The Thief of Hearts

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Chapter 8

As they crossed the courtyard Quinlan heard the sound of wings, turning around quickly he spied one of the gargoyles circling above, “Should we be worried?” He asked Lorelei.

Always mischievous she answered, “Of course, gargoyles are very temperamental and hungry,” She laughed seeing Quinlan gulp, “But unless you are planning to harm High Keep or the wizards within they should leave you alone.”

Nola grabbed Quinlan’s arm and quickened her gait. They entered the baths, which were now slightly illuminated by lamps, which to Quinlan and Nola made the place look eerie and foreboding.

“Stay close,” Lorelei warned picking up on their dread, “I would not want something snatching you up, Skylar would never forgive me if you two disappeared.”

She led them to an inner door and said to Quinlan, “You may use this room to disrobe,” And then with another of her devious grins added, “Unless you both wish to use the same room.”

Quinlan cleared his throat, and Nola giggled, leaving the question unanswered. He stood in the doorway and watched the two women fade into the steam amongst a chorus of giggles.

“Serves me right for saving her,” He mused, “I deserve whatever folly I come to for sticking my neck out and playing the hero!”

Quinlan closed the door to the changing room, which consisted of several benches and a table covered in towels. He shook his head in resignation to his fate and stripped down. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he reentered the baths. He moved to the edge of the water and noticed stairs around the entire basin leading into the hot spring. Dropping his towel he slowly made his way into the hot water until at last he was able to sit upon one of the stairs and lean back. His aching back and shoulders feeling the instant relief the water provided.

He nearly dozed off, until the sound of giggling roused him. Nola and Lorelei were on the far side of the spring sitting beside each other and smiling devilishly at him.

“Please,” Lorelei said, “Relax and enjoy the springs, they are by far one of my most favorite places in High Keep.”

Quinlan smiled back thinking, “I believe they just became my favorite place as well.”

Lorelei nudged Nola, “Go ahead. I will not get in your way.”

Nola slowly started across the spring to Quinlan, who could only gulp as his heart jumped to his throat.

“She has not bewitched you, has she?” Quinlan jested as she came to within several feet.

“No, I merely want to show you my gratitude for saving my life,” Nola cooed.

Quinlan smiled, and pinched himself to make sure he was awake, for never in his wildest, well maybe his wildest dreams could he have ever imagined something like this would happen to him, a mere thief, “Maybe there is something to being a hero after all!”

Nola reached him and straddled his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. He glanced down, seeing her lovely and healed breasts inches from his chest. Looking back up into her eyes he saw the compassion etched within. Part of him, a tiny part of him said he should stop this, but ever since he had first knocked on Lady Matilda’s door Quinlan had been in a constant state of desire. Too many beautiful women had been around him to put his passion in check. So without regards to what may happen, he wrapped his arms around Nola and kissed her passionately.

So entwined in their passion, Quinlan, and Nola did not notice Lorelei slip from the water. The apprentice redressed and went outside, sat on one of the nearby benches in the training arena and stroked the stoney head of the gargoyle perched beside her.

Eventually, the two lovers emerged from the baths and found Lorelei awaiting them. She said nothing, merely smiled knowingly, and then skipped across the courtyard taking them to their room. Opening the door, she stood aside to allow them to enter, “Now do not go wandering tonight, you have no idea what sort of pain and death awaits those who roam the halls of High Keep.”

Their wide eyes and paling faces made Lorelei laugh, “Shall I wake you tomorrow, or do you wish to sleep in?”

“Please wake us. We have to leave in the morning,” Quinlan answered.

Nola had already entered their sleeping quarters. A large bed, wardrobe, dresser, and a table with two chairs made up the furnishings. All of which were of the finest quality, dark oak furniture, and a goose feather filled mattress on the bed.

Quinlan closed the door and heard the sound of a key turning in the lock. Apparently, they were not entirely trusted, “guests” of High Keep, or merely locked in for their own safety.

Nola had moved over to the window, which happened to be no more than an arrow slot and stared out over the plains west of High Keep. Quinlan walked up behind her silently and snaked his arms around her waist, kissing the nape of her neck he whispered, “There is only one bed.”

Nola smiled and sighed, “I suppose you will need to sleep on the floor then.”

“Do you not think it a little late to play the part of a virtuous lady?”

“Oh, you mean our little romp in the bath. That was for saving my life,” Nola smiled trying not to laugh, especially when Quinlan stopped nibbling on her earlobe, and his arms loosened about her waist.

“Very well, since I have taken you under my wing, it is only fair that you have to sleep on the floor,” Quinlan said as he jumped into the big bed.

Nola turned slowly, and started to undo the sash about her waist, “So, in other words, you are my master?” Her eyes smoldered, and as she bit her lower lip, she let the sash fall on the floor, reaching behind she untied the ribbon which held the dress in place.

“I suppose I am,” Quinlan beamed with a boyish grin.

Nola finished untying the laces and shrugged exposing her shoulders, “So there is no room in your bed for me?”

Quinlan laughed, “Heavens girl, you will no doubt be the death of me!” He patted the bed next to where he lay.

She let the dress fall from about her, exposing all to the man who had twice saved her life. Biting her lip again she gracefully made her way to his side, then with a heave sent him flying onto the floor, “I tricked you again!”

Quinlan lay on the floor laughing, “Oh you are going to get it now!”

She peeked over the side of the bed, “Promise.”

The squeals of Nola as Quinlan chased her about the sleeping chambers reached Skylar and Lorelei two levels above them.

“It would appear our guests are quite energetic and athletic,” Lorelei commented.

Skylar sat at his desk, contemplating his next move. What he had not told Quinlan about the map room now lingered on his consciousness. Blue indicated a soul of good intention whereas red signified the opposite. Whoever this Hamen the wizard happened to be, he was up to no good. Skylar had never heard of the magus, so presumed him to be a minor wizard, and more than likely from the Circle of Illumination. He never actually cared much for the northern conclave of wizards and witches. They claimed neutrality, and yet several of the last wizards to venture forth and try to enslave the lands had come from that very place.

“Master, did you hear me?” Lorelei said.

“No, what?” Skylar said, somewhat irritated.

“I asked if there was something I needed to know about the couple, are they marked for some gruesome death or will they live happily ever after?”

“I have told you before, just because I am a wizard, it does not mean I can see into the future. Go seek out a gypsy seer if you want to know their future,” Skylar said nonchalantly.

“There may be one in Silver Falls.”

“One what?” Skylar asked, not really paying attention to Lorelei’s rantings.

“A seer, we could go to Silver Falls, they are about to have their spring festival, and you keep telling me I do not have enough real experience, so I thought we could go,” Lorelei pleaded.

Skylar stared intently at Lorelei, which made her grow quiet with apprehension. She feared she had overstepped her boundaries again. Instead, Skylar stood up and headed for the door, “Follow me.”

They made their way through the bright hallways, climbing the stairs two more levels. Lorelei’s heart raced, for she had yet to be to any level beyond the third, only the masters were allowed on the fourth level or higher.

Skylar stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to Lorelei, “I have yet to enable you to gain this level, and the reason is quite simple, if you are not mentally strong enough you may go mad,” Skylar took another step onto the fourth floor. “Before you take another step, clear your mind of all thoughts, good and evil, no matter how trivial, for the Keep protects against the weak minded.”

“Am I in trouble master?” Lorelei asked.

Skylar’s lips twisted into a grin, “You wanted to know if our guests were in danger. Yes, they are in danger. Are you in trouble, well we shall see if you are or not. I have instructed you, but also giving you much more freedom than I normally would to an apprentice. Since you have assured me you have mastered all I have taught, we are going to put that to the test.”

Lorelei started to take the last step up, but Skylar stopped her.

“Focus on the moment, conquer your fear, and if you survive I will send you to Silver Falls on official Keep business,” Skylar said with a slight smile.

“And if I fail?” Lorelei asked.

“I shall have your body returned to your parents.”

Lorelei’s eyes widened slightly, but she breathed deeply and took a step onto the fourth floor.

Nothing happened, she sighed in relief.

Skylar chuckled, “We are going to the chamber at the end of the hall.” He pointed to a door some fifty feet away, “I hope to see you within,” He spun and strolled down the hall, leaving her standing there alone.

She watched as Skylar made it to the far end, open the door and close it behind him.

“He is just trying to trick me. Skylar would not let me die, would he?” Lorelei took another step and stopped. She took another smooth breath, clearing her mind.

Opening her eyes, she began walking towards the door. “Ten feet in, I got this.” She thought to herself. Step by step, she fought the urge to let her mind wander, but the harder she compelled her will the more difficult it became. “Half way!”

She stopped and looking back she stood there staring down the staircase, hardly inches from where she began. Perplexed she looked forward again, this time, the door was nowhere in sight, in fact, the entire world had gone black. Her first instinct was to turn and run, but she knew if she did she would fail. Speaking in the arcane speech, she summoned up a flame. It burned before her, and she sighed in relief, fearing she may have been stricken blind.

The fire began to grow, starting out as she had created it, no more than a handful, but now it stood the size of a shield. She canceled the spell, but the flame continued to increase in size.

She could see the door now. It too was growing larger and larger. “No, they are not growing larger, I am shrinking!” She ducked beneath the flame and ran towards the door, looking over her shoulder she saw the conflagration sinking towards her, screaming she spun to face the blaze and cast her next defensive spell, a shield of pure magic.

The flame made contact with her shield and dissipated, sighing in relief Lorelei turned back to the task at hand. All appeared ordinary. She seemed to be the right size, as well as the hallway. Lorelei dare not look back, concerned she was still at the beginning. She took another step, then another. Smiling she strode down the hall until the glass shattered in the window and the gargoyle she had been petting the night before barred her way.

Teeth showed in a malicious snarl, the beast rushed towards her. Her mind whirled. Lorelei could not comprehend why the creature had turned on her. Fear set in, for her spells against such creatures, were limited. Thinking fast she cast the only spell she could think of.

Silken webbing sprang from her fingertips, ensnaring the rushing gargoyle’s wings and legs, it pushed forward only causing it to stumble and roll right at her. She jumped as it came near, but her foot caught the wing, and she landed hard. Nearly knocking the wind from her, she scrambled on hands and knees to the door.

Reaching up she grabbed the door knob. The floor fell away, and she dangled from what appears an endless chasm beneath her. Looking down her mind swirled in vertigo. Lorelei cursed her weakness and calmed her nerves as best she could. The floor came rushing up again. She squealed in fright but pulled her legs up in time. Lorelei continued to hold on to the doorknob, white-knuckled as she turned the knob.

Inside Skylar sat at a table covered in various weapons. Daggers, swords, axes and bows piled onto the small wooden table of such poor quality it appeared it would crumble from the weight.

“Well done Lorelei,” Skylar said, “At least I will not have to send you back to Shadowcrest.”

“What was that?” Lorelei asked as she straightened her hair and clothing.

“The hallway is enchanted, it plays upon one’s fears,” Skylar stated and went on. “Consider what you just went through and tell me what you have learned.”

Lorelei, still a little shaken, considered her answer, “First, I felt as if you had duped me, and I felt confident that I could merely walk down the hall, but when I turned back, I found I had not moved at all.”

“So what does that tell you?”

“It tells me I fear my powers will never grow, and I have reached my potential.”

Skylar’s eyebrow raised, “You have more potential, and I shall help you reach it, go on.”

“The hall went black, so I cast a flame spell, but the fire grew as I shrank. It nearly consumed me,” She shuddered remembering the fear it struck in her.

“Interpretation,” Skylar said.

“I fear the magic I unleash could get out of control and consume me,” Lorelei answered.

“A sagacious response, and very correct, always be mindful of the power you spend less it destroy you in the process,” Skylar commented and added, “Then what happened?”

“I was attacked by a gargoyle,” Lorelei paused, “I used a web spell to contain it.”

“Which gargoyle?” Skylar asked.

Her cheeks blushed, but she answered, “The one I feed master.”

“And?” Skylar prompted.

“I felt betrayed. I could not understand why the gargoyle would attack me.”

“So what do you think that means?”

“I cannot say.”

“Cannot or will not?”

“Will not master,” Lorelei confessed.

“Then I will,” Skylar said, “You feel as if I may betray you one day.”

“No master, I know you would never betray me,” Lorelei stammered, “I would never think such things.”

Skylar regarded her for a moment, but decided to let the matter pass, “Anything else?”

“I reached the door, but as I grabbed the doorknob the floor gave way. I was left hanging on for my life,” Lorelei answered, “I felt foolish for not using my levitation, but I panicked and forgot to use it.”

“Truth, I like that,” Skylar stated flatly, “To clarify your failure is simple. When confronted with overwhelming obstacles focus can become challenging, and even the simplest spells seem overwhelming.”

Lorelei had calmed down, her composure renewed she beamed with pride, “So I passed the test, and I get to go to Silver Falls?”

Skylar shook his head in condemnation, “Yes you may go to Silver Falls with the rambunctious lovers, but you must heed my warning and listen to what I tell you.”

“Yes, master!” She hurried over to the table to stand before him.

“Do you know why I brought you here?”

“No master.”

Skylar motioned to the array of weapons, “All of these have some sort of enchantment. Choose one.”

“But why would I need an enchanted weapon, I have my magic,” Lorelei asked.

“What would you have done when the gargoyle broke free of the web?”

“Oh, I see,” Lorelei saw the logic behind the question. “What do you suggest?”

Skylar laughed, “You must pick the weapon as the weapon chooses you. Do you think I would risk my favorite apprentice’s life if I could have simply come up here and picked one for you?”

“Sorry master,” She glanced over the weapons before it dawned on her what he had said, “Wait, you said I am your favorite apprentice,” She smiled broadly. “I always knew you liked me!”

“Pick a damn weapon already. We have much to do before this night is through.” Skylar snapped lightheartedly.

Lorelei stood before the aged table, and the stack of arms, slowly moving her hand above each of the weapons, “Master, may I ask why we have all of these excellent weapons on such an old table?”

“The table is less than a year old. One of these weapons has been draining the life-force from the wood,” Skylar answered.

“Oh, I see. I hope I do not choose that one, I would hate to get old before my time.”

“Lorelei, you know enchanted items do not work that way,” Skylar scoffed, “You did not bump your head in the hall did you?”

She smiled playfully over at Skylar, “I was seeing if you were paying attention. This is another test is it not?”

Skylar smiled, “By far, you may well be my finest apprentice,” He went to another table where goblets and several bottles of wine rested. Skylar examined several before selecting a bottle of Elven cherry wine, “Weapons are nothing more than tools and are not inherently good or evil. Mind you, there are weapons which have been imbued with one or another, but for the most part, it is the hand which wields them which determines if the weapon is good or evil.”

Lorelei wrapped her hand about the pommel of a narrow longsword. She felt no ill-will from the contact, and in fact, it seemed to fit her hand perfectly. The scabbard was worn with age, but at the same time appeared pliable enough to last another hundred years. Picking the blade up she was surprised at how light it felt. Lorelei drew the sword. It made a slight humming as it cleared the sheath. Runes were etched along the length of the blade in the language of the Ancients, “I have made my choice.”

Skylar finished pouring the wine and picking up both goblets turned to see Lorelei holding up the Longsword of Lyona, “You are mistaken, the sword has chosen you.”

She looked at him quizzically as he handed her a goblet, “The sword in your hands belonged to Lyona, wife of Cole the Tempest. Do you know the tale?”

She looked at the blade with renewed interest, “Only what I have heard in bard’s tales.”

Skylar smiled, “They are for the most part correct, Cole was the son of a human and an Ancient, and his power was vast. He stood a hero beyond compare, helping to vanquish a great evil determined to decimate the world. His only weakness happened to be his heart, which broke with the passing of his love. The sword you hold was hers, and when she died the blade came to rest here,” Skylar took a sip, “I was beginning to think the sword may reside here forever, but it appears the sword of Lyona has…” He trailed off.


“My apologies, I was merely wondering about another matter,” Skylar smiled and held out his goblet, “A toast to your first outing as a member of High Keep.”

They clinked goblets and drank, and then Skylar said, “Now for the matter at hand, I will instruct you on what I know, what I suspect, and how you should deal with what is to come.”

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