Steve Wilkinson walked from the track to the men's locker room. He stripped out of his sweaty clothes and stuffed them into his gym bag. The shower was going to be a welcome relief after this afternoon's mile.
He sighed as he stepped into the shower, allowing the hot water to relax the muscles of his legs. It had been a long recovery from his month-long coma. Thanks to a couple of months of physical therapy and his own follow up exercise program, he had bounced back.
His mind wandered back to the dream experiment that had placed him into the coma in the first place. What nobody knew, and what Steve dared not tell anyone, was that the coma had not been the fault of that experiment.
No one would believe him if he told them that he had fallen into the coma because a sorcerer on another world had accidentally conjured his soul away to clothe it in another body. All that would accomplish would be to get him locked up in a funny farm somewhere. It certainly wouldn't get Doctor Engelman's tenure restored.
With another relaxed sigh, he turned off the shower. He had to hit the books for that calculus test tomorrow. He paused to examine himself in the mirror as he dried off. The face that looked back at him he had known all his life -- short brown hair, brown eyes, clean shaven.
The body had changed, however. Instead of the scrawny bookworm he'd been since childhood, some definition was beginning to show. Not too bad, he decided. He wasn't in the condition that he'd been in back in Quarin, for certain, but the last five months had made him a far cry from the bookworm he'd started out as.
It took a lot longer here than it had in Quarin, though. Now he understood why -- one had to take the time to heal between sessions. Theron and Caradoc had eliminated that with their healing arts. There he could accomplish in one day what it now took him two or three weeks to manage. Of course, the average person in Quarin didn't have access to healers, either. Steve had been a...special case.
He threw the wet towel into the gym hamper on the way to his locker. He had to quit living in Quarin. The year he had spent there, while his body lay comatose for a month back here, had marked him for life. That he couldn't change, nor would he want to, but it was time to pick up and go on with his life here. Quarin, and Aerilynn, were gone forever.
His new dorm mate, and old friend, Frank Caldwell, was a big help. He was determined to make certain that Steve got out, rather than letting him spend all his time hitting the books. There was even talk of Frank fixing him up with a couple of girls that he knew, but Steve wasn't sure he was interested in anything like that quite yet.
Steve stood up from the bench and got his wallet and comb to put back in his pants. Frank had mentioned a party tonight, in fact. Hopefully he would already be out so Steve could crack the books instead....
"Hey, look who's here," Steve heard a familiar voice say behind him. "It's Wimpy Wilkinson!"
And then, of course, there was Bruce. Steve had blissfully forgotten him during his year in Quarin. He reached in to the locker and pulled out his belt before turning to face Bruce. The jock had a couple of his football friends with him, of course. Steve smiled, wryly.
"This is the men's locker room, Wilkinson," Bruce said. "The girl's is across the hall."
"Hey, man," one of the other guys said. "Lay off. I heard he's been sick."
"Thank you," Steve said to his nameless defender. "But you apparently don't know Bruce. That just makes it better, you see, because that way he knows I won't hurt him. After all, he really is a coward."
Bruce's mouth fell open in surprise as his face began to turn purple. After a few inarticulate, strangling sounds he finally got his voice under control.
"You little bastard!" he said, starting forward. "I'll...."
Whatever Bruce was about to threaten was cut off by a cry of pain as Steve's belt buckle sliced open his cheek. Bruce recoiled, raising his hand to the wound. His shocked expression as he looked down at the blood on his hand was almost comical. Almost.
Bruce looked up, angrily, just as Steve's foot landed in his abdomen, sending him over the bench behind him to slam into the lockers. He slid down between the lockers and the bench, apparently unconscious.
One of the others reached toward Steve. That was why Bruce never went anywhere alone -- he liked to have backup.
Steve grabbed the extended wrist and slammed his other hand into the elbow. There was the sound of breaking bone as the arm bent the wrong way. His opponent's face paled and his eyes rolled back into his head before he fell.
Steve turned to the one who had spoken in his defense when this mess started.
"Hey, man," the guy said, retreating, "I don't want no trouble."
Kill them, whispered through his mind. They deserve it.
Shut up, Steve thought back, firmly. The voice in his mind silenced after sending a wave of anger at him.
"Then I suggest," Steve said, flatly and evenly, "that you go over to that pay phone and call an ambulance for these two jerks." He fought to ignore the thought that had passed through his mind. It was not his -- it was Belevairn's.
"Yeah -- right."
Steve turned and left, once the other was a safe distance away. Hopefully Frank hadn't left the dorm yet...
* * *
Belevairn cowered on the steps to the throne as Daryna glared down at him. Her angry green eyes pierced him from a face hidden in shadow.
"Why do they still live?" she demanded. "No one may shame a member of the Twelve and live to speak of it. No one!"
"M-Mistress...," he began, hesitantly.
"Silence!" she commanded. "You shall lay their heads at my feet on the morrow."
"Mistress, I...I cannot...."
"And why not?"
He could not answer. There was some reason, but it eluded him. Why could he not kill them? Then he remembered.
"I w-would be...expelled?" The answer did not seem right.
"I...I mean imprisoned," he corrected. But who could imprison him -- one of the Twelve?
"Who are you?" Daryna asked. The question confused him even more. He was Belevairn, commander of the kaivir and one of the Twelve Dread Lords of Delgroth.
"Who are you, impostor?"
His gaze rose to meet hers. She had risen from the golden throne and was descending the marble steps toward him. He trembled but could not move as she approached him, although a part of him longed to run...to flee...
She cupped her hand underneath his chin, her green eyes staring into his. Without warning, she ripped away the golden mask. He gasped, but did not crumble into dust as he had feared. Then he heard the tinkling sound of her laughter.
"Why Dreamer," she said, sweetly. "You have come to me at last."
She bent her face toward his, to kiss him. As her lips parted Steve saw the fangs they concealed. He began to scream...
* * *
"Steve!" someone shouted, shaking him by the shoulders. "Steve! Wake up, man!"
Steve blinked and looked around at the familiar surroundings. Frank's face slowly came into focus in the bright light. Steve was sitting up in his bed at the dorm.
"Frank?" he said.
"Yeah, it's me. That must have been some nightmare," Steve's dorm mate said.
Steve fell back onto the bed, throwing his arm over his eyes to block the light from the ceiling fixture. He let out his breath in a ragged sigh. It had all seemed so real -- the stone steps, the gilded throne, all of it. And all through Belevairn's eyes...
"You were really acting weird," Frank said after a moment. "Babbling, tossing and turning. Then you just sat up and screamed. I almost hit the ceiling."
"Sorry, Frank," Steve replied.
"Wanna talk about it?"
"No. It was just a nightmare. It's over. What time is it?"
"Just after four-thirty," Frank replied.
He would be getting up in two hours. The way he felt right now it would be at least that long before he got back to sleep. Steve threw his feet over the side of the bed.
"What are you doing?" Frank asked as Steve began to dress.
"Getting up," Steve replied, tucking his shirt into his jeans. "After that I won't be able to get back to sleep -- at least not for a while."
"Are you sure you don't...what are you going to do with that?" Frank's gaze fell on the sword Steve took out of the closet.
"Going to work out a little bit," Steve replied, buckling the sword belt around his waist. "Unwind a little."
The mail order replica had been the closest thing he could find to the sword he'd used in Quarin. He was not overly impressed with the blade, but the balance was good enough for practice...
"Be back in a bit," he said before closing the door to the dorm room. Frank just nodded at him.
The courtyard of the dorm was deserted. Natural enough at this hour. The early morning air, this early in the summer, was still crisp and fresh.
You are me, Belevairn's voice whispered in his mind. We are one.
Never! Steve shouted back silently. He was answered with only a malicious chuckle.
Steve trembled in anger. The ritual that had culminated in Steve's death in the forest outside Quarin had passed his and Belevairn's minds through one another. The memories of each were indelibly written into the mind of the other. Before Steve, however, no one had ever survived the ritual to learn that the transfer went both ways.
It was made worse by the fact that Steve had not had the benefit of the magic that normally prevented the alien memories from becoming a separate and distinct person within his own mind. Now he was cursed with Belevairn's constant presence in his mind. Steve took a deep, shuddering breath and assumed the stance Erelvar had taught him.
The ring of the sword as it flew out of its scabbard into a flat arc broke the stillness of the sleeping campus. Steve listened as the echoes rang back, savoring the weight of the blade in his hand.
He stepped, left foot forward, bringing the sword down in an overhand smash that would shatter the shoulder of an opponent. Step again; complete the arc; bring the sword around into the backhand shoulder strike....
This night's dream had been the worst in weeks. No doubt his encounter with Bruce had stimulated it. That, and the alcohol he had drunk later. Step again; bring the sword to the left in a flat arc. Again -- bringing the sword backhand to the right, the blade horizontal....
It would probably be best not to drink again for some time. The alcohol weakened his will -- allowed Belevairn's memories and personality to gain too much power. Arrest the arc; step; thrust forward. Pull the sword back; thrust up, over and down behind the enemy's shield....
But the exercise, the physical training -- those were alien to Belevairn's experience. Those things strengthened Steve's hold on his mind. Step; thrust backhand; up, over and down -- hold position; complete the arc; swing around in a backhand smash to the head....
The worst part was knowing that, just as Steve was possessed of all Belevairn's knowledge, Belevairn knew everything that Steve had ever been taught. Step; swing the blade back, down and up to the opponent's left knee. Complete the arc; step; bring the blade up against the right knee....
He had seen what even incomplete knowledge could do in the hands of a sorcerer when he had taught Artemas about lightning. What could Belevairn, with a thorough understanding of basic physics, accomplish? Step; swing down in an overhand smash to the head. Arrest the arc; step; swing back, forward and up between the opponent's legs....
The possibilities were horrifying. Steve resheathed the sword, glancing up at the window to the dorm room he shared with Frank. No matter what Belevairn did, it no longer concerned Steve -- it was time to get on with his own life....
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