By Joelle Thomas

The wind ripped through the night like an icy fang, and Leander was still trying to get his bearings when the first of several wolf howls vibrated in the air. He shivered and wondered why he'd boasted of his bravery in the presence of a wizard. Too much wine, Leander decided, as he rubbed his stiff hands together. Why couldn't that old druid do this himself?

With an irritated grunt, Leander looked over the ancient castle in front of him. The Warlock Lord had an impeccable sense of design-- the skull over the door was an especially nice touch. Leander grunted again and grasped the doorknob in his hand, giving it a sharp tug. The door remained closed. Leander spent several more seconds locked in a futile tug-of-war game before releasing the knob and glaring at it.

Well, of course the front door would be locked, Leander mused. No warlock worth his wand would welcome an invader. Frowning, Leander tried to recall the wizard Lakmir's final words at the dinner party. Unfortunately, Leander found it difficult to remember anything but the wine. He sat in the cold grass and rested his head in his hands.

After several minutes' thought, Leander managed to reconstruct most of the evening. He had arrived early at the dinner party with his fellow knights, all of whom were all more interested in the free food and drink than the warlock problem. Somewhere in the middle of Leander's third helping of pot roast, Lakmir-- that senile old bore-- had started lamenting the lack of any real heroes in the kingdom. Here Leander had risen to his feet and given a slightly colored version of his exploits as a junior knight. After all, he'd reasoned, giants, tall peasants-- same thing. The wizard had been delighted by Leander's account, and, after a lengthy spiel about the dangers of castle Shadowgate and the cunning of the Warlock Lord, he had proceeded to teleport the tipsy young knight to the entrance of Shadowgate. The pot roast had been exceptionally juicy that evening, marinated with--

Leander knocked himself in the head and tried to rewind his thoughts to the Lakmir's spiel. "The Warlock Lord is one highly fond of tricks and puzzles," the wizard had said, his beard bobbing with the motion of his chin. "Be on thy guard. 'Tis said that a thousand death-traps lie concealed within castle Shadowgate."

Leander mentally paused the speech and cursed his big mouth.

"Access to Shadowgate is well-guarded," Lakmir continued. "But the Warlock Lord hath a spare key, which he keepeth under the skull of his father."

Not caring to remember any more of the wizard's advice, Leander stood and grabbed the skull in both hands, giving it a good wrench. Much to his surprise, the skull slid away to reveal a key.

"Ha! Too easy!" he muttered, taking the key and inserting it into the lock. The door gave way to his pull, and Leander dropped the key into his knapsack and strode into the castle.

He found himself in a spacious vestibule, where an expensive Persian rug led to another door. The rug commanded little of Leander's attention, however; he was more concerned with the huge pair of yellow eyes that hovered like balloons near the ceiling. The eyes suddenly fixed upon Leander and laughed. Something about that struck Leander as impossible, and he was relieved when the phantom pupils vanished with a pop.

"That wizard Lakmir was a fool to send a buffoon like you here!" boomed a voice, which Leander assumed belonged to the Warlock Lord. "You will surely regret it, for the only thing for you here is a horrible death!" The same wild laughter echoed through the room for a few moments; then all was silent.

Leander considered. He could continue and face all manner of potential deaths, or he could risk the wolves and try running home. The abundance of wine in Leander's system helped him make the decision. "Bring it on!" he thundered, marching to the inner door. He started to turn the knob; then, with a sudden dramatic impulse, he kicked the door soundly. A sore foot persuaded him to use the traditional method instead.

The next room appeared to be only a curving hall, which continued around a bend into deeper areas of the castle. Leander did note one item of interest: an ancient tome, resting on a stone shelf with two candles to light it. He blew several inches of dust from the leather binding and opened to a random page.

He found a key stuck in a hollow area between the covers. Leander grinned and pocketed it, then, bowing to a kleptomaniacal whim, grabbed the book as well. The next thing he felt was the floor collapsing beneath him. A rain of stone blocks followed, and Leander quickly blacked out.

He came to his senses with a start. His first thought was that he wanted pot roast; his next, that he wasn't hungry. The unusualness of that thought prompted Leander to investigate further, whereupon he discovered that he didn't feel much of anything. He blinked and realized that he stood in a thick gray mist.

Suddenly Leander stiffened; he sensed a cold presence behind him. He whirled around and saw a tall skeleton, its white bones draped with a black robe, carrying a scythe in its hand.

"This way..." the skeleton said. The voice made Leander cringe; it reminded him of something from a childhood nightmare, and the chill pitch sent shivers through his legs. The skeleton slowly turned and gestured with a scythe. His thoughts fuzzy, Leander started to follow; then he blinked and planted his feet.

"Stop that!" he snapped. Leander tried to shake the fog out of his head and made himself dizzy in the process. "Look, I'm used to the pink elephants," he said once he had his bearings again. "The dancing bears were okay, too. But you're... just... not them." Leander squinted at the skeleton. "What have you done with my elephants?"

The skeleton stopped and turned with a low, exasperated noise. "You're dead, not drunk," it said flatly. "I'm here to fetch your soul. This way..."

"Aw, come off it," Leander snorted. "I'm not dead." He crossed his arms, then realized that he could see through himself.

"Of course you're not," the skeleton said with a placating nod. "Now come this way..."

The gears clicked slowly in Leander's brain. He could remember grabbing a book and hearing the floor collapse beneath him. Memories of being pummeled by rocks made him wince. So why, he wondered, didn't his head hurt now?

A vague but persistent realization began to buzz in his mind. As an experiment, Leander tried to clap; his hands passed through each other. He wrinkled his forehead, and an idea took root-- an impressive feat, considering the lack of fertile ground. "Now just a minute, here," Leander said, holding up his forefinger. "You're-- you're that Death guy, aren't you? The Grim Reaper?" Without waiting for an answer, Leander said, "Well, I'm not moving, because I'm not dead. Heroes don't get killed five minutes after starting a quest."

"The stupid ones do," the skeleton replied evenly. "This way..."

"Would you shut up with that?" Leander snapped. He placed his spectral hands defiantly in his pockets and felt his fingers brush something.

A few more lines of Lakmir's spiel played in his mind: "Thou mayest die in such a stronghold of darkness as castle Shadowgate; therefore, I send thee with tokens that thou mayest redeem thyself a few times."

Death broke in on his thoughts at that point by saying, "Come this way, now. I wouldn't want to have to drag you."

"Get back!" Leander cried. "I have, er..." He fished frantically in his pockets, then withdrew his hand with a triumphant grin. "Continue Tokens! Or something. I made up the name just now." He opened his fist to reveal a black coin with a white "c" etched in the center.

The Reaper peered at the object. "Lakmir's, no doubt," he said. "Well, then. I'm obligated to accept this, but I'll have you sooner or later. Pleasant journey to you." Death took the coin and walked away, his scythe glinting against the fog. Leander made a face at him.

A moment later Leander felt the mists clearing, and he found himself in the corridor, standing before the open book. He slammed it shut and dashed off down the hall.

The room beyond split into three separate hallways. Leander considered his options, and after a moment's thought, he settled upon his usual method of problem-solving.

"Eeny, meeny, miney, moe," he muttered to himself. "Catch a tiger by his toe. If he hollers..." Leander stopped and scratched his head, unable to recall the rest of the rhyme. Oh, well, he thought, observing that his finger was pointed towards the left-hand door. Looks as good as any of them.

Leander opened the door with a flourish and strode into an ice-cold room, where, shivering, he immediately began to look for exit. A door stood in the opposite wall with a stone pedestal beside it, and a trapdoor lay directly in front of him. Leander was cold; the trapdoor was near. Comfort prevailed. Kneeling on the icy floor, Leander opened the trap door and felt warmer air coming from beneath it. Much better. Eagerly he began to descend the wooden ladder, hoping to find a nice cooking-fire below; instead he felt one of the wooden rungs snap under his weight. Leander plummeted like a wingless moth, flailing wildly until he crashed into the distant floor.

"Fancy meeting you here," said an impassive voice as he came to.

Leander glanced around and grunted when he saw his translucent arms and a preponderance of mist. Lacking a word to express his discontent, Leander blew a loud raspberry in the Reaper's direction.

"You used your token," Death reminded him. "Now, come this--"

"Oh, no, you don't," Leander snapped. "I've got more. Lots more." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a second coin, which he tossed to the Reaper with a smirk.

The skeleton turned the coin over suspiciously in his hand. "Define 'lots.'"

Leander jangled his right pocket. "Oh, I'd say a few dozen..." He paused for effect. "Dozen."

Death suddenly seemed even paler. He tapped his bony fingers against his scythe in something very near despair, then lifted the coin to examine it again. Leander cocked his head to one side and whistled cheerfully, which brought the Reaper out of whatever reflections he had been engaged in. "Very well, then," Death said with a confidence that sounded forced. "You can't be that gifted in mathematics. Shall I see you again in another five minutes?"

"Shut up."

Leander actually saw him again three minutes later, after trying to drag a giant treasure chest from the lair of the castle dragon. He went four more rounds with the beast before Death said dryly, "There's a shield in there, isn't there? Go see if it's fireproof. And leave the gold alone." Leander groused but did as he was told.

The scenario repeated itself with every room in the castle as Leander boldly shattered a mirror that transported him into deep space, charged headfirst at a fire drakee, tried to hoodwink a surprisingly astute troll, and familiarized himself with every pit he encountered.

"Consider trying another mirror," the Reaper said.

"What do you think that freezing cold orb is for?" the Reaper said.

"Just impale the damn thing," the Reaper said.

"What the hell is so magnetic about every goddamn drop-off?" the Reaper said.

He hadn't seemed too pleased that last time, Leander reflected. Rather like the time that Leander guzzled from the fountain in the castle gardens. Well, it sure as hell looked like water.

But despite his setbacks, Leander managed to solve every puzzle and evade all manner of death traps as he added a number of bizarre but no doubt useful items to his knapsack, including a set of unintelligible scrolls and a small arsenal of sharp objects. The fact he died an average of six times per trap did nothing to dampen his self-esteem.

In fact, the first obstacle that took any wind from his sails was a furry, talking roadblock that called itself a Sphinx.

Leander's initial reaction to seeing a man-faced lion lying in front of the stairway was to kick it. When that proved futile, he braced his legs against the floor and tried to push the beast. It wouldn't budge. Clenching his teeth, Leander grabbed the Sphinx's tail and yanked.

Immediately he was hurled through the air and flung into the far wall. Leander sank to the ground with a painful moan, then looked up to see the Sphinx watching him impassively.

"Move!" he bellowed, gesturing with his hand. The monster didn't even bother to blink. "Stupid cat," Leander muttered, standing and brushing the dust from his armor. He kicked the Sphinx again and gave himself a sore foot.

"First burnt and beaten," began a stony voice. Leander jumped and glanced at the Sphinx, which had begun to move its mouth in a deliberate, statuesque way. The Sphinx's words echoed through the room: "Drowned and pierced with nails, then stepped on by long-faced animals." Without so much as a flicker of emotion, the Sphinx closed its mouth and looked expectantly at Leander.

Leander stared back. "Huh?"

The Sphinx's tail began to twitch, but the beast gave no other acknowledgement of the knight's reply.

"Creepy bastard," Leander muttered. He debated trying to pass the monster again, but his impact against the wall was still fresh in his mind. Scowling, Leander tapped the ground with his foot, then glared at the Sphinx and said, "I just want to go upstairs, okay? I don't even want to know what you were talking about. So I'm just gonna walk past you, and you can go talk to yourself or something. Okay?"

The Sphinx made no reply.

"Good," Leander said, swallowing hard. "Now I'll just-- uh--" To his surprise, the Sphinx rose stiffly and shuffled to the right, allowing Leander passage to the stairs. Uncertain what to make of the monster's sudden amicability, but unwilling to waste an opportunity, he nodded and walked forward. The Sphinx's eyes followed him indifferently.

Leander's hands were shaky and his mouth dry by the time he reached the monster. The staircase was only a few feet away, past the silent mass of Sphinx. Holding his breath, Leander took his first step past the beast.

One of the Sphinx's paws shot out and decapitated Leander with a single swipe.

Leander gasped and clamped a hand to his neck as familiar mists swirled around him. "What," he heard the Reaper's voice ask, "did you expect? That the Sphinx would just let you walk past?"

"Shut up." Leander's reply was mostly perfunctory, as he was still engaged in determining that his head was in place. Satisfied that it was, Leander turned to Death and asked, "Just what was that thing talking about, anyway?"

Death made an exasperated sound that Leander had long-since grown accustomed to. "A riddle," he said flatly. "Sphinxes create riddles. It's their sole reason for existence." He extended his hand. "Pay up."

Leander automatically handed him a token as he persisted, "But what was it talking about?"

The Reaper glared at him, which was quite interesting given his lack of skin and facial muscles. "Think about it for a minute. 'Long-faced animals.' What long-faced animals step on an object, which we'll assume to be metal, that's full of nails?"

Leander considered. "Dolphins?"

Death pressed his bony fingers against his forehead, then asked, carefully enunciating each syllable, "Do dolphins step?"

"Er, I guess not... Damn!" Leander stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Birds?"

There was a long silence, during which Death seemed to be fighting a migraine. "Not... birds," he managed at last. "Birds fly. Dolphins swim. Let's try something that walks. Can you think of an animal that walks, eats hay, and has hooves and a tail?"

"A cow?"

The Reaper's knuckles made a cracking sound against his scythe. "What do you wear on your feet, adventurer?"

Leander knew this one: "Socks!"

The silence this time was one of exasperated despair. Several times Death opened his mouth to speak, and each time seemed to think better of it, closing his mouth and staring into the distance with an inscrutable expression. Leander shifted his weight uncomfortably.

"Well?" he said when it became clear that the Reaper was not going to talk.

"Well, what?" Death snapped. "You've proven yourself to be such an absolute pinhead that the Sphinx could spell the answer out for you, and you'd never get it! Is there anything at all in that swelled head of yours?"

Leander shrugged.

"I thought so." With an irritated snort, Death turned and faded into the fog. "Well, I quit."

Leander's face burned as he shouted, "Then how the hell am I supposed to figure it out?"

A horseshoe came spinning out of the mist and knocked him on the back of his head.

Leander dealt with the Sphinx by hurling the answer at its nose, whereupon it promptly disappeared. He allowed himself a moment of gloating before rushing up the stairs.

At the top Leander found a beautiful young woman who, despite being chained to the floor, looked neither worried nor miserable. Her long-lashed eyes lit up when she saw him. "My hero," she purred seductively, using her arms to push herself up from where she had been lying. "Come here and let me show you how lonely I've been." She winked and blew Leander a kiss.

The fact that she turned into a giant wolf and tore him to shreds when he approached her did nothing to dilute the strength of Leander's hormones. In fact, he repeated the incident five times before Death snapped and ordered him to equip his bow and arrow and aim for the voice. Leander sulkily complied. But when he discovered a sharp object behind the corpse of the monster, his mood improved. New toy. Shoving it into his pack with a grin, Leander headed back downstairs to see what havoc he could wreak upon the castle's denizens.

A casual search of the nearby rooms turned up no denizens, but Leander did manage to wander out onto the castle walls, where he discovered a pot of gold. He snatched it and immediately plummeted to the earth in a hail of stone.

After enduring an exceptionally cranky tirade from the Reaper, Leander paid a token and tried after the gold again. And again.

Despite Death's obvious irritation, the knight decided to make one more go for the money, this time by creeping slowly toward it and easing the pot back with his fingers. His idea worked for the half-second before the floor fell away.

The Reaper, whose mood was deteriorating fast, greeted him by growling, "Why can't you just kill the Warlock Lord, go home, grow old, and stop bothering me?"

"I'm trying!" Leander shot back.

His reply brought about a long silence. "You are, aren't you?" the skeleton muttered at length, tapping his fingers against his scythe. "Damn Lakmir. This could go on for days." Death's shudder filled the air with a clanking noise.

"Ha, ha." Leander scowled and flipped a Continue Token to the Reaper. "Maybe if you'd give me a hint every once in while, I wouldn't have to figure everything out myself."

Death gave a quietly despairing laugh as the mists dissolved around Leander for the fourth time in ten minutes.

A few hours later Leander stood at the entrance to the Warlock Lord's lair. His pack now bulged with items, most of them of no apparent use, and his armor was dull and scratched from the adventures that he had survived. Leander took that as a good sign. After the incident with the gold, the knight had gotten himself killed an average of only two times per room-- mostly thanks to the Reaper's increasingly blatant clues. And he had even begun picking up speed. At this rate, Leander stood a chance of getting out of the castle by dawn. He whistled cheerily and studied the final obstacle between himself and the cause of his troubles: a stone door.

Normally the knight would have solved the problem with one of the various pointy implements of destruction in his knapsack, but he suspected that none of them would do much to solid rock. Grunting, Leander glanced around for an alternate entrance. His eyes fell on three sun-shaped cavities in the wall.

A memory began to stir, decided that it wasn't worth the effort, and slid back into oblivion. Leander frowned and began to dig through his knapsack. Something, he imagined, fit in one of the holes, but he wasn't sure what. As he continued to fumble through his mass of items, Leander felt his hand strike something sharp.

"Ouch!" he yelped, clutching his sore fingers. Once Leander and his pride had recovered, the knight reached carefully into his pack and withdrew a yellow disc edged with pointed rays.

His memory rallied.

Visions of indecipherable scrolls danced briefly through Leander's head, prompting him to compare the item in his hand to the leftmost depression in the wall. "One gives access, the bladed sun" had never made a whiff of sense to him-- but Leander did discover that the spiked disc fit into the hole. He watched the door slide open with a smirk. Another point for me, he thought, drawing his sword with an exaggerated dramatic flair. He flared too much. Muttering curses under his breath, Leander rubbed at the area where his theatrics had cut his left arm.

The stone doorway led to a cavern, where a scrawny, ancient man whom Leander took to be the Warlock Lord crouched on a stone dais beside the edge of a cliff. One of his gnarled hands clutched a silver wand; the other held a small pouch, and his stooped shoulders supported a heavy purple cloak. This proved to be a most unfortunate choice of attire, as the thick fabric only accented the skinniness of his limbs, and his beard was hopelessly entangled in a complex series of clasps. Before him was something resembling a stone birdbath, in which a pink fire blazed. Muttering words that flew through Leander's ears without managing to nudge his brain, the old man took a handful of green powder from the pouch and sprinkled it into the flames.

An ear-splitting roar blasted Leander to the ground. The clatter of his armor and hot-tempered string of curses were fortunately drowned out by the sound of a twenty-ton Behemoth rising from the black chasm, crushing rock and stone with the twitching of its tail. Leander stared at the pink nightmare in shocked silence.

"Oh, isn't him a good little boy?" the Warlock Lord crooned. The Behemoth bellowed again and took out a section of stalactites with its forehead.

Leander swallowed nervously and tried to remember what Lakmir had told him to do about the Behemoth. He came up blank. Cursing the pot roast for being more memorable than the old wizard, Leander rose to his feet and drew his sword.

"Hey," he called, not loudly enough for the Warlock Lord to hear him. "I'm gonna kick your ass."

"Does him like peanuts?" the old man went on, digging through his oversized robes. "I'll bet him does."

Leander let out a long, noisy breath, then narrowed his eyes at the elderly wizard. It was now or never, as far as he was concerned. With a mighty roar, Leander lunged forward with his sword out.

The Warlock Lord stiffened at the sound, then turned and blasted Leander with a huge fireball.

Leander awoke with the sound of slow clapping echoing in his ears. "Congratulations," the Reaper said dryly. "You were in that room a good minute before you killed yourself."

"Hmph." Leander muttered a few curses under his breath as he reached into his right pocket to pull out another coin. His hand brushed only cloth. With a tiny "eep!" Leander frantically turned the pocket inside-out, then began digging in the left one.

Death made a low sound that could have been a chuckle. "Oh, how fitting. You bumble all the way here and--"

The Reaper stopped short as Leander smirked. "I'm still bumbling," he announced, holding out his hand to display another black token.

For a long moment, Death was silent. Then he asked, "How do intend to kill that Behemoth?"

"I'm gonna rush it again."

The Reaper nodded slowly. "And how many of those tokens do you have in your left pocket?"

"As many as I had in my right."

Death suddenly grabbed Leander's pack from him and ripped it open. "Dammit," he snapped, "this is taking all night! Didn't you read those scrolls?"

Leander scratched his head and replied, "Well, I tried to, but they were in, uh, Old English or something. And they rhymed. Gave me a headache." He narrowed his eyes. "Wait a minute... What are you doing to my stuff?"

Death growled and pulled out the Staff of Ages. "'Five to find, three are one,'" he snapped, glaring at Leander as he removed the Silver Orb and the Blade from the pack. "What the hell is so hard about that?" Still muttering to himself, Death stuck the two items to the staff. To Leander's astonishment, the staff glowed and absorbed them, reforming itself into a dangerous-looking weapon.

"Wow," he said appreciatively. "I never knew they'd do that."

The Reaper used the staff to club Leander over the head. "Now give me that token and go point this thing at the Behemoth, understand? Just hold the staff and point it towards the big, pink monster. Don't yell, don't laugh, don't try to rush the Warlock Lord--"

"All right, all right!" Leander grabbed the Staff of Ages and sulkily extended his Continue Token. "I'm not stupid."

"I have my doubts." Death turned to leave, then stopped and said, "Point it at the monster, now. Not the rock wall. The monster is the one that breathes."

Leander shot a bird at the fading image of the Reaper.

As reality faded back in, Leander tightened his grip on the staff and watched the Warlock Lord summon the Behemoth again. Shaking his head and ignoring the question of temporal backtracking, the knight raised the Raising the Staff of Ages overhead. Leander felt an immense power building up in it that filled his ears with a dull humming sound. The end of the staff glowed white-hot.

With a cry of "Eat holy goodness, monster!", Leander leveled the Staff of Ages at the Behemoth.

An explosion resounded from somewhere overhead.

Leander blinked quizzically as the Warlock Lord and the Behemoth shrieked but remained alive and intact. Frowning, he looked up and saw a crater in the stone ceiling, indicating that he had taken a few seconds too long to aim his blast. Leander shrugged and pointed the staff at the Behemoth again.

This time, a beam of light shot out from the tip of the staff and pounded into the monster's pink hide. Bellowing madly, the Behemoth flailed its arms and tail, knocking the screaming Warlock Lord off the cliff. Leander cheered and whistled. Still thrashing, the beast howled once at Leander, then disintegrated with a pop.

Leander grinned. Bellowing an appropriately triumphant drinking song, he raised the Staff of Ages to blast a victory hole into the ceiling. His plans were cut short when the staff reverted to its base components and rained down on his head.

"Cheap crap," he muttered, kicking the Silver Orb. It smacked into the nearby wall with enough force to lift Leander's spirits. Turning to leave, he caught a glimpse of the Reaper rising from the crevice with the Warlock Lord in tow.

"Congratulations," Death said dryly. His skeletal fingers rattled as he gripped the Warlock Lord by the collar of his robe and began dragging the disgruntled old man toward the door, which required him to walk past Leander.

"Woah," the knight said, backing away and holding up a hand. "I'm not dead. Leave me alone."

"I know you're not," the Reaper snapped. Still clutching the Warlock Lord with one hand, he pointed a skeletal finger in Leander's face and growled, "And you'd better not be dead for a long time. It'll take me at least half a century to be able to hear your name without screaming." Death turned and began to drag his quarry away in a huff.

Leander snorted. "Yeah, well, I'm not going to stay dead anytime soon."

A sudden flash of black cloth and bone knocked Leander to the ground. Once he had blinked and managed to re-orient himself, Leander saw the last of his Continue Tokens disappear into the Reaper's robe. "Now just a minute--" he began indignantly.

"Shut up." Death's fingers tightened noticeably on the Warlock Lord's collar as he resumed walking. "I got you out of this mess, and now I'm going to destroy even the faintest trace of these things. I absolutely cannot and will not tolerate any future resurrections."

"Resurrections?" the Warlock Lord squealed. "Give me one! I demand it! It's not fair otherwise!" His high-pitched pleas ended abruptly when the Reaper conked him over the head with his scythe.

Leander watched them disappear around the corner, then shrugged and waved.

Joelle Thomas' Fanfiction