Ryu Fortress was a bustle of activity. There was much to do before the Young One was to arrive. The Twelve had ordered the Fortress cleaned from top to bottom, and everyone was working in a frenzy, for it was the eve of the second day since Toren had left them, and they did not know when he would return with the Young One. The Twelve had thought it better to be safe than sorry. But there was an excitement in the air, and many felt that this was the night. And oh, what a night it was! Dark clouds roiled overhead and the magical tension was so great that the air virtually crackled with it. Those who carried the magic within them felt the every growing animosity between the naturaly forces of the Order and the Chaos, and the burden was a heavy one. Several of the younger Apprentice Mages had found their way into the Healer's Corridor, their faces white and drawn with the strain. The Healer, Kellen, did what he could for them, although he also suffered some mild effects himself.
In the mess hall, Gregor grew increasingly nervous as the hours passed. He glanced at the great old clock several times in the course of half an hour, yet it seemed to him that the hands never moved. The evening meal had long since been done and cleaned away, and the large, echoing hall seemed to be the only place where Gregor could be alone. He had done his share of the work with unusual quietness, being carefully thorough. He didn't feel he could stand being called back again and again to redo a job when his nerves were shot already. He glanced at the clock again. Toren had been gone for what seemed to Gregor a very long time. Would this intolerable waiting never end? Gregor was not, by nature, a very patient person. He itched to be in the thick of things, with the spotlight on him and only him. Gregor slowed his furious pacing and pressed his fingers to his temples, massaging them slowly. He forced himself to calm down, to stretch his patience beyond its normal span. He heard a tentative knock on the door and rolled his eyes wearily. What now? The young daughter of the cook stuck her head in and Gregor stood with his arms folded across his chest, lips pursed. The young girl bobbed a curtsey.
"Beggin' thy pardon, sir, but all the Mages are askin' after thee. They say the Twelve wants to speek to thee." Her girlish voice was high and sweet, accompanied by the lilting accent that was characteristic of those who dwelt in the lands around the fortress. She gazed up at him with innocent brown eyes. Gregor judged she couldn't be more than nine or ten Turns at best. Forgetting his inital annoyance, he cocked an eyebrow at her.
"The Mages? And the Twelve, you say. Do you know what they want me for?" he asked, squatting down so that his silver-blue eyes were level with her wide brown ones.
"Oh no, sir! Not me. I'm only a simple maid-girl," she said. Gregor smiled at her innocent honesty and, winking, chucked her gently under the chin.
"And a pretty one, too," he answered. His smile grew as she dimpled, blushing. Then a faint call drifted towards them.
"Lannie! Lannie? Drat thee, girl, y'keep a-runnin' off and thy chores isn't half done yet!"
Lannie's brown eyes grew wide and she bobbed another curtsey, made a hasty apology, and dashed off before Gregor could say a word more. He stood and chuckled to himself. He gazed after her a moment, then turned and headed the opposite way, his mouth set in a grim line. If the Twelve wanted to see him, then maybe things were not going as well as they'd hoped. He quickened his step.
Outside, the Chaotic storm stewed and boiled, sullen and gray-black, preparing to make this night one utter, living hell.
* * * * *
Alys jerked awake, astonished to hear her labored breathing and find herself in a cold sweat. She gazed about her room, trying to find was had seemingly frightened her so, but the search was in vain. A sudden bright flash of light demanded her immediate attention, and she looked out of her open window at the purple, green, and black masses of clouds that hung low and sullen in the sky. She slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat, silent and staring, at the roiling, angry mass. Something had awakened her, she knew it. She felt it. Her silver eyes swept across the room again. Then something moved. Something large and dark and hairy. Twin points of green burned brightly and the sound of the thing's suddenly heavy breathing reached her ears. Alys choked back a scream of terror as the creature moved slowly closer. It was big, and bristling with grayish-black fur. Alys could see the powerful muscles bunching and knotting and rippling. Its muzzle was wet with stringy saliva, and its canines curved wickedly to sharp points. It growled deep in its chest and stopped, tensing, in the middle of her room. Alys tried to move, but found that her muscles would not respond to her near-frantic mental commands. The monster crept closer, and finally, sheer terror of the thing drove Alys to movement. She scrambled backwards over the bed and crouched down, so that her bed was between her and the intruder. The creature pulled its lips back over its teeth, and Alys had the unpleasant impression that it was leering at her. She realized, with a sinking feeling, that it had expected her to do that. She knew that if it had expected that, it was anticipating her every move. Her mind raced. Her gaze darted about the room. The door was to her left, her desk was at her back. The creature watched her keenly, still tensed and ready to spring. Alys slowly reached behind her, keeping her eyes locked on the monster across the bed from her. Her fingers brushed the leg of her desk chair and her hand closed on it. Alys watched the creature to see what it would do. It sat, seemingly relaxed, but Alys caught the telltale bunching of muscles in its powerful shoulders. A moment later it launched itself at her, and with a surge of adrenaline, she yanked the chair away from the desk, and bringing it around in front of her, twisting it so the back of the chair hit her knees and the legs were up in the air. She had just enough time to brace herself before the creature's weight slammed into her. It nearly knocked her over backwards, but she saw, with grim satisfaction, that one of the chair legs caught the monster square in the throat. It gave an agonized snarl and twisted away from the blunt pike. Seeing her chance, Alys shoved the chair savagely forward, driving the legs into the creature's exposed ribcage. It yelped and Alys scrambled to her feet. She snatched a heavy ceramic paperweight from her desk and raised her arm as if to throw it. By that time, the hulking beast had managed to regain its own footing and was crouched, snarling, in front of her. Alys suddenly remembered the marble and snatched that up, too. She nearly dropped it again. It was burning with an intense heat, and Alys opened her hand. It glowed a golden-orange, and the light emanating from it seemed to pulse. The silver flecks in the center were swirling madly about. Alys grit her teeth against the searing pain, against the white-hot burning. The creature in front of her caught sight of the talisman and emitted a low, hateful growl. Alys looked from the marble to the beast and an idea came to her. Setting the paperweight down on the floor, she held the marble out in front of her, wincing slightly as the hot glass burned the tips of her fingers. The monster suddenly seemed smaller, less menacing. It continued to growl its hatred, and then, to Alys's complete and utter astonishment, it began to blow away. First it blurred around the edges and then, like sand driven before the wind, it simply disappeared, a little at a time. Alys watched open-mouthed as the thing slowly disintegrated, until nothing was left but the twin points of green fire that were its eyes. Words formed in her mind, the dark thing's words.
-You cannot hide from the Chaos-
Then the two green lights winked out, and Alys stood alone, shaken and confused. The marble she held had ceased to glow and the burning was gone with it. Still dazed, Alys dressed quickly and made her way quietly downstairs. At the entrance to the kitchen she hesitated. She'd told Priscilla she'd call when she was ready, but now...Alys shook her dark head. This was something she had to do by herself. She pulled her shoes on and, with one last look around, stepped outside.
"Ready or not, here I come," she whispered, and disappeared down the street.