The palace disappeared from one second to the other. Neldor and Qildor jumped to their feet. The abyss had disappeared. The material world had returned to their original shape. The sky was blue and the sun was out and shed a warm light.
Ogol and Magath were lying on the path that led up to the Castle of Saelethiel. They did not move. Their bodies were lifeless and numb.
Qildor instantly started to run. He hurried to Magath. Neldor took a deep breath. A shiver ran through his body. The ultimate truth revealed to the old wizard. He finally understood why fate had been summoned here. He finally understood his mission. Neldor hastened his steps.
Neldor hurried to Ogol. He crouched down beside the lifeless man. Ogol was unconscious. He did not move. Neldor placed his hand on Ogol’s forehead. Energy streamed from the wizard to the shattered man. The man’s eyelids flickered and Ogol opened his eyes slightly. He looked into Neldor’s eyes. The old wizard looked at him gravely.
Qildor crouched by Magath’s side. He stroked the man’s forehead softly. After a while, Magath opened his eyes. His eyes filled with tears at the sight of Qildor’s face. Qildor smiled at him warmly and bent down to him. He kissed Magath’s forehead softly. Magath closed his eyes at the touch of Qildor’s lips. Warmth flooded his body.
Qildor helped Magath rise to his feet. He led the exhausted man to a place in the shadows. Magath sat down on the ground and leaned against a rock. Qildor rose to his feet in order to get the supplies that Neldor had carried along. He took a water skin, then hurried back to Magath and helped him to drink of the water. Magath’s mouth and throat were dry. He was barely able to open his lips. He was barely able to swallow. The water moistened his lips. Magath drank a few drops and then he swallowed the water eagerly. Water ran down his chin and his neck. Qildor brushed back a strand of hair from Magath’s forehead. Magath’s hair was dirty and soaked with sweat.
"How are you feeling?" Qildor asked softly.
Magath closed his eyes for a moment. He opened his eyes again and looked at Qildor. He swallowed hard. Magath gave a brief and barely invisible nod.
"I am alive. This is all that matters to me," he said in a low voice.
Qildor simply nodded. He did not inquire more. Now was not the time for questions.
Neldor’s eyes rested on Ogol’s face. The wizard did not speak and his look was grave. Ogol looked into Neldor’s eyes. He had recognized the old wizard. They understood each other without the need to speak and say any words. They understood each other from their look in their eyes. Fate had summoned the old man in order to pick the fallen man up from the ground and Ogol was fully aware of it.
Neldor channelled energy into Ogol’s body. After a while, the man was strong enough to sit up and rise to his feet. Neldor helped Ogol move to a place in the shadows. The man sat down on the ground and Neldor went to fetch water for him. Ogol looked after the wizard, and then he spotted Magath and Qildor on the other side of the path. Ogol recognized the man he had seen in the camp. He had thought that the man had come to chase him. The man looked wretched and exhausted as well. He was half dead like he was himself. Ogol stared at Magath. Had the man undergone the trial as well? A shiver ran through Ogol’s body as he realized the truth. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. What a fool he had been, what a naive and blinded man.
Neldor returned and helped Ogol drink water from a water skin. The water finally satisfied Ogol’s unquenchable thirst. Ogol swallowed it. Water ran from his lips and down his chin. But Ogol ignored it.
Magath closed his eyes for a while. His mind was blank and he refused to think. He still felt empty and hollow. But he sensed the water on his lips and he sensed Qildor’s hand as the man stroked his forehead. Magath still felt petrified and numb. His experiences in the pitch-black canyon had shaken him to the core. Qildor continued stroking Magath’s face. His hand touched Magath’s forehead. His finger ran down his temple. The touch felt good and it made Magath feel warm. The shock slowly faded. Magath had experienced the darkest night of his life. He felt a lump in his throat. He swallowed hard and tears filled his eyes. Qildor held him tight as he could not hold back any longer. Tears ran down Magath’s cheeks. He let it all out. Magath cried.
Neldor attended to Ogol until the man had recovered a bit.
"Do you feel strong enough to walk?" Neldor asked. "We need to climb up the path. We need to walk for a few hours."
Their eyes met. Neldor’s look was grave. But he gave Ogol an encouraging nod.
"The Castle of Saelethiel is your destination, isn’t it?" Neldor asked gravely.
Ogol blinked and swallowed hard. He gave a brief nod, and then he closed his eyes.
"I’ll take you there," Neldor said in a sober voice.
The wizard felt no animosity towards the man. He knew what the man had gone through for he as well had, albeit a long time ago, undergone the trial.
Ogol gave the old man a faint and grateful nod. Then he closed his eyes once more and let it all sink in. His mind was still blank and he still felt empty and hollow. A deep feeling of respect towards the brethren, however, filled his heart and his soul. Ogol swallowed hard and tears formed in his eyes. And then Ogol wept silently. Neldor looked at the wretched man. His eyes rested on Ogol’s face for a while. Then Neldor stood and walked over to Magath and Qildor.
Out of the corner of his eye, Qildor saw the wizard approaching. He looked up when the man stopped next to him. Neldor and Qildor exchanged a serious look. Neldor crouched beside Magath and placed his hand on the man’s forehead. Magath opened his eyes and looked at the wizard.
"How are you feeling, Magath?" Neldor asked softly.
Magath swallowed. He took a deep breath.
"I’m all right, Master Neldor," he said in a low voice.
Neldor nodded at him.
"We’ll talk in just a few hours, Magath. I will be there for you soon. Will you wait here with Qildor until I will have returned? I must help the man over there first. Do you understand this?" he asked.
Magath looked over to Ogol. The man sat with his eyes closed. Magath felt no animosity. He glanced from Neldor to Qildor and back at the wizard.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I need to take Ogol to the castle," Neldor said.
Magath looked over to the man again. Ogol leaned against a rock. He looked wretched and exhausted. Qildor turned his head also. So far, he had not paid attention to the man.
"What has happened to him?" he asked.
"Magath can tell you while I am away," Neldor said.
Qildor’s face showed confusion. But he pushed the feeling aside. He turned back to Magath.
The wizard and Magath exchanged a knowing look. Magath gave a faint nod.
"I will be waiting for you. When will you return, Master Neldor?" he asked.
"Tomorrow evening, I suspect. Perhaps earlier," Neldor replied.
"Do you take him to the brethren? Will they punish him?" Qildor asked.
"No," Neldor said, shaking his head. "They won’t punish him. The trial is over."
Qildor glanced at the wizard for a moment. Then he looked aside. He turned his attention back to Magath. He placed his hand on Magath’s hand.
"I’ll take you down the path to our camp," Qildor said softly.
He turned to Neldor.
"There you can find us," he said.
Neldor nodded, and then rose to his feet.
"Yes, go down the path with Magath. I’ll climb the path with Ogol now," he said.
Qildor gave another brief nod. Magath closed his eyes.
Neldor crossed the path and crouched beside Ogol.
"Can you rise to your feet? Are you ready to walk?" he asked.
Ogol nodded faintly. He straightened and rose to his feet. Neldor had channelled energy into his body. The energy had strengthened him. He now felt strong enough to climb up the path. He felt strong enough to meet his destiny. Neldor watched the man rise to his feet. Ogol struggled, but he was determined. He did not want to wait any longer. He had already wasted twenty long years.
Neldor and Ogol set off. They climbed the path slowly. Qildor and Magath looked after them.
"I wonder what they will do with him," Qildor mused.
"He wants to go there. He wants to go to the castle. This is his greatest wish. I understand that Neldor helps him. Ogol is all on his own," Magath said.
Qildor turned his head to him. He felt confused at Magath’s sympathetic words towards the man, yet Qildor refrained from inquiring Magath.
"Come," he said instead. "I’ll help you up and then we move down the path slowly."
Magath gave a faint nod. Qildor reached out his hand. He placed his arm around Magath’s shoulders. Magath struggled, yet then he managed to rise to his feet. Qildor led him to the path, and then they followed the path slowly down to their camp and down to the bottom of the mountain.
Ogol and Neldor climbed the path that led up to the Castle of Saelethiel. They walked at a steady pace. They walked silently and they did not talk. The old wizard’s presence, however, reassured Ogol. Neldor’s company encouraged the shattered man.
They finally reached the Castle of Saelethiel. It was visible and it looked mighty and awe-aspiring. An aura of immemorial power radiated from it. The two men stopped for a moment and looked at the castle. Then Ogol straightened and walked to its door. Neldor followed him. Ogol knocked at the door. It opened instantly. Leandor stood in front of them. He looked between the two men. Then he turned to Ogol. His grave eyes rested on him.
"No man can avoid his destiny," Leandor said solemnly.
"This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken," Ogol replied in a grave voice.
Leandor stepped aside and made a gesture with his hand. He invited them to enter the castle. Ogol and Neldor stepped inside. They stood in a dark hallway. The door was closed behind them.
Leandor made another gesture with his hand. He turned and walked ahead. He moved down the dark corridor. Only a torch that was fixed to the wall shed a light that barely illuminated the hallway. Ogol and Neldor followed Leandor. Leandor led them to a steep staircase that led to the main hall of the castle. Leandor climbed the stairs and Neldor and Ogol followed him. They entered the hall.
Candles were lit and shed a dim light. The brethren stood in a circle. Leandor stepped into the centre of the circle. Neldor and Ogol stood by the door and watched Leandor’s movements. Leandor raised his hand. The brethren moved until there was a gap between two of them. Leandor turned to Ogol and Neldor. He made a gesture with his hand. He invited the two men to join their circle. Neldor stopped forward and stood between the two men. Ogol straightened. He followed Neldor and stood next to him.
The brethren’s circle was completed. Silence hung over the castle and an aura of timeless holiness filled the main hall.
Leandor raised his voice.
"No man can avoid his destiny. This law is written in the book of time," he said.
"No man can avoid his destiny, however hard he tries. This law is valid for all times. This law cannot be shaken," the brethren replied in one voice.
Qildor and Magath walked down the path. They walked slowly and stopped several times. Magath was still shaken. However, he managed to walk at a steady pace. Qildor’s presence calmed and reassured him. They reached their camp that was far down the path. There they stopped and sat down in the shadows. Qildor unpacked food. He handed bread and cheese to Magath. Magath ate slowly.
"How are you feeling?" Qildor asked.
Magath tilted his head. He scanned his body and mind.
"I feel all right," he said finally with a brief nod at Qildor.
Qildor smiled. They exchanged a long look. Magath smiled faintly.
"It was the darkest night of my life. But with you by my side I feel happy and grateful. I see the light again. I see the sunshine and the blue sky above me. I sense the air on my skin. And I do enjoy this old cheese and bread," he said.
Qildor gave Magath another smile. He moved a bit closer. Their bodies touched. And this sufficed for the moment.
"I want to go home," Magath said suddenly. "I have enough of this journey and this adventure. I want to go home and enjoy my life."
Qildor gave a cheerful laugh. He leaned in more to Magath.
"We’ll be leaving in two days. Neldor will be back tomorrow evening. The following morning we will definitely leave. I will not stay any time longer. I’m fed up with it, too. Magic is not my thing, I fear," he said.
Magath gave a laugh.
"Neldor’s images intrigued me, I must admit. But I can definitely do without images and visions. I had my share, really. I don’t want more of it," he said.
His voice had turned dark. Qildor gave him a push and an encouraging smile.
"Starting a fire with a snap. Knowing how to use this technique could be really helpful," he said cheerfully.
Magath made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
"I can do without it," he replied. He paused and thought for a moment. "But perhaps I’ll ask him to show me the technique sometime. However, not in the near future. For the time being, I’m fed up with that crap."
Qildor laughed heartily. Then he looked for more food in the bag.