Humpbacked, bow legged, with only one good arm, the old grounds warden raised the dim lantern high above his shaggy, unshaven heads and peered into the murky darkness beyond the little, wrought iron gate. Outside, it was raining, so the normally invisible wards that surrounded the old castle could just barely be distinguished as the vaguest outlines of a great, transparent dome, but while it was reassuring to know that the antique magics that protected the castle were still there, the old grounds warden found himself more worried than usual by being unable to see just beyond the boundary, marked by the wrought iron gate and a low stone wall, both shoddy with age. But while two sets of eyes were better than one, neither could pierce the thick blackness looming beyond the gate.

Shaking his graying heads, the grounds warden hawked and spat, each of his mouths in unison, so that there seemed to be just a single sound that broke through the stillness that reigned within the boundary. He had learned over the years it was best not to draw too much attention to his extra head, as if it were really possible to hide it.

“Bah,” said the grounds warden’s left face.

“Bah,” agreed the grounds warden’s right face.

So coming to a consensus, the old grounds warden turned away from the gate and shuffled slowly and painfully towards his hut, kicking up dust from the ground as he did.

There was always dust there, since the wards kept the weather out. The only normal life to be found clustered about the numerous streams and ponds that crisscrossed and dotted the land within the boundary. The grounds warden had in earlier days pondered how they did not deplete the air within the dome, but had long since given up on understanding how ancient magics operated. Perhaps it came in with the water.

Yet despite the dusty, dry, unchanging conditions, the grounds were not dead. Quite the opposite; they positively teemed with life: plants, animals, birds, insects – an entire distinct set of flora and fauna made its home within that barren, desiccated, isolated environment. The grounds warden had never seen the sorts of life that lived within the boundary anywhere in the natural world, but, on the other hand, he hadn’t left the grounds for nearly fifty years, not since he had first come within the boundary. He’d been ten years old then, looking for sanctuary, running from the Loru Knights determined to execute him as demonspawn. He’d stumbled across the old drawbridge and collapsed just inside the main gate. The pursuing knights had reined up just beyond, fear in their eyes. They hurled insults, but then wheeled their horses around and galloped away.

Fevered, starving, thirsty, he could only dimly remember human shapes appearing from the castle, lifting him, and taking him inside. They had apparently healed him and nursed him back to strength; when he awoke, it was in the hut in which he still resided. There had been a kettle full of soup on the fire, bright sunlight streaming through the window onto the low bed on which he lay, and no one else around. It was the only time he’d ever been inside the castle that crouched at the center of the grounds, and the only time he’d ever seen any other person.  If, that is, he hadn’t imagined those details.

There had been a book of detailed pictures that explained what his responsibilities were as grounds warden and how to do the things he was expected to do in that capacity, so he had set about his duties diligently. Once each week, crates of raw materials appeared in the barn, everything from food to new tools. The barn did not hold any animals, but it did hold a few old carriages and wagons, and a stupendous array of tools of every shape and size. As time went by, he had attempted through various means to speak to his mysterious, reclusive benefactors, but to no avail. And yet, every night, he could see lights come to life in the windows of the castle.  Eventually, his curiosity had waned, and he settled into a simple routine as the days flowed by.

A sudden bolt of lightning exploded from the sky. It hit the top of the normally invisible dome and was absorbed, setting the whole ward humming and lighting it up as the glow radiated outward from the point of impact towards the ground in a phosphorescent cascade that, for a long moment, lit the whole interior of the dome in its harsh luminescence. The cacti and shrub bushes, with their peculiarly beautiful desert flowers, were cast into sharp relief, the shadows seeming to leap as if alive. The old ground warden felt the hair on the back of his necks rise, and the air smelled sharp.

Something moved just outside the dome, something dark and large. Anyone else would have missed it, standing as the grounds warden was, but his two heads gave him an expanded peripheral vision. He whirled around, raising the lantern, as darkness crashed down on the world once more with an ear splitting thunder. Even within the dome, which tended to mute sounds, the noise was deafening. Peering into the darkness, however, he could see nothing. He waited.

Another bolt of lightning leapt from the sky, this one farther away. In the brief light, the grounds warden caught a glimpse of the shadowy form of some slavering monstrosity crouched at the edge of the dome. He stumbled back, tripped, and fell heavily, dropping the lantern, which went out. In the new darkness, the old man scrabbled back in the direction in which he knew the castle lay, the center of the dome and its protections, as several bolts of lightning leapt from the sky to the dome in tandem.

The dome seemed to shudder from the simultaneous impacts; the grounds warden watched in horror as the beast exploded from its crouched position in a blur of muscle, teeth, and motion. It hit the dome, which held for a moment, and then the beast was through: panting, whimpering, but through. Behind it, the edges of the ragged hole it had torn in the dome crackled and spat with energy, sending glowing sparks spinning into the night.

Instincts as old as mankind forced the old grounds warden to his feet. His heads were moving independently of each other, trying to look in every direction at once. He ran, hobbling along as fast as his old, bowed legs could manage. Behind him, the beast was slowly regaining its strength, shaking off the lingering effects of passing through the dome.

If he could get to the castle, perhaps those residing within might once again provide him sanctuary in his time of need.  Thumping across the wooden bridge over the stream between the grounds and the castle proper, the grounds warden pounded on the great wooden door, carefully avoiding the iron studs that covered its surface. With one head, he looked up at the castle, searching for some sign of response, while the other stared behind him at the monster. It was slinking towards him, illuminated by the occasional flashes of lightning. In that intermittent illumination, the beast seemed to be moving in bursts, its muscles rippling beneath shiny black skin.

The beast reached the stream and paused, sniffing cautiously. Its antennae were twitching. Breathing hard, the old grounds warden turned away from the door to face the beast. Perhaps he could divert its attention, somehow escape, but he did not know to what end. There was nowhere on the grounds besides the castle that would protect him from a monster of this sort. He and the beast were now separated by a mere fifteen feet of wooden drawbridge. The beast cautiously placed a single foreclaw on the bridge. Nothing happened. It placed another as the grounds warden shrank farther into the corner, trembling. Perhaps he could dive off into the stream when it charged him.

Wood groaned beneath powerful foreclaws as the monster tested its weight, but the bridge held; the beast seemed strangely wary of the water. It took another slow step forward, so that it had three clawed feet on the old wooden surface, and stopped again. The grounds warden found he was holding his breath, and forced himself to exhale. After a moment, the beast carefully placed its fourth foot on the bridge, which creaked in ineffectual protest, but held.

As the beast slunk forward, testing each step it took, the old grounds warden glanced about himself for some path of escape, but saw none. He could not have shrunk further into the corner had he possessed the additional deformity of a triangular backbone. Still, the castle door remained resolutely shut, not opening to admit him to its sanctuary, nor to disgorge a defender. For the first time, the grounds warden entertained the notion that perhaps the castle was no longer inhabited, despite the lights still glimmering from the windows cut into its soaring turrets.

When the beast was within seven paces of him, still fully on the bridge, it stopped. Its skin rippled, its muscles twitched, and it fixed its brilliant green eyes on the old man. Haunches bunched, there was an explosion of power, and the beast sprang, launching itself with such force that the bridge cracked in a burst of splinters, hanging for a moment before it slid into the water with a splash. The monster slammed into the stone on the other side, claws throwing sparks as it scrabbled desperately for purchase, its jump spoiled by the bridge’s collapse. The old grounds warden was nowhere to be seen, having been thrown from the bridge when it collapsed.  Its tail struck the water, and the beast shrieked, steam rising from the contact as it yanked its tail from the water, flinging it about frantically, attempting to clear the fluid that was rapidly corroding its black, shiny flesh. Cloying black fog poured from its mutilated tail in a thick cloud. The old grounds warden swam as best he could, pawing desperately through the water away from the noxious, gaseous blood.

Struggling, the beast finally hauled itself up by a strength born of fear and self-preservation, so that it was perched on the tiny stone outcropping from the castle door. Its shiny black skin brushed the door, there was a burst of light, and the beast was flung back across the water, where it skidded in the dirt and came to a dusty halt, whimpering. The old grounds warden felt hope blossom in his chest, overwhelming, for a moment, the rising sense of panic that threatened to consume him as he had realized that he knew of no way to get out of this stream.

The beast struggled to its feet, leaking gaseous blood from a hundred small weaknesses in its hide, its form only barely visible to the old grounds warden from where he clung to the slippery rock of the castle’s base. Like some dark miracle, though, its wounds spontaneously began to close. A new rift had formed in the wards, their fabric fraying and unraveling, but beyond them lay not merely the physical, mortal world from which the grounds warden had fled so long ago. The monstrosity, grown larger, its muscles now gliding beneath its skin like thick ropes, roared a challenge that reverberated across the grounds and shook dust from the castle turrets.

Leaving burning footprints in its wake, the beast advanced back towards the castle. It ignored the old grounds warden cowering in the water below, and roared anew its challenge directly at the door of the castle. For a moment, all was still but for the beast’s restless pacing, and its occasional snarls as it passed the door. For what it was waiting, the old grounds warden could not fathom.

How much time passed while the grounds warden struggled to stay alive in the cool water beneath the beast’s wrathful gaze, he could not say, but at length, he detected a faint pink glow spreading across the distant horizon, painting the treetops in shades of amber and gold as the sun began to sear its bloody path across the sky with surgical precision.  The beast noticed this, as well, and stopped its pacing, shooting a wary glance towards the brightening east. It roared anew its challenge, louder this time. The wards reverberated with the sound, the tears growing wider, but the only response the monster received was the receding repetitions of its own call.

Silence reigned over the predawn light once more when, of a sudden, its dictatorial rule was crushed to powder by a deep, dull, grinding noise emanating from the castle itself.  The beast leapt to its feet and backed up cautiously, facing the slowly opening door from which a warm, red glow was now spreading outward to embrace the water and land beyond. As it fell upon him, the old grounds warden felt new strength and warmth flooding him, like the vitality of a much younger man, perhaps in the prime of life.

The grinding of the opening door was succeeded by a clanking noise from deep within the castle, as of metal striking metal and of metal striking stone. A new light, this one pure white and brilliant, speared forth from the open doorway, slicing through the shadows and slashing away the trailing vestiges of night that clung to the land with murky tentacles.  When it fell on the creature, it recoiled and hissed angrily, swatting at it with a clawed forefoot, never taking its brilliant green eyes from the open door.

Where the red and white lights intermingled the most, near the very source of their glow, they seemed to react and coalesce into a solid form that hung suspended in the air above the water, forming a new bridge, and all this time the clanking noise grew louder, until at last in a dazzling display, an interplay of lights that left the shadows curled in quivering shreds at the edges, an armored figure burst from the doorway. The timbre of the clanking changed as the knight, the paladin, thundered across the radiant bridge, armor phosphorescing in a million, a hundred million, a whole continuum of brilliant colors, beaming white shield held ahead and a glowing blue sword in the knight’s other hand. Upon her appearance, the beast bared its teeth and growled in challenge, muscles tensing and pawing the ground.

The paladin’s pace did not slow in the slightest as armored feet left the bridge, though the blinding brilliance of her armaments did fade to a more internal pulsing of contained energy. Dust whirled up in eddies from beneath her boots as she charged the monster that had all night haunted her doorstep. It did not await the paladin’s approach, instead hastening to meet it, tail streaming behind it as it leapt to a sprint. The two figures closed on each other, the one armored, with broadsword and shield, glowing softly, the other shiny and black, all muscle and flashing teeth and slashing claws. At the last instant, the knight dropped to her knees and planted her shield on the ground.

Too late, the beast realized its plight, unable now to either stop or change its course.  Instead, it rammed directly into the waiting shield. The paladin was shoved backwards with such force that she slid horizontally, still kneeling, so that she carved a straight furrow in the dry ground. The monster, in motion, was much worse off. When it crashed into the shield, the shield flared with blinding white light, there was a tearing sound, and the beast was flung aside like a rag doll, its massive form crashing through a cactus before skidding to a rest almost fifty yards away. Slowly, it climbed to its feet, shaking its head and leaking gaseous black blood.

The paladin, seeing her opportunity, reclaimed her upright orientation and again charged forward, seeking to take the beast before it could recover. As she ran, the glow of her armaments dimmed gradually, shadows creeping in. She stepped out, hitting the dust, and skidded the last two yards, seeking the more vulnerable underbelly, but the beast was not so injured as it had appeared. Suddenly very much alert, it neatly avoided the glowing sword and snapped down, teeth and claws flashing.  Metal ground and snapped, sparks flying and light spilling everywhere. A sudden burst of light sent the beast reeling backward and gave the fallen paladin a chance to recover. Her armor was leaking light, and one of the legs was jammed. The beast roared and charged, but cautiously this time. They clashed, sword sparking against claw and teeth grinding across shield, broke apart, then tangled again, each straining against the other.

The old grounds warden’s attention was drawn from the fight by the appearance of a new figure in the doorway above him. This one wore dark robes with silvery runes scrawling across them, and bore in his hand an ebony staff from which a peculiar purple glow was emanating. His hood was up, obscuring his face, but from his watery perspective, the old grounds warden could see the old man’s whiskery face and his frenetically chanting lips. The paladin was retreating back towards the bridge, her shield sagging and her counters growing sluggish. The beast was harrying her, trying to make an opening for a finishing blow, but she was able to just barely keep it at bay. She stumbled backwards onto the bridge, from which light swirled up, repairing her armor.

The beast skidded to a stop before reaching the bridge, glaring, not so much at the paladin, but at the hooded figure just beyond her. Its green eyes flared with frustration and fear. For a long moment, nothing happened; no party seemed willing or able to break the stalemate in which they found themselves. Then the robed figure stepped forward and began to walk across the bridge towards where the paladin stood recovering. Where his feet fell, the bridge pulsed and swirled, agitated. The paladin dropped to one knee and bowed her head as the robed man approached, both of them ignoring utterly the beast that was pacing frantically just off of the bridge.

From where the grounds warden was holding to the slick stone of the castle, he could not hear what was said, but the robed man put a hand on the paladin’s armored shoulder and drew her to her feet to face him. She bowed low, and then turned to face the beast again. Behind her, the robed man raised his staff in both hands before bringing it down upon the supernatural bridge with a resounding crack. The bridge pulsed as the purple light from the staff raced along its length and down into the bridge, there was a sharp whooshing, as of air rushing into a suddenly open space, and the paladin dropped straight through the bridge and into the water.

The paladin surfaced, scrabbling in the water with desperate hands, trying to stay afloat and shed her suddenly deadly armor. Above her, the bridge fizzled and repaired itself beneath the casual ministrations of the robed man’s staff. She tugged desperately at the latch of her breastplate, but to no avail, and the grounds warden watched in trepidation as she slowly sank lower and lower into the water. Finally shaking free of the entrapping fog of confusion that had left him motionless against the wall, the grounds warden forced his chilled and weary muscles into motion and clumsily launched himself from the wall.  His heads cleaved the water at awkward angles, and his bowed legs dragged almost uselessly behind him, but his one good arm was strong from years of hard labor.

By the time the old grounds warden had hauled himself to the point where the paladin had been, she had slipped beneath the surface. Taking a deep breath, he tilted his heads down and dove, letting the weight of the extra head help drag him down, but even with four eyes he had trouble seeing. At length, he saw a shimmer of light. He groped towards it. Suddenly, a powerful hand grasped his weak arm and pulled down. He thrashed, trying to free himself and stroke towards the surface, but instead of propelling himself up, his efforts merely gave the hand greater leverage. Then the paladin, free of her encumbering armor, wearing only a thin, black silk covering, was rising past him, mud swirling from where she had pulled her feet free from the bottom, now stroking powerfully towards the surface, having let him go as she swept past.

Panicking, almost out of air and strength nearly spent, the old grounds warden reached out frantically with his good arm. His fingers brushed silk, and his hand snapped shut like a claw on the paladin’s ankle. She kicked fiercely as soon as she felt his grip, trying to shake him, but he clung tighter, like a particularly persistent old barnacle on the sleek hull of a warship. Nose bleeding into the water, the old grounds warden was drawn up, spluttering and gasping, to the surface.

He released the paladin as soon as they cleared the surface, splashing away as best he could. The paladin swam fast towards the castle wall and surged upwards as she reached it, fingers and toes grasping for purchase and trying to pull herself up. To the grounds warden’s astonishment, she rose almost impossibly high, fingers less than two handspans from the bridge before she splashed back into the water, spluttering and splashing. Returning to the wall, she paused for a moment to regain her composure, and turned to watch what was transpiring above between the robed man and the intruding beast.

High above them, the robed man had moved off of the bridge and now stood a little ways out onto the dry ground. As he had made his approach, the monster had retreated slowly, and now remained a few paces farther on, still pacing incessantly, wearing a track into the dusty, dry ground. In contrast to this perpetual motion, accentuated by the fluid grace of the beast’s muscular movement, the robed man stood stiff and rigid, head slightly bowed, his robes hanging in unnatural stillness from his frame. The staff he bore also seemed to have settled into a sort of meditative state, if indeed a staff can be said to meditate – the purple glow that had before emanated from it had receded into it, so that now only the faintest hint of radiance marked the ebony surface.

Time seemed to be dragging its feet; the sun’s daily scaling of the precipice of the sky had slowed to a tedious crawl, so that its blinding rays still had not cleared the distant treetops. Still, the beast continued its relentless pacing, and still the robed man made no move to break his trance-like state. Even the lapping of the water against the old grounds warden’s bone-weary body seemed sluggish, and the paladin, too, made no move to disturb the strange, nervous calm that had descended and now smothered them like a cloying fog.

Perhaps they might have remained that way far into the day, had not the beast glanced at the grudgingly lightening eastern sky. It swished its tail in agitation and, as it began to turn for another round of pacing, it leapt to a run. Muscles bunching and stretching in a dazzling interplay of grace and power, its skin glistening black, the beast tore around the grounds in a massive curve, finally coming back around towards where the robed man stood. Low and fast, it stretched its limbs and streamed across the ground, a racing blur of speed and grace and power and balance.

The robed man’s motions seemed unspeakably slow and awkward in comparison to the beast’s, as he brought the ebony staff up, until he held it in both hands crosswise before him, not so much grasping it as cradling it, purple light seeping between his bony fingers. The glow intensified as the beast drew rapidly closer.  When the beast was only paces away, it seemed to surge, pouring all its speed into a great, single, climactic burst of physical potency, set to tear into the robed man in a demonic whirlwind of teeth and claws. The robed man didn’t flinch as the beast rushed towards him, not even taking a firmer grasp on the staff, and when the beast’s slavering maw and green eyes were mere inches from his face, the beast stopped.

For a long moment the beast hung suspended in the air. The robed man hadn’t even moved, hadn’t so much as adjusted his hands on the ebony staff, but traced out in the dust behind him were frozen ripples of shockwaves, as of a massive force somehow instantaneously transmitted to the ground. Before the impossibility of the scene could fully set in, the moment passed, and the beast dropped to the ground in a cloud of dust.

For a moment it did not move, and the old grounds warden began to think that perhaps it had finally been defeated, but soon it began to stir, whimpering and shaking its head and whining piteously. Its malevolence had faded, replaced by a kind of injured animal innocence.  As the beast struggled valiantly to its feet, the robed man moved.  With one hand, he gestured, a strange, crooked motion. The beast collapsed back to the ground as if its legs had been pulled out from under it. Now the staff began to glow more brilliantly, and the man advanced towards the beast, moving leisurely. Once more the beast sought to regain its footing. This time, the robed man raised the staff. The beast was drawn up into the air until its claws were just brushing the ground, and held there, all of its thrashing serving only to stir a cloud of dust.

Eventually the beast’s struggles subsided, and it hung limp in the robed man’s occult grasp; the first of the distant sun’s radiant beams fell upon the duo. The robed man straightened and smiled, brushing the hood of his robe off and baring a wrinkled scalp unencumbered by any infestation of hair, in stark contrast to his characteristically voluminous beard. The beast shied away from the sudden light, but held as it was, there was little it could do. Where the rays fell upon its dark skin, the luster of it faded to a dull black and it began to smolder and crumble, leaking dark smoke.

That the sun would quickly precipitate the creature’s demise was evident to the old grounds warden and, he suspected, to both the paladin and the robed man, but the robed man was not content to leave the sun to do its grisly work. He raised the staff, and the beast was raised in tandem with it, so that it was now several feet above the ground. With slow, deliberate motion, the robed man turned about, and the beast orbited about him, until at length it was suspended over the water. The beast thrashed and struggled in the wizard’s grip upon realizing its plight, but to no avail.  Taking no mercy on the beast, the wizard released his arcane hold upon it. The beast dropped straight into the water, despite its vain efforts to alter the course of its descent. It hit the water in a great cloud of billowing steam and black smoke. A moment later, the waves washed over the grounds warden and the paladin. As the initial rush of vapors dissipated, the grounds warden could see the beast struggling, trying to clamor up the steep walls. Its claws dug into the rock and it seemed to make some progress, but each time it slid back into the water, and each time it seemed weaker. Its form was diminishing rapidly.

Above them, the robed man had moved to the edge of the water and was peering down at them, a peculiar expression on his face, a sort of twisted half-smile that gave his eyes a strangely ominous cast. It chilled the old grounds warden, so he looked away, looking about for the paladin, who had disappeared.

The paladin emerged spitting and spluttering and gasping to the surface near the beast, shaking water from her hair and blinking rapidly to clear her eyes. At her waist was her sword, inexplicably neither muddy nor wet, and secured just by a bit of cloth from her silk covering. After a moment’s rest, she swam forward, just as the beast again attempted to escape the water. She flipped herself out of the water and onto the beast without slowing and ran up its back, her run becoming more of a climb as the beast hauled itself more towards vertical. Still not decreasing her speed, the paladin reached the head of the beast, pushed off just as the beast was also surging upwards, and rose up until her fingers grasped the top edge, just below the robed man.

He smiled and held out the staff for her to grab, but she ignored it. Muscles clenched, her body moved in perfect sequence, and the paladin vaulted neatly onto solid ground, landing in a crouch and rising to her feet, drawing her sword in one fluid movement. The robed man backed slightly away, still smiling. New purple light was swirling up the length of the staff, this time with thin threads of silver woven throughout. The paladin’s sword, which had once glowed blue, had lost its radiance, though it still had a dark, mirror like quality intrinsic to no mere metal. If the paladin was concerned, however, she gave no sign of it. She swung the sword in a dark arc that set it whistling as it cut the air, aimed directly at the robed man’s neck.

Still smiling, the robed man raised his staff.  When the sword connected with the staff, light flared, racing from the staff and seeking the sword, but it found no purchase along its shimmering length and retreated back to the staff. Yelling, the paladin drew back her sword and attacked again, a blistering series of movements that seemed sure to find some opening, but every time the ebony staff was there with its malevolent purple glow. At length, the paladin broke off and leapt away, breathing hard.

The beast, which had subsided, merely keeping as much of itself from the water as it could, now roused itself. Once more, its claws sought purchase in the steep wall, and it began to haul itself up. But where before it had fallen back, unable to fully lift its own mass in such a manner, in its diminished state it now struggled upward, until it clamored, whimpering and wretched, onto dry ground. The sun being now quite high in the sky, it found little solace beneath the harsh, unyielding, unconquerable glare of the sky’s single eye, but the beast had not come seeking rest. By this time, the paladin had recovered, and she now attacked again, this time more carefully. Her sword sang, her feet slapped in the dry dust, and her body flung droplets of water as she whirled and spun in a masterful display of swordplay such that the robed man’s smile slipped and he was forced to take a firmer grip on the staff, holding it in the center now and wielding it as a polearm, parrying with both ends. The robed man’s smug look slipped into one of worry, until at last he countered. As the paladin disengaged and whirled away to begin a fresh series of attacks, he lowered the staff so that the top pointed directly at her and spoke a single, harsh word that cut painfully through the air and made all four of the old grounds warden’s ears hurt until he thought they might bleed. The paladin was flung away as if pummeled by a giant’s invisible fist. Incredibly, the paladin managed to get a shoulder under herself and land properly, so that she rolled to her knees, looking pale and frightened and weakened but still very much alive.

The robed man did not seem the least surprised, and already had another spell coalescing at the top of the staff. The words he uttered now had a strange, dark beauty to them that swelled and filled the space about them, squeezing all other sounds out. The old grounds warden was transfixed, and even the paladin seemed to be struggling to maintain her focus. Time itself slowed to an apparent crawl, as if it, too, were enraptured by the impossible sounds issuing from the robed man’s throat.  Alone of all of them, the beast seemed unaffected by the supernatural music, though it had winced and shuddered when the sound had first rolled over it. Now, as the spell seemed to be nearing its climax, it pounced. In its weakened state, it wasn’t the sort of pounce to set antelope scattering, and as its clawed feet left the ground, it was thrust into the same protracted temporal state as the rest of them, so that its movement became as if the air were as viscous as molasses.

The robed man finished his spell. A beam of something indescribable leapt from the ebony staff. It was pure radiance, absolute darkness, unadulterated goodness, unbounded evil, a thousand, a million other contradictions all woven into a single cohesive beam of power that threatened to sear the old grounds warden’s eyes as he looked at it, yet neither of his heads could turn away as he stared, transfixed. In the same instant, the paladin dropped to one knee and set her stance, her sword coming up before her face, its dark facets giving the impression of being suddenly hungry, and the beast completed its pounce.

The robed man was bowled over, time resuming its normal headlong rush towards eternity, as the beast tore into him with teeth and claws. It was quickly flung away, though only a couple feet, the robed man’s magic seeming weakened. His robes slightly tattered and a thin line of blood trickling down his cheek, he stooped to retrieve his staff and turned to again face the paladin just as the spell, which remained in a kind of slow motion, reached her.

The beam touched the sword and split into uncountable thin streamers that burst in every direction in a scintillating display that spanned every spectrum imaginable and many that weren’t. A rushing noise expanded outward, whipping the paladin’s hair about her face and blasting up dust in a voluminous, cloying cloud. The paladin’s mouth opened in a silent scream as the sword grew darker and darker, sucking in all the light around it, the core of the beam encapsulating the blade. Her hands opened and closed spasmodically on the hilt, but it was stuck, seared to her palms by the magic coursing through the blade.

The robed man watched impassively for a moment, then turned back to the beast, which was closing in for another attack. Once, twice, the staff slammed away the beast’s futile efforts, then the robed man seemed to lose patience. Spinning the staff around, an explosion of purple laced with gold and black strands ripped through the beast from head to tail. There was a sound like a great inhalation of breath, and then the beast collapsed, shriveling and deflating until all that remained was a small length of sleek, black fabric and a slowly dissipating cloud of thick, black fog.

Turning, the robed man walked towards the paladin, who was on her knees, head down, the sword, which now swirled with an inner gloom that had not been there before, held in limp hands before her, its tip in the dust. The robed man approached her at a leisurely pace, unconcerned, though he leaned more heavily on the staff now than he had before. He stopped when he stood just before the paladin and leaned down as if to whisper something to her, magic gathering at his fingers as they reached for her shoulder. The paladin looked up wearily, her gaze fixed on a point somewhere beyond the horizon.

Though the robed man could not see, her grip tightened on the sword hilt and the tip came up just slightly. As his spidery fingers touched her shoulder, their magic burning into her body, the sword came up, and the paladin lunged. For an instant, it seemed that her effort would prove futile, but then a resounding crack echoed across the land, and the sword slid home as the paladin and the robed man collapsed upon each other. The paladin struggled to extricate herself for a moment as the robed man spluttered, coughed, and died, but the magic was already in her, and soon she too lay still.

The old grounds warden clung to the rock, trying desperately to fight the bone deep cold and weariness that permeated his whole being as a stillness descended upon the grounds. But it was not the stillness that normally filled the grounds. Here and there, the call of a bird filtered sweetly through the daylight, in stark contrast to the scene of death that had so recently taken place. Perhaps this permeating exhaustion was a sort of blessing, provided he did not drown – at least he was rendered quite incapable of even the vaguest attempts to comprehend the whirlwind of events that had occurred within his sanctuary.

It also left him unable to muster even the cognitive engagement necessary to contemplate a means of extricating himself from his watery predicament, so the loving, lingering caress of the sun’s last lustrous luminescence, like burnished gold upon the darkening landscape, left him still clinging like some strange lichen to the rock, and thus still did the moon’s cold gaze fall upon him. Looking up at the night sky in all its splendor, the old grounds warden felt a deep, abiding sense of peace fall over him. He pushed slowly from the wall and paddled awkwardly to the center of the water, feeling its cool lapping at his chins. He was so very tired. The water felt good on his lips, its moist softness, like a kiss, rising to brush the underside of his nose and leave him breathless.

The water’s kiss had found his earlobes at the same moment that a crunch, as of footfalls on sand, broke the stillness of the night. A small sound, really, but the old grounds warden started and splashed violently, gasping for breath, the strange stupor which had lain upon him broken. He saw a dark shape with glowing green eyes silhouetted above, looking down at him, then it moved, leaping from its perch and into the water below, entering it with hardly a ripple just inches from where the grounds warden was flailing about. It surfaced, those peculiar green eyes appearing to shine with a light all their own, and strong arms grasped those of the grounds warden.

Placing the grounds warden’s arms around its neck, the mysterious shape swam swiftly to the wall and began to climb, the stone seeming to yield up hand and foot holds as the being sought them. After only a mere smattering of moments, they had reached solid ground once more. The old grounds warden stumbled and would have fallen if the being’s steady hand had not helped to stabilize his bowed legs.

The being moved off a little ways and stooped down to scoop something dark and shimmering from the ground. Shaking the dust from it, the being tsked softly at the holes in the fabric and gently swung it about to settle on his shoulders; it rustled quietly for a moment before settling about him like a second skin. The being smiled sadly, then walked to where the paladin and the robed man still lay in a grisly embrace of death. Bending down once more, it gingerly extricated the sword, careful to not touch even the flat of the blade. There was no blood upon it, though perhaps there was a reddish tone to the blade now that had not been there before. Still bearing the sword as if it were a viper poised to strike at the slightest provocation, the being turned to the old grounds warden.

“This is a dark place,” it hissed. “But its strength has been broken, for now. You are free to go as you please. As for myself, I desire to place as much distance between myself and here as I have strength to traverse before the rising of the sun makes the ways too hazardous.”

So saying, the being spun, glistening black cloak swirling about it, and vanished into the night. The old grounds warden stared after it for a long moment, and then he turned away.

With a sigh, he turned his shuffling steps back towards his hut. It was late, but not so late that he couldn’t find some much needed sleep before the coming of the dawn.  As the sun rose, it found the old grounds warden already hard at work, doing the same things he had done for fifty years past. Every now and then, however, he would pause in his work, wipe his brows, and turn all of his eyes towards the outside, and he would wonder.

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The end of The Grounds Warden. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider leaving a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is appreciated.

Copyright 2019, IGC Publishing

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