The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
I will come
Like a thief in the night,
Like a stalker of shadows,
Unexpected, unheard of and unseen.
I will take
That which is yours,
Your breath, your mind, your life,
And vanish, that you think me a dream.
I will steal
Those dear to you,
Your people, your family, your friends,
And I will cherish your scream.
I will live
Your life for you
And you will fade away forever,
As if you'd never been.
I've never really been successful at keeping a regular journal since my last ones were published. Maybe now because I only need to put things in perspective.
Well, there's one thing to put in perspective right there. Life. I don't have one. It was stolen by my 'New Self', a being who is me in every sense except state of mind. Even that difference may not be long-lasting. With the awakening of my undead powers, I feel as if my humanity is starting to slip away.
There was a battle yesterday. Our people fought two hundred foes and won. I fought with them, with both weapon and magic. I didn't give a damn at the time how the enemy were killed. If they're dead in the end, what does it matter? I can't tell whether or not if using any offensive spell other than an outright Death Bolt is good. Am I more the monster for dealing out slow deaths?
I can't stop myself using magic. Even now, an illusion hides what's slowly happening to my body. An illusion hides the fact that I have no eyes and that I'm...decomposing. Magic is my lifeblood. I can stop it flowing through my veins no more than I can make my heart start beating again. But I must try restraint. I must control my thoughts, for they dictate the magic.
Other things press on my mind. Before I travel to Atarka to find more information on the aeth'raesh'al bracer, I must find Shamino. Mariah discovered his location with her magic and sent word to Richard early this morning. She was unable to communicate with Shamino but saw enough. How he managed to get the Emps to leave their Silverleaf trees, I've no idea, but he's sheltering with them in the Bee Cave near Tseramed's hut, south-west of Empath Abbey. I can only guess that the Emps use their empathic abilities to calm the giant bees, else how would they survive? I rather doubt Shamino would have been able to talk them out of eating the bees' honey.
Other than this, Mariah had little news. She attempts to keep my double, Mellorin, busy in the Deep Forest by reserving the western side as her own scrying area. As long as Mellorin keeps her magic in the east, she won't find Shamino.
Sentri and Tseramed are well, she thinks, but she hasn't been able to speak with them out of Mellorin's hearing. I hope they're careful.
There is more news, and it's bad. Jhelom has fallen to the enemy. The only city we have left is Trinsic, and of the keeps, the Lycaeum and Serpent's Hold. Even now, the mages on the Isle of Fire are planning to build teleport pads for the latter, which I'll be able to transport with my bracer.
Nystul has nothing to report from Castle Britannia, and has been informed of the situation with Mellorin. That should help prevent infiltration.
I myself sent my sight over Stonegate. A horde of undead gather, even as the liche on Ambrosia had said. And on the Isle of the Avatar, I found the enemy mages. They are attempting to destroy the Guardian Statues - to break through the shields protecting the Shrine of the Codex...where the Black Jewel of Mondain rests within the Flame of Infinity.
And a war fleet has set sail from the docks of Minoc and Jhelom. At the best of conditions, we'll be seeing over two thousand men and women invading our islands in about two weeks. Unless the Jhelom ships decide to stop over at the Isle of Deeds and finish off Serpent's Hold first. Mages keep watch even now, so if the worst occurs, I can be contacted, teleport to the Hold and evacuate everyone. We all hope it won't be needful, but I think it will be. The thing is, the bracer isn't attuned to the Isle of Fire. To get back here, I'll have to talk the dragon - who still chooses to remain nameless - into carrying us.
Maybe I should just call her 'Draco', or something. For all I know, she might have seen the movie.
I've just realised I'll have to burn this entry when I finish. It wouldn't do for Mellorin to discover where Shamino is. I'll use the candle, though. No magic.
With that, I'll close. It's time to go.
--Elora, Avatar of Britannia
"I don't need a sword," the dragon-in-human-form was telling Dupre. "I'm a dragon! Believe me, I don't need that metal toothpick to defend myself."
Dupre looked slightly offended as he turned to put away the shortsword he'd offered.
"You don't really have to fight with it," I told her, giving the blue sky above an approving glance. "You'll just look more convincing as a warrior if you have a weapon."
"I don't need- " she began, then broke off with a cry of surprise as Dupre spun, kicking her legs out from under her and landing her flat on her back. Lying on the stone roof of the fort, she stared open-mouthed at the blade Dupre was holding a hair's breadth from her neck for a moment, then her brows rushed together into an angry frown.
I prudently took a step back.
Dupre's breath exploded from his lungs in a loud "Oof!" and the knight flew backwards. He did it very well, for someone without wings. When he sped over the edge of the battlements, he hung there in midair as the dragon prevented his fall.
"Are you ok?" I shouted to him.
He made a strangling noise. Seemed like he hadn't regained his breath as yet.
"Was that really necessary?" I asked the dragon.
She stood, tossed her red-gold hair and picked up the shortsword. "Nobody threatens me. Not even when they're trying to make a point."
"Well, I think you've made yours."
A gasp came from Dupre's direction as he realised his current location, some twenty or so feet above ground level.
I went over, climbed up into one of the crenels and grabbed the hand Dupre held out to pull him down. Once his feet were safely on the ground, he braced himself against my shoulder until he'd steadied himself.
"Are you scared of heights?" I asked him curiously.
"Why dost thou think I always kept mine eyes closed when thou wert flying that damned magic carpet?"
The dragon-woman's eyes lit up at this piece of information. "I'd like to offer my services as a mode of transportation to you, Avatar," she announced graciously. "As a way of thanking you for promising to take me home, of course."
Dupre gave her a hard look, which she returned with transparent innocence.
"Are you sure the bracer can take us there?" I asked. "To this Atarka?"
"Of course I am." She shrugged. "Maybe it's easier for me to feel how that thing works," she added, meaning the bracer. "Gemstones are largely used for magical practises on my world." She indicated the coloured jewels on the bracer, the ones not touching the large, central stone. "These gems are used to take you between the planes or worlds." Then the ones touching the central stone, a different coloured one to each of its eight side facets. "These gems are used for teleportation within a plane."
"So which of the...world jewels will take us to Atarka?"
"The orange one - the shem'al."
"Sand Jewel, is your translation."
"Oh. I thought it was amber."
"Speaking of Amber," Dupre said, "we'd best start searching for her man."
I nodded. "Iolo and Katrina are down below?"
"Aye. With Lords British and Draxinusom."
The dragon-woman handed Dupre back his sword. "Let's hurry along, then. The sooner we find your friend, the sooner we can leave Britannia."
"How could you tell which jewel leads to your home?" I asked her as the three of us went downstairs.
"I'm not precisely sure. I just looked at it and...I knew. There's a strong sense of 'home' when I concentrate on it." She shrugged.
"Maybe one of them leads to my home," I said softly, half-daring to hope it were true. Would I return to there if it were possible?
"Only you can tell, Avatar," the dragon said. "It's your home, not mine."
I gave the bracer a long look, watched how the light glinted off the multi-faceted jewels and caused the milky, moonstone-like substance forming the main body of the bracer to glow. In turn, I glanced at each of the small jewels, not knowing what I was trying to feel. Only two of them made me pause. The emerald - but probably just because I had a thing for green - and the diamond. Every conceivable colour winked back from within its complex structure and I so lost myself regarding its beauty that I almost tripped when we reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Anything?" the dragon murmured.
"I don't know. The diamond, maybe?"
She shook her head. "Can't be - that's Britannia. It's easy to tell since we're here. The tuning of the gem and this world are the same."
Maybe Britannia is my home, I thought to myself, but I resigned myself to pondering that at a later time. We'd reached the place where Iolo, Katrina and Britannia's two Lords were waiting.
"Good fortune to thee, Avatar," Lord British said, his voice slightly louder as he spoke over the noises of the nearby forge. "The Virtues guide thee and bring thee back to us!"
I smiled and clasped his hand briefly. "Thank thee, my Lord. I'll certainly do my best to come back in one piece."
"To bid you good fortune, Avatar," Draxinusom added in Gargish. He awkwardly held out one of his red hands and I took it in my own. "To hope you find your friend."
"To thank you, prilem." I turned to my four companions. "Ready your weapons, friends. We don't know what's on the other side." Then I touched the facet of the central jewel that was edged by the emerald.
The world abruptly came into focus. We were standing just outside the Shrine of Justice and no one was in sight. The sky was clouded and the iron-grey waves of the sea to the north, east and west could be heard crashing against the bases of the rocky cliffs. The ground was wet, as though it had been raining, and there was an unpleasant squelching noise as Dupre and the dragon moved out a little to look for any nearby enemies.
"So we try to cut straight through the forest?" Katrina asked me.
I looked south to where the cape widened to join the mainland and the Deep Forest began. Under the sunless sky, the trees looked dark and forbidding. "Yes. Even though we'll be Blinking across it, I don't need to remind you to keep a lookout for soldiers. Those tabards should be easy to spot." My eyes drifted to the shrine and something strange caught my attention. The monoliths surrounding the altar were rough and pitted. I knew there were strong magics on the shrines to prevent damage from wind and weather.
Iolo ran his hands lightly down one of the pillars. Black, gritty stone crumbled off it at his touch. "This should not be," he said, dusting off his hands. He took a step back and looked up, his brow furrowing.
"Something to do with the Flames?" Katrina suggested.
The bard shrugged. "I don't know. Elora?"
"I'm not going to make any guesses," I said, approaching the altar. That it needed to be repaired was not in doubt, but the others knew as well as I did that it would take too long. There was more to it than just shouting out a Word of Power.
There was a large split down the middle of the pedestal...almost as if someone had thrust a sword into it. At first glance it seemed the fissure had gathered rainwater, but when I brushed a finger over its top, it came back crimson. "Blood," I whispered.
Iolo and Katrina came closer to see. "I don't like this one bit," the former said.
"Do the druids practise animal sacrifices?" Katrina ventured.
"Not that I've heard," I replied, raising my hand to smell and then taste the blood. I spat. "Besides, this isn't just animal blood." I looked at them both, concerned. "It's human."
Their eyes widened.
"There's something else here that I can't place. A...presence?"
"A ghost?" Iolo suggested.
"No...sort of." I let out a low growl. "I think I'd be able to sense it if I were alive. I don't know."
"Dost thou want to do something about it now, or should we find Shamino first?"
"Shamino," Katrina said.
I nodded slowly. "I have a bad feeling...Blackthorn once found a way to destroy the shrines. It's said that all he needed was the mantras, but I think that was only one component. Maybe he needed a sacrifice. He also needed power - or an item with destructive capabilities."
"The Sword of Chaos," Dupre said as he returned. "And Mellorin hath the Blacksword, not to mention power. Thou knowest, that reminds me," he added as we all struck south, "I think the one cinching point that made me reject all the Guardian's offers while we were trapped in the Castle was something he said to me before we went after the Chaos Sword."
"Was that when thou wert drinking?" Iolo asked him. "After Spark died?"
He nodded. "He said something like, 'Knowest thou to where thy precious Avatar will lead thee? To thy Doom. Doom, Death and Chaos.'" He grinned. "And I'm still alive and kicking."
The dragon-woman snorted. "Your kicking could stand a little improvement..."
I didn't hear the rest. Dupre's words had suddenly pushed my mind back to remember a vision I'd seen in an orb on another world. An orb that had shown the future...and had predicted Dupre's death.
The future isn't decided, I thought stubbornly. We make it what it is, and I won't make it that.
"...was saying things about Gwenno in a frozen wasteland," Iolo was saying. "I hope she's all right."
"One thing I've learned about the Guardian," the dragon said, "is that he rarely lies. He has no need to. The truth can be much more destructive and much more satisfying."
There was a frigid silence.
"Thanks for your comforting input," I said dryly.
"It's an important thing to know, Avatar. If you could understand how he thinks, you'd know what he's thinking."
"Are you saying you do?"
A strange light lit her golden eyes. "Perhaps."
Katrina silenced us. "Look," she said, pointing toward the treeline. "I mark four...five soldiers."
I looked and nodded. "Good job. Iolo?"
The bard raised his crossbow. "Thou canst wave two of them goodbye." He fired, rewound his weapon with impressive speed, fired again.
"Not bad for a human," the dragon said. "You might want to do something about the other three coming our way."
Iolo grinned and patiently set to work reloading his crossbow. "That's their job."
Dupre, Katrina and I charged forward to meet the attackers.
"Take one alive," I shouted, then ducked under a sweeping blade and smashed the blunt end of my axe-head across the soldier's knee.
"Which one?" Dupre asked, parrying a swordthrust.
"What do you mean, 'which one'? Any one!"
The knight laughed, which seemed to offend his opponent for some reason. "Well, thine doth not look overly intelligent, Elora."
"Looks can be deceiving," Katrina observed wickedly. "One hath but to look at thee, Sir Knight, and- "
"What?" Dupre spluttered. Deftly, he cracked his swordhilt against his opponent's skull then turned to blister Katrina's ears with his tongue.
I was laughing so hard I almost got skewered. "Oh, stop it," I told the soldier. "See this bracer?"
His eyes bulged in horror.
"Yes, that's right. I'm the Ka-thra."
Katrina's adversary spun around at this then fell as she broke his neck with her staff. Katrina herself knelt down to check his pulse.
"Human fool!" The fallen soldier grabbed at her arm, twisting it as he jumped up and snarled at the glowering Dupre. "Keep thy distance, ape-man, or she dies." He closed his other hand around her throat, a hand that suddenly bore crimson skin and long, yellowed nails.
The soldier I was facing stared at his companion with a look of horror, then narrowed his eyes and spat.
The daemon-soldier smirked as it slowly regained its true form and said something in a sneering voice. Then it turned its fiery eyes on me. "The Guardian will reward me for bringing thee to him." It leered at Katrina, bringing its fangs close to one of her ears. "Do I need to make an example of this one for thee to come quietly?"
I stalled, quickly evaluating what our chances were. The daemon was facing me and had Katrina in front of it, so anything I tried to throw at it would likely hit her. Iolo stood behind with his crossbow at the ready, but I knew he wouldn't fire. The force of a crossbow bolt would drive right through the daemon's body, killing both it and Katrina. Dupre was on its left with his sword drawn, the Killorn soldier on its right, his eyes burning with anger. "What does the Guardian want with me?"
"Wilt thou come?" the daemon shouted, drool flying from its fangs and its claw tightening on Katrina's neck.
The human soldier suddenly leaped forward and ran at the daemon with his sword, but the undead willed forth a wall of fire without even turning its head. The soldier plunged straight into it and dropped to the wet ground, screaming.
A shimmering began in the air above the daemon and its captive. Quickly, it took the form of the red-scaled dragon. Her two massive foreclaws were planted on either side of the daemon and her neck arched down and around so that her burning eyes were level with its. Baring her gleaming fangs, she rumbled, "Hellfire is nothing compared with what I'm going to do to you."
And, of course, the daemon made its last mistake by dropping Katrina and letting her get away.
Turning my head away from the gruesome little bonfire that had suddenly sprung up between the dragon's foreclaws, I ran over to where Katrina stood catching her breath and asked if she was ok.
"My neck feels burnt," she said, wincing slightly.
"Let me see." She lifted her chin and I examined her throat, seeing she was right. It wasn't bad - the worst she'd suffer would be peeling skin - but I could see the reddish tint on her neck was taking on the shape of a hand. "Nothing worse than a sunburn, I'm thinking."
She looked relieved. "I didn't expect him to jump at me like that."
"It's ok. I should have checked them to see if they were human."
"Katrina! Art thou all right?" Dupre asked as he hurried over.
She nodded. "I'm recovering."
"Where's that other soldier?" I asked, glancing beyond the dragon. "Wait, I see him. Coming?"
The three of us circled the dragon and her smouldering prey to her other side. The soldier I'd originally fought was writhing on the marshy ground, most of his body blackened and smoking. Only a glance was needed for me to know he wouldn't be alive much longer.
"What about your soldier?" I asked Dupre.
"Dead," the knight replied. "I hit him too hard."
I nodded and frowned. "Well, let's see if this one can tell us anything." Kneeling beside the burnt soldier, I made sure he could see me before asking, "What happened at that Shrine to the north?"
The soldier groaned once, then took a deep breath and babbled something incomprehensible.
"Can't he speak?" Iolo asked, as he approached with his crossbow slung over one shoulder.
"Look." Katrina pointed at the man's blistered right hand. The palm bore what appeared to be a crescent moon symbol, the lines standing out in bright red. "What's this mean?"
"Marini." The dragon snorted disdainfully from above us. "These weren't even warriors. They're probably just being used as lookouts so the capable fighters don't have to be wasted, and the daemon used as a means of communication." She rolled over the corpse of Dupre's soldier with a foreclaw and craned her neck down to peer at the hands. "This one has the same mark. These are priests from the Temple of Silence."
"Doth 'marini' mean priests?" asked Iolo.
"'Marini' means 'worshippers'. These particular people are akin to druids; given to meditation and not much fighting, though a large group of them can be a death-sentence. They are relentless, given a cause."
"Canst thou understand me?" I telepathed to the wounded soldier.
"Ka-thra!" his mind screamed. Eyes widening, he clapped his hands to his ears.
"What happened at the Shrine?"
His eyes suddenly glazed over and he sat without moving. The dragon looked as if she'd expected nothing less. With a muttered, "Marini," under her breath, she lashed her tail impatiently. "Trance. Kill him and let's go."
"We can't really kill a defenceless man," Dupre told her.
"Kemah-thra! Why not? You're not against violence!"
"This is different. It's not- "
"Virtuous?" she sneered through bared fangs.
The knight sheathed his sword.
"Humans!" She shook her huge head. "You have such strange concepts. Killing is killing, on the field or off. How can one way be better than another? The result is the same."
"We can't leave him here to waylay our own people," Katrina noted. "Or to get eaten."
"I certainly hope you're not intending to take him with us."
I probed gently at the soldier's mind and found it completely blank - wiped clear of thought. There was, however, a section that was still conscious. "Knowest thou who I am?" I asked.
The reply was much calmer than the first response I'd received from him. "Thou art the one known as the Avatar."
"And the Ka-thra?"
"There is only one Ka-thra, and thou art not her."
"How canst thou be so sure?"
"She beareth the daemon sword. Thou dost not."
"Then why didst thou call me Ka-thra just before?"
"An error," he replied simply. "I saw the bracer and made an assumption."
"We're getting somewhere, it seems. Now, tell me what happened at the Shrine of Justice."
There was a silent stream of laughter. "No. And don't bother threatening me with death, Avatar. I'm not afraid."
"I've no need to threaten. Thou art already dying."
There was a mental sigh. "I suspected as much. And by daemon-magic..."
"The daemon is dead."
"Both of them?"
I stopped short.
"What of the large one with the wings of gold and voice like thunder?"
"That...was a dragon."
A hand shook my shoulder. "Elora? Elora, he's dead. He's stopped breathing."
I withdrew from his mind and looked around at my friends. "I didn't get anything out of him." Standing, I looked up at the dragon. "Except that he thought you were a daemon."
Her form shone and reduced in size, changing shape until she looked human again. Giving each companion a long look, she finally said to me, "He's probably never seen a dragon before. If there aren't any left on my world, then..." With a shrug, she added, "Can we go? Or were you intending to bury him as well?"
"Wait just a minute. Who exactly are these people?"
"The Silent Ones." The dragon paused then sighed. "Their philosophy of hearing an 'Inner Voice' was just catching on before the invasion of my world." Iolo, Dupre and Katrina had already heard her history, so they knew what she meant. "If it hadn't involved cutting out your own tongue, I might have been willing to listen."
"Inner Voice?" Iolo repeated as we started walking again. "Thou meanest the Guardian?"
The dragon sighed again, her eyes becoming somewhat distant. "It became the Guardian later. Earlier, before my time, the Silent Ones were but a group of simple people who meditated and communed with the aeth'er'eal."
"The Ethereal Void?"
"The same. The 'Mind of Stars', my people called it. The correct term was actually aeth'o'eali, but it changed with the passage of time and growth of languages." She smiled at her own memories. "Anyway, Silence became the issue when the supposed voice of the aeth'er'eal spoke back to them, basically telling them to shut up, listen and obey."
"That's terrible," I said.
"Yes. And terribly clever. The druids had waited their entire existences for a reply. Any reply. And the Guardian gave them one."
We had reached the border of the Deep Forest. The two soldiers Iolo had shot lay dead nearby, crimson staining their orange-gold tabards. When we checked their hands we found the same markings on the right palms.
"What does it mean that they're in the army?" I asked.
"Mean? Nothing other than that the Guardian ordered them to come! He probably stripped my entire world bare to take Britannia. What is it he wants here?" She was looking straight at me as she asked this, and for some reason I got the impression that she already knew.
"Thou supposedly knowest what he's thinking," Dupre put in. "Thou shouldst be able to figure it out."
"You don't like me, do you?"
"'Tis thine attitude that doth make thee unlikable. I could get to like thee very much if I could just get over this urge to try and kill thee every time thou openest thy mouth."
"Well said," Katrina murmured.
The dragon smiled coldly then tripped over something. "Blasted two legs!" she snarled, brushing bits of bracken and dead leaves from her leather armour. Suddenly, she frowned. "I think there's something under here."
She got up and moved aside as Dupre and I lifted the long, slender trunk of a freshly fallen tree. Rolling it to one side, the others helped to shift broken branches. Something else was there. Something red. And there was the stench of blood.
It was a gargoyle.
"Oh, Virtues," Katrina whispered, her face pale. "Praetymdelem!"
The gargoyle had been torn apart in the ritual Fellowship manner. I'd never seen any guttings of his race before, and it was much worse than a human murder because of the wings and horns. The former had been cut to ribbons - each segment between the thin wing-bones sliced with almost surgical precision. The main wing-bones themselves had been ripped out at the shoulders. The two horns on Praetymdelem's head had been gouged out, hanging on to his skull only by two tiny flaps of red flesh. The legs, arms, head, torso turned inside out...
The dragon looked truly shaken. "I've never seen anything like this. What does it mean?"
I didn't hide the revulsion in my reply. "You know how you were telling us of the Guardian's rituals among his worshippers on Atarka? How he had his followers, the Silent Ones, cut out their own tongues? Well this is one of the rituals among his followers here."
"But...this creature wasn't alive when they... Was it?"
I opened my mouth to say "No," but Katrina answered before I could.
"He was alive." She pointed at Praetymdelem's face. It was contorted into an expression of utmost horror and supreme pain. She shuddered. "I thought thy double said he was dead, Elora."
"She did. Maybe she lied."
"Or maybe she Resurrected him so he'd be alive when she..." Iolo left his sentence unfinished and swallowed hard. "Dost thou think it was his blood we found at the Shrine of Justice?"
"No," Katrina said, "Elora said it was human bl-" She broke off abruptly.
"We have to hurry," I said softly. "Or this won't be the last murder."
For now, I dropped the restrictions I'd placed on myself concerning magic. Blink was a very handy short-range teleport spell, and I used it to transport our group across the terrain and through the Deep Forest. As had been the case with the spell while I'd been alive, however, I always felt a momentary dizziness after four or five consecutive Blinks, so I'd have to wait a minute each time. When the dragon complained about the delays, Dupre asked her if she'd like to materialise inside a tree. She actually accepted that without talking back.
Then we reached the wisps' tower.
"Should we speak with them?" Iolo asked. "We don't have that whistle..."
"I don't know if I want to hear what they've got to say," I replied, sitting down before I fell off the log I'd appeared on. "That's not normal wisp behaviour, is it?" I added, pointing.
Three wisps were speeding toward us from the tower. They were almost incandescently white with no hint of their regular blue colour about them.
I got no further than "Hi," before a bolt of energy knocked me off my seat. Picking my way out of a small bush, I said, "They must think I'm undead!"
"You are undead!" the dragon said.
The others had drawn weapons, but the wisps ignored them. Buzzing like three swarms of angry wasps, they hovered above me and let loose a second bolt. It knocked me back a few feet, but did no damage, so I didn't bother raising a shield.
"Can 'we' speak?" I telepathed, using the strange emphasis wisps placed on some of their words. "'I' am entity known as 'Avatar'. 'I' would like to exchange information."
"They said to tell you that they don't converse with the undead," the dragon said calmly. "Was there anything you wanted me to ask them?"
Standing still, I stared at the three orbs of pulsing light without blinking. "How do I remove the aeth'raesh'al?"
A strange yet clearly audible voice came from one of the wisps. "'You' can't." Then the three of them, still buzzing, vanished from sight.
"Where'd they go?" Katrina exclaimed. She looked around. "Did they all leave?"
"Were there others?" Iolo asked her.
"I saw a couple near that tower, and a third behind that tree."
"Britannia has become too dangerous for them," the dragon said. "In exchange for an answer, I told them that a new Avatar, spawned by a black kel'al, is on the loose. I think they doubt your chances of winning this war."
I said nothing. My mind drifted back to Praetymdelem's body and my only thought was of the promise I'd given Lord British to return in one piece.
There was no sight of Mellorin, Mariah, Sentri or Tseramed as we continued to Blink through the forest. I was steadily becoming more proficient in my castings; my range had increased and I'd discovered the 'trick' of giving everyone a gentle landing, since the ground we stood on was always uneven. It took us until nightfall to reach the western edge of the Deep Forest. Considering that to walk the same distance without benefit of a road was likely to take in excess of two, maybe three weeks, we'd made excellent time.
When we arrived at the borderline of trees just east of Iolo's hut we were forced to wait and hide. The bard's face was grim as we watched ten Killorn soldiers help themselves to his stores of grain, wood and food and carry them off.
"I hope Smith got away," he whispered, to which I nodded (as solemnly as was possible with Dupre looking like someone had not only just paid off his bar tabs, but given him his own tavern). There was no sign of his horse.
One thing had become certain. The Guardian wanted Britannia intact. To all reports, not a single building from castle to hovel had been destroyed.
When the patrol had left, we crossed the clearing (Iolo declined to see what state the soldiers had left the inside of his house in. Dupre remarked it couldn't be much worse than the state the bard himself had left it in) and reached the road that led north to Empath Abbey. I could make out the forms of the soldiers marching north in the darkness, but was sure none of them would be able to see us.
"The Bee Caves are on the other side of the road, just through that stand of trees," I whispered to Katrina and the dragon. "There's a log house near it. If you think you're lost, stay there and don't move."
To the others, except maybe the dragon, it would be very dark. The sky was still clouded so no moons or stars lent their light to us. Our destination wasn't really that far away, but it never hurt to be a little cautious.
Iolo, Katrina and Dupre went first, the latter with his cloak drawn tightly about himself to hide the gleam of his mail shirt. The dragon yawned, then disappeared.
I shook my head slightly. "Invisibility sort of takes the fun out of it, dragon."
There was a disembodied snort followed by a faint rustling of leaves as she brushed past a nearby plant.
I counted to ten, having no wish to run into her by accident, then dashed across the road, almost diving into the plants beyond. Ducking under a branch and jumping a gnarled root, dodging a trunk and leaping a mossy boulder...I stopped only when the dark shape of Tseramed's hut loomed up between the trees.
A voice right beside me made me jump. "So, where are these caves?" The dragon-woman flickered into view.
"Follow me," I muttered, and led her further west where the mountains lay.
It started to rain.
When she and I reached the cave entrance we found the other three were waiting for us there. We entered, and only then did I make a light.
"What? AARGH! *snort* Intruders! *whinny* Sound the *neigh* alarm!"
"Smith?" Iolo said.
The horse, apparently more startled than we, merely shouted, "Abandon ship!" before snorting, turning tail, then galloping down a passage. A second later there was a muffled crunch, followed by an irritated buzzing noise.
"Maybe he broke his neck," Dupre whispered to me. "Then I won't have to get Iolo that drink."
"I heard that!" the bard said, swatting his arm.
"Thou hearest pretty well for an old fossil!"
"Well, well," a new voice interrupted. "It's a wonder ye two got here without being seen. Or, rather, heard." A grinning Shamino stepped out from around the corner of the passage Smith had fled down. "Hello, my friends."
Almost involuntarily, I let out a "whoop!" and then everyone crowded around him, talking all at once.
Shamino quickly silenced us and said, "Come deeper into the caves. The enemy patrols the road every night and we're close enough to it to be heard if we stay here."
We followed him in, being careful not to disturb the drowsing giant bees in their alcoves of honeycomb. The light played off the golden, hexagonal structures and made them glitter with a strange beauty. Shamino paid them no heed but led us straight down the main passage, my Light spell hovering above him as I walked at his side.
The dragon-woman tapped my shoulder as we walked and I reluctantly fell back to talk with her. "What's up?" I asked softly, not wanting my voice to echo down the hive.
"Is that your friend?" she asked, pointing at Shamino.
"I thought that would have become obvious a few minutes ago."
"Is he?" she pressed, her eyes narrowing.
Her manner gave me pause. "Yes, that's Shamino," I replied slowly. "Why the concern?"
She gave me a hard look before regarding the back of Shamino's head thoughtfully. "Just making sure." Then she kept walking as if nothing had passed between us.
"What was this we heard about the Emps?" Dupre was asking softly.
"When we saw the beginnings of the invasion," Shamino replied, "a large number of soldiers started to comb through the Deep Forest. I took a trip to Empath Abbey to see what was going on and found it totally overrun by men and women who wore uniforms I'd never seen before. I returned to the Silverleaf grove where the Emps live and explained to them the danger, convincing them to come here with me. The promise of honey was the only thing I could think of that would make them move." He led us down a branching tunnel. "The Emps had already begun scouting around when I'd left. One went so far as to scale the lower foothills of the Serpent Spine to see Castle Britannia."
"And he saw a blackrock dome?" I asked.
"It was a she, actually. But yes. A dome. I decided to lead the Emps to safety before making any plans to investigate, so I guided them all here and they've been able to keep the bees under control with their empathic powers. Indeed, the bees have protected us in here more than once."
"And Smith?" Iolo asked.
"I let him loose when I went to Empath Abbey and told him to stay nearby for when I returned. It would have been too hard to drag a horse through a forest as thick as the Deep. Then, when I came back with the Emps, I took him in here."
"I can't imagine him wanting to be in a cave," the bard noted, glancing around the cave.
"Yes, well," Shamino replied with a faint smile. "The Emps had a hand in that business. Or should I saw 'paw'?"
We reached the inner cave and found most of the small, ape-like Emps asleep. A few of their buzzing protectors hovered nearby. Shamino motioned for us to sit, then looked at me.
"What's happening in Britannia?"
I related the whole story, starting from the invitation to the banquet at Lord British's Castle. Iolo and Dupre chimed in if I forgot anything, but otherwise stayed silent. It was late into the night by the time I'd finished.
Shamino was quiet for a time, then nodded. "Mariah told me to expect thee, but she didn't get around to telling me what was going on...other than to be careful if I see one who looks like thee. How do I know that thou art the real Avatar?"
Iolo, Dupre and Katrina exchanged glances and said nothing.
"I can't prove it," I told him. "I can only show you this-" I flicked a finger at the Ankh, noticing a faint glimmer of apprehension in his eyes as I did so, "-and let you decide."
"Thou art undead?" he asked.
I hesitated, then allowed the illusion around me to slip away. Immediately, the cave was filled with the green radiance shining from my eyes. I kept control of my sight, however. I only wanted to see my friends as my friends - not as formless blobs of colour.
Shamino wasn't the only one to look startled. Aside from the dragon, no one had seen what transformations were occurring or had already occurred. Feeling self-conscious, I erected the illusion again and held out my arm for Shamino to try and find my pulse. "Convinced?"
He nodded. "I believe thee." He glanced at the companions. "And them."
"What do we do now?" Iolo asked. "Return to the Isle of Fire?"
"The Emps will be safe enough here," Shamino said. "As will be Smith. I think he's actually grown fond of them. Fond enough to let them ride him."
"Ride?" Iolo echoed, amazed. "Ride? Smith?"
The dragon, whom I'd introduced during my narration, said, "It would be safer if I flew you back now. Not as many people will see us by night."
Shamino gave her a sceptical look. "Thou art really a dragon?"
She returned his look with thinly-veiled irritation. "What do I look like?"
"Look closer, Ranger."
He gave her a confused look, then quickly turned to me. "I'll tell the Emps I'm leaving." Standing, he crept over to where the creatures slept.
"What was all that about?" Dupre asked the dragon.
"Look at me," she commanded. "Do I look like a dragon to you?"
"In all honesty, I'd have to say no."
"You humans...always looking with your eyes instead of your mind. It's pointless asking you anything."
Dupre shook his head and let that pass. "Wilt thou be all right carrying five of us?"
Before she could answer, two humans entered the cave. They were both dressed in the garb of rangers and they both drew their weapons at the sight of us.
"Where is Lord Shamino?" the woman demanded.
"I'm right here, Kylanne," Shamino said. He quickly introduced us.
The two rangers looked awed and quickly put away their hunting knives. "The Avatar? Truly?"
Shamino nodded. "I'll be going with her."
"Going?" Kylanne exclaimed. "Can't we come?"
I looked at the dragon. "Can you carry two more?"
"Not all the way," she said. "We'll have to stop somewhere so I can rest. There's nowhere safe between here and the Isle of Fire except Castle Britannia… or we could go west."
"West?" Katrina exclaimed. "There's nothing that way but the edge of the world!"
The dragon looked irritated. "There's the Void." She seemed to take hold of her annoyance with an effort. "I suppose you can't be expected to know, since Britannia dragons don't have the talent. I can fly through the Ethereal Void."
"How will that help?" I asked.
"Since our destination is still on this world, it will be almost instantaneous. I can transport us from the western edge of Britannia to the east."
"The Lycaeum," Iolo said suddenly.
The rangers put down the berries and nuts they'd been collecting then the man, who introduced himself as Yavin, said, "Transport?"
The companions all looked at the dragon, who smiled and gave a mocking bow. With a gesture toward the corridor, she said, "Shall we?"
"It would be safer if you cast 'Mass Invisibility'," the dragon shouted to me. She set her head against the gale-force wind and driving rain, wings beating steadily. "Or at least get someone at the Lycaeum to do it."
"I'll do it," I telepathed. "Just tell me when." We'd discovered the futility of trying to yell over the storm. 'We' meaning the humans. Keeping a grip on one of the dragon's spines, I turned slightly and told the others what I was going to do.
The transition across the Void had been completely unspectacular. It might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the change of the weather and a brief, barely felt chill.
I made a mental note to speak further to the dragon about her strange talent at some stage.
We were now flying low enough to see the grey waves below us. The frothing whitecaps smashed against each other and spray reached out like claws that glittered when lightning struck. I was finding the lack of sensation when rain lashed my face disconcerting. The instinct to blink to protect my eyes had gone. On top of that, I could see our surroundings quite clearly - as clearly as day, even though it was most definitely night. I didn't know how well the dragon could see, but she said she could see Verity Isle just after I made it out on the edge of the horizon.
"Hold on," I thought to the others, and called forth a cloak of Invisibility to cover each of us and the dragon.
When first my hands, then the dragon faded from sight, my eyes widened and I tightened my grip. It was like I was sitting on nothing! If not for the warmth rising from the dragon's body and the feeling of her spines and scales... A glass-bottomed air-ship was about the closest thing I could liken the experience to, but I doubted the dragon would appreciate the comparison. As the island drew nearer, my momentary discomfort faded and became something close to exhilaration. The urge to spread my arms and fly was so powerful that I threw back my head, gripped the dragon firmly with my legs, then let my hands go free.
Wind and rain flew between my fingers like fine skeins of silk. Lightning split the air beside us close enough for me to touch. Thunder exploded overhead and the dragon seemed almost to shudder beneath us in its wake. Salt spray touched my lips as we dropped even lower, the fresh smell of Verity Isle's forest coming with it even through the storm.
Another flash of white fire and I could see the gleam of wet plate mail and swords of the army surrounding the Lycaeum.
"Hold on!" the dragon roared, her voice almost lost amidst a crash of thunder.
I found my invisible handhold and gripped it tightly.
We accelerated, passed straight over the enemy's heads and landed on the flat stone roof of the Keep of Truth.
The six mages on watch all turned in our direction as one and began incanting a spell that would cancel the Invisibility.
Then they froze.
"What..?" I began.
"Hurry it up, Avatar," the dragon growled. "This isn't easy."
"Everyone off," I said. "Carefully. Shamino, you're at the back so you go first."
Invisible, dismounting took a while, but everyone managed and we were soon standing on solid ground again. There was a ripple of ether as the dragon changed her shape.
Remembering the reactions of the mages last time I'd tried mind-speech with them as an undead, I instead spoke aloud. "Listen, mages. We're not here to attack, so don't try anything." I dispelled the Mass Invisibility then telepathed to the dragon, "Let them go."
"Avatar!" one of the mages exclaimed. "Lords Shamino and Iolo! Sir Dupre! This is indeed a welcome surprise!"
A couple of the mages looked more wary. "Couldst thou explain how thou didst manage to disable all of us?"
I half-turned to raise a brow at the dragon-woman, who murmured, "Racial talent," then examined a sleeve of the scarlet robe she was now wearing.
"No matter!" The first mage was beaming. "We merely need to tighten our defence. We had not considered the possibility of an attack by air. In any case, welcome, all, to the Lycaeum, Keep of Truth." The grin suddenly fell from his face and he sighed. "If that can still be said."
"What meanest thou?" I asked.
The mage pointed out a closed trapdoor set into the middle of the roof and murmured an Unlock Magic and Dispel Trap incantation. "Get thee out of the rain, Milady. Another can answer for me."
"Thank thee." I motioned to my companions. "Let's go."
Dupre lifted the trapdoor and we went inside the upper level of the Lycaeum.
"By the Serpent!" An elderly mage fell out of her chair and the book she'd been holding dropped to the floor with a rasp of parchment. "Knock next time!"
"Sorry," I said, unable to hide a grin. "Hello, Thanis."
The woman cocked an eye at me. "Well, well. If it isn't Elora! Didst thou manage to evade Mariah?"
I laughed. "Aye, thanks to thee!" Then I explained to the others that Thanis had been one who had helped me during my period of isolation after the events with the Sword of Chaos. "And how is Penumbra?" I asked, helping the old woman to her feet.
"Oh, she's fine. She's busy researching texts in the catacombs on the Praetair Imascus Candier theory." Thanis looked up at Dupre. "Close the trapdoor, young man, and come in where it's dry."
Dupre complied, and the noise of the raging storm was blocked out. The trapdoor glowed briefly. I guessed the wards had been replaced.
We were standing in a large, lamp-lit library. Golden-textured marble walls rose up all around soft white carpets - that seemed to stay clean no matter what touched them - that rested underfoot. Mahogany shelves, desks and chairs abounded, and books were everywhere - some open, some shut, several stacked. Thanis retrieved her book, '101 Ways To Skin a Cat', and put it away on a shelf.
I introduced the others and she looked at me with shrewd, black eyes.
"Thou didst never tell me thou wert the Avatar." She shrugged. "I suppose I would have guessed had I been wearing my spectacles when thou wert standing beside that painting last year."
"That one." Thanis indicated an almost life-sized work of me facing Faulinei, Shadowlord of Falsehood, before the Eternal Flame of Truth. A black shard was clenched in my hands above my head in a dramatic pose, and my expression fearless.
"Hey," Dupre said, taking a closer look. "If thou lookest really hard at the background, thou canst make me out!"
Iolo rolled his eyes and muttered something highly uncomplimentary.
Shamino asked if he could borrow '101 Ways To Skin a Cat'.
The dragon tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the painting and asked, "Who's the guy wearing the black bedsheet?"
While my companions slept the rest of the night away, I roamed the Lycaeum in the company of a scholar named Gethsem. Already he'd shown me the empty basin of the Eternal Flame of Truth, and according to what he'd told me of the time it had gone out, the Flame had extinguished itself at the exact time and day of my death at Serpent's Hold. I found the news disturbing; he intriguing.
"Though by all rights," he'd said, "it should have sprung back to life when thou didst."
To which I'd said nothing.
The Lycaeum was more than a library. It was a keep of lore and beauty. Tapestries and paintings abounded. There were statuettes, glass cases with displays ranging from ancient texts to fabulous gemstones, examples of old, magical implements, more. The catacombs were much the same as the upper levels of the keep, though most of the candles and lamps were unlit at this time.
"Here we are," Gethsem said at last. He adjusted the spectacles on the bridge of his hooked nose and squinted at the spines of a row of books. When he selected a thick, leather-bound volume with the faded title, 'Goblins and Gatekeepers', I raised a brow at him.
"It looks like a book of fairytales."
Gethsem's wrinkled face drew into a grin. "No doubt some of it is. Goblins, for example. What on Britannia are they?"
"They were around in the days of ancient Sosaria, I believe." And still were (in the sewers, at least), but it was probably better for everyone if the goblins were left undisturbed.
"Oh. Well, anyway, this is the only book I know of that describes what thou'rt looking for. Mordra's 'Artefacts of Darkness' mention the crown, but doth not tell thee anything about it."
"Thank thee, Gethsem."
"Any time, Elora. I'll let thee study that in peace." The old scholar lit a lamp from the candle he carried then left me.
Sitting at a relatively clear table, I opened the book and ran a finger down the table of contents. There was only one section called 'The Crown of the Liche King', so I flipped over to that page.
"Before the keep of Stonegate was built, a liche of awesome power had been using all the magic at his disposal to find a way for the undead to cast life spells. His dream was of Britannia to be a kingdom of undead under his command (hence he called himself the Liche King), and to do that, he would have to cast Armageddon (Vas Kal An Mani In Corp Hur Tym). Because of Mani, the spell was classed as a life spell. Therefore he would need life to cast it. He discovered a great repository of power in a small valley deep in a range of mountains, so he called forth a horde of skeletons to dig it up.
"Thus was one of the Magebane swords unearthed. It was found nestled on a tiny island of stone amidst a vast lake of molten lava. Here was a weapon that could disrupt the waves of ether...could it be used to disrupt the waves of life itself?
"The Liche King sealed himself up inside this fiery tomb by blocking the entrance to the diggings with solid stone. He used all his power to ensure that only an undead with life-force would be able to open this gate of stone, meaning that he himself would be locked inside until he discovered a way to have life. He used death to seal the gate, and only life can open it.
"From there, only rumours returned. Some undead claimed that the Liche King spoke to them, saying that he had created a Crown with the aid of examining the Magebane. This Crown would grant its wearer life, enabling them to cast Armageddon or any other life spells.
"The reason why the Liche King himself didn't use the Crown was because of the Magebane. Since he'd wakened it to disrupting life, its presence negated or damped all his efforts to use life magic. He couldn't get rid of the sword, couldn't throw it far enough out into the lava lake for its ether-disrupting effects to leave him undisturbed. The small island of stone had been at a good enough distance, but it had crumbled into the lava scant minutes after the Magebane had been taken from its shores. In his last attempt to be rid of the sword, the Liche King waded out into the lava in order to throw the sword even further away. This resulted in the liche's body being destroyed and his 'life' ended.
"The Crown of the Liche King remained beneath the gate of stone, that only an undead with life could unlock.
"Years later, the keep of Stonegate was built to be the earthly stronghold of the Shadowlords. These spectres were either ignorant or uncaring of the Crown, because they made no effort to gain it. Indeed, they used the lava lake beneath their keep to serve as a trap for the unwary.
"But the Crown was undisturbed. The Magebane, however, surfaced more than two hundred years later. Swamps had taken over the ruins of Stonegate, and water had caused the lava to harden. Before that, however, there were extreme earthquakes and geysers, which lifted up the blade and literally spat it out onto the surface of the world.
"The Crown, though, remains locked beneath the stone gate."
"Stonegate," I whispered. "By the Virtues..." Then I remembered the prophecy I'd learned on Ambrosia. 'Life at their chest'? Frowning, I touched the Ankh amulet hanging around my neck and stared pensively into the lamplight until dawn.
"It's time to go."
I looked at the dragon-in-human-form. Not only could she change her shape, she could change her garb. Right now she wore a concealing robe of vivid scarlet with golden runes embroidered around the hems. An ornate belt of the same colours encircled her waist. "Why so soon?"
She looked around the coolly lit catacomb-turned-library. "I'm not sure I like this place. It answers too many questions." She shrugged. "Oh, your knight asked me to tell you something."
I closed my book. "What?"
She looked exasperated. "I said- "
"What did he say?" I interrupted.
"Some mage gave him a musty old book, and in it he found something about the nature of the Eternal Flames. Turns out that they maintain the field between something he called the Guardians."
I frowned. "The Guardians are the two statues standing on either side of the road leading to the Shrine of the Codex," I said. I'd done some scrying earlier and had seen little change on the Isle of the Avatar. No one had so much as stepped past the Guardians, let alone into the Shrine, yet all three Flames were out. "Unless that counts the Flames of Infinity and Singularity," I muttered. "This news is intriguing."
"I found it more intriguing that your knight could read."
Sighing, I fixed her with a chiding smile.
"That's better. You've been looking a little too grim of late. Now you look more- " she rolled her eyes, " -human."
"Is that a compliment?"
"I'll let you decide that one."
I stood quickly, something alerting my mind to danger. "You can't kill, can you? Can you protect?"
"That is allowed. Why?"
"The Lycaeum is under attack."
"See to the southern wall!" I shouted to the mage over the loud splatter of rain on stone. "I'll handle the east!"
"But alone?" he shouted back, wringing one sleeve of his sopping robe. "Avatar- "
Dupre grabbed his arm and led him away at a half-run to where the other mages were defending the walls against scaling ladders and grapple-hooks. The Lycaeum had no moat so its defences were limited to stone walls and magic.
I waited for ten soldiers to lift their battering ram and begin a charge at the gate before I struck. Lifting one hand, I caused the wind to blow across them from the side.
Several soldiers lost their footing and toppled like felled trees. Those carrying the ram swerved left and bashed ineffectually into a stone wall. I felt an insane urge to laugh when they shook their heads - as if trying to determine how they'd missed a target as wide as a wagon. Then I sent them to sleep.
Twenty more ran forward to retrieve the ram, and another fifty with ladders and ropes rushed toward the wall. Still smiling, I concentrated - and the Keep of Truth was encircled by a ring of scarlet-gold flames five times the height of the average human. Screams of pain, panic and terror filled the air from those attacking the other walls. The stink of burning flesh was quick to assert itself. Looking down into the blaze, I noticed the ram and five Killorn people charring within the flames...a twinge of conscience made me pause. Let them die? No, they're helpless. Wake them? But the pain they'd endure... Kill them outright? Helpless...
Why was I feeling Compassion for these people? My lips twisted. Angry that I felt like I was sparing pain to those who were supplying it in abundance, I sent five Death Bolts to claim their lives.
Why not spare them all?
I killed the other five sleeping by the ram.
I flung out an eleventh bolt. A twelfth. More. Not even able to see targets through the ring of fire, I summoned a Vortex of pure death and sent it spinning out toward the eastern grounds.
A hand grasped my arm and turned me around. "Elora, what art thou doing?" Iolo shouted.
"Defending Britannia!" I retorted, shaking him off.
"This is slaughter!"
"Avatar, there is no Honour or Valour in this!" Dupre added, dashing rain from his eyes.
Spare them ALL. Defend Britannia from the living...
"Mass Death," I whispered.
"Virtues, NO!" Dupre seized my shoulders. "Thou art sworn to protect!"
"I'm also sworn to defend!" I shouted angrily. "If I kill this army-"
"Thou art not killing them to defend us," Iolo interrupted. "Look at thyself. Thou art enjoying it!"
"No." I clenched my hands into fists - a gesture both my friends noticed but didn't react to. They knew me. "You're right." I knew better than this - power had never got the best of me. Disengaging myself from Dupre, I turned the Fire Ring into an Energy Field that covered the Lycaeum as the blackrock dome had enclosed Castle Britannia, only you could see through it. And I could see the Death Vortex zigzagging through the fleeing enemy army, leaving a wide trail of corpses as it passed. I leant against a parapet and watched the carnage for a minute, but still I couldn't bring myself to feel Compassion for them. Or remorse for my actions. I hadn't hurt anyone on our side, had I?
"This is all very nice," the dragon said suddenly, indicating the field that protected us from both enemy and storm, "but how are we supposed to leave?"
No one else was talking. The mages stared in awe at the dome, my companions stared at me.
"Don't worry about that," I told her. "Wait." I went over to a group of mages. "I have to leave, so I'll transfer control of this field over to you. Since the casting was mine- "
"We need only our energy to sustain it," one of them finished. "No reagents."
"Just be careful," I cautioned. "Some of them are likely to be non-human - daemons - and they'll try to dispel the dome."
"If enough of us work to sustain it, we'll be fine."
It was made easier with use of the telepathy, but I had to be careful not to let them realise I was undead. Whatever I did, it seemed to work. I simply thought the basic structure of the spell into their minds. They nodded, concentrated, kept the image steady, and I withdrew from a spell they now maintained.
"Uh, Avatar," one of the mages began. "Thine eyes are...glowing."
I pretended to rub them - hid a shudder as my fingers touched the back of vacant eye sockets. The illusion had slipped so I tightened it, praying the ethereal disturbance this caused would be too small to attract attention. "I must be tired," I said, removing my hands, hoping the mage would pick up on my words instead of my eyes. He did.
"No wonder. I've never seen anyone cast so many-"
"Avatar! We should depart now while the enemy is in confusion!" The dragon-woman - dry despite the rain that had drenched everyone else - strode up to me. "Come on! We've found your ranger. I want to see my home again." She faced the mages and, in a tone only slightly more respectful than the one she used with normal humans, told them to stand back.
"Who art thou to command us?" a black-robed man demanded arrogantly.
She stared first at him, then at me, obviously unable to decide how to react. "I'm a dragon! Are you blind?"
"Nonsense. I can sense an illusion easily!"
I coughed loudly and covered the lower half of my face to hide a smile.
The mage gave me a suspicious look.
"It's no illusion, Mage," the dragon said. "I'm a shape-shifter."
Leaving the two arguing, I returned to Iolo and Dupre. "Thanks for the help you gave me before, guys," I said softly.
"What was wrong?" Iolo asked.
"Some kind of undead thing, I think. I kept getting the idea that I should defend Britannia against everyone alive. Hence the reason I said 'Mass Death'."
"Definitely an undead thing," Dupre agreed. "But I'm sure thou wouldst never have cast something like that when the lives of Britannians were at risk. Thou art too strong to give in so easily."
Iolo gave me a worried look. "Thou wouldst not cast Armageddon, wouldst thou?"
I smiled and shook my head. "There's a bit of relief there, at least. I can't cast that spell because one of the syllables is 'Mani'. An undead can't manipulate life."
"And art thou feeling better now?"
I nodded, then looked around. "Where are Shamino and Katrina?"
"They're looking in to getting a store of reagents for the Isle of Fire. Art thou sure thou'rt all right?"
"I'll live," I said automatically, then winced at the term. "No, really, I'll be fine."
"Seeing thee go into battle like that-"
"You can't see any wounds, can you?" I challenged.
"In thine eyes, Elora," said the bard softly.
Some things illusions couldn't hide. I nodded slowly. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened," I told my two friends. "Remember that liche on Ambrosia? I killed it. While it was still trapped." They glanced at each other. "I didn't feel sorry for it then and I don't now. Not even for that." I pointed at the field below the Lycaeum. The Vortex had vanished a few minutes ago, but not its path of destruction. "They're the enemy." I shook my head, frowning in annoyance. "And I keep trying to use that as an excuse!" I exclaimed.
"Is the Guardian doing this?"
"No, he hasn't spoken to me since the morning after I came back to life. It's just being undead. Everything started to make sense in a different way." I fumbled for a way to express the feelings I had. "We're trying to stop the enemy, right? What better way than to kill them all? I have the power - I could have done it here like I had at Serpent's Hold. But then it changed. I wasn't killing them to save the Lycaeum...I was killing them just because I could." I looked at Iolo. "I wasn't revelling in the slaughter, but in the power."
"But thou hast it under control now?"
"I hope so."
Shamino and Katrina appeared with several bulging bags of sackcloth. Each one was filled with pouches or small boxes of reagents. Inspecting some black pearls, I smiled in satisfaction.
"Excellent. Our spellcasters will be happy to get these."
Dupre said, "If Julia's expedition to Buccaneers' Den was successful enough, we should have arms for over a thousand foot and three hundred ranged. With that and these reagents, it looks like we might finally stand a chance."
"So what are we intending to do when we get to the Isle of Fire?" asked Shamino.
"We're going to the dragon's world," I said. "Since her people made these bracers, we're hoping to find out more about it there. Maybe a way to get it off my arm."
"It's pointless trying to explain anything to your kind!" the dragon stormed, angrily walking over to us. "Are all humans so Kemah-thra-damned thick-headed?"
"Not all of them," Katrina murmured.
She shrugged in irritation, then looked at me. "Are you ready to go yet?"
I nodded. "Let's fly."
Dupre looked a little ill at that.
"Get everyone to stand back, Avatar," the dragon said, moving toward the centre of the roof. "I'll turn invisible and shift to my true form, pick all of you up and set you on my back. All you'll have to worry about is making an opening in this protective field."
"What? You can't just Blink through it?" I asked.
She faded from view and I heard her snort. "When you had this field in mind, Avatar, you thought of it so that nothing could get through."
"Oh. Ok, I'll handle it."
"Good," her draconic, voice replied. A second later, Dupre gave a startled yelp as he seemed to levitate into the air. "It's just me, Knight," came the dragon's irritable rebuke.
Turning from the spectacle to regard an open-mouthed mage, I arranged for him to get the other mages to open the dome, lowering it to the height of the ramparts. That done, I felt a large claw wrap around my midsection and lift me up.
"Invisibilising your friends is up to you, Avatar," the dragon rumbled.
When I found my seat and steadied myself with the invisible spines, I complied. "Ready."
"Then hold tight." Her muscles bunched and a tremendous whoosh of wind signalled the downsweep of her wings. A few mages below us were flattened. As they scrambled to regain their feet, we rose into the sky once more and started west. I felt the field being restored to its original form as we got out of range, and below the keep I could see the demoralised army of the Guardian attempting to regroup - many dragging their own dead to some nearby location.
For now, the Lycaeum was safe.
We reached the Isle of Fire around noon. Visible, we glided over the battlements as I asked those on patrol to clear out of the way. The dragon came to a gentle landing and I saw Julia appear at the top of the stairs.
The tinker stared, mouth agape as she watched us dismount. When I waved at her to come over, her expression became one of incredulity.
"It's safe!" I assured her.
She took a cautious step forward and looked at the intimidating - yet completely disinterested - dragon. "Thou art sure?"
"Would I lie?"
"That's an unfair question coming from thee, Avatar!" she accused. "By the Virtues," she breathed, coming forward. "It's not that I doubted Lord British's word, but..."
The dragon folded her wings and - to the surprise of Julia and several others on guard - resumed her human-warrior form.
"Amazing!" Julia said. "Thou canst shape-change?"
The dragon gave Julia a withering look with her golden eyes, then said to me, "At least she didn't ask me if I was really a dragon."
"This is Julia," I replied. "Tinker by trade and a good friend."
Then someone else caught Julia's attention. "Shamino! 'Tis good to see thou'rt alive!"
As she didn't say something similar to me, I wasn't sure if Lord British had told her what had happened. I decided to keep quiet about it until I could talk to her away from those who didn't need to hear.
"Our lookouts sighted ye a while ago," Julia went on. "Lord British wants to speak to all of us, but-" and here she gave me a grin, "-decided to give ye time to 'freshen up' first."
I rolled my eyes skyward and sighed.
In a more serious tone, the tinker added, "He'll be with Lord Draxinusom in the Test of Courage. He particularly wishes to speak with thee, Elora."
"Hm. I'll find out soon, I guess. Now, I'm for a bath."
"There are fresh clothes in everyone's rooms," Julia said. "Shamino, thou wilt have to come with me for thine." She looked speculatively at the dragon-woman. "Sorry, I didn't catch thy name."
"That would be because no one mentioned it."
Julia flushed a little, but didn't press the issue. Instead she asked, "Needest thou anything?"
"Now that you mention it, a cow and a sheep or two wouldn't go amiss." Giving me a reproving glance, she went on, "I haven't eaten a full meal since meeting up with her. If I'm going to Atarka, I might as well fill up while I have the chance."
Julia stared at her.
"I'll organise it as soon as I change," Katrina offered. "Canst thou wait?"
"I suppose so," the dragon-woman replied, her voice a little ungracious.
"Good. See thee in, say, half an hour?"
The dragon sighed. "Very well. Then I eat and we leave."
"After we talk with Lord British," I put in.
She sighed again and went to lean against the battlements, one hand running absently over the barrel of a cannon.
I hoped it wasn't loaded.
"So," Julia said as she led us to the stairs. "After Lord British, where are we going?"
"The trade worked exactly as we'd hoped," Lord British said. "We have arms and armour enough to pose at least a small threat now. Once the teleport pads between here and Serpent's Hold are completed, we'll have more - and the support of the knights. Then we can try for Trinsic and the Lycaeum."
"We can't set Trinsic up with a pad first?" Iolo asked.
"They don't have the materials, unfortunately, and they're too heavy for a gargoyle to carry. Even one using venom. We'd need to deliver them over sea and land, or have Elora teleport them."
We were sitting in a circle near one edge of a large cavern - none other than the one in which I'd fought and defeated the dragon Dracothraxus to complete the Test of Courage. All kinds of training equipment could be found here. Practise dummies, targets, balancing beams and some odd structures the winged gargoyles used. It was empty but for us, and I once again wondered why we were talking here.
"Our mages have contacted others of their profession in Trinsic. I myself spoke with Nystul at Castle Britannia. Both places are now aware of the situation with Elora and Mellorin, her double."
Draxinusom, Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Katrina, Julia and I nodded. I'd found that Julia had been told everything - had demanded to know everything when she'd returned to the Isle of Fire. Somehow, word of my death had reached Buccaneers' Den. Julia had told us that many of the pirates were considering to join the enemy - not openly, of course. Avoid enemy ships, sink a few Britannian ones, who'd notice? They'd been waylaying Britannians for centuries.
"Trinsic doth not look likely to last long," the king went on. "Double the number the enemy had at Serpent's Hold. That is how many there are surrounding the City of Honour. They aren't even attacking; they're just waiting. Starving our people out. Sooner or later...unless we find a way to free them, they'll have no choice but to attack or surrender." He gave me a level look. "There are so many foes there that I doubt even thy power could take them all out, even as thou art now."
"I'm not certain my power has limits," I replied. "Shouldn't I at least try?"
"I wouldn't advise it, Elora. Shouldst thou teleport there, methinks thou wilt arrive just near the Shrine of Honour as thou didst at the Shrine of Justice. That place is under heavy guard."
I shrugged. "I can handle a few soldiers."
"Not just soldiers. Daemons."
"I can handle a few daemons."
I paused. "Ah. In that case, maybe not."
He smiled slightly. "Undeath doth not mean invincibility."
"That's right - go ahead and destroy all my fantasies," I said, grinning. Then I became serious again. "Can I add something here? The Shrine of the Codex. It's also under attack - the enemy are trying to break down the field between the Guardians."
"That explains why thou wert asked to protect the Flame of Courage," Julia said. "Dupre mentioned the Flames generate the Guardians' field."
"Yes. All three Flames are down, though. Even Truth."
"Just what is so important about this Shrine of the Codex?" the dragon interrupted. With nothing better to do, she'd decided to sit in on our discussions.
"Hast thou heard of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom?" Lord British asked.
"Yes, of course. My people were quite upset when someone lifted it from the aeth'er'eal." She looked at Draxinusom pointedly. "But it's back there now. So?"
"I have two theories," I said. "One: the Guardian wants the Codex. Why not? He wanted the Horn of Praecor Loth. Where is that, by the way?" I asked Lord British.
"Ok. So, he can have his cronies perform the same ritual the gargoyles did. They just need the position. Naxatilor could only summon the Codex to a particular place, right?"
"When I moved it to the Isle of the Avatar, later returning it to the Void, I changed that position."
"So thou thinkest the Codex can only be summoned to where it last was?" Iolo asked.
"That's my guess. Then they just need the Vortex Cube, which is in Britain, the moonstones, which are also in Britain, and the Convex and Concave lenses." I sighed. "Those Mellorin picked up the first time she came to the Isle."
"And now they just need to get in to the Shrine," Lord British said. "So the Guardian might want the Codex. What is thine other theory?"
"That he wants the Black Jewel of Mondain." To the dragon, I said, "That is trapped within the Flame of Infinity. Of course, he could always want both."
"That wouldn't surprise me," the dragon muttered. "So if the three Flames are out, as you say, why is that field between the Guardians still up?"
I pointed at Lord British.
"There's a title that was given to him a very long time ago. 'The Bearer of the White Light'. Richard is the Eternal Flame of Spirituality."
Everyone stared at him in amazement.
Lord British endured it for a minute then admitted, "I'd almost forgotten about that."
"Then why was Mellorin after me?" Shamino asked.
"I don't know," I answered.
"Nor doth Mariah," Lord British added. "She contacted me yesterday evening. Both she and Mellorin sensed thy Blinking, Elora. They know thou didst go to Iolo's house on the edge of the Deep Forest. The only reason they didn't follow is because they ran out of the appropriate reagents, and the Blacksword apparently didn't have enough power to enable Mellorin to attempt Blinking without them."
"So now what, then?" Julia asked.
"I'm going to another world to find out about this bracer," I told her. "I must find a way to stop Mellorin and restore my life. While I'm there, though, I'll see what I can learn of the Guardian's plans."
"We're accompanying thee?" Dupre asked as the companions exchanged glances.
"I wouldn't mind the company," I said with a smile. "But I'm not sure if you should all come unless you can all find replacements for yourselves on our islands."
"Already done," Iolo said, to which both Dupre and Katrina nodded.
"I don't think I've been here long enough to be missed," Shamino noted.
Julia said, "I can get several replacements. Nothing's going to keep me away from this. By the Virtues, I missed one opportunity to explore other worlds..."
"I'll be coming, too," Lord British said.
There was a pregnant silence.
"We know Elora hath lost the ability to heal - to use life spells. I will be needed."
He had a point.
"I'm a more than able swordsman," he added.
If that wasn't an understatement; Lord British was probably the greatest swordsman in Britannia.
"So it's agreed."
He looked at me suspiciously. "Would everyone excuse us, please?"
"Leave?" Dupre echoed blankly.
"Fool," Iolo said with a snort. He leaned over and whispered something to the knight...just loudly enough for everyone else to conveniently hear. "They're going to have a fight."
Lord British gave the bard a reproving look. "Dost thou mind?"
"What?" the bard said defensively. "It's true, isn't it?"
Dupre's eyes had brightened. "A fight? And thou wilt not let us watch?"
"Up for a little duel, are you, my Lord?" I asked the king, my eyes dancing.
Dupre let out a mournful sigh. "The greatest duel we'll ever see and we can't watch." He frowned. "Greatest duel...?" I could have sworn I heard something click in his head, at this point. The knight leaped to his feet, eyes wide. "Everyone, stay calm!" he said, though his excited voice did little to inspire serenity. "Iolo, Shamino, Katrina, Julia-" he pointed at each companion with a trembling hand, "-book-keeping! Quickly, my friends, there's no time to spare!"
"Thou'rt placing bets?" Lord British spluttered.
I tried very hard not to grin. "Uh, Richard, you do realise that this is the kind of thing you'll have to endure should you choose to follow me."
The monarch gave out a faintly martyred sigh and looked at Dupre, who was pacing impatiently as he listed - aloud - possible gamblers.
"And who wilt thou bet on, Sir Dupre?" Katrina asked silkily.
The knight came to an abrupt halt as both Lord British and I looked at him expectantly. Giving Katrina a helpless look, he muttered something that could have meant anything then left the room with unseemly haste.
Katrina, struggling to hide a broad smirk, went after him with Julia at her side and the dragon-woman following. Iolo rolled his eyes and admonished both of us to be careful. Shamino - taking no pains to hide his grin - and Draxinusom left with the bard, leaving Lord British and me alone in the chamber.
"So...what are we going to fight about?" I asked blandly.
Lord British was silent for a minute, probably deciding on the best way to answer. "I'd like to come with thee," he said at last. "Draxinusom hath things well in hand here and I'd be doing more good assisting thee- "
"Your Majesty..." I used his title deliberately. He was my friend, but he was also the King of Britannia and I wasn't about to let him forget that, or the responsibilities that went with it. "I won't insult you by warning you how dangerous this will be, but...I really think you'd be better off staying here. Accidents do happen. If Draxinusom is killed, who will lead the people?" I left it unsaid that it would be a major catastrophe should Lord British himself die, but he knew exactly what I was thinking.
"Elora, I've been fighting monsters since before thou didst become the Avatar. I know I can be of use to thee." He paused and looked at me with worried blue eyes. "Is it a bad idea?"
"We will be going to a Guardian-dominated world, Richard."
"I want to come," he said, his voice softly insistent. "I can look out for myself." Then he laughed. "What? Do I have to make my point by actually challenging thee to duel?"
I could tell he was only joking, but I seriously considered it. If Mellorin was after him he'd be safer with me, no matter where I went. That said, I wanted the Lord of Britannia along on this mission as much as he did. Still, I wanted to see if he was as good as his reputation made out.
And how I'd compare.
Not that I had any doubts, of course...
"I accept," I said gravely.
He wasn't quite able to stifle a groan of chagrin.
"If you win, you can come with me to Atarka. So, what if I win?"
"Thy choice, Avatar."
"Your Majesty is too kind." I gave him a smile. "We'll see." I drew the Firedoom Axe and he readied his sword, then we both walked to the centre of the cavern. It had been purposefully left clear for sparring, so we had no need to move anything as we stepped inside a wide circle drawn on the floor. I shrugged out of my cloak and tossed it outside the ring with a flourish, then extended my weapon. Lord British held out his own and they tapped together lightly, signalling that the fight could begin.
"Ready?" I asked, then whipped my axe around at him without waiting for an answer. It whistled over his head as he ducked and grimaced.
"Yes." He slashed at my legs and I waited until the last instant before evading and loosing a spell of Paralyse.
"Not good, Richard," I chided. "Being helpless is a good way to get killed." Stepping towards him to claim his sword, I almost lost due to overconfidence as he suddenly moved, left leg sweeping out to trip me, sword whistling toward my chest. I kept my feet, however, and managed to turn his blade aside, though almost stepped outside the circle. Sidestepping away to his left, I grinned. "Nice bluff."
"Not bad for a guy over three hundred years old, is it?" he returned, smiling back, though keeping his full attention on what I was doing rather than what I was saying.
Smiling inwardly, I circled him and backed toward the middle of the fighting area to give myself more room. He followed at a cautious walk, eyes on mine so as to catch anything I might give away on what I'd do next. Suddenly he jumped forward and lunged. I smacked the blow aside and retaliated with an overhead stroke, which he dodged. Pushing toward him, I swung the axe over his head and forced him back to the edge of the circle. One major advantage an axe had was that it was much heavier than most swords, so it was difficult for a swordsman to defend against. Lord British was using a longsword so it would be easy for me to break his weapon if he blocked at the wrong time. Therefore it was smarter for him to just try and get out of the way rather than engage in hand-to-hand.
"You're about to walk off the edge of a very high cliff, my Lord," I warned as his back foot almost touched the edge of the circle. "Casting a Fly spell won't count, you know."
"I had another spell in mind," he said as he twisted away from another attack. "An Xen Corp!" A brilliant white light sprang up around him and I found myself trying to turn my face away from it. It hurt to look at it and closing my eyes did no good.
I backed away, trying to shield my 'eyes' with an upraised hand. Even then I could feel the presence of the spell. "Repel Undead?" I said, keeping my distance.
He came closer, forcing me back without having to do anything more than approach. When I attempted a quick move to the right he cut me off.
"What doth it feel like?"
I told him, then looked down and saw my feet on the line of the circle. Time to go forward again. Incanting the spell Leap in my mind, I jumped clear over the Lord of Britannia's head, the magic enabling me to reach a height that's normally reserved for pole-vaulters. Then, in the name of pure art, I added a flip so that I landed facing my adversary on the opposite side of the duelling circle. As he quickly moved toward me again, I cast Negate Magic, which cancelled both his spell and mine, then swept out my axe to catch his sword. The fight stayed with our weapons from there. I learned that, if anything, Lord British exceeded his reputation. He was extremely good with a sword and had very few weaknesses. He might even be better than Dupre, I conceded as I defended myself from a flurry of slashing attacks. In a one-on-one situation, anyway.
But I was still better than both of them. It wasn't pride talking, just fact.
In the end, I pulled up just short of cutting his head off and he paused a hair's breadth from plunging his sword into my chest.
"Who wins?" he panted.
"I do," I replied. "That stroke wouldn't kill me."
"But if thou wert alive-"
"I wouldn't have even let you get that stroke through," I interrupted seriously. "The point is, I ignored a blow that would have hurt me in favour of getting in one that would kill you. Remember what you're fighting." I withdrew my weapon. "You don't disappoint me, though. The rest of the fight was excellent."
"The imprisonment in Castle Britannia gave me plenty of time to practise," he replied lightly, and sheathed his sword. "We'll have to spar again when this is over."
Rubbing my temples, I agreed. "That was a nasty spell you cast. I always knew that it repelled undead, but I never considered how. It's passing."
"'Tis a good thing thou didst remember Negate Magic." He grimaced. "Hadst thou not, I would have used it as another reason why I should come."
"The last time you went off on an adventure you ended up getting trapped in a mirror."
His blue eyes hardened. "That's not funny, Avatar."
"I wasn't trying to be funny, my Lord. I'm just pointing out that this will be dangerous. I'm not about to let you get yourself killed."
"I can take care of myself." He looked me square in the eyes. "I'm not afraid. It's time for me to fight, Elora. It's my duty as much as thine to protect Britannia."
"I'm glad you feel that way. I want you to come."
He stared at me.
"You're right, Richard. I will need your help." I extended my hand and assisted him to his feet. "The dragon could probably cast healing spells, but if she's not to be trusted as you think, we might be in trouble when the time comes for her to use her magic."
"There's another reason, isn't there?" he asked softly.
I sighed. "Yes."
I nodded and said nothing more. She could enter the fort at any time with Arcadion's magic. From there, it would be a simple matter of reaching Lord British's room, overcoming the guards (which we both knew, modesty aside, that the Avatar would have little trouble accomplishing), then attempting to murder the king. It was safer for him to be with me than to stay here.
Lord British sheathed his sword with a wry smile. "So this means I'll be under thy command, doesn't it?"
My humour returned. "I wouldn't presume to tell thee anything, your Majesty."
He made a face. "Please, Elora. Being called that in the Guardian's lands is likely to get me killed."
"Well, what else is there? British, Cantabrigian or Richard?"
"Why couldn't my parents have given me a nice, inconspicuous name? Cecil, for example."
I broke out laughing. "Lord Cecil? I doubt your people would have been impressed."
"I was joking. Richard will be fine. I think we'd be in more trouble should someone call thee 'Avatar'."
"Maybe. We don't know that." Looking around, I said, "I guess we should get ready to- "
"My Lord! Avatar!" Dupre's voice was clearly audible before the knight himself entered the room at a run. Bracing himself against the entrance of the cave, he paused for breath then said, "Serpent's Hold is under attack again! The mages just reported the enemy ships dropping anchor west of the Isle of Deeds. They're preparing to disembark!"
"Grab Iolo, Shamino, Julia and as many archers as are on guard," I said quickly. "Meet in the courtyard. I'll contact Katrina on Ambrosia and have her and the dragon meet us at the Hold."
Dupre nodded once and left.
I sent my thoughts north-east and sped over the ocean, reaching Ambrosia in under a minute. The scrying shields were no longer in use, so I easily found the dragon's huge scarlet form as she daintily plucked up a sheep, broke its neck and proceeded to eat it.
"I'll fly the shepherdess there," she promised, and with that I returned to the Isle of Fire.
Lord British was waiting for me.
I nodded. "Let's go."
When Lord British, Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia, fifteen archers and I teleported to the Isle of Deeds, I immediately spun to look west. The masts of warships could be seen rising behind the small town surrounding the Hold, and the sound of an army gathering was distant.
"They'll be marching this way soon," Dupre said tersely, "even if the port had some defence. We should make straight for the Hold."
I agreed and cast a glance at the sky. "We'll walk. We have to wait for Katrina and the dragon. Let's get inside before deciding what to do next."
We started off at a fast pace, trying to ignore the increasing volume of the enemy's cries of "Guardian!" Halfway to our destination, I felt a strong surge of ether and stumbled as it nearly knocked me off my feet.
"What was that?" I shouted as Iolo and Shamino helped me keep up.
"I don't-" Lord British began, then was cut off as Dupre deliberately knocked him down.
A bolt of crackling lightning rocketed through his previously occupied space.
I looked back.
"Run," I said softly. "Get to the keep as fast as you can and don't stop."
They obeyed without question and I followed behind, ready to block any spells my double threw at us. Glancing over my shoulder a few times, I noted that she wasn't following, but was holding her position at the top of the small rise she'd teleported to. She seemed to be wearing the same things I'd seen her in last time, and the Blacksword was still strapped to her back.
"Surrender your king to me, Elora," her mind-voice commanded.
I ignored her, not about to fall into the trap of challenging her to try and take him. Instead, I stopped and turned to face her, one hand drawing my axe. "Would you care to fight me now?"
"Not a large enough audience," she replied, folding her arms. "That will be remedied soon enough, though."
"I can see the aeth'raesh'al gave you a full measure of Cowardice."
She laughed. "You're the one running, Avatar. Look at you! This time you have the strength to wipe out ten times the number of attackers and live, and you're running!"
A deafening roar exploded overhead as the dragon plummeted from the sky with Katrina clinging to her neck. Mellorin looked up then went into an instinctive crouch as the huge reptile swept low over the ground and breathed fire across it, hiding my double behind a wall of flames.
"Arcadion!" the dragon screamed in a voice full of hatred. Turning on a wingtip, she flew back over to Mellorin's side of the flames with talons outstretched and fangs bared.
"Dragon, no!" I mind-shouted, horror-stricken. "You're no match for her!"
"Keep out of this, liche! Arcadion killed Dracothraxus. It's him I want."
"Listen to me! Dracothraxus isn't dead, but if you insist on pursuing your thirst for vengeance to its final stupidity, let Katrina down first!"
There was a mental snarl of frustration.
"What's she doing?" Dupre shouted to me.
I quickly went up to where he stood with the others beside the rapidly opening portcullis of Serpent's Hold. "She wants to kill Arcadion."
"Who doth not?" the knight shrugged.
"This is a little more serious." I concentrated and managed to Douse the dragon's fire.
"Virtues!" Iolo gasped, and the others drew in sharp breaths.
Now that the fire was gone, a vast enemy army could be seen nearing the position where Mellorin stood throwing Arcadion's fire magic at the circling dragon. Even at this distance I could see that the army was huge. Sunlight glinted off armour and the light wind stirred the many, many banners and pennons bearing the Guardian's face.
"There must be thousands of them," Dupre whispered.
"And I could kill all of them and end the threat," I thought bleakly to myself. "Nothing is stopping me. Except me."
"Quickly, friends, inside!" a knight said, gesturing from inside the gatehouse. He vanished within, standing beside a guard who was readying himself to close the portcullis as soon as we got in.
"Come here, NOW!" I telepathed angrily at the dragon. "Or you will be left behind!"
With a furious roar, the dragon broke off her attack and flew in our direction, the enemy soldiers immediately giving chase as Mellorin pointed at her with the Blacksword and shouted something that we couldn't hear over the cries of "Ka-thra!" I noticed, with a sinking feeling, that some of these soldiers wielded bows. A closer look at the dragon as she approached revealed she hadn't got away unwounded. She landed quickly near us and Katrina slid off her back.
"Hurry!" the knight's voice came from the gatehouse.
The dragon flickered out of sight.
"What are you doing?" I demanded, patience worn thin. "They're coming, for Virtues' sake!"
"I'm not going to let them see me change shape," her voice replied, thick with suppressed anger. "They'll know what I am. I'll explain later, if I haven't already." There was a faint ripple of ether and a lurid curse directed at the fragility of human bodies.
I dispelled her Invisibility and sucked in a breath at the sight before me. Three arrows stuck out from her human flesh - left thigh, left shoulder, low in her right side.
"I barely felt them," she whispered, then collapsed.
"Dupre!" I shouted. "Help!" I glanced up at the advancing army and felt a chill run through me. If I'd thought seeing an army march at me the last time I stood at Serpent's Hold was bad... This time there were more of them, I could see every one because it was day, they were running...and they were too close for comfort. Archers on the battlements started to loose arrows.
Dupre reached me and together we carried the dragon-woman inside. The portcullis grated shut behind us. Lord British came over and began a healing spell.
"Shamino," I called, and he came over. "We're not going to defend the Hold. I want you to get everyone to go under the keep where the Eternal Flame of Courage is. Was. Have Iolo, Julia and Katrina help."
"Thou wantest the knights to surrender Serpent's Hold? What if they won't listen?"
"Order them in Lord British's name if you must, but do it. We'll take them all to Atarka. If we just teleport somewhere else in Britannia, Mellorin will sense it, follow with her army and wipe us out."
Shamino, Iolo, Katrina and Julia went to carry out my instructions.
There was a cry of pain as Dupre pulled an arrow free from the dragon's shoulder. "The eastern half of the southern wall won't hold," he told me. "It's too weak - hath not been fully repaired since the last attack."
The knight on guard nodded. "We have had a pit dug around the area and filled with caltrops, Sir Dupre."
I looked at the mass of soldiers through the bars of the portcullis. "But where has Mellorin gone?" I muttered to myself, for I couldn't see her.
"Mellorin? Thou meanest the dragon?" the knight asked. "Was that its name?"
A weak snort of contempt came from Lord British's patient.
"Forget it," I said. "Takest thyself to the Flame Chamber, Sir Knight, and go now."
"Yes, Avatar," he said with a salute, and hurried off.
"I can walk," the dragon said as Dupre helped her up.
An arrow hissed past my head and there was a loud clang as another struck the portcullis. The dragon reared back as an arrow sped at her, its head slicing a thin gash across her brow as it continued its flight. "Kemah-thra!" she snarled. "Why me?"
"Go!" I said, then raised an Energy Field just outside the portcullis. Two arrows shattered against it almost instantly.
We hurried down the eastern corridor, but hadn't gone far before I felt a tingling touch against my mind. I shared a startled glance with Lord British and we both shouted, "Get down!"
An ear-splitting crack of breaking stone sounded just in front of us, and a whole section of the solid wall to our right exploded inwards. Suddenly the passage was filled with dust, shattered rock and enemy soldiers. There was no pit outside. This wasn't even the weak part of the wall.
Our weapons were out in an instant and we charged forward, seeking only to pass the breach and get to the stairwell on the other side. Unfortunately, the purpose of these corridors was to make it easy to stop people from getting through.
The tingling feeling came again and I reacted at once. Shoving my will up against the still-standing wall to our immediate right, I held it steady as an explosion slammed against it from the outside. The force of it still threw me off-balance, and I narrowly avoided a sword-thrust through the skull, but the wall didn't even tremble.
"Keep coming!" Shamino's voice shouted from the other side of the breach. As I felled a soldier, I caught a glimpse of the ranger, Iolo and some knights attacking the enemy from the rear.
"If we can force them back through the hole, I can seal it off," I told Lord British and Dupre, none of us slowing in our fights.
"Why not use magic to scare them off?" the dragon asked from behind us.
"Nowhere for them to run," Dupre shouted as he blocked a foe. "They're all streaming toward this one hole in the wall. There's no way out except through us." He jumped forward as his opponent fell, sword whipping out like red lightning.
I cast Mass Protection and charged after him, my axe striking left and right and tearing through armour and flesh with equal ease. Lord British kept to my left side and we were halfway past the hole when he decided to use magic. Half a dozen foes stopped in their tracks, Paralysed. They fell over like immobile statues as those behind pushed forward and trampled them.
"Thou knowest," the king said, panting slightly, "it's not completely immoral for thee to use thy magic. Just keep it under control."
"That means I have to think," I replied, skewering a soldier with the axe's balancing spike as the monarch defended my side. "And to quote one of my favourite movies, in a battle, 'You don't have time to think out there. If you think, you're dead.'" Nevertheless, I called on my undead powers and started to use them. "Get down!" I shouted to Dupre, who was in the way, then threw a Swordstrike through the gap in the wall.
The pinwheel of flashing blades spun from my hands and cut through the foes attempting to enter the Hold. The screams of agony as they were horribly sliced up went on and on as those beyond the breach were forced into it by those pushing from behind, unaware of the danger ahead. Blood, and worse, sprayed all over the place in a grisly, red fountain.
The few soldiers left inside the passage were quickly dispatched, then we joined Iolo, Shamino and the knights and continued on to the hall below Serpent's Hold.
"Nice fight," commented Shamino. "No one on our side dead; what more canst thou want?"
"Everyone on their side dead," I muttered to myself as the screams behind us followed our dash down the passage.
Sir Horffe barred the only door to the hall. I stood on the other side, next to the empty basin of the Flame of Courage, with my companions and Britannia's Lord. The hall was vast; easily large enough for the several hundred people of Serpent's Hold. Times long past it had been used for knightly gatherings, but I'd been told that the tradition had died out a few decades ago. Long enough ago that many junior knights hadn't known this hall even existed. A thick, stone pillar supported the roof at each of the four corners of the room, and the northern side had a small, raised dais with a few steps leading up to it. Huge tapestries dominated the walls to the north, east and west, each displaying a different facet of Courage: Valour, Honour, and Sacrifice. The residents of Serpent's Hold, everyone from knight to peasant, were all gathered here, and they spoke quietly amongst themselves. Most of those under arms stood near the door with their Master at Arms, Sir Horffe, in case they might be needed.
"We must take them with us to Atarka, Richard," I was saying softly. "If I teleport anywhere within Britannia, Mellorin will know, and she'll follow with her entire army."
"That maketh me wonder if we can ever return safely," he replied, but agreed. "Should I announce it, or wilt thou?"
"You're the politician, my Lord," I pointed out with a faint smile. "Try to come up with something that doesn't make it sound like we're running away."
He gave me a withering look.
"And I'd hurry," I added as the faint echo of footsteps drifted from the outer corridors. He turned to address the people and I jumped down from the dais to confer with the dragon. She stood beside Dupre, using her own magic to complete the healing Lord British had begun on her.
"What?" she asked me.
"Do you know what we can expect on the other side? When we teleport to Atarka?"
"That depends entirely on where on the other side we go to." She shrugged. "Besides, how would I know? Aeth'raesh'ali never had teleportation attributes before."
"Just wondering." I brushed a finger over the bracer. "You did know where the orange stone leads to."
Again she shrugged. "In any case, I think it's just as well you're taking these people with you. Since the aeth'raesh'al was once Mors Gotha's, I think it's safe to assume that anywhere we go will be under the Guardian's rule, or invasion. If it's also under guard, you'll need whoever's a fighter."
"There is that."
The room suddenly erupted into thunderous cheers. I glanced around, startled to see that many of the knights had their blades up in salute. Lord British's sword was also aloft - its steely length still showing the stains of our last fight and providing silent proof that Britannia's king was willing to put his life on the line. That sword abruptly sliced down, swinging to point at me. "It is because of her," the king said, "that most of ye are alive this day. Not one of ye should have trouble remembering that she was not even spared death when she saved ye all from it. Fought with us and died for us. But now is not the time to repay that debt - not against them." He gestured above us in he direction of the enemy army. "Instead, she asketh that we follow her to the world from whence these invaders come!"
Conversation buzzed throughout the hall. I looked carefully at some of the peoples' expressions at this news. Not one person seemed surprised that I could take them to another world. Hell, after I'd obliterated over a thousand foes with a single spell, then came back to life on my own, they probably thought I could do anything.
"You really did that?" the dragon murmured.
"You just 'thought' some of your memories to me, Avatar. I saw you fighting a massive battle on both physical and magical levels. In order to save your people, you..." She shook her head. "I never would have thought such Love and Courage existed in a human."
I couldn't tell whether or not that was a compliment, so I didn't answer.
"Didst thou hear?" Dupre asked suddenly. "Richard didn't say why thou wantest these people along, but they've come to their own assumptions. They think thou'rt going to lead them against the enemy on their own ground!"
"Let them believe it," I replied. "I don't have any doubts we'll be doing some fighting over there. Maybe it is time to take the fight to the Guardian."
"That's my world you'll be marching over, Avatar," said the dragon, her voice ominous.
I looked at her. "I know. We'll want to avoid as many clashes as we can, anyway. At the moment we have to worry about retaking Britannia before we even think about liberating Atarka."
Lord British finally raised his arms again. The sound of enemy boots was getting louder. When the people fell silent, the king asked softly, "Are there any here who have no wish to come?"
No one moved for a minute. Then a knight called out, "Your Majesty, many of us have lost friends, family and homes to the enemy. My sister liveth in Moonglow, sire, and I've no idea how she fareth. I say, if the Avatar hath a plan that will help us, then I will follow her."
A murmuring of agreement followed the knight's words, and most of the people started to look at me with open respect and faith.
Dupre knew me well enough to know that I wasn't completely happy with the proceedings. "What's up?"
"Our wonderful Lord British has just succeeded in putting me in charge," I telepathed, unamused. "I don't want to lead several hundred citizens! That's in his job description!" I gave Dupre a sour look when he chuckled. "You're supposed to be understanding and sympathetic."
"Don't worry about that just now, Elora. Just get us out of here."
"You were never one to beat about the bush, my friend." I ascended the steps to where Lord British stood. "Why don't you crown me Lady of Britannia and have done with it?" I muttered.
"I'd never do that to thee, Elora!" he protested innocently. "But if thou'rt serious-"
He laughed softly. "Then let's go." He stepped down to stand with the people, leaving me alone on the dais.
"Everyone hang on," I called, and decided against adding, "I'm not entirely sure what's going to happen." Pressing the orange jewel that would send us between worlds, I then touched the facet of the central jewel that was edged by a second orange gem.
There was a slight lurch and I got the feeling I was looking at everything from underwater. Or perhaps through clear jelly, because everything seemed to slow down and wobble. I extended the field to surround everyone in the hall, and noticed that as they were included in the spell, I could see them as normal. Everything beyond the field wavered and became distorted.
Then a loud, reverberating crash came from the door, and five soldiers
rushed in with drawn weapons. They gave no indication they could see us.
As they turned to leave and continue their search for the Serpent's Hold
defenders, everything vanished in a swirl of light-shot shadows...