Author's Note: I know this story is moving along a little slowly, but still . . . This chapter sort of starts the journey and introduces the main characters . . .

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Chapter 3

Talena nudged her mount into a fast trot as the castle came into view. As she approached the gates, she was hailed by one of the sentries.

"Good mornin' lass, what brings you to the castle?"

Lena stayed her horse and shouted back. "I come from Azule, and have come in response to a message sent me by the Archmage."

The guard scrutinized her appearance for a moment-the bow and quiver slung over her shoulder and the sunlight glinting off the sword at her side- before waving her on. The moment she passed into the courtyard, her senses felt a dark presence somewhere within the castle walls. She was instantly alert, scanning her surroundings with skills sharpened by years of experience with the creatures of night and shadows. Her mental search was interrupted by a cheerful, tenor voice.

"Hello, who are you? I've never seen you before. Are you here for the council meeting?"

Lena turned to face the speaker. He was a tall youth with golden brown hair and gray eyes. He smiled brightly and held out his hand.

"My name's Aleth. What's yours?"

She shook his hand, smiling. "I'm Talena. By any chance, do you know why the Archmage asked me to come?"

Aleth looked thoughtful. "Well, he hasn't told us yet. We'll be meeting in the council room this evening." His eyes brightened. "Come on, I'll show you around and introduce you to the others."

With that he was off, heading in the direction of the gardens.

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Bard Evan Starsinger glanced up from his harp as Aleth came through the trees, almost bouncing with excitement, followed by a brown-haired girl with sharp green eyes currently sparkling with amusement.

"Evan! We've got a guest! This is Talena and she's from Azule! I've never been to Azule, have you?"

The silver-haired Bard replaced the harp in its black leather case and stood up to greet them.

"For that matter, Leth, I have." He turned to the girl and said politely, "Hi, my name's Evan."

"I think I've seen you before," Lena stated. "Have you ever played for Lord Breyan of Keron?"

Evan was surprised. "Indeed I have."

She smiled. "I enjoyed your playing."

They were interrupted by the arrival of a page. As soon as the boy regained his breath, he began talking. "Mage Heleth would like to see the three of you in the council room as soon as possible."

"But I thought the meeting was to be later this evening," Evan remarked, puzzled.

The boy shrugged. "He just asked me to get you. He didn't brief me on the details."

"All right, we'll be there in a moment."

The page nodded and ran off again.

Heleth greeted them with a worried frown on his face, beckoning them inside.

"Where's Cal?" he asked as they all took seats around the table.

"Here."

A dark robed figure stepped from the shadows, taking a seat next to Aleth. Talena's attention was instantly snared by the feeling of darkness that seemed to emanate from the new arrival. His pointed ears-identical to Evan's-showed that he was an elf, but not just any type of elf. Everything about him was dark save for his eyes, which were an icy blue. He was a Dark Elf, one of the deadliest races in the world-and one of the most feared.

Lena's hand tightened on the hilt of her sword as he caught her gaze. His eyes were cold and something about the feel of his power sent all her senses jingling in warning.

Heleth coughed slight, breaking the sudden silence. "I am sure you are all anxious to know why you are here. You have all heard of the return of the Cat King? There is a prophecy stating that the only one capable of bringing the fall of King Tarzor is one born of light yet with the heritage of a Ghost Cat."

"But that's impossible," Talena cut in. "Aren't Ghost Cats supposed to be creatures of the night and the shadows of the Deeps?"

"Normally, yes," Heleth replied. "But there are always exceptions to the rules."

"I've heard this tale before," Evan remarked. "It is said that years ago, someone-I don't know the name-was caught by a mage and merged with the panther spirit, one of the three Great Cats left from the Cat King's first reign."

The Archmage nodded. "Only one thing puzzles me. The mage would have had to be an incredibly powerful necromancer to perform the Merging Ritual. Stranger still, the knowledge of the sacred spells were supposed to have been lost centuries before."

The Dark Elf sat back, crossing his arms. "Let me get this straight. You want us to find the one of which this prophecy speaks?"

"That and one more thing," Heleth agreed. "To complete the sealing of the Cat King, we will need a certain item known as the Terantys Dagger, which you will find in the Dark Lord's fortress at Shade Vale."

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Calastral sat calmly astride his white stallion Nightstar as he waited for the others to get ready. Aleth was just walking his black mare Arrowheart into the courtyard and Evan was strapping his weapon-a long silver pole-to his horse's saddle. His gaze went from them to Talena who was already mounted on her chestnut mare. He could sense her unease and mistrust toward him, but this mattered little to the Dark Elf. His race had earned their reputation.

Lena glanced around as Aleth swung into the saddle. "I thought there was supposed to be one more person coming with us?"

"You thought right."

They turned in the direction of the voice. Standing several feet from the gate was a figure dressed in blue robes with black hair and startling gold eyes. What really made Lena stare though was the fact that she could see right through him.

Aleth grinned wryly. "This is Kyle, he's our seer. As you've noticed, he's not exactly-ah-in the land of the living."

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