A young couple takes a hike on the Appalachian Trail that leads to the resurrection of an ancient evil. The rise of the Magus signals the return of forgotten powers to the world, and one man will rise to stem the growing tide of evil.


5. Trapped in the Darkness


Chapter 4


            Maraydel sat cursing in a dead language in a Holiday Inn in Asheville, North Carolina.

            "Master please.  If you don't keep your voice down, somebody will complain.  And if the manager comes up here, we'll be in trouble.  We'll either get kicked out, or he'll call the cops.  We have to keep a low profile."  Carol had been reminding Maraydel about the manager at regular intervals for the last hour.  Maraydel seemed about to argue, but finally subsided…for the time being at least.

            Maraydel was angry (and even a little frightened, although he would never admit it) about the embarrassing encounter in the clearing.  He could still hardly believe it.  His first, very convenient, chance at revenge and those damnable beasts had ruined it.

            Maraydel dropped his eyes to the bloodstained towel wrapping his ankle and the anger and embarrassment started to bubble out of his mouth in the form of the vilest curses of at least two languages.  He managed to choke off the flood of obscenities only with great difficulty.  The woman was right.  He could not yet afford unwanted scrutiny by the authorities of this age.  The encounter in the clearing, and his resulting wounds, made that fact abundantly clear.

            Apparently the long years spent lying buried and almost completely forgotten had caused his abilities to atrophy to some extent.  The familiars that had protected the savage could never have surprised him during that long gone era of his dominion.  The scratches that marred the majestic beauty of his face, and the gashes and punctures in his ankle, showed all too clearly that much training, practice, and study would be necessary to regain his full stature in the arts.  At least the longevity granted him by his mastery of magic guaranteed that time was of little importance.  To a man that had lived for several human lifetimes (and to one that had been buried in a prison of earth and ignorance for countless years) the time necessary to hone his skills was little more than an irritation.

            Maraydel mentally reviewed the events that had brought him to this room and was forced to admit and accept the mistakes he had made.  First he should have erected barriers to protect himself from physical attack.  The barrier spell was simple, and the smallest pebble could have served as the principle component.  Even his weakest barrier would have served to blunt the attack of the two familiars.  A barrier would also have rendered his undignified flight from the fire unnecessary.  His ribs still ached from being bounced on Danny's shoulder as he was carried from the forest.

            His next mistake had been failing to maintain the active probing for enemies that had at one time been as natural as breathing.  This mental scanning had alerted him to the presence of a man with much strength in the hated green magic.  The magical strength that Maraydel had sensed had obviously been raw and unfocused, but he had erred by seriously overestimating his own ability to deal with the man before he became a threat.  Had Maraydel even suspected that the man had already used his unfamiliar powers to gain familiars, the encounter would most likely have ended in a much more satisfying manner.  And if Maraydel had not dropped his scanning in his excitement over encountering a wielder of the wild, undisciplined magic of nature, he would have detected the familiars before they could attack.

            The inferno that Maraydel had caused was the most humiliating event of the evening.  As the beasts broke off their attack and fled into the trees, Maraydel had sat up and hurled the tiny piece of quartz he had intended for the savage at the wolf's retreating form.  As he threw the stone he finished his incantation with one word from the language of power.  The throw was complete and the stone was in flight before he realized his blunder.  Not only did the quartz land well short of his intended target, but he realized belatedly that a fireball, in spite of being one of his favorite casts, may not be the wisest spell to use in a forest.  He barely had time to flatten himself behind the small rise of disturbed earth around the edges of the dig before a great flash of fire roared over his head.  The treetops had ignited and he only narrowly managed to crawl from the clearing to his waiting slaves in time to be carried at a staggering sprint out of the area.

            After hours of being carried through the forest Maraydel and his slaves had finally located a car, acquired it by magical means, and traveled to Asheville.  Danny and Carol's traveling money was nearly all used to rent their hotel room.  Danny was out buying food and searching for the items Maraydel needed for his healing from the last of their meager funds.

            Maraydel drew breath to renew his cursing, but stopped as he had an idea that brought an evil smile to his face.  He decided that perhaps a diversion was in order to improve his mood and relieve the sting of the injuries to his body and his pride.  With the same evil smirk still in place, he turned his attention to the woman kneeling by his feet at the foot of the bad.  "Stand up and remove your clothes girl," he ordered.  "It has been far too long since certain of my needs were met, a situation that I intend to remedy immediately."

            Horrified, but bound by the spell of obedience that had accompanied her restoration, Carol stood and began to quickly remove her clothes.  Maraydel's grin became even wider as he stood and began to remove the ill-fitting garments that had been scavenged from Danny's backpack.


            Danny was frustrated with the tasks he had been given and nearly frantic about leaving Carol alone with Maraydel.

            Acquiring food had been no problem.  A quick stop at an all night Harris Teeter grocery store had allowed him to buy enough chips and microwave meals to last for at least a couple of days.  It was the damned absurd list of various crystals that was giving Danny a headache.  He had been warned very bluntly about returning without all of the items on the list, so he racked his brain searching for a solution to his problem.

            A detailed search of the Yellow Pages had been useless.  He dialed the geology department of the University of North Carolina in Asheville, but as he had expected, a recording greeted him at such an early hour on a Sunday morning in the Bible Belt.  At his wit's end, he checked with the Asheville Information Center and finally had a bit of luck.  The lady on the phone grumbled a bit about "New Age nonsense" before finally providing him directions to a "head shop" in a small shopping center.  Danny thanked the woman profusely before hanging up and racing off to find the store.

            Fifteen minutes later, at a few minutes after 10:00 in the morning, Danny squealed the stolen car to a stop in front of a small store called All Natural Wonders.  The store's display windows were filled with self-help books and other books about spiritual exploration from authors he did not recognize, such as Carlos Castaneda and Archie Fire Lame Deer.  Dream catchers and hemp jewelry were also visible in the display windows, along with junk jewelry for body piercings.  I'm supposed to find crystals in here? Danny thought.  Shaking his head, he pushed open the door to the small shop and stepped inside.

            As soon as Danny stepped through the door his nose was assaulted by the cloying odor of several different types of incense burning at once.  Through a light haze of smoke surrounding a register that rested on a counter near the rear of the establishment, Danny could see the apparent proprietor of the store.  The man was young, white, and probably in his late twenties.  He wore his hair in dreadlocks and had piercings in his lip, his nose, and one eyebrow.   A tie-dyed tee shirt with the Grateful Dead teddy bear on the front completed the grunge look that seemed to be the young man's goal.  In spite of his rather extreme appearance, the proprietor looked up, gave a friendly wave, and then returned his attention to the magazine he was reading.

            Danny glanced around the store, noticing a collection of pipes under the counter at the rear that a small sign proclaimed to be "For Tobacco Use Only."  In spite of the sign, these pipes did not really resemble the one Danny's grandfather had smoked.  They did bear a marked resemblance to the pipes Danny had seen being passed around at weekend parties around Taylorsville and Hickory.  Danny smiled a wan, tired smile while remembering those parties that now seemed a lifetime away.  The smile faded to a look of grim seriousness as his eyes locked on the display table in one aisle.  The table was filled with stones separated into compartments.

            As Danny approached the table he pulled the list from his back pocket to compare with the labels affixed to the various compartments.  He sighed with relief as he realized that every item from the list was here in various shapes and sizes.  There was hematite and tourmaline, tiger's eye and lapis, turquoise and galena, and many more.  Danny grabbed several of each stone on the list before rushing to the counter to pay.

            The interesting fellow behind the counter looked at his selection of stones and grinned as he began to enter the purchases on his register.  "So let me guess.  You want to commune with the dead, right?"

            Danny gave a startled twitch before he could regain his composure.  "Huh?  What are you talking about?"  He tried to keep his expression carefully neutral, but the clerk's question had shaken him badly.  Was the guy psychic or something?  Danny did not want to commune with the dead of course, but he had certainly seen more than any sane person's fair share of such grisly business in the last 24 hours.

            "Oh, nothing really.  We get a lot of New Age people in here, claiming to be wiccans and witches and such.  Then there are the folks that claim to be Native American shamans and medicine men.  Anyway, they're just about the only people that ever pay any attention to the stones on display, and they all claim to be able to communicate with spirits.  Sorry.  I guess it's none of my business," the clerk finished with an apologetic smile.

            "Nah, don't worry about it."  Danny thought quickly.  "I'm taking Geology in summer school at the college, and I need these stones for a project I'm working on."

            "Oh, okay.  Well in that case, did you find everything you need?"

            "Yeah, this ought to pretty much cover it.  What do I owe you?"

            The clerk gave him the total and Danny pulled out his wallet to pay.  As Danny took the small paper bag with the stones inside and headed for the door the clerk said, "You have a good day now," with a friendly wave.

            "You too," Danny threw over his shoulder as he left.  But his day took a drastic turn for the worst as he saw more trouble waiting for him in the parking lot.

            A black and gray Chevrolet Caprice, with lights flashing on top and the seal of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol on the front doors, was parked behind the car they had stolen the previous night.  "You have got to be kidding me," Danny muttered in stunned disbelief before turning right and striding purposefully down the sidewalk in front of the shopping center.  What the hell do I do now? Danny wondered.  Obviously his transportation was gone.  Stealing another car somewhere nearby was out of the question since Maraydel was not around to magically unlock the doors and force the ignition to turn without a key, as he had the night before.  Danny had only been able to drive it so far by the simple expedient of leaving it running, which was probably what had attracted the cop's unwanted attention in the first place.

            With a mental shrug, Danny kept walking until he reached a service station just down the street.  Out of ideas, he called a cab and prayed that the meager funds still left to him would get him back to the hotel.  His "master" could figure out how to get them some money soon, he decided.

            Danny paced impatiently as he waited for the cab, anxious to put some distance between himself and the stolen car.  Finally, exhausted from stress and 36 hours without sleep, he sat dejectedly on the curb to wait.  His worry increased as he realized that the food was still in the car.  He sighed and decided that they would just have to order room service or something.  He certainly did not have enough cash to both buy more groceries and take a taxi.

            Twenty tense minutes passed before the cab finally arrived.  Danny was in the back seat almost before the vehicle stopped moving.  Knowing it was a back cliché from the movies, but far beyond caring, Danny told the driver, "The Holiday Inn and step on it."

            "Okay, hotshot, which one?" the driver, a middle-aged black man, snapped in reply.  Embarrassed, Danny clarified his destination.  He then leaned back in the seat, closed his eyes, and immediately fell asleep.


            "Buddy.  Hey buddy!  Wake up.  We're there."

            Danny snapped awake at the driver's irritable prodding.  "How much do I owe you?" he mumbled sleepily as he reached for his wallet.

            "$12.85," the driver told him impatiently.  The man's demeanor deteriorated further after Danny gave him a ten dollar bill and three ones and asked for change.  The taxi driver nearly threw a nickel and a dime at Danny, looking as if he could bite nails in two.

            Danny groaned from the stiffness in his muscles after the exertions of the last two days, as he climbed from the car with his paper bag in hand.  He was barely clear of the backseat before the taxi sped angrily away with the door slamming closed from the car's momentum.  Danny sighed in irritation before turning towards the hotel.

            He pushed through the doors leading into the lobby of the hotel, crossed to the elevators and stood waiting impatiently as the doors opened and a family of four spilled out with their luggage in hand.  At long last the car was empty.  He stepped inside, pushed the button for the third floor, and waited.  The doors sighed shut and moments later Danny stepped from the elevator into the third floor hallway.

            Danny passed a decorative mirror in the hall as he made his way towards their room, number 309.  He paused briefly to study the reflection of the stranger in the mirror, astonished at the appearance of the haggard fellow staring back at him.  God, do I really look that rough?  There were dark circles under his green eyes, and his cheeks sported the stubble of a scraggly beard after two days without a razor.  His hair, normally a sandy brown in color, now looked darker from a combination of dirt and oil acquired while unearthing the altar.  His hair stood up wildly in all directions.  The flannel shirt that was hanging unbuttoned from his broad shoulders was torn in several places from their wild flight through the unyielding forest while fleeing the inferno that his hapless master had caused.  The tee shirt beneath the flannel was smudged with dirt, and his jeans were not much better.  All things considered, he was a mess.  He considered himself lucky to have returned to the hotel without being arrested for vagrancy since he looked like a homeless person.

            Shaking his head and vowing to clean himself up immediately, Danny resumed his trip down the hall.  At the door to room 309 he slipped the magnetic key card from his pocket, swiped it through the card reader beside the door handle, and opened the door as the lock clicked open.  He stepped into the room, pushed the door closed as he flipped on the light of the short hallway leading into the room, and stood rooted in place by shock and outrage.

            Initially, Danny could not comprehend what he was seeing.

            Carol was lying in the fetal position at the foot of the bed that was closest to the door.  She was naked, and for a moment Danny was unsure if she was breathing.  He watched her chest for an expansion that would indicate lung activity, but almost missed that movement as he noticed the bruises and welts that covered much of her breasts, stomach, hips, and back.  Thin trails of blood were drying on the leg that lay closest to the floor, trails that, horribly, seemed to have their origin at her rectum and between her thighs.

            Danny's eyes swept upward in rage to Maraydel's form lying sprawled facedown on the bed.  The monster's head was turned towards him enough for Danny to see the blissful smile on his sleeping face.  Maraydel was naked as well, except for the bloodstained towel still wrapped around his injured ankle.

            Danny knelt quietly behind Carol and scooped her up to cradle her in his arms.  The abused girl whimpered in fear without opening her eyes.  "Shhh baby.  It's okay.  It's me," he whispered soothingly in her ear as he stood to carry her to the empty bed by the window.  His soft words were a jarring contrast to the look of rage and hatred on his face.  Danny placed her carefully on the bed before wheeling to face the sleeping man behind him.

            Danny's anger was a red flood of rage in his mind.  Regardless of the vows he had been forced to make, he intended to kill Maraydel, preferably with his bare hands.  Acting quickly, before the monster could awaken, Danny clasped his hands together high over his head.  An instant later he brought his hands crashing down into the small of Maraydel's back with all the enraged might of a young man's work-hardened body.

            The result was as unexpected as it was painful.

            Danny crashed to his knees as the most excruciating pain of his young life flared in his lower back.  He fell to his side and curled up in an unintended imitation of Carol's position moments before.  He moaned in agony as hot waves of pain throbbed upward from his back to the base of his skull.  In some dim corner of his mind that was somehow separated from the pain, he wondered if the numbness in his legs was a sign of permanent paralysis.  Through the shock of his injury Danny was barely conscious of Maraydel, chuckling, sitting on the bed above him.

            "Did I neglect to mention a rather useful aspect of the blood spell binding you to me, boy?"  The hateful voice somehow penetrated the agony that Danny felt.  Blinking away tears and struggling not to vomit, Danny managed to gasp, "What…the hell…did you do…to me?"

            "Oh, make no mistake my young fool, you did this to yourself.  The spell that binds us takes into account the possibility of attacks aimed at me.  In the event that you should ever consider something so stupid again, remember this.  Any attack that you make on me is returned precisely to you.  I could have mentioned this to you earlier, of course, but this way is much more instructive, don't you think?"

            Danny could only nod his head weakly and pray for the pain to pass.  The burning, throbbing agony pulsed through him in time to the rhythm of his heart.  Every few seconds, the muscles of his lower back clenched in protest to his injury.  Each spasm caused such a white-hot dagger of pain that his breathing suffered, degenerating into small gasps of air hissing through his clenched teeth.  Time seemed elastic to Danny, with each instant of agony stretching to seem like hours.

            Some undetermined time later, the muscle spasm in Danny's back eased and feeling returned to his legs.  The agony in his back dulled from a shriek to a muted growl, and the nauseating waves of pain subsided to a dull ache.  Finally he was able to roll onto his knees and climb shakily to his feet.

            Maraydel sat smiling in a chair by the room's small table.  He had donned the jeans that Danny had provided, but nothing else.  His only other accessories were the medallion and bracelets around his neck, wrists, and ankles.  With a small jolt of surprise that caused the damaged muscles in his back to scream in protest, Danny realized that the wounds in Maraydel's ankle were gone, as were the scratches on that cruelly handsome face.  Apparently the monstrous refugee from ages past had also managed to puzzle out the workings of the room's modern fixtures, since his long black hair was shining wetly in the pale light that seeped into the room around the drawn curtains of the window on the far wall.

            "Feeling better?" Maraydel inquired smugly.

            "What did you do to Carol?" Danny asked bitterly.  "That wasn't part of our deal you sick bastard."

            "On the contrary, I brought her back to serve me.  And she did serve me.  Again and again.  After all, five thousand years give or take a century or two, is a long time to go without.  Don't worry though.  I saved enough for you.  Just roll her over and do your thing," Maraydel finished with a wicked grin.

            Danny's face flamed with anger.  He took a single step forward, intent on another attack, but the jolt of pain caused by that step forced him to reconsider.  Anger and fear warred within him before reason won the battle.  Vengeance would have to wait.  He could not help Carol if he managed to get himself killed.

            "Good," Maraydel whispered.  "You do have the capacity to learn."  In a louder voice he added, "The sooner you submit to my will and stop this foolish resistance, the better.  When you at last serve me willingly, I will begin to teach you what I know.  Now tell me.  Where is the food you were told to bring?  You found the stones, which I have used for my healing, but I am hungry."

            Danny shrugged.  "The police found the car with the food inside.  I didn't have enough money to buy more."

            Maraydel frowned.  "Where does a person get this money you speak of?"

            "You work for it.  Then your boss gives you a check that you cash to get money."

            "Hmm.  I don't think we'll work for our money.  Do you have any left?"

            Danny pulled a crumpled one-dollar bill from his wallet and passed it to Maraydel.  After inspecting it thoroughly Maraydel asked, "This has value?"  His skeptical look conveyed his obvious doubt much more effectively than words alone.

            Danny simply nodded his head.

            "And how much of this money is necessary to buy food and clothing more suitable than what you've given me?"

            Danny thought for a moment.  "Uh, I don't know.  How about $500?"  Danny wondered briefly where Maraydel was going with the conversation.

            "Simple enough," Maraydel said with satisfaction.  "Let this be your first lesson then.  Watch closely.  If you can learn this simple trick, I'll heal you and begin to teach you more."

            Maraydel opened the paper bag containing the crystals, which had been lying unnoticed on the table.  He sorted through the bag briefly before producing a small piece of quartz and a shiny bit of hematite.  He placed both on the table beside Danny's dollar.  He looked at Danny and pronounced a word slowly, syllable by syllable.  Danny realized the man's intent and repeated the strange, tongue-twisting word several times.  Maraydel was finally satisfied and nodded.  He picked up the dollar in his left hand and the stones in his right.  He flipped the one-dollar bill back and forth a few times, intently studying each side before pointing the index finger of his right hand at the table and speaking the word he had repeated to Danny.

            Danny stared as legal United States currency (as far as his untrained eye could discern) appeared on the table in a growing stack, slowly at first, but faster and faster until many stacks of money were present.  Maraydel smiled as he turned to Danny and said, "Now it's your turn."  He held out his hands to give Danny the original dollar and the stones.

            Danny turned to the table and attempted to duplicate Maraydel's actions as closely as possible.  He examined the dollar, grasped the stones, pointed, and very tentatively repeated the word Maraydel had spoken.

            Nothing happened.

            Maraydel chuckled.  "Well then, not so easy as it seems?  Never mind.  We'll work on it…after you get me some food."

            Danny sighed and glanced at Carol's abused form on the bed.  Resigned to more work without rest, he grabbed a handful of money, stuffed it into his pocket, and limped out the door.

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