The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
My blade's a shard of midnight sky,
It holdeth Death's own sting.
None may stand before its power,
No creature, man or king.
I ride on wings of crimson flame,
My steed a beast of yore.
Faster than the winds of night
We streak o'er sea and shore.
Born to wage and end all war
We are, my mount and I.
Our shadow flees 'cross forest... field...
And all beneath it die.
The flight was made easier due to strong winds blowing up from the south. Kra'lysie was able to lock her great wings and glide along the currents of air almost effortlessly; her magic working against the combined weight of seven humans on her back and the rather large crate of armaments in her claws Sir Horffe had pressed us to take.
Invisible again, the only things to see were the blue-green waters rolling beneath us. The scenery here was a stark contrast to what we'd lived through on the world of Atarka with its seemingly limitless desert of sands the colour of fire, and barely a drop of water in any of it.
It occurred to my wandering thoughts that you'd have just as much trouble being stranded out on the ocean. It merely meant changing from being dry to being wet. And being half-crazy that you were surrounded by water yet unable to drink it.
"Look!" Julia's voice rang out. "Sea serpents off to our right!"
I looked and quickly located two series of scaly humps rising above the waves. When I sent my sight in for a closer look I saw what they were doing. "They're picking over a ship. I can see a few floating boards."
"Any survivors?" Dupre shouted.
"Not that I can see. There's not much debris, so I'm guessing the wreck is at least a day old. The serpents probably pulled it down themselves."
Kra'lysie flew on and the sight quickly vanished in the distance.
A while later, ships could be seen on the horizon ahead of us. A fleet. Most were merchantmen, a few seemed to be former pirate ships, and, when I took a closer look, I noticed all of them flying the flags of the Guardian.
"I just told Draxinusom about it," Richard shouted, which made me jump as I was sitting right in front of him. "He said he knoweth, and that he hath everything under control."
"What was that?" Dupre shouted.
I telepathed it to him.
"So what hath he done?" the knight asked.
"He said we'd find out when we get there," Richard answered.
"Are those the same ships from Serpent's Hold, dost thou think?"
I thought back to them, "No way to be sure, but I doubt it. More likely those ships went to drop off their prisoners... at the Isle of the Avatar, perhaps."
We fell silent as the distance between us and the ships decreased. When we passed over them, I noticed only a few soldiers on the decks. Not many at all, even though it was day and the sails unfurled. Another glance showed me that all the ships sailed low in the water, meaning they were carrying heavy loads. I wondered how much of the cargo was siege equipment.
"They'll have a hard time invading the isle if our cannons are ready," Julia shouted when we'd left the ships a considerable distance behind. "One way into the bay, no room to turn once they start down the channel, and they only have cannons port and starboard."
"They'll have it harder than you think," the dragon rumbled, her voice loud enough for all of us. "The Gargoyle Lord has been busy."
Soon, we could see that for ourselves.
The jagged mountains of the Isle of Fire rose up below us. I could easily see what was on the towers surmounting either side of the cliff-lined passage into the bay. Not only were there four cannons per tower (two each facing south and another two each pointed down into the channel) and several people to arm them, but a total of ten mages were up there as well. Unless there were mages with the ships, the enemy would have a hard time both fighting and defending against the towers. The height would give them incredible range and protection.
"Drax hath fixed another little surprise," Lord British said from just behind me. "Don't ask me how he managed it, but there are chains stretched between the cliffs just below the water."
I was impressed.
Kra'lysie locked and tilted her wings so that we glided around the western edge of the island, our altitude steadily decreasing. Finally, she reached a point above the fort and dropped carefully to the stone roof, crushing one side of the crate of armaments under a hindclaw.
I'd warned those on guard what was going to happen, but some of them still jumped when a large red dragon appeared with several famous personages on her back and a good portion of the contents of Serpent's Hold's armoury glittering in the sun at her feet. We climbed down as Lord Draxinusom ascended the stairs to the battlements with a pair of human warriors, and Kra'lysie resumed her human shape.
Draxinusom looked relieved to see us all safe. Indeed, the first thing he said to us, to Lord British, was, "To be glad. To be very glad."
"Believest thou me," Richard replied dryly, "thou'rt not the only one."
The two monarchs grinned at each other.
"To say Trinsic has surrendered. To know only the Lycaeum and Castle Britannia stand." The Gargoyle Lord let out a sigh and drummed the long nails of one hand on his chair arm. "To be happy we have Serpent's Hold back."
"Knowest thou what happened to the people of Trinsic?" Richard asked. "Hast thou seen?"
"To have not seen. To tell you the enemy has raised scrying shields over each city it's conquered, except Minoc. To add that a shield has also gone up on the Isle of the Avatar."
"When did this start?" I asked.
"Six days ago."
"Eight days after we left Britannia," Iolo murmured.
"Has any teleporting been sensed?" I asked, frowning.
Draxinusom shook his head.
"She could be on another world," Shamino suggested.
"No," I said. "She's in Britannia."
"If I was about to invade one of the last resisting strongholds of a world, I'd sure want to be there and make sure it succeeds." I smiled slightly. "She's with the ships."
"How dost thou know she won't just teleport into the fort?" Julia inquired. "She doth have the Blacksword."
"I don't," I admitted. "But how else are they going to break into the bay? The daemons can't without revealing themselves. And if their mages are still on the Isle of the Avatar she has to be with the ships 'cause she can't just teleport onto them."
Draxinusom nodded. "To reveal this last precaution. To say that if the towers fail, they can be collapsed to block the channel."
"Collapsed?" Dupre asked sharply as we exchanged glances. "How?"
"With the help of a lot of strategically placed powder kegs," Kra'lysie murmured. When everyone looked at her, she shrugged. "I saw them on the way in."
"To compliment the lady on her perception." Draxinusom inclined his head. "To say the mages on the towers are capable of transporting their companions to safety and rigging the kegs to explode."
A few held breaths were let out. There was no doubt that we all hoped it wouldn't come to that.
But if Mellorin was with the ships, as I suspected, it probably would.
The following days were all spent in preparation, in case the enemy somehow managed to get past all Draxinusom's defences. Light ballistae were set up along the cliffs inside the bay, and niches hewn into the rock to accommodate more archers. We relied mostly on those in the towers to watch the enemy fleet when they reached the Isle of Fire. The attack didn't begin at once, though, and the ships remained carefully out of range of the watchtowers' cannons. Our mages were able to bridge the distance with some offensive spells, but even the massive Magic Storm they summoned with their combined powers, and directly over the ships, appeared to do little damage. Something, or someone, was protecting the fleet from magical attack.
Further scrying seemed to reveal the enemy was waiting for more ships coming from the southeast - from Moonglow, which meant we had a few more days.
These were spent training. Everyone who couldn't fight was teleported to Ambrosia... or almost everyone. Disaster struck just when we most needed the pads as a possible escape route. Someone came back to the Isle of Fire to tell us a huge storm had gathered right over Ambrosia, and the receiving pad, being outside, had been blasted. Natural or not, it meant our backdoor and primary escape route was shut tight until - if - the pad could be repaired.
For those of us who knew, such thoughts were kept at bay during the seemingly endless practice bouts. While my companions presided over one or two forms of training each, I went between all of them. Mace, axe, sword, dagger, staff, spear, bow, crossbow, shield, magic and even tare-por, the Gargish boomerang.
But even with five hundred and seventy hand-to-hand fighters, two hundred ranged and fifty mages, I couldn't shake the feeling that all the preparation would be unnecessary. Now and then, Mellorin's words about our duel would come to mind and each time it did, I knew this battle would not be between two armies.
So I was training too. Made certain I knew some new tricks. Mellorin knew everything I had when she'd formed her own separate being, and I'd only be able to best her if I had a few surprises.
And the same went for her.
During a break, I found a quiet spot and sat down. Leaning back against the wall of the fort, I made it look like my eyes were closed then sent my magical sight south to the enemy ships. After a short search I found my double standing in the bow of one of the few vessel that looked like it was built for war, just looking at the entrance to the bay with a hungry expression.
"There you are," I thought.
She actually jumped and looked around. When I laughed, she quickly calmed herself and smiled, face lifting to the sunlight and eyes closing. Instead of demanding how I'd got to the Isle of Fire ahead of her without teleporting, she replied, "Are you ready?"
"We've been cooling our heels waiting for you to attack for a couple of days now. We're ready."
The smile on her face widened a fraction. "That wasn't my question, Elora. Are you ready?"
"Good. See you soon."
Later that day I sought out Lord British to discuss the only other option of evacuation we had - the aeth'raesh'al bracer. Without the Virtue Stones or moongates, and with the teleport pad to Ambrosia broken, the bracer was all we had if the fight went badly.
I found him alone in his small room in the Test of Truth. He was sitting at a table, dressed in plain clothes, and reading a book by the light of a sole candle. When he motioned for me to come in, I noticed it was written in the Gargish language.
"One of Draxinusom's," he said when I quirked a brow at it, and showed me the cover. Although I was fluent in speaking Gargish, my reading skills were a little rusty. When I admitted as much, he smiled. "All the documents I get from Terfin keep me in practice. It's called-" He glanced at the runes on the cover. "-'Gold Hawk's Passage'. Gold Hawk - that's the name of the gargoyle main character - doth leave the Gargish lands and travelleth up through Dungeon Hythloth to visit Britannia." He marked the place he was at with a thin strip of leather and put it down on the table. "I'm just up to the part when he hath started to grow his wings, unfortunately during a spot of mountain climbing in the Serpent's Spine. Drax said it's based on a true story."
I smiled and sat down on a stool. "I'll ask him if I can borrow it once you're done."
He chuckled slightly. "So. We were going to talk about alternate escape routes. I take it that bracer of thine is our only option?"
I nodded, my face clouding. "And I doubt it will actually help unless we use it to leave Britannia altogether."
The king leaned back in his chair and frowned. "Hm. Mellorin can sense thee teleport if she's in the same world as thy destination." I nodded again and he drummed his fingers on the cover of the book, his frown deepening. "I don't relish leaving Britannia again."
"Not so soon after we've returned," I agreed softly. "And there's nowhere large enough in any of the Tests to gather everyone we have in one place safely and teleport away. If Ambrosia were open to us that would be another matter."
"But then, if Ambrosia were open to us, we wouldn't be in this position."
I smiled wryly and inclined my head.
Lord British gazed at the solitary candle, its flame dancing in his blue eyes. Very softly, he said, "I won't leave Britannia again." His eyes flicked up to mine. "I will not abandon it."
I looked at his careworn face, shadowed on one side and burnished gold by the candle on the other, and allowed a sigh to escape me. "There was one other thing I wanted to talk to thee about." My shift to formal speech made his brow furrow, but he waited silently for me to continue. "It's about Britannia. Of our connection to it, and its to us."
We had spoken of this once before, a very long time ago, when I'd become the Avatar. As much as the legends liked to state otherwise, I hadn't been transported back to Earth after reaching the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. My companions and I had, among other things, returned to Castle Britannia to announce the triumphant success of the Quest of the Avatar. There had been feasts of celebration and many long discussions with Richard about the nature of the Virtues, which he'd tried so hard to instill into the hearts of his people.
He had told me then of how he'd come to truly be the Lord of Britannia. It had not been a simple succession, or rise to political power - he'd been through almost as many adventures as I had. When Sosaria had been torn apart back during the Ages of Darkness, Richard had been instrumental in keeping his lands - Britannia - intact. 'Bearer of the White Light' wasn't just a pretty title he'd been given. In protecting Britannia from crumbling into the Void, he'd agreed to have his very life linked to the land. The most powerful mages and druids of the age had worked to make Lord British one with Britannia. And they had, to an extent, succeeded.
But the burden was too much for one man, even one with the great powers and seeming immortality that Lord British possessed. The Quest of the Avatar was established not only to set up a system of virtues and find a champion for the people, but to find one strong enough to share the burden of Britannia's very essence. He had told me this after my friends and I had returned victorious from the Abyss. He'd indicated the golden Ankh I wore and asked if I was prepared to shoulder the life of Britannia as well as my own. If I could dedicate myself and my life to his people and his land.
I thought of it as my land, now. And its people my friends, though some were as dear to me as blood-kin.
I had said I was prepared.
"The Head and the Heart of Britannia," Richard murmured at last, both bringing me back to the present and brightening my memory of the past. He'd said the exact same thing all those years ago... "I've been wondering, thou knowest," he added, watching me. "When thou sacrificed thyself at Serpent's Hold... during the week before thy return, I wondered why Britannia hadn't collapsed and fallen to pieces. I felt not the slightest difference. It was as if thou wert still alive."
"Mellorin," I said softly, and he nodded. "Richard, Kra'lysie said that if I kill Mellorin I will also die in that instant. Thou... you have never told me what will happen if I die. If I really die." I smiled faintly. "You've always been there to bring me back, but this time..." I gestured at the bracer, not needing to explain further, and looked at him. "What will happen?"
He sighed and ran a hand through his blond beard. "In fact, I don't know. In theory... Can one live without a beating heart?"
I thought of my own undeath for a moment, then dismissed it. This was not life, and arguably worse than death. It was decay and hopelessness. I hid a shiver. "And what if thou wert to die?"
He regarded me quietly. "It is the same question, Elora. Perhaps it's one of the reasons why the Guardian hath always had such an interest in us."
I said nothing, remembering Mellorin's ultimatum the first time I'd 'met' her to surrender or die. Neither choice held much hope for Britannia's continued existence.
Not that I intended to choose between the options she'd given me.
My companions and I held a meeting elsewhere in the fort after sunset. The ships from the southeast were coming fast, which meant the battle would begin soon.
"What's going to make it hardest for them," Dupre said, "if they get in, is the channel itself. It's only wide enough for one ship to sail down."
"And the ship that doth will stand no chance," Iolo said. "Archers are stationed at optimum positions around the bay, we have light ballistae on either side of the cliffs-"
"With burning spears," Dupre put in. "They'll set fire to and sink the enemy ships."
"That meaneth the other ships will have to find a way past without catching fire themselves," Lord British observed. "If they all come down the channel one after another, they'll be forced to stop for lack of room to come about. They'll be sitting ducks."
Iolo nodded. "And if any soldiers abandon ship and reach shore..." he mimed sighting down a crossbow and loosing a bolt. "Though it will actually be the archers along the cliffs. Those with crossbows will be staying atop the fort; our range isn't as great as that of a longbow."
"So there's nothing to do but wait?" Shamino asked.
"The enemy are waiting," I said. "Those ships that came from Trinsic, the ones just south of the isle right now, made very good speed getting here. Someone's used magic for that." I paused. "Mellorin is with them."
"Thou art sure, then?" Lord British asked.
"I saw her with my own-" I broke off mid-sentence, belatedly remembering that I didn't currently have eyes. "I saw her."
We were silent for a minute, then Shamino asked, "What do they have on their ships?"
Iolo blinked. "Hast thou not been listening?"
The ranger shook his head irritably. "Of course. But hast thou not been looking? Not every one of those frigates hath soldiers lolling about on her decks, yet they all ride low in the water. They're all carrying about the same weight."
"Siege equipment, perhaps," Dupre said, though he frowned at the question.
"But Mellorin can blast through walls herself," Shamino pointed out. "We saw that much at Serpent's Hold. Why would they need siege equipment? And don't say 'in case she doth get tired', because she hath the Blacksword. We know it can renew her magical powers."
Everyone exchanged glances and no one had an answer.
All the ships had reached the Isle of Fire and gathered south of the towers, just out of range. Our defences were ready. Ballistae were manned, archers and crossbowpeople in their positions along the cliffs and on the battlements of the fort. Within, every warrior was armed and where they were meant to be. Each group had at least one mage to aid with their magic.
I stood on the battlements with Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia, Katrina, Kra'lysie, Lord British and Lord Draxinusom. We waited together for the first ship to approach the towers. They were silent as I watched the enemy with my sight. One of the ships, the one Mellorin was on, was pointed bow-first into the watery passage, but not moving. The sun was high before anything more happened.
Mellorin came out on deck with the Blacksword. She looked up at the sky once and smiled, as if she knew I'd be watching. With slow, measured steps, she crossed the deck to the forecastle, then stood behind the bowsprit to face the channel. Her right hand reached back over her shoulder and drew the Shade Blade, which she gripped in both hands and pointed at one of the towers.
"She's going to try and take out one of the tower's people with the Blacksword," I said to my friends standing by me on the roof of the fort.
"Is the blade that powerful?" Lord British's voice asked. "And at that distance?"
"I honestly don't know. I never tested Arcadion's range with his Fire magic, and never across water." But I sent a quick warning to those in both towers.
As I returned to watch Mellorin, I felt her gathering her magic again. Not just Arcadion's, not even just her own. The Guardian was helping her! Shimmering waves of ether rolled off her body like steam, and cold blue flames erupted down the length of the Blacksword. She wasn't going to merely take out the people in the tower the Shade Blade was levelled at.
She was going to blow it up.
"FIRE!" Mellorin thundered, and the daemon sword sent a gigantic ball of flames roaring towards the eastern tower.
"GET OUT!" I shouted, my sight jerking back to my body as a succession of explosions shook the island. The powder kegs detonated along the inside of the cliffs with great echoing bangs, filling the channel with dust and smoke. There was a deafening crash of rocks that made everyone duck just before shrapnel sliced the air with whizzing sounds. Several people around the bay's cliffs screamed as they were hit. It seemed ages before quiet returned. I glanced over the battlements, expecting to see a rocky barrier... a bay with no exit.
And saw instead a ship making its stately course up a perfectly clear channel.
"How..?" I whispered, then let out a snarl of frustration and hit the battlements with a fist.
I thought I could hear a familiar chuckle.
"Seven of our people are down," Iolo noted, his jaw clenching as he indicated the still forms that had toppled from the cliffs. He wiped blood from a gash in his forehead.
"They won't be the only ones," Dupre said grimly. He touched his friend's shoulder. "After a fall like that, though, at least they died quickly. Pity those who were on the towers."
The old bard nodded. "They didn't escape?"
Both of them looked at me.
I shook my head wordlessly.
"Who's on the first ship?" Shamino asked.
"Mellorin," I said, my voice soft.
"Damn," Iolo muttered. "I didn't expect this, and it looks like the explosions fouled Lord Draxinusom's chains." He turned to a mage. "Pass word to the archers and ballistae not to fire upon the first ship."
"I'm only dead if I kill her, Iolo," I reminded him.
"But if we torch the ship..." he left the sentence unfinished.
Mellorin's bracer would open only at Mellorin's command. If she was dead and her body destroyed, I'd be stuck as a liche. Forever.
"I don't like this," he added moodily. "She's not stupid. She must have seen our defences and know we'll sink every ship coming behind her, so what's her plan? She'll be cut off from her army and at our complete mercy!"
"She's not stupid," I echoed. "Wait, something's happening on her ship. I'll take a look."
A hatch in the deck had been opened, and two soldiers descended. A minute later they had emerged with an elderly man wearing once-fine clothes. Manacles bound him hand and foot, and he blinked at the brightness of the sun as he was dragged out. I mentally caught my breath. A prisoner?
The hatch remained open, almost invitingly, and I entered.
The hold was filled with Britannian hostages, chained together in the darkness and their own filth like what one would find on a pirate slaveship. Trinsic, I thought, fighting my mounting horror at the sight around me. I recognised a few faces. These people were from Trinsic.
I flew from the hold and down the channel to the rest of the fleet. They were also bringing a few hostages onto their decks. Open warnings to any mage who watched. If we sank these ships, we'd be killing our own people.
"Virtues," I whispered, returning to the fort. "I found out what those ships are carrying."
When I told them, my friends stared at me in disbelief. Iolo was first to recover, and quickly told the mage on the battlements with us to tell everyone on the cliffs to pull back into the fort. We wouldn't be firing upon any of the ships, and he didn't want his people shot down by the enemy.
And it went unsaid that we wouldn't be using the bracer to evacuate. We would not abandon Britannia.
Once again, we waited in silence for events to unfold.
The sun was setting by the time the enemy ships had all entered the bay in groups of five, unloaded and withdrawn. Approximately five hundred Britannian hostages lined the shore in chains, all down on their knees with an armed guard at either shoulder, two more large groups of the Guardian's warriors flanking them. There were additional prisoners and soldiers still on the ships - this was just a good-sized group to fit on the small shore of the Isle of Fire.
At length, Shamino, Dupre and Kra'lysie went downstairs to the courtyard. Iolo, Katrina, Julia, Lords British and Draxinusom and I watched the scene below without speaking, not knowing what to do. An open battle and those Britannians would be used as human shields. If we teleported to somewhere else in this world, Mellorin would follow. To another world, and we abandoned both the hostages and Britannia.
It was Mellorin's move, but she hadn't disembarked that I had seen. Her forces waited, only moving to stop anyone who tried to stand, resist or crawl away.
A frown crossed Lord British's face and his eyes widened slightly as he turned to look at me. "Didst thou feel it?"
I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising as though a chill wind had suddenly blown across the battlements. "A surge of ether," I whispered. Realisation dawned on me. Mellorin had used Arcadion to teleport into the fort! Ripping my own sword free of its scabbard, I ran for the stairs and flew down to the courtyard. Warriors jumped out of my way and flattened themselves against the stone walls with startled exclamations as I passed. Clearing the bottom steps with a jump, I quickly reached the forge and was soon looking at my double.
She was wearing chain mail, a black cloak, leather boots, a bracer to match my own... and a black Ankh at her throat.
Mellorin's green eyes gazed at me without expression. "Let's go." Facing the portcullis, she gestured with the Blacksword and vanished.
I Blinked after her and was soon looking at her again, though on the grassy grounds outside the fort. We stood halfway between the Guardian's army and one of Britannia's last defences.
Mellorin faced me and her familiar features twisted into a cold smile. "Surrender or die?" she asked.
"If you really were me once," I replied, "You'd know what my answer would be."
She laughed. "Neither?"
"Not only neither, but another." I lifted my blade and stood ready, the stance being one of open defiance. "I choose victory, Mellorin. All Britannia stands against you and you can't hope to defeat us."
Shifting the Blacksword in her hands, she said, "You don't have another choice. This land only needs one Avatar, and I am she."
"Is that what that Ankh is for?"
"I have to look the part," she said with a sadistic grin. "Besides, this is what was created when the bracer freed me. The Ankh has a mind too, you know, but whereas yours is a symbol of Life, mine is of Death. Ironic, considering that you're the one who's dead and I'm living."
"Not for long," I whispered.
She laughed once more then leaped to the attack, slashing at me with the Blacksword.
I parried, and thus ensued a frightening display of swordplay at its best. The blinding gleam of sunlight off steel as it whirled through the air in glittering arcs of death, the whistle of blades slicing pieces out of the sky, the shattering crash as they crossed or glanced against a hilt or bracer - we were each other's match, each other's mirror. As we paused for a second standing corps a corps, we met each other's eyes and both acknowledged that fact.
"Surrender or die, Elora?" she whispered, panting a little. Her green eyes were alight like those of a hunting cat. "You can't hope to defeat me."
My grip stayed firm on the hilt of the mezzin sword. "I've done it many times before."
"You think an internal battle is any comparison to this?" She gave a short, breathless laugh and I saw her muscles tense as her hands clenched tighter around Arcadion. "When it comes to meeting me in a physical fight, you're out of your league. You can't win."
I met her predatory gaze steadily and replied in a calm voice. "Watch me."
Arcadion shrieked past my ear, fire rippling up the blade. I blocked, initiated a Flameshield and ducked, sweeping my sword at her legs. She jumped and brought her weapon down at my skull with both hands as she descended. I caught her stroke, rising to face her again.
"What are you going to do? Try and kill me?" she demanded. "You'll die if you do that."
"Oh, this is rich. You'd die to protect Britannia, but if you do die, Britannia dies with you."
"Better dead than serving the Guardian," I replied, my voice almost a snarl. I lashed out with a booted foot but she saw it coming and grabbed it at the ankle, lifting. I flipped completely over and brought my sword up in a diagonal slice across her chest. She dodged back and hacked at my shoulder, missed by a hair's breadth and managed to parry a potentially fatal stroke I'd aimed at her neck.
Neither of us had so much as drawn blood from the other.
"Which is stronger, the darkness or the light?" Mellorin asked.
I readied myself. "Let's find out."
With a resounding ring of steel, the greatest duel ever seen on this world began.
I fought with all the skill, strength and courage I had. We battled back and forth across the field, my sword blurring in my hands as I attacked, defended, feinted, attacked again. She gave back as good as she got - a lethal whirlwind as she spun about with Arcadion in her hands and death in her eyes.
And the peoples of two worlds watched.
For hours the fight raged. I'd been keeping track, knowing that my living adversary would begin to tire...and she did. I pressed my advantage and attempted to drive her back towards the fort. She gave ground grudgingly, retreating step by step and assuming a more defensive tactic.
Then she faltered for the barest instant and my sword stabbed into her right shoulder.
She grunted with pain and lurched back, the Blacksword whipping around in retaliation. The only reason it hit me was because I never saw it coming.
I couldn't see.
My vision had vanished in an angry flash of red when I'd drawn Mellorin's blood. When she drew mine, the pain was soon to follow. There was a roaring surge in my head and a crippling pain in my chest as a heart that hadn't beat for weeks frantically started pumping again. Then it felt like fire searing through every vein as circulation began. With a cry of pain I fell back, barely holding onto my weapon. There was nothing to see beyond the red-shot blackness, nothing to hear past the deafening pounding within my skull, nothing to feel but white-hot agony. I was...helpless.
Mellorin didn't attack, not even when I'd dropped to the ground, lacking the strength to stand. I retained wits enough only to cover the bracer with my left hand. She'd have to chop me to pieces if she wanted to take it from me.
"You've lost, Elora."
I felt footsteps nearby. This time, Mellorin's voice was right beside me.
"Even now you won't admit it." She sounded vaguely disgusted. "But you will." Chill steel touched the side of my face and I felt pain, real pain, as it sliced a thin gash from brow to jaw. I could almost feel her disappointment when I didn't flinch away or make a sound. "You look strange with no eyes."
An involuntary shudder ran through me. Alive at last...how, I'd no idea, but what a sight I must be after my time of being undead.
"Surrender and all the pain will end."
I closed my eyes and folded in on myself, muscles cramping as though I hadn't used them in ages. My lips moved in a soundless whisper. Never.
"Poor Avatar." She sliced at me again and I didn't dare move my hands to fend her off. I was sure that if I did, she'd snatch off my bracer before I had a chance to do anything. "What has Britannia brought you to but pain and despair? Yet you still try to defend it." Her voice whispered into my ear, "Surrender."
I sensed her back away and when she next spoke, her voice came from above me and it was a shout to all on the Isle of Fire. "You've had your chance. Here's what's going to happen now: I'm going to walk back to my lines and start executing Britannians with the Blacksword. And I won't stop until I hear Britannia say, 'I surrender'." Her voice lowered. "You are Britannia, Elora? If Britannia doesn't surrender, Britannia will die."
She walked away and I felt each footstep as if it were a beating of my own heart, each one bringing her closer to the slaughter of the people I'd sworn to protect.
She had to die. Now.
I blinked furiously...futilely. I concentrated, hands pressed to the earth and ears straining to hear anything that would tell me where Mellorin was.
"You won't be able to see the deaths, Elora," her voice called. "But, by the Guardian, you'll hear them."
There was a wet, tearing sound and a shriek of pain.
A second deathcry tore the air, cutting me deeper than any physical wound.
I cannot - Britannia will die!
I gasped, coughed once and shuddered as the life-force I'd taken from Mellorin drained away, spent. My heart stopped and a wrenching pain stabbed through me as the bracer returned me to a state of undeath. As another scream echoed against the mountains of the Isle of Fire, all pain vanished and sight returned.
Green eyes blazing, I gained my feet and found Mellorin. As she casually plunged the Blacksword into the chest of another hostage, I gathered my strength, pointing my sword at her back. It would only take one Death Bolt to end her life.
I paused for a dreadful instant, unsure of what to do. Would Britannia perish if I died? I could almost hear the Guardian laughing. If I die, Britannia dies. If I surrender, Britannia dies. If Mellorin kills everyone, Britannia dies.
"At least I can make sure you die," I whispered, and prepared myself.
Mellorin spun around as I did, both of us lifting our eyes to the battlements of the fort to see the one who had spoken those words.
"Richard, no! What are you doing?"
The Lord of Britannia looked down at me from his vantage point. Even at this distance, I could see the pain his words had caused him. "Shouldst thou die, Britannia dies with thee. We would be lost and I cannot let that happen. Thou must live, Avatar, for we have no hope without thee."
I knew what he was proposing. He would stay here and I would take whomever I could to another world until such time came that we could return. "She'll kill you."
"Should she do that-"
"I'll return and have you resurrected before Britannia can die."
He nodded once, believing without asking how I'd manage it. "Go, Avatar. Take thy companions and leave. Then return to us."
Without a second's hesitation, I lowered my head and Blinked toward the portcullis as it opened to receive the enemy.
"Take them!" Mellorin shouted, and those who weren't holding the hostages charged across the field.
I quickly raised my illusions again and dashed inside, shouting for my friends. Dupre, Shamino and Kra'lysie were at my side in an instant and we all ran for the stairs to the battlements where we were joined by Iolo, Julia and Katrina.
"Take all the people thou canst," Lord British said as I reached his side. "Thou wilt need all the help thou canst get against the invaders."
As Dupre shouted for those lining the battlements to come over, Draxinusom came to me with twenty soldiers and ten archers from the courtyard below. "To be coming." The Gargoyle King faced Lord British and some silent communication passed between them.
The latter smiled, ignoring the sound of armoured boots pounding on the stairs. In Gargish, he said, "May persistence and precision lead you to success, my friend."
The first enemy soldiers appeared at the top of the stairs and, as those too slow to join us in the jump between worlds threw down their weapons, I randomly selected a world jewel, then a facet...and the world turned to clear jelly.
As if in slow motion, I saw two soldiers subdue the unresisting Lord British, and the others disarm those who were still on guard. Even though none of them seemed to see me or the others I was teleporting, Richard's eyes were fixed on me.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
He smiled, seemingly unaware of his hands being forced behind his back.
"I will return."
"I know thou wilt."
Two voices had given that answer. As Britannia faded from view, I looked down at the field and could clearly see Mellorin gazing at me, eleven Britannians dead at her feet and her expression a mix of triumph and anger.
When I turned my eyes back to Lord British, he was being forced down the stairs. He glanced back at me once - a single, piercing look of complete trust - before everything vanished in a whirl of light-shot shadows.
Britannia was in the Guardian's hands.
Thunder crashed in a deafening cataclysm directly above us. Rain slashed our faces from the night sky and chill wind buffeted us. Draxinusom's voice rang out over the tempest, telling us to find shelter.
"Stay in threes," Dupre shouted. "Don't get separated!"
"Wait!" I looked around with my enhanced vision, temporarily pushing aside the memories of my recent failure. Crouching, I touched the rain-slick flagstones we stood on. "We're on a building - maybe the roof of a castle. Look for stairs."
"Here," someone called.
Following the voice, everyone crowded around the pitch black stairwell an archer had found and I created a Light to guide us down. Thunder rumbled again as we descended, eventually coming out into a large courtyard. There were small gaps in the high roof, however, and two large 'skylights' through which water and wind entered in freezing bursts.
"There is something strangely familiar about this place," Shamino said, and a few warriors whispered agreement.
"Someone once told me that the planes linked to Britannia have similarities in people, places and even destinies," I said softly. "Watch for traps. Let's find a dry room. We need to rest and talk." The others spread out and I stayed in the courtyard with my Light. Shamino was right, I thought as I turned a full circle and took in my surroundings. I knew this place. Three doors in one direction (the central one at the end of a short passage) and a set of broken double doors on the opposite side of the courtyard, which occasionally banged because of the wind. There were stone statues of dragons and leopards under the skylights, their eyes seeming to glow by mingled rain and light.
Standing as I was in the middle of the courtyard, though... something was missing that would have allowed me to recognise the place in an instant.
Feeling sure that Mellorin wouldn't follow (not with Lord British and all Britannia at her mercy, I recounted bitterly), I ignited every candle standing in their tarnished sconces and mentally straightened the ones that weather had toppled.
"Avatar," a guard's voice echoed down the passage with the door at the end. "Thou hadst best see this, Avatar," he called urgently. He didn't sound excited, I noted to myself as I led my Light spell to the room. Indeed, he sounded as if he were going to be sick. Sick with fear.
Two others were with him in the small room, which held the remains of three shattered statues.
It hit me like a lightning strike.
"The Isle of Fire," I whispered.
"Have we gone forward in time, Avatar?" another guard asked fearfully. "Hath the Guardian won?"
I picked up one of the heavy stone heads. It was the same as the Statue of Truth. Then I looked back to the candlelit courtyard and frowned. "Where's the forge?"
The guards looked back, then at me again.
Dropping the head, I motioned for them to follow me.
"Avatar," Dupre said when we reached the hall. "The rooms are the same as-"
"I know. But no forge." I thought for a second. "As I said, someone told me in my travels that ties between worlds one can teleport to are stronger if the worlds have similarities. This could be one of those cases."
The knight let out a breath of relief and a murmuring went through everyone listening. "Then thou thinkest-"
"I don't know. I'll go upstairs and scry a bit. See what I can see. Did we find anything of interest? What was in that wing?" I asked with a gesture to the door on the right, suddenly remembering the Dark Core and Arcadion's mirror.
"Nothing," Iolo said. "This place hath been swept clean."
"Let me scry, then we can decide what to do."
My companions followed me back upstairs, leaving Draxinusom and the people we'd teleported in the courtyard. I told my friends to wait in the dry, then mounted the last few steps onto the roof. Looking at the dark clouds, I noticed a darker shape outlined against them.
"What are you doing up here?" I demanded silently.
Kra'lysie landed on the parapet and shook rain from her wings. "What does it look like? Can't I have a little privacy?"
"It's not like you're naked, you know," I thought wryly.
The dragon snorted and launched herself skyward, rolling to let the rain dash against her armoured belly.
I sent my sight out.
As it was, this fort wasn't even on an island. The bay was there and the sea all around the mountains except for one spot. A thin strip of rocky cliffs connected the 'Isle of Fire' to another section of land. It was barren, though. The earth, despite the rain, looked scorched and dead. Further scrying brought nothing of interest. Blackened trees, bare rock and no sign of life. The layout of the land made me feel sure this wasn't Britannia.
I returned to myself, relieved.
"So where are we?" Kra'lysie asked, inspecting her talons.
"Don't know." I went to the stairs where the others were and she changed her form to follow. "It's not Britannia."
"Thank the Virtues," Katrina said.
"There's nothing in the fort," Dupre said. "I think we should teleport again."
"Where to?" Julia asked. "What are we doing?"
Her question hung in the air.
"We need an army," Katrina said. "Hath anyone counted how many of us are here now?"
Julia replied, "Not including us, twenty archers and thirty warriors, five of whom are Gargish. Total, including Kra'lysie and Draxinusom..." She glanced around at us. "There are fifty-eight of us." There were a few mutters of disbelief from the others. "Katrina's right. We need an army if we want to stand a chance when we get back to Britannia."
"What good will that do against hostages?" Iolo asked.
"We need a big army," Dupre said. "Last time they used the hostages as a weapon. We have to put them on the defensive."
"As long as the Britannians are hostages, we will always be on the defensive," Iolo murmured. "But I see no alternative."
"The mezzini," Kra'lysie suggested.
"Keep them in mind," I replied. "I want to see where we are, first. If it's a world I've been to, I might be able to rally even more people."
Ten minutes later we all stood in the middle of a deserted village. The paved road under our feet was cracked and uneven with many stones missing. The silent houses were in various states of disrepair, from broken windows to collapsed ceilings. As in my view of the land, nothing was growing here. Neither could anything be heard besides us. It was as if something had sucked the very life out of the entire world.
On the up side, it wasn't raining here.
Faint light came from the west, so I guessed we'd just missed sunset.
"Groups of three," I called. "Look around and bring anything we can use here."
"Until it doth get much darker," Dupre added. "That should be around twenty minutes. And don't separate!"
Draxinusom echoed us in Gargish and both races of Britannians quickly formed groups and went to explore.
"Elora," Julia called. She was standing at the corner of one of the buildings and pointed at a wall when I looked at her. "I think I've found which plane we're on." There was an official, if somewhat old, document nailed to the wall.
"'Theft, Murder and Conspiring against the Government are crimes punishable by condemnation to the Pits of Carnage,'" I read aloud as my companions and Draxinusom crowded around.
"Who's M.G.?" Dupre asked, indicating the initials on the parchment.
"I still can't believe he knows how to read," Kra'lysie muttered, and Shamino snickered. This earned the ranger a dark look from both her and Dupre.
I ignored the byplay. "Mors Gotha."
A shout rang out from somewhere behind us and there was a clash of steel hitting stone.
"What was that?" Dupre shouted over his shoulder.
"Some kind of large centipede, Sir Knight," a soldier called back. "We're fine."
I moved along the wall to the door and found it locked, but a couple of solid kicks fixed that.
"To check another building," Draxinusom said, and went off with Iolo and Katrina. Julia, Shamino and Kra'lysie took another house, which struck me as strange since I had the impression that Kra'lysie disliked Shamino more than any of my friends, if not more than any other human she'd met. I felt she tolerated him only because of me.
"Let's go," I said to Dupre, and stepped inside the house I'd opened.
Something latched onto my head from above, then flew off as Dupre's sword struck it from behind. There was an odd splut noise and we crept closer to get a look at my attacker.
"Nice sized spider," the knight said, and looked for something to wipe his blade with.
The creature had stuck to the wall, legs tightly curled, greenish liquid dripping from two severed legs.
"Listen," I said softly, and Dupre held still.
The floor was formed of wooden boards and covered in places with faded rugs. The spider's blood was dripping down between two slats, and it was at least a full second before we could hear it hit the ground.
Dupre nodded slowly. "Very good..." He kicked a rug aside. "There must be a trapdoor somewhere."
We searched for a while, eventually finding the way down concealed beneath a broken bookshelf.
"Looks like the handle was torn off," Dupre noted, rubbing at a pair of bolt holes in the wood. "And my fingers are too big to fit between the boards."
I tried and lifted, but something was weighing the trapdoor down. Even with my undead strength, I couldn't get enough leverage with just my fingertips. "I guess we open it the other way."
The knight grinned and we both kicked down at the same time. The boards buckled then shattered after a fourth pair of kicks, and we went downstairs. It only occurred to me then, as we descended the creaking stairs, that I could have used magic. Shrugging at my own oversight, I made amends by creating a Light.
The upper room, although furnished, hadn't held anything of interest. No crockery, books, clothes, nothing. The room underneath was, by comparison, a treasure trove. Bookshelves crammed to overflowing with tomes and scroll cases lined the walls, and tables taking up the rest of the room were littered with various objects and yet more books.
"Small museum?" I suggested when I reached the landing.
"Some museum. Where are the suits of armour and magical weapons?"
"So maybe a strange library." I picked up something that looked like a telescope, but wasn't. "Wonder if there's anything useful here..."
Dupre opened a small pouch. "At least we can give Draxinusom these reagents."
I opened the hard cover of one particularly large and dusty book. "Looks like a history of this world."
"Will that be of any use?" Dupre asked. He peered closely at a dust-covered silver helmet shaped like some kind of bird - a long neck and head forming the nasal bar and the feathered wings folded down and around the front to serve as cheeckguards.
"I don't know." I flicked through a few pages and something caught my eye. Stopping, I turned back and found one full sheaf displaying a picture of a woman in brilliant colours. "What do you make of this?"
The knight had a look. "Not bad looking."
I rolled my eyes and pointed at some tiny print at the bottom of the page. "Look. Britannian runes."
He bent closer to the book. "'The Valkyrie'. Is that a title?"
"Valkyries were mythical beings said to serve the Norse gods in Valhalla."
Dupre looked blank.
"Earth mythology. Some legends said they could turn themselves into swans. Others said that they rode horses with manes of flame across the sky. All of them said that they were masterful warriors and that they walked unseen among mortal armies, marking who was going to die." I pursed my lips and looked at the picture again. She was fair of skin, had hair as blonde as sunlight, fathomless blue eyes and a confident expression. Her armour was a silver helm, a shirt of gleaming mail, a white cloak, leather leggings and boots, and her weapon a black sword.
"That's the same helmet," Dupre observed. "A swan."
I scanned the opposite page. "She was the Champion of this world, it seems." Reading a bit I added, "Scaeduen... I think that's the name of this place."
"What happened to the Valkyrie?"
I leafed through a few more pages and found another picture. After reading the caption, I sighed. "She was killed by Mors Gotha. A duel to the death."
Dupre read the opposite page aloud. "'When the Valkyrie refused to surrender to the leader of the Guardian's armies, she was thrown into the Pits of Carnage. Reports from our agent Zoranthus indicate that even then, the Valkyrie did not give up. After numerous challenges in the Pits, from which she emerged victorious, she quickly became the undisputed leader of those imprisoned there. Within two months, she had people working on a way to destroy the magic that keeps the entrance to the Pits closed. After three months, Mors Gotha decided to enter the Pits herself and challenge the Valkyrie to a duel. The Valkyrie accepted and chose the Arena of Air. She was defeated, and when Mors Gotha demanded that she surrender, she said, "I mark thee for death." Then was the Valkyrie killed, and "Mors Gotha Lives" became a slogan among those sympathetic to the Guardian's cause.'"
"Not any more," I muttered. "Any details about the fight?"
"No. Whoever wrote this was only interested in the important facts. Iolo would be appalled."
I closed the book. "Enough facts to give me an idea. I know Zoranthus. If we can find the Pits, I might be able to get some more help from him." Picking it up, I added, "I wonder if anyone will mind if I take this. Might be useful."
Dupre considered that with a grave expression, then said, "Well, this is a library I suppose, so it could be construed as 'borrowing'..."
"I wasn't intending to return it, Dupre."
"Oh? Well in that case..." He cleared his throat and, with a fair impression of Iolo's most disapproving voice, said: "Is that Virtuous?"
"Oh shut up."
When everyone returned to the square, we made one last sweep with the knowledge of the trapdoors in mind (one other group had already discovered this and uncovered a small store of dried fruits and meats) to see if anything else could be found. Only two more trapdoors were found, though. One was empty, but the other was a blessing. It was beneath a smithy, if the cold forge was any indication, and it held a plethora of assorted arms and armour and shields, all untouched by rust and some obviously enchanted. No one needed any persuading to take whatever they could use.
All I took was a shirt of silvery mail that seemed infused by a faint blue glow, which I slipped on over my tunic.
Then we were teleporting again.
Someone shouted and the first thing I saw was a fist. The next thing I knew I was flat on my back blinking at the sky. A mace swung down at my head and I rolled aside as someone smacked it off-target with an axe.
Julia dragged me to my feet as more cries rang out and weapons clashed. "We landed right in the middle of something," the tinker shouted over the noise - rather unnecessarily, I thought - then ducked away to engage someone with her shortsword.
Our attackers were an oddly assorted group I saw as a goblin tried to skewer me. Grabbing the haft of his spear as I dodged, I pushed back hard so the butt got him in the stomach. He doubled over and I wrenched his weapon free to strike his forehead with the butt again. He toppled, unconscious, and I quickly counted how many were against us in this collection of goblins, humans and at least one troll. Not many, thank the Virtues. Fate would truly have to be against us if we suffered major casualties here.
Dropping the spear, I drew the sword the mezzini had given me and parried a human's blade, counter-attacked with a lunge that glanced across his ribs then began to block a sweeping slice just as my eyes went blind and fire seemed to sear my insides.
A shock went up my arm as the swords connected, but unbelievable pain came with it and I fell forward, lunging blindly to the sound of my invisible opponent's scream then dropping to the ground with a strained gasp.
A gasp for breath.
Magic flew around to enclose me in a protective barrier and I heard something metallic bounce off it. I recognised Kra'lysie's mind, but couldn't concentrate enough to send her a mental message. Instead I sat on the barren ground, blood burning, heart pounding, lungs screaming for more air. When I tried to stand, my head spun so much I almost passed out.
"Stay still," the dragon's thoughts came to me. "The Tinker comes for you."
"Staying still is no problem," I managed, teeth gritted and eyes staring blindly at nothing. "I can't see."
Someone took me by the wrists and helped me up. Panic stabbed at my mind as I was led...somewhere. There was only blackness. Everywhere I looked there was a vast field of nothing.
The person leading me said, "That building." It was Julia.
Amidst a torrent of other sounds and noises, I heard a door being forced open, quickly followed by footsteps crossing a wooden floor. The brisk wind suddenly stopped and I knew I was inside.
"What happened?" Dupre's voice asked. "I didn't see anyone hit thee."
"A spell?" suggested Iolo.
There was the sound of a door creaking closed.
"To have felt no spellcasting of such power," came Draxinusom's answer.
"Wait," Julia's voice said. The hands supporting me moved, one sliding up to touch the side of my neck. "By the Virtues..." she whispered. Her tone suddenly became excited. "By the Virtues! Thou'rt alive!"
There were several startled exclamations, then someone grabbed my wrist and felt for the pulse beating there.
Everyone started talking at once.
"Quiet!" I shouted and they immediately fell silent. "Virtues! Why couldn't I have been deaf instead of blind?" I reached out aimlessly and felt nothing. "Could someone grab me a chair, please?"
Something scraped against the floorboards and moved behind me. Julia helped me sit on what I guessed was a wooden crate.
I shut my eyes and felt better for some reason. At least there was now an excuse to why I couldn't see. On top of that, most of the pain seemed to have vanished. I had a few aches, but it was nothing like the incapacitating fire in my veins earlier. "Now, this is what happened. I was fighting. As soon as I reached that first fighter and wounded him..." I spread my hands. "I don't know how. I'm alive, though. I can feel it. The same thing happened when I fought Mellorin. At first I thought it was just because she is me, but now I don't know what to think." I paused. "How do I look?" I asked, a little uncertainly.
"Normal," said Julia. "Thou even hast eyes, so I can't understand why thou canst not see."
"This isn't what she looks like," Kra'lysie said, her voice troubled. "It's an illusion of my own casting. I thought it would save you all the pain of attempting to explain to your Britannians why the Avatar looks like this."
A tingling feeling washed over me a second before I heard several sharp breaths. It was only too easy to imagine the looks of revulsion that were probably on their faces. Virtues, how bad did I look after...however long I'd been undead? I kept my eyes firmly shut, unwilling to let them see my vacant eye-sockets...afraid to know how they might react.
Katrina's voice was shaky as she asked, "We can...we can heal her, can't we?"
"No," Kra'lysie replied. "The aeth'raesh'al would only channel any energy you use to Mellorin."
"Can I heal myself?" I asked.
"I...am unsure. I don't know if you should try."
"Look at her," Julia retorted. "We have to do something."
"I'm open to suggestions, Tinker."
"Please don't argue," I interrupted, suddenly feeling a deep fatigue. "Kra'lysie, do you have any idea how this has happened? Any explanation to why I'm alive?"
"You're not alive," the dragon stated. "You can't be. It's impossible!"
"Kra'lysie, I have a pulse, I'm breathing...what else can you call it?"
Someone knocked on the door.
"I'll take care of it," Dupre said, and moved off.
"Find some bandages and clean water whilst thou'rt at it," Iolo instructed him at the same time as Kra'lysie said to me, "You can only be alive if your double is dead. It's not possible to be in two places at the same time. She is alive so you can't be! I don't have another explanation."
"That would mean she's still undead, wouldn't it?" Shamino asked.
"I suppose so." The dragon sounded irritated at not knowing how to give a better answer. "Even though her aura doesn't show that. Look, I don't even know how this has happened."
"If she's undead, she can cast spells without reagents, right?"
I nodded and gathered my strength. I definitely didn't feel as strong as before, but I was far from being weak. What I needed was a good few days in bed and some food - I was feeling very hungry all of a sudden. The spell I was casting was sort of like Roaming Sight, except that you'd keep it in one place - where your eyes should be. As I released the spell, everything slowly came into focus despite my closed eyes. The anxious faces of my friends, the dirty straw piled into one corner of the building, dim light gleaming off a broken window, floorboards carpeted by a thick layer of dust that now bore fresh footprints...
"To ask if it worked?" Draxinusom would have felt me casting the spell.
I quickly established my own illusion, opened my eyes and smiled half-heartedly. "It worked."
Which meant Kra'lysie had been right. I was still undead.
I refused the offer of rest because time was the one thing we didn't have. No one had suffered an injury more serious than Draxinusom or anyone else with magical abilities could handle, so we were soon teleporting again. As per last time, we reappeared amongst creatures who wanted to cut us into dog food. Prepared, the Britannians attacked before any foe could do more than let out a startled yell and draw his or her weapon.
At first I felt barely strong enough to lift my sword, let alone hold it steady. But when a goblin virtually impaled herself on it after reeling away from a Britannian mace, I felt an odd thing happen.
Mages talk about the feeling of omnipotence that can infuse you when a great amount of power enters your body, and I'd experienced that myself at times, but nothing like the sheer intoxication that filled my being now. My blood burned as it sped through my veins, a sensation of strength gripping my muscles.
Almost of its own volition, my blade whipped out and took the head of a human wearing ill-kept chain mail. The decapitated body fell forward, the hand-axe clutched in his dead left hand swinging down to strike the ground between my feet.
I spun, blade uplifted as a hand grasped my shoulder.
"Hold!" Dupre shouted, and I blinked at him before lowering my sword. He grinned widely. "Thou seemest to have recovered."
"Is it over?" I asked, looking around. "Already?" I added, a disappointed note in my voice.
Dupre gave me a strange look. "Yes." He touched a graze on his right cheekbone and made a face. "How many more will we go through before finding these Pits of Carnage?"
"To call the Avatar!" a gargoyle shouted.
"I don't know," I told Dupre, and gestured for him to come as I started walking. "Maybe we should ask for directions."
"In any case, these wretches seem intent on killing themselves rather than being taken alive."
"Fleeing battle in the Pits was seen as a serious breach of honour," I said. "Every fight down there was to the death. Perhaps that's the reason..."
As it turned out, the gargoyle warrior who'd called me was crouched near a goblin with an angry lump on his head. Iolo and a human crossbowman were nearby. The goblin's slightly unfocussed eyes took a little while to fix on me. At length, he squinted and grimaced.
"Thou be-est the Avatar, aye?"
I leaned on my sword and tried to calm my heart, which was still racing after the battle. "How didst thou know?"
"Thou'rt the killer of Dorstag." The goblin sat up under the watchful eyes of the gargoyle. Rubbing his head, he added, "Everyone from the Pits knoweth that."
I exchanged a glance with my friends. "Thou'rt from the Pits? How didst thou get out?"
"Eh?" The goblin blinked at me. "Through the trapdoor, same as everyone else."
"I escaped by magic," I said, determined to get to the bottom of this. "When I last saw the inside of the Pits of Carnage, the trapdoor was closed. Who opened it and how?"
The goblin shrugged. "It was opened from the outside. The trapdoor's in one of the ancient cities and some rebel bands managed to capture it, then open the door. This was a couple of days ago, thou seest. Then they've just been letting everyone out. I joined one of the quickly forming groups of ex-prisoners and we got away from there before anyone could change their minds and toss us back in."
"I thought the Guardian's magic kept the trapdoor sealed."
"Well, someone broke the spell. Don't ask me. I know nothing about magic."
I wondered if I'd taken a hand in that. Leaving that question for the time being, I asked, "Knowest thou the way to the Pits of Carnage?"
He snorted. "Why dost thou ask?"
"I'm looking for someone who was in there."
"Someone thou hadst a grudge against?" he asked with a little interest.
"No. Just an acquaintance."
"I'm not joining thy band if thou'rt heading back to the Pits!"
I bent over the upright ruby pommel of my sword and looked him in the eyes without smiling. "Is that thy decision, then?" I asked softly.
He hesitated and glanced around furtively at the expressionless faces around him. Dupre was running a whetstone down the edge of a long dagger, seemingly oblivious to the sound it was producing.
The goblin sighed and muttered something in his own tongue. "I'll show thee the way," he said reluctantly.
"Good. Look, just show us to the city where this trapdoor is and we'll let thee go in peace."
He looked a bit happier at that. "Done." He held up one green hand and I gripped it, helping him up and shaking it with a grin afterwards. "I am called Canus. What is thy band called, shakra?"
Iolo said, "The Avatar's Companions."
Thus began our trek north-east along the Old Highway and landscapes devoid of plant life. Canus told us that we'd reach a city in about eight hours. Eight standard hours, or less, I hoped. From there, if we were allowed in, we could see if anyone knew where Zoranthus was. If necessary, I was willing to enter the Pits and look for him myself.
After a short rest period where I conferred with my friends, we decided against telling Canus what our business was or asking him for information of this world. It might be dangerous enough that he knew I was the Avatar, even if the significance of that title might not be known.
He obviously expected us to fight every band we came across. Each time a group of humans, goblins, trolls, other creatures or mixed were seen camping near the road or travelling against our direction, Canus would draw his sword, identify any familiar faces in its ranks, give his advice, and await my course of attack. As was usual, our archers and crossbowpeople, who walked in deliberate position on the right and left of our group, would dash back a ways and begin their deadly rain on the opposition. The rest of us would divide - a quarter to defend each flank and the others waiting to meet the charge.
There were a lot of bands, though, and on average we saw one every hour. The Pits of Carnage would probably be empty by the time we got there.
Arrows and bolts ran out, and that became a problem when we came up against a band with their own ranged weapons and even mages. We decided to detour around two such groups when Kra'lysie spotted them off in the distance, though this was against the judgement of both Canus and myself. He considered it cowardly. What hope would we have of getting into the city if we didn't have a reputation? My friends reasoned that my reputation might serve instead.
And my reason for wanting to fight? The fight itself was the reason. It was a common enough desire after a certain amount of personal trauma, I reasoned, and Virtues knew I'd been through enough. I wanted to fight, lose myself in the oblivion of battle-rage and forget that I'd abandoned the world I loved more than life to the Guardian. There were enough battles on the way to keep everyone busy, though. In each I unleashed my anger on my enemies, welcoming the illusion that it was really Mellorin on the end of my sword, welcoming the strange feeling of mixed victory and renewed power each cry of agony gave me.
Only one battle resulted in Britannian fatalities - four humans - while two yielded some serious wounds. Those who needed it were Healed or Resurrected. No one was being left to die here if we could help it.
An hour away from the city we stopped to rest. By then I'd calmed down enough to notice the loud grumbling from my stomach and the fact that I was yawning a good deal. After eating, I fell asleep beside a small cookfire and didn't wake until the next day.
The sun hadn't risen yet when I finally came to, but the fire had been kept burning through the night. Julia lay on the other side of it, her green cloak drawn tight around herself and the folds glistening with early morning dew. A few Britannians paced around the camp, keeping watch, but otherwise everyone was asleep.
I moved closer to the fire and pulled my backpack over, taking out the book I'd borrowed from that village. There was no title on the cover or the first few pages, and no name to indicate who had written it. I turned to the first page with text - all runic - and settled down to read.
The Coming of the Nightmares
Scaeduen used to be a single huge continent surrounded by ocean. The land was rich, riddled with rivers that flowed from the Ice Mountains and there was no war. Martial prowess was highly valued, but for no other reason than as a test of skill and strength with various weapons. Those who called themselves rulers had no need to fight for land, for it was plentiful and almost always fair. The soil yielded anything one would wish to grow and the forests and plains provided game aplenty.
Man, Troll and Goblin had nothing to fear until the coming of the Nightmares.
Little is known of how these beasts entered our world. They resembled the Pegasi, though they had no wings and were black. Their manes and tails were like fire and their hooves sparked as they galloped across the sky. Wherever they passed over, those who slept never woke.
And those who feared to sleep went mad.
The Time of Fire
One of the first to lose his mind to the Nightmares was the human mage Zari. Although insane, his magic was in perfect working order as he slaughtered the people of his village and burned it. He went to the Ice Mountains in the middle of the continent and climbed Mount Ethereal, the highest peak in Scaeduen. For a time nothing more was heard or seen of him. Then, one night, the mountain burned.
Smoke, ash and steam covered over two thirds of the land and the sun all but vanished. The Ice Mountains split and earthquakes shook the world. Rivers ran with liquid flame and much of the highlands were scorched. The mountains could not be seen through the smoke.
But the Nightmares continued to ride the sky, and death came in their wake.
Appeal to Circe
A group of Humans, Trolls and Goblins, led by the Goblin ranger Sendarii, made the long overland trek to the foot of the Ice Mountains and around to where stood the Castle of Cycle. Even by keeping careful watch at night and sleeping in shifts, only half their number made it, and there they found the land split, mountains giving way to water that still boiled with heat.
The castle now stood on a narrow thread of land. It was undamaged, though abandoned. Those who tended the shrines of Death, Void and Life had fled long since.
Determined to contact the spirits of the Cycle, the group stripped the castle of all the ritualistic herbs that had been left behind and prepared the Shrine as best they knew.
Sendarii was left alone in the Shrine as it filled with the scented smoke of the burning herbs and his mind entered the realm of Void. What passed between the ranger and spirits was never revealed but, when he returned to himself, he said that Circe had heard their plea.
The Spirit of Death had chosen a Human avatar.
The Spirit of Void had filled a mindless object.
The Spirit of Life had touched an innocent animal.
The three united would end the destruction that plagued Scaeduen and put the Nightmares to rest.
Uniting the Circle
Word was sent across the world and the search for the three vessels began.
The Mages of Grace found Void's relic. It was a sword of black material that reflected no light.
A mountain druid discovered Life's animal, and there was much doubt about it at first. The creature was a molan, the offspring of a Nightmare and Pegasus. Like the former it was black, but like the latter it was winged. There had been other births like this across Scaeduen, but few live ones. Most foals were killed upon discovery.
The Spirit of Death came in the form of a Human woman from beyond the world. Her name was Anatidae, and she was aware of her task from the moment she arrived. Taking up the sword and mounting the molan she flew directly to the burning Mount Ethereal.
Within its caves she found a score of Nightmares, the mad Zari and a blazing red stone the size of a Human head. With the Voidblade, Anatidae managed to kill Zari and shatter the jewel. At its destruction a tremor ripped across the land and the continent was divided into three, even as the jewel lay as three broken shards.
Mount Ethereal collapsed into the sea and the vessels of the spirits, of Death, Void and Life, were thought lost.
The three divided lands were named Mortis, Oubron and Vivaer. The Nightmares appeared to have vanished, the eruptions had stopped and much of the land was now ruined, but the three races were able to rebuild and work together to restore peace from the chaos of the previous years.
I flipped forward, scanning the next few pages for more references to Anatidae, who I guessed was the Valkyrie. It seemed that she too was from Earth, which surprised me for some reason. I supposed that if I could get to Britannia then someone else from Earth could do the same (like my companions) or similar, but another Avatar?
There was a whole section in the book of how Anatidae eventually gained the title of Valkyrie, but her quests seemed very different from my own. Her 'companions' were her sword and her molan, and there was little talk of friends among the people. She seemed to be highly respected, but also feared, as though she bore some terrible power. The avatar of Death. That didn't really sound very nice. There was very little in the book about Scaeduen's virtue system - this Death, Void and Life cycle. It even seemed to be around the wrong way. Shouldn't it have been Life, Void and Death, or even Life, Death and then Void?
I shrugged and flipped through more pages, idly aware that the sky was growing lighter and the Britannians were stirring around me. It seemed the people of this world had been good and noble. No racial prejudices, only one or two wars by the occasional bad apple. The book wasn't particularly in-depth about a lot of things, as though assuming the reader would know a lot of what it was on about.
Another paragraph caught my attention:
The three shards of Zari's jewel, thought lost, were recovered by a mountaineer named Skarne and presented to leaders of the Three Lands: the Goblin Lady Tanchu of Mortis, the Human Lord Farras of Oubron, and the Troll Chief Gundreft of Vivaer. Each ruler chose to have their shard surmounted in a crown, and the broken jewel gave them wondrous powers which they used to govern the world.
If Britannia's three shards were any indication, this did not bode well. After several decades of history in which all seemed to be going well, there was a change. Each ruler became envious of the powers of the other two. This covetousness eventually affected their people and enmity began to build between the Three Lands.
Determined to sieze the other two shards and take the full power of the Jewel, Chief Gundreft called upon the magic of his shard for the gift of Longevity; he hoped to outlive the other two rulers and claim their shards when they died.
Hearing of this plan, Tanchu used the power of her shard to embrace Undeath, a strength that would surely endure longer than life.
Farras used his shard to open his mind to the Void and fill his being with Ether, becoming an archmage of power beyond any. He trusted that this power would outlast even those of Life and Death.
And as their leaders thirsted for power, so the same strange hunger came upon the people of Scaeduen like a plague...
The next few pages detailed uprisings and then war between the Three Lands. The leaders each tried to summon the Valkyrie and bind her to their cause, but she turned against all three of them, marking them for death and vowing to destroy the shards. She took to the sky astride her molan, the Voidblade strapped to her back, and began to seek her prey.
As confident in their powers as the three were, they still feared the Valkyrie and their fear drove them to work together. They combined their powers and sought aid beyond their world for one who could break the Cycle.
I turned the page and my gaze fixed on the subtitle.
The Coming of the Guardian
On the opposite page was a picture in colours as vivid as the one of the Valkyrie. It showed a scarlet visage with two burning eyes. After staring at it for a while, I forced myself to read.
The three were answered by a being who called himself the Guardian. He promised to send a champion who would defeat the Valkyrie. When the three asked what the price would be for this, the Guardian said that it would be nothing none of them would be unwilling to give. The champion he would send them could lead their people to conquer other worlds instead of fighting each other... if they would allow themselves and their warriors such glory. All they would have to do, the Guardian said, was listen to his Voice and trust him. He had already judged them worthy, and if they united with him they would become invincible.
The three agreed to his terms, and followed his instructions to build a gateway through which the champion would come. The gate was a great rectangular slab of a material called blackrock, and when the time was right its surface rippled with dark light. Through the Black Gate came an armed woman with hair as dark as the Valkyrie's was blonde. Behind her streamed a regiment of soldiers bearing the armour of another world.
From there the Guardian's forces had moved swiftly to secure all the major cities and establish military camps and compounds. Eager to take part in travelling across the planes in this great army, the people of Scaeduen lined up to test their battle prowess against the Guardian's soldiers in order to be accepted.
During this time, the Valkyrie once again took to the skies and flew over the areas of Guardian occupation. For three straight days she delivered only a warning from the back of her fire-winged steed - leave Scaeduen through the Black Gate or be marked for death. When the warning was refused each time, she again soared over the camps of the outworlders, the Voidblade unsheathed and held high.
Only this time, those she passed over toppled and died in an instant. This went on for weeks as she shouted demands to confront Tanchu, Farras and Gundreft - by the time they came to face her the deaths of outworlders and Scaeduenese who had joined their ranks numbered tens of thousands.
But the three leaders lured the Valkyrie into a trap and did not come to face her alone. With them was Mors Gotha. Before the power of the three shards and Mors Gotha's skill with a sword, the Valkyrie fell. As her enemies surrounded her she bade the molan to flee and continue the fight without her. The Voidblade she tossed into the air where it vanished like smoke on the wind.
"How art thou feeling?" Julia asked and I almost jumped at her voice. I looked over at her and closed the book, stowing it away in my pack. The sun was over the horizon by now and there was s distinct chill in the air.
"Elora?" Julia asked.
"Cold," I chattered, my breath forming mist in the air. I stared as it dispersed.
"Still alive, too." She smiled and handed me a comb. "Try and make thyself presentable as our leader." I changed my illusion to fix the problem and she sighed. "Wish I could do that."
I grinned, handing the comb back. "Anything happen last night?"
"Only one attack-"
"Why didn't you wake me?" I interrupted angrily.
"Well, it was over almost before it began." She raised a brow at me. "Kra'lysie was out flying, saw a few goblins sneaking around, contacted Dupre..." she shrugged.
"Is this some kind of weird liche thing?"
Julia lowered her voice. "Our friends have noticed it too. Thou lookest to be enjoying fighting."
"What?" I forced a laugh. "No, I'm not."
"It looked like it the other day."
I sighed and met her worried gaze. "Did I do the right thing, Julia?"
"By leaving Britannia, thou meanest?"
I nodded, my eyes lowering to look at the ground.
"Had we not, there would have been two choices for us: fight or surrender. I doubt we would have fought, not with all those hostages at Mellorin's mercy. That leaveth surrender, which is a hard thing for me to see us doing."
"Better to die on our feet than live on our knees?" I asked.
Julia shrugged. "There are two schools of thought on that. Personally, I'd prefer to fight and die than live under the Guardian or any other oppressor. But consider, Avatar. If we fight and die, we die. The end. If we surrender, we survive. While there is life, there is hope that we can rise again and break free." Her eyes were intense when I finally looked at her again. "We didn't surrender, but, because of thee, we're alive. We have hope."
She took her leave to attend to something, and it was a few minutes before I realised she hadn't really answered my question at all.
Nothing happened on the remainder of our journey until we reached the city Canus had told us of. It looked to be the size of Trinsic, and just as well defended. Vestiges of green grass clung to the bases of the walls, and I guessed that there might be plant life within. No banners hung from the towers, I noticed as we waited for someone to allow us entry or turn us away. I asked Canus to stay with us until we actually saw the trapdoor, then led everyone closer to the city.
"The Avatar's Companions!" Iolo shouted when the question came from the gatehouse.
"The Avatar? Isn't she still in the Pits of Carnage? We never saw her emerge."
"I escaped before the trapdoor was opened," I called, "by magic."
"Thou wilt have to prove thy claim," the voice shouted after a short silence. "I will not bar the gates to the Avatar, but art thou she?"
"Exactly how many worlds art thou famous on?" Dupre muttered as the distant portcullis rose with a grating sound.
I gave him a smile and went forward alone to meet the solitary figure emerging from the gate.
It was a troll. Half again my height, heavily muscled and covered with thick, dark-brown fur, there was unmistakable intelligence in its grey eyes. It regarded me steadily as we stopped to face each other, then he spoke in a surprisingly genteel voice: "I am Hartrhind."
"I am Elora, the Avatar."
"That remains to be seen. Not even the Valkyrie escaped from the Pits of Carnage, Elora." Hartrhind scratched his chin with a huge hand, obviously thinking.
"What dost thou know of me?"
"Of thee, nothing. News of the Avatar tell that she slew Dorstag, befriended a great troll, broke one of the Guardian's wards, which later allowed us to open the trapdoor, and braved the lower levels - maybe even meeting the mage Zoranthus."
Someone's well informed, I thought, and waited patiently.
"Didst thou save Britannia?" Hartrhind asked.
Something told me that there was a lot more to this troll than met the eye. I made a gesture to the aeth'raesh'al bracer that only he would see and replied, "It's not over yet."
"A sorceress lady who dwelleth in a desert sent word thou mightest come back to Scaeduen," he told me softly. "I lead one of the few bands that oppose the red titan, and three of these hold the city behind me, as we have for scarce three days. We hoped we would find thee in the Pits of Carnage. Or, at least, simply find thee."
"What dost thou want?" I asked.
"We wish to join thee in thy struggle against the Guardian, under thy banner. We must unite to win this war, Avatar."
"You must understand," I said softly, dropping my archaic phrasing, "that Britannia has to come first with me. Her king has been taken and if he dies, I think the world will follow."
"Our worlds are connected, Avatar." Hartrhind nodded his understanding. "If thy world dies, Scaeduen and many others will be caught in the destruction. We will still help." He extended his huge hand and I took it with a grim smile.
Suddenly, Hartrhind's eyes widened and he shoved me away. I was knocked sprawling, speechless, and shouts of protest rose from the Britannians.
"Alive!" the troll shouted. "'Tis the deceiver!" He stepped forward, towering over me and beginning to do what I never thought I'd see a troll do.
An incantation flew as Britannian bows and crossbows fired. Bolts struck Hartrhind's Magical Missile Shield and exploded, raining splinters over me.
"Stop!" Hartrhind roared, and he had me before I'd thought to move. One gigantic fist clamped around my neck and lifted me up and out far enough that I wouldn't be able to kick at him.
I was too busy trying to breathe, in any case.
Iolo shouted a command to cease fire immediately.
"If you'll let me explain," I choked. "Did Altara give you any other... signs to know us by?"
"She said thou wouldst likely have a great red dragon in thy company. I don't see it, unless those winged humanoids in thy ranks are what she meant."
The edges of my vision started to blur. I couldn't see Kra'lysie, but she'd started keeping to the rear of our company to avoid being caught in a fight. "Let me call her."
"I'm not letting thee go."
"Then you call her," I said through gritted teeth, my hands instinctively pulling at the large fingers around my throat. "Kra'lysie."
"Kra'lysie!" Hartrhind shouted. "If thou be-est a dragon, show thyself and prove the Avatar true."
The ranks of the Britannians stirred and Kra'lysie pushed her way to the vanguard. She approached a few steps.
"No closer," Hartrhind ordered. "I've seen enough."
"You've seen nothing," I whispered as the dragon-woman turned, told the Britannians to step back, then began to shimmer. When she'd regained her true form, unfurled her vast wings and scorched the air with a thunderous, fire-tinged roar, Hartrhind murmured, "Uh... that's good enough for me."
"Impressive, no?" I managed as he set me down.
"You really have to find another means of identification, Avatar," Kra'lysie rumbled disapprovingly.
"Sorry," I called up in a slightly strained voice. "Usually they just ask to see my Ankh and-"
"Ankh?" Hartrhind asked.
I pulled down the neck of my mail shirt to reveal the golden amulet melded to my skin.
"Oh," he said, looking like he was wishing he'd asked about that earlier.
I rubbed my neck and knew exactly how he felt.
The inside of the city, Zehr Mathil, was not green as I'd expected, but as barren as the outside. The only things that grew on this world were fungi, mosses, algae and a dream-enhancing drug that flourished on grave sites. Mages were able to create a daily supplement of food with the aid of runestones - enchanted stones that substituted their own energies in place of reagents. This way they also had the power to keep their animals fed, but more often than not the magic was used to repel attackers.
"The standard of the Ankh and the name of the Avatar are almost synonymous with victory against the Guardian," Hartrhind told my companions (just the close ones - everyone else was free to wander the grounds) and me as we toured the city. "Thou art the only one who hast continuously thwarted his plans to take thy world. Without help, though, we know it's only a matter of time before thou fallest."
"Who's 'we'?" I asked.
"Those who have fought for their own worlds and lost."
"What maketh thee think the Avatar will eventually lose?" Dupre demanded.
Hartrhind glanced over at him then looked directly at me. "Two reasons. The first is that the Guardian is unaffected by time's passage, but the Avatar, even with her legendary longevity, will not live forever. The second reason is because she is fighting this war alone. All the power and strength she draweth for her battles are from herself. From Britannia. The Guardian draweth from many worlds, friends. Many."
"What dost thou suggest?" Shamino asked, and I said, "I'm not going to forcefully take energy from worlds like he does."
Hartrhind's brutish face smiled. "The true power of a world is in its people, Avatar, and we give ourselves freely for thy cause for it is the same as ours. We must unite."
"We have," I assured him.
"What are thy plans?"
"I want to see a human mage named Zoranthus. Have you heard of him?"
"Zoranthus?" Hartrhind looked startled. "I know of him. He's been fighting the Guardian since before the time of the Valkyrie!" He paused, considered what he'd just said, then stared at me in wonder. "He's in the Pits of Carnage, isn't he?"
"Unless he's left since you opened the trapdoor?"
He shook his great head. "I couldn't say, Avatar. I have no idea what Zoranthus looketh like, and many people have come through the trapdoor."
"Don't worry. I'll take a few people into the Pits later and see if he's where I last saw him."
Draxinusom changed the subject. "To wonder if any other bands are joining us here?"
I'd explained the differences between gargoyles and daemons, but Hartrhind still looked slightly intimidated. Draxinusom was almost as tall as he was, for one thing, and the Gargoyle Lord had a certain presence.
"No more bands will come," Hartrhind answered. "Not for a while at least." He stopped walking and leaned against a parapet, his back to the iron grey sea. "Thou hast my band, the Gauntlet, Talaac's Jade Hawks-" he pointed out a human standing guard on a tower. I could make out that the arrows in his shoulder quiver were feathered green. "-only all-archer band I know of, and fine archers at that. Cale's Chosen." He peered down into the courtyard, then up at the sky. "Cale must be hunting."
"What's Cale?" Kra'lysie asked, interested when Hartrhind had looked up.
"A molan." I blinked, my friends only looking confused as he added, "Cale was the steed of the Valkyrie. She was to our world what the Avatar is to Britannia."
"A winged horse. Can he talk?" I put in.
"I know not what a horse is, but Cale can talk in his own way. Other than them there are a few former prisoners still about. Some have joined us, while others don't appear to know where to go." He turned to me. "Cale isn't likely to return for a while yet, which will be when we'll all follow thy lead wherever thou wouldst go. Perhaps thou wouldst like to search for Zoranthus now?"
I glanced at my friends. "Ready for a little adventuring?"
It was about half an hour later that Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia, Katrina, Kra'lysie and five human Britannians descended with me into the Pits of Carnage. The huge iron-bound trapdoor remained open above us, faint torchlight flickering off the roof of the deep cellar it resided in. Hartrhind had lowered a long rope ladder and wished us luck.
Once I was standing in the dark and familiar surroundings I created a Light and led my companions up a stone passage towards the stairs that connected to the lower levels.
"This was where most of the people lived, or tried to live," I said into the vast silence. "One huge underground prison. There are four arenas where they can fight one another for food or gold. It was practically the only way to survive."
My voice echoed eerily against distant walls. This place was empty, dark and cold.
We reached the stairs after about ten minutes and followed them down, then walked through some twisting passages of earth and mossy rock to an enormous cave. There were some murmurs of amazement that quickly died down as the echoes came back. Even Kra'lysie, whose kind lived in caves, looked impressed. The earthen floor was covered with a moist green lichen and small clumps of fungi dotted it. The air was humid, but not really unpleasant. The smell pervading it was sharp and fresh, very different from the musty dankness that usually overhung caves and dungeons. And my Light, although bright, was not enough to illuminate the far walls or high, jagged roof.
"Is that a bridge?" a soldier whispered and pointed up.
Steel support bars rose from the floor in pairs to hold up a wooden bridge running between two cave openings far above, east to west.
I nodded and replied softly, "We go over that way, east, where there's a way up to the bridge. The mage Zoranthus lives on the west side."
"I can make it easier," Kra'lysie said, and moved forward. When she shimmered into her dragon form, the golden light surrounding her lit up the cavern like day. A chorus of high-pitched squeaks sounded at the unfamiliar brightness, and bats dropped from the ceiling with indignant shrieks. "Shut up," Kra'lysie growled threateningly. "Come here, Avatar." She picked me up and placed me on her crested head. I held on as she raised her long neck and pushed up with her hind legs, tail coiled behind her and wings outspread for balance. I ducked when we neared the bridge, for it was very close to the stalagtited roof, and carefully climbed up onto it. Kra'lysie went down again, the cave trembling slightly as she landed on all fours, and repeated the procedure for the others.
"How wilt thou get up?" the last soldier asked as he reached the bridge.
"But thou'rt too big!"
Kra'lysie winked one huge golden eye, the friendliest gesture I'd seen her give a human, and dropped down again. There was another flash of light, then darkness below. A minute passed before we saw her human form levitating above the blackness and rise to the bridge. Drawing level, she stepped calmly off the air and onto the wooden planks.
"Who needeth wings?" Julia murmured.
"They're more impressive," Kra'lysie said, and shrugged.
We crossed the rest of the bridge and continued to Zorathus' abode. At the entrance, an open, rectangular room with brightly coloured square tiles on the floor, I called out his name.
The grey-haired mage emerged from his inner chamber wearing scarlet robes, a golden, sapphire-tipped sceptre pointed at us like a weapon. His face was distrustful as he said, "I can sense an undead presence." Dark eyes travelled from face to face.
"I will vouch for the humans," Kra'lysie said. "And the... Avatar."
"I see." Zoranthus frowned, one hand stroking his beard. He gave Kra'lysie a very penetrating kind of look. "I see."
"These are my friends," I said at last, "from Britannia."
"The kra'lysiei isn't of Britannia." Zoranthus scrutinised the dragon-woman closely before lowering the sceptre. "Jea of preno soli," he said.
Kra'lysie gave him a half-smile. "It meaneth little when I don this form, Mage."
"Perhaps thou art right." He looked at the companions again, then at me. "What wouldst thou have this time? The secrets of aeth'raesh'ali? I know little of them, save that it maketh a kind of clone of the wearer at their death, and reviveth the original wearer after a period of time as a liche." His brows lowered again, eyes boring into me. "I can sense the undeath in the bracer, but not from thee, I think." He looked unsure. "Yet I am certain..."
"I am a liche," I confessed, forbidding myself to shy from the word. "I am the same person who came to you and traded the Sceptre of the Deadly Seeker for your air djinni. I am undead, but recently some force has put me into a state of life. I can't explain it any better than that."
Zoranthus looked thoughtful. "Interesting. Why, if I might ask, hast thou used an aeth'raesh'al, Avatar? I thought thou wert already a virtuous do-gooder."
Kra'lysie snickered at this.
I explained what had happened since the destruction of the blackrock dome and Mors Gotha's death. The aeth'raesh'al, my death at Serpent's Hold, Mellorin, Atarka, Lord British, my desire to build an army with the help of the other planes to defeat the Guardian... When I finished with our arrival in the Pits of Carnage, Zoranthus finally seated himself with a deep sigh.
"Altara mentioned a mobilisation of Mors Gotha's army in Atarka, but she dared not stay long enough to discover its purpose. Now it's clear."
"I must save Britannia," I told him firmly. "I was wondering if thou couldst help."
"If thy world is overrun, I don't see what aid one mage could provide thee."
"Thou couldst contact the other planes with thy magic, Zoranthus, and see if they-"
"They have problems of their own, Elora," he interrupted, "as thou knowest. Thine is not the only world at war with the Guardian; neither is it the only world in dire straits and in need of aid." He snorted. "Hast thou not seen this world? What is it like on the surface?"
I lowered my eyes. "Ruined."
Zoranthus nodded. "Scaeduen is a prison world now, Elora, and I'm not just talking about the Pits. When it outserved its usefulness for giving supplies, it became what thou seest it to be now. It used to be a beautiful, bountiful, green world." He let out a bitter laugh. "Now the only green life on this entire planet groweth on the graves of our people."
Kra'lysie's thoughts came to my mind, "We're not getting anywhere."
"Give me some time." I shifted in my chair. "That's why I'm here. I don't want to see the same thing happen to Britannia. If I could help thee...about all I can offer thee now is a place of thine own in Britannia, should we triumph."
He was silent for a while. "Consider, Avatar. Imagine thy Britannia as a withered, twisted world. Envision it as thou hast seen this world. Now put thyself in it, still alive and still fighting the Guardian. Maybe thy friends are with thee, maybe they have died during endless, bitter struggles against the enemy." There was a hint of strong emotion in Zoranthus' voice as he said this, and, as he looked up at me, I could clearly see unshed tears in his eyes. "Maybe thou art alone - all that remains of thy people."
I almost started, at that. Did Zoranthus know that I was not Britannian-born?
"After all thy sacrifices, wouldst thou leave thy world? Wouldst thou give up all thou hadst striven for?" His voice lowered to a mere whisper. "Wouldst thou leave thy world to the Guardian's mercy for all time?"
It was my turn to say nothing.
The old mage sat with slumped shoulders, his eyes staring down at the floor and his hands absently smoothing his red robes. "I'm sorry, Elora, but I don't see how I can help. If those that travel with thee are thy world's last hope, then against Mors Gotha's armies thou hast no chance. I've seen worlds fall too many times to be wrong about this. One more mage will make no difference in thy war, but it maketh all the difference here where I can carry communications between the planes." He stood then, slowly, as if a great weight were on his shoulders. "I must rest, I'm afraid. It hath been a long day." And without another word, he left the room.
I remained seated, thinking as my companions waited for my decision on what to do next. The warriors that had come with us from Britannia stayed quiet, their expressions unafraid but curious as to what we'd do next.
"'They have problems of their own,'" I said at last. Zoranthus' words about the other planes. "But if they didn't, they might help us. He was right about one thing; we can't win this war alone. We need help."
"So we go to other planes?" Dupre asked softly. "If they're already at war with the Guardian..."
"Then we fight their war with them. Virtues grant that when we win, they'll help us fight ours."
The walk back to the upper levels took a while, as we took the long way across the bridge. The whole way, my friends questioned me closely about how I intended to carry out my plan. There was no quick way to win a war, except by losing, which was obviously not an option. If the planes we visited were in deep conflict it could be months before we saw Britannia again. And by that time, it might look as this world did.
"Aside from this world - Scaeduen? - and Atarka," I said, "there is only one other I feel we must go to. Remember I told you about the goblin Prison Tower?" Shamino and Katrina shook their heads. Kra'lysie looked curious. "While there I was able to free a prince of that world, and Bishop - that world's Avatar, I guess."
"If they have an Avatar, why do they need our help?" Dupre demanded.
"Why do we need help?" Iolo replied pointedly.
"We have to join forces," I said. "The Guardian's armies and powers span the planes, and so must ours. Stand together as one."
"And hope Britannia doth not fall apart while we're at it," Julia added.
"Not while Lord British lives."
"Our aim is to keep him alive, not see how much we can get away with before the Guardian and Mellorin lose their tempers," Iolo protested, and Dupre said, "Thou canst not use our King as a pawn!"
"Then what do ye propose?" Shamino asked suddenly. Everyone looked at him except for Kra'lysie, who was watching the path ahead with a stony expression. "We can't win our war alone - the Guardian's army is too large. Unless Elora plans to cast Mass Death again?"
Katrina and Dupre said, "No!" while Julia asked, "What if Mellorin hath hostages with the army again? Elora would kill them, too!"
"Can't we get help from a world that'll respond a little quicker?" Katrina suggested.
"Time won't wait, Elora," warned Dupre.
He might, I thought, but the Guardian won't. "This world, the Prison Tower plane and Atarka are the only worlds I have living contacts on that might help us." I said aloud. "Our best hopes."
"Only three?" Shamino asked. He alone seemed disappointed it wouldn't be any more. "Art thou sure we'll get enough people?"
"As many as we can who fight the Guardian," I assured him, and he nodded.
"You realise that doing this will effectively put all our eggs in one basket?" Kra'lysie said without turning. "Moving all those who resist the Guardian across a span of planes into Britannia, I mean. If we lose, Avatar..."
"I don't think we have a choice," I replied. "You're right, but we need their help. And they know the risks. I'll make sure they do."
We left the Pits without incident and emerged into sunlight just in time to see Cale arrive. At first, I thought he was the sun breaking through the clouds. He was a jet black stallion with a trailing mane and tail of red-gold flame. His great wings were black where they sprouted from his shoulders, but grew into feathers of fire out toward the middle and edges, where they were an almost blinding white.
He landed atop the gatehouse on his rear legs, striking sparks from the stone, his front hooves churning the air and wings flared out as he tossed his head and neighed shrilly. His band shouted a single word of greeting in unison and he bounded forward and down to earth, wings folding across his sleek flanks.
"I wish we had them in Britannia," Dupre murmured. "Look at him!"
Kra'lysie sniffed and muttered something about the inferiority of feathers.
Cale went straight to Hartrhind, who had noticed our return, and the two of them came towards us. When Cale stopped and twitched his ears forward expectantly, the troll introduced us. Liquid eyes of darkest blue regarded me from beneath a fringe of fire and Cale stepped forward, head lowered to snuffle at my hand.
I stroked the velvet nose and smiled. "Greetings, Cale."
"He's very picky about who he allows to touch him," Hartrhind said, reaching out to scratch the molan's head between the ears.
Cale let out a gusty sigh and closed his eyes contentedly.
"That's everyone," a voice shouted from one of the towers. It was Talaac of the Jade Hawks. He waved his bow and all those on the ramparts began to descend.
"We're ready to leave with thee, Avatar," Hartrhind said. "Didst thou find Zoranthus?"
I nodded. "We did. He decided not to come with us."
"He said he thought he would make more of a difference working independently." And he doesn't believe we can win.
"Ah. That's a bit disappointing. I would have liked to meet him."
Cale tossed his mane and snorted.
"Where are we going now?" Hartrhind asked, making room for Talaac to join us.
"There is another plane I have contacts on, so I'm hoping to get help from them as well. I just remembered that you have goblins among you..."
"Is that a problem?"
"Well, this plane is at war. As I understand it, most of the goblins serve the Guardian and they are doing their best to enslave the human race. I'm wondering if it would be safer to ask our goblins to stay here and come back for them afterwards."
Hartrhind and Talaac glanced at each other.
"Art thou sure?" the latter asked. "That will lower our number by almost sixty."
"What are thy numbers?" Julia interrupted. "If thou dost not mind mine asking."
"Of course not. Our three bands combined come to two hundred and three males and females, one hundred and forty-four if thou removest the goblins."
"It's up to you, of course," I said, "but we'll be joining the humans on the next plane. I don't want any of your people at needless risk."
Hartrhind nodded. "They won't be happy, but they'll understand. We can't leave them here, though. I'm sure someone will eventually be sent to retake the city."
"There is a village we passed through on the way here," I said. "It had food stores, weapons and everything, but no one living there. I can use this," I pointed at the bracer, "to transport everyone there, and then we can go leave."