The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
Lord Cantabrigian British, sovereign ruler of Britannia, bent and picked up a shard from the formerly whole stained-glass window that had stood behind his throne. "Hath it occurred to thee, Elora," he asked me, leaning against the parapet, "that most of thine adventures end with thee breaking something?"
I smiled ruefully. "I hadn’t really thought about it, Milord. Sorry about the mess."
"Not at all, Avatar. I..."
There was a shout from the throneroom behind us, which was quickly followed by the clash of steel. I unhooked the Firedoom axe from my belt and cast a questioning look at my king.
"I should help the guards take care of the last of the intruders, Milord," I said, to which he nodded.
I stepped through the broken window into the large, pillared throneroom, Lord British following closely. The throneroom was a battlefield as Britannians engaged the Guardian’s invaders from Killorn Keep - a place I’d visited through the teleportation gem below the Castle. Blood stained the stone walls and floor and matted the carpet. Here and there, a body sprawled motionless in the green tabard of Britannia or the gold of the Guardian.
The fight wasn’t over.
Leaping past the ankh-shaped throne, I swung the Firedoom axe and cleaved an enemy’s skull, then back-slashed and took out the throat of a second. Almost two months of relying on my own skills against anything from giant rats to the Destroyer Daemon had given me all the combat prowess I needed to dispatch a few hired warriors.
I caught the sword of a foe against my shield and didn’t have time to repay the blow before a blood-smeared sword blade emerged dripping from his chest. Not waiting to see who’d felled him, I spun about, brained another invader and saw six more charging forward from the inner garden.
"Syria!" I shouted.
The warrior woman appeared at my side, sword out and streaked with crimson as she prepared to meet the oncoming wave. "Yes, Avatar?"
"Where are they coming from? The sewers under the Castle?"
"I’m not sure, some might be. The majority are coming from outside - from Britain!"
I cursed. Had the Guardian’s forces overtaken us already? "Stand back." I whirled the axe in a deadly arc and the great ruby in the haft glittered. A devastating blast of fire exploded into the faces of the six invaders, blinding three and incinerating a fourth.
"Cleaning this up will cost me a fortune," Lord British said in a tightly controlled voice. He stood on my right side and his royal, fur-trimmed cloak was thrown back. One hand gripped a longsword as bloody as Syria’s. Before I had time to contemplate more, the capable attackers reached us.
Weapons whistled through the air and blood flew. The enemies, startled by the Flame Wind which had lashed their ranks and unable to slow their momentum coming down the carpeted stairs, were quickly killed.
"Take three guards," Lord British instructed Syria quickly. "Lower the portcullis and raise the drawbridge."
She nodded and dashed up the steps towards the garden, yelling for three guards to follow. I glanced around quickly, but no one from Killorn Keep was in the throneroom any more.
"So, we’re trapped in the Castle again," I sighed.
"Hopefully not for long," the king assured me. "If Britain hath been taken, we’ll have to think of something before charging out the gate."
I agreed, then slowly sat down and laid the axe across my knees. I was tired. I was also very sore. No serious wounds, but dozens of minor ones. Although I could take on five, maybe six foes single-handedly, unless magically protected, such an encounter would never leave me unscathed.
"Richard," I said, catching Lord British’s attention. "The Blackrock prison is down...can you use your magic now?"
The king pointed at me. "Vas Mani!"
A warmth infused my body and I felt my many wounds heal as the spell washed through me like a cleansing tide.
"That’s a ‘yes’, I believe," the king smiled, obviously relieved at his restored ability to manipulate the ether. I knew how he felt.
Sir Dupre entered the room from the garden and saluted the two guards left with Lord British and me before approaching and bowing to his king. "Syria hath done thy bidding, Milord," he reported. "But there are still a few intruders running the corridors - we’ll get them all soon. Dost thou wish the entrances to the sewers barred?"
The king nodded. "Lock the doors, lower the portcullis and spare a guard or two for every entrance."
I took a large key from my keyring and gave it to Dupre. It was the key to one of the sewer doors he’d given to me earlier. With a brief nod of thanks, the knight departed to fulfil his orders.
Lord British suddenly bent over the corpse of a Britannian guard and intoned, "In Mani Corp!"
The man sat up and shook himself as if awakening from some dream. Realising what had happened, he stood and bowed low to his king, words of gratitude flowing from his lips.
Lord British met my gaze, and on seeing his compassionate expression, mixed with regret, I understood. Because of the Blackrock prison, he’d been unable to resurrect Lady Tory or the scholar Nelson - both murdered within the Castle walls. The two had been cremated in secluded places to prevent disease as no one had known how long we’d be without magic, or freedom, or fresh air.
The king wasn’t about to let any more of his people die if he could help it.
The clack of a crossbow sounded an instant before the Killorn warrior sneaking around the throne toppled with a bolt in his chest.
Iolo shouldered his crossbow and descended the steps. "Methinks our liege will have enough people to save without adding thee to the list, Elora," he said.
"I knew he was there."
"Seriously! Look, there’s another one hiding just outside the window to the left."
The bard rolled his eyes and reloaded his crossbow. "How many are there?" he muttered in exasperation.
Lord British restored another of his people to life. "I wish I knew."
The hiding warrior abruptly appeared in the broken window, then vanished as Iolo shot him and he fell backwards to tumble over the parapet. There was a strangled cry followed by an almighty splash as the man landed in the moat.
Iolo and I hurried over to look down; he with a second bolt ready to fire. The warrior floundered in the murky water of the moat, then gave a scream as something pulled him under the surface. I could make out the dim outline of one of the kraken that infested the moat just before the water took on a red cast and I turned away.
"That’s sickening," I shuddered. "Whose idea was it to put those monsters in the moat?"
Shrugging, Iolo replied, "No one seems to know."
I scanned the city below but couldn’t see anyone. "Let’s go to the southern wall."
So we did. Since the Castle gates were there, that’s where all the activity was. A horde of gold-tabarded foes bordered the shore of the moat. They waved swords and screamed threats but did little else.
"It seems they have no ranged weapons," Iolo observed. "No mages either," he added pointedly.
I grinned, then frowned. "No, I won’t cast any spells yet."
"Why don’t you fire at them?"
"I’m saving my bolts for when we might need...oh." His brow furrowed. "I understand."
We walked up to where Syria and her guards stood beside a cannon.
"Ah, Avatar," she said briskly. "How are we going on the inside?"
"Sir Dupre thinks we’ve just about flushed out any leftovers," I told her. "The sewer doors are being locked and guarded until we decide what to do next."
She nodded. "Any idea what that might be?"
I shook my head wearily. "No...unless our lord means to send me back down to that dimensional gem. It’s possible that it’s still there."
Iolo said, "If only we hadn’t returned the Virtue Stones to the museum! We’d have been able to use them to teleport out of here!"
"If I may..." I stepped past Syria, looked down at the beginnings of an army and shouted, "Who leads?"
"The answer came from hundreds of throats. "Mors Gotha!"
"Mors Gotha is dead! I killed her myself."
"Mors Gotha lives!" someone yelled.
"Mors Gotha! Mors Gotha!" the warriors chanted, banging swords against shields.
I turned to a guard. "Take a friend and find the body of Mors Gotha. She should be in the east wing near Nystul’s quarters. Bring her here."
Syria asked, "How good was she? With a sword, I mean."
I regarded the warriors below. "Not good enough."
After a minute or two, Dupre mounted the stairs. "Lord British is calling a meeting in the war hall," he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. It had been called such since the Castle had been encased in the Blackrock. Tables and chairs put there for the celebration of the anniversary of the Black Gate’s destruction had been cleared of food and covered with scrolls. "As soon as possible."
Iolo, Syria and I nodded. When Dupre left, Iolo said, "He didn’t look too happy."
"He’s probably figured out that our lord isn’t likely to lift the rationing of the Castle’s ale supply now," I replied, trying hard not to smirk. The knight was a dear friend and I couldn’t resist a dig at his bad habits every once in a while.
Syria made an indelicate sound. "I could drink him under the table anytime."
The guard reappeared with his companion and the body of Mors Gotha, former leader of the Guardian’s forces. With them, came Julia.
"I had to identify the body for them," she explained as the corpse was lowered to the ground.
"Are you okay?" I asked her. "You were wounded before."
"Nystul healed me," she answered, giving Mors Gotha a kick in the side. "Fortunately, she wasn’t very stealthy with all that armour and as a tinker, I was alert." She hesitated. "Alert enough not to get killed."
One of the guards was crouched beside the body. "Excuse me, Avatar...methinks thou hadst best see this." He pointed at the strange bracer Mors Gotha had on her right wrist.
What caught my attention first was not that the armband was made of clear crystal, nor that it was studded by a kingdom’s wealth of translucent jewels, but that it bore a black gem the size of my thumbnail which reflected no light from its facets. Instead, an inky mist had risen from it and was sluggishly moving across Mors Gotha’s body towards the gaping hole in her chest.
With a strangled gasp, I knelt, tore the bracer off and threw it several feet down the rampart. The thing clattered across the stones and, unbroken, lay there. I watched the sinister mist disperse then told the others not to go near it. Syria and Julia looked confused, but Iolo seemed concerned.
"Elora..." he began.
I shook my head, but changed my mind and said, "What?"
"That can’t be the Black Jewel of Mondain...can it?"
"No!" I exclaimed, a bit forcefully. "No," I repeated. "The Black Jewel is gone." I looked at the crystalline bracer. "This is something different, but similar." I turned my back on the thing, not wishing to remember the stone that had almost turned me, the saviour of Britannia, into the destroyer of Britannia. "Hold her body up so they can see it," I instructed the guards.
Mors Gotha was lifted above the battlements and an insane cheering began from the army below. It went on for a full minute before they realised that they had been cheering a corpse. Disbelieving silence was quickly supplanted by angry mutters.
"Who art thou, who slew the Guardian’s appointed leader?"
I removed my helmet and handed it to Iolo. Standing in clear view of the crowd, I shouted, "I am Elora the Avatar, protector of Britannia!"
Slowly, like a swelling tide, a new chant started. Its tone was half of fear, half of adoration, and it chilled me even more not knowing what it meant.
"Ka-thra! Ka-thra! Ka-thra!"