins Grippa and Rhark in the cellar and the skeletron that passed for a servant, but at least it could do all the menial things which its master hated doing.

      The silence was broken by a loud knock at the gate. Lord Fear wondered how the visitor could have got there with the moat and the rune puzzle in the way. He willed the skeletron to let the stranger in. He saw no point in great security as no one hostile to him would dare try and enter, and even if it was a foe, a skeletron would not be able to stop someone who could get past the miremen in the moat. Lord Fear himself was another matter.

      The door opened, and a slender figure in a jet-black cloak came in.

* * *

      Treguard sat alone in the room in Knightmare Castle where he had seen so many quests take place. How sad that most of them had failed; that most of the enthusiastic youngsters who had arrived in this chamber and trod the path had been defeated. He felt particularly sorry for those who had fallen so close to victory - the girl who died on the Great Causeway, the boy who so nearly Played his Cards Right, the very first to reach Level Three, who could not bring down the wall...still, that was the nature of Knightmare. And it made the handful of winning quests all the more special and truly worthy of celebration.

      But that was all over now - the path had been closed for seven years. At first Treguard had entertained the hope that the dungeon was simply taking a long time to reform itself, but now he was sure that there would be no more dungeoneers. It meant a lot less work for him of course, but that was little consolation. He lived here alone now - Majida the genie had left him four years ago when he had given up all hope of future quests.

      But Lord Fear was still there. He had made it clear that he would never give up, challengers or no challengers, when Treguard had seen him for the last time, through a spyglass, and asked him to surrender. The technomancer had replied "What? Me? Surrender? You must be absolutely OUT OF YOUR TINY MIIIND!" But Lord Fear's presence was no longer a cause for concern. He had done nothing of note since sending a dragon to attack and reclaim Linghorn. He would never bother Treguard again.

      Just then the exterior door of the chamber burst open, and a thin, dirty, tired-looking man in torn green clothes burst into the room. Treguard found him strangely familiar. Then he saw that he wasn't a man - he was an elf.

      "Master, I have returned!"

* * *

      "Who are you, and what do you think you're doing disturbing me like this?"

      "My name is Kalarae, your lordship," said the visitor in a deep, quiet voice, "and I am disturbing you because I wish to do so before something else does."

      "What are you talking about, Kalarae?" enquired Fear, spitting the man's name with obvious contempt.

      "The path is soon to open again, your lordship."

      Lord Fear hesitated when he heard this, eventually replying " not be ridiculous, it's been closed for seven years."

      "So has your Marblehead," said Kalarae, with a quiet laugh, "and I got in."

      "Yes," said Fear, seeming interested for the first time, "how did you manage that?"

      "You have not maintained your security very well. The miremen left with Lissard, as he offered them much more food than you, and the rune puzzle fell apart after several years of disuse. Enchantments do not last forever, your lordship. It seems that you also did not keep an eye on the dungeon."

      "I did to start with, but I stopped when it became clear that the path was not going to open again."

      "If you had maintained your watch, you might eventually have observed the actions of Maldame while the dungeon was reforming."

      This startled Lord Fear even more. "Maldame?" was all he could say.

      "Yes, your lordship. She concealed her doings well, but you would have spotted them sooner or later had you continued to observe." Kalarae walked over to Lord Fear's throne and they saw each other up close for the first time. Lord Fear tried to look into Kalarae's eyes, but his face was surprisingly well hidden by the hood of his black cloak. He continued: "After she killed Firestorm of Marblehead she planned to take over the whole of Level Three, and perhaps more. She summoned a small army of magical creatures so that she would be able to do so. They came from all the levels, past and present, but they all arrived mutated in some way, for with her magic she unwittingly disrupted the dungeon, which had just started reforming. She had not witnessed a reformation before and was unaware of the danger.

      She continued to experiment as chaos unfolded around her, and made matters worse. Then she felt herself being sucked into the essence of the dungeon as it changed shape. In desperation she started casting a hugely powerful spell to stop the reformation and turn time all the way back, keeping the path open forever, so that she could replace you, but when this power was channelled through Maldame, the dungeon absorbed it and her. This caused the seven-year period of reformation instead of the normal one. Marblehead, being your domain, was unaffected. The reformation ended recently and I was able to travel here-"

      "From where?" Lord Fear cut Kalarae off abruptly - he wanted to know more about this person.

      "From deep under Mount Fear, your lor-"

      "WHAT?!?" yelled Lord Fear.

      "Behold my face," said Kalarae, with a grin. He removed the hood, and Lord Fear understood why his face had looked so shaded - Kalarae's skin was as black as his cloak.

      Lord Fear was, for once, speechless. "You're - you're a-"

      "Yes indeed, your lordship - a black elf."

      "But I thought you all died in the war with the forest elves."

      "Not quite all, your lordship. A few of us fled to the mountains, practised our dark magic and made our skins blacker than ever before. The cavern elves were constantly looking for us and attacked us on sight - I had to deal with one of them on the way here. He's probably still bleeding to death. Those of us under Mount Fear are probably the only ones left, and we will not last much longer - unless you help us. That is why I am here - I pledge service to you and return you to your old home, and you protect us from invaders."

      Lord Fear considered this offer. Getting Mount Fear back would be wonderful, but how, when it had a red dragon decaying on top of it? Still, one thing at a time: "And what service could you offer me?"

      "Well, I could take the place of you last seneschal Lissard and I could also deal with dungeoneers - I am a skilled warrior and know quite a bit of magic."

      "Hmm...another mage in my service could be very useful indeed. But how would we get Mount Fear back? The dragon's huge, it won't have rotted away in just seven years."

      "One of the more fortunate effects of the long reformation was to make that dragon decay somewhat faster. It's almost gone. If we both cast spells to speed it up and get some servants to help clear up, the mountain will be habitable by the time the path opens."

      "Yes, you're right. You'll be very useful - consider yourself employed. I hadn't counted on having another mage to help me since Aesandre left. To Mount Fear!"

* * *

      Treguard could hardly believe his eyes. "Pickle?"

      "Yes, master! I have important news!"

      "Really?" Treguard thought there was a good chance that this would be his most interesting day since the path closed.

      "Yes - the path opens in three days!"

      Treguard's hunch was confirmed. "How can this be?" he said, more to himself than to Pickle, who replied anyway:

      "I don't know, but Elita told me she's certain."

      "Elita? How did she find out?"

      "She saw a black elf on the way to Marblehead. He-"

      "A black elf? I thought they were all dead?"

      "So did I, master."

      "And...going to Marblehead?" Treguard was getting worried. "To Lord Fear?"

      "Yes. Elita heard a noise and ran over to see what it was. Another cavern elf had spotted the black one and attacked him, but he was losing the fight - the evil thing had cast a speed spell or something, and he'd put his dagger through the assailant's heart in seconds. Elita was shocked. She followed the black elf and he went all the way to Marblehead. A few minutes later he came out again - with Lord Fear and two goblins."

      Treguard was, by now, well past the getting worried stage. He spoke slowly: "A black elf warrior-mage and Lord Fear...together...this is bad news indeed."

      "There is more, master. Elita followed them for some way. Lord Fear called the elf 'Kalarae', and he seemed to have taken him on as a new seneschal. They were going to reclaim the Opposition's old home on Mount Fear. Elita followed them all the way there. When they got there, they walked to the red dragon's corpse, which seemed to have decayed unnaturally quickly. Then they each cast a spell and it began to rot even faster - you could see the flesh crumbling away. She ran off to try to get to Knightmare Castle, met me on the way and ordered me, in her usual impolite manner, to go there and tell you what was happening."

      Treguard considered what Pickle had told him, and decided what had to be done. "Right," he said, "get the Book of Quests out. We'll need it soon. And find me my staff, and the Eyeshield, the knapsack, the Reach wand and the Helmet of Justice - the old one, now that Majida's not here to bother me."

      "Yes, master - but I want decent food this time!"

      Ah yes, thought Treguard, that was why Pickle had left before.

* * *

      "Skarkill?" The former goblin master looked even worse than when Lord Fear had known him before.

      "Yes, your fearship, er, lordship."

      "You've been living in this cave all the time?"

      "Yes, I finally managed to crawl out from under the dragon and I found this cave. I had nowhere to go - you'd given Grippa and Rhark to Raptor."

      "Well, I'm putting them back in your care now. There will soon be more dungeoneers for you to put your irons on - if you can manage it!"

      Skarkill looked mildly hurt. "I did it before."

      "Oh yes," said Fear, beside himself with sarcasm. "Look in the dungeon and see that room full of Skarkill's victims, all 1 of them!"

      "Well, there will be more your fearship, er, lordship, ha ha, lovely! Anyway, who's your friend?"

      Lord Fear beckoned his new henchman forward. "This," he said, "is Kalarae, my seneschal, and your master when I'm not available. You take care to respect him."

      "Oh yes, I will. How do you do, master Kalarae?" said Skarkill, holding out his hand and thus getting off to a bad start.

      "Never mind all that," said Fear, "I've got a job for you, Skarkill: find Sylvester Hands and bring him here."

* * *

      Treguard and Pickle made the final preparations for the start of the season - polishing the Helmet of Justice, getting the fire going properly and making sure they looked comfortably respectable for the watchers, when they arrived. Treguard had dug out the magic mirror, as he was sure Pickle would not approve of a pool like Lord Fear's. Suddenly a familiar face appeared in the mirror. Treguard had wondered how long it would take him.

      "Greetings, Dungeon Master," the face said.

      "Hello Hordriss," replied Treguard. "I'm glad to see you taking an interest already."

      "Oh, I always watch the quests attentively. You never know when a dungeoneer may need my help."

      Treguard thought this a little pompous, as Hordriss and his daughter had often needed rescuing from the Opposition in the past. Still, he was sometimes useful. "Quite. Be ready to conjure plenty of trophies this season."

      "Oh, I hope so, Treguard. Well, it's almost time to begin, but I would give you one piece of information – Elita is in some trouble in Level 2."

      Surprise, surprise. "Thank you, Hordriss. Farewell."

      "I'll bet you anything it's that horrible black elf, master."

      "Very possibly, Pickle, but that's something for our first team to worry about. I think it's time we welcomed them, don't you? I can feel the watchers' presence.

      Treguard raised the staff aloft.

      "Enter, stranger!"