Saving Undef

By Geoff Gonzalez

Mara dove into a small patch of brush near the gentle brook. A small way off, a great elk grazed on the lush slivers of grass and leaves that grew along the knoll. She eyed the beast with her fierce warrior eyes, slanting them as Master Vroen had instructed her to enhance her long-distance eyesight. Delicately handling the slender yew bow in her hands, she drew a newly crafted arrow from her quiver and took aim. As she drew the shaft back to her ear, she whispered a low word of power into the fletching; causing the arrow to glow with an unnatural greenish light as the potent magic from her body steadily saturated the thin projectile. The moose lifted an ear and looked in the opposite direction, but otherwise gave no indication that her presence had been deceived. She took a deep breath and prepared to let loose her arrow, straight and true like a true Arnorian warrior.

Suddenly, she felt a twig snap behind her. Diving forward into the open, she quickly turned and fired the magic glowing dart into the brush. She turned immediately with a fresh arrow to shoot down the elk, but it had already heard the commotion and had loped too far away. With an angry scowl, Mara drew her elven greatsword and pointed it menacingly at the bushes.

"Come out, coward!" she shouted, "Come out and pay for your rudeness, for you have spoiled my hunt and frightened my prey. Show yourself!"

With a quiet shuffling of leaves, a tall, dark figure appeared from underneath the brush. He was attired in black-and-green armor with silver greaves and bracers, but wore no helm and carried no shield. Stepping out into the open, he gave a vague hand gesture customary of fellow hunters to show her he meant no harm. She looked at him in curiosity and wonder, for she had never met anyone on her hunts before, much less such a tall and strong-looking warrior.

"Hello, stranger," the man said politely in a deep, low voice.

"Hello," she responded quietly. The former Illyrian princess was indeed a fierce warrior woman and was renowned for her courage and bravery among her people, but her encounters with the opposite sex had always been her one secret weakness.

The man smiled and, to Mara's utter shock, showed her the green glowing arrow she had shot, holding it in the air with a spell suspended just above his hands.

"I believe this is yours?" he said with a small wink.

Suddenly embarrassed, she hurriedly snatched the arrow from his hands and removed her enchantments before snapping it over her knee and tossing it to the side. "I'm sorry…" she said as she looked at the ground.

"Ah, think nothing of it, fair huntress," the man said, "If you had snuck up on me, I would have reacted the same way. I did not mean to alarm you of course; I wish you no ill will."

"I forgive you, sir" she said, "I usually get tense on my hunts."

"I can imagine; a fierce warrior-maiden like you must take hunts very seriously."

She coughed and turned away to hide the reddening of her cheeks. "Thank you, sir knight," Mara said as she boldly looked him in the eye, "Hunting is my favorite pastime."

"So I can tell," he said, motioning towards the broken arrow, "I've always viewed hunting to be a most noble endeavor for a woman of your strength and stature." He drew a heavy sigh. "I, too, happen to be on a hunt of sorts."

Mara was now curious. "What are you hunting for?" she asked as her heart raced inside her chest, simultaneously filling her with sudden fear and strange excitement.

"My half-sister-in-law Ardanil lost her little boy in these woods not three days ago," he said somberly, "I care not for my half-brother or his wife, but the boy is very dear to me, and so I am searching these woods for him while his father is away in Umberland."

The tense moment had passed for Mara. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief, but she felt strangely disappointed in a way she had never experienced before. Still, she felt obligated to stay and help her newfound friend.

"How unfortunate," she said at length, "Would you like some help? You seem friendly and your mission seems noble. I haven't had much luck hunting in these parts and I could use some adventure; city life can get quite boring, you know. I'm willing to offer you my company, if you let me to join you on your quest."

The tall man pondered for a second. "You would be willing to help a fellow stranger, even though you don't even know my name or where I come from?"

She smiled at him, with an uncharacteristic sparkle of playfulness in her eye. "What IS your name then?"

He looked back at her intently, studying her with an expression she could not understand.

"My name is Vrael," he said as he extended a large gloved hand towards her, "I come from the small village of Fearnon in search of my half-brother's son, Undef."

He paused suddenly. Vrael's eyes were locked onto her gaze and they could not seem to move away. As Mara shook his mighty hand, his eyes seemed to shine a little inside; a small spark of light beneath the dark brown hues.

"I'm Mara," she said in a small, yet confident voice, "the leader of a band of hunters for the king of Arnor. I come from the royal city of Kenta in search of game for my guild."

The man looked at her eyes for a little longer and then smiled. "We are well met, fair huntress. All right, you can come with me wherever I may go, but only on one condition…"

"What condition?" she asked.

"That you save those arrows of yours for the animals," he said playfully, "Don't want to have to keep watching my back for you."

The two of them laughed together and they set off in search of the child. Even though they had just met, they couldn't seem to keep their eyes off each other.

The two hunters walked through the forest for two days; sleeping by the river in shifts and eating Mara's kills for sustenance. The young huntress had taken every opportunity she could to impress her companion; showing off the strength of her arm, the lightness of her feet, and the accuracy of her bow with every creature she killed. The young knight seemed impressed at times and regularly complimented her on her talent, but the most interesting thing was the times when she would look at him beside her and find him staring right at her with a strange sort of look, but would always turn his face away when she saw him. She had never known such a close attraction to a male before; he seemed so much different from all the princes and attendants she had met at the palace.

"He just seems so…genuine…" she thought to herself.

The two of them walked until they came to a large cave on the side of a nearby cliff. The entrance was wider than the length of an oak tree and the destruction of the vegetation outside it further suggested the presence of living beings. Mara and Vrael slowly climbed an adjacent hill and began to carefully cross the sheer rock wall using the narrow footpaths leading up to the cave.

Almost immediately, they were met with a most difficult predicament. A dark hole bored through the rock in the path yawned blackly at them, threatening to swallow them if they should jump but a few feet. Mara began to look around for a way to get around the hole.

"Maybe we could climb up the cliff and drop ourselves from the top down in front of the cave," she suggested, motioning towards the craggy rock face.

The knight shook his head. "Too risky. We'll end up landing on our skulls before getting anywhere close to the edge."

The two sighed in unison.

"We have to do something, Vrael," Mara said, "the boy's been out here for days."

"I know, I know," the knight said pensively, "Just give me a second."

He looked around and about, making measurements of distant landmarks as he formulated a plan in his mind.

"Looks like a dead end..." he said quietly.

Mara quickly grabbed his hand as he turned away in despair. "You can't give up. What about your brother? He would be crushed if he came home and found his son was missing. We can do this together." She looked earnestly into his eyes, trying to fill his discouraged heart with happiness. When he looked away, she squeezed his strong, muscular hand even tighter. "I can help you, Vrael; just don't give up."

"Okay..." he whispered as he sighed. "What do you think we should do?"

Mara pondered for a second. The hole in front of them was only about eight feet wide. Without any equipment...

"We could always jump across."

He looked at her incredulously. "You're joking, right? Even with magic, we couldn't get across that."

"If we threw our equipment to the other side first, we'd be light enough to at least have a chance."

He grumbled and stared at the hole.

"We can do it," Mara said softly. "Just trust me."

He drew another great sigh. "Let's get our gear in bags then."

The two warriors took off their hunting armor and weapons and put them both into a bag. Vrael picked up the bag by the straps, whirled it around in a circle three times, and with a great shout of effort, launched it clear over the gaping orifice.

"Well, that's done." said Mara. "I'll go ahead and go next."

"Wait," said the hunter, "Let me go first. I don't want anything to happen to you."

Mara was taken aback by his chivalrous offer; she had never met a man so concerned about her welfare before. She had been raised to solve her own problems and overcome her own difficulties, but this man offered to risk his safety before he would allow her to risk hers? "Curious..." she thought to herself.

She gestured for him to go ahead. The tall man took a deep breath and took twenty paces backwards. With a mighty shout, he sprinted towards the hole faster than Mara had ever seen before, churning rocks as his naked feet fleeted past. He reached the edge of the opening, gripped it with his toes for half a second, and pushed off with all the strength and conditioning of his powerful body. He soared through the air for a tense second before landing safely on the opposite ledge. He got up and smiled at Mara.

"Your turn, huntress."

She took a deep breath and backed up even farther than he did, trying to compensate for his muscle strength with her speed. As she sprinted towards the gap, she heard Vrael's deep baritone voice encouraging her the whole way. As she leapt, her eyes met his; in an intense moment of adrenaline and stress, the darkness of his deep brown eyes looked more beautiful than anything in the world. She flew through the air, getting closer and closer to the edge as the second ticked by. However, just as it seemed she was going to make it, she lost momentum and began to fall into the abyss. She let out a scream of terror and surprise as she felt herself being swallowed up by the darkness.

And then she stopped.

Mara opened her eyes. The blackness was beneath her still, but she was not falling. She looked up at the sky. There, with the sun shining behind his handsome face, Vrael was leaning out over the edge with her arm in his mighty grip. With a grunt, he hauled her up, making Mara feel as though she was being lifted into heaven in the arms of an angel.

Once the two had clambered back from the edge, they sat panting and sweating, thankful to be alive. After a while though, Vrael looked up at her with a look of such distress she had never seen before. Slightly scared, she began to back away from him, but instantly felt herself caught up in an unexpected embrace. He wrapped his thick arms around her slender torso and rocked her back and forth.

"I was so afraid you would fall," he said softly. In a strange and uncharacteristic display of emotion, she quietly shed a tear against his shoulder.

"Thank you for saving me, Vrael," she said, trying to keep her voice from wavering, "I owe you my life."

"Think nothing of it, Mara;" said he, "I was happy to do it." He released her from his warm embrace, much to Mara's disappointment; after being in his arms, everything else in the world felt so cold and lifeless.

Still, she was on a mission, and that came before all other duties.

"Perhaps we should gather up the gear and move on," said Vrael, "I want to be inside the cave before nightfall."

They gathered up the packs and slung them back over their backs, resolving to put their armor back on before they went into the cave. Continuing their trek around the rock face, they encountered no more unusual problems in their path.

Before they came to the last round in the bend, they set down their packs to eat and don their hunting suits before venturing towards the cave. As they ate, Mara looked up into the late afternoon sky, noticing the distinct shapes of each cloud rolling by. To her amazement, she spotted an unusually bright star. "It's too early in the day for stars..." she muttered out loud.

She tugged on Vrael's sleeve. "Does that look normal to you?" she said, motioning towards the object with her hands. His face bore a look of utter stupefaction.

"I've never seen that before, and most especially not while the sun is out. I wonder if..."

His sentence was cut short as the object grew larger and began to spin, throwing showers of bright green sparks around the sky. As they looked in amazement, the object hurtled down to earth, flew to where they were sitting and blasted a great hole into the mountainside next to them. Mara and Vrael exchanged a quick look of surprise before chasing after the object inside the newly formed tunnel.

They soon found themselves in a small room cut into the mountainside. Inside the room, there was a small fireplace on the wall across from them, in front of which was a large high-backed chair of finely-polished ornate wood. On the left and right were tables piled high with scrolls and beakers full of strangely colored liquid and over the fireplace, there hung a great broadsword with an elegant hilt. There was no sign of the mysterious green light anywhere.

"Oh well," Vrael whispered breathlessly as he took a step forward, "I wonder if anyone still lives here. It seems like it could have been a magici..."

The high-backed chair turned suddenly. A dark hooded figure in long black robes stood up and began to approach them. Mara drew her elven blade and Vrael produced a long, thin rapier of black and green, threatening the unknown stranger with their aggressive battle-stances. The figure stopped and held up a gloved hand, softly chuckling from underneath the wrappings.

"Put your weapons away, my children," the voice said calmly and soothingly, "I mean you no harm. I have led you here for a reason."

Mara and Vrael lowered their weapons, but refused to put them away quite yet. "What do you want with us?" Mara demanded.

The figure threw back its hood to reveal an exceedingly ancient man. His face was lined with scars and wrinkles, but his beard was neatly trimmed and his hair elegantly cut and slicked.

"I have followed you on your quest from the very beginning and I have known both of you since before you were born. It was I who led Mara to you, Vrael, as you sought your kinsman. It was I, Mara, who caused you to nearly fall at the crevice so that Vrael would catch you. It was I who brought the two of you together, for you both shall serve a magnificent purpose. However, you will not complete your goal unless you receive that which I have to give to you."

Mara and Vrael quickly looked at each other. Could they trust the one responsible for nearly killing both of them?

"What do you have to give us?" Mara said menacingly.

"A gift," the ancient said with a smile, "The task you are about to face is not an easy one. You will face the trials of flame and shadow and overcome the great prince of darkness that dwells within the cave to retrieve your kinsman. You are not physically capable of taking on such a task by yourself; no human being on earth is. There is another way, however, that you may defeat such a foe."

Vrael's eyes grew large and he put away his rapier. "What gift, stranger?" he said earnestly. The desperation in his voice was clear; both Mara and the stranger could sense his need. The old man smiled.

"Normal steel may not pierce its hide, for no metal can slay that which does not exist. With my gift and the skill I will teach, however, you will be able to penetrate the veils that separate this world from the world of my people. Go, take the sword from atop my mantle. The time has come for its purpose to be served."

Vrael strode across the room and delicately retrieved the magnificent sword from its perch. Carrying it as he would a child, he brought it to the ancient. The elder man passed his hands across the adorned hilt, muttering words of unintelligible nature. He bade Vrael to back away a little and for Mara to come to his side.

"Draw the blade from its scabbard. It was made for your hands and yours alone; no one but yourself may ever wield this weapon. Take your weapon, Vrael, son of Vraheim; may you bear it well and may it serve you in battle."

Vrael drew the mighty sword and held it high over his head. The blade was pitch black and sparked and shuddered with electricity running up and down the length of the entire sword. He let out a scream as the energy soared through his body, but the stranger warned Mara not to approach him. As Vrael sank to his knees, the lightning from the blade subsided, leaving him panting on the ground. He slowly got up and stared at the strange blade; his eyes full of intense excitement.

"What is this thing?!" he asked, feeling the power flowing through his hands. No magic he had ever experienced had ever been this powerful.

"One of the legendary Palarian Blades," the ancient said softly, "Its brothers have been in many battles and served as the prized possession of many mighty warriors, but not any that are of this world. This is the last of the swords Palar the Shaper made before he perished in a brutal invasion. On the hilt, it bears an inscription indicating that you are the one for whom this blade was created. You, out of all the men upon this earth, were deemed worthy by the purity of your heart and the strength of your mind. Only one with a heart like yours may wield such an awesome tool." The old man walked across the room and sat in his chair. "Whenever you wish to release the power of the blade, delve into your magic and utter the words "Nenyar len til". Then the powers of the blade will be yours and then, only then, will you defeat your foe and complete your quest."

Mara and Vrael heard a noise in the tunnel behind them and they saw the great green light shooting back out through the entrance.

Vrael turned back around. "Stranger, would you happen to kn..."

But the old man was no longer there. They were standing in a completely empty cave of earth and rock, as if the room from before had never been.

Mara and Vrael walked out of the tunnel. It was almost night time, but they were unwilling to wait another night before going into the cave. They walked around the bend and stood at the huge mouth of the cave, nervously noting the huge tracks leading up to the entrance accompanied by several smaller tracks of human feet. And so, as they prepared to enter the mysterious cave, they took a deep breath and looked at each other intently.

"I would not ask you to come with me any further, Mara," said the knight somberly, "I would not have you risk your life when it can be spared. I have the Palarian sword; the ancient said it was destined that I would kill the foe inside. I do not want to put you in any more danger." He turned and started to walk into the cave.

She grabbed his hand. Vrael gave a heavy sigh. "You can't come with me; I couldn't stand you getting killed."

"Didn't you hear what the old man said?" she said, ignoring his resistance, "He said that he brought the two of us together; that we met because we were destined to serve a magnificent purpose. We are meant to do this together; to face this thing together. I won't stand outside; I will be at your side, fighting to keep us alive."

He looked up without looking at her, a look of hesitation cast across his face.

"Promise me you won't leave my side..." he said quietly.

"I'll be right here, Vrael." she said as she squeezed his hand tight. "Lead the way."

He smiled and the two of them went into the cave, weapons drawn and all senses alert for the dangers ahead.

The cave seemed to be even darker than they had thought. It was an unnatural kind of darkness; the fading light from outside was gone before they had taken ten paces. The air grew hot and stuffy as they pressed onward and the floor hummed underneath their feet. Mara was slightly apprehensive, but she felt safe with Vrael; she knew he would protect her in the darkness.

They felt their way along the wall, hoping to find something inside the darkness. They eventually came to the wall at the back of the cave, but were disappointed when it appeared to be a total dead end.

Mara was curious. "Maybe there's a hidden entrance?"

Vrael grunted. The two of them shuffled their way along the wall, feeling as they went. Before long, however, Vrael suddenly let out a yelp and Mara screamed as she felt him slide out of her grasp.

"VRAEL!" she yelled into the darkness, "Where are you?! Are you okay?! Please be okay..."

"It's alright."

She frantically tried to find the source of his voice. "Where are you?" she asked.

"Underneath you, of course." he said with a chuckle.

She looked down. Feeling with her feet, she realized she was straddling a narrow hole carved carefully into the rock floor. She jumped into the hole and landed lightly next to him.

"This must be a way to get to a smaller room," she said as she walked around the perfectly round walls, "Whoever carved this must have wanted to keep wherever we're going a secret."

"Mara…over here," whispered Vrael. She hurried over to him as he pushed a large boulder out of a hidden doorway. A small, dim light shone in the tunnel beyond. "Let's go," he said in a grim voice, almost shaking with anticipation.

The two of them walked through the tunnel, eagerly straining towards the light like two moths straining towards a lone lantern in the forest. Nothing could have prepared them for the sight they beheld when they came to the end of the tunnel.

They found themselves standing in a large room carved out of rock. Before them was a long table set for a great feast, as though some demented lord had thrown a festival for the worms in this clandestine chamber. On the back wall, there was another large gaping hole with a large black table in front of it. Mara assumed that it was supposed to be an altar of sorts. Maybe it was once a shrine for some mystical cult? Or a large dining hall of some kingdom long gone? Either way, there wasn't a sign of any life anywhere in the ancient hall.

Save for one.

"H-h-help me…" a little voice cried. Vrael quickly sprinted into the center of the room.

"UNDEF! ARE YOU HERE?!" he shouted into the dimly lit room, causing the rocks above them to clatter and shake.

He could only hear the voice sobbing. The noises were coming from the altarpiece.

Without hesitation, Vrael leaped up the steps, onto the tall dais, and ran to the black marble slab. There, bound tightly to the great stone, was his half-nephew, Undef.

The boy looked pale and frail, as though he hadn't eaten in days. Vrael supposed whoever had bound him and captured him had not taken care of him; he was beaten and bruised all over; his body shook with every breath; and every motion, from the blinking of his eyes to the struggling of his thin arms, was weaker than an infant. Vrael's blood boiled in anger as he saw his kinsman bound and crying atop some demonic altar.

"Who has done this to you?" he demanded.

The boy hyperventilated and cried even more. "They're coming for you," he whispered, "They used me to bring you here. And now you're going to…" The youth stopped speaking as he choked on his tears.

Vrael's eyes widened. He realized the danger they were all in. Leaping down from the altar, he called out: "Mara! They're going to ambush…"

Just then, he felt a small arrow pierce his shoulder from behind. With a sharp shout of pain, he ripped the bolt from his flesh and turned to face his attacker. A long line of archers with brown hoods stood with their bows strung with deadly pointed arrows. Vrael turned and ran to where Mara had been suddenly attacked by a score of strange hooded men with scimitars. Together, the two of them fought against the cave people, protecting each other from the blows raining down upon them from all sides. As they steadily defeated the scores of ambushers, however, they noticed that their enemies oddly had no faces. Their bodies had substance and sinew and muscle just as any, but their faces were completely bare to the bone, revealing a hideous grinning skull underneath the tawny hides robes. The two eventually found themselves surrounded by the strange-looking warriors.

"What are these things?" Mara asked as she beat back a straying attacker.

"I don't know," said Vrael, "They seem to be some sort of cave people and I think we interrupted a kind of sacrifice ritual. Whatever they are, they knew we were coming."

Mara screamed as she felt a frog-like creature jump onto her back. She grabbed it by the head, crushed it, and threw its lifeless body back into the throng.

"They aren't very tough, but there's just too many of them."

"I know," said Vrael, "Just be patient; if we keep at it, we can probably beat them back."

The knight and the huntress fought bravely onward, fighting with all their strength and dedication until their arms grew weary. Around them laid hundreds of defeated cave people; each slain more masterfully than the most skilled artisan at his easel. When the broadswords grew too heavy to wield, they fought with their knives until the enemy pressed even closer around them. They grasped each other's arms and looked into each other's eyes, certain that death was upon them. All seemed lost as they drowned in the swarm of bodies...

Suddenly, they felt a huge "BOOM" shake the hall. All the strange cave people backed away from Vrael and Mara and began to creep towards the altar. Mara could hear the boy's shrill screaming over the din of the mob. Vrael stared intently at the dark opening on the back wall and drew the Palarian sword. "It is time," he said in a deep, mystical voice before starting off to where the crowd was gathered.

Before he had taken a few steps, however, he stopped and turned around, his eyes fixed on Mara. As she looked back at him with an inquisitive glance, he walked back to where she was. He was about to embrace her, but he suddenly hesitated and looked down. When she offered him the hug she thought he sought, he threw his arms around her, threw his long hair from in front of his face, and kissed her.

Surprised, but pleasurably exhilarated, she kissed him back, expressing all the pent-up longing that had been building for the tall dark stranger she had met in the forest in a single expression of pure love. As their quavering lips separated, they both looked down at the ground, attempting to hide the blushing of their cheeks. A second "BOOM" sounded and the sound behind them intensified; their brief moment of intimacy would have to be continued later, for the all-powerful fist of destiny had knocked upon their door.

With a quick grasp of her hand and a mouthed "I love you", Vrael charged with a mighty yell towards the altar. As the first of the crowd turned to face him, he shouted "Nenyar len til!" and the long black blade burst into a powerful electrical force. Easily scything his way through the distracted throng, he fought his way onto the dais where Undef was still bound. But as he reached down to undo the cords, a third "BOOM" filled the chamber.

And then there was silence.

Vrael looked up at the eerie dark hole as the boy Undef trembled in his arms. He heard a sound like chain-mail being dragged across a marble floor; a clattering like knives scraping across a plate of china; a soft rumbling sound like the crackling of brimstone. The crowd of cave people started to cheer as the noises grew louder. Something was approaching. Something massive. Vrael steadied his shaking hand and held the Palarian blade high over his head.

To the applause and deafening screams from the heathen crowd, a mighty dragon with black scales slid out from the hole. It was taller than the hall was wide and was bigger than any ship in the Arnorian navy. Its clear eyelids flitted over the reptilian pupils as it surveyed the crowd inside the cave. Realizing what the whole ceremony had been about, Vrael picked Undef up with one arm and flung him across the room to where Mara was watching quietly. The crowd cared little for the boy now; they had a much more interesting spectacle to watch.

The monster looked at Vrael with a single, analytical eye. The many scales on its body clacked together as it shook itself from head to tail. In a great display of power, the dragon arched its neck back and roared a mighty roar into the blackness of its den, spraying an intense blast of heat and flame from within its dreadful maw. The lone warrior, however, stood unwavering with his weapon pointed at his foe, defiantly challenging the beast for the honor and safety of his family.

The dragon stopped its demonstrations of intimidation; no human had ever stood up to it before and it was perplexed by the simple creature's bravery. With a fierce snarl, it lunged at him and snapped its jaws at the air where Vrael had just been standing. The warrior knight slashed at the dragons exposed neck, gritting his teeth as the sword stung his hand from the jarred impact. No cut was made along the impenetrable hide of iron scales.

The beast coughed three times in a peculiar manner. Vrael thought the dragon was laughing at him, knowing smugly that it was invincible. He slashed at the dragon three times more, but each time was unable to make any sort of progress in its defeat. The Palarian blade may not have been as powerful as the ancient had foretold…unless…

He raised the blade over his head and began the incantation that would destroy the serpentine enemy. "NENYAR LEN…"

The final word was choked out of him as the dragon whipped its tail around, knocking the blade from his hand and leaving him lying helpless on the cold floor. The mob of cave people roared with excitement, eager to see the dragon receive the victory it was owed for the knight's interruption of the sacred sacrifice.

Mara, however, would not stand idly by and see her knight fall to the mercy of the beast.

She ran to his side and helped him to stand, but he was instantly swept up by the dragon's tail and held inches away from its terrible snout. The monster's lips curled in a sick smile of victory and satisfaction.

"Get the sword!" he yelled, "It's our only hope."

She ran to where the black blade lay burning itself into the smooth stone floor; none of the cave people had picked it up for it was stuck to the ground, immovable to any hand but Vrael's. She hesitated before trying to pick it up.

"The ancient said the sword was made for you and you alone," she cried, "The sword is not mine to wield."

"Wrong!" cried he, "What the ancient said was true, but he meant that it was because of the strength of my heart; that only my heart can possess the sword's power." He paused as the dragon licked its lips, shuddering as the jaws snapped in hungry anticipation. "You are the one I love; from the moment I met you, I loved you. When the ancient said we were destined for a great purpose, he didn't just mean this quest; he meant that you and I were and always have been meant to be. I have given you my heart and you are a part of me now, which means you are the only one who can do this, Mara!"

She looked down at the ground, still unsure of her worthiness but feeling driven to save her newly beloved and his kin.

"You can do it!" he shouted as she stared at the mystical blade. His voice had solidified her will; for the first time in her life, she knew what she was supposed to do and be.

Mara picked up the sword and with confidence, lifted it high over her head as easily as her own. As the dragon opened its mouth to devour Vrael, she shouted the words of power in a voice louder and mightier than even the dragon's roar.

"NENYAR LEN TIL!"

Instantly, the blade crackled with energy, causing the dragon to drop Vrael to the floor and charge towards her. With a single bound, she sidestepped the dragon's flame, mounted its scaly neck, and plunged the weapon into its steely skull. She felt its brains splinter into several pieces as the electricity poured into its body. With a shriek that split several stones in two, the dragon's body spasmed and collapsed to the floor. Mara strode forth, sweating and panting, and gave a fierce war-shout to the unholy spectators, who quickly scattered for fear of this new vanquisher of their idol.

Glorious and triumphant she stood; with the body of the fearsome dragon dead on the floor behind her and the would-be attackers fleeing before her. During the final struggle, Vrael had crawled over to Undef and now brought him over to where the radiant huntress was standing. The bodies of Mara and Vrael shone with the sheer radiance of the power of the blade that had illuminated their souls. Through their adventure together, they had been forever joined in heart and mind, soul and body and nothing would ever keep them apart again. Grasping the mighty sword together, they shared another kiss of purest love, holding each other gently with their weary arms.

The boy Undef, however, was not one to keep quiet. "Th-thank you sooooo much, Uncle Vrael!" he said with tears in his eyes. "I thought I-I-I was going t-t-to die."

Vrael held Mara in his arms as he turned to face the boy. "No, child," he said quietly, "I came to save you and because of this huntress, this wonderful lady of honor, we have done so."

The boy hugged Mara tightly. "Thank you too," he said, looking up at her with the sweetest stone-gray eyes.

"You're very welcome, little Undef," she said, "Just try to stay close to your mother and father from now on." She gave the boy a wink that made him shuffle his feet from side to side, thoroughly embarrassed.

Vrael pulled the embrace apart gently. "I would like to continue this conversation somewhere else; it is unfitting for us to gloat over the bodies of our enemies." He made a gesture towards the massive corpse. "As for the dragon, we will leave his bones untou..."

Without a word, Mara walked over to the monster and slashed the horns out of its head. She presented one to Vrael and stowed the other in her pack.

"There," she said with a twisted smile of triumph across her face, "Let's get out of here." She took the hand of the bewildered knight and led all him and the child out of the cave and into the open air.

The night air felt cool against their faces. For Undef particularly, it was a massive relief; he took several deep breaths, gulping in the fresh air as if he had never known its sweet taste. Mara sighed as they looked up at the stars, burying her face against Vrael's thick shoulder.

"So where do we go from here?" she whispered.

The knight sighed. "Wherever, so long as it's with you," he whispered back.

They held each other closer, almost unwilling to ever let go.

"I do wonder who that ancient really was though," Mara said thoughtfully, "For him to bring us together and then find us and then disappear like he did..."

"I know," he said, "It really is rather strange."

"Think we'll ever see him again?"

"Who knows, my beloved?" he said as he gently stroked her hair, "Who knows...?"

Far above the warriors and the child, beyond the sight of this world and the reaches of all human understanding, a small green light soared across the heavens, briefly twinkling as it traveled past.

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