The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
"They're inside! They're inside!" a voice shrieked. "Alarm!"
The sound of running feet and more shouting drifted our way as our new location came into focus. A large room... stone walls... wooden tables... goblin warriors pouring in from two outer corridors. Their green-skinned faces registered surprise and anger at the sight of us and they ripped out weapons, charging with a roar.
I had scarcely a second to draw my sword as a goblin leaped atop a table and launched himself at me. The sound of conflict in the confined area was deafening. Echoing from wall to wall were the noises of steel, breaking wood, weapons striking stone and raised voices of human, goblin, gargoyle and troll. It didn't quiet so much as it eventually lost volume. I glanced around, heart pounding and sword bloody from the two goblins I'd felled, but it looked like we'd won this round.
"How many wouldst thou say?" Dupre asked when he'd shouldered his way to my side. Everyone else milled around the demolished mess hall, checking friends hadn't taken hurt. "And where are we, anyway?"
"Goblins?" I tried to calm down. I had a strong urge to find and kill more of them. "I don't know. Forty? Thirty?" I looked at the mess hall, recognising it despite the recent carnage. "I think I know where we are. Hartrhind!" When the troll reached me I said, "Watch the downwards stairwell. I'm taking a few people upstairs to flush any goblins out." He nodded and I called, "Britannians! Follow me!"
Weapons out and faces exhilarated after an easy win, Britannian humans and gargoyles filed after me and we went upstairs. The stairwell was dim, lit by one smoking torch, and cold. When we reached the landing there was no one in sight.
"Check that room," I said, indicating a door flanked by two Guardian banners, then tried the only other door myself. First time I'd been here, a troll I'd befriended had been held captive in the small cell beyond.
I banged one fist on the metal, ignoring the sounds of fighting from the other room. "Garg?" I shouted. "Hello?" There was no answer, and I kicked the door in frustration. He'd helped me fight the goblins before when I'd freed him - practically depopulated the entire tower. But if the goblins were back in residence...
"Avatar," Draxinusom said, returning from the other room. "To have killed five goblins. To give you these." He handed over a ring of keys he'd liberated from one of the deceased.
I unlocked the door with a pitted iron key, then gave them all back. "The prison level's above us. Free anyone you find and bring them back here. There's one cell at the end of the passage you might not be able to get into, but don't worry about it if it's empty."
The gargoyle lord nodded, collected some Britannians with a blue-eyed glance and took them upstairs.
I opened the door a crack.
"Is that Garg?" Dupre whispered, peering over my shoulder into the dark cell.
"Garg is a troll," I muttered. "I don't know who or what..."
The large lizard-like creature inside turned its head sideways to fix me with a glowing reptilian eye. Its dagger-toothed mouth opened and a forked tongue flicked out. It hissed softly, smoke rising from both slitted nostrils.
"Looks like an undersized, wingless dragon," Dupre remarked.
"I think it can understand you," I said as the lizard's eyes narrowed. "Stand back."
He obeyed, pushing everyone else back from the door too.
I opened it wider. "Canst thou understand me?" I asked the creature.
It stayed crouched in the far corner, eyes darting between me and those behind. Then the wedge-shaped head lifted and nodded.
"Art thou a prisoner here?"
Another nod and an ominous hiss.
"Dost thou... serve the Guardian?"
All of a sudden the creature was on its hind legs and towering over me with bared fangs. Light gleamed off its scales and I got a very good view of two powerful foreclaws. I could have kicked myself. The goblins wouldn't have locked this thing up if it was on their own side.
"I'll take that as a no," I said hastily. "Neither do we. We seek to join the war against the goblins."
The lizard's face was without expression, but its eyes were sceptical. It hissed and clicked at me.
"I don't understand thee," I said. "We're not from around here."
It pointed to itself and hissed something like "Ss'liks" then pointed at me.
"Elora," I said, venturing a smile. "Ss'liks?" I repeated, hoping to get it right.
"Let's get out of here." I preceded it out of the cell where the Britannians stared at it in curiosity. In the light, the creature could be seen to have very dark green scales. A black ridge ran from between its eyes, over the top of its head, to halfway down the back of its sinuous neck. It stood about as tall as a good-sized horse, but was longer if its snake-like tail was taken into account. Unblinking, Ss'liks glanced around and tasted the air. It gave the gargoyles a somewhat cautious look.
"You don't know of a troll named Garg, do you?" I asked.
It tilted its head at me.
"Garg? You... thou, sorry. Dost thou know of a troll named Garg?"
Ss'liks started to reply, then slowly shook its head and drew a foreclaw across its own throat.
The creature nodded.
I didn't say anything else until Draxinusom returned. There were no other prisoners, so we all went back downstairs to where the others waited. A few more inquisitive goblins had been killed, I saw, but what I noticed was that no one was talking.
"Shh," said the band leader Talaac when we reached the mess hall. He put one gloved finger to his lips.
A dull booming sound. It came once, then half a minute passed and it came again. It was coming from somewhere below. Someone was at the front door.
We stormed the lower levels, finding resistance only on the ground floor. Things might have got tricky due to the narrow passage at the foot of the stairs, but the trolls in our midst were strong enough to barge through, taking out goblins and doors alike. When our foes were dispatched and we'd Healed any injuries our people had suffered, we crowded into a large hall behind a set of massive, grey, metal doors. They were four or five times my height and Virtues only knew how thick. The booming was coming from these doors and it was obvious a ram was being used. Two huge metal bars held the doors shut so securely that they barely trembled.
"Those things must weigh a bit," Iolo noted. "I wonder how the goblins managed."
Then Hartrhind called, "Avatar, there's another level below this one. I'll take some people to check it out."
I nodded to him and said to Iolo, "Fortunately we have a few trolls with us. Let's see how they fare."
I spoke to Talaac and he directed the three trolls in his group to try moving the bars. The trolls nodded, each slinging his respective gigantic steel crossbow over his shoulder, and approached the doors. As they tried to lift the lowest of the two bars, the booming outside stopped.
"Think they've given up?" Iolo asked me.
"Maybe they know what we're doing," I replied. "Or, at least, that the doors are going to open..."
The bar seemed to be very heavy; even with the combined strength of the three trolls, it took time to lift it out of its brackets. When it was finally free, they dropped it to the stone floor and started on the second. Being higher, this one required a bit more caution.
While they worked at it, Hartrhind returned and approached me.
"Just a storeroom," he said. "There was no one down there, nor anything particularly useful to take with us." He looked at the doors. "Think there are enough of us to get those things opened once they're unbarred?"
"I'll take care of that," I said with a smile, which earned me a dubious look.
"Nothing personal, Avatar, but I'm positive I could beat thee in an arm wrestling match."
I laughed, then winced as the second bar fell to the ground. "I wasn't intending to open them that way."
The three trolls moved back and I took a breath, recalling the Telekinesis spell. I moved my fist forward and the gigantic hinges creaked, causing a hush to fall over everyone with me. The doors opened away from us and fresh, cold air hissed through the gap to tug at our cloaks and hair. As the doors swung wider we could see what outside looked like.
The sky was almost completely black. There was the faint impression of two dark moons, but no stars shone and there were no clouds. More importantly, though, was the army besieging this tower. By the light of the silvery torches they carried they were little more than silhouettes, and a strange green glow was coming from somewhere behind them. Iolo gripped one of my shoulders warningly and whispered, "Archers."
It seemed that when the army had heard the bars being removed they had abandoned their ram and taken up bows or crossbows. They hadn't fired... yet.
"Maybe-" I broke off as the doors opened to their full extent with a resounding boom. Ending the spell, I was spared the need to figure out the best approach as a human voice shouted from the army.
"Hast thou come at last to parley, Botaggart?"
The lizard-creature Ss'liks caught my attention. It pointed to itself then gestured to the army.
"Thou wantest to go out?" I guessed. It nodded and trotted out to stand on the threshold. Raising itself on its hind legs, it looked up at the sky and emitted three odd barking noises.
A hissing rose from the army and I looked closer. As well as humans there were more of those lizards. A couple of them suddenly spouted bursts of what looked like silver-blue fire. Ss'liks took a deep breath and did the same, though its wasn't as large. I saw the humans lower their weapons as the creature loped towards them.
"I guess we wait," Iolo said.
"I'm tired of waiting," Julia muttered as she came to my side. The tinker had her sword out and was watching the army warily.
"I think we're on their side," I told her.
"I just want to get this over with so we can return to Britannia. Where's the war?"
"There'll be plenty of that before we're through," Iolo said softly, and I felt an odd quiver of anticipation shoot through me. I was acutely aware of the sword strapped to my back as Julia replied, "As long as I'm there for them."
"I'd as soon never have to fight again," Iolo murmured. "I prefer lute strings to crossbows."
Julia snorted. "Thou'rt not obsolete yet, Iolo."
A group of shadows had detached themselves from the larger darkness of the army and was moving our way.
"Canst thou see them?" Julia asked me.
"Ten of them, I think. Humans riding lizards." I gave their white-haired leader a long stare. "I think Bishop is with them."
"Bishop? Avatar of this world Bishop?"
"I wonder what male avatars are like," she mused, running a hand over her long hair.
I grinned. "Keep everyone in here for now; I'll meet them alone." They nodded and I walked outside to meet the riders. The wind lashed at me as soon as I crossed the huge threshold, and it was quite cold. I pulled my cloak around my bare arms and shivered.
The humans reined in and their leader leaned forward in his saddle to get a better look at me. A smile took years from his craggy face. "Elora. Welcome."
"Greetings, Bishop." I smiled back. "Thought thou couldst use some more help."
"That's always welcome," he replied, "but what of thine own plane?"
I let my smile fade. "'Tis because of Britannia that my friends and I are with thee now. We need thy help. Desperately. The war against the Guardian goeth badly."
"As doth ours," said Bishop sombrely. "We cannot leave to help-"
"I'm not asking that of thee," I interrupted. "It's our hope that thou wilt help us win our war after we've helped thee win thine."
Bishop's lizard hissed something and Bishop nodded to it, but was silent for a while. "I cannot promise anything," he said at last. "Not now. But, as I said, help is always welcome."
I inclined my head with a small smile. It was as good as I was going to get at this point in time, and I hadn't really expected more. "Well, we cleared out the tower for thee. Ss'liks was the only prisoner."
"Ss'liks said to thank thee," said Bishop. "He mentioned thou dost not understand Drakish."
"That's right. So these are drakes?"
"Drakelings is our name for them." Bishop smiled as his own said a few sibilant words. "They're our allies in the war." He turned and gave some orders to one of those with him, who saluted and rode back to the army. "We can understand each other's tongues, but not speak them," he continued, then said, "Yes, I know," as his drakeling clicked impatiently. "Avatar, canst thou please lead thy people to join my prince's army? Skatski just reminded me that the tower must be destroyed. I don't want thy friends inside when it happens."
I didn't question. Bishop was in charge here, and it wouldn't be wise to undermine his authority. Not if I wanted him to follow me to Britannia. "Won't take long," I said, and walked back to the tower. "It's Bishop," I telepathed ahead to my companions. "These people are our friends. You have to get out of the tower - they're going to destroy it."
"Destroy it?" Dupre's thoughts drifted back to me. "They couldn't even break the doors down!"
Even so, I saw those gathered inside the gate come outside. They crossed the dark, grassless ground, met up with me and followed to the human and drakeling army. Everyone there was silent during our arrival. A few curious eyes looked our way but the majority watched Bishop, who sat alone atop the drakeling Skatski in the field. The single figure the two formed was motionless for a full minute, then Bishop extended his arms to the starless sky. His cloak flapped in the wind as a white point of light materialised near each of his shoulders, zipped around and up his arms in dizzying patterns, reached his upraised hands, then flew into the tower as he flung them away. Sitting tall in the saddle, he made a signal and the drakeling turned and started towards the army. Behind them, white fire spurted between the bricks of the tower... burned brightly within the gate.
"Greetings once again, Avatar," a voice said at my shoulder.
The man standing behind me was clean-shaven with light brown hair and grey eyes. What should have been a youthful face was lined with the stresses of war, and scarred with its ravages.
"Prince Felix?" I said, not sure if I recognised him as the man I'd freed on my first trip to the Prison Tower.
"Aye, and Marcus." He indicated a man at his side, also set free by my hand. Marcus, though, had been unfortunate enough to have lost his tongue to the goblins. "Once again I find myself in thy debt." He smiled slightly. "I have been told what thou seekest."
"Thou hast no obligation, but we hope-"
"I understand." He looked at me for a while. "Hast thou support from any other planes?"
I told him about the two other planes we'd gone through: Atarka and Scaeduen. Bishop had reached us when I finished, and he dismounted.
"It's done, your Highness."
"Thank thee, Bishop." Felix glanced back at the army. "We'd better get moving. Might I speak to both of ye back at the camp?"
"Of course," I said, and Bishop inclined his head.
"Thank ye." The Prince and Marcus left us.
"That's an interesting spell," I said, indicating the flaming tower.
"It's not done yet," Bishop smiled, leaning against Skatski. "I'm fine," he said as the drakeling clicked at him. "Honestly," he added to me, "thou wouldst think she's my mother."
Bishop grinned at her disapproving expression. "Yes, dear."
"You really can understand each other," I said, amazed.
"It hath its disadvantages," Bishop replied. "She keeps telling me what to do."
Not long after, we were on the march. Behind us, the goblin Prison Tower collapsed in on itself with a tremendous crash of masonry and a flash of moon-bright fire.
The green glow I'd seen earlier had been a dense fog overhanging some low hills which were covered with a kind of flower. The army marched through it and the mist parted before us, swirling and eddying in our wake. Beyond the hills was a forest of tall dark trees. The unmounted drakelings ran ahead into it with loud hisses, probably to announce their return to any scouts.
"I hope thou knowest what thou'rt doing," Dupre said to me as we followed the army into darkness.
"Help this place defeat the goblins, bring them and the Pits people to Atarka, pick up the nomads and return to Britannia for an all-out war," I said grimly. "I thought I explained this before."
"Thou didst. I just hope we survive this war so we can get back to our own."
"She knoweth what she's doing," Shamino said. "The more of the Guardian's enemies we can muster in Britannia the easier it will be."
"I'd rather we didn't have a war," Dupre remarked, a little sharply.
"We don't really have a choice," I said.
Dupre's eyes narrowed at me. "I don't see thee looking for another option."
"Do you think the Guardian will settle for anything other than surrender or slaughter?"
"I don't," Kra'lysie said, catching up to us. She gave Dupre an understanding look, Shamino a distrustful one, and me a bleak one. "But the Guardian doesn't run his army. Not directly, anyway. The daemons do."
"And Mellorin," Dupre added. "Elora, thou and Kra'lysie can tell a daemon from a human. If thou canst use a spell to destroy all their illusions, the Killorn soldiers will jump them for us."
I considered this. "It's possible, but Mellorin will still be there to give orders. Listen, when we return to Britannia she'll know, and she'll probably teleport straight for us with her army unless ours is large enough to give her pause. Is that a good enough reason not to go back to Britannia with what we currently have?"
That ended the discussion.
The campsite was raised amidst the trees. There was no clearing large enough for everyone, I guessed, so tents were pitched across a range of smaller glades and anywhere else the trees thinned out. I led the Britannians and the three bands from the last plane after the head of the column, which marched on to one of the larger clearings. When we reached it, Bishop rode over to me on the drakeling Skatski. He dismounted, motioning for us to stop.
"Elora," he said, "I'll take thee to Prince Felix. There are tents and provisions over there if thy friends wish to rest."
I turned to Dupre. "Think you can get everyone organised and into tents?"
He nodded. "Besides, I have these two to share the work." The knight slung a companionable arm across Iolo's and Shamino's shoulders.
Bishop said, "I'll send for Mentar to help ye find a suitable site to pitch camp. Hm, actually, couldst thou get him for me, Skatski?"
The drakeling bobbed her head, then tilted it to one side and chirped questioningly.
"Don't worry. I think I can make it to the command pavilion without fainting from fatigue."
Skatski sniffed and ran off. Bishop said to me, "Let's go."
"See you later," I said to my friends, and went after him.
"I understand most of what's going on with thee," Bishop said as we walked towards a large green tent. "I've been in contact with Altara and Zoranthus. Wouldst thou explain something to me, though? What is a liche?"
"It's a powerful kind of undead." When he raised a brow in polite incomprehension, I asked, "Do you have any kinds of undead creatures here? No?" I shrugged off my surprise. "An undead is basically a creature that has lived and died, but is then reanimated through magical means."
"Like through a runic Resurrection spell?"
"I think I know what you mean, but no. Resurrection restores someone to life. If you're undead..." I spread my hands, trying to find the right words. "...you can walk, talk, think, remember... but you don't breathe and you're not alive. You have no heartbeat and feel no hunger or thirst or pain. The goal of the undead is to bring all living creatures to the same fate."
Bishop glanced at me. "And thy goal?"
"Defeat the Guardian and save my world."
"Now that is something I can relate to." He paused at the entrance to the tent, one hand pulling back the flap. "I'm glad thou'rt here to help us, Avatar. I know thou hast defeated him before."
"Let's show him what two champions can do," I grinned.
And together, we entered the command pavilion. Felix was inside, seated before a large wooden table across which was spread an impressive-looking map. Animal furs covered the ground and warmth radiated from an iron brazier that stood near a bedroll and some neatly piled blankets. A single lantern burned on the table, casting a bright light over the map.
"Your Highness," Bishop said, bowing, and I imitated him.
Prince Felix looked up and grimaced. "Please, Bishop, I asked thee not to call me that in private."
"Just setting an example for the Avatar, my Prince," Bishop said blandly, and winked at me.
Felix sighed and gave me a look of mock warning. "I hope thou wilt not follow his example."
"You remind me of my own liege back in Britannia, Felix," I grinned.
"He soundeth like a very intelligent man already." Felix leaned back in his chair, grey eyes appraising the two of us. "What an interesting night. Please sit."
Bishop and I pulled out stools for ourselves from under the table and sat down.
"Elora," Felix said at last, "thou and thy friends have joined mine army, but how will ye serve?"
I had expected this question. If Bishop and Felix knew as much about me as I thought, then they'd know I was in fact accustomed to a position of command. But this wasn't Britannia, or the Britannian army. If I wanted Felix's people to serve - to help - me later, I would have to show I was willing to do the same for them first. "We will serve in whatever duty you assign us," I said. "We are at your complete disposal."
"Let's not go that far," Felix said wryly. "I don't intend to dispose of any of ye."
"Figure of speech," I apologised.
He nodded. "I think it would not be an advantageous move to separate thee from thy people, but it would be useful to have thee retain a position of command. Wouldst thou serve under me as a captain to those thou brought to mine army and to any others I put under thy charge?"
"Who am I answerable to, save yourself and Bishop?"
"No one. I want to keep thee close, if thou hast no objection."
I inclined my head. "I will so serve."
"Thank thee, Avatar. Is there anything else thou wishest to know now, or shall I let thee retire until halfdark? We can speak of the campaign after thou hast rested."
"Uh, knowing what 'halfdark' means would be nice, High- Felix."
"Ah, of course. Halfdark is when one moon has set, six hours from now. Moonset is when both moons have set, two hours later. What follows, dark tide, lasts eight hours. Halflight is when the first moon rises, moonrise is two hours later when the second rises."
"When's... sunrise?" I asked slowly.
"Our last sunrise was a decade ago, Elora," Bishop said. "This was some time after the gobs swore allegiance to the Guardian."
I frowned. "What happened? He didn't destroy the sun, surely?"
"No. At least, we don't think he hath. I remember the day it happened. It was full noon, but a blackness crept up the edges of the horizon, darker and faster than any cloud. Blue sky went blacker than deepest night until only a circle of sunlight remained high in the middle of the sky. Then it too was gone, and there hath only been darkness since."
"The moons are still with us," Felix said in a soft voice, "though without the sun they are always dark and our magic is stunted." When I gave him an inquiring look, he said, "Our mages and the drakelings draw their powers from light. Sun, moons, stars, fire, lightning. We always get a small measure of light from the moons - what they reflect from our world Tarna, but it is like comparing a candle's light to the sun's. In complete darkness we have no magic."
"Not even I," Bishop added, "and I can still handle powerful spells with only a little light sustaining me."
"What about the goblins?" I asked.
"Runic magic. They rely on runestones, which is a different magic. One we can't use."
Softly, I replied, "I can. And I don't need runestones."
Felix leaned his elbows on the table and looked intrigued. "Did we ever decide which magic was more powerful, Bishop?"
Bishop shrugged. "It depended on the strength of the people wielding those magicks, Felix. And the circumstances." He looked at me. "We've only heard stories of thine own power, Avatar. How strong wouldst thou deem thyself?"
"At this point in time," I replied, "more powerful than any mage living."
"Ah. The undead factor?"
"Altara said that the undead... feel differently to the living. Why can't I sense anything strange about thee?"
"Something happened to me in the previous world, and I'm not entirely sure what. I'm still undead, but at the same time I feel alive. I breathe, for one thing." I frowned, touching one hand to my forehead as it started to throb. "I feel pain." Then I paused, remembering Zoranthus had sensed an undead presence in his room. "Maybe it's our different kinds of magicks."
"Ye should both get some rest," Felix said. "I'll fill thee in on our next battle plans later, Avatar."
"Bishop and I bowed then left the tent for the cooler air outside. I looked around with new eyes, seeing a world that had been denied sunlight for ten years.
"How is this forest still alive?" I asked softly, watching the leaves quiver in the breeze. "I could almost swear... it's like there is light. On the leaves. Moonlight."
Bishop approached a thick silver-brown trunk and waved his arm through it like it wasn't there. "It isn't a living forest," he answered, a trace of sadness in his voice. He suddenly looked very old as he added, "There aren't any, anymore. What thou seest here is the desperate memories of the tree-sprites, always striving to recreate what was lost, but unable to turn illusion into reality. Some of these are still actual trees... ah." He pulled down the branch of another tree then looked at me meaningfully. He ran his fingers between the leaves. The greenery didn't stir as his hand passed straight through.
I watched the leaves shake as he released the branch and it creaked up to its original position. "Canst thou tell me how this all started?"
"Which part? The war with the goblins or the Guardian?"
"The goblins came first, yes?"
Bishop sighed heavily. "No. Humans did."
"What do you mean?"
"Goblins lived in these lands long before we did. Our place in Tarna was elsewhere." Bishop slowly lowered himself to a flat rock and stretched out his legs. "The human lands were destroyed many centuries ago as a... consequence to certain events. Humankind fled those shores even as they sank, and those who escaped sailed here.
"We settled in the south at first, near the great Serpent Wood. That is where we met the drakelings and made our first alliance in these lands, one that quickly became a mutual friendship.
"It wasn't more than a week after our landing that envoys from the king at the time came to see us. There were... not many of us." Bishop closed his eyes briefly. I got the strong impression that this was more than history - it was personal. "A thousand, maybe a few more. Clearly we were no threat, and the goblin envoys, once assured we were not invaders, bade us welcome and invited our leaders to Har-Trask to meet with the goblin king.
"They went, and another alliance was formed. Humans were welcome to settle and travel the land so long as they obeyed the laws. If they did not, they would be treated like any goblin criminal.
"The goblin king of that time was wise and just," he said, almost reflectively. "He was also generous in his dealings. It was at his behest that the goblins aided us in building three cities in the south. It is... a strange thing that these three cities are all that the goblins have not managed to take during the war." He shrugged.
"Humans travelled these lands from coast to coast over the next few generations, and though some settled in goblin cities it became plain how different our races were. And the more our population grew, the more apparent it was that some of them feared us. So we resolved to keep to our own cities, both those in the south and others that we built in later years. Felix's ancestors, for example, built their homes in the northern lands of Fyrna.
"Many centuries later, when humans were numerous enough to warrant being called a race, a goblin queen ascended the throne who felt very differently to us than the first king had. The human slave trade was legalised. There was much outrage, naturally, some even among the goblins, but the queen would not recant. It was law.
"At first it was rare for goblins to take advantage of this. Unless one was travelling alone or in a small and ill-equipped group, there was no danger of being harassed and-" his lips twisted "-sold. But this, too, changed. One day there was a full attack on a human village - everyone who wasn't killed was put on the slavers' market. Two hundred people, Elora, children included. The cry for justice went up from neighbouring villages and they banded together, heading for Har-Trask to demand the freedom of their kin.
"They were not ignored," he went on grimly, a frown knotting his brow. "The gates opened and they were brought in, then ordered to surrender. When they would not, the royal guard slaughtered them to a man. Those who'd been left behind in one of the villages were later rounded up and sold.
"Lady Yulrica of the eastern holding of Kans was the first to break the treaty between humans and goblins, if in fact it hadn't already been shattered. She led her people against a goblin slaver market, killing the goblins and freeing all the human prisoners. Kans was attacked the next day, but Yulrica had taken everyone into hiding further east. Cheated of her 'lawful retaliation', the goblin queen declared there would be war with humans if Yulrica wasn't handed over and the slaves paid for or returned.
"In answer, humans declared war on the goblins. This was fifty years ago, Avatar. For four decades of that we were the winning side. The mages from the Academy of Illumination had joined their powers - those from Sunkeep, Moonspire and Startower harnessed the strength of Light, and it seemed with them there could be no losing the war. One by one the goblin cities fell to us, and we made our inexorable way to Har-Trask and, we thought, victory.
"The best day was chosen for the siege; the sun and both moons were visible as well as Sentaryal, the brightest star in the sky. With all three light-sources present the mages of the Academy could bring down Har-Trask stone by blazing stone if the goblins did not surrender. The current goblin ruler, she was the first to call herself the Regent, appeared on the battlements to 'listen' to our demands. As we spoke... that is when the darkness began to creep up the sky. We were practically paralysed by the sight. It wasn't until the Regent shouted out the words: 'Tarna hath been promised to the goblins by the Guardian!' that one of the humans," here he looked at me directly, "recovered and used the last rays of light to call down sunfire on every goblin standing atop the battlements."
"You?" I guessed in a soft voice, and he nodded once.
"But they were ready. Some of the goblins up there were not warriors, but runic mages. They protected themselves from the fire, and when the sky was completely black they turned their magic on us. We were almost annihilated, the Academy of Illumination all but destroyed. This was the turning point of the war." His voice held steady, but his eyes looked only at the ground. "From there it hath only gotten worse. The Guardian sent plagues, and there hath been famine as the animals sickened and the crops died from lack of sunlight. Even the goblins felt the sting of hunger, but they found ways around it." His hands clenched in anger. "Didst thou hear about the breeding program? If captive humans aren't used as slaves they are penned and bred for food."
I nodded slowly. "Felix... mentioned it when I first met him in the Prison Tower. But go on with your story. How did they come to catch you?"
He seemed to relax a little, but his voice was still tight as he spoke. "The goblins fought with renewed strength with the Guardian on their side. He aided them in more ways I know of, even going so far as to transport allies from other planes. The goblins swept through the north, conquering all in only seven years. Only the south was able to resist them with the aid of the drakelings and the defence of Serpent Wood, but still the three remaining strongholds grew weaker every day. Maybe three months before thou didst find me in the Prison Tower was when I was captured. Myself and two others went to a secret meeting with some contacts we had met dozens of times before. They betrayed us, however, and we found ourselves surrounded by enemies instead. We fought as fiercely as we could, but the meeting had been deliberately timed for dark tide and in a place where only a single candle was lit - not enough light for us to defend ourselves effectively with magic.
"We fought... but as skilled as we were, there were too many of them. Both my friends were killed, and when the goblins saw I wouldn't let myself be taken alive they used their runic magic to knock me out, bind me and carry me away." He fell silent.
"The first time I met Felix," I said, gently drawing the topic from his lost friends, "he said there was a rumour you were allied with darker powers than the Guardian."
Bishop looked a little startled at first, then chuckled and shook his head. "A while back, after the sky went dark, we fostered a rumour that I had discovered a way to spin magic from not only light, but also dark. With my ability to draw strength even from the darkened moons these words took hold in both humans, giving them hope, and goblins, causing fear. In time the rumour changed, as they sometimes do, and it became as Felix told thee."
"Why didn't the Guardian block the moons as well?"
"I can't say I've asked him," Bishop said wryly. "Maybe he couldn't. Or perhaps he thought they would be too dark for us to use. Or maybe he didn't want to block them - a few goblins learned at the Academy, so it's possible he wanted to keep that magic for himself."
"What happened when you got out of the Prison Tower?" I asked. "How did you get out, anyway? Weren't the doors shut?"
"When you released the troll Garg from its cell in the tower, there was a rather..." his lips twitched with amusement, "...mad dash for escape? The goblins themselves opened the doors, and so I won free without having to resort to magic. As I was making my way from the tower Prince Felix and Marcus caught up with me. After introductions, I agreed to accompany him to Fyrna - he seemed to believe some of his men might still be there, and it was much closer than the southern lands.
"We passed through this very forest." He looked around. "Such as it is. There were drakelings here, and three of them agreed to speed our passage north. The goblins were lax in their defences, most of their forces having been moved elsewhere as security against the threat of a human force marching on the tower from another direction. We slipped through easily, eventually reaching Fyrna. Of the prince's estates, they had been overrun by the gobs, but we found many of his people and those from other northern holdings taking refuge in the mountains and caves of Ghentarr's Reach.
"Eventually I was able to contact the southern cities with my magic and see how they fared. They still held, but barely. On the brink of starvation, they were lacking strength and losing hope. But," he looked a little awkward as he continued, "when they heard I was still alive and free, that hope was rekindled.
"Across the light of the dark moons we made our plans, a final strike towards Har-Trask." He looked off into the illusionary trees. "To find our fates once and for all. Human and goblin." There was a breath or two of silence before he glanced at me, as though remembering I was there. He stood and nodded slightly, expression unreadable. "Rest well, Elora."
"You too, Bishop."
I watched him walk away. After a minute, I turned towards the Britannian tents. A few people still sat outside finishing a meal or securing tents. Campfires burned, but not of the usual type. The flames were a cold-looking silver-blue. Seeing a couple of warriors hold out their hands to the fire, though, I guessed there would be heat after all.
I looked at the sky. Two moons, both of them almost completely dark and one of them not even visible behind the trees' illusions. The description of how the sky had turned black nagged at me, and I finally gave in and used my magic to send my sight upwards, high above the branches, above distant mountains, above vagrant wisps of cloud...
The world sped off below me and I passed one of the moons. Never slowing my climb, I glanced back at the planet where my body stood. It glowed a pale green and blue. The back of the moon was black against it. Looking ahead again I saw... texture. The black was not the solid black of the Void... it was...
I felt myself gaping back in the camp, staggered by the enormity of it. An entire planet and its moons encased in a blackrock bubble.
On impulse, I passed through the barrier and found it paper-thin. The stars beyond winked brightly and dazzling sunlight washed the western side of the blackrock sphere a sullen gold.
So now I knew what was wrong, if nothing else...
I took one last look at the sun, then returned to the darkness.
We'd joined the army. There were few enough Britannians that I only asked Dupre and Iolo to act as 'sergeants' for warriors and archers respectively. Hartrhind and Talaac retained charge of their own bands, but Cale had remained on the Pits plane with the goblins, leaving fifty-nine humans and five trolls without their leader. They were content to follow my instructions as though they had come from the fire-winged molan, though, so I put Shamino, Julia and Katrina in charge of them. Draxinusom and Kra'lysie I asked to stay with me.
Prince Felix told me the next day about the battle plans. Their ultimate goal was to siege the goblin castle of Har-Trask. If they could get to the ruler of the goblins, the Regent, the war would be over.
"Goblins believe their royal line is divine," Bishop explained. "It was one of them who first contacted and struck their alliance with the Guardian. If we get the Regent to surrender, their armies will obey. If the Regent won't give up, killing him or her should give the same result."
"We don't know the name of the current Regent," Felix added. "Whoever it is, they've kept well away from the fighting and our spies."
The castle of Har-Trask was a month's continuous march south into enemy land. There was a guard tower, a city and four known goblin camps along the way. Terrain would get rocky after the halfway mark, then smooth out again as we approached the castle. This campaign depended on a successful thrust directly to the castle. If all went well, another allied army driving up through the southern borders would join us for the final assault.
It was estimated that this would take place in two months. Maybe three.
"Three months?" my companions exploded when I gave them a private briefing.
"We'll be lucky if there's anything of Britannia left!" Dupre objected.
"It's only an estimate," I said.
"Meaning it could even take three years," Julia said angrily.
"What do you suggest?" I asked wearily, one hand rubbing my temple to ease another headache.
"We could return to Atarka," Iolo suggested. "If we need warriors to bolster our own forces, why not ask the mezzini? Maybe the Empress will help, too."
Kra'lysie snorted at the second notion. "You'll get no aid from my kin, but the mezzini will help, should I ask."
"How many of them wouldst thou say there are?" Dupre asked her.
"In total, I have no idea. We could find, perhaps, five hundred to a thousand in a week - five Atarkan days, to you - without help. If they're as numerous as they were when I lived there."
"We could even do this while Felix leadeth his army to this goblin palace," Iolo went on. "Then we could meet him there with reinforcements. If it's so important a place surely thy bracer could transport us there, Avatar?"
"If it cometh to that," Julia said, "Why not simply transport everyone directly to the destination?"
I frowned. "Iolo, there will be battles along the way that we need to help Felix fight. We have to be with them the whole way." I then looked at Julia. "As I explained, there is an allied army coming from the south. Sure, I might be able to get us all to Har-Trask, and a lot of good that will do us when however many goblins that are in there come out and slaughter us."
"Then just get the mezzini and go back to Britannia!" Julia exclaimed.
"And how many people will Mellorin have?" I asked. "I saw about two thousand the first time at Serpent's Hold. If she turns up with twice that when we get back to Britannia-"
"Maybe we should just have thee go back alone first to Mass Kill them," Dupre said in a bitter voice.
My throat went dry. Everyone else had fallen into a shocked silence. Even Dupre looked stunned, as though he couldn't believe he'd said what he'd said.
After a while, Shamino murmured, "It's a possibil-"
"No," I interrupted. "It isn't." My voice held steady, even though I was shaking badly inside as I looked at Dupre. "I hope you didn't mean that. Because I can't do it. I won't."
Then I left the tent. As I strode away I could hear them arguing about who should go after me.
"Where are you going, Avatar?" Kra'lysie's voice asked.
With the headache already banging the inside of my skull, the last thing I needed was a dragon in there as well. My mental reply was a cold "Leave me alone."
"It's imagining you alone that bothers me. What are you going to do?"
"Why do you care?"
"I thought I'd work on my Compassion. Your companions have been nagging me about that for long enough."
"You're not the only one who gets to play at being virtuous, Avatar."
"I don't play at being virtuous," I retorted, heading for a small, unoccupied grove of trees.
"Sure you do. One moment you're an affront to the Virtues, the next you're Miss Goody-Two-Shoes again."
"This conversation makes no sense," I thought to her, indicating I had no wish to continue it.
She didn't take the hint. "Are you a liche or the Avatar? When will you decide?"
My walk checked for a moment.
"When we first met, you were adamant about not being a liche. Lately, you haven't seemed so sure."
"Time passes and people change," I replied. "They accept the truth."
Speaking aloud sent a jolt through me. I frowned at my own hesitation to admit what I was. What I really was. The illusionary trees stood silent around me, leaves and bark limned with sunlight that didn't exist.
Again it wouldn't come. Neither liche nor Avatar, for I was both at this point in time. I couldn't deny either side. I had to accept both and ignore the contradictions.
I sensed Kra'lysie withdraw her presence after a while. I stayed where I stood, not moving, staring at the glowing leaves of the forest and the blackness beyond.
It wasn't long before we were on the move. The army broke camp with swift efficiency, equipment being packed away and strapped to packhorses. As warriors, drakelings and animals assembled to march under the illusionary trees, I had to take a calming breath.
Three months was a long time. What if...
I shook my head. No. We had to do this. Britannia would be ok for a while. If Mellorin had intended to do anything, it would have already been done.
A soft hiss interrupted my brooding, and I blinked at a silver-scaled drakeling with copper eyes. It tilted its head inquiringly at me.
"I'm... fine," I said, a little unsure what it wanted.
The drakeling's jaws twitched into a smile and it lowered its forequarters to show it was wearing a saddle - almost a seat by the look of how its back curved up.
"Thou wouldst carry me?"
It bobbed its head in a nod.
"There aren't as many drakelings here as humans," Bishop said from nearby. He strode forward, black cloak swirling around him. "But it helps if people can see their leaders."
"Would also help the goblins see our leaders," I pointed out with a wry smile.
Bishop grinned. "Doubtless, if a goblin could catch sight of thee before a drakeling caught wind of it."
The silver drakeling crouching before me clicked appreciatively at the compliment.
"Only the truth," Bishop said to it, bowing slightly. "Elora, allow me to present Sahskan, apprentice to Serpent Mage Kashess."
"I'm honoured," I said, bowing.
"He says he is as well," Bishop translated as Sahskan clicked again. "Mount up, Avatar. We've a long journey ahead."
He walked off toward the head of the column and I took hold of Sahskan's saddlehorn. The drakeling held still until I'd swung up into the saddle, at which point he straightened and I almost lost my balance. It was like riding a horse that was on its hind legs, but a little less awkward and easier to stay seated with the saddle differences. I glanced back, seeing that some of my friends were likewise mounted. I had to look twice at one drakeling who seemed to have sprouted wings before I realised it was Draxinusom seated on its back. The troll Hartrhind was riding an exceptionally large green-scaled drakeling.
"Let's move!" I shouted as the company ahead of us started to march. Sahskan went forward at a walk and I said to him, "Well, we'll be sharing the saddle for a while." The silver drakeling turned its head to blink at me with a copper eye and I smiled. "Why don't we work on that language barrier?"
If the illusion was accurate, the forest would have been an amazing place when it had still existed. And large. Three 'days' and 'nights' of forced travel eventually brought us to the edge of the treeline, beyond which were the barely visible beginnings of the foothills.
And, strangely enough, in the forest it did seem like day and night. The simulated light on the fake leaves followed the directions of where sun or moons would have been. It changed colour at sunrise through to sunset, then from gold to silver-green. The trees even cast pretend shadows on the forest floor - shadows that mimicked the movement of every trembling leaf and the position of the sun outside the blackrock sphere.
It was the middle of the day (or, rather, dark tide) when we stopped to set up camp just inside the forest. I think everyone was glad at the prospect of rest, but even after the trek, Bishop was already organising a couple of parties to scout the area for goblins.
I unsaddled Sahskan, who chirped his thanks and went to find a place to sleep, then rubbed my eyes and temples wearily. Yet another headache. I yawned, wondering if it was because of my lack of sleep. I had faint chest pains as well, which could have been caused by being in that saddle for so long. I stretched carefully and the discomfort seemed to ease a little.
I suddenly noticed my friends bearing down on me. Looking at Iolo's determined face as he approached, I rather wryly decided it was time to face the music.
"Hello," I said, my voice deliberately casual.
Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia and Katrina stopped in front of me, then exchanged glances the way people do when waiting for someone other than themselves to speak. I looked past them curiously, noting Draxinusom organising his group and Kra'lysie taking care of Dupre's. The other groups had Hartrhind, Talaac and whomever my companions had elected in their own steads.
After about a minute of watching them stand there without saying anything, I got a little impatient.
Dupre took a deep breath and said, "I wanted to apologise."
The knight sighed. "I didn't mean what I said. Truly. I was just..." he broke off and shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not the most diplomatic person in the world."
"You were worried about Britannia," I said. "Three months is a long time." He nodded, as did the others. "I'm worried too. Never forget that. But you all know-"
"-we have no chance of winning it back without help," Dupre finished. "We know."
"As thou said," Iolo put in, "we were worried. We still are."
I nodded slowly. "I understand."
Silence descended between us again, the noise of the army pitching tents and setting up campfires taking over. There was something else they were uneasy about - I could tell just from the fact that they weren't saying anything. Before I could tell them to speak up, though, Bishop arrived.
"Ah, good, thou'rt all together," he said, striding up to us. "Well, most of ye." He glanced around. "I'm expecting hostile forces to be near here, so there's a good chance we'll see some action tomorrow. While some of us rest, others will be scouting the edge of the forest and some of the land ahead for goblins, just so we can get the jump on them when the time cometh. Would any of ye care to volunteer for some patrolling?"
I opened my mouth to accept, but Shamino spoke first.
"I'm a ranger by profession and very experienced with this kind of environment, even if it isn't entirely real. My group is at thy service." Julia and Katrina grimaced at each other, as they were technically in 'Shamino's group'.
I grinned. "In that case, the rest of us will get some sleep."
Bishop nodded and pointed out a place nearby to Shamino. "Meet us there in an hour."
I sat down on my bedroll, lowered my head to my hands and cursed under my breath - several times. My head was throbbing like anything. It was like someone had crawled inside my skull and was pounding against the inside with vicious little metal hammers. It had begun as a dull ache, but had escalated. Squeezing my eyes shut in a wince of pain, I spared a thought as to why this was happening to me, then shrugged the problem aside. I had to get some sleep or I'd be no good if any fighting was necessary tomorrow.
Nevertheless, I paused as I unbuckled my scabbard and another stab of pain went through my head. The dull firelight from the campfires outside the tent glinted against the gold-chased hilt and the great red jewel in the pommel of my sword, causing them to shine a smouldering sort of colour...like dark blood. I felt a momentary twinge of nostalgia for the Blacksword and, for a second, considered summoning him. I hadn't tried since my... state... had changed. Then I shook my head. Even if it didn't work, he might be able to sense where we were amidst the planes of reality.
Another oath grated from my clenched teeth as the torturers living within my skull threw away their hammers and started with swords. I tried to focus my thoughts as I drew my blade and stared at the hilt, determined to figure out what was eluding my mind.
"Ok," I muttered, concentrating on my own voice in an effort to ignore the headache. "I got the sword from the mezzini on Atarka. They said... they brought it from the dragon caves when the dragons told them to leave, so it's probably magic in some way. That I already know; it's the nature of the magic I can't - damn." I hit the side of my head with the heel of one hand. "Can't figure out. I first used it..." I frowned, trying to remember. There had been a few fights on Atarka. The sand serpents, where I'd used and lost the Firedoom Axe... the duel in the Castle of Flames... but I'd used a normal sword provided by the Empress then. Serpent's Hold, when we'd returned to Britannia? I hadn't even drawn a weapon. It'd all been magic, for my part. I hadn't used this sword until my duel with Mellorin."
Growling as my skull threatened to explode like an overripe fruit, I held firm onto what I'd been thinking. "I fought with this sword for the first time against Mellorin, and I think...when I drew first blood..." I'd lost my sight, lost my power, damn near lost my mind... lost Britannia. No. Not yet. Damn, what had I been thinking? Mellorin...the sword... "Yes, that's when it first happened. Then it stopped a minute later and... and..." And Lord British had surrendered... Damn you, Elora, concentrate! When had I next used the sword? "When we teleported from Britannia to that other world... the Pits of Carnage." Yes... that was when we'd discovered I was alive, yet still undead and able to use my powers freely. In fact... "That's about when the headaches started."
Slowly, I pieced everything together into something my tortured mind could recognise as rational. This sword fed me life from those I killed. No, I hadn't killed Mellorin, I'd just scratched her. So the sword fed me life from the blood I shed with it? I always felt tremendous after a fight and wretched if we hadn't had one in a while.
"That would explain the headaches," I half-snarled, pressing both hands to my temples and tilting my head back to squint at the roof of the dark green tent. "I guess it would mean that the life the sword steals runs out, as it did with Mellorin. So I feel worse as it runs low?" My head hurt so badly I couldn't tell if my reasoning was sound. Finally, I stood, grabbed the sword and went outside into the night.
Dupre and Kra'lysie were sitting against logs on opposite sides of the nearest campfire - a true gold fire - and both had apparently dozed off. I crossed over and reached out with my free hand to shake the knight awake, hoping he'd be able to work out what I couldn't get my stupid, stubborn brain to concentrate on. I paused a mere handspan from his shoulder, then abruptly pulled back. I looked down at the unsheathed sword in my right hand. The flat of the blade I stared at was almost black, backlit by the campfire, but the thin line running down the centre of the sword from crosshilt to point looked to be a very deep, very dark line of red...like a vein.
This time the pain that sliced my skull felt physical. Bright spots actually appeared in front of my eyes and I almost lost my balance and fell over right there. Gritting my teeth, I shook my head firmly, heart thudding. The pain didn't stop. Almost involuntarily, I lifted the sword and held it just over Dupre's left hand. A little cut should do it...just a small thing, really... only a tiny wound... not even a wound... a scratch... a thorn-scratch... an insect-bite... not a sword wound at all...
The sword inched nearer...
I jumped. Forcing the sword away from Dupre, I looked over my shoulder at Kra'lysie who sat watching me with a sleepy, golden-eyed gaze.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm... fine. Why do you ask?"
She stretched a little, crooking her arms behind her head. "You've got your sword out, for one. And you're shaking."
"It's just a little colder out than I thought it would be."
She accepted this without expression, then yawned. "And the sword?"
"I thought I'd join Shamino, Katrina and Julia on patrol tonight." Hopefully there were goblins sneaking around. Lots of them. It was, I admitted with a sick shudder, a much better way of getting what I wanted instead of hurting my friends.
"So you were thinking of asking Dupre to go with you?" the dragon-woman asked, one red-gold eyebrow raised.
I shrugged. "Since he's asleep..." I shrugged again and walked back to my tent with deliberate, unhurried steps. Grabbing my forest-green cloak, I threw it over my shoulders and emerged to find Kra'lysie still watching me, her face unreadable. "I'll be back later with the others," I said irrelevantly, then left to find where the patrol was gathering to sweep the forests and hills around the camp.
The headache gripped my head again and I hurried my pace a little. I really need to kill something. No emotion rose at that thought. Only need. Hunger. Brushing the strange feeling that this was wrong aside, I strode through the camp and caught sight of the next patrol getting ready to move.
The pain increased.
I broke into a run.
From then on, I was ever conscious of the hunger. It hung in my foremost thoughts, waiting to be sated. If I ignored it long enough it clamoured painfully in my mind like a caged beast. And when the agony was too much, when I was all but blinded by it, I took any chance I could to hunt, which I did with almost savage efficiency.
The weeks blurred into seemingly endless cycles of hunger, pain and blood. There were so many skirmishes and fights that I began to find it hard thinking of anything but the hunt, the kill, and what I felt between them. Anticipation. Glorious release from pain. Yet when the euphoria wore off I'd feel sick. It wasn't a side-effect; it was me. I knew what was happening when I could think clearly. I could remember every victim, and none of them were merciful deaths. The fact was, I'd learned that the more pain I inflicted, the better I felt. The more alive.
I had become a master at butchery.
But I couldn't let the sword go for the same reason an addict kept using drugs. I thought I needed it, and was afraid of what would happen without it. When the euphoria was on me, I was even glad I had it. I still functioned well when it was needful, in the same way a maniac could run a battle and achieve maximum damage.
And when my friends asked after me, I didn't tell them that something was horribly wrong. They never called me a liar. They knew I was, but probably didn't want to believe it.
It was about a week before we'd reached our main destination before I admitted what was going on to anyone other than myself.
"Avatar?" a gravelly Gargish voice called.
I stopped pacing the tent I shared with Julia, Katrina and Kra'lysie, the former two of whom were patrolling again tonight. Funny, I still thought of it as 'tonight' when there was nothing else but. I had no idea where Kra'lysie was. Probably with Dupre or-
I stopped, then replied in Gargish: "To be here." I untied the tent flaps and held them open. Draxinusom's blue eyes glowed at me from the darkness. "Oh, sorry, Drax. I didn't recognise your voice."
"To ask if we might talk," he said in human speech, though it was more a statement than a request. I stood aside wordlessly and he crouched low to enter, moving carefully so not to catch his wings on anything. When he was inside, I tied the door shut again.
"To know," Draxinusom said.
I remained facing the green material of the door. "Know what?"
"To know what you are going through. To have seen it far too many times among my own people. To have felt it myself."
I watched the patterns of light flicker across the door from the fires outside. "It's not silver serpent venom," I said at last. "It's better. Or... worse."
"To matter not what causes it. To know only that you must stop using it. To offer my help."
Chafing my hands, I faced him. "I can't. I think... I know it's my sword. It happens whenever I hurt someone with it. If I don't use it... it's painful. I think it's what's keeping me alive."
"To ask how painful?"
"Enough that I was willing to use it on a friend to make it stop," I said softly. "I didn't. But I think I would have."
Draxinusom's daemonic face frowned. "To think that if the pain is too great, withdrawal at this time would be unwise. But to be dangerous, the effects this sword has on you. To ask, Avatar, what do you want?"
I rubbed my arms and stared at the ground. "I want to be alive. But not like this."
"To think you can control yourself until after the coming siege?"
"I don't know."
He touched my shoulder with a leathery red hand. "To say that if you feel in trouble, to come to me. Yes?"
"To ask how you feel now?"
"Fine." I bit my lip at the lie. "No. I'll have to... hunt. Tomorrow."
He said, "To come with you when you do. To let you rest now."
I untied the door again and held it open for him. When he was halfway out, I said, "Drax, thank you."
He inclined his head to me and stood outside, stretching his wings. "To help you get through this, Elora." The gargoyle lord strode off toward his own tent and I let the flap fall closed. After a moment, a noise came from behind the tent - the kind of noise that instantly draws attention because it's being made by someone trying not to be noticed.
Then there was a muttered oath.
I slid outside and went round the tent. Kra'lysie was curled behind it in her draconic form, her head near the canvas wall. She looked extremely odd with several illusionary trees poking up from her back.
"You were listening, I take it?" I said.
She sucked one of her foreclaws and gave me a resentful look.
"What did I do?"
"Nothing," she grunted. "One of those Kemah-thra-damned trees has a real stump. I stubbed a finger. Er, talon." She sighed and closed her eyes. "Being a human really messes with the mind."
"I wouldn't consider calling a talon a finger that serious."
The dragon grunted again. "Yes, well, at least I haven't started ignoring the obvious."
I looked around for something to sit down on and settled for the ground, drawing my knees up to my chest.
"I think your problem," Kra'lysie went on, "is that you depend on yourself too much. You choose to fight your little internal battles alone."
Her voice was pensive. I considered her words for a while, then replied, "I guess you're right. But what's wrong with that?"
"In part, nothing. Some things are best kept private, and you, well, you, being the Avatar, people expect you to be able to do things no one else can. But what's wrong with working with others?"
"I work with others!"
"When it's against an enemy everyone can see," Kra'lysie said gently. "But when you simply need help... you pretend you can handle it yourself."
"Are you calling me weak?"
"I'm calling you stupid," she growled. "You have friends who'd walk the fires of the daemonlands for you. Why don't you let them help you? Don't you trust them?"
"I trust them. But at the moment I'm not worthy of their trust." I looked away from her. "You saw what I was going to do to Dupre that night."
"Had I known what effect a Lifestealer would have in the hands of a liche, I would never have let Altara give it to you," Kra'lysie murmured. "I'm sorry."
"But you're right," I said. "On Earth, we have people who are addicted to certain things that aren't good for them. And for most, the mistake is thinking they can get through it without help. Like me. They - we - think we can handle it."
I nodded. "That or you don't want your friends to worry. But if they're any kind of friend, they already are."
We were silent for a minute. Kra'lysie closed her glowing eyes and exhaled slowly. I could feel the furnace heat of it before the cold returned.
"Looks like compassion is working for you," I said at last. "But if you knew what was happening, why didn't you confront me sooner?"
"Wasn't it obvious to you?"
"Yes, but..." I frowned, rubbing a boot with both hands. "Then why are we talking now?"
She shrugged both massive wings. "You came to me, Avatar."
"You were hiding behind the tent!"
"I was not hiding. And in case it's not obvious, I don't fit in that tent."
Looking at her intently, I folded my arms. "Who you? You can't just be a dragon."
"Just? Is that an insult?"
"You're changing the topic."
"Yes," she agreed, and scratched her neck.
"When will you tell me?"
She grinned. "What makes you think I'm anything other than what I am?"
I braced my hands on the ground behind me and looked up at her. "I don't know. Something. You always seem to know more than you let on."
"I haven't told you everything," she confirmed. "But I don't think I've told you anything about myself that isn't true." She stared off at the sky, then. "I think we're both alike in that respect."
The next week went as slowly as the previous ones had been fast. Well, they seemed that way to me. Now that I was pacing myself with my addiction, I was more or less in control of myself. So long as I didn't inflict too much pain with my sword in too little time, I avoided the incredible - and dangerous - high that followed after. So long as I went hunting every one or two days, I avoided my own pain.
Draxinusom was with my every time.
"To think," he said one night as we stalked the dark foothills, "that you might have trouble at the siege."
"Large-scale killing," I said softly, nodding. "I can't sit it out." And with my tone of voice, I'd inadvertently told him I didn't want to sit it out.
His blue eyes glittered at me. "To be enough for tonight?"
I forced myself to sheathe the Lifestealer. "Yes."
We turned back, picking our way down the rocky slopes to flat ground. Draxinusom spread his wings and glided over some of the steeper bits.
"What do you think I should do?" I asked him, jumping down from a white boulder.
"To ask you the same."
"I was thinking magic, but... if I use too much of that my liche side comes out."
"To suggest, perhaps, a regular sword?" He stopped to look back at me, grinning faintly.
I gaped at him. "I can't believe I didn't think of that."
The gargoyle chuckled. "To meet with your approval then?"
"Definitely." I reached his side and we started down the last slope together. "I don't think I'll be able to leave the Lifestealer behind, though."
"To take it into battle with you, then. But to not use it."
"Do you know what 'genius' means, my Lord?"
"To usually be a vast exaggeration, Avatar," he replied wryly, "but to take it as a compliment."
I smiled and cleared the last stand of rocks with a jump. I felt good until I thought of the siege again. Some of us wouldn't make it, I realised. Some Britannians wouldn't live to see their homes again. It was Atarka's desert all over again, only this time I knew the deaths could be avoided. Was I making the wrong choice? I guessed we'd find out...
"To be sad."
I didn't elaborate, but I knew he understood perfectly.
At the end of the estimated three months, we'd reached Har-Trask. The goblin fortress was an imposing structure of grey rock, across which a green-gold lichen crept like a leprous disease. It stood in the middle of a shallow bowl of a valley, and I could see from a distance the banners of the Guardian fluttering from the five towers.
"That's it," Bishop said softly. He lay flat on a rise overlooking the valley with Felix and Marcus on one side of him and myself on the other. "Normally them being in a valley would be an advantage to attackers, but-"
"-they know we're coming," Felix finished.
"What about our southern armies?" I asked, absently noting there was no moat.
I sent my sight out to take a look. There were several hundred warriors camped on the south side of the valley. "Are there meant to be goblins with them?" I asked back where I was sitting.
"They're our allies. They won't be fighting, though, for their own safety."
I returned and looked past Bishop at him. "When do we attack?"
The Prince motioned with his head. "Let's go back to the camp."
"The heart of this operation is to get to the Regent," Felix said, using a polished red stone to hold open a map of the castle and the valley. "The Regent is a goblin king or queen, but they haven't termed themselves thus since handing over sovereignty to the Guardian.
"This is what we know of the place from goblins who have been there and joined us, but it's not as important as the surrounding grounds. The main gate is here, facing west, and there's a smaller one to the east."
"What about infiltration?" I suggested. "Is that an alternative to battle?"
"No live human is permitted inside the castle," Bishop explained. "A goblin might be able to do it, but if I were in that castle right now I'd believe any 'wounded messengers' were spies. Furthermore, we were informed by Milenus, a goblin spy who used to be in a very valuable position within the palace, that they may have some sort of animal in there that can detect treachery."
Marcus shook his head and Bishop said, "That's a runic spell. Not only are we unable to duplicate it with our own magic, they'd be able to detect it. We've had goblins who have tried. And died."
Felix returned the discussion to the map. "There are no gardens or rockeries we have to worry about..."
I resisted the desire to say I might be able to get in undetected under an Invisibility spell and tried to pay attention.
"Bishop, Marcus and I will lead our people against the west gate first," Felix was saying. "Bishop himself will blow through the gate while we tackle anyone who tries to attack him. Goblin archers should pose no threat - we've developed a spell to defend against small missile weapons.
"When the gate is down, the southern forces will join us in storming the castle." He traced a wide circle around the drawing of the fortress with his finger. "Avatar, when we're inside, I need thee and thy people to surround Har-Trask and make sure no one, especially the Regent, escapes."
"We can do that," I agreed, "but you don't need us for the fight?"
"We will hold ye in reserve. If we need ye at all for any fighting support, Bishop will signal thee."
"Let me guess," I said, smiling, "I'll know it when I see it?"
Bishop's weathered face drew into a grin.
"If we're required as such," I continued, looking at the prince again, "is there any particular way you'd like us to join the fight?"
"As fast as possible."
My smile turned grim. "Understood."
"It's reported that our numbers, mine army, thine and the southerners, triple that of the defenders, though that information is months old. We would be standing less of a chance had we not had thy help in the past battles, Elora."
I barely remembered the guard towers and camps we'd overrun on the way here. I had a vague image of us rushing each one in force and swamping the foes through sheer numbers.
"If fortune is with us, the battle will not take long."
"May the gods smile upon us," Bishop said softly.
"Virtue be with us," I whispered.
The goblins didn't wait within the walls of their fortress as we'd expected. As soon as the second dark circle of the moons had vanished below the horizon, the gates opened and about half a thousand goblins marched out in dully gleaming mail. Torches of golden flame, gripped in green-skinned fists, lit up the sharp edges of blades and axes, the blunt heads of maces. At the centre of the host the firelight reflected off gold; a crowned helmet, worn by a large goblin decked out in silken robes, holding a sceptre and riding a magnificent white horse.
"He's actually riding into battle like that?" Dupre murmured incredulously. "He's the only one mounted, too. Iolo, one well-aimed bolt from thee would end this battle before it doth even begin."
"Out of range for me, my friend," the old bard replied. "Bishop, hast thou any idea why they have rallied outside their fortress?"
Bishop was rubbing his chin and frowning. "They must know we outnumber them, so I don't like it, whatever their reason is. My magic is weakest when the moons are down, so I'm inclined to think this was planned." He rolled over where he lay on the slope and looked at the sky, as though for instruction. Then he sighed. "I'll inform my prince. We might want to change our plan of attack." He returned to the camp, leaving Dupre, Iolo and me where we were. After a few minutes of watching the goblins keep formation and do nothing, Dupre said, "Is he a mage?"
"The Regent?" I shrugged. "Could be."
"I can't imagine a warrior, unless he's a fool, dressing like that for a war." Then he shrugged as well. "It's almost over, eh, Elora? Soon we return to Britannia. I long to see her skies again."
"As do I," Iolo and I both said, and all three of us glanced up at the empty blackness. "I found out what causes it, you know," I added.
"Yes, but how he's done it. He's trapped this world the same way he trapped Castle Britannia."
My two friends stared at me. "Blackrock?" Dupre said.
Iolo, aghast, said, "The whole world?"
I nodded. "Looks like it."
"Dost thou think it could be destroyed?"
"I hope so. I'm going to talk to Bishop about it later."
The knight nodded. "An interesting man. An avatar, thou sayest?"
"I think Britannia got the better one."
"Well, to be honest, he seemeth to be a man who doth prefer adventuring alone. I might have been stuck as Trinsic's mayor forever had he come to Britannia instead of thou."
"He wouldn't have become the Avatar of Britannia without your help," I pointed out, smiling.
Dupre didn't answer, and Iolo looked embarrassed. "Dost thou really believe that?" the latter asked.
"Yes. I couldn't have done it without any of you." I looked down at the goblin army. "Think I should try? A Magic Arrow has more range than a crossbow bolt."
"Think thou couldst hit him from here?" Dupre asked.
"My aim with a normal arrow may not be as good as Iolo's or Tseramed's, but I know my magic, thank you." I pursed my lips. "I should probably give him a warning first. It's only fair."
"Thou art truly virtuous, Avatar."
"It's been said." We grinned at each other, then I sent my sight right out to where the Regent sat astride his mount. I stopped right in front of him, not feeling too surprised when he looked straight into my magical eyes. He was a mage after all.
"What dost thou want?" he asked silently, lips unmoving and yellowed eyes unblinking. It was not the voice of a savage, and my pre-thought line of "Just thought you should know I'm about to kill you," went unsaid. I could tell that this goblin was, in his own way, noble, and not just by birth (or however royalty was obtained among goblins).
"Why dost thou seek the slavery of the human race?" I asked him.
"I seek to rule an ordered world. Humans will not adhere to the laws or my leadership, so their destruction is a consequence of their choices.
"Perhaps I should ask, thou who comest against me in force, why thou seekest the destruction of the goblin race?"
"Thou hast struck a deal with the Guardian," I thought firmly. "He and all who serve him are the enemies of what is good. He is evil. There is no other word for him." Actually, there were several other words for the Guardian, but I didn't think swearing would be appropriate under the circumstances.
"It is natural for thee to consider evil one who doth fight against thee," thought the Regent.
"And it is natural for thee to consider good one who is thine ally." I sighed mentally. "My lord, I am not of this world. I have come from a plane that is at war with the Guardian."
"And art thou, too, at war with goblins on thy world?"
"No. It is human against human."
"So explain why the Guardian is evil, if even thine own kind serve him."
I had only the word of the wisps and my own experiences to share, and he had no reason to believe me. "I fear I cannot, save by showing thee what he hath done to other worlds."
"Couldst thou prove he had done it?"
I thought of Scaeduen and the Pits of Carnage and nodded to myself. He sensed it.
"Should we both live through this war, I might allow thee to show me. Unfortunately, I don't quite trust thee right now with an army at thy back."
"Then we will have to fight," I thought sadly. For some reason, the emotion was not only for the losses the humans would endure, but also for the goblins. The Regent wasn't the frothing Guardian sycophant I'd been expecting. "I'm sorry."
The Regent inclined his head slightly, his eyes never wavering from where I 'stood'. "I am also sorry. It hath been long since last I spoke rationally with a human. I have missed it. What might I call thee?"
"I am known as the Avatar."
"Ah. Then hail and farewell, Avatar."
"Hail and farewell, my lord."
I pulled away, returning to where my body lay on the slopes. Dupre and Iolo must have seen the change in my expression to notice I was with them again.
"That was one long warning," Dupre observed. "Didst thou have to explain what a magic arrow doth to unsuspecting goblins, or something?"
"No. We had a talk."
The two of them looked at the goblin army. "They don't seem to have surrendered yet."
"Not that kind of talk. This goblin isn't evil, Dupre. At least, that's the impression I got. He thinks the Guardian is good because he's never seen his evil side. As long as the goblins think the Guardian's their ally..."
"I heard the war began long before the Guardian was involved," Iolo said. "So someone hath to be responsible."
"Unless that someone got interesting dreams one night of being supreme ruler and getting unlimited power."
"Thought it might." I let out a long breath. "Bishop told me how it started, from the humans' perspective at least. I have to find him, and Felix. We need to know what's going on with this battle."
The battle plans for the Britannians and the Scaeduenese remained the same. We were to wait in reserve unless needed. So it was that Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Hartrhind, Talaac, Draxinusom and I arranged our people into position along the lip of the valley. If we were needed, we'd be running downhill.
Felix had decided to attack the goblins instead of waiting for the moons to rise. There would be no sleep for us if we'd chosen otherwise, and it would have been a mistake to let our guard down when an enemy army was almost on top of us.
I stood at the head of my forces alone, watching as Felix and Bishop led their humans and drakelings across the valley to engage the goblins, who stood firm to receive the first blow. On the other side of the valley, the southern army also charged. The distant sound of running feet and raised voices filled the air as the distance between the armies diminished. Still the goblin host held their ground.
I watched as the Regent lifted his green arms and homed in my sight to see him holding aloft some runestones. First he cast what seemed to be a Mass Protection spell. Then Mass Might and Negate Fear. The air around the goblins crackled with magic, and still the humans and drakelings charged. I focussed on Bishop in his black chainmail; he was also casting a spell. An azure glow flashed through the ranks charging behind him like water turned to light.
They had almost reached the goblins, and the southern armies were close as well.
I returned my gaze to the Regent, not believing he'd sit and do nothing.
He was holding up three linked runes. Kal, Vas and Xen.
A Summon spell.
Surely he couldn't summon more than one daemon at the rate he'd been using his mana, I thought.
A single daemon materialised in a pillar of sooty flame that burst from the ground. It was about seven feet tall, black, and sported crimson wings. Upon stepping from the flames with hoofed feet, it stretched both arms, tilted its head back and let out a roar clearly audible where I stood.
"A Destroyer?" I gasped, sight jolting back to my body. It was just in time for me to see a thick ring of fire shoot up around the goblin army, and from it flew the armies of Hell.
Unable to slow momentum or break off, humans and drakelings plunged into the daemonic ranks, screaming battle cries.
Kra'lysie was suddenly beside me, her face hard and teeth bared. "Attack?"
"No. We wait for Bishop's signal."
"Bishop might be dead."
"I hope not." I tore my eyes from the carnage. "Tell the others to pass the word that when we do attack, focus on the big black daemon."
"He's the gateway for the others," Kra'lysie surmised. "I'll do that. But he's keeping close to that goblin in the dressing gown, and no one's even broken past the fire ring yet."
"I'm counting on you to help."
The dragon-woman smiled viciously. "It's about time I got some action." She hurried off.
Mere seconds later, a twisting column of black fire shot from the human forces to sky, roaring with the winds of a tornado.
"That's it," I murmured, and turned to face those waiting in grim silence behind me. "Are ye ready?"
They shouted their assent, some eager to get it over with and others frightened, but all determined to fight.
"Then may Virtue be with us," I said. "Stay together and follow me. Today we strike a blow the Guardian will not forget, and we help free a world from his grasp. Today we are that much closer to returning to Britannia." I drew a plain longsword and levelled it at the enemy. "Attack!" And I was running down towards the fight, humans, gargoyles and trolls charging after me. Above, a scarlet-and-gold dragon kept easy pace and trumpetted our coming with a shattering roar.
The distance between us and the embattled armies seemed to close much faster than it had when I'd only been watching. I had only a brief moment to pray we'd all live to see our homes and families again before I was cutting through a daemon and plunging deep into the fray.
Dragonfire engulfed three more daemons ahead of me and I heard shouts of fear from the goblins. Kra'lysie reduced five more daemons to ashes before a group of them split off from the rest and flew to attack her in the air.
"Vas Uus Sanct!" I shouted, and the Mass Protection spell took effect on all fighting with me.
"Why not an offensive spell?" Julia shouted.
"Don't want to lose control," I yelled back, turning aside a flaming trident. "Can you see the circle of fire?"
There was a sudden explosion and I was thrown forward, searing pain running down one thigh. I rolled over with a growl, noticed the daemon leering down at me with its scimitar ready to strike, then kicked it hard where I hoped it kept its kneecaps. It snarled as it staggered back, then burst into flames as a sword burst through its chest.
"Art thou all right, Avatar?" the Britannian soldier asked. He extended a hand and I grasped it at the wrist, grateful for the help.
"A little on the crispy side," I said, wincing as my left leg twinged painfully. "Duck."
He dropped without question and I swept my blade over his bowed head, catching the descending trident. The soldier thrust his own sword back, but only struck the daemon's side. It howled angrily and I pulled the soldier back. More daemons were closing in and we were trapped.
"Blink!" Kra'lysie's mind-voice commanded.
I kept a hand on the soldier's shoulder and I transported the both of us away just before the immediate area and its daemons were immolated.
But now we were surrounded by goblins.
They blurted in astonishment, then stared at each other.
I tightened my grip on the now invisible Britannian's shoulder as I felt him lift his sword. Then I gently steered him out of the way as a goblin tentatively poked his axe at the place we'd been standing in.
"I didn't hear thee cast a spell," the soldier whispered.
"I didn't. Well, not out loud." I glanced around, ignoring the baffled goblins.
There was a huge black daemon bearing down on us, brushing goblins aside without a word. Those who saw it coming scuttled hastily aside. I knew it could see us.
"Stay behind me," I whispered.
"Wilt thou need help?"
"I'll let thee know."
The Destroyer stopped right in front of us and glared down from its towering height with red eyes. A laugh rumbled from its fanged mouth. "Puny things. Ye dare challenge me?"
"Why not?" I replied, and the goblins stared at where I wasn't. "Dost thou claim to be stronger than Balinor, Daemon of Falsehood? Or the Daemon of Doom? Perhaps the Destroyer Daemon of the Fiery Hell?"
"I am the Destroyer Daemon of the Fiery Hell," the monster snarled, grinning horribly, "and thou wilt not escape me this time, Avatar. Thou wilt pay for the theft of my sceptre."
The Invisibility spell vanished.
Goblins leaped at us then bounced back against an Energy Field.
The Destroyer gestured almost lazily and dispelled it, causing me to flinch. Its magic was stronger than mine. It had been a daemon much longer than I'd been a liche. And if this thing truly was the Destroyer Daemon from the Labyrinth of Worlds, I knew it was physically stronger than me as well.
The goblins, sniggering to each other, closed in slowly. I was about to attempt Blinking away with the Britannian, but then someone shouted a warning and the goblins faltered, falling back.
With a furious growl, the Destroyer stepped forward and grabbed me around the neck with near-throttling force. I gripped my sword hard and swung it back, then forward with all the strength I had, but the daemon seized my right arm with its free hand and lifted me off the ground.
"Avatar!" the Britannian shouted.
"Stay back!" I choked, willing him Invisible and hoping both that it worked and that the daemon didn't negate it. I stared into burning red eyes set in a hellish face, struggling to free my sword arm.
The daemon looked at the aeth'raesh'al bracer on wrist it gripped, then sneered at me. "I need only pull this limb from thy body to get rid of thee." It slowly twisted my arm.
"Then why don't you?" I gasped, straining not to black out.
"Thy demise is not mine to give."
"The last daemon who said he couldn't kill me got killed," I whispered.
"I didn't say I couldn't," the Destroyer replied. "Besides, if I'm not mistaken, thou'rt meant to be dead already." The fist closed around my neck tightened a fraction.
I was vaguely aware of someone approaching the daemon from behind. Something white. Hoping it was the Regent on his horse, I said to the Destroyer, "Why... does the Guardian... want this world?"
"The same as with any other world, Avatar." It laughed at me. "To make the multiverse a better place. Dead and silent, blacked by Hell's fire."
"Thou art dismissed," a different voice said.
I was suddenly falling, then felt someone catch me. Gasping as though I'd never breathed before, I heard the Destroyer say, "Thou wouldst banish me?"
"I summoned thee. The arcane laws demand that thou obeyest me."
"I am no servant of thine."
"I disagree. By answering my summons thou didst agree to be bound by my wishes."
"Only the Guardian hath the power to bind my will to anything."
"And the Guardian gave me this spell. Therefore, he bound thee to me." The speaker took a breath. "Thou art dismissed."
My vision cleared in time for me to see a black shape launch itself at the white shape. There was a flare of brightness, a vast sucking sound, a multitude of howls, then silence.
"My lord," a goblin's voice exclaimed. "Thou leavest us defencel-"
A sharp cracking sound preceded that of a body hitting the ground.
"That for the Guardian and his daemons," the Regent said heavily. "We have lost everything because we wanted it all. Commander, quickly. Order our goblins to throw down their weapons."
The Britannian soldier whispered in my ear, "The goblin lord approacheth, Avatar. Let me help thee stand."
Human hands assisted me to my feet, and I regained mastery of my eyes. "Thanks," I whispered over my shoulder, and removed the Invisibility from him.
The next thing I knew, the Regent was standing in front of me in his white silk, gold-trimmed robes. "So this is my voice of reason," he said, yellow eyes examining my face. A slight frown creased his green brow. "And not entirely human himself, I might add."
"Herself," I corrected automatically, but I was stunned. "Thou canst see through the ill-"
Noises of weapons being thrown down sounded around us.
"I apologise anyway," the Regent went on. "I didn't know humans sent their females into battle, so I just assumed."
I cut to the point. "What are thine intentions?"
He let out a breath slowly. "Surrender." His voice indicated there was no other choice. It surprised me a little.
"Just like that?"
"Obviously we'd be wiped out if we fought," he said. "Even a runic archmage such as myself can fall beneath enemy steel. Besides, I am not one to order my people to pointless and painful deaths." He looked at me suddenly and chuckled. "Thou art a human to be admired. I don't think many would have considered trying to unmask the Guardian's true face while being strangled by the Destroyer." Then he sobered. "My forebears bound my bloodline and this world to the Guardian's service when they sought his aid against humans. I do not know what repercussions he will bring on Tarna or myself now that I have challenged that bond."
Goblins suddenly pushed past the soldier and me, swarming to the Regent. At first I thought they were going to protect him from whatever they thought was coming, but they stood behind him as though the situation was the other way around.
I half-turned to see who was coming.
It was an action I regretted instantly.
I had never seen the field outside Serpent's Hold after the battle in which I'd died. I hadn't fully seen the death, the blood, the fire. I saw it all now as a band of survivors, led by Bishop, Felix and a man I didn't recognise, marched our way with weapons unsheathed. I also saw a thirst for revenge. Not a goblin had died here - of that I was almost positive. But against daemons... our own forces would have been decimated had the war not ceased so abruptly. I found myself staring in shock and despair at the sheer number of bodies that lay unmoving in the darkness beyond the scorch-marks of the fire ring, at the few lonely figures that stumbled aimlessly between the corpses of fallen friends.
There were no winners in war. And because everyone became losers, everyone wanted revenge afterwards.
I looked at the goblins and didn't feel raging hatred, but perhaps I hadn't been here long enough. I only saw a people who had been fooled by the Guardian, and Virtues knew good people had been snared by him before. But Felix's people would see the race that was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones, years of struggle and years of pain.
Where did justice end and vengeance begin?
"Your Highness," I began as Felix approached, looking murderous.
He glanced at me. Barely. "Later, Avatar." He kept walking, past me to stop before the Regent. The comparison was not kind. The goblin in his royal, spotless silks and crowned helm, the prince in scarred and bloody armour with a burn scoring one cheekbone. "So."
The Regent's eyes flicked to me, then back to Felix, and I felt a weary understanding from him. I may be the voice of reason, but I wasn't the voice of authority.
And there would be repercussions from more than just the Guardian.
Without missing a beat, the Regent slowly reached up and removed his helmet before holding it out to Felix and kneeling down in the rocky dirt. "We surrender."
Felix took the helmet and handed it to Bishop without looking at either.
The goblin offered his Runebag - a black velvet, gold-embroidered pouch that held the runestone components of his magic.
This, too, Felix took and gave to Bishop.
The goblin let out a sigh, bowed his head and extended his own neck.
Felix's hand tightened on the grip of his longsword. He lifted it, face set.
"Stop him," the soldier by my side whispered.
I shook my head. "I wish I could, but I can't." I watched the blade go higher without blinking, teeth clenched. If I stood in Felix's way, I was sure I could kiss help for Britannia goodbye.
This isn't fair, fought with This isn't your decision.
Then I settled for thinking of Mayor Patterson of Britain. He, too, had fallen prey to the Guardian's promises. He had been the cause of the deaths of innocents.
I had killed him.
How was this different, save that the innocent deaths were on a larger scale? In that case, could I even compare the two situations?
Felix wasn't moving. I looked at his fire-blackened sword, realising dully that he hadn't finished what he'd been about to start.
As though the words cost him a lot, he said, "This is not how I do justice." He lowered the sword, planting it point down in the ground. "Thou wilt return with me to Fyrna, goblin, and face judgement there."
"It will be as thou sayest," the Regent conceded. He bowed his head lower before raising it fully, looking up at Felix's face but not standing.
Relief and shame burned within me. As willing as I'd been a minute ago to speak, or even act in the goblin's defence, I was completely unsure how I would have reacted had I been in Felix's place.
One liked to think I'd have done the same as he had. Some small part of me believed that, liche or not, I wouldn't have.
Prince Felix made a point of not being around to hear the casualty report. No one blamed him. If he had, he might have gone back on his decision to spare the Regent, who was being held in a guarded tent at our camp. Britannians and those from the Pits plane had only suffered lightly, having not been in the fight for as long, but not one survivor, not even Kra'lysie, had gone unscathed.
I found her, Dupre, Shamino and Draxinusom sitting around a silver fire some hours after the battle.
"Would you look at that?" she said to me in disgust before I'd even sat down. She pointed at Shamino, who had his right arm in a sling. "What does he need that for?"
"He apparently has a broken arm," I replied patiently. "It's customary to wear a sling if you have a broken arm."
She snorted. "His arm isn't broken."
Dupre clapped Shamino on the right shoulder.
"Argh!" Shamino's face went pale. He touched his arm gingerly and glared at Dupre. "Was that really necessary?"
"Just proving thou'rt not lying about thine injuries," Dupre said, calmly going back to peeling a round green fruit with his dagger. "No need to thank me."
"I don't believe you would condone his fictions!" Kra'lysie said.
"For Virtues' sake," I said. "Shamino, Heal your arm."
The ranger sighed. "I'll find someone with the right reagents." He stood and walked off.
"What is it with you?" I asked the dragon woman, seating myself on a rock.
"I've already told you. I don't like him. I don't trust him."
"Why?" Dupre demanded. "He hath been my friend for centuries. I'd trust him with my life."
She shook her head, subsiding back onto her own rock and huddling into her red cloak. "I just can't believe that. Maybe I'm too prejudiced."
"We're all human, Kra'lysie," I said, then grimaced when she gave me a withering look. "At heart, perhaps."
"Speak for yourself."
"To echo that," Draxinusom said with a toothy smile.
"Yeah, yeah." I grinned. The silver fire burned on, its crackling undisturbed for a few more seconds. "Has anyone thought to ask why they're not... fire coloured?"
"To be called moonfire, Elora," Draxinusom replied. "To be magical fire lit by the light of the moons."
"Ah." Another pause, and I smiled. "Back to Britannia soon, hm?"
"We have to pick up the people we left at Scaeduen first," Dupre reminded me. "I wonder if time runneth differently there."
"I don't know."
"What about the mezzini?" Kra'lysie asked.
"I guarantee it."
"You fine if we stop over at Atarka again?" I asked Dupre.
"So long as we are nowhere near a desert."
"There are worse places," Kra'lysie told him.
"So long as we don't go anywhere near them either, then," Dupre said.
Felix glanced up from scrolls on his desk as I entered the large tent. "Avatar," he greeted me brusquely. "Wounds healed already, I see?"
"No, Felix. Thou canst not see them."
"Illusion. I could take it down if thou didst request, but am sure thou wouldst prefer not to see what it hideth."
"Don't they hurt?"
"Only when I get them or think about them, apparently. Maybe I can shield myself from the pain." I shrugged.
He nodded. "Well, Elora, I'll get to why I called thee here. It's about the goblins. Do I take them back to Fyrna or not?"
"Thou art asking me?"
"I fear things would have gone much worse without thee. Even had we won, it would have been with massive losses. We're all lucky to be alive." He stood, hands on the desk. "Again I am in debt to thee, and I offer thee the option of taking us whither thou wouldst. Thou hast tarried long here. I am sure thou art eager to go home."
"I am. All my people are." I took a breath. "How favourably disposed wouldst thou be to me taking both thy people and the goblins?"
Felix didn't respond for a moment. "I wouldn't consider it wise," he said at last. "We're to fight the Guardian's armies, yes? What if the goblins turned coat in the middle of a fight and summoned those fiery creatures against us again?"
"I understand thy concerns, but wouldst thou allow it?"
Felix bowed his head, looking tired. "Yes. Anything."
"Thou dost not have to."
"I know." He sat down again, then laughed shortly. "At least I won't have to worry about organising a prison camp." A sigh escaped him. "All my life I've known war, Avatar. Almost thirty years. It's all I've known, and the same goeth for many of my people. Now that the war is finally over... I am agreeing to fight another one, on my behalf and theirs. And against the same gods-damned enemy, too." When I said nothing, he added, "Just when we thought we'd won." Even more softly: "Just when we thought we'd all survive."
I was about to repeat my last statement when he looked at me directly and asked, "Avatar, what are our chances in thy world?"
"Getting better," I said.
"And when dost thou want to leave?"
I considered. "Not until the moons rise and set again. I have to talk to the Regent. The war's only over here. I think I can get him to get the rest of his people to surrender. I'll need his Runebag, though."
"If thou'rt sure." He handed it over.
"Trust me. And get some sleep."
He nodded silently and I left the tent. The night breeze outside was very cool. I breathed deeply, then noticed Bishop gesturing to me from a crowded campfire several feet away.
He indicated the Runebag when I walked over. "What's that for?"
"I'm taking it to the Regent. We're going to have a talk."
He nodded, then cocked his silvering head in the direction of Felix's tent. In a lower voice, he asked, "How is he?"
Talk around the campfire had quieted. The men around it, none I recognised, were listening. Bishop didn't seem to mind.
"Listless," I said at last. "Maybe even bitter. Did the war take too much out of him?"
Bishop shook his head. "Perhaps. I think the main problem is Marcus."
I felt a sinking feeling. "He's dead?"
"Yes. I saw it happen, and so did the prince. It wasn't pretty."
"I didn't know," I confessed softly.
"From what I know, Marcus had been Felix's friend and general for many years. It's understandable that his death would come as a blow."
And Felix had spared the Regent? I'd killed Patterson for murdering two people I'd barely known.
"Felix is a remarkable person," I said.
"Had one of my friends been killed, the Regent wouldn't be alive right now."
"Perhaps. I don't think anyone can predict their own actions. What happens, happens. Personally, I don't think it would have been wrong to kill the goblin."
"Well, I'd best go talk to him."
"Dost thou mind if I come?"
"Be my guest. But why?"
Bishop shrugged. "Call it curiosity."
We both left the glow of the fire and walked to a guarded tent some distance away. The man at the door of the tent saluted Bishop, then held the flap open for us.
Inside was very dark. We could clearly see the silhouettes of people outside against the green material. The Regent sat up on his blanket and peered at us, but didn't speak.
I conjured a Light.
Bishop blinked and the goblin shielded his eyes.
"How is that possible?" the latter asked. "That's runic magic, but no runestones?"
"I don't need them where I come from, but I know how to use them."
He nodded, then looked inquiringly at Bishop.
"I expect thou knowest the leader of the Resistance?"
"By reputation only. And thou, as well, Avatar. I thought I recognised thy name. Wert thou the one who invaded one of my former Prison Towers and freed both Bishop and Prince Felix?"
"That was me."
"And was it thou who blew it up a few months ago?"
"No, that was me," Bishop said.
The goblin winced. "What hast thou done to Har-Trask?"
"Oh? Why not?"
I glanced at Bishop, who shrugged. "Why? Should we?"
"Thou shouldst see the inside of that place, if the outside hath not yet revolted ye. For the decorations in the throne room alone it deserveth to be blown up." He crossed his legs and sat facing us. "To what do I owe the honour?"
"Thou'rt not going to Fyrna," I said, earning a surprised look from Bishop. "Thou'rt coming with me to Britannia, along with thy goblins."
"How will this Britannia place be different for us?" the goblin asked.
"For starters, it's another plane. And instead of facing judgement, thou wilt face another of the Guardian's armies with me."
"A chance for redemption, then," he said, looking interested. "Canst thou not reveal to this enemy's leader what the Guardian is really like?"
"She already knoweth. She doth not care."
He accepted this. "So is this a choice or an ultimatum?"
"A choice," I said, smiling a little.
"Good." I held out the Runebag. "Thou must do something before we leave. Canst thou call off any other goblins that are attacking humans and drakelings throughout the land?"
"I can. I will begin at once, Avatar." He took the bag and immediately went through its contents. We left him to it, and exited the tent.
"Not to gainsay thy judgement, Avatar, but-"
"I know, Bishop. Just trust me."
"I must know how thou canst trust him."
So I told him who had stopped the Destroyer Daemon.
We used the time between when the moons rose and set to tend to the wounded and honour the dead. Bishop used his magic to pass commands from Felix to his people in other parts of the world, and saw, to his satisfaction, that the goblins had all surrendered.
This posed a small problem for me, as the first twinges of withdrawal were making my head ache. It seemed to take ages until everything was packed and everyone was armed and ready - goblins included.
Most of the humans looked decidedly uncomfortable at that.
When they were finally ready, we returned to Scaeduen and picked up Cale and the goblins we'd left behind. Then I punched the aeth'raesh'al for Atarka.
Kra'lysie said we were quite a distance southwest of Krain Castle. There was a huge grass plain to the west of us, a dark green forest rising in the east, mountains north and, far to the south, the sea.
Camp was pitched where we'd arrived (the Shrine of Sobriety, much to Dupre's consternation) after Kra'lsyie persuaded us we really wouldn't want to camp in the forest.
"It's unfriendly," was all she said, followed by, "Trust me."
I sated my addiction for the moment by going into the plain with Draxinusom and hunting down a wild deer or gazelle of some kind. He was pleased with my restraint, and we both spoke of trying to break the addiction when we got back to Britannia.
The goblins, humans and drakelings from Bishop's plane were still getting accustomed to the sunlight, which hurt their eyes. I hoped after a week they'd be able to stand outside without squinting.
The assorted races from Scaeduen were standing around gawping.
The Britannians, on the other hand, were treating interplanar travel as though it was an everyday occurrence.
It was all amusing to varying degrees.
I strode through the dry grass, relishing the swishing sound as the long stalks brushed by my legs. The smells were sharp and clean, with none of the dead or decaying scents of the last two planes. The colours were crisp and bright. Atarka was alive.
Kra'lysie, dressed once again in red mezzin robes, found me watching a couple of clouds drift over the mountains. Dupre, who I'd noticed was usually by her side these days, came with her.
"When do we go?" the dragon woman asked me.
"Whenever you're ready."
Kra'lysie nodded and walked some distance away into the sun-drenched field. Her hair glowed like fire down her back and she stopped, lifting both slender arms as though to embrace the sky.
A golden shimmer surrounded her almost at once.
I'd seen her do this many times before but it never ceased to capture my attention.
The aura brightened, noticeable even in the sunlight, and grew larger than human shape. Taller than trees and longer than houses. When the golden light had abated, Kra'lysie stood in her dragon form. Her crimson scales glittered, rippling over her muscles as she stretched her vast wings to their full extent. A shake of her head and her golden crest scattered rays of light in every direction.
Then she sat down and scratched at a flank with one of her hindclaws.
"Now thou'st gone and spoiled it," Dupre complained.
"What are you blathering about?" she asked.
"Well, thou changest into this incredible form, then ruin the majesty of it all by scratching thyself."
Kra'lysie, who had begun to preen at his first few words, gave him a sullen look. "I had an itch." Almost defiantly, she scratched at her flank again.
"That's beside the point," Dupre persisted. "What wouldst thou think if thou saw the Avatar picking her nose?"
"Hey!" I objected.
Kra'lysie squinted thoughtfully at the sky. "I guess you have a point. It is up to us incredible people to present our best side to the little folk, right Avatar?"
I sighed pensively.
Kra'lysie half spread her wings and stood up, one foreclaw lifted in a position a hunting dog would take. She whipped her snake-like tail around to half encircle herself, then threw her head back, staring dramatically at the horizon. One golden eye swivelled down to glance at Dupre and she asked, "How's this? Majestic?"
He gave her a hard look.
"I could breathe fire, if it'd help."
"Dost thou never take anything seriously?"
"She used to take everything seriously," I pointed out, then gave the dragon an amused look. "Finished?"
"Oh, very well." With practised skill she plucked me off the ground and put me on her back, right between the muscled shoulders of her wings.
"Where are ye going?" Dupre shouted.
"The Krain Desert," I called back, "to see if we can find the nomads."
"Can't I come?"
Kra'lysie shrugged and picked him up, depositing the knight right behind me. "Anyone else?"
"Two's enough," I said. "Let's go."
Her wings snapped out and swept down. The brown grass was flattened to the ground and the few people who'd left the main bulk of the army to gape at Kra'lysie's transformation were buffetted back a few steps.
The dragon was skyborne in an instant, the golden fields receding behind her as she gained height. Soon there was nothing to hear but the leathery beating of her wings. It started to get cold, so I pressed both hands flat to her scaled neck, feeling the warmth radiate from it.
"How are we supposed to find them?" Dupre asked suddenly. "The nomads, that is. I thought their camp was shielded."
Kra'lysie heard him. "I'm hoping they lower the shield when they see me," she called back, levelling herself and gliding around to face northeast. "They do revere dragons, after all, and it's been centuries since one of my kind flew over the Krain."
And it was the last chance she'd get to soar above the desert of her homeland, I realised. After we found the nomads we'd be leaving this plane and returning to Britannia. Kra'lysie would be coming with us, and would probably never see the world of Atarka again.
The fields below became mountains. Massive, jagged spires of rock and cliffs of red-streaked grey. Kra'lysie's flight was faster than that of almost anything I'd ever seen. It would have taken us a few days to reach the mountains on foot, let alone get over them, but with a mere flap of crimson-gold wings she effortlessly covered the same distance in a matter of minutes.
We could soon see the reddish blur of the desert, its horizon a shimmering, shifting wave of heat. I wondered if we'd even be able to feel it at this height.
"Isn't that Krain Castle over there?" Dupre pointed to our left, and I could make out a city and keep right at the edge of where the desert began, the red-grey cliffs rearing up behind them like a sentinel.
Kra'lysie gave it a cursory glance but didn't bother to reply. It slipped quickly into the distance and she tilted her flight more to the east. Now the scorched sands of the desert were visible as far as we could see, though distant mountain tops could just be made out to the south and west.
"There," I said sharply.
It was so small at this height we'd almost missed it.
Kra'lysie craned her neck down to get a good look at the black circle passing beneath her wings. I'd been expecting an expression of satisfaction, but instead felt her muscles tense.
"What is it?"
"A slaughter," the dragon replied in a tightly controlled voice. She folded her wings and dropped through the sky a bit, then extended them again and glided around the exposed nomad camp.
It had been burned to the sands.
She dipped lower, the wind of her wings stirring the red sand and mixing it with ashes. I shook my head in disbelief. The entire sanctuary had been destroyed. The blackrock pillars that had sustained the protective field around it had been toppled and smashed. Every house had been razed, and the beautiful garden, left open to the harsh desert sun and wind, had turned brown and sickly.
I could also make out bodies lying on the ground. As Kra'lysie made another low pass, black winged shapes fluttered away from a corpse for a second, disturbed, then returned to feeding.
Kra'lysie flared her wings out and landed in the dead garden. Brittle grass was crushed to dust beneath her talons in an instant. Dupre and I slid down from her back, assisted by one of her foreclaws.
We just stood there for a while, staring, not sure what to do.
Kra'lysie turned to regard the pool of water in the garden's heart. Sand had blown into it unhindered for a while now, and the silver waters had been reduced to a muddy red puddle.
I knelt by the nearest corpse, eyes caught by a sudden golden glitter on the right hand. The body itself was impossible to recognise. Between carrion birds and the skin-flaying combination of sand and wind, bone was exposed and its leather armour was in ruins.
"What is it?" Dupre asked, standing beside me.
I slid a gold ring from the body's skeletal finger. It was a Guardian signet ring, such as Altara had possessed. I held my breath and looked into the tiny ruby eyes.
The image of a man's face was reflected. No one I knew, and definitely not Altara. I held it up to Dupre, who also had a look. "The Guardian's soldiers did this," I said. "Not that there was any alternative, I guess."
We looked around for about fifteen minutes before giving up. Kra'lysie had roared an imperious summons and no one had appeared, so it seemed we'd have to locate travelling mezzini on our own.
"Will we be going to the Castle of Flames at all?" Kra'lysie asked as she helped Dupre and me to mount.
"I thought thou said they wouldn't help," Dupre said.
But I told her, "Yes, we will."
"Good." The dragon rumbled darkly. "If they knew about this and didn't stop it..."
"You won't kill them."
"You can't stop me."
"You can't kill."
Kra'lysie looked at Dupre, her neck craning around.
"No," he said firmly.
"Isn't justice a good enough cause for you?"
He relented. "If they knew about this... we'll see."
She might have been satisfied with his answer, but I wasn't. When she turned away, I looked over my shoulder at him and arched a brow. He only shrugged.
Then we were skyborne.
The first mezzin group we were waved down by were led by none other than Altara's daughter, Jae'tar. Kra'lysie glided down to meet them and landed on the burning sands.
"Did ye see it?" Jae'tar demanded as Dupre and I dismounted. She alone looked unimpressed to see a dragon again as she shook something small and gold at us. "Didst thou see what thou brought upon us, kra'lysie?"
"Thou blamest me?" the dragon asked, affronted.
"'Twas thou who brought that creature to our camp," Jae'tar replied, glaring at me. "Even if it was not the 'Avatar', one of those Britannians did it."
"We saw," I said, "but I don't know who is responsible. The Empress might."
"What hath that Guardian orain got to do with it?"
"They're dragons," Kra'lysie said. "The entire Imperial Family."
Jae'tar looked shocked. "They're dragons? But the things they must have done-"
"Tell me about it. Now listen, mezzin-thra. The Avatar hath something to say to thee."
The nomad looked at me.
"Hast thou heard of the Britannian invasion?" I asked.
"I believe that's where most of the Atarkan warriors have gone to," she replied with a nod. "What of it?"
"I'm giving thee the opportunity to join the Britannian side against the Guardian."
The other mezzini looked straight at their leader. It was clear they wanted in on this.
"Thou art giving me a choice?" Jae'tar asked Kra'lysie wearily.
"Thou art free to say no, so long as thy people are free to make their own choices."
Jae'tar looked at the glittering thing in her fist for a long moment. I saw, at last, that it was a Guardian signet ring attached to a long silver chain. "I will come."
When we'd all teleported to our camp, Kra'lysie flew Jae'tar and me back to the Krain. The nomad knew where her kin were likely to be, and Kra'lysie followed her directions unerringly. Each time we were signalled by a group of nomads, we enlisted them, teleported, and flew back to the desert for the next lot. By the end of the day we'd recruited about five hundred. Kra'lysie, pleading the need for rest, convinced me to wait until morning before we flew out again.
"I don't remember you mentioning this place as a... what were they called? Telomari?" I asked her the next morning. "It looks much better than that Shrine of Silence. Why couldn't we have come here last time?" I looked around at the fields and stretched.
Kra'lysie ran one hand through her thick hair and pointed southeast with the other. "See that forest? I remember it used to be here as well. If that were still the case, a good number of us would now be dead."
"You said it was unfriendly. What's in there?"
"Grey Hunters. A kind of undead. They used to be large cats."
I tried to imagine an angry leopard-liche. "Good thing the forest isn't here, then."
"Very good thing, Avatar."
By mid afternoon we'd collected another eight hundred mezzini with Jae'tar's help. It was taking a lot longer to find them then, so that's when we stopped. Besides, both Kra'lysie and Jae'tar wanted to see the Imperial Family. I was pleased with the numbers we'd managed to amass, and consented.
"Not being seen is easy," Kra'lysie said with a nod at me. "And If we get into trouble, you can always transport us back here with the aeth'raesh'al. It's getting inside that worries me. Jae'tar, have your people discovered a way to pass through an elemental field?"
"Without lowering it?" the nomad asked. We stopped walking a good distance from the camp, out in the grasses. "No. But why? I can lower any such field with my bracer."
"Very good," the dragon woman murmured. "I wouldn't have thought of that. Shall we go now, Avatar?"
I nodded. "Let's get it over with."
"Where's the Knight?" Her eyes glazed for a second. "He's coming." She went out further and shapeshifted.
Dupre wasn't alone. Shamino and Katrina were with him.
"They weren't with us last time," Dupre explained to me and a less-than-pleased-looking dragon. "They're curious."
"No," Kra'lysie growled.
Katrina was taken aback, but Shamino ignored the statement and waited for my decision.
I looked at the dragon, exasperated. "Why not?"
"Look," Shamino said, rolling his eyes. "Fine. I won't come. Just tell me what's in the palace, wouldst thou? Thou hast obviously told Jae'tar," he added resentfully.
Kra'lysie looked at my guilty face and began a retort, then stopped. Her eyes narrowed calculatingly as she swung her gaze back to Shamino.
He actually backed up a step.
"Dragons," Kra'lysie told him firmly. "There are dragons in the palace. They sit on thrones and wear crowns and rule Atarka in the name of their immortal enemy." She suddenly glared at the sky, eyes blazing. "Thou hearest me?" she shouted. "Dragons!"
"Enough," I said. It was barely a whisper, but she heard it and quieted, though she didn't look at anyone.
"I think I'll stay behind," Katrina murmured to me. "Shamino?"
"Yes, I think that's a good idea," the ranger agreed. They turned to leave, but when they passed Kra'lysie's head Shamino asked the dragon, "Was that so hard?"
"Were it not for the Avatar," she replied in a dull voice, "I'd consign thee to the flames."
"Did you know about the attack on the mezzini camp?" Kra'lysie asked them coldly.
The Imperial Family could remain calm in the face of their kinswoman's accusation, but not Jae'tar's. The nomads had always revered dragonkind, treating them with respect and awe. But Jae'tar looked upon the three of them with the kind of loathing reserved for those who had betrayed their people unto death.
"We knew," the Son-Heir admitted at last. "We couldn't do anything to stop it without raising sus-"
"Thou couldst not even warn them?" Kra'lysie demanded.
He stared her down. "No message, not even from us, could get through their shields."
"Then thou shouldst have flown to them."
"It is not that easy," the Daughter-Heiress said.
"Yes it is!" Kra'lysie glared at each in turn before turning her face away from them.
Jae'tar continued to look at them, her hand clenched around her mother's ring. When the Empress looked at her, she raised her chin and met the dragon-woman's eyes unflinchingly. She stepped forward then, and held out the ring and chain. "This is for thee, Guardian orain," the nomad said stiffly, and the Empress flinched as though she'd been struck. "My mother Altara was one of the last shamanesses of our people. She dedicated most of her life to discovering the fate of the kra'lysiei and undoing the Guardian's plans, even to infiltrating Killorn Keep." When the ring and chain rested in the Empress's hands, Jae'tar said, "She was killed in that last desert raid." She, too, turned away from the enthroned dragons.
"Is this why thou hast returned, Avatar?" the Empress asked me, a bitter edge to her voice.
"No." I shook my head. "That is why they came. I returned to ask you to come with us to Britannia, to fight against the Guardian. Defeat the Guardian there and you might be able to free your own world."
"We'll never be free," the Son-Heir said. "Serving the Guradian and abiding by his laws are too deeply ingrained in the nature of the Atarkan humans by now. All we can do is make sure our world isn't destroyed like so many others."
"How can we protect our world if you ask us to go out and help you fight against the people of this world?" the Empress added.
I shook my head, glancing at Jae'tar and Kra'lysie. "I'll leave you to your world then." And to the Guardian, I added silently.
"Kemah-thra be with you, Avatar," the Empress said by way of farewell. "I do hope thy fight will be successful."
I nodded, trying not to make it seem curt. "May you and yours find Virtue once again," I replied, then transported Dupre, Kra'lysie, Jae'tar and myself back to where those willing to fight the Guardian were waiting.
When we'd returned to our camp at the Shrine of Sobriety, I called a meeting to discuss the return to Britannia. It was a large group that gathered in the midst of the tents around a large campfire and beneath the stars and five moons. Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia, Katrina and Draxinusom represented Britannia, of course. Kra'lysie, Jae'tar and the other mezzin-thrai for the Atarkans. Hartrhind, Talaac and Cale for the Scaeduenese. Bishop, Prince Felix, another human lord and the Regent for people of Tarna.
My friends had spent the day getting our precise numbers, and now I was sharing them with the leaders of our army.
"Our current numbers here in Atarka are thus. For Britannia, thirty-two. For Atarka, one thousand three hundred and twenty-one. For Scaeduen, one hundred and eighty-one. For Tarna, one thousand four hundred and fifty-three. In total, there are two thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven of us." There was a murmur of appreciation at the size of our combined forces. "The enemy numbers we are not sure of, but they were spread out when we were in Britannia. We are sure, however, there are a lot of them. Otherwise we wouldn't have had to come to you for help."
"What races are we up against?" Hartrhind asked.
"Humans, mostly," I replied. "Though there are some daemons."
"Like what we fought?" Bishop asked, looking concerned.
"Yes, but it will be rare to see them act - or even look - like daemons. The humans in the Guardian's army hate daemons, and will kill them for us if they reveal themselves. Daemons, therefore, go disguised as humans.
"Our first goal is to rescue Lord British, King of Britannia. We are at a grave disadvantage without him." I paused, considering the effects his death might have on Britannia. "In fact, if we don't save him, we'll certainly fail."
"Soundeth like a game of Chess," I heard Prince Felix murmur to Bishop with a slight smile.
"Our second goal is to free a lot of hostages. In our last battle they were used against us. We were forced to surrender or to watch each one die. Only a few of us escaped that encounter to continue the fight." I drew a breath. "There will be little reason to save Britannia if the land will serve only as a graveyard."
"Thou wilt need mages to scry for this lost king and the people then," the Regent said. "I can help with that 'ere we arrive."
I inclined my head to him. "Thank thee. I'll provide advice on where to look first when the time cometh."
"And the war?"
"Our third goal," I said, "is to draw the Guardian's warleader into a battle, with or without her armies."
"Perhaps we should discuss this warleader," Prince Felix suggested. "What can we expect of her?"
"If she killeth hostages, she doth obviously not follow the rules of war," the Regent noted.
"Hath she started breeding them for food yet?" Felix asked with a dark look at the goblin, who sighed and didn't meet his gaze.
"We're allies here," I told Felix firmly. "Please, act like it." When he'd subsided with a nod, I addressed everyone again. "I find the warleader the hardest thing to tell you about, but it's necessary for you to know. By perverting the magic of Kra'lysie's kin, the Guardian now has under his command... me."
"Thou?" Those not in the know looked confused. "What dost thou mean? Some sort of clone?"
"Sort of. I..." I tried to still my pounding heart at the realisation that I had just decided what I was going to do. "I will explain it all now. But to do that, you have to know - and see - what I am."
The night wind bent back the grass in waves of darkened gold. It was warm beneath the five moons of Atarka, and I was glad for that. Too long I'd felt cold, inside and out. I looked up at the sky and held both hands out at my side, feeling the grass tickle my palms as I walked. Somewhere back at the camp the mezzini were singing. I turned to look at the rows of tents, of green and desert red and undyed canvas. The glow of campfires backlit the materials, turning them almost black and forming a gold haze above.
I watched the grass between the camp and I sway again, the long stalks reflecting the moons' light and turning from dark gold to pale silver.
A shadow flicked past the moons and I knew Kra'lysie was abroad. The distant beat of her wings was barely audible above the wind, but it kept steady rhythm with the singing. Words I could hear, but not understand, save only through the melody itself. There was a sadness to the music, but with it came a sense of abiding hope.
After a moment of quiet contemplation, I smiled. Someone had started playing an accompaniment on his lute.
I sat down, then lay back on the ground so I could see the stars. The grass whispered all around me, and I stayed there, letting time pass unnoticed.
Until I felt I was being watched.
I slowly turned my head. A feline face, its green eyes shining in the moons' light, regarded me from the curtain of grass without moving.
I found myself thinking of the tril'khai in Killorn Keep almost at once.
"So," a throaty voice purred in my mind. "What dost thou know about our stolen children, human?"
I was aware of more movement in the grass around me, movement not caused by the wind. It was hard to hide my uneasiness when confronted by those unblinking, intelligent eyes. Before I could speak I felt a something brush against my mind. The great cat seemed to relax after a moment.
"So..." her mind-voice said again, softer and more thoughtful this time.
"Your help against the Guardian would be appreciated," I said.
Her whiskers twitched. "Really?" she said dryly. "Why should we care?"
I deliberately thought about everything I knew of the Guardian. I thought of the Fellowship and their murders in Britannia, the Sword of Chaos, Mellorin and her slaughter on the Isle of Fire, Mors Gotha, the razed nomad sanctuary, Tarna in its bubble of blackrock, the decimated plane of Scaeduen, the-
Vocal snarls from the grass broke my concentration. The lead tril'khun's ears were laid back.
"Tril'kha," the correction growled in my mind. "Tril'khun is a human corruption of who I am."
"What you saw," I said quietly, still lying in the grass, "is what will eventually happen to this world. The Guardian already knoweth of thy race. He will enslave all of ye."
"And our other option is to be enslaved to thee?" another mind-voice hissed.
"If ye can see my thoughts, then I cannot hide the meaning of my words. Nor mine intentions."
The leader came forward through the grass and I sat up. She was larger than the tril'khai at Killorn Keep, maybe the size of a tiger, but sleeker, and spotted like a cheetah. She sank to her haunches and continued to gaze at me.
"This human is trustworthy," her voice declared.
Other tril'khai, about ten, emerged from the grass with barely a whisper of sound. One of them, a dark-furred male, met the leader's eyes briefly before vanishing into the field.
"We feared thy gathering on the edge of our ranges was a large hunting party," the female thought in answer to my curiosity. "Khavin will inform our kin to leave thy people alone."
"Is it true there is a kra'lysie with thee?"
"It's true." I glanced up. "She's flying tonight."
"We thought such creatures myths."
"The Guardian is responsible for that, too," I said. "They resisted him and he feared them, I guess. So he had almost all of them killed."
"Perhaps there is a reason for us to help thee, then." The cat's eyes wandered around the circle of tril'khai around me. "We will return to our kin," she said to me, "and decide what we will do. If the tril'khai agree to help thee against the Guardian we will come to thee when the sun is high."
I looked to the east, just able to see the horizon over the top of the swaying grasses. It was still dark, but getting lighter. When I lowered my gaze to look at the tril'khai again, they were already gone. Even so, I felt a presence lingering nearby. It felt strange... like it was trying to locate me but couldn't quite manage it. And it seemed to be coming from a great distance... a vast distance.
I reached for it.
"Let me help thee."
That wasn't a tril'kha's voice.
"Richard?" I whispered tentatively.
The presence was suddenly all around me. No longer a distant thing, it ripped through me with a tortured scream. I flinched back before Britannia's pain, eyes widening as a vision assailed my eyes. Lord British knelt before me in travel-stained leathers, his kindly face drawn into an expression of shock and his hands gripping the sharp blade of the Blacksword, which protruded from his chest.
As his eyes went suddenly vacant I let out a ragged gasp. I doubled over and clutched at my chest, confusion registering as I grasped nothing substantial. But I could see the sword and Arcadion's glowing prison. It flared brightly and I felt an agonising wrench, as though something vital had just been torn from my body.
"Richard!" I shouted in horror.
I could see all the blood, gleaming red and wet, on my chest and hands. Though his or mine... Britannia's...
Then I looked up at Mellorin in despairing rage.
A distant voice, as familiar as my own, seemed to whisper: "Long live the king..."
I regained consciousness, complete with a throbbing headache, in the morning. No one had found me. Small wonder, considering the grass surrounded me up to well over my head. I put one hand to my chest and couldn't help looking for blood. It all rushed back to me in that moment and I swallowed convulsively, my hands clenching.
He was dead.
Lord British was dead.
I forced myself to stand and blinked at the sunlight a couple of times before heading back to the camp.
Katrina and Julia met me at the tent line. Neither woman said a word; their expressions told me everything. Julia looked dazed, as though she hadn't slept all night. She stared straight through me, unseeing. Katrina's eyes were red and her long hair dishevelled. She opened her mouth to speak and then shut it again, her face contorting as though she would start weeping again.
"I hope thou wilt agree that we've spent enough time away from Britannia now," Julia said woodenly, her eyes focussing on me.
I looked at her silently and nodded. "The others?" I whispered.
"After it happened..." The tinker abruptly broke off and closed her eyes, jaw clenching.
"Shamino and Iolo wanted to get away from the noise of the camp," Katrina managed to say. She inclined her head in the direction of the forest to the southeast and I felt like I'd suddenly been doused in ice water. "Dupre-"
"They went to the forest?" I interrupted.
"Yes," Julia said. "So?" But I was already running for it. "Avatar!" she shouted after me.
I put on an extra burst of speed, not answering her. My eyes fixed grimly on the dark forest and I prayed desperately that no one else had perished during the night.
The forest was wreathed in shadows; an almost palpable darkness weaving between mossy trunks and around midnight green leaves. Although the sun was shining brightly above the canopy, it was almost as if this place was in perpetual night. The very branches seemed to twine with each other, forming a barrier against the sky which only a few thin strands of illumination managed to find ways through. In the forest, such rays of sunlight were swirling with motes of dust and leaf fragments. They stood out like shining blades of gold.
That wasn't the only thing wrong with this place. It was silent. A forest, I reflected as each of my steps crushed fallen growth with what sounded like shockingly loud sounds, should be full of birdsong or insect calls or rustling leaves or anything. There were quiet forests, sure, but this flat silence was unnatural. Almost unnerving.
But, considering what inhabited the place, unsurprising.
On that thought, I paused and crouched low, examining the ground. Broken leaves were visible tracks amidst the otherwise undisturbed forest debris.
I wondered what exactly these creatures looked like. Kra'lysie had called them grey hunters, and had said they'd once been tril'khai. What they looked like now she hadn't been sure of. What she'd implied was that they'd be more likely to bite your hand (and arm) off sooner than curl around your legs and purr.
My leather trousers creaked softly as I stood up. I could smell something now. A slight sourness over what had just been a clean forest scent. As if something dead was nearby. I glanced behind, then up above me. Nothing. But the silence was suddenly oppressive.
I reached back over my shoulder with one hand and drew my sword. The rasp of steel hung in the air for a second and I held still... waiting.
The smell faded.
After a few deep breaths, I bent my head to the trail again and hurried to follow it.
I swear, if either of them have been hurt...
The deathly scent returned, stronger this time, but I kept moving. Thick trunks rushed past me and fallen leaves scattered in my wake. I could almost sense a presence following.
Then there was more than one.
And the tracks disappeared.
I stopped and turned in a slow circle, sword still unsheathed in my right hand. The great ruby pommelstone hoarded what little light there was and gleamed faintly.
"What dost thou want?"
The voice sounded directly to my mind, and was a snarling whisper. Each word was pronounced distinctly, as if the speaker hadn't used the language in a while.
"These forests belong to us."
"Two humans came to this forest earlier today," I called, still circling. "Men. Where are they?"
A shadow detached itself from a nearby tree and slowly, spider-like, descended to the ground and approached me.
I had to force myself to hold my ground. Long, gaunt frame the colour of darksilver and glistening as though wet, almost skeletal, and bearing enough fangs and claws to tear me apart. Its tail was a long chain of black vertebrae ending in a sharp point. A feline-like skull, curiously elongated, drew level with my face as the thing sat on its haunches before me. Two green lights burned in the empty eye sockets.
"The meat-thing is ours," it said.
That it spoke of my friends in the singular disturbed me, but I held my ground. "They're mine. You stole them from me."
"Thou said thyself it came here of its own accord. What cometh into this forest doth belong to the sh'ay-summini."
"Then why not take me?"
The twisted visage inched closer and sniffed cautiously. "Thou art different. The gain would not be worth the risk." Its eyes flared suddenly, as if with a suspicion. "What art thou? No normal meat-thing standeth before us."
"Where are my friends?" I demanded.
The grey hunter let out a low breathy noise, like a drawn out, whispered "aaah..." Insofar as it was possible to judge the expressions of something that looked like a skull, it appeared to me that whatever the creature had suspected I was, I'd just proved it wrong. Without saying anything, it crouched a little lower, eyes brightening with a terrible intensity.
I whipped my sword around just as it launched itself at me. The blade deflected the slashing foreclaws without so much as cutting them. I had barely a second to recover before curved teeth were snapping a handspan from my face. Again I struck with my sword, bringing the edge against the grey hunter's neck. The force of the blow jerked the creature off-balance, but still did no harm.
A low, vocal growl came from its throat and it glared at me sidelong, fangs bared.
Then something sharp plunged through my right shoulder. I gasped, sword dropping from my right hand as the left grabbed the hunter's segmented tail and pulled weakly.
Agony ripped through me as the grey hunter twisted its tail in my shoulder. Its eyes glittered maliciously and a strangled sound escaped my lips. There was a horrible pain building up in my head and chest. It felt like I was dying.
I gripped harder and tried to concentrate. Fire sparked along hunter's tail.
The monster tore away from me with an unearthly shriek. The tiny sparks ignited its body as though it was made of tissue paper. I scrambled back, left hand clenched tightly to my bleeding shoulder, and kept low to avoid the thrashing creature. It abruptly sensed my feeble escape attempt and, with unerring accuracy, leaped at me with jaws agape and talons raking streamers of flame through the air.
Then the grey hunter vanished in a swirl of dust and burning ash.
Relief warred with anger at myself for letting it get that close. Both emotions were quickly swept away by the pain in my skewered shoulder. I gritted my teeth, fought the sudden urge to black out, and used every other breath to swear.
Then I noticed the growing fire burning happily in the dead leaves on the ground.
I swore a bit louder.
It's impossible to tell where the source of a voice is when it bypasses your ears and echoes inside your skull. I staggered to my feet and glanced around.
"Put out the fire, meat-thing."
"Bring me my friends!"
"We will all perish."
"Not if you bring them out now," I shouted. "Then the only ones to perish will be them and me," I muttered to myself.
There was a moment's silence. "Thou wilt put out the fire in exchange for the other meat-thing?"
With a rush of wind, five grey hunters dropped to the ground some distance from the fire. They were on the opposite side of it, and two of them hissed at me distrustfully.
A sixth landed, this one taller than I was and the back of its skull-like head fanning out and sweeping up like an obscene crown. Iolo dangled from one massive foreclaw for a moment before being tossed carelessly aside. I heard him groan at the impact with the ground and saw him reach for the dark stain on his shoulder.
Seeing the gigantic grey hunter tower over Iolo like the Queen had towered over Newt in the movie 'Aliens', I said the only thing appropriate under the circumstances.
"Get away from him, you bitch."
Its green eyes flared in anger, but it and its companions backed away a few steps.
Iolo stood up unsteadily, one hand clenched to his bleeding wound. He limped in my direction, his white-bearded face a mask of pain in the firelight. When he got close enough to the fire I jumped to his side, holding back a wince as he braced himself against my sore shoulder.
"Are you all right, dear friend?" I whispered.
He nodded, keeping a wary eye on the hunters. "We have to get away," he whispered. "We cannot stay here."
"Put out the fire, meat-thing!"
I stooped and retrieved my sword, returning it to the scabbard across my back. Straightening, I noted the sudden increase in pairs of green eyes around the area. There was also a whispering in the back of my mind - sort of like background noise. The voices of the grey hunters, I realised, though I couldn't make sense of their words.
"Where's Shamino?" I whispered. "Was he with you?"
"Only until we reached the edge of the forest. I think he wanted to be able to see the stars." Iolo had moved subtly, standing back-to-back with me. "Elora, can't we just-"
"No." The flames had fanned out across the dry leaves - not with any great speed due to a lack of wind, but fast enough - and were beginning to lick at a tree trunk. "A deal is a deal, after all."
The largest grey hunter let out a snarl of frustration. "Put out the fire!"
"I'll put out this fire," I murmured to Iolo, and he gave me a shrewd look over his shoulder at my faint emphasis on 'this'. "Stay close." Then I pointed at the fire and incanted, "An Flam."
The flames went out like a snuffed candle.
The instant of utter silence and darkness was soon shattered by a deathly chorus of shrieks as the grey hunters attacked us en masse.
"Vas Flam Grav Por!"
A ring of crimson-gold fire sprang up around Iolo and me then surged outwards with a roar, growing higher and wider with every breath. The two of us were covered in ash as several of the hunters plunged through the flames and were instantly annihilated.
"Now," I said to Iolo, and used the aeth'raesh'al.
The camp was busy when we got back, and just about every tent was being rolled up into protective bags. Those who'd completed their tasks were taking stock of their possessions and looking for their fellows.
Kra'lysie and Julia were nearby when we arrived.
"Who ordered that?" I asked, pointing at the rapidly disappearing camp.
"I did," Julia said. "Thou left in such a hurry that I didn't have time to ask thine approval. Considering the recent circumstance..."
I nodded, steadying Iolo as he swayed slightly.
"I warned thee," Kra'lysie remarked. For some reason she was holding a shovel.
Julia pointed at Iolo, then at a rolled up tent beside which was a bucket of hot water and steaming bandages. "Sit."
The bard obeyed, looking grateful, and waited.
"Take off thy shirt, Iolo," Julia said wearily.
"And no funny stuff," she growled. "Or I'll tell Gwenno on thee."
"Julia! I'd never-"
"Wert thou taking that shirt off?"
"Were the bandages your idea?" I murmured to Kra'lysie, finding it hard to imagine Julia as a healer.
Kra'lysie spun the handle of the shovel idly. "The Tinker had more faith in you bringing him back alive than I did."
"-is back. Beat you by a few minutes."
"Oh. Good. Where was he?"
"I didn't ask."
She sounded troubled and was trying to hide it as she watched the spinning shovel churn up dirt. "What's wrong?"
"Hrm," she replied.
"You can talk to me."
"Nothing." She changed the topic. "We're going to be having some company soon."
She looked genuinely surprised, then rolled her eyes. "Off recruiting without me?"
"It sort of... happened, actually. Right before..." I trailed off and looked at Julia and Iolo, both of whom were listening to the exchange. They didn't say anything, their faces showing they shared my pain.
Then a chorus of voices whispered in my mind: "We come."
Shamino was watching the grasslands with a less-than-enthusiastic expression as hundreds of dark-gold-furred cats dashed toward the army, their eyes glowing as the sun began its long descent above them and their claws digging into the ground.
"Look at all the tril'khai," Shamino told me in tight voice.
"What's your problem?" I asked, one hand tugging at the bandage around my shoulder.
"Elora. We're overrun with giant cats. I hate cats."
"I guess we won't have any problems with giant rats," I said lightly. "So where did you run off to?"
His voice softened as he looked at me. "I've known Richard since he first came to Sosaria. Before it became Britannia, so many centuries ago." He glanced away again. "Iolo wanted to be alone with his mourning, I think, as did I. Once I left him at the forest I went north towards the mountains."
I didn't bring up the little adventure in the forest. It sounded like Shamino still had a lot on his mind.
He sighed and turned his back on the arriving tril'khai. "I guess it means we're going home now," he said.