"Yes," the girl nodded, crossing her arms across her chest and running her hands over them. "Thank you. I don’t wish to become a pest. I guess I’m still not over the attack. Why, if you hadn’t come along…" Her voice trailed off.
"But I did," Zatora stated, taking her sword and leaning it against the fallen tree she sat on. "So, it does no good to dwell on what might have happened otherwise."
"I know you’re right," the girl agreed. "That, however, doesn’t make it any easier to forget what those two bandits might have done. Does it?"
Zatora smiled. "No. I don’t guess it does. You got a name?"
"Meleesa, mistress," she answered, with a slight bow.
"Well, Meleesa," Zatora added, "perhaps in the future, when you ponder whether to wander into the woods alone, you’ll remember what almost happened this afternoon, and think twice before heading out."
Meleesa’s mood change instantly, going from frightened to angry at a blink. "I did not just wander off aimlessly, you know?" she told the swordswoman. "It just so happens that I was on a mission."
"Oh, were you, now?" Zatora smiled, amused at the girl’s sudden bravado. "And just what ‘mission’ was it that made you put yourself in harm’s way."
"Not that it’s any of your concern," Meleesa scowled, "but I was on my way to avenge my sister, who was the victim of a wicked sorceress."
Now it was Zatora’s mood that changed. "Sorceress?" she repeated. "You’re speaking of Elmora, aren’t you? Tell me, girl, do you know how to find that infernal witch’s fortress?"
Meleesa sat and looked at her rescuer carefully. After a moment, she said, "I’ve told you my name, mistress, but you haven’t told me yours."
"My name is Zatora."
That simple statement was enough to make Meleesa forget all about that afternoon. "Zatora!" she shouted. "The Wizard Killer! You’re that Zatora?"
"I’ve been called that, yes," Zatora nodded. "Now, answer me, girl. Do you know where I can find Elmora’s fortress?"
"Yes!" Meleesa almost shouted. "Yes! I was on the way there when those bastards attacked me. I was going to kill her for what she did to my sister, Jacine."
"Let me guess," Zatora said quietly. "She turned your sister to stone. Didn’t she?"
"Yes," Meleesa answered, her enthusiasm instantly gone. "It is how she ‘rewards’ all the young woman of our village."
"That what she calls it," Meleesa explained. "Once a maiden from our village reaches the age when she can start courting, Elmora shows up to ‘judge’ them. If she determines that they are pretty enough, she ‘rewards’ them. She turns them to stone, claiming that she is preserving their beauty for all time."
"Typical," Zatora spit out. "Truth is she’s probably afraid of the competition. What does she do with the ‘winners’ after she makes statues out of them?"
Meleesa sighed. "She takes them back to her fortress and puts them on display. That is where Jacine is now. Probably standing in the witch’s garden." She suddenly looked excited. "But now she will be avenged. Now that the Wizard Killer is here. That is why you’re here. Isn’t it, Zatora? You’re here to kill Elmora."
"I heard about a sorceress named Elmora terrorizing a small village," Zatora nodded. "Yes, I came to kill her, but not to avenge your sister or any of the other young women from your village. I’ll kill her for the same reason that I’ve sworn to kill all magic users."
Meleesa looked confused. "Why?"
Zatora just stared off into the dark woods. "That is my concern, child. Not yours."
Both were silent for a time, then Meleesa spoke up. "Well, I don’t care about why you kill her, just so long as you do. And you will. I’ve heard all about you, Zatora. I’ve heard about how you killed Darnac the Ruthless. And Konine the Enchantress. Elmora is nothing compared to them. Oh, yes. You’ll kill her alright."
Zatora just shook her head. Silly, child, she thought. Even a low-level magic user is nothing to take lightly.
"Zatora?" the girl asked, turning suddenly serious. "They say that magic doesn’t work on you. Is that true?"
The swordswoman eyed the girl carefully before answering. "It is true that I have protection from magic," she said with a nod.
"What kind of protection?"
Zatora sighed. It was obvious that she would get no rest that night. She pulled the medallion from her shirt. "This is my protection," she stated. "A gift from an old friend."
"That necklace?" Meleesa asked, apparently unimpressed with the amulet’s small size. "How can that protect you from magic?"
"By being magic itself," Zatora said, her lack of patience beginning to show. "When worn, it surrounds the wearer in a magic shield."
"Magic shield?" the girl repeated.
"Yes," the older woman nodded. "Like a second skin. It covers every part of the wearer’s body and lets no magic – spell or weapon – through. It has saved my life many times."
The girl stared at the amulet in wonder. "Can I…" she started to say, then stopped to look up into Zatora’s eyes. "Can I hold it?"
Zatora couldn’t help but smile. Yawetag protect me from hero worshippers, she silently prayed. "Very well," she said, lifting the thin chain over her head. "But just for a second. Then, we need to get some sleep. In the morning, you can guide me to Elmora’s fortress." Balling the chain around the small medallion, she tossed it over the fire to the girl on the other side.
"Oh," Meleesa said, after catching it, "I don’t think that will be necessary."
Zatora knew immediately that something was wrong. She made a quick grab for her sword, only to have it fly away from her and disappear into the woods. Looking up at the girl, she saw her pointing off in the direction that her weapon had gone. Zatora leapt to her feet, but Meleesa gestured at the ground beneath her, and the swordswoman found that she couldn’t make a move from where she stood.
She looked up into Meleesa’s grinning face, and said one word. "Elmora."
As she watched, the girl began to change. She grew taller by at least eight inches, her blonde hair darkening into pitch black. Her simple peasant dress became a close-fitting garment that hide none of the woman’s voluptuous figure. But the biggest change was in attitude. Gone was the innocence that had lulled Zatora into the trap, replaced by what could only be called pure evil.
"Hello, Zatora," the witch grinned. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Anger burned in Zatora’s eyes. "So, there never was a Meleesa," she said. "Was there?"
"Oh, I’m not that good an actress," Elmora told her, with a shake of her head. "There was indeed a real Meleesa. And she did come looking for me to get revenge for her sister. Silly girl."
"And where is she now?"
"Now?" The witch looked confused. "Why, with her sister, of course. The two stand across from each other in the foyer of my fortress. Quite a lovely pair they are, too."
"And what of me?" Zatora asked. "I suppose that I am destined for your foyer, as well."
"You?" Elmora laughed. "In the foyer. Oh, no. A prize as special as you deserves a place of honor. You, my dear Zatora, shall be placed above the fountain in my garden. There you will serve as both a lovely decoration, and a monument to my greatness."
This time it was Zatora’s turn to laugh. "Greatness. And what makes you so great, witch?"
The smile never left Elmora’s face, though Zatora could see the anger in her eyes. "You slew both Darnac and Konine, woman. I did not lie when I said that I was nothing next to them. Not on a power level, at least. But intelligence is as important as power in magic. I’d hear that you had some kind of protection from magic. When I heard that you were in the area looking for me, I knew it would be foolhardy to face you if my magic would do me no good."
"No," Zatora was forced to agree. "You magic users are terrible fighters. I’d have slain you with no problem."
"True," Elmora nodded. "So, I had to find out what protected you, and get it from you." She looked at the small amulet in her hand, and shook her head. "Who’d have thought that a little trinket like this could be so powerful." She slipped the chain over her head, letting the medallion hang between her breasts.
"So, now what?" Zatora asked defiantly.
"Well," the witch grinned, "I could ask you to walk back to my fortress with me and climb up onto your pedestal, but somehow I don’t think you’d be willing." The look in Zatora’s eyes told her she was correct. "Then, I guess we’ll just have to take care of you here. I can always send some of my men back after you later. You won’t be going anywhere, after all."
Zatora stood up straight. "Then get it over with, witch," she said, placing her hands on her hips. "I grow tired of your gloating."
"Very well," Elmora told her, arranging her hands in the necessary position for the spell. "Goodbye, Zatora." She began to recite in a language that the swordswoman didn’t understand, while making sweeping gestures with her hands. She ended with her hands pointed at her victim in a showy manner.
And Zatora smiled.
Looking across the fire, the warrior watched as Elmora’s eyes widened in confusion. The witch remained motionless, her hands still frozen in the position they had assumed at the end of the spell. As she watched, Zatora could see that the hands had turned hard and white – the color of cold marble.
Walking cautiously around the fire, she looked into the frightened eyes of her enemy, who didn’t move at all. The marble had spread, encasing the witch’s arms in stone. "Well," Zatora said, getting right in Elmora’s face, "I guess you’re wondering what’s happening. Well, I’ll tell you. You’re turning to stone. And the best part is that I didn’t have to do a thing. You did it all yourself."
She walked behind the unmoving woman, noting that the stone had reached her shoulders, and was beginning to engulf her upper body. She came back around to where Elmora could see her. "Wondering how?" she asked. "Let me explain, then. It’s the amulet. You’ll remember that I told you that it forms a magic shield around its wearer, and that that shield doesn’t allow magic to pass through. Now, normally that would mean that your magic couldn’t get in to me. However, with you wearing the amulet, your magic can’t get out."
She stood back and laughed, watching as the witch’s spell worked its magic. The stone had already taken most of Elmora’s body, leaving just her head free.
"Now, I suppose that you could free yourself," Zatora grinned, "but I saw your spell. It seemed to require a lot of hand gestures. I can only assume the counter-spell would work the same way." She used her own knuckle to rap on the marble hand of the sorceress. "I think you’ve got a problem with that." She looked into Elmora’s eyes. "So, I guess you will be the monument, witch. Not me."
And the marble closed over Elmora’s head, finishing her transformation.
Zatora reached out and held the medallion in her hand. "I believe this is mine," she said, giving a solid yank that caused the chain to break from around the statue’s marble neck. With a last look into the witch’s petrified face, she turned and went in search of her weapon.