The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
A blast of sheer force knocked Katrina against one of the stone crenellations atop the battlements. Stunned, she opened her eyes and winced as a blinding white light seared into them a brief instant before she could see nothing more than a blackness darker than night itself.
For a panic-stricken moment, she thought she was blind.
Then her sight returned. Blinking rapidly to be rid of a blurred tinge to her vision, she jumped to her feet and looked down over the grounds below the Hold for Elora.
The Avatar stood where moments ago she'd been kneeling. It could have been a trick of the night, but Katrina thought she could see a strange, black mist eddying around her at waist height. Her back was turned; she faced a field littered with over two thousand dead. Not one soldier had survived.
Katrina felt a wave of relief and drew breath to call out to everyone it was safe to get up when the entire keep lurched, jolting her against the battlements again. Ignoring the exclamations of pain and surprise that came from those crouched nearby, the shepherdess watched in horror as flares of flame-like light rose from the battlefield...and from each, a dead soldier rose to his or her feet, turned into a daemon and started towards the Avatar.
Elora pulled the Blacksword free of the ground and lifted it above the mist, her stance becoming defensive. When the first daemon reached her, she charged forward without even waiting for its attack. Three head and two chest strokes later, the monster was dead and two more were closing fast, their vast wings churning a gale of death.
Katrina saw her friend stagger slightly as she raised her sword again, her left hand moving to touch her right shoulder. Turning, the shepherdess grabbed her broken crook and limped for the stairs. "Dupre!" she shouted. "Dupre!"
Following his voice down the stairs, she found the knight rubbing his eyes beside the open portcullis. "Elora's alive! Quick she's being attacked!"
Staring blankly in her direction, Dupre replied, "Alive? Wait, attacked? But the Mass Death spell -"
Dupre swore. "Of all the damned inconvenient times - I can't see! Katrina, thou wilt have to handle this thyself! Hurry - after casting that spell she likely won't last long."
Katrina hauled two knights to their feet. "It's safe now! Get up and follow me, quickly!" She broke into a limping run out onto the field, the two knights and two gargish warriors following closely.
"By the Serpent!" one of the knights exclaimed. "The Avatar killed all of them?"
Katrina couldn't help staggering for a second when she looked around while running. Bodies sprawled everywhere, motionless where they'd fallen, weapons still gripped in stiff fingers. The ground was absolutely covered by gold-tabarded corpses, and, in places, the colours of a warrior or knight of Britannia stood out amidst the dead of Killorn Keep. Katrina carefully regained her balance and bypassed a pool of steaming pitch. "It was a very powerful spell she used."
"To think the Avatar is a very powerful person!" a gargoyle corrected.
"To where do we run?" the other asked, and with good reason.
For there was not a single person standing beyond the walls of Serpent's Hold.
Katrina faltered in her run, not believing what she was seeing. Where had Elora gone? And the daemons?
In the dim light, she saw something else.
"There, where that black mist is."
They reached the spot quickly and as they approached, the mist dispersed with a sighing sound to reveal the Avatar lying dead on the blood-streaked grass.
Katrina felt her throat close as if someone had clenched a fist around it. "I must have imagined it. She died when she cast the spell." Save a wound in the right shoulder, the side, a burn across the left cheekbone, cuts on both arms, she looked fine. She bore no physical wound that would have killed her. Casting about, Katrina saw no dead daemons, though the denizens of Hell rarely left anything more behind them than a scorch-mark. Of those, the field had plenty.
"Who is the resident healer here?" she asked softly.
"The Lady Leigh," a knight replied.
"Run back to the Hold, if thou wouldst. Tell her she hath an urgent patient."
The knight looked at the Avatar's still form, nodded once and set off. The two gargoyles lifted Elora's body and started walking after him. The second knight stayed nearby, looking with amazement at the obliterated army.
Katrina closed her eyes, one hand touching her forehead as she willed herself not to break down.
"Thou hast seen many terrible things, Katrina," she reminded herself harshly. "The destruction of thine home in Magincia, the death of thy family, the chaos wrought by the Shadowlords..."
It meant nothing. She'd never seen the Avatar die.
Her eyes started to burn with tears. "Sir Knight - seest thou a strange sword nearby? One with a black hilt set with a glowing blue jewel?"
A moment of silence. "Nay, lady. There is no weapon like that around here. Not that I can see, that is."
"What? Art thou sure?" She wiped her eyes and looked for herself.
The Blacksword was gone.
"I dreamed it...didn't I?"
"Lady, we should return to the Hold. I must needs report to my commander."
Katrina gave the area a last glance then sighed heavily, a feeling of dread coming over her. "Yes. Let's go back."
"It's nothing to worry about," Dupre said, his reassuring tone belied by the shadow of doubt in his eyes. "She's died before."
"The same way?" Katrina asked, her voice hoarse.
Elora was laid out on a clean bed, her wounds dressed and the blood washed from her skin and armour. Her eyes were still open. They stared at the roof with a kind of calm determination or resolve.
It made Katrina feel cold.
"Her manner of death will make it harder to Resurrect her, there's no doubt," Lady Leigh said as she prepared reagents for the spell. A petite, red-haired woman, her face was drawn at the strain she'd been under during the siege.
Both companions hoped she had enough strength left.
"But I need only restore her life," the healer went on. "Rest will restore her mana."
"Art thou sure?" Katrina asked for the tenth time that evening.
She smiled tiredly. "Why dost thou not watch and see?" Approaching the body, she cast the reagents across it and intoned, "In Mani Corp!"
Like a glittering dust, the reagents settled over Elora's still form and Leigh touched her forehead. The dust flared brightly for a few seconds then faded.
Elora didn't stir.
"It didn't work," Katrina said after checking for a pulse.
"Oh, the spell worked, Milady," Leigh replied, her voice slightly throaty from exertion. "There's no denying that, but I don't know why she's not alive!" She frowned. "Her spirit mustn't have been as nearby as I'd thought..."
"Try again," Dupre said.
Leigh gave him a sharp glance. "Sir Knight -"
The healer sighed. "Very well." Picking up reagents, she added, "I'll try it for longer - look a bit farther afield. In Mani Corp!" The dust formed over Elora's body again and shone for almost a full minute, fading when Leigh removed her hand.
They waited a few seconds. Elora remained staring sightlessly at the roof.
"Why didst thou stop?" Dupre asked softly.
"Others need my help," Leigh said. "I cannot spend all I have on one person."
"This person -" he began hotly.
"- is the Avatar, I know!" Leigh gathered her reagents and medical instruments. Gently, she reached over and closed Elora’s eyes. "And as for that, would she approve of me wasting mine efforts on her whilst others die?"
Dupre couldn't meet her eyes. "Forgive me. She's my friend."
"I know that, Sir Dupre." She sighed and rubbed her eyes. "But many of my other patients are my friends. Some are even my family. I'm sorry, but if the Avatar doth not return when I call her, it's not because of me." She slipped out through the door. "I'll try again later, have I the strength."
Later that morning, Dupre penned a hasty message to Lord British and asked Sir Horffe, the winged gargoyle knight, to fly it to the Isle of Fire.
Horffe accepted and took wing immediately.
The second day after the battle, two thousand five hundred and seventy-one enemy dead were stripped of their arms and armour then burned in a massive pyre visible for many leagues.
Dupre busied himself helping repair the Hold. Katrina aided the wounded, noting that of the fifty who had come from the Isle of Fire, three of twenty gargoyles and fifteen of thirty humans had survived. Of the one hundred and fifty knights that had rode to assist them, eighty would live to fight again - more if Leigh's strength in her Healings and Resurrections kept up.
Elora remained silent.
On the third day, Sir Horffe reached the Isle of Fire and delivered his message to Lord Draxinusom, who passed it on to Lord British.
"'Dead'?" he read in an uncomprehending voice. "This cannot be right! I would know had she died!"
"To remind you that you felt something that night on Ambrosia," Draxinusom said.
"Yes, but that lasted for only a few seconds." Lord British shook his head in bewilderment. "I could almost swear to thee that she is alive at this moment, Drax!" He passed a hand across his face. "I must have been dreaming when I thought she contacted me to say all was well."
"Sir Horffe would not lie."
"I know. I'd recognise Dupre's scrawl anywhere, in any case. Still, the matter is serious. Give me a minute." Closing his eyes, he sent his thoughts south to scry the Isle of Deeds. A quarter hour later, he drew in a deep breath and looked at Draxinusom with concern in his eyes. "I found Dupre. I must go to Serpent's Hold at once."
"To come with you."
Lord British started to refuse then paused, remembering that the gargoyle king was a powerful spellcaster among his own people, and also Elora's friend. "Thank thee." Turning, he said to the guard next to him, "Timmon, locate Lord Iolo and Lady Mariah and bid them meet us on the battlements of the fort at once. Then find Sir Sentri and-" he quickly added the words 'Keep an eye on things whilst I tend to this' and his signature to the end of Dupre's letter. "-give this to him."
The guard took the letter, saluted and departed.
Later, four humans and seven gargoyles flew south from the Isle of Fire.
On the fourth day, people started asking where the Avatar was. Dupre got sick of pretending everything was fine and went to the taproom to get drunk. He ended up staring into the brimming tankard until the foam vanished and the ale went flat.
Elora didn't drink.
It didn't seem appropriate to get drunk in her memory.
"Don't think like that. She's not dead until she's burned or buried. Have hope, like she did."
Pushing back his chair, he left his untouched drink on the table and went to the battlements to stare north until he could see nothing beyond the tears in his eyes.
On the fifth day, Lord British strode into the courtyard, Draxinusom, Iolo, Mariah, Sir Horffe and some other winged gargoyles at his heels. Walking straight up to Dupre and Katrina, he asked, "Where?"
"This way." Dupre led them to the room where Elora's body rested. "Thank the Virtues thou'rt here," he said softly as they went. "How long would it have to be before nothing could be done?"
"Forever," the king replied firmly. "Her spirit is tied to Britannia as tightly as mine own. She would never leave it unless..." breaking off, he became silent.
"Unless she didn't want to come back?" Dupre thought. "No, that's impossible. Unless something was stopping her. By the Abyss, why am I already thinking of her in the past tense?" Dupre opened the door and everyone filed in. He closed it behind himself.
"Your Majesty," Lady Leigh said, sweeping a low curtsy.
Both Lord British and Lord Draxinusom inclined their heads to her.
"- ies," she corrected herself hurriedly, flushing.
"There will be no mistakes," Lord British said as he stood by Elora's head. He paused a minute, looking down at the Avatar's still face as if remembering something. Then he shook himself and said, "We cast the spell now. I need not ask ye to give all ye have. Drax, Mariah...Lady, if thou wouldst?"
Draxinusom stood at the foot of the bed, Mariah and Leigh on either side.
Lord British held out the prepared reagents. "In Mani Corp!"
Glittering, the mixture settled over the Avatar like a fine veil and the healer and three mages performed the gestures of the spell, right hands finally coming to rest on the lifeless body before them.
The dust shone.
Nothing else happened.
"Keep thine energies on her," Lord British said, his jaw hardening.
So they did.
After five minutes, Iolo pushed his way into the circle, repeated the gestures of the spell and laid his right hand on one of Elora's shoulders. "Let me give what I can. In Mani Corp."
The dust brightened as if it were becoming white hot.
Dupre caught Lady Leigh as she slumped, spent. Katrina closed her eyes and invoked the aid of every virtue known to Britannia.
Half an hour.
Katrina answered the door as a servant knocked.
"Milady, I came to see if anyone wanted drinks."
The shepherdess glanced over at the four near Elora and dismissed them immediately. She looked at Dupre, who shook his head in an almost imperceptible 'no'.
"Uh, a glass of water for the Lady Leigh, please."
Katrina closed the door.
Mariah gave a moan of pain and collapsed. As Katrina helped the red-haired mage to a chair beside the comatose Lady Leigh, Dupre took her place at Elora's side.
The knight met her eyes briefly, but said nothing as he stretched out his right hand to touch Elora's arm and be drawn into a spell deeper than any he'd ever partaken in.
Katrina whispered, "Come back to us, Elora."
The dust brightened even more, Elora vanishing completely in the intense light.
An hour and seventeen minutes.
There was a flash of black iridescence from within the white light. As one, Lord British, Draxinusom, Iolo and Dupre were flung away from the bed to slam against walls or furniture, either hurting them or knocking them senseless. The light vanished and Elora's body remained.
Katrina felt a shiver run through her.
The Avatar's eyes had opened.
On the sixth day, they tried to remove the bracer. It resisted all attempts, both magical and mundane. Nothing they tried made it open.
After a fruitless repetition of the Resurrection spell, they waited or rested until the sun went down, and Lord British called a Seance.
The words of the spell left his mouth and the candles at each corner of the bed contracted to pinpoints of light
"Elora," the king said, "if thou canst hear me, speak!"
A weird, whispering noise filled the room. It sounded like muted conversation in some alien language, which passed between innumerable speakers.
The Avatar's lips parted.
"Breathe," Dupre said softly.
Then the whispering ceased.
The candles flared back to full luminescence and Lord British gasped as if he'd been struck. Seizing one of the candlesticks for balance, he sagged against it and drew a shockingly weak breath.
"Richard?" Mariah asked hesitantly.
The monarch shook his head wearily. "I don't know. She...didn't answer. My magic hath done all it can."
For a minute, no one said anything. Then Dupre muttered something that sounded like, "To the Abyss with magic!", jumped astride the bed to kneel above Elora and started thumping her chest with both hands as one would do to a person who had drowned. "Someone breathe into her mouth!" he ordered.
Katrina opened Elora's mouth, pinched her nose shut and breathed into her lungs three times.
Dupre started thumping her chest again. "Damn thee, Elora, breathe!" he commanded hoarsely, never slowing his rythematic action. "Katrina, now!"
Flinging her hair aside, Katrina repeated her three breaths, then Dupre kept up his thumping.
"BREATHE!" he shouted. "By the Abyss, Avatar, thou hast never surrendered to anything in thy life, now FIGHT! BREATHE!"
Katrina stumbled away from the bed, unable to see anything as tears filled her eyes.
Dupre did the breathing himself then thumped Elora's chest again, this time with a full forced punch. "BREATHE!" A second punch. A third. A fourth.
The others watched in silence, too stricken to speak.
"Elora! Thou art letting the Guardian win! Is that what thou wantest?" Three more blows to the chest, Elora's body jerking in response to each as it had to every other.
Draxinusom caught the knight's fist as it drew back for an eighth. "To stop," he said softly. "To be over."
Dupre closed his eyes and bent his head, tears flowing down his face as he panted for breath.
Elora lay unmoving. Her lifeless green eyes stared straight up, mouth still slightly open, an unmistakable pallor staining her skin.
"She's dead," Mariah whispered, her eyes brimming.
Dupre choked back a sob. "No, she can't die!" Tearing his hand free of Draxinusom's gentle grasp, he slammed his fist into Elora's chest again. "Fight, Avatar!" And again. "FIGHT!" Opening his fist, he backhanded her across the face once...twice... "FIIIIIIGHT!"
She looked up at him expressionlessly.
"Damn thee, Avatar, FIGHT" he yelled, striking her chest as hard as he could.
Nothing. Not a blink, not a breath, not a heartbeat.
Dupre stared at her for a few seconds, then the strength suddenly seemed to go out of him. Falling to one side of the bed, the great knight drew his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them and wept.
Iolo silently passed his hand over Elora's face to close the sightless eyes, tears streaming unhindered down his leathery cheeks and into his grey-white beard.
Lord British undid the chain of the golden Ankh from around her neck, his eyes no drier than those of the companions. He would hold the amulet until the time of the cremation came, then consign it to the flames with the Avatar. "It's time to say goodbye."
On the seventh day, Dupre found Iolo sitting alone in Elora's room, a lute resting silent in his arms.
The bard looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes as he entered. "I've lost my music," he said softly.
Dupre sank wearily into a chair and rubbed his eyes. "Mayhap thou didst leave it in the taproom-"
"No. I mean, I've lost my music."
Dupre said nothing.
Iolo sighed. "Dost thou remember she gave me this lute for one of my birthdays? She and Gwenno made it together with their own hands - almost went mad trying to keep what they were doing a secret." He ran a hand gently over the runes engraved in the neck of the instrument. "I've played more songs on this thing than I care to remember, but now..." He laid it on the floor beside his chair, voice breaking as he said, "...I just can't seem to find the right notes."
Dupre had thought he'd cried himself dry. As tears once again slid down his face, he shook his head slowly and whispered, "I can't believe she's dead."
"Nor I. What will we do without her?"
"The Guardian..." Dupre murmured. His hands clenched. "I'm going to find that ugly red bastard and kill him."
Iolo swallowed convulsively. "I'm coming."
The door opened to admit Katrina and Mariah. Both took seats without a word and sat silently.
"We're planning to wage war on the Guardian," Dupre said at last.
Both hesitated before saying they'd help, just as Iolo had. It was, in part, fear. The rest… it had just been too long since they had planned to do anything this dangerous together without the leadership and friendship of one woman.
"What would she say?" Dupre wondered aloud, his glistening eyes regarding Elora's silk-shrouded body.
After a short pause, Iolo whispered, "'Follow me.'"
The others nodded slowly and said nothing. Their Avatar they would have followed anywhere - had followed everywhere, even into the depths of Dungeon Doom. She was their friend, companion and leader.
And now she was gone.
"Why didn't the Resurrection work?" Katrina asked Mariah in a subdued voice.
The mage shook her head. "I know not how to explain it. A Resurrection spell reconnects the spirit to the body then restores a measure of life to it. We...couldn't find her spirit."
"It just...wasn't there. Richard searched, but...could not find her. He tried feeding life into her body anyway, hoping to lure her back. He tried everything."
"So it's over," Dupre said softly. "She's dead and she's not coming back."
"I'd always thought I'd feel...different should this ever happen," Iolo said. "I know not...it's almost as if she's still...alive." He looked at the sheet-covered body and shook his head. "She's dead and she's not coming back."
"The ceremony is tonight," Mariah reminded them. "She'll be honoured as befits...as befits the Avatar."
For a minute, silence again filled the room. The four companions looked at each other without speaking, each sharing the sorrow of the others.
Suddenly, Iolo stood. Looking at the still form on the bed, he said, "Compassion; her heart was among the greatest I have known."
"Justice;" Dupre said softly, standing. "She would not cease to do that which is right."
Mariah rose to her feet. "Honesty; a true friend with true visions of hope."
Iolo nodded. "Honour; unstained - never did she turn from the light."
Dupre touched the hilt of his sword. "Valour; protector of Britannia, none could match her strength."
"Sacrifice;" Katrina stood, gazed down at her hands. "She died that others might live. Humility; never a word did she speak in arrogant pride."
Iolo closed his eyes. "Spirit; her spirit...to the Ether, now we give."
Lord British had been right. It was time to say goodbye.