The Lorelei Signal


The Unending Storm

Written by Ted Pennella / Artwork by Marge Simon

The Unending Storm2.jpeg

Snow blew under her cowl and cloak as the frigid wind wore away her warmth spell. The snow soaked both her long brown hair and formerly white robes. Tara struggled to maintain the spell she and those following her needed to survive. When her black mare stepped clear of trees, which clung to the downslope side of their narrow mountain trail, the wind jerked her cloak free of its bindings to her body. A massive lightning strike cast the mountains surrounding them in a hazy silhouette. Her billowing cloak pulled her toward the sheer drop now only a yard to her right. Distracted with staying on her horse, her spell collapsed.


“Mistress Tara,” shouted her bondsman from the next horse back. “We need shelter. The light is nearly gone.”


“Persevere, Alrys,” yelled Tara. Just visible despite the magic-fueled storm’s near white-out conditions sat today’s goal. “We’re close.”


Her saddle jerked as the rope tying together her, Alrys, and the six surviving Royal guards, went taunt. Cursing the treachery of their desperate path, Tara urged her horse onward. The Temple of Heradit gradually appeared just up the mountain. With each step, the daylight faded until Tara rode through the shattered gate of the ancient temple complex with the early arrival of night.


Wind whistled through the abandoned temple as six horses crowded into a small clear area. One horse’s saddle was empty, and one rider remained motionless. Leaving Alrys to help the last of the royal guard, Tara dismounted and climbed the dozen double-sized steps up to the temple with slow, deliberate strides. The goddess’ presence no longer flowed out of the temple, though it lingered. Fear crept into the half-frozen corners of her heart.


“I’ve been here before,” whispered Tara. She focused her physical and magical senses on the temple, with her fear fueled by their deadly climb into the mountains. “When was it?”


Darkness filled the temple. The wind’s echo told her the roof sat unbroken overhead. The three walls enclosing the statue of the goddess were whole and still stood. Yet, she still hesitated crossing that first row of columns. The inky dark interior seemed too unreal, to forced to be natural.


“Light of day illuminate the grey,” said Tara, chanting a simple light spell. “Dispel the dark which strikes fear in my heart.”


A fist-sized sphere of white light burst into life a few feet above and before Tara. With the flick of a hand, the sphere flew amongst the temple’s rafters nearly a hundred feet overhead. Snow, debris, bones, and frozen carcasses littered the temple. Signs of various animals having stayed in the structure were visible. At the rear, towering nearly eighty feet, rose the statue of a mostly nude Heradit. The red of her cloak, the dark brown of the skin, and the pink of the goddess’ nipples peeled away from the stone or had been worn away by the blowing ice and snow.


“How long has this temple been abandoned, I wonder,” said Tara to herself. She struggled to recall when she’d last visited. Was it forty years? Maybe fifty? She recalled not even having achieved magic’s white cloak at that time, which easily meant a century.


“A very long time ago, Mistress,” said Alrys. The tall fighter, brimming with muscles wrapped in muscles, led both horses and men into the temple. “Look close. The scars left by the dragon’s attack can still be seen.”


“Why couldn’t it be from this storm?” Tara shivered as the wind shifted and blew against her side and into her cloak. “The storm is why we’re here, after all.”


“Not everything bad is caused by sorcerers losing control of their spells, Mistress,” said Alrys. Bitterness tinged his words more than usual. “If we’re lucky, we’ll reach the dragon’s lair sometime late tomorrow.”


“A-and if w-we’re not?” Shivering and hunched over in his saddle, the guard’s voice echoed in the cavernous temple.


“This damned magic storm kills us with its cold or blows us off the mountain,” said Alrys. “Don’t worry. Mistress Tara will get us all to the dragon, convince him to give us some of his blood, and then the mages will end this vile storm. For tonight, we block out the wind and light a fire.”


Tara stood near the center of the temple looking up the gargantuan statue. She prayed in a soft voice. “Forgive our foolishness, conceit, and greed, Oh Mighty Goddess of Love, and fill our puny human hearts with your love.”


Turning around, she wove her arms and voice in an intricate dance of spell work. Groaning, the carcasses slowly moved to block the column gaps until only a small opening remained. Between her spells and the guards, burnable debris was gathered and several small fires lit. She felt the power of the spells leave her, and with it her strength.


Alrys stood behind her and lifted her in his arms. “I’ve got you, Mistress. The guards and I can handle the rest. Our eternal—.”


“Shut up, you big oaf,” said Tara with a tired smile. She wondered how many times this man had held her like this in the twenty years since she bonded him as her personal magical reservoir. Exhaustion then forced her to sleep.


~ * ~


Warmth woke Tara. Light flickered somewhere beyond the wall of darkness she lay facing. Heavy weights anchored her body on and under the thick blankets between her and the cold, even as sleep still weighed down her mind and eyelids. The smell of sweat, both equine and human, filled her nostrils. A familiar voice whimpered, which pulled her further awake.


“Alrys?” She pressed a hand against his chest. His scent told her this was Alrys.


His arm shifted. Alrys’ tree-trunk thick leg, trapping her body, tensed. Pulled tight against him, Alrys spoke in a voice thick with sleep. “I’ll keep you warm, my love.”


“Alrys” shrieked Tara. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know who filled his dreams.


The over six-foot-tall man rolled onto Tara’s slighter and shorter body. His legs and hips pinned her down. His thick arms locked her arms against her chest as his upper body rested on his elbows. While not physically strong like her bonded servant, her quick wit and memory of spells kept her alive and feared. At the moment, the terms of their bonding, which forbid intimacy between them, worried her more.


In the dark of the blanket cocooning them, Alrys’ broad shoulders and bare, hairy chest radiated more heat than normal. To be in such an intimate position with him gave Tara thoughts which could never be acted upon. He was a tool, not a lover.


“Stop this, Alrys,” whispered Tara. She pushed against the man, her hands trembling. “Heradit, this is not what I meant.”


Alrys leaned down and pressed their lips together in a quick, rough kiss full of unspoken need. He breathed a faint plea into an ear. “Take my pain away, Blessed Heradit. I don’t want to hurt any longer.”


Then, Alrys collapsed by rolling onto his side. Pulled along with the man, Tara dug her nails into his flesh as she hissed, “Do you want to become a frog, you idiot? We have a kingdom, no, a world to save and you pray for only yourself?”


Alrys opened his eyes. Sadness filled them. A sadness which slowly leaked into his essence, which acted as Tara’s magical reservoir, like the tears he shed. His broad chest convulsed ever so slightly with a stifled sob. Covering his face, Alrys rolled onto his back. The move opened the blanket to the cold.


“I’ve nothing, Tara,” said Alrys in a hoarse whisper. “They’re all gone. No one remains. Not even her.”


“Her?” Tara jerked on the blanket in want of warmth as much as irritated by his words. “This is personal, isn’t it? Aren’t those matters not allowed?”


“She won’t let me forget,” snarled Alrys through hands covering his face. “Looming large in my mind, demanding I remember how she felt in my arms. Her touch, her scent, and the sweet sound of her voice. Every day of my miserable life, all I do is remember what I’ve been denied. I want to forget. To not feel this pain anymore.”


Tara, stunned by this revelation, stayed silent. For twenty years now, he had never said anything about his past, and she’d never asked. It allowed her a separation between her magic and her heart. His demand of no intimacy had been fine with her at the time. Yet, to hear the pain in his voice and feel the turmoil it created in his essence broke her own heart. Why would the goddess make demands of him now?


“While love is not my forte, I don’t think you ever really forget,” said Tara. She stroked his cheek lightly. “Do you want to forget because she hurt you? Cheated on you? Or did death take her too soon?”


Alrys rolled over to face her and entwined his fingers through her hair. He brought their faces close. Instead of the kiss Tara feared, Alrys pressed their foreheads together. “Damn this storm. It wasn’t death. It’s not your problem. Forget I said anything.”


“You’re my bondsman, my extra magical strength, Alrys,” said Tara while laying a hand on the man’s cheek. “I need you calm and collected for my spells. If you need to talk—”


“It’s this place, Mistress,” interrupted Alrys. “Once we leave, I’ll return to normal.”


The rapid snap of wood beams echoed in the night, silencing any further response. Tara rattled off a protection spell as Alrys pushed himself onto his hands and knees overtop of Tara. Like horses thundering across the plains, the sound of the roof’s collapse filled the night. What light their fires gave them vanished in a cold puff of snow and ice, plunging them into darkness.


~ * ~


“Are any of them alive? Find any supplies?” Tara stood with the four horses her spell had saved from the temple roof’s collapse. Snow pelted her face as the storm intensified with the coming of day. Piles of snow covered everything.


“No,” said Alrys as he emerged from under the collapsed roof. “The avalanche knocked the statue onto them. We’re all that’s left.”


“Damn it,” hissed Tara. Fear of failure made her shiver as much as the cold. They had to reach the dragon and convince it to give them some blood. “Pray to Heradit that she guides them to their loved ones.”


“We’ll reach the dragon, Mistress,” said Alrys while wrapping another blanket he had dragged out around Tara’s shoulders. “Even if I have to carry you.”


“Carry a horse or two, silly,” said Tara. She couldn’t see anything different about him. Nothing to reveal the turmoil of last night. Alrys had kissed her, and had almost done it a second time, she felt certain. It made her wonder if the bond would have broken with that second kiss. “The dragon won’t give us the time of day if we don’t have horses.”


“You still have that portal scroll?” Worry furrowed Alrys’ brow.


“And my wand of spells,” said Tara with a smile. “I am Sorceress of the Purple. Getting home without horses won’t be a problem.”


Alrys reached up, his hand approaching her face. Instead of touching her, as she expected, he pulled her cowl back over her head and tightened the blanket around her more. Like last night, he touched their foreheads together. His essence churned with nervousness and fear, though Tara couldn’t tell what he feared, but she knew enough it wasn’t the storm. After a momentary pause, Alrys leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.


“Our bond, Alrys,” whispered Tara, breaking the kiss. Her own stomach churned in fear of losing that bond. If they both survived, the bonding spell might be altered.


“You worry needlessly, Mistress,” said Alrys with a warm smile. “I will not fail you.”


Unsure of her feelings nor Alrys’ intentions, Tara turned to the horses. “We need to get moving.”


They each led a horse as they rode higher into the mountains. Still, the blizzard raged with its never-ending strength. Struggling against a blankness which seeped into Tara’s thoughts, she muttered the words to a spell for spotting illusion magic.


“There, Mistress,” shouted Alrys late in the day. “That’s the cave.”


Like a smudge on a blank canvas, Tara almost missed the cave entrance. As they approached, the horses snorted in fear. Deciding the dragon caused their fear. She recited another spell to calm the horses.


“Wind or breeze, carry the scent of hay,” said Tara with small hand motions, “to calm these animals with which we must pay.”


The horses calmed. In order to enter the narrow opening, though, both Tara and Alrys had to dismount and lead the horses single file through an opening narrowed by snow and ice. Once inside, the cave rose to three times a human’s height and six times wide. A dozen yards back, a cut stone wall sealed off the rest of the cave. Set to one side, a pair of iron-bound oak doors, stained dark with age, stood closed. Massive human-looking lower jaw bones were fastened to the doors as knockers. Metal oil lamps hung from wrought iron brackets mounted to the wall on either side of the doors. Their flames danced in the whistling wind.


“Huge doors,” said Tara in awe. “Giants could walk through that door opening.”


“You’ve obviously not met many giants, Mistress,” said Alrys as he pulled the horses over to a long metal bar mounted to the wall beside the doors. A trough sat beneath the metal bar filled with fresh hay. “Did you create hay for the horses?”


“No,” said Tara. She glanced at the trough and the hay, surprised at the sight. “It’s like the dragon expects us.”


“This is hopeful, then,” said Alrys as he looped the reins over the bar. “See about announcing our presence while I remove the saddles.”


“These jaw bones,” said Tara, standing before the doors, “are from giants, I presume?”


She glanced toward Alrys, who remained silent with his back to her and the doors. “Alrys? You seemed to know—.”


“You presume correctly,” said Alrys with a dark tone. The turmoil in his magical essence betrayed his struggle with anger and grief.


“Is this why I had to force you to come on this journey?” Tara turned back toward Alrys.


“Announce our presence, Mistress,” said Alrys. His voice trembled with barely suppressed grief.


Tara stared her bondsman’s back. Questions about Alrys’ past prior to her binding him to herself bubbled up one after another. Wherever they went, he seemed to know things typically expected from a native. Yet, his reactions on this trip were different. Somehow, they seemed to come from someplace deeper and more personal than she’d ever seen from the man.


Struggling, Tara lifted a jawbone and let go. With a deep reverberating boom, the knocker struck the wood door. Nervousness churned her gut and made her tremble slightly. Her last time dealing with a dragon sat more than a half century in the past.


A rumbling shook the mountain. Snow and ice blasted into the cave from outside. Rocks fell from the cave ceiling for a short time. Jerking on their reins and stamping their hooves, the horses’ fear forced Tara to help calm them. Soon, with everyone calmed, silence fell. Tara stared at the cave’s now completely blocked mouth with renewed nervousness.


“Avalanche,” said a new voice. “Be glad you made it when you did, Sorceress.”


“Who?” Tara glanced over her shoulder.


A tall, slender man stood in the now open doorway dressed in a robe covering him from neck to floor. Orange streaks crossed the dark red silk. Bright orangish-red hair framed the narrow face, giving the man a manic look. His skin had a dark reddish-brown hue.


“Welcome to my abode, Travelers,” said the man with a slight nod and sly, knowing smile. “Quite an ugly summer we seem to be having. For what, the second or third year in a row?”


Tara hesitated. Her spell to see illusion magic cast a faint aura about the man. She decided this was indeed the dragon. Choosing her words carefully, she said, “Time is difficult to determine when you see neither sun nor stars, kind sir.”


“Don’t mistake hospitality with kindness, Sorceress,” said the dragon, who stepped aside and motioned inward. “If the horses are calm, let’s go inside where it’s warmer and roomer. I’m sure your companion would like to, well, stretch his legs.”


“Please, my generous Host, just call me Tara.” She dropped into a deep curtsy.


“Me? Not us?” The dragon arched an eyebrow but stayed otherwise stoic.


“He’s my bondsman and thus an extension of me, my Host,” said Tara, smiling as she approached the human-looking dragon. When Alrys didn’t move, she held out a hand, which signaled her demand he stay at her side. Soon, his rough hand lightly touched her open palm. She pressed their hands together until the ring he wore bit into her skin. Despite the coolness of his hand, the anger churning Alrys’ essence shocked her into glancing at the man’s stoic expression.


The dragon smiled faintly as he nodded toward the doorway. “As you say, Tara. Enter, and call me Garantan. It’s a name well-known amongst the giants living in these mountains. However, you haven’t made the arduous and deadly trek up to my humble home just to verify I’m safe.”


“No, Garantan,” said Tara. She wondered about the emphasis on “giants” as they entered.


The cavern beyond the doors stretched easily over a hundred yards in diameter and more than half again that tall. They entered onto a deep landing at the top of a wide stair, which descended to the floor of the cavern. Scattered about were statues of fine marble covered in various precious metals, along with vessels and coins of gold, silver, and even platinum. Large, lit braziers hung from the cavern’s ceiling and gave the statues flickering shadows. Shadows, it appeared, which danced as though to some silent bard.


“Quite the impressive home you have, Garantan,” said Tara. She looked back with a warm smile only to watch the doors slam shut.


“I care not a bit what this storm does to humanity,” said Garantan. He walked past Tara to glare at Alrys. “The giants, while untrustworthy, will survive this storm until the magic powering it finally runs out. In time, their tributes will restart and if there are humans left in this world, then they’ll be able to say, ‘It was the will of the gods.’ I have that phrase correct, don’t I, Murderer?”


“There will be no end to this storm, mighty Garantan,” said Tara, giving both men a hard look even as they seemed only to see each other. “The mages who cast it against our kingdom have lost control. The magic is now wild, and the storm will grow until it encompasses this continent, possibly the entire world.”


“Don’t tell me,” said Garantan, who turned toward her with a smile that struck fear in Tara’s heart. “You expect me to take pity on you foolish humans and save your necks like I did the giants a millennia ago.”


Tara bowed, mostly to hide her fear and to give herself a moment to collect her thoughts. “We expect nothing of the sort, Mighty Garantan. We have come to barter for a pint of your blood. The spell to end the storm requires the blood of a red dragon. Your generous nature is known even to us down on the plains.”


“Four horses for a pint of my precious blood?” Snorting in disgust, Garantan turned from Alrys and moved to the top of the steps. “No deal.”


“I am powerful enough to extract the blood without you ever exerting yourself,” said Tara as she moved to stand again beside Alrys. “With or without your agreement.”


“Threatening me, Sorceress?” Garantan spun about in anger. “I have roused myself to hear your plea, and you bring a murderer with you.”


“Murderer?” Alrys snarled hatefully. His essence swelled to twice it’s normal potential. As Alrys’ face contorted with hatred, his ring glowed to Tara’s eyes with a magical aura. It told Tara the spells cast on it strained to contain or control Alrys’ body.


“I never kill without provocation,” said Alrys through clenched jaws, standing nose to nose with the dragon. “Unlike you, who hangs the bones of his victims like trophies.”


“Your tribe’s guilt hangs about you like a skunk’s stench,” yelled Garantan. The dragon’s skin rippled and changed from human smooth to reptilian rough. “What did you Thorn tribe monsters do with my daughter’s body? Eat her like some dumb animal?”


“Eat?” Alrys spat out his disgust and anger with that one word. “When custom dictated, I left my tribe for a time, your daughter ignored all warnings and followed me. In time, I convinced her to return to the tribe and stay as you required.”


“Then, where is she?” Garantan yelled. “Why has she not returned after a century? Well?”


Alrys backhanded Garantan and knocked him down the steps to floor of the main cavern. Tears poured down Alrys’ face as he screamed. “We returned to death and destruction. Your murder of the tribe hung in the air like a foul odor, searing itself into our hearts. Sobbing, your daughter fled immediately, leaving me to bury my tribe alone. For weeks, Dragon, I labored, laying to rest every member of my tribe. Only my parents were missing. When I finished, she returned to magically bind this damned ring to my finger. For decades, I was nothing more than her plaything. Dragged all over creation, she finally tired of me and tossed me away like garbage. So, be glad I can’t return to my true size and form, Dragon, or you’d be torn limb from limb for the crime you committed against me and all giants.”


Alrys spun around and stormed over to the doors out. Garantan’s illusion flickered for a moment, revealing a gargantuan red dragon curled up in the cavern below, before the humanoid illusion returned. In a streak of red and orange, the dragon shot into the air and slammed into Alrys’ back, knocking both against the closed doors. When Garantan reared back a clawed hand, Tara jerked her wand out and shouted “Freeze!”


A blast of white shot from her wand. Ice wrapped both Alrys and Garantan to hold them in place. With only moments before the dragon broke free, she quickly chanted. “With whispers soft and feathers light, silence their tongues and bind them tight.”


The ice cracked and began to fall to the cavern floor, but neither Alrys nor Garantan moved or spoke. Standing over them, Tara glared down at the pair with the only sound being the wind whistling through the cracks of the doors. “I came to trade fairly with you and what do you do? Attack me and accuse me of wrongdoing. Life itself is under threat by the storm raging outside and all you two can think about are yourselves? Garantan, I know what you’re going to say, that Alrys lies. However, let me explain something about human magic. Storms like the one raging outside cannot be cast without the aid of potent, magic-infused elements. Wild, raging storms are like wildfires. Nearly impossible to control and have the temperaments of you dragons. The spell we’ll use to end the storm is the similar to the spell used to create it. Which means your daughter is still very much alive, with her blood and thus her rage fueling the storm.”


Garantan broke partially through her binding spell. Turning his head, he spoke with an angry calmness. “And you expect me to believe you? You bind a murderous giant to yourself and drag him into my home.”


“Maybe you need to examine the spells binding that ring to his body, Garantan,” said Tara. She reached down and pulled Alrys’ hand up so the ring was inches from the dragon’s face. “I’ve studied the spells many times over the two decades we’ve been bound. The magic used for the ring’s binding is similar to human-woven magic but is distinctly dragon. Tell me, does its magic look familiar? See a family resemblance?”


“It could have been placed before her murder,” said Garantan, refusing to look at the ring.


“Look at the spells binding it to him, Dragon,” shouted Tara, releasing her anger. “I can see the grief felt by the mage while casting the spell. Even an unrobed mage could tell you the age of these spells and that the caster still lives. Whether you admit you needlessly murdered an entire tribe of giants or not, your daughter is alive. Give us some of your blood so we can end this storm. With it ended, you can go find your daughter, assuming she’ll even want to see you after what you did. She obviously loved Alrys enough to hide him.”


Garantan stared at the ring. With one last push from the dragon, Tara’s binding spell shattered and faded away. Alrys sagged and his hand pulled out of Tara’s grasp. Garantan stood up and walked toward the steps. He stopped halfway and spoke without turning around. “One pint per pair of horses is my offer.”


“A generous one from a generous host,” said Tara through gritted teeth. Taking a deep breath, she spoke calmer. “I have—”


“Not necessary,” said Garantan. A flick of his hand and a small chest rose from below. It flew to Alrys, who had just stood up, and opened to reveal two glass flasks sealed by wax stoppers. “I have containers prepared.”


Garantan’s voice dripped with bitterness. Tara watched as the dragon held out an arm and clenched that fist. Slowly, the dragon’s crimson blood filled the two flasks.


“Why haven’t you removed the spells binding that ring to him?” Garantan whispered with his head hanging. “All these years, weren’t you curious?”


“My bondsman was a broken man wishing for death,” said Tara. She stood ready to defend should Garantan attack. “I forged him into the tool I needed. Once honed, I didn’t want to risk breaking that tool by removing something which would likely deeply hurt him.”


“Do you even care about him as a sentient being, then?” Lifting his head, Garantan turned it, but not far enough to look at them.


“Have a tool long enough,” said Tara as she turned to look at Alrys, “and you find it difficult to imagine yourself without it. Should the terms of our binding need to be adjusted, then we’ll adjust them if and when that time comes. As for the spells binding the ring to him, those too will be removed when requested, and not before.”


When the flasks were full, the lid slammed shut. Garantan lowered his arm. He restored the illusion of the robe. “Return here again, either of you, and I’ll kill you. Begone.”


The cavern flickered and faded to darkness. Cold wrapped about them and seeped deep inside them within heartbeats. Wind whistled loudly through shuttered windows. With a few blinks, the familiar confines of Tara’s personal chambers atop the Mage’s Tower back home greeted them. Flames still flickered in the two hearths and the half dozen scattered lamps cast their magical light about the room.


“Straight home,” said Tara in amazement. “I didn’t think he’d be that generous. Well, he saved me from using up my last portal scroll.”


Tara opened the chest Alrys still held and gazed down at the two full flasks. Happy their mission was a success, she closed the chest and cast a protection spell to ensure nothing would happen to it. Another quick spell notified everyone who needed to know that she was back.


“Did you mean what you said, Mistress?” Alrys’ gaze bore into her with an intensity she’d not felt from the man in a long time. “There at the end about our bond and my ring?”


“Every word, Alrys,” said Tara. A nervous smile spread across her face and her heart. “You’ve become far more than just a reservoir of magical energy.”


“Once this storm is ended,” said Alrys as he walked over to her workbench and set the chest down, “I’ll be ready to have this ring removed. You deserve to know what happened to forge me into this piss poor tool of yours.”


“You don’t have to tell me anything, Alrys,” said Tara. She stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his torso. His body heat drove the chill out of her. “I’ve never thought of you as a tool. You’re a friend and a confidant.”


“But I am a tool, Mistress,” said Alrys, his essence roiling with anguish. “You’re just the kindest owner I’ve had over the decades.”


The door to the chamber flew open. A half dozen people rushed inside, all talking at once. As Alrys quietly slipped out, Tara greeted the newcomers. Still, she thought about all that had happened while preparations for the storm-ending spell began. Questions about Alrys’ age, his true feelings for Garantan’s daughter, and more rattled about in her head.


Sometime later, as everyone moved into position to cast the spell, Alrys lightly touched her back. “Eat first, Tara. Your body needs nourishment.”


“And what of my magical needs?” Tara looked at the man and wondered what he looked like as a giant.


“What you’ve always held in your hand,” said Alrys with a growing smile.


Tara only raised an eyebrow at the man when he didn’t continue. With a slight blush coloring his cheeks, Alrys leaned down and whispered, “My heart, Beloved Mistress.”

T Pennella.jpg

Ted Pennella is an Oklahoma City based architect, writer, gamer, and pithy observer of the human condition. As an architect, he's keenly aware of layout, design, and spatial relations, which also benefits him as a storyteller.


With short stories published in various anthologies, Ted fills his copious free time filled with woodworking, friends, family, and endeavoring to create the perfect cheesecake.