The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
Beauty rivalling deepest seas
This vast expanse of sand...
Sun-bleached, wind-blown, dead and dry,
Here you drown on land.
Dazed, the people glanced at their surroundings. Gone were the stone walls of the Keep of Courage. Instead, a thick forest stood around us in a wide circle, and it immediately became apparent that it was night. We stood in a clearing, which was dominated by a round pool of shimmering water. What puzzled me was the ground. Sand. Red sand, as though each grain were stained by blood.
"Are we in Atarka?" I asked the dragon-woman.
She pointed up. "Count the moons."
I did. "Five."
"And that constellation up there is the kha - the cat. This is Atarka." She frowned. "But I don't remember this place...come with me. I want to see something and you should come."
I nodded and turned to Lord British. "I'll be back in a minute, ok?"
"I'll keep an eye on things, Elora. We'll see if we brought any food, and we'll get our water skins filled."
"No," the dragon said, and the king blinked at the interruption. "Don't let anyone touch that water. Not yet."
He shrugged. "Very well."
"Let's go," I said.
"I'm coming," Dupre said, falling in beside us.
The three of us went into the trees - north, as far as I could tell, but I had absolutely no way to be sure - pushing aside dense undergrowth on our way. The vegetation was very green, but strange. I recognised none of the species I saw, though some were similar to Earth or Britannian breeds.
"Kemah-thra," the dragon muttered at last. "It's about time..." She pushed aside a branch to reveal the end of the trees.
And the beginning of a desert.
"The Krain Desert. Named after the oldest of my kind," she added softly.
"We can teleport somewhere else," I said. "We don't have to cross this desert."
"Use your magic, liche," she replied, her voice heavy and without its usual mocking edge. She pointed north-west. "Look that way until you see a change in the scenery."
I faced that way and sent my sight toward the horizon. Across a vast sea of crimson sand I flew, veering around dunes and the occasional solitary rock. When there was no change in what I saw after a minute, I went faster. The sands sped past in a blur, a smear of moonlit red. It seemed a long time before I could make out a difference in the horizon. Mountains. They still looked a long way off.
I jerked my vision back where it belonged and told my two companions what I'd seen.
"The Tuay Mountains. That is where the Dragonlore is kept - or it was, when I lived there."
"That is our destination?" I exclaimed. "We can't walk that far!" I paused. "What if only a few of us went? I could Blink us there. You could fly us there!"
"Not me," the dragon said adamantly. "Not even if I was Invisible the whole way."
"And how would we return?" Dupre asked. "With no point of reference, we could easily miss our starting point." He turned to the dragon. "How big is this forest?"
"It's barely a pocket of green in the middle of this wasteland. Your knight is correct, Avatar. Even with your powers we could miss this grove a hundred times." She hesitated. "You didn't see any dragons, did you?"
I shook my head. "No, but I wasn't very close to the mountains."
"But what about the bracer?" I said, returning to the topic. "We could fly or Blink or whatever to those mountains then I could just teleport us right back here!"
"That might work."
Dupre asked, "Should we see if we can find a place that's closer first?"
"I'm going to make a guess here," the dragon said. "In Britannia, the aeth'raesh'al teleports to locations near shrines - places of Virtue. This grove is a shrine - a temple. The Telomar of Silence. I'm assuming that the other teleportation locations are also telomari."
"So you know where they are in relation to those mountains," I said.
"Yes. And this one is the closest."
I considered this. "Let's go back to the others."
"Not much in the way of good news," Richard told me when we returned. "What food we have will only serve as a small snack once it's divided. We have enough water for half a day - longer if we're careful with rationing."
"Half a day," I said, then lowered my voice. "Richard, we're in the middle of a desert."
The dragon scratched a rough map into the sand. "We're here," she indicated the mid-west of the Krain Desert. "Here are the Tuay Mountains-" she made some lines that stretched all around the north, west and south of the desert like a hand forming a 'C', only with long horizontals stretching east to west and a shorter vertical forming the north-to-south western border. "The dragon caves, here, north-west of us and something like an eight to ten day trek for a fully provisioned group. That's just a guess, of course. I've never actually had to walk across the desert."
"We'd never make it," Richard said, one hand rubbing his bearded chin. "The mountains to the west are closer. Is there aught that way?"
"The Castle of Flames - Krain Castle - though that's the centre of power in Atarka. I don't know if we should go there."
I held up a hand to halt Richard before he could ask another question, then said, "A few of us can Blink to the mountains then I can use the bracer to bring us back here."
"We can't just teleport to the caves?" he asked.
"If I'm right," the dragon-woman said, "and the aeth'raesh'al only teleports us to telomari like this one, then we'll only get further away from our destination."
"Where are the other telomaris?" I asked.
"Telomari. The 'i' makes it a plural, Avatar." She shrugged and pointed at the map in the sand. "There's one here on an island in the Great Sea to the south. That's not a good idea, since it's too far to swim to shore. There's another here," she pointed to a spot in the north-west, far beyond the spot marking the dragon caves. "That's relatively close, but the telomar is in a volcano. Unless you can fly everyone out, I'd forget that one, too." She pursed her lips. "There was another on the eastern edge of the desert atop Highrock-"
"Closer to the dragon caves, if you please," I said.
She made a small impression in the middle of the top half of the desert with one fingertip, a frown creasing her brow.
"There aren't any closer. There are no telomari on the northern side of the Tuay Mountains." She pulled a small twig from her map. "Still, the Krain was never hospitable. Perhaps it would be better if we teleported to the one in the volcano."
"What is a telomari?" Richard queried.
"Shrines. Temples. Places of worship. This is the Telomar of Silence."
Those nearest us suddenly fell silent, and it grew until a hush had fallen over the entire clearing.
The dragon-woman snorted. "Idiots. You can still talk, Silence is just for those who are intending to listen to the words of the Guardian."
That took a few seconds to sink in. Suddenly, everyone was talking.
"Humans!" she exclaimed, exasperated. Turning to me, she added, "At least I can talk to you without having any of my kin laugh."
This reminder that I was a liche was not appreciated. She ignored my icy stare, however, and swept on.
"This is the reason why I said not to drink the water. It is imbued with druidic magic. Anyone who drinks of it will have to prepare themselves to go into an extended trance."
As she said this, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. "She's here."
"Mellorin?" Richard asked. "I thought I felt something faint."
"Not faint enough," I replied, and pointed south-east. "That way."
"Highrock," the dragon said. "If I were you, I'd order your humans to start marching west now. Teleporting is no longer an option."
"To that Castle of Flames?" Richard asked, keeping his protest as soft as he could. "We won't make it!"
"No, there used to be a village between it and us. With luck, we'll reach it."
"I'll raise a scrying shield," I said. "She won't find us unless she teleports here, or I teleport and lower the shield. Can you tell what time it is, dragon?"
"Before midnight, I think."
"Then we can get quite a distance before the sun rises." I frowned and turned to Dupre and Richard. "Gather the people on the western side of this forest, right on the edge of the desert. Dragon, go with them."
They moved off and I thought it might be a good idea to organise everyone into groups later. That way it would be easier to keep track of what was going on.
"Shamino!" I called.
The ranger looked over from where he stood.
"Grab Iolo and Katrina, then come here, please."
"What do we do?"
"Make it look like no one was here. Help me pick up anything we've dropped. And hurry. Mellorin's looking for us."
"She's here?" Iolo said as he approached.
I nodded. "Come on."
When the area had been cleared of people, the four of us combed the sand for anything we'd left behind. A scrap of cloth, a broken arrow-shaft, a torn piece of leather - everything was collected. With the keen eyes of the ranger, bard and shepherdess, I had little doubt we'd overlooked anything.
"Footprints?" Shamino asked.
"I can handle them," I said. "Stand back behind me in the trees." I called forth wind to blow across the sand, being careful not to blow too much into the pool. The clearing certainly looked better than it had a minute ago. I shook my head. There was no way we could entirely hide that a lot of people had just passed through.
"That will do," Shamino said, but we knew it was more because we were out of time than that the traces of five hundred people had been effectively hidden.
Katrina said, "Maybe she won't follow us."
Shamino only shrugged. "Where do we go from here?"
"West," I answered in a grim voice. "Across the desert."
"There used to be a human settlement to the west of here - a village," the dragon told me. "They'd built their homes around a large oasis. It should take four or five days to get there." She'd changed her armour into some light clothes - a robe of cotton or linen that matched the colour of the Krain. There was a hood that she could raise once the sun rose, and a veil-like cloth to protect the face from wind-blown sand.
"Richard is able to duplicate water until then," I said, "for as long as his strength holds up. I only wish I could help him."
She nodded. Creating or duplicating food and water, substances of life, required life. "I will help if there is need."
I was a little startled. She didn't usually offer anything unless there was something in it for her. "Thank you."
The dragon-woman shrugged and continued walking in as much silence as the sand would allow.
I looked back. Five groups, composed of seventy knights, ten archers and twenty townspeople each, followed behind us. They were all under the care of Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Katrina or Julia - one companion to a group. Further back the wooded grove of the Telomar of Silence could be seen - a dark blur on the horizon after our so-far three-hour trek. I'd felt Mellorin teleport herself there a while ago, but if she'd seen us, she apparently wasn't going to give chase. Still, there was no way to be sure that my double had left Atarka to search other worlds. I could only sense her arrival, not her departure.
"You look tired already," I said as Richard caught up to us. "How far did you-"
"That's one thing I should tell you," the dragon interrupted. "Atarkans speak with thees and thous, and so on."
"Ok, thanks." I turned back to Richard. "How far did you get with the water?"
"I've managed to double the amount," he told me. "That's all we can carry, though. I've filled every water container we have."
"So we can last a full day?"
Again the dragon spoke up. "Half a day."
"That was before."
"The days here are longer."
If my heart had been beating it would have stopped. I stared at her with sudden intensity. "How much longer?"
"Seven days on Britannia is roughly equal to five days here. Each day is about...thirty-three of your hours."
"Virtues..."Richard whispered. "How much of that hath sunlight?"
I tried to keep my tone even. "Is there anything else we should know?"
She returned my look without expression. "I'm sure I'll think of something."
"How are the others keeping up?" I asked Richard.
"Fine, for now. The nights here aren't anywhere near as cold as the ones in Britannia's desert. Makes me wonder how hot the days are." He raised a brow at the dragon.
"Depends on the season," she grunted. "Don't ask me. I don't know how much time has passed since I was last here."
"Elora," Richard said suddenly, a look of alarm on his face. "What if time runs differently here to Britannia? We could be here a day, and a year could be passing back home!"
"I never considered that," I whispered, my left hand rubbing the bracer. "But if that were so, would Mellorin have come here looking for us?"
He kicked at the sand and it went flying in a fountain of pink grains. "I hope thou'rt right." Letting out a deep breath, he glanced back at the five hundred or so men, women and children following us, his face deeply troubled. And afraid. "This could be bad." There was no question that some of these people would never make it.
"Very bad," I agreed softly.
At that moment, Iolo came up to us. "Elora, Milord," the bard said, inclining his head slightly, "I'd advise we stop and rest for a while. Some of the people are having trouble keeping up. Mainly the young, the old and any wounded."
"The old, eh?" I said, grinning at him.
He rolled his eyes skyward then exchanged a grimace with Richard.
"Ah, to be a hundred years old again," the latter sighed.
I laughed. "Ok, Iolo, who did you leave in charge of your group?"
"Sir Horffe, the Gargish knight. Dost thou remember him?"
I nodded. "I'll tell him and the others we're stopping. An hour or half that, do you think?"
Iolo's brow creased a little and he scratched his white beard. "We don't want to waste time before sunrise."
I told him what the dragon had said about Atarkan days.
"Virtues," he said softly, then shook his head. "I'd say we see how everyone feels after half an hour. Should we need more time..." he shrugged.
"Ok." Halting, I sent a telepathic message to stop and rest to those in charge of the separate groups. An instant later the words were called out aloud and the sound of people stopping and lowering themselves to the sand followed.
"How bad are the wounded?" Richard asked Iolo.
"Not seriously enough for thee to worry about. Just the kind of wounds that make walking a little harder."
"Tell me if they get worse."
The bard nodded. "I will. How art thou feeling?"
"Unfit," he replied wryly. "I can't remember the last time I had to walk this far."
"Welcome to the esteemed ranks of those who follow the Avatar," Iolo said extravagantly.
"Must you?" I asked, giving him a sour look.
Iolo grinned, then glanced behind me and his expression changed. "Excuse me a minute," he said abruptly, and hurried off to a knot of people sitting in the sand.
Shamino, Dupre, Katrina and Julia chose that moment to join us at the head of the groups. We spent a minute asking after each other's health and sat in a circle on the sand, the light of the five moons more than enough for us to see clearly. Iolo rejoined us a minute later.
"Sorry," he said. "A couple of children were about to use some water for a sandcastle." He sat down between Richard and Dupre.
I told them how long Atarkan days were first. A brief look of despair crossed their faces only to be replaced by a stiffening resolve. They weren't going to give up any time soon.
"We should get rid of our armour while we can, then," Dupre said. "Now that we're far enough away from that grove, we should bury any metal armour under the sand. It will be too much effort to carry."
"And suicide to wear," Shamino added.
Dupre undid the straps of his own breastplate and let it fall to the sand with a dull ringing sound. As he shrugged out of the light mail shirt he wore underneath, he said, "I just hope we won't need these later."
"What should we expect at this village around the oasis we're walking to?" Julia asked the dragon.
"Most importantly, water is for the taking," she replied. "Though, unless things have changed, the people are sympathetic to the Guardian. You should tell your humans to watch their tongues. From there we can decide where to go next. I should see how much has changed first."
"You said the desert wasn't hospitable," I said. "Anything we should look out for?"
She let out a thoughtful breath and squinted at the sky, as if remembering. "I'm fairly sure there would still be shem'lysiei out here, no matter how much time has passed. Sand serpents."
"Snakes?" Shamino asked.
She shook her head. "Not of the normal kind. Take one of your Britannian sea serpents then let it swim through sand instead of water. That's a shem'lysie."
"How do they swim through sand?" Julia objected.
"All along their bodies they have hundreds of thousands of air sacs. When you release air into sand, it becomes almost liquid. Watch." She looked at me. "Avatar, put your hand in the sand and summon air to flow out through it."
I scraped a hold in the ground and did as she said. There was a fuzzy feeling as the grains started to swirl around my hand, remaining at ground level, but floating on air.
"Now you-" she pointed at Dupre, "-take her hand."
Dupre moved to dig a hold as I had, but his hand passed easily through the sand. His eyes widened and he cupped his other hand, scooping up a handful of red grains as one would lift water. Then he found my hand and grasped it.
"Now cut off the air flow," the dragon instructed.
I did, and the sand immediately settled, effectively burying our hands halfway to the elbows.
"That's how they move. Breathing is a different matter; they have to surface every once in a while both to replenish their air sacs and to take another breath. They can hold that breath for a very long time, though. They'll just lie under the sand where it's cool, closing off their air sacs until they feel inclined to move - and that's usually when they sense something passing on the surface overhead."
"Like us?" Dupre asked, digging his hand free.
"They'd take me on even in dragon form. They're very aggressive to intruders."
"And there's no way to tell if we're on their land," I said frowning. "Unless we see one surface."
"That won't happen unless it's a decoy. They'll feel us tramping around up here ages before even they could see us. If they have to surface, they'll do so where they won't be seen."
"That's all we have to worry about," Julia muttered. "How hard are they to kill?"
"Now this is a human I could get to like," the dragon telepathed to me. Ignoring my smile, she said aloud, "Depends on how many there are. We'd have little trouble with one, but a single shem'lysie is unlikely to attack a group this large unless it's desperate. Just think of it as attacking a sea serpent without benefit of a ship."
"Can they breathe fire?" Richard asked.
"No. But they can blast you with enough sand to flay the skin from your bones."
"Lovely," Katrina murmured.
The dragon shrugged.
"Is there any way we can sense them by magic?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Unless undead eyes can see through tonnes of sand, I don't know. We're safe if we get to that village. Most of the ground is solid rock."
"What if Elora teleported herself to one of those shrines and tried to lead Mellorin away?" Julia suggested. We all stared at her as she expanded her idea: "If Mellorin's still on this world, she's bound to follow, right? If she doth not show up, we'll…" she faltered. "…well, we won't know she's not on this world…"
"Say she does follow," I said, "what would I do then? She'd never believe me if I said I left you guys on some other world."
We thought on that for a moment, but couldn't come up with anything.
Dupre stood and undid his greaves. "I'd best tell my group to doff their armour. If we're finished here?"
I looked at the dragon, who nodded, and said, "Yeah, that's it for now. Get some rest and I'll contact each of you when it's time to move."
Richard, the dragon-woman and I were left sitting where we were. The former rolled up his cloak, put it under his head and lay facing the stars. A second later, his blue eyes were closed.
"A good fighter learns to get sleep whenever he can," I said softly. It was something ingrained in everyone who trained in a martial following.
Richard didn't open his eyes. "I haven't heard that line in a long time."
"Neither have I. It's good advice."
His lips curved into a smile. "I know."
"What about you?" I asked the dragon silently.
"I can go for weeks without sleep."
"As a dragon, you mean."
"Kemah-thra," she muttered. "Very well, you have me there." She arranged her robe then lay down on the sand, but didn't close her eyes. Stirring the sand with a finger, she looked up at the stars and moons. "It's different, Avatar. Everything has changed." She sighed sadly, and looked at her human hands. "Even me."
Even me... What about my home? What could the Guardian
do with a place like Earth? I shook my head. I thought I'd gotten over
all that long ago. Banishing the image of nuclear explosions on every horizon,
I settled down to wait.
Dawn came. The blazing orb of the sun rose behind us and its heat followed quickly.
"Now," I telepathed, and heard the word echoed aloud by my companions to their groups.
Everyone hunkered down in the sand, hollowing out shallow nests for themselves and drawing their cloaks over their heads. The cloaks were propped up near the face by anything that would serve - arrows, daggers, anything to provide breathing space. Those who had no cloaks - mainly children - shared with others. It was the best protection they had against the sun. It would be murder trying to sleep as the morning progressed, but there was nothing more to be done.
I made one round of the entire group to check on everyone before returning to my place at the front.
"Want me to 'In Zu' you?" I offered after watching Richard shift around in the sand for five minutes.
"I'm just getting comfortable," he replied, though sweat beaded his brow and darkened his blond hair. "The sand's cooler deeper down."
After a while I rechecked my scrying shield and sent my sight out to have another look. I went up for a bird's eye view and peered down from above. I even zoomed further west to see if I could find that village.
It's hard to have hope when it looks like there's no end to where you
The following night was practically the same as the first, save the people were more subdued. Although everyone had slept, none had slept well, and it was too much effort to talk. Food ran out and Richard replenished some of our dwindling water supply, but only managed to do half the amount he'd done before. The dragon did the rest.
We reached an end to the flat part of the desert after a few hours and entered the dunes. This was when things got harsh for the Britannians, as we had to climb the shifting sand. The gruelling activity on legs already weak from a long journey across the desert took its toll. We were forced to stop and rest more regularly.
I was almost shamefully glad that, being undead, this was barely affecting me. Every break I'd go to the rear of the company and do my best to hide the wide trail we were leaving behind us. Every break I'd wander between the groups, speaking with those still inclined to use their strength speaking, reassuring those who needed it...staying silent when I overheard people whispering things like, "She's the Avatar. We'll be fine. The Avatar..."
An undead Avatar. None knew but those closest to me.
The last rest period before dawn, a weary Richard looked at me and thought what he was too tired to say. "Something is wrong. What is it?"
I sighed and sat down next to him, staring over the moonlit sands. "Doubting myself. Doubting my chances of getting everyone through this desert alive."
"They all have such hope in me," I went on, gesturing at the Britannians. "They believe that if we make it, it will be because of me."
"They're right." He let out a long breath and scratched his beard. Grains of sand sifted down from it. "Thou'rt the only reason they've managed to come this far. Remember that if not for thee, we'd all have fallen to Mellorin's army at Serpent's Hold."
I gave a bitter laugh. "If not for me, Mellorin wouldn't exist."
"Let them believe in thee," Richard thought. "If it maketh them stronger-"
"Let them believe a lie?"
He looked at me thoughtfully, eyes suddenly alert and penetrating despite how tired he was. "Thou meanest, 'Let them believe in a lie,' dost thou not?" When I didn't answer, he asked, "What did Mellorin tell thee? That thou canst not be an Avatar if thou art undead?"
"It's true. No, it is," I insisted before he could argue otherwise. "I'm losing it, Richard. How can I have Compassion for these people when I can't feel their pain? As for Valour...what's Courage when you have nothing to fear for? And Truth? Look at me. I'm hiding behind a lie as we speak." I allowed my eyes to glow for a brief time to emphasise my point. "Face it. I am a liche. I'm an affront to the Virtues."
After a short silence, Richard leaned forward and pressed a finger against
the golden Ankh I wore. "If that were true," he said softly, meeting my
eyes, "thou wouldst not be here."
Terrified screams turned my head. There was a roar and the sands trembled. A large reptilian head reared up above the dunes behind me. It tilted back, lifting its chin and flipping a limp, human figure into its dagger-toothed maw. A barely audible crunch of bones reached my ears and the sand serpent looked down with flat black eyes, as if determining who to devour next.
"Over here, you bastard," I muttered, summoning a globe of raw energy and throwing it at the monster's head. It struck full on in an explosion of crackling, violet-blue lightning.
The serpent shrieked and swung its head toward where I stood, which was a few dunes away from where the Britannians were resting in the midday sun's blistering heat. I hurled another spell and drew my axe.
"Come on!" I shouted.
The creature ducked, hissed, then thrust itself upwards - its long, orange-red scaled body arching higher than the tallest tower of Castle Britannia. When its head drew equal with the sun above, the sand serpent curved over and plunged straight for me at breakneck speed - its jaws opening in a scream of death and its teeth glinting like polished steel. At the last moment the creature abruptly veered to one side, and the Swordstrike spell I'd intended to hurl down its throat glanced against its massive body, slicing the scales as it spun away into the sky and the serpent dove into the sand.
Before I had time to ponder the serpent's actions, the sand suddenly turned to water beneath me.
"Avatar!" I heard someone shout before a second sand serpent swallowed me whole.
Daylight vanished and I found myself sliding down what would have been a pitch-black throat to anyone else. Keeping my wits, I threw the Firedoom Axe hard against the wall of the slick tunnel and heard it rip as I continued to fall. The sand serpent jerked, convulsing from the pain, and I lost my grip on the axe-haft. Sparing a curse as I hurtled downwards and lost sight of the axe, I looked down instead and pointed, unleashing a volley of fiery explosions. I had to get out of there before I found myself under the ground. I wouldn't suffocate, but it might take me a day or two to dig my way out of several tonnes of sand.
The sand serpent convulsed again and its throat contracted, halting my fall. Just as I was considering an attempt to hack open a hole with my boot daggers, there was an upheaval. I was being thrown up! I rushed upward at a tremendous speed and was soon seeing daylight framed by two rows of long teeth above me. Gathering myself, I dropped a Delayed Blast in the monster's mouth just as I was spewed forth into the desert sky.
The serpent hissed menacingly as it saw its tormentor flying away and whipped its head after me, teeth ready to bite me in two.
For a second, I was staring down its throat again.
A sudden BANG echoed between the dunes and the sand serpent's head exploded in a cloud of sooty flames. I was thrown even faster through the air and crashed into someone who dragged me aside as the stump of the serpent's neck and body crashed down. Sand, blood and gooey grey stuff flew everywhere.
"Thou dost never cease to amaze me!" Shamino shouted from nearby. "Now wouldst thou mind helping us with the other one?"
But the first serpent, apparently unwilling to linger after the death of its companion, arched backwards and away from the humans before vanishing beneath the sand.
Cheers broke from the Britannians as weapons lowered.
"Don't let your guards down," someone shouted. It was the dragon-woman. "It'll be back soon!" She looked at me. "I told you - they're aggressive. Be ready!"
The people looked around warily and fell silent.
"It'll go through the middle of the group, parallel to the ground," she telepathed, "trying to scoop up as many humans as it can before going under for another pass."
"Pretty sure." Suddenly, her eyes widened as she and about fifty others sank down into the sand up to their waists. Shorter people were buried to mid-chest. "But I'm occasionally wrong."
"How do we fight this?" Shamino asked. His magical Juggernaut Hammer was out and ready to throw. "An earthquake, perhaps?"
"Tremor," I said, snapping my fingers. "It's worth a try." I struck the ground with my mind and it trembled slightly at first, but then with a greater intensity. Sand spilled down the dunes and I concentrated on keeping the Britannians steady, even as I shook the desert.
The sand serpent emerged, obviously confused by its homeland's violent shaking.
"Well done!" the dragon's mind-voice said, sounding both surprised and relieved.
Britannian archers loosed their arrows. Shamino threw his hammer, both Richard and I sent bolts of lightning lancing through the air.
The sand serpent roared.
"Look out!" the dragon shouted.
I raised an Energy Field just as the serpent's jaws parted and a devastating blast of crimson sand screamed towards those closest to it. Sand and arrows both bounced back as they hit the field. A second later the serpent itself slammed up against it. As it stopped, screaming its fury, I dropped the field. "FIRE!"
Arrows struck. One eye was pierced and the serpent went mad. Its head reared back and its spiked tail suddenly appeared on the opposite side of our group. Three people were impaled before a knight got close enough to hack it short. Other knights went for the neck as the serpent's head evaded both missiles and magic. It swept down to snap at the sword-wielding humans and someone leaped atop its head, grabbing hold of the spiny crest.
"Dupre, thou'rt mad," Shamino breathed as I simply stared, speechless.
The serpent shrieked and shook its head wildly. The tiny form that was Dupre reversed his sword and, while gripping a bony ridge atop the head firmly with his legs, drove it down into the huge skull with both hands. Again the serpent screamed. Its long body formed coils as its head swung round in circles and it vainly sought to get at the knight with its teeth. Then it fell, smashing through a dune and shuddering from head to severed tail. Only when it lay still did anyone approach.
"Not as impressive as thine," Dupre admitted to me as he casually shook sand from his hair, "but at least we get the same result."
"That was...amazing," I said, grinning.
"That was insane!" Shamino retorted.
Dupre looked down his nose at the ranger and sniffed. "Thou'rt just jealous!"
I shook my head and regarded those gathering around the dead sand serpent. "Lend a hand, everyone," I shouted to them. "We have to dig the others out." I flung a hand out to indicate those who were half-buried in the sand. "Before they roast to death," I added softly to my two friends. They nodded and quickly moved to help clean up the mess our dead attackers had left us.
Later, I listened to the death tally. Seventy-eight killed or missing. Another eight severely wounded.
"We need your strength to make water," I told Richard quietly. "Heal if you must, but don't Resurrect. More lives will be lost if there is nothing to drink."
He shook his head, frustration evident on his haggard face. Shielding his eyes from the westering sun he looked down at the row of bodies lying on the sand, awaiting burning. "I'll never get used to feeling helpless," he said, and started down the dune.
"At least you can Heal," I murmured.
Iolo was standing on my other side and, as he heard this, he smiled and patted the broken arm he now bore in a sling. "He can only Heal us in body, Avatar."
I shook my head. "Whatever. Why aren't you resting?"
"Mind's too busy. I've been trying to think of a way to turn all this into a tasteful saga. How doth this sound?" He cleared his throat.
"Terrible. How did you get a cold in a desert?"
"Oh, very funny."
"Thank thee," I said modestly.
"There you are." The dragon-woman climbed the dune to where we stood and faced me. "What are you planning to do now?"
I frowned. "Did you have a suggestion?"
"I'm just making sure I don't have to dissuade you from any stupid notions of staying put until the wounded heal."
Iolo bristled at her tone, but I shook my head. "Richard's helping those he can right now. We'll move on at sunset."
"Since he can only spare enough to aid those who can't walk, why dost thou not help him?" Iolo suggested stiffly.
She regarded him coolly. "I take it you don't like me either."
"Dupre explained it pretty well last time. 'Tis thine attitude and thy damned indifference."
She went back down the dune without answering.
"Wait," I telepathed to her as Iolo sighed in exasperation. "I want to ask something. Can we extract any water from the sand serpents' bodies?"
"You can," she replied, still picking her way downdune. "But it will be too salty to drink, and we can't spare the time to purify it. Besides, I don't know where they store their water, and there's a lot of body to cover."
"She is so annoying," Iolo fumed.
"You don't usually stir so easily," I observed.
"It's the heat." He tried to fan himself with one hand and quickly gave up. "I think I'll try to get some sleep. Wilt thou be fine without me?"
"I'll try not to wither away while you're gone."
He chuckled and followed the dragon's tracks down the dune.
I lowered the illusion of health on my right arm and stared at my dead-white
hand. Fine lines wound around the fragile-looking skin like spider webs,
and the fingernails were yellow. Clenching the hand into a fist, I watched
blue veins bulge as the skin was pulled taut. "I'll try," I whispered.
One more knight died before sunset. After the body was laid out with the others, Dupre announced the names of the slain and Lord British followed him by calling on the Virtues to guide their spirits home.
Then I invoked fire.
As the bodies burned, I noticed that many of those alive were weeping. Their tears shimmered in the light and I remembered that almost all these people were from Serpent's Hold. Not one of the deceased was unknown to another. In one afternoon, some of these people had lost their entire families.
Finally, I stepped towards the pyre. I could feel no heat, so I was probably much closer than someone living could comfortably stand before I turned to face the Britannians. I hadn't intended to speak, but I'd come to realise that by my words, I could heal people in another fashion.
"Sacrifice...hath two symbols: The Flame of a candle that doth continuously give of itself to provide others with light, just as these men and women gave of themselves in the act of saving Britannia - in the act of giving others a chance of life; and a Teardrop. At the moment, tears are all we can give to them in return, and compared to their sacrifice, ours may seem worthless. But consider where we are. In this land, every drop of water, every tear shed is as precious as diamonds. With each tear, ye give of your lives to those who have already given theirs.
"Weep not overmuch, for they did not sacrifice themselves for us to die so soon and so far from Britannia. They died that ye might live. They died that Britannia might be saved. So while we might never forget that they gave their lives, neither must we forget why...and neither must we let their deaths be in vain.
"This is the Truth - that they came to this place with Courage and for Love of their land and people. In your hearts, never let these flames die...and they will never die...Britannia will never die."
As a breeze blew over the desert, the ashes were lifted into the air
like a grey veil. For a minute they hung low in the sky, swirling and shifting.
Then the breeze came again and the Britannian ashes were scattered across
the red desert of an alien world.
The next day, the Britannians started to die. Despite every precaution that was taken to shelter from the sun, the desert heat was a relentless foe that, unlike the sand serpents, couldn't be fought off. It sapped their strength and leeched away the water in their bodies. The light glared against the harsh, red sand in a way that made every mirage look like a river of blood. The wind was hot and dry, evaporating sweat or the moisture in one's mouth in an instant, so that one couldn't so much as spit. Sand was like fire to walk on after a mere two hours of sunshine. Not a few people suffered burned, bloodied feet after walking off barefoot to relieve themselves.
The water supply was stretched perilously thin, even under the strict rationing that had been implemented to spare Richard and the dragon from having to expend all their energies in replenishing it.
It was this day, the third, that Shamino said there was a sandstorm coming.
"I'm positive," he told me in a dry, harsh voice. "After being caught in two back on Britannia, I learned to recognise the signs. It's coming up from behind us, Elora, from the east." With a weary sigh, he closed his eyes and continued: "The wind is picking up. We're walking right in front of the storm, and unless it dies out it will catch us tomorrow night."
"What else can go wrong?" I muttered.
His expression mirrored my sentiments. "Unfortunately, there is something else. Footprints."
"They weren't made by any of us. Someone or someones who are light of foot - they made almost no mark on the sand."
And they would have to be new, or the wind would have swept more sand over them and rendered them invisible. That meant whoever had made the prints had been there today. "How far away from the camp?"
"Not far. One or two dunes to our north."
"And what were you doing up there, anyway?" I demanded, my irritation at not having seen the owner of these tracks directed at him.
The corners of his mouth quirked up in a smile. Squinting at me, he said, "It's too damn hot to sleep."
I shook my head and wove a Sleep spell around him. He looked surprised for a second, then slumped as his eyes rolled up. "Sorry," I said, catching him under the shoulders. "But if I don't do this you'll be too damn tired to walk." I half-carried, half-dragged him down into a dune's lengthening shadow, and, making sure his cloak was under him so no exposed skin touched the hot sands, laid him down.
Then I turned to find Katrina staring at me.
"I was just about to turn in-" she began hurriedly.
"I'm sure you were. What's up?"
"Nothing. Most of my flock are asleep. I came to see how thou art doing."
"Oh, fine," I said, starting off toward the north. As Katrina kept pace, I added, "Maybe this Undeath stuff isn't so bad. You know, I can't feel the heat, I don't get tired or thirsty... pretty handy considering our current situation. Then there's this matter of power." With a thought, I parted a dune in our path up the middle. The sheer walls of sand stood still for a minute before collapsing inward with a rushing sound of falling grains. "No limit to the number of spells I can cast. The ether is open to me and it's vast, Katrina. Infinite. The more I access it, the more I want to continue accessing it...just to find the ends of something that's endless-"
"How doth that make thee feel?" the shepherdess interrupted.
I walked on in silence for a while, aware that she was watching me closely.
"Afraid?" she asked finally, which was what I knew she'd wanted me to say.
"Not exactly. Sort of. Look, I've taken you on the magic carpet before, haven't I?"
"How did you feel when we did dips and loops?"
She smiled at the memory. "Excitement, some fear. It was the thrill of the ride that would make thee go on it again, even if it were the scariest thing thou hadst ever experienced."
"That's almost exactly what this is like. Excitement, some fear, though not nearly as much fun." I paused, then corrected myself. "No fun at all. And it's when I start to enjoy all this power that it'll be time for you and everyone else to run for your lives. Because then I'll be a liche at heart."
"Only for more power."
"And your friends?"
My mind turned back to the conversation I'd had with the liche on Ambrosia. "I'd hate you because you're alive. I'd hate you because you'd fear me since I'm undead. I'd hate you because you'd abandon me, even though it would be at my request."
"But not now?"
I blinked - a gesture of surprise, nothing more. "No, of course not. Never, if I can help it. I just have to limit my magic before I get used to the idea of semi-omnipotence."
Katrina chuckled, shielding her eyes from the sun as we topped a dune on the northern perimeter of the camp.
"Virtues, isn't that a horrible thought?" I added. "What would I do with power like that?"
"Thou couldst kick the Guardian's big red behind, for one thing."
"That is something I could look forward to with great anticipation."
I pointed north-west where mountains rose beyond human sight. "I'll find a way to defeat her when I get up there. The dragon's people made these bracers. There must be some record about how to remove them."
"Didn't she say that only Mellorin can remove them?"
"She also said that she didn't know everything. There could be another way. Let's concentrate on getting to that oasis first, though, shall we?"
Her expression clouded. "Should we not make it by tomorrow-"
Firmly, I said, "We will."
We have to.
A full thirty people died of the heat or dehydration before the sun had set. Another nine suffered sunstrokes so severe that they were unable to continue. It was left to me to probe the mind of each, seeking any conscious thought that could answer one simple, terrible question: die now or be left behind? There was no other choice. The strength expended to carry them onward would only serve to slowly kill more people.
Not one person chose to be left to the mercy of the desert, and it again fell to me to end the lives of each. As I disconnected minds from bodies in a painless method of granting instant oblivion, it was all I could do to assure distraught families and friends that they were now at peace.
Hardest of all to deal with were the children and babies. They simply didn't have the endurance…
So the bodies of thirty-nine Britannians burned on the red sands two hours after the sun set. Those who remained continued west with the hope of water, food and shelter before them, all unwitting of the sandstorm chasing them from behind.
Richard and the dragon-woman walked with me at the head of the procession, though both were, for the most part, silent.
I only called one meeting that night. We had to decide whether or not to keep walking should we not reach the oasis and its settlement before sunrise.
"The problem isn't what damage the storm will cause should we be caught in it," the dragon said. "I'm sure that we three-" she nodded at Richard and me, "-could shield everyone from it easily enough. What worries me is how long it will last."
"Feels like a few days to me," Shamino supplied.
"And your humans won't last that long," the dragon said to me, seeming to accept Shamino's judgement without rancour for once.
"We wouldn't have to stop," Richard said. "We can make the shield move with us."
"Wonderful," she replied dryly. "And when we walk straight past our goal because we can't see it through the sand, then what?"
"Speaking of things we can't see," Shamino put in, "I found more footprints to our north just before. Someone who's not one of us was watching us yesterday. Neither Elora nor I have seen anything of them, save tracks."
"Doth anyone live in the desert?" Katrina asked the dragon, who was frowning. "Besides villagers, I mean?"
"Only the mezzini," she answered, her tone brooding and dark.
"What are mezzini?"
"They're humans. Wanderers. Desert nomads. Their people and mine were very close before the war. I think it unlikely that they're who we're dealing with. They'd have approached or challenged us by now." She shrugged. "Furthermore, they openly opposed the Guardian, as we did. Either the mezzini are dead, or in service to him, which I very much doubt."
"'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,'" Iolo quoted. "Let's imagine that our watchers are these mezzini. Would they help us?"
"They would if I told them to."
"The mezzini used to serve our people in exchange for the education we could give them in lore and magic. It almost verged on open worship."
"Returning to our previous topic," I said. "What do we think? Keep walking when morning comes or rest as usual, then ride out the sandstorm when it blows over us?"
"Keep walking," Dupre and Shamino said in unison, though neither appeared to relish the notion. The others only nodded.
"Tell some of your people about the storm," I said, "but only those whom you think can take it. The others will see the truth soon enough."
Shamino nodded. "Dawn."
"Why tell anyone?" the dragon asked.
"Because they have a right to know," I answered. "Did anyone want to add anything?"
The dragon spoke again. "Yes. You might want to hide that." She pointed at the bracer. "Only one other person ever wore it. There are imitations out there - bracers are worn as status-symbols - but it will draw attention."
"I have a question," Dupre said. He looked at the dragon. "What happens when we reach this village? Do we just march in?"
"They're used to it. Being marched over, that is. There won't be anyone to stop us if I'm right about the Guardian stripping the world of fighters. All you'll have to worry about is paying for food. Water has always been free."
"And we hope it still is," Katrina said.
The dragon dusted sand from her hands. "Agreed. Either way, you'll need funds. Neither food nor lodgings are free."
"What's the local currency?" Iolo asked curiously. "I wouldn't think they'd be interested in gold, living out here."
"You're right there. The only metals they deal in are bronze, iron and anything else strong enough to be forged into a weapon. What we need is jewels."
"Jewels?" Katrina exclaimed.
"They're just as impractical as gold!" Julia seconded.
Pausing in the act of wrapping my bracer with a strip of leather, I managed to say, "Maybe not," before the dragon could make a retort. Everyone looked at me and the half-concealed bracer, and got my drift.
The dragon said, "Jewels are a primary component in elven and human magic on Atarka. The size, cut and colour determine how much power they can hold - don't ask for specifics."
"Art thou saying the people on this world can't cast spells without jewels?" Richard asked.
"No. Only that spells cast from jewels cause their wielders no exertion. Useful if many high-power spells need to be cast in succession. They're always used out here to fend off the shem'lysiei."
Dupre was thoughtfully rubbing his thumb over the pommel of his sword. "Could steel hold magic? Like a sword?"
"Metals can be enchanted - strengthened to lend accuracy and force, but they cannot contain actual spells."
"What about Elora's axe?" he protested.
"That had a ruby in the haft, remember?" she almost purred. "That jewel held the magic."
"Then it's jewels," I said. "Since we're almost out of time now, ask your groups for their..." I sighed. "...their valuables next time. If they ask why, tell them the truth."
"And if they refuse?" Katrina asked. "We'll be appropriating wedding rings, here."
"If they're adamant about not giving up their jewellery, send them to me. I'll try and explain to them that when we reach this village, they have a choice of eating food or choking down their gemstones."
There was a pause, then Richard pulled off his signet ring - a silver band set with a flat oval of sapphire into which was engraved the serpent of Britannia. "Might as well make a start," he said as he held it out to me.
"No regrets?" I asked.
The others began searching themselves for jewellery as the monarch shrugged. "It's just a ring. It'd be different if I had to part with my Amulet."
"You're a mage," the dragon said suddenly. "May I?" she extended her hand for the ring and I gave it to her.
"I thought you gave that away," I said as Katrina handed me a locket.
"I did." Her expression turned sad. "Henry and Constance were both killed on the ship that sailed from New Magincia to the Isle of Fire. Sea Serpents."
"Ah. I'm sorry."
"I don't think they even felt it. The fireball hit them full-on." She looked at Julia. "Didst thou have trouble sailing to and from the Den?"
"None - excepting those Virtues-damned pirates." The tinker gave me a steel circlet set with a thumb-sized emerald as she went on about her trade venture.
"What are you looking for?" I asked the dragon, for she was looking at the ring with intense concentration.
"Some of my kind had a theory that other races couldn't transfer raw mana into jewels because they don't live long enough."
Richard said, "I've only had this ring for fifty years."
"Oh." She gave me back the ring. "You don't have anything a little older?" she asked hopefully.
"My serpent Amulet, but it's metallic."
"What about my ring?" Iolo interrupted, offering a gold band set with a small diamond.
"Gwenno will murder thee for this," Shamino said with a snicker.
The bard gave him an ominous look. "Only if someone doth tell her about it." His blue eyes became distant. "For the first time, I'm actually glad she's not in Britannia."
Dupre clapped him on the shoulder. "She'll be fine."
Iolo looked dubious, but nodded. He was probably remembering that dream the Guardian had sent him about Gwenno being in great danger, I thought. "Shamino," he said suddenly. "Hast thou any word on Amber?"
The ranger's face turned bleak. "No. I can only hope she stayed on at Trinsic when Lord Draxinusom evacuated Britain."
"Elora," Julia said, turning from her conversation with Katrina. "There's something I discovered at the Den that I forgot to tell thee. Dost thou remember the passage that ran from there to Britain?"
"The one that connected to the sewers?" I said. "You could get all the way into Castle Britannia from there. What about it?"
"It's still intact. I heard some of the pirates talking."
"There's another way in and out, then," Iolo said. "It might come in useful."
"To us as well as the enemy," Julia added. "I don't think it will be long until they're aware of it."
Something else to worry about for when we got back to Britannia.
The dragon passed me Iolo's ring.
"Anything?" I asked.
She shrugged and shook her head.
"What do you mean by raw mana, anyway?"
"Raw mana is raw mana, Avatar. Pure, magical energy. A gem can be used to store it. Such a stone can be used to aid in casting a spell that would normally exhaust its caster. The village won't use them that way, however. They can't. As far as I know, only my kind can charge jewels, and only over long periods of time."
"Speaking of time," I said.
Everyone fell silent.
"It's time to go."
This was it - the last leg of our race against the desert. No more rests, not even should dawn come before we reached the oasis.
It was all or nothing.
Virtues be with us.
Only a few protested about the jewellery. For some, a ring was all they had left to remember a loved one. With as much gentleness as I could, I informed each that should they not surrender their gems, chances were they'd be joining their loved ones. And others would follow. Replies were bitter, tearful, and generally unhappy. What made it worse was that some of them seemed to believe that I could make everything better with a wave of my hand. They even asked why I didn't do as much. I could only say that making everything better would require a lot more effort, which resulted in people returning to their groups in a mood more bitter than the one they'd come to me in.
People would lose heart before they lost their lives.
"I so wish I could just teleport everyone back to Britannia," I muttered to Richard. "Half of them are probably thinking that death in battle would be a better fate than this. Even I am."
"The Guardian's army...taketh prisoners...remember?" the monarch said in a faltering voice as he walked at my side. "We'd probably...suffer worse than...this."
"I'm sorry," I thought to him. "I shouldn't be adding my worries to your own."
"Thinkest thou...I have not worried about...the same things?"
"Of course not. It's just..." I sighed. "I wish I could do more. Or do better."
His cracked lips formed a small smile. "Thou'rt doing more...than any of us could."
"You don't think they'd have followed you?" I asked with some surprise.
"They might, but not with as much conviction as they follow thee. Thou art the Avatar," he added simply, as if that explained everything.
I said nothing, but thoughtfully brushed one finger against the Ankh as the sky above us grew lighter. The stars vanished one by one, the five moons followed. In this time before the sun topped the horizon behind us, the red sands were almost dark enough as to appear black.
"Look," the dragon-woman murmured as we reached the top of yet another dune.
The last dune.
What lay before us now was an expanse of desert as flat as a sword-blade. Sand as far as the eye could see, but there were mountains in the distant west. Snow-capped peaks reflecting sunlight we couldn't yet see, the bright glitter of cold, white ice standing out sharply against the still-dark sky.
"I don't see any villages," Richard observed as he stumbled down the dune's western side.
"Nor I," I said softly. And I'd searched for it from the sky every day.
"It shouldn't be much further," the dragon assured us, though her golden eyes weren't as certain as her voice.
Richard upended his waterskin. Not a drop fell from it. "I hope not." There was not even the faintest glimmer of accusation in his eyes, and perhaps that's why the dragon-woman was forced to avert her gaze.
I knew we didn't have another choice but to trust she was right.
We kept walking.
The sun rose up like a burning eye once more. The heat hammering on the backs of the Britannians caused our pace to slow to a crawl. Already weary from lack of rest and nutrition, they plodded after my lead without speaking. No one could talk. Opening one's mouth was to invite the sun to evaporate what little moisture their bodies retained. The only sound was that of boots on sand. That noise never stopped. Sometimes I thought I could hear the Guardian chuckling softly in every footstep.
"Do you know where we are?" I thought to the sky. "I bet you do. And as long as you're enjoying the show, you won't change the channel. As long as we stay here, you won't do anything."
This time there was no mistaking the deep, sinister laugh. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who heard it, either. Richard jerked his head up sharply, defiance in his eyes. The dragon merely glanced at me with one brow raised.
"We'll win, Guardian. We'll beat you yet. Watch us."
Now everyone heard the laugh. The people paused in their steady march to look around for the sound's source, but there was nothing to see.
No...wait...a gleam of metal over there...
"Richard," I began warningly.
As if by magic, a group of robed figures rose from the sand. Their clothes matched the desert's colours perfectly, and they were armed.
"Mezzini!" the dragon whispered to me. Quickly! Tell everyone to sit, hands open and palms up on either knee. It is... it was the accepted symbol of peaceable intent."
I quickly evaluated our chances in a fight before conceding. As I relayed the dragon's words to my companions, who'd give them to their groups, she added, "There are more mezzini out there than you think. All they need is a pile of desert sand and they can vanish."
"Will they attack us?" I asked, slowly lowering myself to the ground.
"I don't know."
The exhausted Britannians sat on the burning sand, shielding themselves and each other as best they could with what remained of cloaks and clothing.
"Avatar," the dragon whispered as the desert people came nearer, "you might want to incorporate some dirt into your illusion - or at least a sunburn. You don't look like you've been in the Krain Desert for more than an hour."
I nodded and instantly acquired a nice red tint to my skin.
"Who is thra of this company?" demanded one of the mezzini.
"I assumes that means 'leader'?" I whispered to the dragon.
"It's close enough," she replied, seemingly unconcerned. "It means the same as 'lord' or 'lady'; someone in whom others have put their trust."
I stood up. "I am thra."
The nomad stepped forward, spear pointed in my direction as one hand pulled back the sand-coloured cloth wrapped around the lower half of their face. The full sight of it verified what my ears had guessed from the stranger's voice. The nomad was a woman. "What is thy business in the shem'o'krain, intruder?"
"We seek a desert village we thought was nearby."
Several of the nomads behind her broke into laughter. The woman before me showed no change in expression. "No village hath existed in the Krain for many years," she replied, her tone flat and distinctly unfriendly. "And no one but my people have dared to attempt crossing it on foot in five times as long. Where dost thou hail from, stranger?"
"Most recently, the...ah...Telomar of Silence-"
"Guardian oraini!" she snarled, her spear coming down to level with my chest. Her people moved as one to ready their own weapons - spears, short bows and throwing knives for the most part. "Thou darest-"
"We are enemies of the Guardian," I interrupted, gambling everything in one throw. This was one of the Guardian's worlds, after all. I could only hope that the mezzini still opposed the Guardian as they had when the dragon-woman had lived here. "We came here fleeing the armies of his former Ka-thra Mors Gotha."
She lifted her spear in a swift movement to rest beneath my chin. Instantly, there was the rasp of metal as the Britannians strove to draw weapons.
"Stop," I commanded, still watching the nomad.
"That is impossible," she said. "We had word that Mors Gotha's army went to another world."
"So they did," I agreed, feeling the point of the spear touch my throat with every word. "Britannia - the world we are from! We came to this place in particular seeking information about a certain item possessed by Mors Gotha. The knowledge can be found in the Dragonlore."
"You have a daemon in your company."
"Horffe is no daemon. Look at him closely - there are many differences. On Britannia his kind are called gargoyles. They are a good, strong, loyal people."
"It is no assurance, intruder. Daemons are capable of changing their form to anything remotely humanoid if it will suit their needs."
"All I have told thee is true. Right now, we search for a village with water, but our goal is the caves of the dragons and the Dragonlore."
"Then thou art doubly a liar," she replied coldly. "For how couldst thou know this unless either thou art in league with the Guardian or a dragon told thee? And there are no dragons."
"Thou art wrong," I said.
The dragon-woman suddenly shimmered a brilliant gold. With a vast roar her form changed, growing larger and longer and more magnificent with each passing second. Glistening wings stretched out and shielded the Britannians from the sun's glare as her head rose up upon a sinuous neck, her mane of golden spines glittering and her eyes blazing as she roared again. Her long tail stirred up a cloud of sand as her red-scaled foreclaws came down, one on either side of me in a very obvious gesture of protection.
The mezzini surrounding us all let out a great cry and fell to their knees. Only the one before me remained standing, though her expression showed no less wonder. Lowering her spear, she stared straight up into the dragon's burning eyes. "Kra'lysie," she breathed reverently. "Kemah-thra...it hath been so long!"
"Assist these who travel with me, Mezzin-thra," the dragon said. Although it was a whisper, the ground beneath us rumbled at her words. "They are under my protection and thou shalt aid them in all ways possible. Heed the words of this creature," she went on, lowering her head to look at me, "for they are true."
"Yes, Kra'lysie!" The nomad's words were completely without fear. There was awe in them, adoration even. "Mezzini! Quan!"
The desert people leaped to their feet and rushed to the tired, footsore Britannians with water-skins. I watched the people drink their first mouthful of water all day...and remembered what hope was.
"It is a short walk north to our camp, Kra'lysie," the leader advised. "We won't have enough water for all thy people just here."
"I understand, Mezzin-thra. It would be wise to move on in any case. The sandstorm..."
She nodded, then regarded me. "This one is thra of thy company?"
The dragon chuckled. "This one is such, Mezzin-thra. She is the Avatar."
A couple of nearby mezzini seemed startled at that, but their leader simply nodded. "That would explain my mother's dreams the past several nights." She inclined her head slightly and touched her right hand to her heart. "Welcome, Avatar. We are honoured."
"Thou hast heard of me?" I asked.
"Legends, for the most part. But my mother claims to have met thee. We can speak of these things later. It would be best if we leave the open desert as soon as possible." She nodded her head meaningfully in the direction of the approaching storm. "I am given the name Jae'tar. Kra'lysie, Avatar, if your people would follow mine we can reach a place of safety."
The dragon resumed her human form as I telepathed the news to my friends. "It's fine. The mezzini are taking us to a place where we can rest and shelter."
"Thank the Virtues," whispered Iolo's voice.
"How far?" Julia asked.
"Not far. We're headed north. Can you get everyone ready?"
A mental murmur of assent came to me. A short while later, everyone was getting up and preparing to move.
The mezzini replaced their face-cloths and spread out around us, ready to assist anyone who faltered. Jae'tar and the dragon walked in the lead together, talking softly. I followed with Richard. The Lord of Britannia managed a smile as I got his arm around my shoulder.
"I'm not an invalid yet, Elora."
"I know. I'm just making sure that you're not one later."
"What dost thou make of our dragon?"
"She's said that her people were once served by the mezzini. I think that means 'wanderers', by the way."
"'Shem'lysie' means 'sand serpent' and 'kra' means 'fire'. Fire serpent?"
"Dragon. I'm wondering what 'Avatar' meaneth to them. Didst thou see their reactions to thine identity?"
"Yep. It means 'spirit-soul', which in turn means 'life'. She told me earlier."
He lapsed into silence and concentrated on walking. A few minutes later, the dragon-woman and Jae'tar fell back to walk with us. As we went, the nomad leader began to talk.
"According to our histories," she began, "Atarka was once a free world much like thy Britannia. Our peoples lived in relative peace and the Guardian was unheard of. We who wandered the Krain, the mezzini, sought out the kra'lysiei, who dwelt in the northern Tuay Mountains, because of the shamaness with us at the time. Not one of her prophecies had failed, and this one involving the kra'lysiei told us that one day a dragon would save the world from a deadly evil. Without our assistance, however, she said the prophecy would fail.
"The dragons accepted us, but wouldn't allow our self-bestowed servitude to go unrewarded. In exchange for our service and protection against dragon-slayers - for they would not even kill to save their own lives - they taught us their magic.
"Much time passed and we continued to live thus, both races happy with the arrangements binding them together. Then, one fateful day, a Voice spoke to those who meditated at the Telomar of Silence. This silent speaker called himself the Guardian. The druids obeyed his words without question - they cut out their own tongues so they could not speak then went out from the Krain, proclaiming the Guardian's call to submit to his authority with their minds. That common humans suddenly acquired the power of telepathy was so great a wonder that many flocked to the various telomari, eager to be initiated and to gain this knowledge. It was found that a different power was bestowed at each different telomar. Some of our own people joined in order to verify this, and we think that's how the Guardian learned of the prophecy concerning the dragons.
"It wasn't long until the command came to wipe out all kra'lysiei, who were then branded daemons, on Atarka. Most were too deep in their adoration of the Guardian to have the willpower to refuse. They came against the dragon caves in force, but the mezzini were able to repel and defeat them with each assault. Then the outworlders came. Led by a woman called Mors Gotha, they and the Guardian's followers on Atarka attacked with renewed strength. We fought well, but their numbers never lessened. The Guardian was forever calling more of his fighters into Atarka to replace any killed.
"At length, the dragons ordered us to flee the Tuay Mountains and return to the Krain. We refused at first, convinced that only the dragons could stop the Guardian, but they reminded us of our oath to obey them in all things.
"'Leave us to our fate,' they said, 'it is not finished yet. Live in the land that birthed ye, but never give up the fight against the Guardian. Protect the Lore from his people and always remember us.'
"So we hid the Dragonlore in the caves and fled into the Krain. With enchanted weapons, we fell upon every Guardian-serving city, village or household within our desert, razing each to the sands. Such was the fate of Telsen Shemquan - the village thou wert seeking. In fact, thou didst pass over its very location. Its ruins and water have long since been buried by sandstorms.
"Then came a day, months after we left the dragon caves, that my people saw a speck in the sky. At first, we thought 'Kra'lysie!' because nothing could be so high nor so large. A whole clan of us went north to meet it. They were all killed. It was no dragon, as we later discovered, but a keep. One of the two places we hadn't managed to destroy. Killorn Keep."
I gave a start and stared at her. "Killorn Keep? The keep that floats above the desert? The one ruled by a Lord Thibris?"
Jae'tar nodded, and I looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. The dark skin and eyes... I suddenly knew who her mother was.
"Thou art Altara's daughter?"
She nodded again, but returned to the topic of Killorn Keep. "By the will of the Guardian it flieth. Those within can rain down arrows on us should we seek to pass by, and we cannot touch it. When we saw its stone hulk drifting above the desert, and no dragons soaring the skies, we knew they were gone." Then she looked at the dragon-woman. "Or we thought we knew."
"Kra'lysie?" I telepathed to the dragon.
"It means 'dragon'."
"I thought as much. Would you mind if we used it as your name?"
Her eyes twinkled above the face-cloth she wore. "So instead of calling me 'Dragon' in your tongue-"
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
"It's fine, Avatar," she replied, her thought-voice amused. "I don't mind."
Jae'tar suddenly stopped and removed her face-cloth. After a long, satisfied sort of look, she gave me an unexpected smile. "Welcome to the camp of the mezzini, Kra'lysie and Avatar." Extending her spear, she held it out in the air to point at the empty sand flats before us. I said nothing, for the air around the spearhead began to ripple like a pond. Shimmering circles widened around the point, and in the tiny waves I thought I could see more than sand.
"A shield," Richard murmured. "I've never seen one that hideth things from both naked- and mind's-eye!"
"Merely one facet of Kra'lysie magic," the nomad leader said. "This one hath become invaluable."
"Shem'al?" Kra'lysie asked.
The dragon-woman frowned slightly. "I'm not familiar with that substance. Darkstone?"
"The Guardian oraini call it Blackrock. It's the most powerful stone available, and it appeared after Atarka was overrun. Let's get thy people a place to rest 'ere we talk further." She pushed back the sleeve of her robe on her right arm to reveal a bracer similar in design to mine, though the body looked to be metallic - bronze. She touched a jet-black stone and traced a design in the air with her spear. There was a whisper of ether and the air rippled with more vigour, then I felt the entire southern wall of the shield fall away.
"Get everyone inside," Jae'tar called as she moved forward to pass between two blackrock obelisks.
I couldn't help spending a minute to gape before following, helping Richard down the stone steps encircling the perfectly round perimeter of what appeared to be a crater...and in which an entire village nestled. Stone houses, canvas tents and fenced paddocks abounded around the edges, but the first thing to catch my eyes was the colour. Enclosed by the outer circle of houses was a wide ring of grass. Fresh and green and healthy. Fruit trees were here and there, and a large pool of silver water could be seen in the middle of it all, around which was the garden and then the buildings. Thin, straight streams ran from the pool in each of the four main directions of the compass. When they reached the outer edge of the garden they stopped and flowed out at a slightly curved, perpendicular angle to join the end of another stream. This formed a large unbroken ring of water with four separate quadrants of grass and trees and living plants.
"It's cooler here," Richard said, and he straightened as though feeling revived.
"The shield that hideth us doth serve in more ways than one," Jae'tar explained. She looked back as we reached the bottom of the steps to wait for everyone to get in. "It also protecteth us from the heat - most weather factors, actually - and reduceth the sun's glare."
"Thou didst use our gifts with wisdom," Kra'lysie said. "This place is a haven."
"Many protested," the mezzin replied with a hint of bitterness.
"They thought this-" she indicated the entire area, "-would make us weak.
Harsh conditions breed stronger people." She touched her bracer and the
shield went back up. "Come. We'll go to the lake and thy people can be
The mezzini called this place Shem Mezzin'draco, which meant 'Sand Camp', and it was the only stationary home the nomads had in the entire desert. As anyone who looked at it could guess, magic had played a large part in its creation. Eight blackrock pillars stood around the circumference of the site and I knew they were used for the shields. No one could tell me how the pillars had got to where they now were.
When the sandstorm struck, we barely noticed. I'd heard not a whisper of wind to announce its coming, so it was only after I looked up, late afternoon, and saw a hazy, shifting orange glow instead of the blue sky that I knew. By that time, the Britannians were already resting indoors having eaten, drunk and had any wounds tended to. Everyone had had their feet bathed and bandaged due to the ravages of our desert trek. Even Kra'lysie and I, though my blisters and burns were all illusionary.
So as afternoon darkened into night, I spent my time alone in a small house and brooded on what would happen next. Jae'tar had steadfastly refused to tell me anything else until after I'd had a good long rest. Not being able to sleep, however, resting became a frightful bore. Brooding was the easiest alternative.
We were presently safe. So long as I didn't teleport and break the shields, chances were Mellorin wouldn't find us (provided she was still looking). What was more, the mezzini would be able to direct us to the Dragonlore and I'd finally find a way to get rid of the bracer. But then I thought, Why just do that? You're on one of the Guardian's worlds, Elora - Killorn Keep! Maybe you can find out some of the Guardian's plans...
"That's a rather good idea," I murmured to myself. Furthermore, I was fairly certain that the bracer could teleport me straight to the keep. Otherwise how had Mors Gotha got there so fast? I pondered this for a while, then grew bored again. Dispensing with the pretence of being footsore and weary, I got up, dressed in the mezzin robe and boots that had been left for me, retained my daggers and left my small house.
There wasn't much activity outside - the time being midnight and all. A few mezzini were about, but none gave me more than a cursory glance. It was easy to tell that I was not one of them since my skin was a lot fairer, and I was somewhat surprised that no one challenged me. After a while I felt a calm sense of understanding. I was being anticipated. Someone was waiting for me. Someone I knew, though they were not Britannian.
I reached the garden in the centre of the camp and paused to let my senses drink in the sights, scents and sounds of the place. No light came from the darkened dome covering Sand Camp, but the grass was dotted with small clumps of tiny berries that glowed a pale green. I kept walking until I stood at the edge of the pool in the garden's heart. At my approach, a figure standing on the surface of the water turned and came towards me.
"Altara," I greeted her, and she smiled. "When thou didst leave Killorn Keep, I had no idea I'd see thee here."
"Who knew we'd ever meet again?" the dark-haired mage replied. "I returned to my people, as thou canst see." She stepped onto dry ground and looked at me carefully. "I know thou didst succeed in thy quest to unravel the web the Guardian had spun between the planes, so why hast thou returned?"
I considered my reply and decided to answer her question with one of my own. "What hath Kra'lysie told thee?"
Altara shook her head. "Little. Enough that we know she deemeth herself under thy command, and thus she won't speak of thine intentions without permission. Permission! I don't know what thou hast done, Avatar, but a kra'lysie bending knee to a mortal is unheard of."
"She's not that submissive," I murmured. I made up my mind not to tell her I was undead. If Atarkans treated them like the plague - a version of it that could be killed with weapons and magic, - admitting it might not be a good idea. The mezzini hadn't had access to the Dragonlore in who knew how long, so chances were they'd have no memory of aeth'raesh'ali. That said, they'd most likely try to kill me before I could explain it to them. "Kra'lysie is guiding us to the Dragonlore," I said at last. "We need information on an object called an aeth'raesh'al."
"Aeth'raesh'al," Altara said softly. She frowned. "I know its meaning, but am unfamiliar with such an object."
"Mors Gotha had one. It was in the form of a jewelled bracer."
"I knew there was something strange about that bracer. I could feel it!"
I hoped she couldn't feel it now. True, the bracer was covered, but that wouldn't mask the sensation of magic. Or undeath. "I'm hoping to find a way to destroy it in the Dragonlore."
Altara nodded. "I can help thee a little. Come." She started to lead the way back to the city area. "My people have been unable to approach the Tuay Mountains where the caves are since Killorn Keep took its first flight. I have been closer than any other mezzin in some time, but not even my rank on the High Council could get me closer."
"Didst thou want to be sent to Killorn?" I asked.
"Not initially. There are other ways to get to the mountains - airships and shem'lysie barges. It was carelessness on my part that got me sent to Killorn." She shrugged. "Anything I did after that I had to keep secret. I was always being watched. I learned one thing," she added with a short laugh. "The keep can only be brought down from within. I was too afraid of being caught or killed to attempt anything. I had a duty to return to my people. I am one of the last great shamanesses left among my people - the only ones gifted with magic and high visions."
I raised a brow at her.
"I dreamed thou wouldst come back, Avatar, and I dreamed thou wouldst tear Killorn Keep from the sky and free us from the Guardian."
I didn't reply for a while. "Mine obligation is to Britannia first and foremost," I said slowly, watching her for any reactions. "Thou must understand that my duty is to them."
"I do." She smiled. "But I'm never wrong, Elora. I never have been." She waved a hand dismissively. "Thou shalt see."
"I don't like visions," I muttered darkly. "They make me feel I don't have a choice."
"They shouldn't," she answered. "Look. If I said, 'I saw someone drowning and thou didst run to the rescue,' what wouldst thou think?"
"I'm not sure... If I saw someone drowning I would try to save them."
"Thou seest? A vision hath nothing to do with predestination, but with foreknowledge. It doth not control thee, it just knoweth what thou wouldst do given the situation."
"So what's the situation with thine other vision?"
"I don't know. I just know what thou wilt do!" Altara smiled again.
"Knowing thee, however, I'm sure it will be the right choice."
The house Altara led me to was on the north side and quite close to a path leading up between two of the blackrock obelisks to the outside world. The stone door opened soundlessly to reveal a single square room. Even before Altara conjured a light I could see a carpet made of some kind of dark, fibrous hair covering the floor, a low bed against one wall and a stone table against another, and a map hanging above the table.
"Northern Atarka," Altara said as she gestured toward the map with one hand and closed the door with her other. "Well, most of it. The Northern Wasteland, rather."
The map looked old, but the dyes used for colour were still vivid. Names were written across locations in strange, glyph-like letters. As we'd seen on Kra'lysie's sand map, the Krain Desert was three-quarters circled on north, west and south sides by a large mountain range. I had no idea of scale, though, so I couldn't tell how large the desert really was.
"Didst thou want to have a closer look?" Altara asked presently.
I almost started. I'd been closely examining the map from all the way across the room. Nodding mutely, I stepped forward. This was the first time I'd unconsciously used 'long vision' for something that was relatively close. "Where are we?" I asked.
She touched the desert where it joined the inside edge of the mountains in the south-west. There was a square symbol there. "This is the Castle of Flames, capitol of Atarka. The only place besides Killorn Keep among the desert settlements we've been unable to destroy." Her finger travelled north-east into the desert. "This is our camp. About half a day's walk away."
"The Shrine of Silence?"
She pointed out a spot further east - about eight times the distance from the castle to the camp. "Around here. We don't know precisely where because it's shielded from our viewing magics. Four days walk."
"We took five."
"Thou hadst many people with thee, all of whom are unaccustomed to travelling a desert, yes?"
"Yes." Staring at the map, I felt a sense of relief that we'd trusted Kra'lysie and come west. East and north the Krain Desert stretched on, and south we would have come up against an escarpment and mountains.
Altara pointed at a spot north-west of the desert in the mountains. "The dragon caves are here. That's where the Lore is hidden."
"Thou didst mention an easier way to get there," I said, noting the great distance between here and the caves.
"Shouldst thou go to the Castle of Flames, thou couldst buy passage on an airship or barge to the caves." She paused. "In theory. I worked at the Castle for a while and never actually heard of someone doing this. People go to Killorn Keep or cities beyond the Krain and mountains..."
"But no one goes to the dragon caves."
She shook her head. "So be careful. Thou needest no suspicious eyes upon thee at the castle. The Imperial Family liveth there, so if Killorn is the heart of the Guardian's military here, then Krain Castle is the heart of his power."
"I'll attract enough attention merely bringing all my people," I mused. "I don't suppose… I mean, if only a few of us went, could the rest of us stay here?"
"The desert is not an easy land to live off," she replied gravely. "Once the sandstorm hath ended we will be short of supplies, and thy people will not be able to help us replenish our stores. We could shelter them… but sustaining them would be difficult. However, Avatar, the distance between here and the Castle of Flames is not great. Furthermore, the number of people with thee can be worked to thine advantage.
"Thou wilt only arouse suspicions if all thy people are under arms. Warriors are currently a rarity in Atarka because of the war. Shouldst thou appear at the castle with thine own private army, thou wilt either be marked deserter and put to death, or enemy and put to death."
"Wonderful. Art thou saying we must enter enemy territory unarmed?"
"Thou hast around four hundred people, Elora. All bearing weapons, the Empress will have every right to believe thou'rt invading. I'd advise reducing that number to a hundred. That's a believable number for an escort of a group this large. Keep any more weapons out of sight."
"Escort? What kind of idiot - nomads notwithstanding - would want to walk across the desert?"
She smiled. "Pilgrims who seek the Guardian's telomari, of course."
"Hm. They'll still see that we're warriors."
"Act inept. One who carries a sword doth not necessarily know how to use it. Only the leader and his or her subordinates are expected to know what they're doing."
I held back a groan. Almost everyone with me was from Serpent's Hold, so all of them could use a weapon of some kind. Even their babies were practically born with a sword in their tiny hands. I hoped we had some good actors.
"Which bringeth me to notice thou hast no sword," Altara observed. "Or axe."
"I lost mine axe in a fight with a sand serpent. I believe it was swallowed," I added blandly.
She looked impressed. "Thou didst slay a sand serpent? That is quite a feat."
"How dost thou know I killed it?"
"Thou'rt here, aren't thou?" She smiled, then faced the map. "Some of the Dragonlore we took with us when we left the caves. Not books or scrolls or tablets, but weapons and artefacts. One is a sword of power - a power we no longer know the meaning of. It is thine."
"Thou art giving it to me? Why?"
"A thra needeth a good weapon, and this is the best we have. I know thou art worthy to bear it, Avatar, and the kra'lysie hath reaffirmed that belief."
"Thank thee," I managed, unable to think of anything else to say.
Altara brushed back her black hair with one hand. "Thou'rt welcome. I'll give it to thee tomorrow, if thou mindest not. I'm starting to feel tired."
"Of course. And don't worry about me; I can find my own way back."
She looked at me quizzically. "How art thou feeling?"
"What meanest thou?" I returned, trying to sound casual.
"Well, for someone who hath just emerged from the Krain Desert, thou seemest...fine."
"To tell thee the truth, Altara," I said with a wry smile, "I feel pretty much dead. I think it would be a good idea for me to turn in as well."
She nodded and smiled again. "Very well. I'll see thee tomorrow. El sa vak ma orelay'ah."
I blinked at her.
"Pleasant dreams," she translated with a grin. When my expression went flat, her smile faded. "Did I say something wrong?"
"Not...exactly. I used to hear the Guardian's Voice. He always said 'Pleasant dreams.'" I tried to shrug it off. "Just a bad memory."
"Oh. I'm sorry." She looked uncomfortable. "If it maketh thee feel better, the literal interpretation is 'Light be in the darkness.' It's dark when one closes one's eyes to sleep. We say this in hope that the dreams sleep bringeth are not dark as well. That's all I meant."
"'Light be in the darkness,'" I said softly. "I like that. Thank thee." Once outside her house I paused to decide where exactly I wanted to go next. I couldn't tell what time it was (though my instincts said it was still very early in the morning), and I didn't relish the idea of sitting alone doing nothing.
I headed for the garden and, finding it empty, continued south to where the Britannians were housed. When I reached the buildings I stopped again. I didn't want to disturb my friends' sleep, but I just felt so...bored. That in turn made me feel incredibly guilty. Why should I consider waking them just because I was lonely?
Then I realised that a part of me was afraid of what I might do when I had nothing to do. What did liches do with their spare time?
You are not a liche, I thought to myself. Yet, I couldn't help adding in my mind. Irritated more than anything else, I went to the closest of my friends' houses, Shamino's, and knocked softly on the door. When there was no answer, I opened it a crack and peered in. It was empty and the bed unslept in. Dupre's place was next, so I closed the door and went there.
"Who is it?" the knight's voice whispered when I knocked.
The door opened and I could see Iolo sitting inside as Dupre stood aside for me to enter. "There thou art!" he whispered, grinning. "Iolo checked thine house but couldn't find thee. Is Shamino with thee?" He looked past me.
"No," I said, coming inside. "He wasn't in his house. What is this, a social get-together?"
Julia and Katrina were also inside. They, like Iolo, were seated on dark rugs around a low table with what appeared to be a deck of cards. All of them had their legs stretched out and their feet bandaged.
Dupre shut the door as Julia said, "We were bored. Nights, and days, are longer here, remember? We've been in bed for over twelve hours!" She lowered her voice. "Not to say that others aren't sleeping."
"Richard?" I guessed, and she nodded. "Well, he's earned it."
"Pull up a rug," Dupre said. He limped to his bed and sat on the edge, picking up his cards. "Hit me."
Katrina slid him a card from the top of the deck. He picked it up, grinned and turned over his hand. "By the Abyss, I've done it again. Virtuous flush of Swords: Avatar, Truth, Love and Courage!"
The others threw in their cards with various expressions of disbelief and good-humoured disgust.
"Good thing we're not placing bets," Iolo noted. "Elora, care to join in?"
I shook my head. "I can read your cards, so it wouldn't be fair."
They looked disappointed. Julia said, "Dupre, thou didst not just happen to have also brought along a chessboard from Britannia, didst thou?"
He chuckled. "Sorry, Julia."
"I'm fine," I said. "I'll just watch. It beats sitting in my room doing nothing!"
"How?" Julia asked dryly. "Now thou'rt sitting in Dupre's room doing nothing."
"At least it's not by myself here."
They smiled and got on with their game. Iolo dealt two cards each. "Don't give anything away, Elora!" he said.
He gave me a look of mock-disgust before examining his hand. "I hate it when someone says that," he muttered.
Dupre let out a short bark of laughter, falling silent when the bard glared at him. "Thou didst say exactly the same thing when thou wert challenged to shoot an apple from a child's head with thy crossbow."
Iolo shuddered. "I hated it then, too." He passed Julia a card. "I never would have pulled such a stunt had I a choice."
"When was this?" I asked.
"Blackthorn's time. I got caught in Yew buying supplies."
"You hit the apple, I hope."
"Of course! What dost thou take me for?"
"Did it split in two?" Katrina asked curiously.
"With a crossbow bolt?" Iolo exclaimed, both eyebrows shooting up. He quickly lowered his voice as he realised he'd been speaking too loud. "No. It sort of exploded. Now look, if we're going to sit here trading stories, let's at least hear a good one." Laying his cards down, he reached back with both hands and pulled up the hood of the mezzin robe he wore. His weathered, white-bearded face was immediately plunged into shadows, save his eyes. The light of the single candle on the table made his blue eyes glitter. The old bard drew himself up where he sat and clasped both hands before his darkened face, elbows on the table. "Hearken," he said in a voice that was both soft and compelling. "Hearken ye to this tale of Valour. From the deepest recesses of the Abyss this beast came into fair Britannia - a great sea serpent with blue-green scales and eyes like white fire. Miraki - 'Water Hawk' in the tongue of the gargoyles - mightiest of his kind. He had crushed more ships that he had years, drowned and devoured more men and women than he had scales on his lengthy body." Iolo parted his hands slowly until only his fingertips remained touching. Within the circle made by his fingers and thumbs a glowing white eye appeared, divided down the middle by the golden slash of a slitted pupil. Sea-green scales materialised around it as the bard drew his hands completely apart and spread them wide like a performing mage. As the illusion grew to incorporate a maw of gleaming, pointed teeth and yet more scales to form a gigantic head, Iolo said, "None sailed over his underwater lair unchallenged, yet one day he was intruded upon by a creature with such power as to give even him pause." Beside the vast image of the sea serpent's head appeared the almost pathetically small figure of a human. "A creature to be known as the Avatar." He waved both hands slightly and the illusions swirled, as though caught in a whirlpool, then vanished. "Her sailing vessel dropped anchor just off the Cape of Heroes, and it was there the mighty sea wyrm lived.
"'The serpent is here,' the Avatar proclaimed. 'I can feel it in my bones.'
"One of her companions, a handsome bard with-"
Dupre and Julia both snickered.
"-the glimmer of youth in his wise eyes," Iolo continued, ignoring them, "replied, 'Then we were not led astray. We shall put the monster to rest and rid the City of Honour of its presence.'
"A great spray of ocean water lashed the passengers and a huge wave rocked the ship they sailed. 'Put to rest?' a monstrous voice roared. Quick as lightning, the serpent shot around the ship to embrace it in a single deadly coil. His neck reared up above the prow and the translucent fins lining his jaw trembled with rage. 'Put to rest? I? Miraki? Presumptuous groundlings! How dare ye?'
"The Avatar's second companion, a burly paladin with an over-fondness for dark ale, said, 'Prithee, Elora, allowest me to issue a formal challenge to this overgrown wyrm and to throw down my gauntlet.'"
"'Prithee'?" Katrina whispered to Dupre.
The knight looked utterly blank. "I don't even know what that meaneth!"
"'Assuredly, Dupre,'" Iolo went on, grinning. "'Even as craven a beast as this deserveth an honourable challenge.' Thus spake the Avatar, so the paladin pulled off his right mail glove and tossed it to the deck.
"'I challenge thee to a duel, wyrm!' he shouted."
"Thou'rt kidding," Julia scoffed. "Not even Dupre would do something like that."
Dupre sighed deeply and hid his face behind his cards.
"'A duel?' Miraki answered, sounding puzzled. 'Why wouldst thou, a human, call me to single combat?'"
"Because he's stupid," Dupre's muffled voice said.
"'Because he's stup- stupendous,' the - er - Avatar said."
I grinned as Iolo tried to cover for his slip. Dupre lowered his cards, smirked, and executed a mocking half-bow.
Iolo leaned forward. "'Thou art on the quest of the Avatar,' the sea serpent growled. 'I would challenge thee. Shouldst thou triumph, I shall spare thy friends and leave those who sail these waters unharmed.'
"'It is a trick, Elora" the handsome bard warned. 'Trust not this evil wyrm!'
"'Fearest thou not, dear friend,' she returned. 'I shall triumph.'
"Her third companion, a lanky ranger, asked, 'How will such a duel be fought?'
"'As are all my duels,' Miraki hissed. His baleful eyes fixed on the Avatar's defiant face. 'Thou, and thou alone, hast five minutes to stop me from crushing this ship.' As he said this, he started to draw tight the coil around the hull.
"'I accept!' the Avatar thundered, and as timbers shrieked and buckled in the grip of the monster, she dove overboard to do battle."
"'Dove'?" Katrina murmured to me.
"Her companions watched in horror as she vanished below the roiling waves," Iolo continued dramatically. "An eternity seemed to pass before they saw her again - clinging to the green-bronze spines sprouting down the sea serpent's thick neck!" He conjured another illusion of Miraki's massive head and neck, this time with my tiny form scaling his stiff spines as though they were the rungs of a ladder. "So light was her frame that Miraki didn't notice her until it was too late." The small Avatar jumped onto the broad bridge of Miraki's long nose, one hand drawing her sword, the other gripping a large handful of fins for balance.
"'Surrender or die!' the Avatar shouted, her gleaming blade pointing at one golden eye.
"Miraki's answer was to twist his neck so that his head was upside down! The Avatar, however, hung on to both sword and fin.
"'Surrender or die!' she shouted again, and slapped the flat of her weapon against his head. 'Last chance!'
"The sea serpent made one final attempt to dislodge her, but failed. 'I surrender,' he hissed, defeated, and uncoiled himself from around the ship. Lowering his head, he allowed the Avatar to jump back down to the deck of her ship where her friends greeted her with great cheering."
"No you didn't!" I protested.
"She humbly ignored it, however," Iolo swept on grandly, "and instead spoke to the sea serpent. 'The terms of thy freedom are that thou shalt never attack any human or human vessel unless they attack thee first. Dost thou understand?'
"'I do, Avatar,' Miraki answered, bowing his scaled head. 'I will honour mine oath. Never let it be said that Miraki is without Virtue.'
"'But how shall we prove that we defeated him?' Dupre asked. 'The citizens of Trinsic won't take thy word alone, Avatar.'"
Dupre shook his head sadly and I laughed. In reality, the knight had threatened to deck anyone who dared doubt my word.
"Miraki sank below the waves for a minute then returned with a scrap of blue-green scales as large as one side of a house. Putting it on the deck, he said, 'I shed my scales underwater every few years or so. This should convince them. There is also something else I possess that might interest thee. Thou art obviously on a quest to become the Avatar. Thou wilt need this in thy travels.' And from his maw dropped something that flashed like silver in the sun.
"The Avatar caught it. It was a magnificently fashioned horn of silver with an ivory mouthpiece. Across it were beautiful tracings of animals and humans and winged creatures. ''Tis a gift beyond price, Miraki,' she said. 'And it will definitely be useful. I thank thee.'
"'Thank thee for my life, Avatar. There are few who would be as compassionate to a sea serpent. Mayest thou become thy destiny!' Then he arched over, scales gleaming in the sun, and plunged down into the foaming sea with a great splash, never to be seen again." Iolo bowed his head to indicate the end of the story and we clapped as softly as we could.
"If it was the Age of Enlightenment," Julia pointed out critically, "and thou hadst not got the Silver Horn yet, then thou hadst not been to the Shrine of Humility. So how come everyone was calling Elora 'Avatar'?"
"They weren't," Iolo said. "It just soundeth better."
"But it's not historically correct!"
"Neither was half the story." He grinned. "Didst thou not know I embellish everything?" He turned over his cards. "New story. This one begins a long time ago before Britannia even existed. When the world was a dangerous place and Virtue unheard of. When great evil was abroad and a stranger appeared in the land, eyes wide at the sights and wonders of another world..."
I relaxed as my four friends dealt cards for a new game, leaning back into the soft rug and letting the sound of Iolo's voice drown out everything else. The light of the single candle danced across the walls and chased the shadows without pause, sinking the room into colours of dark gold and amber.
And I let my mind drift back to visit a place I hadn't been to in a long time.
The next day remained a day of rest for the Britannians. The sandstorm continued to rage in full force outside the protective dome, so we needed no urging to stay in the mezzin camp. Those who could walk inevitably decided to spend time in the strange garden at the heart of the camp. After a few minutes there, most could be seen walking around in a kind of daze - as if they were drunk on all the scents and colours of the place, as well as the sound of deliciously rippling water.
Lord British was no exception. He sat beneath one of the trees, back against the thick trunk and legs stretched out, a faintly bemused expression on his bearded face.
"Good morning," I said to him.
He smiled up at me. "It is, isn't it? What a wondrous place this is."
I sat down beside him and leaned against the tree. "Had I the inclination, I'd ask how they did it. They must have been using blackrock in their magic for a long time for their...techniques to be so sophisticated." I frowned pensively at the sand-clouded dome overhead. Enough light shone through that it seemed like day, but the temperature was pleasantly warm as opposed to the desert's usual scorching heat. "Did you notice the water? It looks the same as at that Shrine of Silence."
"Hm?" Richard blinked then looked at me. "Sorry, Elora, what didst thou say?"
I raised a brow at him and grinned. "Never mind. I won't spoil your morning with my worries."
His attention seemed caught by something else, so I gave up. "Sleep well?" I asked absently.
"He might as well still be asleep, Avatar," a new voice said from the other side of the trunk. The dragon-woman Kra'lysie looked around at me from where she was sitting. "He's on kel'tara quan. It's a drug."
"What for?" I exclaimed.
"To help repair the damage done by casting too many spells with too little rest. You know where that can lead to."
Death. I nodded. "Ok, then. Is that why he seems so..?"
"Absent-minded? You got it. Let's just say his brain is on a short and much-needed vacation. He'll get over it by tomorrow morning. I'm here with him so he won't wander off by himself. Oh, you might want to shift your sitting position every few minutes."
I gave her a blank look and she pointed at the grass I was sitting on. It was turning brown.
"The undead tend to have adverse effects on the living," she said clinically. "Just as anyone with magic in their veins feel their teeth are on edge while you're around, so will animals grow skittish and plants fade. I don't really want to explain to the mezzini why their grass is withering." She lowered her voice. "Nor do I have any wish to explain why I am helping an undead."
"Why do Atarkans hate the undead so much?" I asked her softly. "Everything I've seen of them makes me think they go out of their way to slay daemons."
"There's a slight distinction in...ah...life states that I might point out here," she said, idly plucking at some grass. "Daemons aren't, strictly speaking, undead, since they were never alive. My people class them as the unliving. It's them the Atarkans despise."
Kra'lysie let out a long breath and drew her knees up to her chest. "Because of a law that the supposed voice of the aeth'er'eal gave to Atarka when living creatures first made it their home. 'Have no fellowship with daemons', or something. It's been passed down through the ages, and the living take it very seriously. Even dragons."
I twisted my head around to see her behind the trunk. "You don't believe where this law comes from?"
"I don't care, truth be told. It's damn useful, though, since it must be an incredible stumbling block to the Guardian."
"If he's pretending to be the ethereal voice, why can't he order the Atarkans to work with his daemons?" I asked.
"He can't. That's what I mean. If he contradicted an 'earlier' commandment, someone might smell a very large rat."
I remembered the first time I'd met Kra'lysie. "You used a daemon to attack me."
"That was a mushuss, actually. One of my familiars. It only looks like a daemon."
"Some daemons can become good," I said. "Are you familiar with the Shadowlords? Astaroth, Shadowlord of Hatred, was served by an arch-daemon called Sin 'Vraal."
Kra'lysie cut me off with a raised arm. "I know the story. Sin 'Vraal meets Lord British, Sin 'Vraal becomes good, Sin 'Vraal is banished to Britannia and mutated into what's to be later known as a gargoyle." She shrugged. "I don't know if it's true. I'll consent to believe that some daemons grow up, Avatar, but a daemon is still a daemon. I don't care how friendly you are to them - I'll hold on to my mistrust, thank you very much."
"You mean Arcadion?" I exclaimed. "Believe me, he's not my friend. But I guess I do trust him to an extent."
"Arcadion wants to kill me," Richard said, admiring a small blue flower on the grass. "I dreamed it."
I laughed dryly. "So did I. A while ago, anyway."
"What else did you dream?" Kra'lysie asked Richard intently, giving me a warning look.
"There was a big ritual on the Isle of the Avatar, and I was there," Richard went on, pulling the petals from the flower one by one. Stopping, he gave both Kra'lysie and me a puzzled look. "And thou wert there," he said, pointing. "And thou..." Then he pointed across the garden at either Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia or Katrina, all of whom were coming our way. "And thou!"
"Oh, Virtues," I sighed, rolling my eyes skyward. "I think he read 'The Wizard of Oz' one too many times."
Kra'lysie didn't look convinced. "He shouldn't be having dreams if he's on kel'tara quan."
"Maybe he's just imagining it," I suggested, standing to welcome my friends.
The others reached us and sat down on the grass nearby. I was amazed to see one good night's sleep and some food had had such an effect on them. Aside from varying degrees of sunburn and feet that were freshly bandaged, they all looked healthy, rested and generally happy. Washing water had been provided earlier so everyone was clean.
"So, where were you last night?" I asked Shamino.
"Exploring," he said with a grin. "These people have the strangest animals I've ever seen in their paddocks."
"Exploring? Even with bandaged feet?"
"I'm a ranger! Breaking my legs wouldn't stop me. This place is a wonder."
"Well you missed one hell of a game of cards last night."
"No thou didst not," Julia cut in. "Dupre was playing. And won."
Shamino grinned. "Glad I wasn't there. I like my gold where it is." He looked at me. "So what are we planning from here?"
I told them most of my discussion with Altara from last night. "If the sandstorm's died by tomorrow then we move out. One hundred of us can have visible weapons. If we make out that we are pilgrims - and their escort - returning from the Shrine of Silence, we should be ok."
"How far is it to this Krain Castle?" Dupre queried.
"Half a day."
"That's about nine hours in Britannian time," Kra'lysie put in. "You should be fine if you go by night."
"Thou'rt not coming?" Dupre asked, and the rest of us looked at her.
"Of course I am. I still have to show you to my peoples' caves. I meant 'you' as in 'humans'. Kemah-thra," she muttered. "I'd be one sorry excuse for a dragon if I couldn't survive a little heat." She suddenly looked around expectantly. "Somebody's coming."
Altara and Jae'tar approached our group with ten other mezzini. Now that mother and daughter stood together, I could see that the resemblance between the two was striking. The only differences I could see were that Jae'tar was a handspan taller and had storm blue eyes as opposed to Altara's dark brown.
"It's fortunate to find ye all together," Jae'tar said, looking us over with a cool glance. "There are things to discuss, but first-" she looked down at me and held out a sheathed longsword, "-this is for thee."
I got up and accepted it. "Thank thee." The dark grey scabbard was bound with brass and bore no markings. The hilt was made of some kind of dark gold metal I didn't recognise, and the pommel was a round, faceted, blood-red ruby almost the size of my clenched fist. Gripping the hilt with my right hard, I drew it to examine the blade. Flawless steel.
"The last of what we possess of the Dragonlore," Jae'tar said. "Use it well." She gestured to the ten mezzini and they followed her as she walked away.
I almost went after her, but Altara bade me stay. "Jae'tar only came to deliver the sword." She sat down with us, gesturing for me to do likewise, and inclined her head toward Kra'lysie, who'd been observing the proceedings. "Kra'lysie."
The dragon-woman nodded back. "Mezzin tara-thra."
"Please forgive my daughter," Altara said. "She is less than enthused about giving an artefact to a liche."
"How did you know?" I asked softly.
"I sensed it. I am a mage, and strong enough to detect such things." She leaned back on the grass. "If I hadn't felt it last night then I would now. It's stronger."
"Why dost thou still help me, then?"
"The kra'lysie said to. Thou art not a daemon, so I will obey." She glanced at the dragon-woman then. "Though this cometh very close - even for one such as thyself."
Kra'lysie inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment.
"This is Altara," I told my friends. "Without her help we would probably still be trapped in the blackrock dome." I introduced my friends to her.
"Do all thy people live here?" Shamino asked. "I have not seen many."
"Do not feel obliged to answer that, mezzin tara-thra," Kra'lysie said quickly, her tone hard. "We do not need to know."
"I trust thy companions, kra'lysie," Altara replied. "Thou hast vouched for them."
"For the humans," Kra'lysie muttered darkly. "And the gargoyle."
I glared at her.
"This camp is merely a haven... Shamino, wasn't it? None of us really live here. It's a place to ride out sandstorms or to rest after battles or to gather supplies. This is also where all our knowledge is stored, and where what we salvaged of the Dragonlore was kept before today. My daughter's clan is here because Jae'tar wanted to visit me." She smiled briefly. "The other clans are scattered across the Krain, as we nomads usually are."
"Excuse me, Lady Altara," Dupre said, "but where are all the men?"
"With such clans that will take them. There are a few here who take care of the animals."
"None of them fight?" he asked, sounding shocked.
"None of them feel inclined to." She shrugged. "They're content to look after stock and supplies, eat and sleep. Everyone is happy with the way things are."
Dupre seemed to struggle with that concept for a while, and Katrina asked if all the women fought.
"Not all, though we all know how should the need arise," was the answer.
"I hope you're not entertaining thoughts of leading the mezzin men to rebellion," I telepathed to Dupre, amused.
Altara looked at him, surprised. "Thou dost disagree?"
Dupre blinked and looked from her to me then back to her. "No, I was just-" he sighed. "Well, maybe a bit. I just think that the men are wasted tending to animals."
She smiled. "As I have said, they have chosen how they wish to live. Don't think that I underestimate their potential skill, Dupre. I have lost to and bested both men and women." She patted the long staff she bore affectionately. "My weapon of choice."
"What can we expect at this castle we're going to?" I asked, steering the conversation towards the future.
Altara considered. "Guard-wise, I'm not sure. Word is that every warrior was enlisted in the invasion, but I can't believe places like Krain Castle and Killorn Keep are undefended. Not that the latter is in any danger up in the sky."
I flicked my gaze down to the leather-wrapped bracer on my right arm and wondered. Surely Mors Gotha had used it to teleport there.
"Hath no one checked the castle?" Kra'lysie demanded, her golden eyes intent.
"Infiltration is not as easy as it once was." Altara reached back behind her neck then drew a thin silver chain from her robe. I instantly recognised the gold ring that hung from the necklace. A narrow band of gold surmounted by a flat circle, into which was engraved a daemonic face with two tiny, burning, ruby eyes.
A Guardian signet ring.
"They are very difficult to attain," Altara said, handing the ring to Kra'lysie.
"On another plane," I interrupted, remembering the Tomb of Praecor Loth, "I found many of them. As well as the bones of their owners. Thou couldst have asked me to look out for them for thee."
"Pre-owned rings are of no use," Kra'lysie said, passing the ring to me. "Look into the eyes."
Holding it between thumb and forefinger, I focussed on the fiery rubies. It only took a second. The jewels emitted a sudden bright glint, as if they'd been struck by sunlight, and in that instant of brightness I saw a face as clearly as you'd see your own in a mirror. Altara's face. "I was wearing a… used ring in Killorn Keep. It seemed to do the job. At least, I was told about the Britannian invasion."
"Did they actually look into the ring?" Altara asked, and smiled when I shrugged and shook my head. "I doubt they suspected an intruder in Killorn Keep, of all places.
"These rings retain the features of their original owner's face," she went on as I passed the ring to Shamino. "We've no idea how or where they're made. They can be destroyed, but their magic can't be changed."
"Do they do aught else?" Iolo asked, peering at the rubies.
"No. I can say with almost full certainty that they are for identification only."
"So how didst thou get one?" Kra'lysie asked.
"One of our clans happened to raid a keep bordering the desert a while ago. A ceremony was going on at the time - bestowing a signet ring to some noble or warrior. The mezzini managed to take the ring before it was given an owner, and brought it here.
"After consideration, the clan leaders decided to give it to me. Mages and scholars had a very good chance to rise high in the ranks of politics - much higher than warriors. There have been a few exceptions in this." She accepted her ring back and slid it onto the necklace. "Anyone found where they shouldn't be are killed if they don't have a ring. We mezzini stick out with our dark skins and hair, so we are always looked upon with suspicion. Even if we are a member of the High Council. That is why there have been no infiltration attempts."
"High Council?" Lord British mumbled. "I used to have one of those."
"Great Council, Richard," I said as the companions stared at him in total astonishment. "Remember?"
His bearded face creased in concentration. "No, I don't." Then he smiled. "But I remember when I first met Shamino! Knowest thou where he is, Avatar?"
I pointed. "Right there."
Shamino, confused, half-raised his hand. "Here."
Richard frowned. "No, I don't remember thee... thou lookest older, for one thing. Much older." He scratched his head.
"What's wrong with him?" Julia demanded.
"He's on a high," Kra'lysie drawled, obviously amused.
"Where am I?" Richard said to himself.
"He's ok," I assured my friends. "He's just-"
"-on medication," Kra'lysie grinned.
"I think that's the first time I've really seen thee smile," Dupre noted. He looked at his king. "Now, if I can just figure out if it's good humour or not."
Richard handed him the flower he'd decapitated. "For thy lady friend. She remindeth me of a very old friend of mine."
"Lady friend?" Kra'lysie exclaimed angrily.
"My?" Dupre protested.
"Old?" Richard suddenly shouted to absolutely no one. "I am not!"
"Art thou sure he's not..." Julia paused and pointed at her head. "Losing it?"
Richard was looking up at the branches of the tree with an enthusiastic smile as he continued to talk to himself.
"He's been pretty quiet until now," Kra'lysie told Altara.
The mage rose to her feet. "I'll return him to his room. Please rest while ye have the chance."
Kra'lysie stood and dragged Richard to his feet. "I'll go with thee, mezzin tara-thra."
"Art thou coming, too?" Richard asked the tree.
The tree ignored him. A tree isn't that talkative unless one happens to be an emp.
"I think he's drunk," Dupre declared. "I got Richard drunk once - took him to a night on the towne in secret. We went to the theatre, the horse track, then the pub. He got drunk and spent half an hour talking to an empty chair." He shrugged. "So what's he on? And can I have some?"
Kra'lysie threw him a half-full water-skin that sloshed noisily when he caught it. "Here. Knock thyself out," she said sweetly, then walked off with Altara, Richard between them.
Dupre eyed the water-skin as if it had suddenly become a snake then quickly tossed it past Shamino to me. "I think I'd rather not. I'm not really sure I trust her that much."
"Wise choice," Katrina murmured.
Iolo idly strummed the lute he'd brought along. "I'll sing ye the song of a dragon red-"
"Where did you get that?" I asked as I worked the stopper from the skin. "Don't tell me you dragged it through Serpent's Hold and across the desert."
The bard stopped and hugged the instrument like a child would do with a favourite toy. "'Tis my security blanket!" He strummed it again. "I'll sing ye the song of a dra-"
"I don't really think that was a good idea," Julia said critically. "Thou shouldst know the effects extreme weather hath on instruments."
"Oh, Gwenno and I fixed that," I told her. "A nice spell handled it. Not even the strings will break."
"They won't?" Iolo blinked. "I didn't know that."
"You never noticed that, in all the years you've had that lute, none of the strings have ever broken?" I sniffed at the open water skin.
"What doth it smell like?" Dupre asked with a certain note of professionalism.
"No, I didn't," Iolo mused. He shrugged and once again began to play the lute. "I'll sing ye-"
"Water actually smells?" the knight interrupted.
"Of course it doth!" Shamino said. "What, art thou stupid?"
"Stupid? Watch it friend, or I'll squash thee like a jellyfish."
Well, it seems everyone is back to normal, I thought with wry amusement. How did I get through the last few days without the bickering? I dribbled a bit of the skin's contents onto my finger and rubbed it with my thumb, watching curiously as it turned grey on my skin. I was on the verge of taste-testing when I remembered Richard and decided not to.
"Looketh like water, too," Julia said.
She raised a brow. "Doth it not?"
"It looks grey to me."
She leaned across the circle we were sitting in to get a better look. "It's clear."
"Hold out your hand." I wiped my finger onto her palm and the water drop suddenly became a brilliant orange with flecks of scarlet.
"Nothing," she said after a few seconds, and dried her hand on her robe.
"Interesting," I said softly, unheard as my friends continued to talk, sing, argue and generally just enjoy life. The red sands of the Krain desert swirled noiselessly around the protective barrier of the nomad encampment, enclosing it in a shimmering, crimson-amber dome. Beneath, the Britannians made the most of their brief respite amidst the greenery of a desert garden.
Tomorrow the quest would begin anew.
"Krain Castle," the dragon-woman said with satisfaction.
Still a good hour's walk away, the desert castle was indeed impressive. Built up against the sandstone cliffs - the western Tuay Mountains - a high wall of the red-gold stone encircled both the castle and the city below it. The inner keep of the castle could be seen soaring a massive ten storeys high above everything else, a Guardian banner fluttering from its battlements.
"Virtues," Richard muttered to me. "If Castle Britannia's tower were that high I think I'd kill myself rather than climb to my observatory."
I chuckled. "I wouldn't blame you."
As Kra'lysie had predicted, Richard had regained his mental capabilities by the next day. We'd taken until sundown to rest and prepare to depart, then had left at nightfall after thanking the mezzini. The walk had taken all night and the sun was just beginning to rise behind us, but the Britannians held up. They had beaten the desert; they weren't going to give in now.
"What's happening?" I asked Kra'lysie, for I could see a group of uniformed people marching towards us from the main gate.
"Welcoming committee. I hope this works."
"Is everyone ready?" I telepathed to my friends, who were again supervising groups. They answered in the affirmative, so all I could do was keep walking and wait. We'd given our surplus weapons to the mezzini. Sir Horffe was wearing a dark, voluminous, hooded robe that hid all his features, so long as he kept the sleeves covering his hands and his head down to hide his glowing eyes. His large wings could be explained as a deformity - a hunchback. A very tall hunchback. I'd also discovered that he had carried a human baby with him from Serpent's Hold, whom he had also insisted on concealing beneath his robe rather than let another take care of him. It was the son of Lady Tory, Riky, who had been killed in Castle Britannia during the imprisonment. Horffe knew she was dead, and, as no one seemed to know who the father was, had appointed himself the child's protector.
I hoped we'd pull this off.
"Halt!" a uniformed woman shouted, and I held up my right hand to both stop everyone and to show the bracer. Kra'lysie had told me that ornate bracers were status symbols among civilisation. Wearing one would lend me a look of importance, and Altara had said there were dozens of copies of the one the ka-thra wore.
"What might I do for thee, Sergeant?" I asked calmly, noting the stripes on her uniform. Were all military markings the same? Or was the Guardian just a hopeless conformist?
The soldier drew herself up. She was somewhat younger - and shorter - than I. "What business hast thou here, stranger?"
"I am escorting these people from a pilgrimage to the holy Telomar of Silence, Sergeant. We have come to Krain Castle in search of lodgings 'ere we continue our trek."
The sergeant's dark eyes narrowed as she looked past me to examine the group. "Thou hast children with thee," she pointed out.
"Yes," I agreed blandly. It wasn't that uncommon, according to Altara. Furthermore, would we be there to attack the castle if we had children with us?
"How many fighters among the escort?"
"Of veterans, there's myself and my six sub-commanders. I have ninety relatively green warriors with me, also."
"They might surprise thee," the sergeant said quickly. "Green warriors are just... legends who haven't yet taken form."
I held back a smile. "Of course, thou'rt right."
She nodded, attempting to look official. "Quite. Proceed, then." She motioned and her company made a relatively sharp about-face before marching back towards the castle.
"It worked," I sent to my friends. "Let's go. Follow me."
Finding enough inns to fit everyone took about three hours. We ended up having to put one group to each inn; Iolo's took the first, Shamino's the second, and so on. I told my friends to spend the sunlight hours resting, as Kra'lysie and I would look in to transport to the dragon caves.
The city itself was a remarkable place. The roads were paved white stone, the buildings red-brick. A bubbling water fountain graced every major intersection, and there were several well-tended gardens, parks and orchards. Some of these were filled with brightly decorated tents, and tables laden with wares both practical and exotic stood outside. The people seemed like any kind of city folk, hurrying along from one task to the next, pausing to chat with a neighbour, buying a dozen eggs for a family... it was hard to tell that this place was under the Guardian's rule. Hard to see how this place was any different from Britain.
Except, perhaps, for the fashion trends. The people here all wore very bright colours - probably to reflect the sunlight - and, with the exception of the soldiers, they all wore skirts of varying lengths. Even the men.
"Don't ask me why," Kra'lysie said, smoothing the front of her own vivid red tunic and knee-length skirt. "I'm a dragon, remember?"
"It doesn't look like any warriors wear skirts," I noted as we walked up a road. "I hope all this is just a custom. I don't even know the laws of this place."
Kra'lysie shrugged. "If all goes well, we'll be well away from here by tomorrow. Ah," she touched my arm and pointed up ahead. "The shem'lysie docks."
It was the northern wall of the city. Between two guard towers the long, sinuous, dark-gold necks and crested heads of three sand serpents reared up from the desert sands below. All three wore large leather harnesses over their heads, and they regarded the humans on the wall with black-eyed disinterest.
"That sign there," Kra'lysie said, indicating a large, square board with indecipherable writing (at least to me) on it. "The schedule. It seems that no one gets passage to the caves. There's one that goes to a pass in the northern mountains, but that's still too far away."
"I wonder if you can ask for a different destination," I mused.
"Nay can do, lady," a male voice said from beside us. We looked around to see a lean man with black hair, blue eyes and white clothes. "The shem'lysie barges run on a timetable set by the Imperial Family. No one in their right minds would cross them, unless the price was right."
"Passage is already fifty drathi!" Kra'lysie exclaimed. "What more couldst thou want?"
He smiled to reveal white teeth against his dark skin. "There's always more, ladies." He bowed. "I am the captain of the Desert Wind barge. That's my wyrm," he pointed at the farthest right sand serpent. "Beautiful, isn't he?" He looked at us. "So where were ye two hoping to go?"
"The old dragon caves in the Tuay Mountains," I said.
The captain shook his head. "Thou'rt not the first to ask for that place, nor will ye be the last, I'm guessing. No one goes there, ladies."
"At all. Forbidden ground, by Imperial decree."
"So an air-ship wouldn't take us either?" Kra'lysie asked.
"Nay. Sorry." And he turned away, vanishing into the crowd.
"Well," Kra'lysie said with a deep breath. "Now what?"
I kept the disappointment from showing on my face. We hadn't come this far for nothing. "I'll think of something."
She glanced upward as one of the sand serpents let out a threatening hiss at someone who got too close. "Let's get something to eat while you think, then. I'm famished."
We started back into the city, pushing our way through the crowds that grew as the morning got older. Small patrols of what appeared to be young, inexperienced guards walked the streets, but we never saw them do anything else. The city of Krain seemed to be a very orderly, lawful place.
"The overhanging threat of capital punishment has its advantages," Kra'lysie said when I asked about this. "Look below the surface, Avatar. These people aren't just lawful. They're afraid." She paused to look in the window of a butcher. "I haven't had a good gnavu carcass in centuries," she murmured, dreamily eyeing a hanging ribcage the size of an entire cow.
"It'll be longer, I think. You might draw attention eating that while we walk down the street."
She sighed. "I hate being human."
"Why don't you try some fruit or pastries?"
"Because I need some nice red meat. Maybe I can get some sausages... I'll be right back." She went inside.
I wandered across the sun-blasted road to examine the window of a jewellery shop. Brilliant gems, some obviously enchanted, glittered behind the glass pane. There were armbands, torcs, rings, necklaces, earrings and some things I'd never seen before.
Turning, I saw a lady with silvery-grey hair and rich clothes astride a horse-like beast. She was looking straight at me. Flanking her were a young man and woman. Both had reddish-gold hair and the features and regal bearing of the elderly lady.
Then I realised everyone in the vicinity had abased themselves before the three and their entourage of black-clothed guards. I was the only one standing.
Bow? Remain standing? Say something? The choices sped through my mind and I couldn't pick one. The regally-dressed old woman fortunately hadn't singled me out for any irreverence.
"Thou art the thra of the pilgrimage that came into our city today?"
I walked away from the shop to face them and gave a short bow. "I am, my Lady."
"Thou shalt call the Empress by her rightful title, dog!" one of the guards shouted.
The Empress! I bowed again to hide my startled expression. What did she want with me? "Forgive me, your Imperial Majesty," I murmured. "I live far from here and had never seen thine august self before."
The woman fixed me with sharp, hawk-gold eyes. "There will be a grand ball and feast in the palace tonight," she said in a ringing voice. "Imperial protocol dictates that all nobles be in attendance. Thy bracer bespeaketh thine importance."
I gave the richly jewelled armband a quick glance, wondering if I should verify or gainsay her.
"It is our wish that thou and five of thy people attend the ball tonight," the Empress said. Tugging the reins of her steed, she turned it around and rode away with the two younger nobles - her grandchildren, I supposed, - and most of the guards. One paused to throw a token to me.
"Show this to the guards when thou goest to the palace," he instructed.
I caught it. "Thanks."
"And I'd find some finer clothes if I wert thou. It will be a ball. Dress like a noble, not a warrior." As he turned to leave, he added, "And leave thy weapons."
"I really wish I knew what was going on," I muttered, watching the procession vanish up the street as the crowds started moving again. Opening my hand, I examined the token. An obsidian coin about the width of my thumbnail. Tiny silver glyphs ran around the edges on both sides, and a small, fiery red jewel was set in the middle. The jewel flashed white when I looked through it - like a camera flash.
"What's that?" Kra'lysie asked when she returned, a basket of raw sausages in one hand and a steaming, half-eaten meat pie in the other.
"A party invitation."
"Oh?" She took a bite of the pie then spoke around it. "From who?"
She went into a fit of coughing, swallowed, then stared at me. "You're kidding, right?" She pulled me aside and lowered her voice, watching me intently. "Are you serious?"
"Yes." I frowned. "Why?"
"How many can come with you?"
"Good. I'll be one." Her eyes narrowed. "This is the best chance we'll ever have," she said, a terrible intensity in her voice.
"To do what?" I whispered, sure I wasn't going to like it.
"To murder the Imperial Family, Avatar."
I shook my head. "No way. Forget it."
"Why not? You want to get back at the Guardian, don't you?"
"I'd prefer to use my sword on him instead of his mindless followers."
Kra'lysie smiled coldly. "I'm sure that's what you were thinking when you butchered the leaders of that Fellowship you told me about."
"They attacked me first. Don't tell me they didn't deserve it. You know what their murders look like."
"In part, yes."
"Then what about all the people the Empress has had killed?" she demanded. "What about my people? The mezzini? Your precious Britannians?"
"We don't know it's her orders, Kra'lysie," I replied after a long, uncomfortable pause. "I was under the impression that the military was commanded from Killorn Keep."
She glared at me for pointing that out. "Why do you think I returned here, to Atarka?"
I looked at her with pity. "You told me it was to help our fight against the Guardian, and I believed you. Now I know the truth. You just want revenge."
For the first time since we'd met, she seemed truly speechless.
"It's ok," I went on. "I've travelled with people who've felt the same."
"You've travelled with people who've had their entire race slaughtered?" Kra'lysie asked in a lethally quiet voice.
"You don't know that's true."
"I suppose I can't expect a liche to understand. After all, they work toward the extinction of their living kindred."
My reply was delivered in an icy voice. "If you want revenge then do it yourself. It should be very interesting, seeing as how you won't kill."
"As interesting as seeing what will happen when they see you're a..." she lowered her angry voice and spat, "liche."
"And when they see you're a dragon?" I retaliated. The use of blackmail made me feel sick at heart, even if it was defending myself.
"Kemah-thra, I hate you," Kra'lysie snarled softly, throwing her half-eaten pie to the ground with a wet splat of meat. "I wish I'd never come!" Then her eyes narrowed and her mind-voice said, "I wish I'd fried you on Ambrosia when I'd had the chance."
As she turned to stalk away, I resisted the urge to get the last word in. The last thing I needed was an angry dragon on my hands, particularly one that had the power to reveal who my friends and I were. That made me wonder if I should take her to the ball at all. I clenched the token in one hand, then stared down at it with a bitter twist to my lips. One side of the coin had the impression of the Empress's face engraved on the jewel. The other bore a dragon.
Let her come or leave her behind...
Balancing the token on the edge of the circle I made by touching thumb
to forefinger, I flipped it into the air...
The light of sunset made the stones forming the city and castle seem as though lit by an inner fire. A deep, dark, smouldering colour - embers in an hearth - enhanced by the black, ever-lengthening shadows. As the sun sank lower into the rainbowed horizon, street-lamps were lit. It wasn't fire that burned in them, but white jewels. Glowing crystals.
"Fascinating," Richard murmured, watching as one was activated by a woman wielding a long, wooden pole. "I wish I knew how it was done."
Kra'lysie, who was leading him, Dupre, Iolo, Julia and me to the palace, glanced back with a faint look of contempt, but remained silent. She hadn't spoken since our argument and, if anything, seemed more arrogant and nasty than normal.
I shook my head slightly and frowned. She didn't deserve that. She did have cause to feel the way she did. "We might find out some time," I said to Richard, "once the war is over."
"Once the war is over we'll have lost access to these other worlds, I think." He tugged at the right, elbow-length sleeve of his violet shirt. "Art thou sure I don't look like a fool?" he whispered self-consciously.
"You've been dressing for state functions for centuries, Richard. Why so tense now?"
"I've never worn a skirt before, Elora," he muttered, sounding completely embarrassed. "On top of that, I'm seldom under cover."
As we rounded a corner, I looked the Lord of Britannia over. His blond, silver-threaded hair and beard had been trimmed and the sunburn was barely noticeable any more. He wore a violet shirt, a deep blue skirt that reached below the knees - almost like a kilt, actually - and silver, cross-gartered sandals. He'd left his insignia ring behind, but wore the serpentine amulet under his shirt.
"Richard," I said, keeping stern control of my facial features, "you look..." I glanced back at my other male companions in their similar attire - a fatal mistake. It made me remember taking them out into the city to find their clothes. A woman had run up to Richard and, brandishing a bright blue skirt in her left fist, declared, "Oh, Gorgeous, thou simply must try this on! 'Twill match thine eyes much better than that drab outfit!"
I broke into a grin. "Beautiful. You all look beautiful."
Julia laughed and I could have sworn I heard Kra'lysie chuckle.
"Great." Richard rolled his eyes. "Thanks."
"How did Shamino get out of this?" Dupre demanded.
"He didn't want to come," Julia reminded him. "Thou didst."
"I didn't know I'd be wearing this frippery," the knight complained. "I feel half-naked! And it isn't just because of the skirt, thank thee. I can't believe we couldn't bring our weapons."
I smiled, but didn't tell him about the dagger I had strapped to one of my thighs. The entrance to the palace was in sight, as was a patrol of younglings dressed up as guards. Producing the token I'd been given earlier that day, I touched Kra'lysie's shoulder and motioned for her to walk behind me. I was meant to be the thra.
She gave me a strangely curious look, then nodded and fell back into step beside Dupre.
"Let's party," I muttered to myself, and led the way.
"Invitations," the guard said, holding out his hand. Taking my token, he inspected it, scrutinised my face, counted the number of people with me, checked for visible weapons, then called a subordinate and instructed him to take us inside.
I'd expected a journey through passages and corridors before reaching a Great Hall, but was mistaken. When we passed through the portcullis, the guard touched the single gem adorning his bracer and the air rippled.
Where seconds ago there'd been little more than a vague darkness, there was suddenly music and light. Ten jewel-lamps appeared around a raised, circular platform of desert-coloured mosaic tiles upon which people danced. Beyond was a smaller platform, a little higher and set under the overhanging structure of what appeared to be the inner keep. Left and right of the dance floor, small paths led off into dense green gardens.
"Present thy groups to the Empress then enjoy the party," the guard said in a bored-sounding voice. He walked back through the gate and vanished.
So did the gate.
"Virtues!" Julia stared at the blackness that had taken the place of the gatehouse, then backed away a step. "What..?"
Kra'lysie's eyes had gone flat with rage. "This magic belongs to my people!" she said in an infuriated whisper. "How dare they?"
It was then that I remembered we'd seen the same magic at the nomad camp. "Come on," I muttered. "We'd better observe custom."
"I am not going up there!" The dragon-woman was actually quivering with suppressed fury. "If you force me, Avatar, I swear I'll change shape and raze this place to the desert sands - and kemah-thra-damn the consequences!" Turning, she stalked off into the garden and disappeared amidst the trees.
The others looked at me. I sighed, glanced up at the inner keep, then down at the royal dais beyond the dance floor. "Richard and Dupre on my right, Iolo and Julia, left. Let's go."
Walking together, we mounted the first three steps to where the dancers were and crossed over. People melted out of our way and we didn't have to slow or pause even once before we reached the steps leading up to the dais. A throne and two smaller, less ornate chairs rested there, upon which sat the Empress and the two younger nobles I'd seen with her earlier today. Flanking them were fourteen guards dressed all in dark red cloth with faces hidden and jewelled rods the length of my forearm in their belts.
Uncertain of how to greet the Imperial Family, I executed a carefully respectful bow and sensed my companions follow suit. "Greetings, your Imperial Majesty and Highnesses," I said.
"We are pleased thou couldst attend this evening," the Empress said. I straightened, noticing her eyes searched mine deeply. No expression crossed her regal face as she added, "We hope thou wilt enjoy the New Moons Festival." She raised one hand to dismiss us.
"If I may," I said.
She stared at me impassively, as did the other two.
"Why was I invited? Forgive me, but this is my first time in Krain-"
"All nobles and thrai attend us at the New Moons Festival," was the reply. "It is tradition."
"Is it tradition that thou deliverest invitations in person?"
Again that impassive stare. "We hope thou wilt enjoy the New Moons Festival," she repeated, and raised her hand.
The unguarded thought, "I am no servant of thine," crossed my mind as my eyes narrowed at her. I didn't like this one bit. And there was nowhere to run if something went wrong.
"Dismissed," the Empress said coolly.
We bowed again before retreating to the right side of the dance floor where refreshments were being served.
"What's wrong?" Iolo asked softly. "thou'rt not usually so blunt."
I picked up a wineglass to create the image to observers that this was nothing more than a light-hearted conversation. "Because I'm angry with myself," I thought to him, Richard, Dupre and Julia. "And I'm sure we've walked into a trap."
Richard took a glass and sipped from it. "Not bad," he said aloud. "How canst thou be sure, Elora?"
"Nothing like it back home," I agreed after taking a sip. "It doesn't fit - any of it."
"It could just be a huge coincidence," Dupre thought, scanning the array of drinks. "I wonder if they have any ale..."
"I never was one for wine," Julia said, taking two clear bottles and handing one to Dupre. "Let's try a shot of this."
"I doubt it's coincidental," I telepathed, frowning into my glass. "Don't look, but they're watching us. I can see them without turning my head."
All three were looking in our direction. The younger two were leaning toward the Empress, as if she was whispering something to them.
"Well..." Dupre smacked his lips and nodded to Julia. "Good stuff." Silently: "The last thing we need is Kra'lysie stirring things up. Should I find her?"
"If you would. Ask her to dance, or something. Anything to keep her mind off mayhem and carnage."
"I can't dance!"
"Even better. Use that as a line and she'll take it as a challenge."
Dupre gave me a helpless look then stalked off, muttering to himself.
Iolo was eyeing the musicians' platform on the left side of the dance floor speculatively. "I think," he said, "I'll go over there."
Which left Richard, Julia and me. The former swept a low bow and grinned. "Which of ye two lovely ladies would care to dance?"
"Not me," I stated adamantly.
I grinned. "Won't." Reaching over, I clapped Julia on the shoulder. "Have fun!"
The tinker rolled her eyes and said, "As I recall, thou didst also say, 'I won't wear a skirt!' Quite forcefully, actually."
I raised a brow at her and smiled in placid agreement, remembering the storeman who had knelt amidst a heated discussion about what my colour was, attempted to measure my waistline with a length of string without warning, then got my elbow slammed back into his face.
Richard remembered, too. Clearing his throat nervously, he extended a hand to Julia who sighed, took it, threw me a "Thou owest me one," look, then followed him out to the floor.
Feigning a sip from my wineglass, I looked around, noting the positioning of guards. Two under each of the ten glowing jewel-lamps, four at the musicians' platform and refreshment table, six on the Imperial dais. Pursing my lips, I noticed the throned young man was watching me carefully. There was no expression on his face - as blank as the Empress's, and that didn't change even when I met his eyes stare for stare.
Lifting a brow in silent challenge, I didn't look away until a hand touched my shoulder.
"Hello, Elora?" Richard's voice said. "Art thou still with us?"
I looked around. "What..?"
"Ready to dance now?"
"I thought you were dancing with Julia."
"I was. We shared two, then she went over there-" he pointed to where Iolo was "-to get a look at the instruments."
"Hm... I must have lost track of time." And that man was still watching. "Don't you know it's rude to stare?"
"What?" Richard asked.
"What?" I said.
He shrugged then extended his hand, a wicked smile on his face. "Might I have this dance, Elora?"
"You can't be serious!" I said, laughing. "I don't know how to dance."
"Oh, there's nothing to it. Come on, even Dupre is dancing."
I grinned, slanting a glance over to where the knight was stepping lightly across the polished floor, hand in hand with Kra'lysie. He, like all the other men, wore a short skirt and silver-thonged sandals. His thin, white shirt had sleeves down to the elbows and was open at the throat. The outfit didn't make him look ridiculous in the least, but I still had to fight hard not to laugh. One of the customs here among the men was to wax their legs, and Dupre had chosen not to observe that custom.
"Elora?" Richard said in a teasing voice. "That wallflower look is most unbecoming of thee."
"Richard!" I protested, glad that I was incapable of blushing. "I only know how to square-dance, and I'm not going to get up and do the Bus Stop."
"Thou wilt not have to." He pulled me up and basically dragged me out onto the floor. "Now, since thou hast led our people thus far, I think it's only fair that I should get the distinct honour of leading this dance." He grinned slyly. "Then thou canst take over when thou hast picked up the steps."
"I'm going to get you for this," I threatened.
The Lord of Britannia's grin widened. "I'll look forward to it, Elora."
Then we danced, and I'll freely admit that he was much better at it than I. The only times I ever danced was when I had a weapon in my hands.
At length, the music stopped and a new song began. It was a slow waltz and quite a nice piece, but I wasn't one for close dancing. On the verge of opening my mouth to tell Richard I'd sit this one out, we were suddenly divided by a second couple - none other than the two Imperial children. The woman took Richard's arm and the man took mine, not even bothering to ask.
"Well, have fun," I thought to Britannia's Lord.
"Thou as well," was the cheerful reply.
And the dance started.
"I don't bite," the young man said, for I'd visibly tensed when he'd put his right hand on my hip. "Thou art the thra of the escort that came in with those pilgrims today, right?"
"Right." I avoided eye contact rather carefully, choosing to stare over one of his shoulders.
"Is it not customary for one to divulge his own name first, your Highness?"
His hands clenched slightly, but quickly relaxed. "Not in the Castle, my Lady. Not with the Son-Heir."
"Is it customary for thee to dress like a warrior?" I hadn't noticed before. He and the other two Imperialists wore pants instead of skirts.
"We dress as we please," he said stiffly, and I couldn't tell if he'd used the royal plural or had meant to include his sister and mother. "Thou art a warrior?"
"One of the best."
"One of the best looking, certainly," he replied, golden-brown eyes running down the arm he was holding. "How does thy skill compare?"
I incorporated a modest blush into my illusion. Might as well play the part of a girl smitten by the handsome prince. He obviously expected it. "I defeated Mors Gotha on two occasions, your Highness."
He looked impressed. "Not many can claim to have done that once. Wouldst thou care to fight me, my Lady? A little one-on-one?"
"Sleaze," I thought. "How I would love to accept and kick your sorry behind." That suddenly sounded like a good idea. We might need a hostage just to get out of here.
"Thou dost me honour," I answered aloud, lowering my eyes into what I hoped was a demure expression. "I accept."
The dance ended and he let me go and bowed. "I am pleased. Show this to the guards on the Imperial Dais after the next dance." He gave me a token much like the one I'd surrendered at the gate. "They will show thee into the Arena. And bring thy companions," he added, as if in afterthought, as he bowed once more and walked away.
"So much for a private duel," I muttered, then looked around to find Richard approaching alone. His former partner was also walking back toward the dais. "Well?"
"Charming lady," he replied dryly. "Good dancer. Beautiful. All the warmth of an iceberg."
"She didn't come on to you," I guessed, grinning.
He grinned back. "I take it thy luck was better?"
"I think my definition of luck and yours may differ, Richard." We strolled to the refreshment table and I told him what had happened, showing him the token.
"We must be cautious," he said, his brow creasing.
I was still in a good mood, body tingling in anticipation of a fight. "I know we don't have weapons," I said, "but magic... I have that in abundance. We can take anything they throw at us."
"What about our people in the city?" he pointed out.
"They'll be safe if we have the Imperial Family as hostages." I paused
and handed him a drink. "It's a trap," I whispered. "I know it, and so
do you. But we don't have time to tip-toe around it and find another way
to the dragon caves. Let's spring it, get it over with, then take care
A few minutes later, six guards led me and my five companions within the inner keep and downstairs. None of the Imperials had been on the dais when I'd presented the token - they'd gone inside some minutes before - so I assumed they'd all be in the Arena.
I was partially right.
The Arena, a gigantic, square hall that dwarfed Lord British's throne room, had grey stone walls and a smooth black floor. Several jewel-lamps shone from niches in the walls, but not enough that we could see the roof. Since darkness wasn't much of a factor for my eyes, I guessed the roof must simply be very high up. There were chairs along the wall opposite the door we came through, and a single chair on both the left and right sides. The latter two were occupied by one of the Imperial women. Both looked at me and no other when we entered, and the guards took their leave.
"My son will be here shortly," the Empress stated. Her voice echoed through the room. "Please take a seat."
We crossed the hall, our footsteps alarmingly loud, and sat in the vacant chairs. I glanced at my friends in turn. Richard sat calmly with a kind of easy authority, eyes searching the Empress's face. Dupre was looking around and gauging distances from here to the Imperials to the door. Iolo seemed slightly worried, and Julia kept a wary eye on the younger Imperial, who had two swords across her lap. Kra'lysie stared at the floor, outwardly calm and inwardly furious. I knew it. She had refused to come, so I had ordered her out of sheer impatience. After a brief, heated argument about what authority I thought I had, Richard stepped in, told Kra'lysie we expected a trap, then asked her - nicely - if she would help. She'd consented, albeit reluctantly. I'd have to apologise later.
The door eventually opened again and the Empress's son entered wearing a black shirt and trousers. He crossed immediately to his sister, took the swords she held out and the folded black cloth they'd rested on, then approached us, his eyes only on me.
"Thou mayest find it easier to fight wearing this," he said, handing me the cloth.
I unfolded it. Loose pants, like the ones he wore. "Thank thee, your Highness." I stood, pulled them on under the skirt (taking care not to catch them on my hidden dagger), then took the skirt off and put it on my chair. When I'd tucked my white shirt in, he gave me one of the swords.
No one spoke as we walked to the centre of the Arena where there was a dark gold pattern in the black floor. I hefted the sword a little, experimenting, decided it was a standard longsword.
The Son-Heir and I crossed blades and he said, "We fight until first blood or one of us yields. No magic and no physical contact, save with our swords."
Our blades tapped together and he attacked straight away, pressing forward with a flurry of slashing blows. I concentrated on defending, letting the feel of the fight come to me. I hadn't used a sword in a while, or even fought a human opponent in at least a week. I was far from forgetting how to fight, but it was like learning a musical instrument - you had to practise.
"Is this how thou fought Mors Gotha?" he asked after a minute of me blocking and parrying.
"Mors Gotha was a woman," I answered. "We were more or less equal in height and weight." I turned aside another attack.
"Surely thou hast fought many men!"
"Am I right in being cautious fighting thee?" I countered, trying to make it seem the words didn't come easily during our battle.
Dark eyes glittered. "Oh yes."
This time when he swung, my own sword lashed out to clash against it. The Arena rang like a bell and sparks literally flew from our blades at the force of the blows, falling to the floor in a glittering shower.
I pressed my attack.
Stroke after stroke rained down or cut across at my opponent, each followed instantly by another so that it looked like one long, continuous assault. The Son-Heir didn't use his sword to defend himself; he ducked or dodged.
"Didst thou ever fight Mors Gotha?" I asked, slashing at his chest.
He pushed himself back, throwing his arms wide. "I always fought her." He got in a counterstroke, which I blocked. "So did my mother and sister." He struck again, trying to use my look of amazement to his advantage.
"Thou'rt serious?" I demanded, catching his sword on my own. I hadn't expected this. "But we fought her, too!"
His eyes slid pointedly down to the bracered wrist holding my sword. "Thou canst say that? Thou art her successor!"
I parried two more blows, risked a glance at my friends. Kra'lysie was staring at us, but my human companions were looking at either the Empress or her daughter. Unmoving. Paralysed.
Ducking, I avoided losing my head. This guy wasn't just after first blood. "I killed Mors Gotha," I grated. "This thing was forced on me. A daemon-" I shut up and concentrated on fighting.
"No doubt," the man replied. "Daemons are always at the thick of it. So are all the undead." He brought his sword down in a crushing overhead stroke. I blocked and my sword shattered, throwing me off-balance. The force of the blow knocked me flat, and he was following through before I could roll away or flip to my feet. Grabbing the hilt with its handspan of broken steel in both hands, I thrust upwards as hard as I could and blocked the downward stroke with one of the quillons.
The Son-Heir's eyes were by now a glowing dark gold.
"You're not human," I said, struggling to halt the slow descent of his sword.
"No," he agreed, smiling humourlessly. "But then, neither are you."
"Idiot!" I growled at myself. "What use being undead if you don't check what others are? But I already knew why. Using undead powers made me feel like a liche. Kra'lysie would have said it didn't make a difference - I was what I was. But I felt that by choosing not to succumb to the lure of using my magic, there was a difference.
Time would tell. But my time was running out.
I pushed his sword left then rolled right. He'd had his full weight pushing down, so he stumbled forward, sword cutting a gash in the smooth floor.
Scrambling back, I got up and slashed a hole in the side of my pants. I drew my dagger. "Kra'lysie! Feel free to help any time now!"
She didn't answer, and the Son-Heir charged, blade whistling and eyes blazing. I was aware of the Empress and her daughter coming to their feet as I used hilt and dagger to defend myself. Then I abandoned both and locked my hands around the hilt of his sword, and his free hand closed over both of mind.
"Got you," he said softly, satisfied.
I kicked him in the groin, then under the chin as he doubled up, snapping his head back. He grunted in pain at both and released the sword. I grabbed it, then brought the point up to his throat where he knelt on the floor and nicked his chin.
I drew it back and he closed his eyes, as if waiting for a death-blow.
"No!" The Empress shouted, the word suddenly ending in a roar that thundered through the Arena.
I had to turn around.
A dragon the colour of dried blood with spines and breastplates gleaming bronze flew at me, foreclaws outstretched, jaws agape.
Then a second dragon interceded, slamming into the first from the side and crashing both of them into a wall that shuddered with the impact. Kra'lysie.
A rush of wind preceded a thud that shook the floor and almost knocked me off my feet again. Spinning once more, this time I found myself staring into the opening mouth of a gold-scaled dragon crouched protectively over her brother, fire building in the back of her throat.
"Stop!" Kra'lysie roared, then said something in her own language.
The dark-red Empress dragon untangled herself, stared at Kra'lysie, then at me, as did her golden daughter. Cautiously, she asked Kra'lysie something, nodded at the response she received, then waved one claw.
A noise came from the direction of my human friends.
"What by the Abyss is going on?" Dupre demanded.
I looked at him and shrugged. "Damned if I know."
Everything was explained, to the relief of both parties. After I'd told all about my previous venture in Killorn Keep, the war in Britannia, the aeth'raesh'al bracer and why we were here, the Imperial dragons (in their natural forms) told their side.
Two and a half centuries ago, when the armies of the Guardian warred against dragons, four dragons had flown south from the caves seeking refuge. Most of their kind were imitating humans to escape the exodus, but it didn't work when daemons walked among the warriors - unliving and undead alike could pick a dragon aura from a long distance away. Worse, they always held enough authority in the army to order the deaths of any humans of inconsequential rank. So these four dragons flew to Krain Castle, kidnapped the Emperor, Empress, Son-Heir and Daughter-Heiress, deposited them in the middle of the Desert, then returned to the castle and took their places wearing their faces. All this had been managed while invisible. All non-living courtiers had been dealt with quickly and harshly. A field to block scrying had been erected - 'plunder' from the dragon caves. And from then on, the Imperial throne had been controlled by the creatures the Guardian had tried to kill. Dragons.
One of them had died over the years. No, he'd been killed. Flying north-east, he'd sought a mezzin camp to inform them of the situation, had run into Killorn Keep and had been shot from the sky, then cut down on the sands.
They'd heard all about it from a proud emissary. Then they had given her the bounty to deliver to her employer.
During time's passage, they'd worn different faces, swapped roles and ruled Atarka, though always in the Guardian's name. The vast majority of the people were loyal to him first, if only by fear, and to the throne second.
When one of the three dragons had seen me and the Britannians arrive at the Castle, had seen I was undead and that I was wearing an aeth'raesh'al - Mors Gotha's, no less, - they'd feared I'd been sent to have them all killed. They'd thought that since I was undead, I'd known what they were all along.
"I never thought to look," I said. "I wonder if this could have been avoided."
"No harm done," the man, Ea'kra, said, though he still looked a little pale. "Fortunately."
"We've spent so long at this that we never considered other dragons might come," added the young woman, Masel'sha. "There isn't a lot of difference between the senses one uses to see an undead and a dragon, but they're still there."
"I couldn't believe any other dragons had survived," Kra'lysie said. "Let alone in the palace."
"What can we do?" Masel'sha asked. "Our authority is nothing next to the Guardian's. We might as well have died with our kin."
"It's a better idea than serving the Guardian," Kra'lysie growled.
"As opposed to abandoning our world altogether?" she shot back.
"Ladies," Richard interrupted, not looking in the least intimidated as he stood up and paced between the two sullen-looking dragons. "Let's not dwell on the past, but decide on the future. We need to get to the dragon caves, remember?"
The Empress, Kinorain-thra, nodded. "I need only command it. How many would go? Just you six?"
Richard glanced at me and I shrugged. "Easiest way."
"I'll have the documents sent. The barge will leave at dawn."
"How long is the trip?" I asked.
"Just over a day with the barges. Your people will be safe here until you return. You have our word."
Finally, something was going right. "Thank thee."
"Canst thou tell us anything about the invasion in Britannia?" Dupre asked.
"Precious little," the Empress said. "We have no power over the military. Last we heard was that some castle or another had been captured."
"Serpent's Hold," Iolo murmured.
"What about the new Ka-thra?" I asked.
Masel'sha shook her head. "We didn't even know there was one. We knew Mors Gotha was dead and assumed daemons were directing the army."
"Maybe I should visit Lobar at Killorn Keep," I mused.
"General Lobar?" Ea'kra asked. "He's not there. Moved out to Britannia about a week ago."
"That's near the time we arrived," Richard noted.
Kra'lysie said, "Do you three know how the Guardian got his hands on an aeth'raesh'al?"
Richard frowned at her - both for the interruption and her implications - but Kinorain-thra's answer was level.
"No, we don't. No one found the Dragonlore, so a dragon must have told him. I don't know if such a one would still be alive. It's likely the Guardian has a captive or two - he'd need them if he wants more aeth'raesh'ali."
"No doubt," Kra'lysie agreed, frowning at her.
The Empress's daughter sat back in her chair. "What are we doing that's any different to what you're doing? Now that you're back in Atarka, what are you planning?"
Kra'lysie avoided her eyes and didn't reply.
Masel'sha nodded slightly, let it pass, then looked at me. "Of you, Avatar, we know much. Or we did when we had the Dragonlore. Legends abound of your prowess, strength and Virtue."
"All true," Dupre declared solemnly.
I coughed. "It was probably exaggerated."
"I doubt it," Ea'kra remarked. "Few have beaten Mors Gotha. Fewer have defeated a dragon in single combat."
"I sort of have an unfair advantage," I pointed out, meaning my undeadness.
"Not really. The sword I gave you was designed to break if hit just so."
"See, Avatar?" Dupre said, hitting my arm. "I told thee thou wert good! When wilt thou get out of that damned Humility?"
I batted his hand away and jerked a thumb at my Ankh. "I can't,
remember? Besides, I kinda enjoy being humble. It irritates you."
To one who couldn't sleep, namely me, the wait for dawn seemed to take forever. Before sunrise, though, Richard, Iolo, Dupre, Julia, Kra'lysie and I stood at the shem'lysie docks and showed a token the Empress had given me to a captain, a lean man with olive-tinged skin, black hair and dark eyes. He nodded once, pocketed the talisman and led us to where the sand serpents were waiting.
People melted out of the way as he put two fingers to his mouth and whistled a shrill call.
One of the serpents, a beautiful creature of mottled red and russet scales, lowered its head to the stone wall and emitted a low crooning sound. Black eyes glinted in appreciation as the captain fed it a fist-sized chunk of spiced meat then climbed atop the broad bridge of its nose with a silver, gem-studden harness. When it was fitted over the serpent's head, the captain twitched it lightly and the creature slid further forward on to the wall to reveal a large saddle-like contraption strapped to its wide neck.
"Party of six," the captain shouted, nodding to us. "Sands are waiting!"
The saddles were arranged in two rows. I took the front with Richard, followed by Iolo and Julia, Dupre and Kra'lysie. It seemed the knight was taking it upon himself to try and keep the dragon-woman in line. We each gripped the pommels of our seats, and I saw the gems embedded in each glitter brightly as they were touched.
"Hold on!" the captain called, and, standing just behind the serpent's head with reins in hand, whistled another command.
The shem'lysie lifted its head up, baring fangs at the humans still on the ground, and turned to face the desert. It rose higher until we were sitting vertical, but I felt no different. Even my cloak hung close to my body instead of out behind me. I looked at Richard and grinned. He gave me a somewhat shaky smile in return and held on to the pommel with white-knuckled hands. There was no pull of gravity toward the ground, only into the saddles. It was easy to figure that out, but the mind still blanched at the very notion.
And then the sand serpent was arching over and rushing toward the desert sands. The captain held fast to the reins and seemed to keep his balance easily, even when his serpent's head glided down a dune and its tail propelled it forward with huge, sand-spraying motions from left to right. Wind shrieked past us for an instant, whipping at hair and clothes, before the captain activated a shield to protect him and us from the wind and flying sand.
The barge shot forward like a loosed arrow; the desert flying past us on the right and red sandstone cliffs on the left. I prised my fingers from saddle pommel to see if I could keep my balance without holding on.
I felt an insane urge to grin at this roller-coaster-like ride.
"Glad to see thou'rt enjoying thyself!" Richard remarked.
My only answer was to laugh.
Then we reached the first of the sand dunes.
The shem'lysie raised its head slightly, keeping its chin close to the ground, and ploughed straight through it with its plated forehead. Glittering grains of crimson sand slid over the shield in a red wave, then another as a second dune was passed.
"It's beautiful," I heard Julia say, and I couldn't help but to agree.
Beautiful and deadly.
The serpent kept going north all through the day. There was a water
skin buckled to each saddle for our free use, and head coverings in case
we wanted sun protection. We made use of both, and eventually the day turned
By the light of five crescent moons, the sand turned a pale pink. The sand serpent's scales glinted softly as it sped on, fountains of pink grains flying in its wake. We'd discovered we could walk down between the saddles (thanks to the captain) with perfect ease, and after watching Richard sleep for a few hours I fell back to talk with Kra'lysie. She was staring north, waiting for the Tuay Mountains to appear. Moonlight shimmered off her red-gold hair and sunk her face in shadows, but her eyes gleamed.
"I'm coming home, Avatar," she murmured as I took the seat behind her. "You can't imagine what this feels like."
"I will, one day," I said softly.
I sensed her smile, and she half-turned to face me, then stopped and looked east across the desert where sunlight was creeping up the sky's edge. "Do you want to know why they are called the Tuay Mountains? The Red Mountains, Avatar?" She looked north again. "Watch."
I silently complied and waited.
The sun rose. A jagged edge of blazing crimson suddenly lanced across the northern sky like red lightning. It was the sunlight reflecting off the very edges of the mountaintops.
I stared in silent awe, imagining that this might be like the Aurora Borealis back on Earth. Although red was the dominant colour here, flickerings of gold, green and blue occasionally stood out like fragments of a splintered rainbow.
"It's amazing," I said.
Kra'lysie nodded slightly. "It's home."
And the shem'lysie barge glided on across the sun-touched sands.
"Not long now," Dupre said.
Towering red cliffs stood in full sunlight just ahead of us. High up could be seen the dark shadows of cave openings.
I took hold of my impatience and sat down as the shem'lysie smashed through another series of dunes. The creature hissed a breath of sand at a small rise of rocks it was forced to swim around.
"Passengers, sit, please!" the captain shouted.
The others obeyed, and the sand serpent slowed down. Then it lifted its head and neck up, rising higher and higher until it drew level with a huge cave. The captain tugged the reins a little and the serpent moved forwards, resting its head and the part of neck my companions and I sat astride onto the broad stone ledge outside the cave.
The captain lowered the shield and got down first, cautioning us to stay seated until he said otherwise.
I glanced over my shoulder at Kra'lysie. "Well, we're here. Do you know where to look?"
She blinked once, rousing herself from memories. "Yes."
"Ye can disembark!" the captain yelled. "I'll wait as long as ye need,"
he added when we stood before him and his massive serpent's head. "'Tis
the Empress's own orders." He patted the broad nose of his animal. "We'll
In contrast to the red mountains and sand outside, the caves were a very dark blue. They were dry and clear of sand, and the wind howled mournfully through the many holes it had hollowed out in the time the owners of the caves had been absent. They were, however, far from being empty. The huge bones of dragons littered the stone floors - sometimes forming near-complete skeletons. I noticed that all the heads were missing, and guessed they were kept as trophies or proof of kill. Maybe both. Other than the bones, however, the caves were empty.
Kra'lysie led us through a series of connecting caves, the Light spell she'd cast bobbing along at her shoulder. When we reached a rather large, pillared hall with a domed ceiling, she told us to stand back. "I've never done this before," she said, crossing to the centre of the cave. "But I've seen it done, in my youth." With a golden shimmer, she turned into a dragon. She spread her wings wide to touch the pillars, stood firm, raised her crested head and began to chant in her own tongue. Her deep voice rumbled through the room, echoed through caverns long silent.
The pillars started to glow a myriad of colours. So did Kra'lysie.
"Come forward," she sent to me, never faltering in her steady stream of words.
I nodded to my friends and we stepped between the pillars, into the shadow of the dragon.
And we all teleported.
"Where are we?" Julia wanted to know.
Kra'lysie shrugged her massive shoulders, then reared up and beat her wings. "I'll be right back." Beating again, she vanished into the darkness above.
The room looked the same, only no exits (just wall) and no roof (the walls went straight up into darkness. When I sent my sight up out of curiosity, I found nothing but black void). Strong bursts of wind came from the dragon's wings at first, then became fainter. We waited, and a brilliant white light flared from above.
I winced and instinctively shielded my eyes.
"I guess that would keep daemons from flying up there," Richard said, arching a brow at me.
I nodded, gritting my teeth until the light faded. "Feels like the Repel Undead spell. Stronger, though."
Kra'lysie descended with a large chest, bound with bronze, clenched in her fore-and-hindclaws. Carefully, she put it on the ground and landed, folding her wings. With a word, the chest opened and she took out a scroll the size of a rolled up bedsheet. "This is it," she said. "It's all in my language, so I'll search for the answers of any questions you may have."
"Can I remove the aeth'raesh'al," I asked promptly.
Kra'lysie scanned her scroll, then the others in the chest - five total. "There is one way - theoretical only," she said. "The more time you spend as an undead, the greater your power. It was thought that if an Old Self surpassed the power of the aeth'raesh'al, they can take the New Self's by force."
"But not their own?"
"Take off your own and you will die. It keeps you undead - and in existence. Besides, it's theoretical. It's never happened."
"That also rules out cutting off my arm, I guess."
"Virtues, don't be like that," Iolo chided.
"The good side is that if you die," Kra'lysie said, "Mellorin has seven Britannian days to find and wear your bracer, or she'll follow."
"What if Elora kills Mellorin?" Dupre asked.
"We both die," I murmured.
"So what if she killeth thee?"
"She takes my bracer, and I die."
"That's hardly fair."
"She's meant to be a perfect angel. Virtuous in every way."
Kra'lysie cleared her throat.
I sighed. "Sorry. Can you see anything in there that might help?"
The dragon glanced at the Lore again. "Not really."
"'Not really'?" Dupre exclaimed. "Five scrolls and there's nothing in there?"
Kra'lysie's crest flattened in anger. "These bracers were made to make good people, Knight! My people never knew that something like this would happen. This part of the Lore was written to help the better New Self, not the liche."
Dupre's attention was more focussed on the smoke wafting from her nose than her words.
"There weren't any emergency precautions?" Richard asked.
"No." Kra'lysie shook her head. "We all took oath that an evil aeth'raesh'al would never be made. We take our oaths very, very seriously," she added, casting a look at Dupre that was half-defensive, half-daring. "Take our oath not to kill living, intelligent beings, for example. We didn't even break that one when it meant the virtual extinction of our race."
"Is it possible," Iolo asked, "that a dragon was captured and forced to just reveal how these things are made?"
"Even then, a dragon would have had to make it."
"Only dragons from this world?"
"I don't know," Kra'lysie said heavily. "I'm sorry, Avatar. It seems the only way you can win is to get Mellorin to give you her bracer, unless you want to stay undead long enough to try taking it."
"Any clue how long that is?" Julia asked.
Kra'lysie shook her head.
"If the worst comes to the worst," I said, "I'll kill her."
"Thou wilt die!" Iolo objected.
"Beyond return!" Kra'lysie added, also sounding upset.
I hesitated for a second, and nodded slowly. "Yes. But so will she."
I raised a hand when they would have protested further. "If the worst comes
to the worst."
It was a subdued group that rode the shem'lysie barge back to the Castle of Flames. Some time after night had fallen, I heard Dupre asking Kra'lysie what she planned to do next.
"Thou hast fulfilled thy promise," he pointed out softly to avoid waking Richard and Iolo. Julia was sitting silently, keeping her own council.
"I know," the dragon-woman replied.
"Thou didst not choose to remain in the caves."
"I'm not going back to the castle to serve the Guardian with the other kra'lysiei, if that's what thou'rt implying," she shot back, lapsing into formal speech.
I sat quietly in my seat, watching the shem'lysie's head glide over the sand as I waited for the answer. Kra'lysie was free of me now that she'd guided us to the Dragonlore, as promised. But she no longer had a home here, and she knew it.
I looked left and up at her, a shadow crowned with a fiery halo as the moons behind her shone through her hair.
"I want to come back to Britannia with you,'' she said. "I want to help you fight the Guardian."
Gravely, I nodded once without speaking. She returned my acknowledgment of her request with a slight inclination of her head, then returned to her seat.
A moment passed, then I heard Dupre say, "Welcome to the esteemed ranks
of those who follow the Avatar."
Day came and faded into night again before we returned to Krain Castle. We thanked the captain (and the sand serpent) for the ride before going over to a patrol of Imperial guards that seemed to be waiting for us. The Daughter-Heiress, Masel'sha, was with them.
After a long look at us, she asked if we had been successful.
After checking with my undead eyes that she was really who she look like, I nodded.
"My mother and brother expect us at the palace," she said, indicating that it would be safer to talk there. "If thou and thine are not too fatigued after the journey, wouldst ye come with me?"
My companions were, of course, tired, but they still wanted to come. Unless something kept us back, we'd be returning to Britannia tomorrow.
And preparing for war.
The only result of us telling the Imperial Family of our venture, findings and intentions to leave Atarka was for them to bid us good luck. I'd asked if they wanted to come with us, as Kra'lysie now was, but they declined and said that their place was in their world. This didn't amuse Kra'lysie, but she managed to hold her tongue for once. I saw this and nodded to myself. Perhaps she was learning.
We spent that night in guest quarters at the palace (the dragons insisted; they didn't want any assassinations) and left in the morning after a brief fare-thee-well.
Once outside the palace walls, I sent word to Shamino and Katrina.
"Tell everyone to get ready. We're going home."
"So where have ye been?" Shamino asked.
"And what's going on?" Katrina seconded. "Did ye see the Dragonlore?"
"We did," I nodded. "I'll let Iolo tell you about it, but we took oath not to tell about the palace, so don't ask."
Katrina nodded and turned to search for Iolo. Shamino looked disappointed. "Thou wouldst not even trust thy friends?"
"It's not a matter of trust, Shamino, but security. Out here, anyone can hear what we say."
Shamino glanced around, one brow arching. The whole group of Britannians were gathered in a sheltered desert cave the Empress had told me about. She'd had weapons stored here for all of us, and we would be able to teleport out without being seen. "Who is here that thou dost not trust?" the ranger asked.
"The Guardian." I grinned wryly and clapped his shoulder, then went to find Richard.
Finally, everyone was accounted for. I climbed atop a large, flat rock so I could see all of them clearly. An expectant hush came over them when they saw me. I gathered every eye, nodding to myself at what I saw. These people had passed through fire and, although not unscathed, they had lived. The pain and grief still lingered in their faces like shadows, but stronger were the looks of hope. The looks of determination.
"Are you ready to reclaim what is yours?" I asked them. "Are you ready to fight the Guardian?"
They left no doubt that they were. As their roar of assent echoed through the cave like thunder, I sent out the thought, "Hear them Guardian. And hear me."
I set the bracer for Britannia at the Shrine of Justice, then activated it. When everyone was enclosed within the shimmering field of teleportation, Atarka faded from view.