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A flame burns at midnight. On an island in the wild Marram Marshes, a young woman holds up a lantern. Her long dark hair blows in the warm wind, salty from the sea; the lantern light glints off the gold circlet around her head and the golden edging to her long red robes--the robes of a Castle Queen.
The Queen is not alone. Beside her is an old man with long, wavy white hair held back with an ExtraOrdinary Wizard headband. He is resplendent in purple robes richly embroidered with Magykal symbols--this is the very first ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Hotep-Ra.
The island on which they stand is an ancient Listening Place, and Hotep-Ra is Listening carefully. As he stands statue-still, absorbed in something far away, his frown deepens. "It is as I feared," he whispers. "They have discovered me at last."
The Queen does not understand Magyk, but she respects it because it once saved her daughter's life. She nods sadly. She knows that this will take Hotep-Ra away from her forever.
A flame burns at half past midnight. The Queen and Hotep-Ra are underground, and the light from the lantern shows a smooth white wall covered in bright columns of hieroglyphs. The Queen is searching for a symbol. She soon finds it: a blue-and-gold circle enclosing a dragon. She places her hand on the circle and they wait. The Queen sees Hotep-Ra twist the ring on his right index finger: a delicate gold dragon with its tail in its mouth and a bright-green emerald for its eye. The ring is beautifully made, but the loveliest thing about it is the soft yellow light that comes from deep within and glows in the shadows of his hand.
And now, with a deep, slow rumble, the wall of hieroglyphs begins to move, rolling back to reveal a dark, wide space before them. The Queen smiles at Hotep-Ra. He returns her smile a little sadly and together they step forward.
The Queen holds up her lantern and its light illuminates a pair of brilliant white marble columns that rise up into the darkness. They walk between the columns, and progress slowly across the mosaic floor, bright with reds, yellows, whites and greens. And then they are there. The Queen hands her lantern to Hotep-Ra and he holds it high so that its light shines on the most beautiful creature he has ever seen: his faithful Dragon Boat.
The Dragon Boat's hull is broad and sturdy, built for the sea, and recently Hotep-Ra has gilded it. This--and the mast with its azure sail--is the inanimate part of the boat. The rest is living dragon. Tucked neatly alongside the hull are the dragon's wings, shimmering folds of green. Her head and neck are the prow and her tail is the stern. The half boat, half dragon lies in a deep sleep, alone in the darkness of an ancient underground temple, but she is awakened by the opening of the wall. Drowsily she raises her head, arching her neck upward like that of a swan. The Queen approaches the dragon quietly, careful not to alarm her. The dragon opens her eyes, she bows her head and the Queen loops her arms around the dragon's neck.
Hotep-Ra hangs back. He looks at his Dragon Boat, resting on the mosaic floor as if waiting for the water to rise and carry her away to distant lands.
Indeed, that was what he had planned for her, to take her on the last journey of his old age. But now that his enemies have tracked him down, Hotep-Ra knows he must leave his Dragon Boat hidden safe below the ground, keeping her secrets from them. He sighs. The Dragon Boat must await the time when she will be needed by another Dragon Master. Hotep-Ra does not know who that will be, but he knows that one day he will meet him.
The Queen promises the Dragon Boat that she will return in a year to the day, but Hotep-Ra promises the Dragon Boat nothing. He pats the dragon's nose, then turns and walks quickly from the temple. The Queen runs after him and together they watch the wall of hieroglyphs rumble closed once more.
They walk slowly along the sandy passageway, which takes them to one of the hidden exits near the edge of the island. There, Hotep-Ra pulls off his Dragon Ring. To the Queen's amazement, he tosses the ring onto the sandy floor as if it were nothing to him. It lies on the floor, its light fading away.
"But that's your ring," whispers the Queen, shocked.
Hotep-Ra gives a weary smile. "Not anymore," he says.
The Queen and the ExtraOrdinary Wizard return to the Castle, but Hotep-Ra does not leave right away. He knows he is running the risk of drawing his enemies to all that he cares about, but there are things he wishes to do in order to make the Castle and its Queen as safe as he can.
Hotep-Ra Engenders protected Ways to allow the Queen to visit the Dragon Boat and other places that are special to her in safety. He fills his Wizard Tower with all the Magykal power he can spare and sets up a system of Questes for the brightest and best ExtraOrdinary Apprentices. That way he believes that he wil stil get news of the Castle and wil be able to give advice if needed. He asks the Queen to visit his beloved Dragon Boat every MidSummer Day, and deep in the Castle wall he creates a Dragon House as a place for the Dragon Boat to rest when one day it will be safe for her to come to the Castle.
But Hotep-Ra has stayed too long.
Forty-nine hours after he Listened to his enemies approaching, Hotep-Ra is on the Palace landing stage, saying farewell to the Queen. It is a dark and thunderous day, with a spattering of rain that mirrors the Queen's feelings about Hotep-Ra's departure.
Her barge lies ready to take him to the Port, where he has a ship waiting. As Hotep-Ra is about to step aboard there is a massive clap of thunder and the Queen screams. But she does not scream because of the thunder; she screams because of what she sees flying out from the black cloud overhead--two Masters of the Darke Arts, Warrior Wizards, Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor Naarn. The Wizards shoot down from the sky, a trail of darkness streaming from their robes, which spread out like ravens' wings, showing their iridescent blue-green armor beneath. Like two huge birds of prey the Wizards drop down, their piercing green eyes focused on their quarry below.
Hotep-Ra's enemies have found him.
The last time they found him, Hotep-Ra was saved by the Dragon Boat, but now he knows he will have to face them alone. The Queen, however, has other ideas. From her belt she takes a tiny crossbow and loads it. And then, as Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor Naarn swoop in for what they think will be the kill, the Queen shoots the bolt.
It hits Dramindonnor just below the fourth rib on his left-hand side. He crashes to the ground, and the landing stage shudders with the force. But the Darke Wizard merely winces and as the blood gushes out, he Seals his heart. Meanwhile the Queen has reloaded her crossbow and is lining up the second bolt. Hotep-Ra panics; he knows the Queen has no idea what she is dealing with. He throws a SafeShield around the Queen--much to her disgust--but not before she has also shot Shamandrigger in the heart. The Warrior Wizard drops to the ground, but he too Seals the wound just in time.
The Wizards get to their feet, and the Queen is horrified to see they are huge--ten feet tall--and clasping the notorious Volatile Wands that Hotep-Ra has described to her. Like machines, in perfect time--one-two, one-two--they advance on the SafeShield. They speak one sentence between them.
"Kill you and."
Under the assault of the Volatile Wands, the Queen's SafeShield begins to fail. Hotep-Ra grasps his Flyte Charm and shoots up into the air, knowing that the Wizards will follow him.
And they do.
In these ancient days, the Art of Flyte is yet to be lost. But it is still unusual enough to bring the Castle below to a standstill, especially as it involves a fight between three powerful Wizards. But soon the spectators are racing for cover as Thunderflashes are thrown and the foundations of buildings begin to shake. The Castle people become anxious. Although many remember a time when there was no Wizard Tower or ExtraOrdinary Wizard, they have grown to like Hotep-Ra. He has been a good man and no problem has been too small for his Magyk to help. As they peer nervously from their windows, they become very worried. Two Wizards against one is not fair. And it looks like Hotep-Ra is getting the worst of it.
Hotep-Ra may be old and no longer strong, but he is still clever. He lures the Darke Wizards to the golden pyramid at the top of the Wizard Tower where he stands, delicately balanced on its very tip--a tiny silver square--
concentrating all his Magykal power for one last chance.
To the Darke Wizards, Hotep-Ra looks like a wounded animal at bay. They sense victory and begin a favorite Destruction. They fly around the top of the pyramid, encircling Hotep-Ra in a blistering circle of Fyre. This, however, suits Hotep-Ra very well. He begins to chant a long and complex Illusion Incantation, the sound of which the roaring of the flames conveniently drowns.
But the circle of Fyre draws ever closer and the two Darke Wizards hover, waiting for the moment it will meet and finally Hex Hotep-Ra. Then they will have a little fun with their enemy--with the help of a spider or two.
Hotep-Ra is reaching the end of his Incantation. The heat of the Fyre is blistering; he can smell the wool of his robes singeing and he can wait no longer. To the shock of the Darke Wizards, Hotep-Ra shoots up through the circle of Fyre, trailing flames behind him. He shouts the last words of the Illusion Incantation and becomes Invisible.
The Illusion works perfectly. Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor
Naarn stare at each other in horror--in place of his friend, each sees Hotep-Ra and draws the conclusion that Hotep-Ra has killed him. From within his Invisibilty, Hotep-Ra watches as, maddened with fury and grief, the Darke Wizards chase each other across the rooftops and head out from the Castle.
Hotep-Ra would like to leave them to their fate, but he knows he must make sure they do not return. As he flies off after the Wizards, Hotep-Ra hears a tremendous crash. He looks down to see the top of the golden pyramid buried point down in the Wizard Tower Courtyard below--the circle of Fyre has cut through it like a wire through butter.
Hotep-Ra tails the Warrior Wizards to Bleak Creek, where he watches them battle for a day and a night--so evenly matched that neither can gain any advantage. Finally, in a frenzy, they circle each other faster and faster, swooping low over the water until they create a deep, dark whirlpool just outside the mouth of the creek. The force of the whirlpool is so great that it drags the Wizards down with it, shrieking with rage as they go.
Hotep-Ra follows. Using the Darke Art of Suspension Under Water (Hotep-Ra is a Master of many Darke arts, although he usually chooses not to use them) he dives in after the Wizards to make an end of them. But at the bottom of the whirlpool he finds that the vortex has broken through the riverbed and entered a cavern in the Darke Halls, which is an ancient refuge for all things evil. Hotep-Ra drags the Wizards from the entrance to the Darke Halls; the Wizards fight him all the way but desperation lends Hotep-Ra strength. With his last remnants of energy he hauls the Wizards up to the surface and, like a cork from a bottle, he emerges from the depths, dragging the Darke Wizards with him.
The Queen's barge is waiting for him. She has followed him to Bleak Creek, and now the barge's rowers are circling while the Queen stands at the prow, anxiously staring at the vortex: she knows that Hotep-Ra is somewhere beneath the water. But when he surfaces, the Queen is horrified--all she can see are the two Darke Wizards.
Hotep-Ra is now too weak to sustain his Magyk. First his Illusion and then his Invisibility slip away. Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor Naarn see each other for the first time in twenty-four hours--and then they see Hotep-Ra floundering beside them. For a few long seconds all three Wizards stare at one another, shocked. Clutching the Flyte Charm, Hotep-Ra rises up from the water. Saarn and Naarn grab on to his robes and a tangle of Wizards lands on the Queen's barge.
The Queen knows that Hotep-Ra is too weak to win the fight. She takes off the Magykal gold ring he has given her to protect her from her enemies--a ring that may only be destroyed in pure Alchemical Fyre. "Commit them,"she says, handing him the ring. "Quick!"
"It is your ring," Hotep-Ra whispers, handing the ring back to her. "You must say the Committal. You do remember?"
The Queen nods--of course she remembers. How could she forget
something made especially for her? (It is, in fact, the only Magyk that the Queen does remember.)
The Queen begins to chant the Committal. The words roll over the Darke Wizards like the shadow of an eclipse; they struggle but they are too weak to fight back. Hotep-Ra listens anxiously to each word but he does not need to worry--when a Queen wishes to remember something, she remembers it. At last the Queen reaches the Keystone word, "Hathor." There is a blinding flash of purple light and the Queen throws the ring into it. Darkness falls. The Queen speaks the last seven words of her Incantation and at the last word,
"Commit," Time itself is suspended. For seven long seconds the world stands still.
From within the blackness come two roars of anguish, like the sound of wounded beasts. A great howl of a hurricane descends on them, the screeching of the wind drowning out the screams of the Ring Wizards, and hurls the Queen and Hotep-Ra to the deck. The wind circles three times and then it is gone, leaving the Queen's barge in tatters, the rowers prostrate with terror, and an unearthly silence, which is broken by a delicate plink. A gold ring with two green faces imprisoned in it tumbles to the deck and rolls into a pool of dirty water.
When Hotep-Ra returns to the Wizard Tower his old Apprentice, Talmar Ray Bell, tells him that the fallen top of the pyramid has shrunk. She does not know why.
But Hotep-Ra knows why. He knows he has narrowly escaped a most dreaded Darke Hex. A Hex that does not kill an opponent right away but reduces his size so that he becomes prey to the most terrifying creatures of all: insects. It is an ancient Darke pastime, to place a victim of such a Hex into a spider's web and watch the result through an Enlarging Glass. Hotep-Ra shudders. He has a fear of spiders.
The tiny top of the golden pyramid lies on the bottom of a large pyramid-shaped crater--a sparkle of gold on the red Castle earth, still shrinking. An anxious group of Wizards are guarding it. (The reputation of the Wizard Tower has spread and it now houses thirteen Ordinary Wizards.) Talmar Ray Bell clambers down into the crater, picks up the miniature golden pyramid and gives it to Hotep-Ra.
Hotep-Ra puts a Stop on the Hex. The little pyramid sits heavy in his hand, a fiery gold, glinting in the sun. Hotep-Ra smiles. "You will be the Keye," he tells the pyramid.
Once again Hotep-Ra is on the Palace landing stage, saying a sad farewell to the Queen. This time he is not alone. Talmar Ray Bell has insisted on coming with him--Hotep-Ra is so weakened by his fight with the Darke Wizards that Talmar fears he will not be able to make the journey on his own.
Hotep-Ra gives the Queen a farewell gift. It is a little book called The Queen
Rules. It is bound in soft red leather with gold corners and an intricate clasp, and on it is embossed a drawing of the Dragon Boat. It is not his fault that a thousand or so years later the binding falls to pieces, the pages drop out and the Committal is lost. No bookbinder, not even a Magykal one, can make a book last forever. But memories will last, if they are handed down through the generations.
Hotep-Ra takes the Queen's barge to the Port. There, a ship is waiting for him and they set sail. The sea is calm and the sun shines. Hotep-Ra spends most of his time on deck, storing up memories of the open air and sea breezes to tide him over the long enclosed times ahead in his final resting place--the House of Foryx.
Night falls and the ship approaches the Enchanted--and much feared--Isles of Syren. Hotep-Ra sees the Lights shining from the four cat-shaped lighthouses that surround the Isles. He waits until the ship is safely past and all but he have gone below to sleep. Then, by the light of the full moon, Hotep-Ra drops the Two-Faced Ring into the ocean. As it tumbles down through the water, moonlight glints on the gold and an ugly cowfish snaps it up.
And there begins the long journey of the Two-Faced Ring back to the Wizard Tower. Where it now lies. Waiting.