The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
The daemon that lives inside
Who'll always 'gainst you fight.
The heart of darkness that
E'en if one serves the light.
Evil; your mortal foe
It falling to your might?
These ebon thorns are
Your Splinters of the Night.
"...Our only problem will be water," Charles said to those gathered in the hall. "Unless the gem below the Castle is still operational, or we find some other supply, we will run out in two days."
I shifted in my seat as Charles sat down. During our imprisonment, Dupre had used the dimensional gem to travel to a land of ice caverns I had discovered. The ice had been our supply of water since.
Nystul, the court mage, got to his feet and pushed the hood of his grey robe back from his white-bearded face. "I was able to speak with Nicodemus through magical means for a while," he told us, motioning for Miranda to unroll a map on the table. Nicodemus was another mage who lived in the northwest near the keep of Empath Abbey. "He was scrying Britannia for all the time we’ve been trapped here. The three keeps of Empath Abbey, Serpent's Hold and the Lycaeum have been hardest struck by the enemy." He tapped the location of each place on the map with a finger and glanced around at all those sitting at the long table. "The Abbey, unfortunately, fell to the enemy. The other two have repelled the attackers for now and are still bottled in like we are. From what Nicodemus said, Moonglow, Paws, Britain, Cove, Minoc and Vesper are lost to us. Trinsic is hard pressed but its walls hold. Jhelom was struck heavily, but its island state and the skill of its warriors kept it intact. " Syria smiled grimly at this last bit of news. "The islands of Skara Brae were ignored - probably because everyone there is already dead - as was New Magincia, but the Isle of the Avatar hath a large gathering of foes on its shores, as doth Terfin." He looked at Lord British. "Nicodemus hath no idea where the gargoyles went after Draxinusom helped defend Trinsic, Milord. All he knows is that not many humans consented to follow the gargoyles."
Lord British nodded and the mage sat. Then he looked at Sir Dupre, who stood.
"We think that no more foes walk the Castle," the knight said. "But be wary - there may be one or two still hiding in the shadows. No one is permitted near the sewer doors unless they carry a royal writ and speak a password that will be constantly changed with the guard. Captain Geoffrey and myself alone know the password." He lowered himself to his chair.
"What's that about?" I whispered to him behind my hand.
"What dost thou mean?" Dupre replied softly.
"You're not telling me or Richard what the password is?" I asked, flicking my eyes past him to glance at Lord British.
"'Twill be changed often, Elora. Our Lord hath other things to worry about more than a password - that's why we're here." He flashed me a grin. "To do all the unimportant work for him. Didst thou want the password, too?"
"I guess not. I can always ask you for it, right?"
"Only shouldst thou ask nicely," he drawled.
The sound of a throat being pointedly cleared made me stifle my chuckling. Syria, now certain that she had full attention, made her report. "A fair sized force is at the Castle gates, as ye all can hear," the blonde warrior stated.
The chant of "Ka-thra!" still continued outside, loud enough that we could all hear it.
"Their leader, one Mors Gotha, reputed best swordfighter ever, is dead and even now entertains the kraken at the bottom of the moat." She paused, one hand resting on the hilt of her sheathed sword. "Whether or not the enemy have taken hostages is unknown. None have been seen or spoken of." She went on a bit about the enemy’s lack of firearms, siege weapons and organisation. It appeared that the invaders had expected to swarm the Castle easily first try.
My turn was next. The king had asked everyone to share any news or ideas they might have. Putting the strange bracer on the table, I stood rather nervously for I’d never really liked being the centre of attention. I said, "I propose a return trip to where the blackrock gem lies." I'd used the present tense deliberately, not wanting anyone to think that this time we were without hope. "The Virtue Stones are not here for us to teleport ourselves with, the Orbs of the Moons no longer function and I wouldn’t suggest trying to Blink from the battlements - it’s a long way down." Blinking through walls was possible, but difficult to do, especially in a city. Since the spell was relatively short-ranged, chances were you’d blink yourself into the middle of the enemy army anyway. "At the moment, the dimensional gem is the only way out. I can go alone or accompanied, but I think I should go."
Iolo, Dupre and Julia immediately voiced their desires to go with me. Lord British said, "Thinkest thou, Avatar, that thou wilt find help in another land?"
I nodded. "As I did before, my Lord."
"It is agreed, then. Those who wish to may follow."
I sat down and the rest of the meeting passed in a blur, my attention suddenly diverted to the bracer Mors Gotha had worn. Turning the crystalline ornament over in my hands below the table, I frowned, wondering what it was that was teasing my mind. Staring at the eight small jewels circling the central gem - white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black - it hit me. A colour for each Virtue. This bracer had some strange connection to the Virtues. I couldn't quite place it, but it felt...wrong.
Soon, everyone was pushing back chairs and moving away to run their own errands. I found myself wandering down the east wing of the Castle before I discovered I was heading towards Nystul’s chamber. For a minute I considered returning to my own room to get out of my heavy armour, but I quickly dismissed the idea with a shrug. I was still holding the bracer, so why not stop and see if the mage could say anything about it?
As always, the air around Nystul's chamber felt strangely electric - charged because of all the magic the old spellcaster had used over his many years of service in the Castle. I rapped on the reinforced steel door and waited for an answer, idly guessing that a metal door was the prerequisite for a profession that involved so many explosions.
"Enter," a muffled voice called.
I went in, spared a slight frown as the magic-charged atmosphere tickled my senses, and instantly noticed the Killorn Keep warrior trussed up beside a wall. Nystul calmly explained that the warrior had been hiding under his bed.
"I don't know how you can stand it in here," I remarked, ineffectually waving at the air in front of my face. "It feels twice as bad now that you've started casting spells again."
"One gets used to it," the mage replied with a smile. "Besides, it doth not interfere with mine experiments, just a few of my senses. I can put up with that if it means I get to live within the Castle walls."
Smiling, I shook my head and sighed.
"So what brings thee here, Avatar?" Nystul asked. "Not a desire to comment on the quality of ethereal waves around my quarters, I presume?"
"This." I showed him the bracer and told him what I’d seen it do. Nystul extended a hand toward it, but didn’t touch, and muttered something.
"It’s the black jewel that holds the power," he said, confirming my suspicions. "It seems similar to the small blackrock stones thou didst use to activate the dimensional gem - maybe a smaller echo of the gem itself. That may explain how the Guardian’s forces got here."
I nodded. "And the black mist?"
Nystul instructed me to position my hand over the bracer and cast ‘Detect Magic’. I did and frowned. I could sense the teleportation properties but something else was there. Something that was more than magic.
Pushing through the magic-heavy air with my mind, I incanted, "Wis Mani," then snatched back my hand as if it had been stung. Startled, I said to Nystul, "It’s alive!"
He shook his head. "Not alive, Elora. The vibes are wrong." He drew his robes closer as if he suddenly felt cold. "Undead."
I stared at the bracer like it had turned into a viper. "What is this?" I whispered.
"Ka-thra," I heard the bound warrior mutter.
"What does that mean?" I demanded, rounding on him.
He shrank back. "Whoever killed Mors Gotha and took the bracer is Ka-thra."
"But what does Ka-thra mean?"
"The Ka-thra speaks with the Guardian’s Voice! The Ka-thra is the bringer of the Guardian’s reign - his warleader."
"How does it work?"
The warrior hesitated, but I narrowed my eyes at him and he hurriedly said, "The bracer must be worn on the right wrist - the sword arm." He paused nervously. "Or the left, if thou art left-handed. Touching a facet with the other hand will transport anyone or anything to where the facet is tuned."
I stared at him for a few seconds. "How do you know this?"
"The Voice told me!" he stated proudly, then he looked suddenly afraid, as if he hadn’t meant to blurt that out.
I let that pass for the moment. "What else does the bracer do?"
"I don’t know, Ka-thra," the prisoner quavered.
"Try asking the Voice," I suggested flatly.
"Avatar - " Nystul began uncertainly.
My brow furrowed slightly. The waves of ether swirling through the chamber were shifting slightly, as if magic were being used. I looked a bit closer at the soldier, certain it was he who was causing it, but the thick blanket of power in the room prevented me from being sure.
The warrior stammered, "The Guardian says, ‘Arcadion would know.’"
I shook my head in exasperation. The Blacksword, to which the daemon Arcadion was bound, I had left in an Inn in Britain the night before the Guardian had trapped us in the Castle. "That’s a rather lame attempt to get me to step outside the Castle walls," I drawled.
The warrior abruptly parted his wrists and the ropes binding him snapped. He tore off the ones at his feet then leaped at me with a guttural snarl. Having no time to bring up my axe, I punched, striking him in the face. It was like hitting a brick wall. With a curse, I fell back and the soldier bowled me over. He snatched the bracer from me, then rolled away. Arching my body, I jumped swiftly to my feet and pulled out my weapon, suddenly feeling a strong, unmistakable manipulation of the ether. With a cold expectancy, I looked at the warrior to verify with my eyes what the ether-charged air had hidden from my mind.
He was shape-shifting into a daemon.
"Avatar!" Nystul yelled. "He’s vulnerable like this! Take him now!"
I bounded forwards and the half-formed daemon evaded, his hideous visage drawn into an evil, leering smile. Swinging the axe furiously I backed him into a corner from which he retaliated, heedless of the steel scoring his scarlet flesh. One of his claws suddenly latched onto the axe haft and pulled, jerking me off-balance. A second later he had torn the leather gauntlet from my right hand, sent the axe clanging into a wall, and clapped the bracer around my wrist.
"The Guardian bids thee welcome, Ka-thra," the creature sneered.
My right arm felt suddenly numb to the shoulder. I dove aside for the axe, using my left hand to force my right to grip the haft. I could hardly lift it. The steel half-moon grated against the floor as I struggled to drag it up.
"Quickly, Elora! It hath almost completed the change!"
My strength returned. The Firedoom axe lashed out and crunched into the daemon’s chest. Blood spurted and hit the floor, sizzling like black acid, and the daemon-soldier laughed. I struck again, deeper this time and with flames exploding from the blade. The daemon toppled and fell silent.
Forgetting all else, I dropped my axe, tore off my left gauntlet and tried to take off the bracer. It felt cold, deathly cold, and the blood of the daemon was hot against my fingers where it stained the crystal. Nystul watched my efforts with a stricken expression as I strained, pulled, clawed and finally tried smashing it against a wall.
I could feel something like a tiny seed burying itself into my mind. Deeper and deeper and deeper...
With a scream of despairing rage that the whole Castle heard, I shouted, "GUARDIAN!"
Dimly, I heard Nystul say, "It hath some kind of soul link."
"What is that?" asked Lord British.
I stared silently into space, looking at nothing yet seeing so much. Another trap, I thought bleakly. Another Guardian-made trap. Why did I always seem to fall into them?
"...it's something that stays with its owner until parted by death. Only then can it be removed. I think the bond is similar to the one Elora hath with the Blacksword."
"Doth the bond cause any harm?"
"To all current appearances, no..."
My mind drifted again. There was so much happening in Britannia and now this. The thought of enemy soldiers marching across the land while leaving behind a trail of destruction momentarily drew me from my self-pity, only to plunge me into concern. What was this bracer really? What could it make me do against the world and people I cared so deeply about?
I could feel something in my mind...
"...and the teleportation powers we were told of could be useful."
Never mind about the black mist I'd seen earlier. Remembering it sent a chill down my spine, but I had no idea why. Something evilly familiar about it teased my mind. It was not the Black Jewel of Mondain; of that I was certain. No force within or without Britannia could take the gem from the protection of the Guardian Statues.
"...concerns me is that the bracer changed when it was put on her wrist."
The transparent rainbow-riot of jewel had all turned opaque. Even the bracer itself, that had been as clear as glass, was now a milky moonstone texture. But the black gem had changed into a translucent, flawless diamond. The concept that the darkness might have drained from the gem and seeped into my mind made my jaw clench.
Lord British said, "The thing hath some connection with the Virtues. Canst thou feel it?"
"Again it feels wrong," Nystul replied. "Tainted, even. What its true purpose is we can only guess..."
I rejected the image of a leash around my wrist at one end and gripped in the Guardian's fist at the other. I'd already been under his power once before and it had come close to making me kill my dearest friends and destroying Britannia besides. I did not want a repeat of that episode. I wouldn't allow it.
"If death severs the bond," I said slowly, "can I not be killed? The bracer can be removed and then I can be Resurrected."
Lord British's careworn face pulled into a frown. "If that be thy wish," he replied. "Thou art free to ask anyone to perform this act, but they are free to refuse thee."
He left it unsaid that I could try killing myself, but I doubted I had the willpower to commit suicide - he probably did, too. But I couldn't call myself a coward in the face of such a reaction.
"The bracer hath done nothing as yet," Nystul reminded me. "And in our current situation, its teleportation energies will be a boon."
I nodded. "I don't like to agree with this, but you're right. Okay, then. I'll keep the bracer on - not that I have much choice - and see what happens." My skin crawled at the thought of all the possibilities.
Nystul started to pace the room, muttering at his lack of sense to store enough reagents and other magical supplies for such an emergency. Lord British tapped me on the shoulder and gestured that we should leave him.
"At least thou hast recovered from the initial shock," the monarch observed once we were out in the corridor.
"Thou didst seem a bit out of it during most of that conversation, Elora."
"Oh." I nodded. "I guess I was."
"Art thou well enough to pursue thine idea to return to the Blackrock jewel below?"
"Yes, of course," I replied quickly. "Dupre, Iolo and Julia want to come."
"Really?" he asked with a faint smile. Then he laughed. "I'd never have guessed!"
I grinned. "I guess being cooped up in the Castle for as long as we've been, even Nanna wouldn't mind slogging through the sewers to see something new!"
"Neither would I." Lord British looked around at the grey stone walls, colourful tapestries and plants, which had died from lack of sunlight and water. "Sitting on a throne isn't much of an adventure."
I fell silent, agreeing with him and wondering if I should voice that feeling. As much as I loved and respected the great King of Britannia, I wasn't sure if I wanted the responsibility of taking him through the perils of the Labyrinth of Worlds. "'Sitting on a throne isn't much of an adventure', hmm?" I replied with a sly smile. "I heard about the time one of the children from the nursery left a dirty diaper on your throne and you- "
"Who told thee that?" demanded Lord British. Then he chuckled ruefully. "I ruined a perfectly good robe that day; the servants were in despair!"
"I guess you were right when you said that kings and dirty diapers don't mix!"
He laughed again and I mentally gave myself a pat on the back for getting around the issue. We reached the garden courtyard and the golden sunshine pouring in washed away all thoughts of the dark times before...and the darker ones ahead.
For the moment, at least.
"Well, I guess that's that," said Iolo.
Dupre and I simply stared at the empty cavern. The pulsing blackrock stone that had teleported us between worlds was gone as if it had never been. It must have been destroyed when I'd liberated the Castle only yesterday. I'd known deep down that this would probably be the case, but couldn't have doused the faint glimmer of hope.
Julia held up her flaming torch, which caused the ripples on the water surrounding the small, subterranean island to gleam. "Now what?"
"We go back to the Castle," I answered reluctantly. "There's no point staying here any longer."
I turned around and led my companions back from whence we'd come.
Dupre pounded on the sewer door in a sequence then we waited as it was unlocked and opened to admit us through.
"I'm glad we don't have to go down there again," Julia remarked, stamping mud from her boots. "How didst thou stand it, Elora, having to walk so far between the Castle and that gem?"
"There was a shorter route," I said as I followed Iolo through the door. "Basically a long stairwell that took you right up to the cellars."
"The collapsed tunnel?" she asked.
I nodded. On the way to where the gem used to be I'd led my friends to the stairwell I'd used many times during the imprisonment. It had been blocked off a quarter of the way down, so we'd been forced to go back to the Castle and take the route through the sewers.
"Still," Julia said, "climbing all those stairs doth not sound like much fun either."
"'Tis raining, Milords and ladies," one of the guards said as his friend shut the door behind us. "Lord British hath just about every barrel the servants can find lining the battlements and crammed into the courtyard."
"Thanks for the news," I said. To Dupre, "Looks like an excursion to the Ice Caverns isn't as urgent now."
The knight nodded. "I'm relieved."
"I might have a few ideas there," Julia said. "We won't be able to rely on good - or bad, rather - weather forever. There might be a way to purify the sewer water. I'll talk to Geoffrey, Nystul and Miranda about it later."
"We should find Lord British and inform him of our findings," Iolo interrupted.
A short walk got us to the War Hall where Nystul, Miranda and Lord British were poring over a collection of maps by the light of a large candelabra. The king beckoned for us to come over.
"Water is no longer a present problem," Miranda told us. She raked the shadowy veil of her dark hair back from her face and smiled. "As ye can see."
I threw a glance towards the garden where a veritable flood was bucketing down on the brittle grass and dried up plants. The fountain's basin was not quite full, but close to it. "That's good," I replied, "because the teleportation gem is gone. We won't be getting water from anywhere else for a while. Or going anywhere, either."
The others nodded and Miranda recorded my news on a parchment in front of her, but Nystul added, "I know how thou wouldst feel, Avatar, should we ask thee to try using the bracer." He paused, obviously waiting for a reaction from me. A slight tensing of muscles was the only sign I gave that such a request wouldn't be met with enthusiasm. "Which is why," the mage continued, "that I think thou wilt be happy to hear that we do, in fact have another way out."
I looked at his craggy, white bearded face in surprise. "How?"
He smiled, wise eyes sparkling beneath the cowl of his grey robe. "We had a visitor during the storm's cover. It was a winged gargoyle."
Miranda opened one of the scroll cases on the table from which she extracted three parchments. Unrolling them, she said, "These are reports on what hath transpired in the time we were trapped."
"Where is the messenger now?" Julia asked.
"He left while the rain was still heavy," Miranda told her. "Lord British gave him a letter for Lord Draxinusom and he departed." She handed me a scroll. "The gargoyle lord observed that the Guardian's soldiers moved in only on areas of known location - with the exception of the Isle of the Avatar. His scouts and scryers saw no evidence of strategic placement in forests or mountains, only townes and cities."
I looked up from my scroll. "So Draxinusom moved his people to the Isle of Fire and Ambrosia!"
"Along with a goodly number of humans," Lord British said. "Those that didn't fear the gargoyles."
"But Nicodemus said that not many followed, didn't he?"
Nystul said, "As the number of mages in the evacuations grew, Lord Draxinusom decided that some kind of scrying shield should be raised to foil any enemy wizard attempts to trace the escapes. Therefore Nicodemus wouldn't have seen many of the ships sailing from Trinsic, and neither could he have known that they had disembarked at those two Isles. Both were shielded as soon as possible." He pointed to the scroll that Dupre held. "Draxinusom said that a good number of humans followed, but not many considering those that chose to remain."
Dupre showed me a paragraph. "He also hath the entire population of New Magincia over there. Knowing that they hadn't been invaded, he decided to move them while he had the chance."
Iolo looked up from his scroll. "The gargoyles and humans are repairing the fort on the Isle of Fire and getting supplies from Ambrosia." The old bard turned to Lord British. "Milord, how is he managing that? It's a week of boat travel!"
The king shrugged. "We'll find out later."
"And what's Draxinusom planning to do with the caddellite he's storing?" Caddellite was the name of a mineral we'd found on the lost isle of Ambrosia. A meteor of the incredibly hard, crystalline rock material had struck the mountains there.
"I advised him to hang on to it," Lord British said. "It might come in useful...though how..." He shook his head. "Anyway, the gargoyles are going to be our key out of here," he said to me. "There's promise of a storm later tonight. Five gargoyles will fly in and transport five of us out."
I glanced at my three companions, who smiled eagerly. "I assume that we four are included in the party, so who is the fifth?"
Syria seemed the logical choice. Geoffrey would be needed at the Castle to oversee the guards, Nystul to serve as court mage...I considered the others. Miranda was a possibility, but not a very likely one. She didn't know much about fighting. Feridwyn of Paws, now he was an interesting idea for a companion. A former Fellowship man might be useful.
I looked my king in the eyes and instantly knew that I'd been trying to deny that he himself might come. Would come. I inclined my head. "As you wish, my Lord."
Lord British nodded to me. I thought I saw a faint smile of relief flicker over his face, as if he'd been afraid that I'd try to dissuade him. "Draxinusom's position as leader is precarious," he explained. "Sending messengers to me is all well and good, but they are Gargish messengers. Thou knowest that not all our people trust them." He touched the Isle of Fire on the map. "Here is where we will be carried. Where we will have to organise the retaking of Britannia."
I said nothing, merely nodded. But I suspected that his desire to leave the Castle was more to leave than to organise an army. Dupre was an able field marshal and an excellent warrior, Iolo could teach people to fashion bows and crossbows and how to fletch ammunition, as well as help them learn how to use the firearms in combat. Julia could use her tinkering skills to help rebuild the Castle and both forge and repair weapons. I could...
What could I do?
I was the Avatar, but I had no reason to be in this mission. I would be little more than a celebrity until a time came for me to start breaking heads. I felt more than a little ashamed at having doubted Lord British's worth in this task. As a figurehead, he'd be more important than I.
"Miranda will run the Castle in mine absence," the monarch informed us. "We still have ample food and now plenty of water."
"But what of the army in Britain?" Dupre asked. "There are enough of them to make me think that they will attack the Castle at any time."
"Agreed, but there is no one to order such an attack, is there?" He paused, then glanced at me. Or rather, the bracer on my right wrist. "Yet."
I looked at the bracer. "Perhaps I can speak with them. It's worth a try. If they think of me as their warleader...their Ka-thra, then my words might actually carry some weight."
Lord British gave me a tight smile. "'Twould be appreciated, Avatar. Any time between now and dark."
Despite the disgusting feeling that clings to you after a casual stroll through the sewers - not to mention the distinct fragrance - I felt suddenly invigorated by the idea of dispersing the enemy army with a few words. "I think I'll try now," I said with a smile.
So all seven of us ascended to the battlements. The rainstorm was raging in full force and droplets swirled around the towers as the strong wind drove them. I could almost see the rain washing the Castle clean of its accumulated lichen, gathered when the Guardian had denied us sunlight.
Standing above the portcullis where two guards stood on duty, we looked out over the moat where about thirty soldiers patrolled the street opposite us.
"I feel like a metal drum," I muttered, as the rain happily banged against my breastplate. "Virtues know I must sound like one." I normally didn't favour plate armour. It was heavy, cumbersome, noisy and smelly. In my opinion, it was hardly worth the added protection, which was the only reason I'd worn it on the trip down to the teleportation gem. Agility and swiftness couldn’t beat some creatures in those other worlds. I put down my helmet then shouted down at the enemy patrol, "Who leads?"
They halted as one and looked up at me, squinting through the downpour. "Whose voice speaks through the storm?" one of them yelled back.
I steeled myself, knowing that they would recognise the title I was about to speak. "I am Ka-thra."
They laughed. "Mors Gotha was Ka-thra, and she is dead. Who art thou to claim her place?"
At their words, a voice whispered an answer in my mind. Not just any voice, the Voice. The Guardian. "By my hand was Mors Gotha slain. The arm that swung the deathstroke wears the aeth'raesh'al bracer. The mind that controlled the arm belongs to the Guardian."
"Get out of my mind," I hissed, startling those standing nearest me. "The Guardian," I explained to them, wiping rain from my face. "Whoever wears the bracer speaks with the Guardian's Voice probably because he tells them what to say."
Nystul's brow furrowed. "He needeth a bracer to do that?"
I returned his frown. "I think it was the Time Lord that said one of the blackrock generators enabled - or helped - people to hear his Voice. When I destroyed it, it meant that no one could hear him any more - though I still could, for some reason."
"As could I," Dupre said. "After the Black Gate was destroyed."
"Maybe because we're not Britannian born?"
Iolo said, "But everyone could hear him when the Castle was imprisoned."
"Blackrock," stated Nystul. "Perhaps, Elora, the reason thou and those near thee could hear him was because of the Blacksword. A part of it is made of blackrock, remember?" He looked at the others through the rain. "Hath anyone heard the Voice since the destruction of the blackrock dome?"
"Not until now," I replied while the others shook their heads.
"It's a possible reason," Lord British said. "But something to discuss further in a somewhat drier place."
I smiled, then returned my attention to the patiently waiting patrol below. The rain had slackened only a little, which made it easier to see.
"I am the Avatar," I told them. I held up my right arm. "See? I wear the bracer of Mors Gotha."
At that instant, a flash of lightning split the sky. It reflected off the jewels in the bracer and sent sparks of colour in every direction.
"Ka-thra! Ka-thra!" the warriors shouted in unison. "Speak thy name that we may recognise thy leadership, Ka-thra!"
The Guardian's crooning Voice whispered, "I am Mellorin."
Thunder crashed above us. I braced myself in one of the stone crenellations, feeling suddenly dizzy. "What does 'Mellorin' mean?" I muttered, shaking my head.
Nystul said in surprise, "Avatar? Thou shouldst know; it's Gargish!"
My mind cleared. "’Black Light Make’?"
"What didst thou say, Ka-thra?" the warriors yelled.
"Can it hurt?" I asked my friends. "Claiming to be this person?"
"I wouldn't," muttered Julia.
I nodded, smiling a little. "That'd be like obeying the Guardian's words, I guess." I looked down. "I am Elora."
The warriors started muttering amidst themselves. Clearly, they hadn't been expecting my reply. I couldn't hear what they were saying, so I demanded, "Will you obey my commands?"
One of them responded with, "No, Ka-thra, we will not. The Guardian says thou dost not yet speak with his Voice. We will not listen to thee."
With that, they continued on their patrol.
"Sorry, Milord," I sighed to Lord British. "I guess I didn't help much."
"But we learned something," the king said in a soft voice. "If we take the words of those warriors at face value, they can hear the Guardian."
After that, I had retired to my room. Using some of the Castle's now adequate supply of water, which I heated with my magic, I made some attempt at washing the worst of the sewer's gunk and the smell of my armour off my skin before readying myself for bed. I really needed to sleep. Even so, lying awake in my darkened room, I couldn't.
After about an hour, I got up, pulled on trousers, boots and a shirt, then headed off to the training room with my axe.
Julia found me there a few hours later. She watched me rather critically as I hacked and slashed at the unoffending practice dummy for a while, then asked, "Why an axe?"
I paused to wipe the sheen of perspiration from my brow, then unleashed a backhand blow that would have torn a mortal opponent in two. Fortunately, the dummy had been enchanted to save Lord British the trouble of buying a new one every time I wanted to play with it. "I had trouble using swords after being separated from Arcadion," I said, darting to the left and crashing my weapon down on the dummy's head.
One of her eyebrows shot up. "Why? Didst thou lose thy skill with them?"
I laughed shortly amidst a combination of slashes and overhand attacks. "No. I just kept talking to them. I spoke to Dupre about it and he suggested a change in weaponry. Then he even went so far as to refuse to train me with a sword!"
"Syria would have sparred with thee."
I grunted. "At the time, she still seemed a bit upset with me for discrediting her old teacher De Snel. I didn't want to hurt her - or get hurt. So, I picked the axe. A bit inelegant for my tastes..." I pummelled the dummy a few more times. "...but they have their advantages, I suppose."
Julia looked at me closely. "Thou seemest to be taking this rather calmly."
"This business with the bracer."
I raked back my hair and gripped the axe haft tightly. "What else can I do, Julia? Running around hysterically won't do anyone any good - even though it would make me feel better. I'm more angry that frightened," I added, "and anger can lend one a lot of power if it's focussed well. I can either use it to scream at the Guardian, or..." My muscles bunched and I ripped the Firedoom axe across the dummy's chest with all my strength. The material tore from hip to shoulder in an explosion of sand and straw. I backed away, breathing hard, and watched the stuffing pour out onto the floor.
Julia gave me a wry grin. "With anger like that, if I were the Guardian, I'd be out of here before thou couldst quote me the mantras."
Brushing sand from my shirt, I chuckled. "So, why did you come down here? Looking for me?"
She nodded. "Lord British asked me to find thee. It's almost time to leave."
I nodded. "Thanks. I'll get some armour on then meet you at the garden."
"Only leathers," she cautioned. "The gargoyles will have enough trouble carrying us without us being encased in steel."
As she turned to leave, I said, "Julia?"
"Do you have any idea why I'm coming along on this little trip?"
Julia gave me her characteristically direct look, at once penetrating and curious. "I thought thou wouldst know. Why dost thou think?"
I shrugged. "I've no idea."
"Morale, Elora. Having the Avatar around, who hath been defeating the Guardian on a regular basis, will be invaluable for the morale of our people." She clapped me on the shoulder and moved towards the corridor. "So put on a brave face for their sake. With the odds we have against us...if we don't have the faintest hope of victory, we'll lose."
I followed her out and gave the bracer a rather defiant glance, then muttered, "Over my dead body."
On the stroke of midnight, five winged gargoyles appeared as if by magic out of the thick curtain of rain and under the cover of darkness. No torches flamed in the garden's vicinity so as not to illuminate the red skinned creatures as they entered. The five landed near the fountain and bowed low to Lord British, who stood with most of the Castle's inhabitants under the shelter of the roof.
"To greet you, Lord British," one of their number said, bowing. When the horned head rose to face us, I found myself looking into the luminous blue eyes of the gargoyle king Draxinusom!
"Thou dost honour me," Lord British told him. Like Dupre, Iolo, Julia and myself, he wore conventional leather armour, and a well-used longsword hung at his side. The only symbols of his rank he was bringing were his serpentine amulet and insignia ring. Crown and sceptre were both hidden somewhere within the Castle in a place known only to him.
I'd privately thought it a bad idea to leave them behind, as the magical nature of the Crown Jewels might be useful later, but had conceded that in order to use their powers, one would have to be wearing or wielding them. And someone standing atop the battlements wearing a Crown would be a target for every enemy archer.
Lord British looked surprisingly different without his royal robes. He appeared younger and his build seemed more athletic than the bulky robes had shown.
Catching myself staring, I looked back at the gargoyles.
"To hope only that everyone will understand this gesture," Draxinusom said.
"Thy friendship was never in doubt."
"To know it is not by you, perhaps, Lord British." The gargoyle smiled sadly. He looked at me. "To greet you again, Avatar."
I inclined my head. "Prilem Draxinusom. Don grat."
His smile became more genuine. Few humans spoke Gargish and fewer spoke it well. Most mages could understand it, as Gargish syllables were the incantations of power they used in their spells, but fluent Gargish rested with less than a dozen humans. Maybe half that. "To say that you are welcome, Avatar," he said. Then the Gargish king looked at Lord British. "To ask if all are ready?"
I was aware that the gargoyles hadn't even stepped inside. Perhaps Draxinusom didn't want to leave puddles on the floor.
Lord British nodded. Turning to Miranda, Nystul and Geoffrey, he gave them some last minute instructions then bade everyone farewell. He stepped into the rain beside Lord Draxinusom and I followed, going across to a different gargoyle while Julia, Dupre and Iolo followed suit.
When my gargoyle pulled a tiny glass vial of silver-green fluid from his belt, my eyes widened.
"Silver serpent venom?" I exclaimed softly in Gargish. "To ask why?"
"To doubt that we would be able to carry you all to the Isle of Fire without the venom's strength enhancements." He pulled out the tiny stopper and downed the liquid, which the other gargoyles were also doing. "To think one will be enough."
"And safe," I breathed. Too frequent use was an inevitable death sentence of great pain. Too large a dose at once was lethal. I had used the venom myself once only and knew from first-hand experience that the sense of power brought on by the stuff was accompanied by a feeling of invincibility. In humans, at least. Not only had I felt incredibly strong, I'd also started getting powerful urges to attempt smashing mountains into rubble...with my head.
The gargoyles took hold of us and their leathery wings beat powerfully. In seconds, we were airborne. A minute later, the grey stone of the Castle had faded away and there was nothing to see other than the midnight rain.
"To wonder how can you find your way?" I asked my carrier, for I couldn't see any of the others.
The gargoyle replied, "To ask if you have forgotten? To remind you that winged gargoyles are gifted with magic. To add that the wingless are physically stronger, so we must rely on the venom for our strength." He tilted his flight a little. "To know this way is south-east."
"To request your name."
"To be called Strongwing."
Our conversation had been in Gargish, so his name, Strongwing, was Forvol.
Forvol told me that the flight would take several hours. Gargoyles flew much faster than a human could walk, and to walk this distance would take more than two days. Forvol added that even with the venom, they were travelling slower than an unencumbered gargoyle.
Some time later, I was listening absently to the rain splattering off Forvol's wings as if they were red umbrellas...and we stopped. We were still aloft, but Forvol was hovering rather than going anywhere.
"To ask what is amiss?" I said.
Forvol looked disturbed. "To not know. To feel that I have forgotten something." He looked around. "To not know..."
My eyes widened as sudden realisation hit me. With a groan, I said, "Arcadion!"
Without a word, Forvol wheeled and flew back in the direction of Britain. We cut through the rain like a knife, faster than I could have believed. The gargoyle couldn't know who or what Arcadion was, but something must have told him that I was right.
I'd have to talk to Arcadion about that.
While we flew, I concentrated and sent my thoughts out to Lord British. It took a while to locate him - there was a lot of ocean to cover - but I managed to find him before we reached Britain. "Richard, I’ve left the Blacksword behind. I’m going back to get it and I’ll just use it to teleport Forvol and myself to the Isle of Fire."
His thought returned with, "I hear thee, Elora. Take care."
It was still pouring when we reached the borders of the city, and the sky was becoming lighter. Dimly, beneath the watery veil, I could make out buildings. If any soldiers were up at this time and looked in the right direction, Forvol's red skin would stand out like a flag.
"There," I whispered, pointing.
He flew me further west until I saw the building sporting a candle sign. An inn. We landed in the street, I forced the door open and we went inside.
The inn was empty, which came as a surprise to me. Surely every bed in Britain would have to be occupied by enemy soldiers. I shook my head. They were all probably camped outside the city with maybe a few teams holed up in strategic buildings.
"Avatar," Forvol said. He pointed at bloodstains on the floor. "To believe there was a struggle."
"To get Arcadion and leave." All the chamber doors were open or smashed in and mine was no exception. Nothing of value remained in my room save the Blacksword. The weapon lay on the bed where I'd left it since the first day of imprisonment within the blackrock dome. The hilt bearing Arcadion's blue jewel cage rested on the pillow.
"Have a nice sleep?" I asked, picking up the blade and buckling the scabbard's belt across my chest.
"That was uncalled for," the metallic-sounding voice of Arcadion replied.
"I hope you were quite comfortable?"
"Daemons differ somewhat to humans, Master. Not only do we prefer live coals to feathers, we have no need to sleep."
"You must have been bored."
"Not really. I entertained myself with a few prospective thieves while you were...doing whatever it is you did."
"I'm still doing it, but I can't really go anywhere without you."
"I'm touched." He paused. "Why didn't you just summon me?"
I stopped short. "What?"
A faint sigh came from the jewel. "You could have simply called me into your hands at any time, Master."
"Could I summon you if we were separated by blackrock?"
Before he could answer, there was a clatter in the reception room. Ducking out of my chamber, I saw Forvol had stumbled against a small table and broken it. His face was drawn into a grimace of pain.
"To think the venom has run its course," he said in a slightly weak voice. "To take another and we'll leave..." He swayed unsteadily.
"No," I told him firmly. "No more venom."
"To be unable to carry you without it!"
"You seem to have a knack for attracting Gargish companions, Master," Arcadion noted dryly. "Planning to get this one killed as well?"
"That's not funny," I snapped. No doubt another daemon would have found it hilarious.
"Well it looks like he's dying to me..."
"Familiar with the effects of ingesting silver serpent venom?"
"No," he replied grudgingly.
"This is them."
"The sword speaks," Forvol said faintly.
I helped the gargoyle up. "To tell you that there is a daemon trapped in the jewel," I explained. "He's the one doing the talking." I said a silent prayer of thanks that Forvol was apparently unable to understand a tongue other than his own. Arcadion's words might have been a little hard to explain.
Forvol scratched his hairless scalp and looked out a window. "To regret we will not make it out before dawn." He sighed. "To be sorry."
"To tell you that we can still get to the Isle of Fire," I replied. I unsheathed the Blacksword. "Arcadion, return us to the Isle of Fire. You, me and Forvol."
"Yes, Master, though why you'd want to go back there..."
The ether gem darkened and everything around us became steadily brighter. Then, the sudden incandescence forced me to close my eyes.
The man dropped a bag of sand with an oath of surprise. "Where didst thou come from?"
I glanced around swiftly. We were standing within the courtyard of the not-so-ruined fort on the Isle of Fire. A number of humans and gargoyles were toiling side by side to install a new door leading to the corridor to the north. Others were making use of the nearby forge, which generated enough noise to cover the exclamation of the man who'd seen us appear. The man was looking warily at the Blacksword, which I held unsheathed in both hands. Quickly, I slid it back into the scabbard and he relaxed somewhat.
"Who art thou?" he demanded, this time loudly enough for some other workers to hear.
I repressed a sigh. There were portraits of me and my exploits in almost every establishment in Britannia and I was still having this problem. "I’m Elora - the Avatar."
The man scoffed. "She’s coming later with Lords British and Draxinusom. She won’t be here for at least another hour."
Being further east, it was already sunrise here. Through the open gates to the south, I could make out a soft drizzle sifting down from the sky and a rainbow arching above the island’s mountains.
"I took a short cut," I stated, truthfully enough but knowing instantly that such an answer was inadequate. "All right, how can I prove it? Does anyone here know this gargoyle?" I switched to Gargish. "Strongwing, to ask if anyone here can vouch for our identities?"
Forvol, still a little woozy, called out something to some Gargish workers over the noises of the forge. Three of them - one winged - came over and asked a few questions of him. Then the winged one turned to me.
"To believe," he said…in Gargish.
"To ask if you speak the tongue of humans?"
He shook his head.
I sighed. So many gargoyles at the Isle of Fire and I’d got saddled with a group that spoke no other language but their own. Deciding that that wasn’t entirely fair, I added the thought that I’d also been saddled with a human that didn’t speak a language other than his own.
The gargoyle caught the human worker’s attention then pointed at me and nodded.
"What?" he demanded. "Yes she’s the Avatar or yes she’s a fake Avatar?"
The gargoyle, hearing two familiar words in ten - Avatar - hesitated a second, then nodded again. When that produced nothing more than a baffled look from the human, he tried tracing an Ankh in the air and pointing at me again. "Avatar."
"I can see she’s wearing an Ankh, Beninlem," the man said impatiently.
I rolled my eyes skyward. Reciting mantras wouldn’t work, as hardly anyone knew them all. Telling history wouldn’t work, as most of it held the title of ‘legend’… The Reconstruction after the ordeal with the Black Gate was supposed to have fixed this. Evidently it hadn't worked.
"Avatar!" someone shouted from behind me.
I turned. "Tseramed!"
The hunter carried two long spears and a bucket full of gleaming, silver-sided fish. Grinning broadly, he dumped it all and we embraced.
"How did you get here?" I exclaimed. "You were in Britain last I saw you."
Tseramed’s usually quiet voice was excited as he explained what had happened.
When he’d arisen the morning after the Celebration of the destruction of the Black Gate, he’d seen the blackrock dome where the Castle should have been and had run to find Jaana. Both of them had sought out Katrina and Sentri - two well known companions of mine and friends of Lord British - and gone to the Gargish part of the city where Lord Draxinusom was. The Gargoyle King had immediately ordered a group to travel to Cove and to retrieve Rudyom’s blackrock-exploding wand, for Lord British had had the wand returned to its owner some months earlier. Due to the general mistrust of gargoyles, the group had only been composed of seven humans.
None had returned. Rather, an enemy army had come in their place.
The guard had tried valiantly to hold the city, but Britain had possessed no real army since the Triad of Evil. At best, they had defended the gates long enough for a minimal evacuation.
Draxinusom had sent fliers to every city, towne and castle with words of warning, then had led the refugees south through Paws and on to Trinsic. Once there, he had conferred with Trinsic’s mayor and arranged ships to transport the people off the mainland.
Tseramed and Jaana had been the ones to suggest the Isle of Fire and the lost Isle of Ambrosia.
When the fliers returned with news of just about every city either under attack or fallen and the three Keeps under siege, Draxinusom had agreed to use the two islands.
The shipping had begun and daily reports revealed that the enemy army was moving unhurried towards Trinsic. Draxinusom had then ordered Terfin abandoned and every gargoyle there to bolster Trinsic’s garrison.
The attack had come a few days later with Draxinusom himself leading the defence. The city had held and, with most of the humans from Britain and Paws electing to remain in Trinsic, the gargoyles had left them and flown on ahead to scout the waters between there and the Isle of Fire.
"After we won at Trinsic, Katrina, Sentri and I came here with the ships." Tseramed smiled. "Jaana stayed at Trinsic because she deemed her healing skills were needed more there. And since then, my main duty hath been hunting. Every now and again I go to Ambrosia for game, but food isn’t a problem yet. I’ll let Katrina tell thee about it."
"Any sign of Shamino?"
Tseramed’s smile faded. "None. No one hath seen him since Lord British sent him to the Deep Forest."
"What about Spark? Is he here too?"
"No," Tseramed said, but he was smiling again. "He was fine, last time I saw him. He attached himself to a knight and stayed in Trinsic."
"Ah…Avatar?" the workman interrupted hesitantly. "Mine apologies for not believing thee, Milady."
I shook my head amiably. "Never mind. Happens all the time."
"I can't for the life of me figure out how," Tseramed said with a sly grin. "There must be a portrait of thee in almost every establishment on Britannia!" He shook his head. "I suppose it's better to be cautious. Remember that false Avatar character..?"
"He was a man," I said, my tone slightly offended. "How could even the stupidest individual mistake him - no matter how he dressed - for me?"
"It was a very good wig..."
I looked at him sourly.
He grinned, then quickly decided to change the subject. "Now that thou hast heard what happened out here…what went on inside the Castle?"
"That is a very long story. Show me around the fort and I'll fill you in."
The fort was rebuilt. I smiled in satisfaction. "It looks very good."
Sentri grinned. Tseramed had handed me over to him after claiming the task of having to clean the fish and take them to the storerooms. "The forge helped. Whoever decided to build it in the middle of the courtyard was an idiot, but I could hug him now."
"It was put there by magic," I laughed. "I used that forge to fashion the Blacksword. I'm glad it's being used for more mundane things."
Sentri led me into the chamber where stood the three statues of Love, Truth and Courage. The warrior was unofficial Guardmaster as he was the ranking warrior on the Isle of Fire. The force of fighters on the Isle was quite large - enough for a good defence. Most of Sentri's time had been spent training and organising patrols. Spare moments had been used checking inventory.
"Wait," I said. Approaching the statue of Truth, depicted by a wizened old man, I sent out my thoughts to it. "Canst thou hear me?"
"Greetings, Avatar," a distant voice replied in my mind. "What wouldst thou ask?"
I blinked. "Umm, nothing, I guess. I just wanted to see if I could still talk to thee."
There was a chuckle. "As long as the Flame of Truth stands, so too will I."
"Oh no," I whispered as I remembered what Nystul had said about Britannia's state. Empath Abbey, the keep of Love had fallen! I turned to the statue of a beautiful woman and tried speaking to it with my mind.
"What's wrong?" Sentri asked.
"Something," I answered. There was nothing I could do about it yet. "Anyway, where is everyone sleeping? I saw no camps…"
Sentri nodded. "When we touch a statue, we're teleported to one of the Testing rooms - according to Tseramed. They're completely empty, so that's where the people have started living - though the Test of Love has been reserved for livestock and a few shepherds." He pursed his lips. "I think most people are living in the Truth test."
"What about Lord Draxinusom?"
"Most gargoyles live in the Courage test."
Repressing a sigh of despair, I asked, "Any conflicts?"
"Surprisingly few. It's a bit hard to insult the ones who saved thy life." Sentri paused. "Personally, I think that those who don't trust the gargoyles all stayed in Trinsic. But if not for the gargoyles, we'd all probably be dead." He shook his head in admiration. "I saw Draxinusom fight at the battle of Trinsic. I'm telling thee, I'd never want to cross him. He is incredible!"
I hid a frown. Draxinusom was very old. I didn't know how long gargoyles usually lived or how long they remained strong and agile, but the few times I'd seen the gargoyle king over the past year and a bit he'd seemed tired. Like an old man. "Do you know if they've been using silver serpent venom?" I asked intently.
"No," the warrior answered. "But I heard Jaana talking about the stuff back in Trinsic. Evidently several gargoyles had died with no obvious wounds. That sound like something the venom would do?"
"Yes. I think I'd better speak with Lord Draxinusom about it."
"And thou didst think that thou wouldst be here just for the sake of morale."
I gave a non-committal grunt. The others had arrived about an hour ago and had immediately started doing what I'd predicted they'd do. Lords British and Draxinusom were off somewhere discussing kingly things; Dupre was touring the castle and drawing battle plans; Iolo was training people to make bows and crossbows; Julia was examining the repairs…and I was doing nothing.
Sentri went on, "Thanks to some mining operations here and on Ambrosia, we raised enough funds to purchase supplies from Buccaneers' Den. Those pirates didn't even know that Britannia was under attack, and when we told them, half of them seemed inclined to join the enemy!" We walked back into the main part of the castle. "So we have oil, lamps, torches, blankets, hardtack and jerky in case we come under siege, tools for our artisans - picks, shovels, tinker things and the like, reagents, powder kegs, cannons and weapons. Actually, we're making our own swords and armour now since they found an ore deposit on Ambrosia."
"Wait," I interrupted. "How are we getting between these two islands? That's over a week of boat travel."
"We have a fair number of mages, Elora. Upon arrival, their main duty was to shield this island and to converse with other mages - at the Lycaeum, for instance. The first voyage to Ambrosia - that Tseramed led since he alone of everyone here knew the way - had some of the mages with them for communication and shielding purposes." He chuckled. "When we finally got a message from them, they told us that a fairy had been throwing colossal amounts of magic-inhibiting dust around the island. Until everyone in the group had let her kiss them, she had refused to stop!"
I laughed. What method had Tseramed come up with to convince those people that a sloppy kiss wouldn't kill them, I wondered with amusement.
"So the mages reported that the island was perfect - as long as people were careful in the caves. But they also came up with the same problem as thou didst. Distance." He gestured for me to follow him into the western room, which had previously housed Arcadion's former master. The mage had been killed by his own magic in an attempt to prevent my removal of an evil artefact called the Dark Core. "The solution, they said, was simple. Build teleport pads!"
The room within that room had once upon a time held a moongate that had sent me to the test of Love. Now it held a raised pedestal, glowing with magic, over which two men stood guard.
"Caros, Tef, this is the Avatar," Sentri said to them. "Unless our lords say otherwise, she hath free use of the pads." The guards saluted and Sentri added to me, "Not everyone can use the pads, for security reasons. Written permission must be carried, and I doubt very much that anyone can forge Lord Draxinusom's signature." He went up to the shimmering pad. "Coming?" Then he deliberately stepped up onto it and vanished from sight.
I followed…and found myself standing in sunlight on a different pad atop a gentle, grassy slope beneath blue skies. Ambrosia.
"We're on the Serpentine Crest," Sentri explained with a smile. "That's what we're all calling these hills." He pointed to the southwest where a stone tower jutted up off a tiny islet in the bay. "From there it looks like the Britannian Serpent," he added, referring to Britannia's coat of arms. "This receiving pad looks like the serpent's eye. I think the mages were being creative."
"So where's the return pad?" I asked, looking rather longingly at the emerald grass and sparkling water.
"In the tower. When the fairy stopped throwing her dust, the mages were able to unlock the door. Sentries are posted there, also."
We walked over the hills and strolled south where Katrina was tending a flock of docilely grazing sheep. On sight of us, she threw back the hood that was protecting her fair skin from the morning sun and came to greet us.
"Elora! Sentri! What bringeth ye here?"
"Just visiting, Katrina," I smiled. "Richard, Iolo, Dupre and Julia are back on the other Isle."
"I heard the gargoyles were planning to carry humans to the Isle of Fire," Katrina nodded. "Well," she waved her crook towards the sheep, "meet the gang."
"When the gargoyles brought word to New Magincia of the invasion," Sentri informed me, "Katrina went with the ships to evacuate the towne."
The shepherdess smiled ruefully. "Getting the sheep onto the ships was easier than moving the people!" She leaned on the crook. "I knew we'd need a food source. When the teleporters to Ambrosia were opened, I had the sheep sent here."
"Good idea," I approved.
"In any case, our diet is likely to be mutton for a while. Some farmers have started to cultivate vegetables, but it will be a while before we see anything edible. Otherwise, there's fish."
My diet during the better half of our imprisonment had been entirely composed of fish, so I had no trouble looking disappointed. "I suppose reagent stores aren't strong enough for us to create food?"
Katrina shrugged, then asked Sentri, "Are they?"
Sentri shook his head. "That's why the mages wanted to construct teleport pads to the Lycaeum."
"Wanted?" I repeated.
"Besieged as it is, the Lycaeum doth not have access to the materials the pads require." He sighed. "And we can't help them."
I really wished I'd made the effort to pick up the Virtue stones in Britain. Perhaps it was time to go retrieve them. My eyes drifted thoughtfully to the bracer. Smaller, colourful gems encircled the central jewel, each one touching one of its single eight outer facets. "There has to be a way."
"Well, we won't find it with Katrina's sheep," Sentri grinned.
Katrina gave him a withering look. "Go on. Show her the rest of the island." She pulled up her hood again. "I'll see thee later tonight with the livestock reports."
I bade Katrina farewell with a promise to come again, and followed Sentri to a jetty that poked out into the small bay. Two humans stood there, and two skiffs were moored nearby. I scratched my head absently and bit back a yawn. I hadn't had a chance to sleep since before leaving Castle Britannia. I couldn't remember the last time I'd truly slept without the fate of the world resting on my shoulders.
Sentri beckoned to me, and one of the men led us to a skiff. We boarded and he took the oars, rowing us towards the slender stone tower dominating the tiny island in the bay. The sound of the oars hitting the water with regular strokes…the ripples that surged gently around the prow…
I yawned, my jaw cracking loudly as I did.
Then the oarsman yawned and politely moved to cover his mouth with his right hand.
The right oar slid swiftly down into the water and proceeded to sink.
I moved without thinking and made a grab for the quickly vanishing handle.
The boat tilted dangerously, teetered on one side for a fraction of a second, then capsized, tossing all three of us into the cold water of Ambrosia's bay before anyone could say anything.
When I broke the surface, spluttering and feeling much more awake, the oarsman was clutching desperately to the bow of the overturned skiff but Sentri was nowhere to be seen. I took a deep breath, fully intending to dive down after him, just as he emerged with a splash and a gasp.
"Are you okay?" I asked anxiously.
He wiped water from his eyes and grabbed the side of the boat. "I'm fine, Elora. It just took me a while to peel off my mail shirt."
"I'm so sorry! If I hadn't tried to catch the oar…"
"No, Milady," the oarsman said, his teeth chattering from the cold. "Had I not dropped the oar in the first place…"
"But if I hadn't yawned…"
We stared at each other, aware that this conversation could only go so far before becoming ridiculous.
"How about we just agree that it's everyone's fault," Sentri suggested. He paused. "Except mine," he added blandly.
I deliberately splashed water into his face. "You yawned, too!" I protested as he shielded his eyes and spat out a mouthful of ocean.
"Uh, Milady, Sir Knight," the oarsman interrupted. "We appear to be drifting."
The strong current that rushed through the narrow entrance to the bay had caught hold of our small craft and was pulling us toward the sea. The tall cliffs lining the entrance were surmounted on either side by gigantic skulls - white bleached, hollow eyed and dagger toothed.
"Try turning the boat over," Sentri said.
We did, but without solid support beneath our feet, the skiff collected a large amount of water and wallowed hopelessly low on the surface.
"Magic?" Sentri suggested.
"I brought no reagents!" I replied helplessly.
"Well, we can't swim back…not against this current."
The oarsman glanced back at the jetty. "Where's Massav when thou needest him?" he muttered.
Then I had an idea. "I can still use linear spells. They don't need reagents. All I have to do is catch your friend's attention and get him to bring his boat." I gestured. "Bet Ort!"
A fizzing sound filled the air as colourful streamers of light shot skyward.
"Those fireworks won't be very visible in the sun, Avatar," Sentri pointed out.
"Do you want to do this?"
"No need to get defensive…"
I cast a second spell and the sound of thunder rumbled around the bay then let its full force loose in a deafening crash.
Someone appeared on the jetty.
"Wave!" I shouted, throwing up one arm and hanging onto the skiff with the other.
About ten or more minutes later, Sentri and I were huddled rather miserably in a pile of blankets at the tower. My uncontrollable shivering had stopped and I was again beginning to think that life might still be worth living.
"The smiths won't be happy about that chainmail," sighed Sentri.
I mumbled something unintelligible, then yawned in his face.
The tower was tall for its two stories. A stone staircase wound up the west and north wall to where the teleportation pad leading back to the Isle of Fire was. Otherwise, the tower was completely devoid of furniture.
"How long hath it been since thou didst sleep last?" Sentri asked presently.
"Really slept? I'm not sure. That Labyrinth of Worlds thing went on for some time."
"And is still going, it seems. Where are these invaders from?"
I told him about one of the worlds I'd travelled to, in which I'd visited Killorn Keep - a stone castle hovering by some magical means above a golden desert. I talked about its warlike people who followed the ways of the Guardian, and their fanatical pursuit of power and Guardian-given favour, the secret faction who resisted his ways, about Mors Gotha who had led the soldiers into Britannia and who had finally died at my hands - whether because the Guardian had refused to rescue her at the last, or because he couldn't activate a moongate in Britannia - about the warrior Lobar whom I had befriended over a mug of ale, and the warrior Relk who had conspired to kill me, knowing exactly who I was. As I was explaining about the Tril'khai - a race of large, telepathic cats - a red-robed mage entered. He regarded both of us a bit doubtfully.
"Am I to believe," he asked, "that I speak to Sir Sentri and the Avatar?"
I stood and tried to push back my half-dried hair into some semblance of order. "I'm the Avatar," I said. "That's Sentri."
The mage bowed low. He was polite, I'd give him that. "Annon at thy service. I'll be accompanying both of ye back to the Isle of Fire."
"May I ask why?"
His face turned grim. "The shielding spells which I and my fellow mages erected around Ambrosia to block scrying fell scarcely an hour ago. There was a tremendous surge of ether and our spells were thrown aside." Annon leaned closer and whispered, "The Guardian knows we're here."
We stared at him in dismay. "There's no doubt?"
"What about the Isle of Fire?" I persisted.
He shrugged. "I'll find out about that when I deliver my report to Mariah."
"She's here as well?" I asked in surprise. "I thought she'd be in the Lycaeum."
"Not since before the celebration and imprisonment, Elora," Sentri reminded me. "Mariah's our unofficial archmage, just like I'm the Guard Captain."
I looked at Annon. "You know Lord British has arrived, don't you?"
"Not that he'd actually arrived, Avatar," he answered. "But we all knew he was coming. That's good news."
The three of us went upstairs to where a pair of guards stood watch over a teleport pad. Sentri told the two who I was and we passed through. We found ourselves in the eastern wing of the fort on the Isle of Fire.
"Are these still here?" I asked, looking a bit skittishly at a broken mirror, seemingly made of shards of flame, and a stone pedestal on which had rested the Dark Core.
"Evidently so," Sentri replied.
"That’s a very annoying habit you have, Sentri."
"You always have to get the last word in."
I sighed. "So where are the lenses?"
Sentri blinked. "What?"
"Mariah hath the convex and concave lenses, Avatar," Annon informed me. "But she was loath to disturb the mirror. Is it important?"
"It used to hold a daemon," I said.
"Did the monster escape?"
"He probably wishes he did."
"Why would I want freedom when I could be bonded to an ignorant mortal who seems to be fascinated with the idea of traipsing all over this hellishly cold world for no other reason than to have me chop up something insignificant with my almost limitless powers?" Arcadion muttered acidly into my ear.
"Limitless?" I riposted mildly.
The daemon paused. "I did say ‘almost’, didn’t I?"
"Say it all again and I’ll tell you."
"He said ‘almost’, Elora," Sentri said, backing Arcadion. "I was more interested in his comment about Britannia being ‘hellishly cold’. I didn’t think those two words were compatible."
"This is most uncanny," Annon stated.
"And of course, mages only deal in the mundane," drawled the Shade Blade.
"I don’t think he likes me."
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling. "Don’t be ridiculous. Arcadion likes everyone."
"Especially medium-rare…" began the daemon.
Annon peered closely at the pulsing blue jewel in the hilt of the blackrock sword with all the interest of a child watching a beetle. "I see." He frowned suddenly. "It is bonded to thee?"
I nodded somewhat resignedly.
"Interesting. Well," he straightened, "I’d better see Mariah. Coming?"
Sentri said, "I regret that I have duties now." To me, "I might see thee later, my friend."
"Bye, Sentri. Thanks for showing me around." As the knight turned Guard Captain departed, I turned to Annon and accepted his offer to visit Mariah. "Where is she?"
"In the Truth test, Avatar," he answered. "Thou mightest have trouble navigating the place at first. ‘Tis quite large, and larger still since our people have been working to make more room by tunnelling further into the mountains. There isn’t enough wood to make signs, so stone masons have taken to carving runes on walls and making plaques. Mariah is situated in the Alcove of Truth."
We came to the principle statues and I reached out, touching the stone folds of the statue of Truth’s robe. A faint ringing as of some tiny bell filled my ears and I was abruptly standing somewhere else. A small room without apparent exit, though the southern wall was deeply scored with runes. Scanning them quickly, I saw that they told newcomers of an illusionary wall - the way out.
Annon appeared and beckoned for me to follow. We passed through the insubstantial stone and into a candle-lit corridor, which in turn led to a large hall. The hall was strewn with bedrolls, blankets, fur pelts and assorted clothes and cloaks. Several people could be seen sleeping in various areas, and the hall was very quiet.
"Those fearful of the deeper passages sleep here," Annon whispered. "There aren’t many, but there are enough."
"Does this place have a name?"
"We call it Terquaskorp."
Place Fear. Quaskorp… My jaw tightened a little. "The superstitious?"
Annon shrugged. "Some. Most are just timid or old. A lot of people were forced out of Trinsic to make room for those who were able to defend it."
Picking our way around piles of bedding, we crossed to the other side of the hall and went through a second fake wall edged by runes reading ‘Alcove of Truth’. We reached the square room where I’d found the talisman of Truth more than a year ago. It now held a desk, a bedroll, books stacked in a corner, and a mage reading over a thick pile of parchment.
"Mariah?" I blurted in near disbelief.
She looked up and a smile of pure pleasure lit her face at the sight of me. But beneath her joy, she looked dead-tired. Her blue-green eyes were lucid from extreme lack of sleep, dark bruises of weariness circled them. Her brownish-red hair had been cropped short so that the curls swung above her shoulders, but they were dull and crushed as if she’d had no time to brush them.
"Elora! Ah, and Annon. What news?"
Her voice was not the same. It was the kind of voice one has having just arisen a few minutes earlier. Annon gave her his report and she quickly jotted down some notes.
"Not good at all," she sighed. "Tell the mages to start scrying the surrounding waters of Ambrosia. We must make ready for an assault."
"What of this Isle?" Annon asked intently.
"We’ve already started doing the same thing here." She fished out a sheaf of parchment and glanced at it. "Gadriel reported the Isle of Fire’s shield penetration early this morning. The same tactic - a surge of ether."
"But a concentrated surge on one place?" Annon objected. "Either it was systematic - which is doubtful - or our location was known and they only used their scrying to verify it!"
"A spy?" Mariah asked tiredly.
"Let’s not go into that, Mariah. There are only two possible parties to blame - human mages and the winged gargoyles. The last thing we need is a racist debate sparked by some enthusiastic, idiotic Britannian Purity League member. Things have been pretty calm in that area, so we’d best not stir it up. As for the human mages…the common folk seem to be harbouring resentment against us."
"They don’t understand the exertion we go through to cast spells. They think we just wiggle our fingers to perform feats, and walk around in perpetual clouds of mystery."
Mariah made a note. "Thank thee, Annon." She smiled slightly. "Perhaps it might help if thou wouldst spread the word to mages that we should make some attempt to look fatigued after casting a spell."
Annon made a face. "It’s so humiliating for someone with this kind of power to look weak."
"Humility is good for the soul, Annon," she replied with another smile. "And so is Honesty. Thou sayest we feel tired after casting a spell, so don’t try to hide it."
Annon nodded. "Very well." Then he looked at me. "Well, Avatar, I’d best return to my post. Looks like the war is coming our way again. It was nice meeting thee."
I bade him farewell and he was off. Then I said as bluntly as I could, "Mariah, you look terrible."
She chuckled, still looking at her parchments. "Thou art no better thyself."
Remembering my dunking in Ambrosia’s bay and my own lack of sleep, I relented. "Sorry."
Mariah grinned. "No doubt thy work within Castle Britannia was more strenuous than mine. Tell me about it."
"No way! That would take ages. Wait for Iolo to write a ballad."
"Elora, Iolo’s ballads take even longer," she pointed out. "Anyway, ‘twill be awhile before any of us get a chance to do something for fun."
"Administration?" I guessed, pointing at her papers.
She nodded. "It’s only got worse today since the shields were broken."
"Who broke them?" I put in. "From all we saw, they have no mages with their army. That only leaves one of us or the Guardian."
"Just because thou hast not seen an enemy mage doth not deny his existence," Mariah cautioned. "Look," she added. "I’m about to turn in for some sleep. Hast thou a room? I thought not. Come, let’s find one for thee. I’ll sleep if thou wilt."
I grinned. "Deal. But before we go, would you mind giving me some reagents? I know we're short, but I could really use some."
The mage smiled. "I know the feeling. It's fine, Elora. I'll give thee what I can." Opening a drawer in her desk, she pulled out a dark brown pouch and handed it over. "There should be ten of every kind of reagent in there; that's standard equipment for every mage with us at the moment. Will it be enough?"
"Yes. Thank you."
We returned to the main tunnels and as we walked, I asked, "Do you think we were detected when the gargoyles carried us here?"
"It’s possible. But thine arrival with the others was later into the morning. Furthermore, ‘twould not explain Ambrosia’s discovery."
I frowned. I had arrived over an hour before the others…
"It’s the Avatar!"
I was suddenly jumped by about ten young people of ages ranging between six and fourteen years. Literally bowled over, I tried to distinguish one question from the next dozen that were fired at me.
"Art thou here to save us again?"
"My favourite portrait of thee is when thou art facing Mondain! Is it true he could turn into a bat?"
"Dost thou remember my great-great-great-great grandfather?"
"Canst thou sign my mother’s sword, please?"
"I played the part of Dupre in my school play! Wouldst thou like to see mine impression of him drinking an ale?"
"Can I join thee in thy quest?"
I laughed out loud.
Mariah was busy assuring some more adult spectators that yes, I was indeed the real Avatar, yes, I was the same one who had killed Mondain, yes, I was here to help save Britannia, and no, I didn’t always look the way I did now.
"I’d be happy to answer any questions," I interrupted finally, "But on condition that I get to stand up first."
Instant cooperation. I was assisted to my feet by the two eldest in the group - who looked positively thrilled at the notion of helping the famous Avatar - then was swamped by more questions. Eventually, I managed to talk them into only asking one question each and things went more smoothly.
"Yes, this is a real Ankh. I got it when I truly became the Avatar in the Age of Enlightenment. Next? Yes, Mondain could turn himself into a bat. You? That’s two questions, I’m only going to answer one or it wouldn’t be fair. Oh, well, that’s easy. If I could turn into any creature in Britannia, I’d be a dragon. Because they can fly. Dragons are more impressive than birds. Or bats."
Finally, I got to the last question that was given by the eldest girl. "Art thou afraid?"
I looked at her. "Of what?"
"Of dying. Wouldst thou die to save Britannia?"
I thought a minute, then softly said, "That’s two questions with two different answers. Which one should I reply to?"
"Canst thou not answer both? Please?"
After a brief, uneasy pause, I nodded. "Yes. I’m afraid to die. But if I had to in order to save Britannia, I would."
"I didn’t know the Avatar could be afraid."
"If there wasn’t anything to fear," I told her with a smile, "there’d be no reason for Courage to exist."
Satisfied somewhat, this representation of Britannia’s younger generation thanked me with enthusiasm for my time, then ran off to do whatever it was children do at that age.
"I’m getting way too old for this," I muttered to Mariah.
She laughed out loud at that. "Try telling Lord British that!"
We kept walking and I turned my attention to the small metropolis that was forming around us. It was like an underground city. Children played in open areas with makeshift balls, and there were several barracks and posts from which the people could collect rations, candles and other necessities. Stonemasons had obviously been hard at work as there were many branches and passages that I didn’t remember from my last visit.
"Wood hath become too valuable to burn," Mariah said, explaining the lack of torches. "And with the enemy on our heels, oil is more use as a weapon that a light source." She made a tiny gesture and whispered a spell. A mere pinprick of light appeared - bright, but short-lived as it quickly vanished. "We mages have other options, of course, but even we are restricted."
"How bad are the reagent stores?"
"Bad enough. We’re going to have to buy them from Buccaneers’ Den at extortionate prices. Even then, it’s only a matter of time until the supplies run out."
"But there should be plenty of sulphurous ash on this island! All the volcanic activity- "
"Stopped," Mariah interrupted. "Ash stores are higher than the others save garlic, but we need to save everything. Candles suffice for now and they also provide some heat."
She pointed out various landmarks and houses as we continued on. A river running through the Test was the water supply and a small lake further down was the communal bathing area.
"Either that or thou canst haul buckets of water to thy room and warm them with thy candles," Mariah said dryly. "It’s amazing what some will do for modesty’s sake."
There was a middens pit to the southwest, and the canyon I’d seen while trying to complete the Test so long ago was forbidden ground. Guards had even been set there just to make sure no one was stupid enough to fall in.
Presently, we reached a stone chamber in which a stout, bald man sat reading a book. He looked up as we entered and smiled at Mariah, reaching for a quill and parchment. "Another refugee, Mariah?"
"Not exactly, Barl. This is Elora - the Avatar. Canst thou fix her a room?"
"I’d be honoured!" The little man extracted a thin map from somewhere on his desk and made a mark on it. "Room five in the First Sanctuary," he said, handing me a slip of paper. "Hold onto that in case some fool disputes thy right to be there, Milady."
"The First Sanctuary is where?" Mariah prompted.
Barl shot me an embarrassed look. "It’s just off Avatar’s Way. Eastern passages."
"Back the way we came, then. Thank thee, Barl."
"Any time, Milady. Avatar." He inclined his head to us.
Avatar’s Way was a street - or more correctly, an earthen passage - from which branched several other tunnels and interconnecting rooms. The First Sanctuary was the first such room which appeared at the end of a short corridor. This room in turn gave access to several others, which were numbered. Mariah walked me to the curtained door of number five where she bade me good afternoon and took her leave. I wondered rather irrelevantly how she’d known what time of day it was.
Sighing loudly, I entered and took stock of my room. Bedroll, blankets, candle, flint…Taking in my appearance in a fragment of mirror, I grinned. I looked as bad as Mariah. Then I sobered, remembering how shocked I’d been at the sight of her. I looked terrible. Moving slowly, I unbuckled the scabbard holding Arcadion and propped him in a corner.
"Home sweet home, hm?" I asked him as I took off my salt-stiff leathers.
"Truth isn’t always a nice place to visit, Master," Arcadion answered. His harmonic voice was brooding and dark.
"What Truth are we talking about?"
"Are you saying you don’t know what broke the scrying shields?" he asked incredulously.
I paused in the act of stripping off my trousers. "It's the bracer, isn't it." It wasn't really a question. "And those ether disruptions the mages were talking about, they happened both times I teleported."
He was silent for a while. "Now you just have to figure out why."
I gave the sullenly glowing jewel a worried look. "Do you know?"
"What I know isn't much. The bracer breaks down any scrying shields so you can't hide when you use magic to teleport. The pulses that break the shields also serve to give anyone who's paying attention a rough idea of where you've gone - provided they're on the same world as you."
"But who is this serving?"
"I don't know. You forget that I've been trapped in Britannia for some time, now. This bracer is obviously new technology - I've never seen its like."
What was going on? I sighed, then rather suddenly noticed the drab condition of the scabbard. I hadn’t been the only one who’d been tipped into the bay. With a muttered curse, I drew the Blacksword with the intent of oiling and polishing the metal blade, but I didn’t have the appropriate tools. A slight tarnish stained the sword and I hoped rust wouldn’t be forthcoming.
"You don’t look so good yourself, Avatar," the daemon stated.
I dropped him hastily and hauled my wrinkled cloak around myself, blushing furiously. "You can’t really see me!" I accused.
"You really should eat more," Arcadion went on clinically. "Your ribs are sticking out."
Picking him up awkwardly, I propped him against the wall with the gem facing away from me. I could have almost sworn I heard him laugh.
I put on the shapeless linen shift I found in a mesh bag, then turned my attention to the beef jerky I saw on a stone plate. I was almost hungry enough to eat it, but one unsuccessful bite at the hardened meat dissuaded me from doing so.
Looking at the bedroll, I decided that a bath could wait. I was really tired. Then, without another thought, I fell into the blankets and didn’t move for a long, long time.
"I see you, Avatar. Rest while you can, for I am coming."
I woke with a start.
"Guardian?" I whispered.
"How long have I been asleep?" I groaned, rolling over. It couldn’t have been long as I still felt tired. Sure enough, I was asleep a second later.
A mirror. I remember a mirror. A mirror topped by a black Ankh. But it’s unbroken. Didn’t I break it? I can see my own reflection in it, whole and alone, staring back at me.
The reflection. It’s me but at the same time it’s not. It doesn’t follow my movements. Is it me? Is it someone else?
My voice. From her lips.
"We are one. I am you. You are me. One mind, one heart, one life."
There is a shimmering white sword in my hands. I lift it, bring it down with all my strength. "I’m not going back. Not there. Not ever."
"You don’t have to."
The mirror darkens and breaks. Infinitesimal shards fall away in a flash of rainbow colour, but some still cling to the frame of the mirror. All the black pieces…like splinters of night…every fragment reflecting a part of me…a part of my soul…
I can’t breathe.
Virtues! I can’t breathe!
"Soon, we’ll be two. I’ll be me and you’ll be you. But it will be my mind, my heart, my life."
"You made me. I am the parts of you that you wish didn’t exist. All those dark shadows and black shards rolled into one. My name is Mellorin."
The bracer…take it off! Someone help…
"How does it feel to be helpless, Elora? This is how I have felt all our life - you controlling everything while I look on without a choice."
I look up from where I’ve fallen, gasping for air. She stands above me…she’s holding my sword. There are people behind her…who…my friends?
"I’m going to enjoy this job."
I CAN’T BREATHE!
"The Guardian is coming, you know. But I have always been here."
"I will endure! I am the Avatar…"
Her voice comes from far away. "I am the Avatar. Remember that even if you forget all else. Goodbye…for now…"
When I awoke, I slept in. I loved sleeping in and I hadn’t had the opportunity to do so for quite some time. There wasn’t any way for me to guess what hour it was short of a spell, and I couldn’t be bothered in any case. More sleep was definitely a priority. As the minutes slipped by, however, I found myself staring at the faint light coming from beneath the curtained doorway to my room.
"Arcadion?" I said.
"Did I talk in my sleep last night?"
"Haven’t you always?"
"Don’t get smart with me," I said somewhat peevishly. "Can you remember anything I said?"
"Oh, the usual…’Name’, ‘Job’, ‘I am the Avatar’, ‘Bye’."
Eventually, hunger and the desperate urge to have a good wash forced me off the bedroll. There wasn’t anything to wear but the clothes I’d used yesterday. Cringing slightly, I put on the leathers - which were still stiff from the seawater - and located a rough drying cloth. En route to the bathing lake, I ran into Julia.
"Elora! I was looking for thee! Mariah just gave me directions to thy room a few minutes ago and- "
"Wait, Julia, what day is it?"
"According to Mariah, thou didst go to sleep yesterday afternoon. It’s about ten o’clock in the evening." She grabbed my left arm. "Quickly! Lord British wants to speak with thee!"
"Julia!" I complained. "I want a bath!"
She laughed. "Thou wouldst keep our lord waiting for that?"
"Today I would," I replied grumpily. "It’s not urgent, is it? I want a bath. I need a bath. I need a change of clothes, I need a good meal, I need to oil my armour and sharpen my sword-"
"Thou needest a few more hours sleep," she retorted. "What hath gotten into thee?"
I stopped to stare at her. "I just woke up! Isn’t everyone irrational first thing in the morning…argh…evening…whatever." I resumed walking, though at a faster pace.
Julia shook her head. "Fine. I’ll tell Lord British. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled."
"Go on and tell him then," I said, irritated. "I'm not coming!"
"Yet!" I amended. "Oh, and on your way out, could you have someone send me some new armour? Just have them take it to the lake."
"And here I thought thou wert always virtuous and wouldst never hesitate to answer duty's call."
"There's nothing virtuous about being dirty."
"I'll quote thee on that!"
"Yeah? Well you can quote me on this, too!" And I turned my back on her and kept walking without saying another word.
The tunnels were quiet at this time. They were very dark - less than half of the candles set around the areas were lit - and quite peaceful. Only a few people were still awake; there was always someone stationed at the healers' makeshift hospice, for example, but otherwise, all was still. The only audible noises were faint echoes of distant conversation and the thud of my boots on the earthen floor.
The lake was almost as silent. There were a few people taking an evening dip and I was glad the place wasn't crowded. I wasn't ashamed of my body in any way, but I wasn't really one for casual nudity. Just having people know I was the Avatar was guaranteed to attract a crowd.
With a faint sigh, I undressed down to my Ankh and waded out into the water, armed with a rough bar of soap.
I'll confess that I took my time. If there's one thing I enjoy as much as sleeping in, it's relaxing in a hot bath. The lake water, although not hot, was still distinctly warm - probably because of any volcanic activity that still lingered on the Isle. After washing off as much of the dirt as I could, I tossed the soap ashore and swam deeper. When I could no longer feel the ground, and the glimmer of candles seemed distant and far off, I closed my eyes and floated.
Time was suspended. There was no noise, no light, nothing. The troubles of the world fell from my shoulders and I felt completely at peace...nothing around me but warm water and soft darkness.
Eventually, I made my way back to the shore. There was a guard waiting beside my belongings when I got there.
She turned her back politely as I left the water and wrapped myself in the cloth, then asked, "From thine Ankh, I take it thou art Elora?"
"Julia sent me to bring thee some new clothes, Milady." She handed me some leather trousers, a clean shirt, a supple leather vest, a pair of boots and gloves, a dark green cloak and some undergarments. "She awaits thee in the statue room."
"Thank thee. Wouldst thou do something with these, please?" I gestured at my old armour.
"Yes, ma'am." The guard saluted, picked up the pile and left.
I dried myself off and dressed, but didn't follow yet. Instead, I sat down, wrapped my wet hair in the cloth, and watched the candlelight glisten against the ripples of the dark lake.
"There thou art."
I gave Julia a sunny smile.
"Thou art feeling better, I take it?"
"Much better," I assured her. "Now, we were going to see Lord British, weren't we?"
"Amazing," she drawled. "Thou hast not forgotten, after all. He's up on the battlements."
"Thanks for the clothes, by the way," I said as we headed for the courtyard.
She shook her head. "I don't see why thou didst make such a fuss."
"How do you think the guards on duty would have felt seeing me in that state? If I'm here for morale, Julia, I'll do a much better job if I don't look like a walking corpse!"
There was a group of humans and gargoyles working the forge together as we passed toward the stairs. Julia raised her voice above the hiss of steam and clang of metal, "Thou'rt right. I'm sorry."
"I think the question is, why were you making such a fuss?"
She gave a rueful laugh. "I've been working around the clock since we got here. The fort itself may be complete, but we're dangerously low on weapons, armour and ammunition. The sooner I get my 'students' to perfect fletching, the sooner I can sleep."
"You'll sleep as soon as I finish talking to Richard," I said with a snort. "Even if I have to 'In Zu' you. A sleepy teacher makes for careless students."
We mounted the stairs to the rampart where Lords British and Draxinusom stood beneath the star-filled sky, gazing out at the southern bay of the Isle. The silvery glow of the twin moons Trammel and Felucca played over their features - so different, yet, in their calm, pensive expressions, so alike.
They turned as we approached, Draxinusom's blue eyes shining faintly in the darkness.
"It seemeth to me the time thou didst spend at the lake was not wasted," Lord British said, giving me an approving look and a smile.
I ran a hand through my drying hair and smiled back. "Good evening, my friends."
"To greet you this evening, Elora," Draxinusom said. "To ask how you are feeling?"
"Better, Draxinusom. Maybe not perfect, but much better."
"And thou lookest it." Lord British's eyes went out over the bay again. "This is the first night I can remember in a long time in which I got the chance to look at the stars." He sighed rather wistfully. "I don't suppose anyone on the Isle hath a telescope, Drax?"
"To say that there is, Richard, but to add that their use is restricted to the lookouts. To think that there might possibly be a spare - somewhere."
Lord British laughed, and I felt myself smiling. I had seen these two together very rarely, and while I'd guessed at their friendship, I hadn't known how deep it really was. The use of first names and nicknames clearly proclaimed the fact that these monarchs were very close friends.
The gargoyle king stretched his wings absently, then said, "To remind you that you asked Elora up here, Richard."
"Ah, yes." He faced me again. "We want to keep thee abreast of the situations here, Elora. I've no doubt that thou wouldst be able to help us on some. What hast thou heard or seen so far?"
"Not a lot, I'm afraid. The fort has been fully repaired, we're low on weapons, armour, ammunition, reagents, wood, we have functional teleporters between here and Ambrosia..." I shrugged. "What can you two add?"
"Hast thou heard of the ether disruptions the mages are investigating?"
I nodded. "And I can shed some light on that matter." With a gesture at the bracer, I went on, "The scrying shield on this Isle fell at the precise time I teleported here with the Blacksword. Likewise with Ambrosia and the teleport pads."
Draxinusom peered closely at the bejeweled bracer. "To ask what it is?" He passed a hand over it, his scarlet skin looking almost grey in the night. "To think it is alive!"
"Undead, Drax," Lord British replied, his face somber.
"It was previously worn by Mors Gotha," Julia supplied. "Warleader of the Guardian's armies."
The gargoyle's eyes flared slightly at this, brightening as if fuelled by some strong emotion. "To remember her. To remember fighting her."
"I think there's some kind of tracking spell on the bracer," I said. "Whoever wears it can't conceal any location they teleport to." I frowned. "But I never felt these ether pulses."
"To think it might be because you're wearing it?"
"Possibly. At any rate, I can't remove it."
"Well, this solves one mystery, at least," Lord British said.
"What else is going on?"
"In a couple of days, some of our ships will be sailing for Buccaneers' Den for more supplies. Reagents, cannonballs and the like. Julia is going with them."
I looked at the tinker. "Any special reason why?"
Julia shrugged. "I have a few contacts there. From reports, the situation at the Den was a bit hostile the last time we sailed in. I'm going to lend our people whatever authority I can provide over the pirates." Then she grinned. "And I'm not famous enough for them to try holding me ransom."
"They can't be that bad, can they?"
"Who can tell? Britannia's at war, and that's a pirate's favourite pastime. I'll talk around and see if I can convince them to sink the enemy instead of us."
"That would be nice."
She grinned again.
My eyes wandered to the moonlit outlines of the cliffs leading into the bay. I could barely make out the two stone watchtowers - one on either side - on which stood a man or woman keeping night long vigil. Absently rubbing the water-polished Ankh I wore, I asked, "Any other news?"
"To say that Britannia's state has not changed," Draxinusom told me. "To have seen myself that Trinsic, Jhelom, the Lycaeum, Serpent's Hold and Castle Britannia are still under siege. But to have discovered an interesting thing."
"What?" I asked. Julia and Lord British also looked curious.
"To have seen neither prisoners nor hostages - none of our people. Not even bodies. Not one."
"Graves? Pyres?" Julia asked.
Draxinusom shook his head. "To say that this is so in every city except Minoc. Britannians still live there, though under enemy rule."
"But they're free?" Lord British pressed, this news obviously new to him.
"To say it seems so. But to think it was because they surrendered."
"Minoc surrendered without a fight," Julia echoed softly. "Do we know why?"
"The Fellowship," Draxinusom said. "Maybe not the organisation itself, but people who had once run it."
"Are we sure about this?" I put in.
"To tell you that before the invasion, enemy scouts were sent to members of the disbanded Fellowship with news of the attack and a strong recommendation that they persuade their cities to surrender. Had a person of power with such a connection been in Britain, like Mayor Patterson, things may have gone very differently for us. To say, as it was, the messenger contacted a lesser man, but one who had come to believe the truth of the Fellowship. The truth of the Inner Voice."
"'Had'?" I interrupted.
"He stayed behind to help defend Britain," Draxinusom said, his eyes dimming a little. 'To know it was a futile act, but to not have argued against it. To think he wished to fight against the force he had supported before. At any rate, it was he who warned us of the invasion while we still had a chance of escape." He glanced up at the sky. "The band of humans sent to retrieve Rudyom's wand had already departed - were already dead or captured - when the man came forward with his information. To say my eyes searched the skies near Cove that day. They saw the enemy, then to have ordered the evacuation."
"Thou didst rightly," Lord British murmured. "It was a wise move that saved many lives."
"To not be certain of my wisdom," the gargoyle replied heavily. "To have lost more than half your land."
"Our land Drax," he corrected gently.
"I wouldn't say you lost anything," I said, my tone just as soft. "Rather, think of what you saved. Had you not acted, we might not even have this." I waved a hand around to indicate the moonlit Isle of Fire. "Not to mention uncountable, invaluable lives."
"Did that former Fellowship man ever speak his name?" Julia asked presently.
"To say no."
"Wait," I interrupted again. "Excuse me," I added with a grimace at my manners. It seemed I'd left my brains back in my bedroll. "Might I ask a question?"
Draxinusom smiled. "Of course, Elora," he said magnanimously.
"Thanks," I drawled. Then, more seriously, "I was just wondering what you'd planned to do with Rudyom's wand once you'd got your hands - uhh, claws - on it?"
His smile widened. "To say that Rudyom was going to come with it. Our friends Jaana and Mariah had thought that the mage might have been able to find a way to blast a hole in the blackrock dome without - "
" - blowing up the whole dome along with everyone in it." I nodded. "I see."
"But to not know now if it would have been possible." Draxinusom shrugged his shoulders and wings. "To believe it would have been worth a try. On other news, those at Minoc have been the ones responsible for the ships the enemy now possess."
"Too bad Owen isn't the one building them any more," I said with a grin at Julia.
The tinker laughed. "Elora! If some of those floating wash-tubs are Owen's, I know exactly where to have them hit to make them collapse!"
"They're building more," Lord British told us. "Whether to Owen's plans or someone else's."
"But the ships that were in Minoc when the enemy arrived were all put to use." Draxinusom's hairless brows lowered. "To say I had as many ships in Britain fitted out and sent to Trinsic as was possible. To have burned the rest. We have five frigates, three sea-serpent cutters and two merchantmen here at the Isle of Fire."
The wind started to pick up and I felt a definite chill. It was nearing the end of Autumn. Winter was coming early and it was likely to be unpleasant for both the enemy and us. "There was one other thing I wanted to ask, my friend," I said, meeting Draxinusom's glowing eyes. "It's about the silver serpent venom."
The gargoyle nodded. "To assure you that nothing more will go wrong," he answered. "To be keeping the store under tight control. What happened at Trinsic will not happen again."
Satisfied, I nodded, knowing that his word could be trusted. "If that's all then, I think I'll go back to bed."
"Not a bad idea," Lord British said, "but I don't think I'd mind a stroll around Ambrosia before retiring, myself." He stroked his bearded chin. "I'm told it's a place of magic by night. Wouldst thou like to come, Drax?"
"To accept, with thanks. Ben an-lor-tym, Elora and Julia."
"Ben an-lor-tym, Draxinusom," I returned, then watched as he and Lord British left the battlements.
"Good night," Julia said with a sigh. She rubbed her arms absently. "A bit cold for my tastes."
I wrapped my cloak a bit tighter around myself. "It doesn't snow on islands, does it?"
"It might up in the mountains."
I grunted, then remembered something. "You are going to bed."
"Good evening, ladies," Dupre interrupted. The knight had just ascended to the battlements and crossed over to us. The warriors streaming behind him moved to relieve those still on guard.
"Sir Knight," I said dryly.
He made a face at me. "Damned cold night for a patrol. Julia, please bring a good supply of torches back from Buccaneers' Den. If it isn't bad enough up here being so dark!"
Julia gave his shoulder a consoling pat. "I'll try to remember."
"Good. Until then, I'll just stand above the stairs so I can catch the heat of the forge." He walked us over and when we got there asked, "Aren't there any qualms about this journey now that the scrying shield is down? I mean, pirates aren't the most trustworthy of people… they could betray where we are to the Guardian."
I shook my head. "It doesn't matter. Now that the shield's down, the enemy probably already knows where we are. Or at least," I added, remembering my restless sleep, "the Guardian does."
Dupre let the matter drop and asked, "Art thou planning to be awake tomorrow, Elora?"
"Maybe," I said with a smirk. "I may just sleep in again."
He snorted, breath steaming in the cooling air. "Well if thou art, I could really use some help."
"We need experienced warriors, Elora. Most of ours stayed back to defend Trinsic, with the exception of the gargoyles. The gargoyle warriors - they call themselves agra-lem - are good trainers, but the techniques they use are more difficult for humans to learn. I wanted to know if thou wouldst mind playing teacher for a while."
I shrugged. "Sure, I'd be happy to help. Where and when?"
"Just catch me here before the ninth hour. Thank thee."
"Any time. Good night, Dupre. See you tomorrow."
Julia and I descended the stone steps to the courtyard forge and walked toward the statue room.
"And if thou dost ever get bored as a trainer," she was saying, "thou art always welcome as a sailor."
I chuckled. "No offence, Julia, but I'd do almost anything to get out of an ocean voyage."
"Ha! I've only seen thee get sea-sickness once!"
"Once is more than enough." I gave her a grin. "Not that I don't love the sea. It's the floating."
"Why seasickness?" she complained good-naturedly. "Why not air-sickness? By the Virtues, if even half of Iolo's stories about thee and thy magic carpet stunts are true -"
"Hey, I want to state right now that I only did the double-inside-out-pinwheel-of-death-loop or whatever he calls it once."
"Thou dost disappoint me, then." Julia laughed. "If I were flying that thing, I'd be doing that trick on a regular basis! I'm pretty sure Iolo was trying his best to scare me with that story, but-"
"-it ended up sounding like fun?" With a smirk, I said, "That's because he was the one who dared me to do it."
She missed a step. "He didn't!"
"He made a bet with Dupre on who could keep his breakfast longest."
"Stakes were ale again, I presume?" We stopped at the statue room and she shook her head. "Iolo won, right?" When I grinned, she added, "Did Dupre honour this wager?"
"Before we even landed."
"He'd had an ale with his breakfast, you see, and- "
Julia groaned. "Spare me. I think- "
She was interrupted by a voice that spoke straight into my mind.
"Avatar! Champion of Infinity, hear me!"
I held up my hand to silence Julia and turned to face the statue of Courage. "I'm here."
"Warriors have invaded the keep of Courage. Avatar, they seek to quench the Eternal Flame within. In the name of Valour, thou must stop them!"
"How?" I demanded.
"The bracer on thine arm can take thee there. First, touch the small white jewel that doth not touch the larger gem in the middle of the bracer. Then touch the central facet of the large jewel and the facet edged by the red jewel at the same time. I sense this will take thee to Serpent's Hold."
"But isn't the bracer evil?"
"Nay, Avatar. The bracer itself beareth no malice. Like so many other things, though, it can cause or be used for evil. Hurry!"
"Serpent's Hold is under attack," I said to Julia. "I know how to teleport there."
Julia touched the sword at her side. "Then let's go!"
I shook my head. "Listen; there's not much time, I think. Go back to the battlements and tell Dupre to bring as many warriors as he can to the First Sanctuary. I need to get the Blacksword." Moving toward the statue of Truth, I added, "Then chase Richard and Draxinusom and tell them what's going on!" I touched the statue and entered the test. After passing through the illusionary wall, I sprinted for my room.
Halfway there, I caught up with five guards from the patrol Dupre had just relieved. Two saluted when they recognised me.
"We have a dangerous situation," I told them quickly. "I need your swords!" Then I was running again and they were following, their mail shirts jingling as we went.
"Avatar!" one called. "Where are we going?"
Fifteen minutes was as long as I dared wait. Almost fifty warriors, human and gargoyle, along with Dupre and Katrina, crowded the First Sanctuary when I stood to face them with the Blacksword unsheathed in my hands.
"We're ready, Elora," Dupre said tersely.
"All right, everyone," I announced. "Listen up! We're going to Serpent's Hold by a teleportation spell. The keep is under attack and you're going to save the day."
"What? Thou'rt not going to help?" A warrior yelled, and there was a ripple of laughter.
"I'll do my best," I drawled. "Now, are you ready?"
They roared their assent and I touched the bracer...then we all stood on the Isle of Deeds.
We were standing on a stretch of grass not far from the keep. A few smouldering campfires dotted the ground nearby, but no one tended them. The roar of fighters could be clearly heard from up ahead. I pointed at the proud form of a stone castle to the north. Torches winked from the battlements and swarmed around the walls in the hands of enemy warriors.
"Step one," I muttered. "Get inside." Time Stop wouldn't be much good here. We'd get past the enemy easily enough - provided the spell didn't wear off while we were still in the middle of them - but trying to open the heavy gates from the outside might prove troublesome. Unless I could see the winch.
A group of soldiers sighted us from the assault on the Hold. About twenty of them broke off from the army and started toward us.
"Go that way," I instructed a nearby warrior, pointing south. "There's a branch of Iolo's Bows on the eastern edge of town. See if there are any firearms and ammunition left and, if there is, come back here, grab some of our people and bring the weapons here."
He saluted, "Avatar!" and ran off.
"Not stealing are we, Elora?" Dupre smiled as he unsheathed his sword.
"Avatars don't steal! They just...borrow. Besides, Iolo won't mind." I grinned at him and leaned on the Blacksword. Turning to half-face our people, I added in a soft voice, "Do these ones know how to fight?"
"Most. Those that don't at least know which end to stick the enemy with."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm glad you're such a good trainer. Excuse me a minute." Looking at the approaching enemy, I said, "Arcadion!"
"Yes, Master?" the Blacksword's inhabitant replied.
"Your target, O Bringer of Ultimate Destruction?"
"Right...there." I pointed him at the ground where the soldiers were about to cover. The sword glowed briefly, and then a snake-trail of flames sped across the ground in a straight line to the enemy.
Just as I'd suspected, they stopped warily as it approached them, taking nothing more than a cautious step backwards as it stopped in their midst.
Soldiers flew in every direction as a billow of sooty flame shot up with a deep-toned detonation.
"That will attract their attention, thou knowest," Katrina noted calmly.
"I'm counting on it." To Dupre, I said, "Organise our people into a tight defence suitable for the terrain. We're not going to launch an all-out attack just yet."
Katrina asked, "Why not?" but Dupre nodded.
"If we draw enough of the enemy away from the keep," he said, "the knights can charge them from behind."
"And they'll do much better attacking than defending." I looked up as ten Britannians hurried over, loaded down with bows, crossbows, arrows and bolts. "Oh yes," I murmured. "Perfect! Put the ammunition down here."
"Those soldiers are coming back for more," Dupre said as my request was followed.
I enchanted the ammo with a quick spell, picked up a heavy triple-crossbow and grinned viciously. "Nothing like one of these things to whittle down an advancing army." Sticking Arcadion point down in the ground, I raised my voice and said, "Anyone who knows how to use a bow or crossbow, arm up!"
Fourteen stepped forward and suddenly became archers. In under a minute, we loaded our weapons and aimed at the seventeen Killorn soldiers stumbling in our direction, their orange tabards still smoking. Bowstrings creaked as they were pulled taut, and I sighted down my triple crossbow.
Crossbows clacked and bowstrings sang. Seventeen shafts shot through the air and embedded themselves in enemy chests. Ten foes died instantly. The remaining seven remembered pressing engagements elsewhere and fled.
A second group - larger than the first, though not by much - left their assault of the Hold and headed our way.
"This could get very boring very quickly," I complained. "I don't know whether to be insulted by the paltry numbers they keep sending, or flattered that they even consider us to be a threat."
"I think I'd rather have them in bite-sized chunks," Dupre remarked, scratching at his moustache. "I don't think I could stomach a full meal."
"Dupre, thou soundest as if thou'rt likening the Guardian's army to an all-thou-canst-eat tavern!" Katrina said.
"Of course. With the Guardian as dessert."
I made a face. "Please. I don't even want to think what he tastes like." I waved a hand, signaling my archers to get ready to fire again. "Wonder what kind of dish he'd make, though."
The knight shrugged and pointed at the advancing foe. "I think they’re getting a bit close."
Twelve soldiers were shot down. As they fell backwards, those with bows let fly another volley of arrows and five more were killed. The next round, both bolts and arrows bounced off their targets without harming them. And sped back at us.
I barely managed to raise an Energy Field before all fifteen bow or crossbow wielders were slain by their own weapons. All humour vanished as the shafts shattered against the invisible wall. Britannians ducked instinctively and I was no exception, even though I knew there was no immediate danger. "Steel!" I shouted, dumping the triple crossbow and picking up Arcadion. I heard the steely rasp as those who hadn't drawn weapons now did so. "Don't attack until I give the order."
Dupre quickly ran a check over everyone's position then nodded to me. As the nine remaining soldiers closed in, he pointed out two large groups preparing to draw away from the main attack on the keep.
"These soldiers are braver than their fellows," Katrina said, gesturing at the nine who had slowed as they drew still nearer. "Else there's not a brain among them."
"They're not stupid," Dupre muttered. "Can't figure out why we're not running them when we have the advantage of numbers." He frowned as if something had just occurred to him. "Elora, why aren't we attacking?"
"Some of those soldiers," I answered bluntly, "aren't soldiers."
"Like the one in Nystul's room? How canst thou tell?"
"A very strong hunch."
There was a loud explosion from Serpent's Hold and a thick column of smoke rose from one of the eastern turrets, twisting high into the sky and staining the pristine glow of the moon Trammel a sickly yellow. At the same time, a loud cheer came from the besieging army, which was followed by the clatter of falling masonry.
"That can't be good," Dupre muttered.
The nine soldiers had faltered at the cheer and turned to look back.
"Now!" I gasped, dropping the Energy Field.
As one, the Britannian's surged forward with their weapons upraised. Four foes were cut down almost at once, the other five were quick to recover and retaliate even against these odds.
"Which are daemons?" I asked Arcadion quickly.
The Shade Blade vibrated, swung in my hands to point at a short, black-bearded man wielding a curved sword. "Him."
"Just the one?"
"Of this group, yes."
That soldier looked straight at me, sneered and slashed at the two Britannians trying to kill him. Then he vanished, reappearing almost right next to me.
Two of the other Killorn soldiers let out enraged cries and ran after him only to be stopped by Britannian steel.
"Did you want something?" I asked him calmly.
Dark eyes flicked to my right arm and widened at the sight of the bracer. Clear disbelief scrawled itself across his face as he stared at me. "The Avatar? Ka-thra?"
"That's me," I drawled, watching from the corner of my eyes as the four human soldiers died.
"Thou hast no place here! The Keep of Courage belongs to the Guardian!"
"Ah, I think not." I gestured for everyone else to stand away. The daemon-soldier glanced around at them contemptuously, but when he looked at me I could see a deep fear in his eyes. Not a fear of them, but of me. I thought it a little strange. I'd never really inspired fear in the greater undead. A grudging respect, yes, some wariness...but no fear. Unless they were just too proud to show it.
I realised that this daemon could be the ticket for drawing the attack away from the Hold.
"Your master will never have this keep," I said. "And this should be good enough proof." Raising Arcadion, I took a threatening step forward.
The soldier gave a startled screech, turned and blinked some distance away toward the Hold. When he started running back to enemy lines, I said to let him go.
"The enemy will come to us," I told the Britannians, "and when they do, the knights can charge them from behind."
"They will think we pose so great a threat?" a warrior asked doubtfully, and rightly so, for it seemed ludicrous that an army in excess of two thousand soldiers would worry about a small band of fifty.
But they were discounting the fact that one among that fifty was the Avatar.
"They will. Was anyone hurt just now?"
A gargoyle had suffered a head wound. It wasn't too serious in itself, but since everyone here needed all his or her fighting skill, even a wound like that could prove to be a death sentence.
Drawing out garlic, ginseng and spider silk, I touched the wound, gestured and intoned, "Mani."
The wound healed as much as I could manage with the spell's limited power - barely a scar remained.
"Now it's time to let the knights know we're here." Raising my arms, I added to Dupre and Katrina, "I learned this one from our esteemed Lord British. Bet Ort!" Tracing a symbol in the air with my right hand, I thrust the left into the sky and sent streamers of glittering, golden light high above us. When the fireworks exploded, a perfect Ankh appeared in the night sky to cast its bright, gold light across half the island. Shimmering silver highlights rippled across the edges as the air was filled with crackling and hissing noises, flecks of gold and silver falling away in sparkling clouds to indicate our position to Serpent's Hold...and the enemy.
Shouts and cries rose from the army at the sight of the blazing Ankh. Without apparent order, many simply began running in our direction, seeing nothing more than an enemy behind their ranks. But when the daemon-soldier reached the main bulk of the opposing force, I felt a sudden disquiet.
Then the entire enemy army on the Isle of Deeds turned in our direction and started to march.
"That worked," Katrina said, her hands white-knuckled where she gripped her wooden crook. "Now what?"
"Now I make their evening a little more exciting," I replied, trying to keep a tremor of doubt from my voice. With the Ankh fireworks still shining above me, I incanted another spell. "Vas Ort Hur!"
With a rumbling sound, a dense black cloud came into being directly over the enemy host. There was nothing slow about its formation - it simply appeared. Then a blinding flash of incandescent lightning struck amidst the enemy ranks and a clap of thunder shook the ground.
"Avatar? To ask if it is really you?"
I half-closed my eyes to concentrate on the telepathic voice. "Sir Horffe? Yes, it's me. How go things on the inside?"
"To think things could be better. To say you diverted the attention of the invaders just in time - there's a massive breach in the east side of the southern wall. To notice also that you have put yourself in danger by saving us."
"Yes. How soon can you mount an offensive against these Guardian-lovers?"
"Now that they are withdrawing from the Hold, to think not long."
"Then move quickly, Sir Knight, and don't mind the magic at play here. It won't harm you."
"To go now!"
I let out a deep breath and exchanged a look with Dupre and Katrina. "They're coming."
Both friends glanced at the advancing foe with bleak faces and didn't add that the knights weren't the only ones.
Using Arcadion, I created two more explosions in the already confused army. The combination of lighting and fire and thunder wreaked absolute havoc. Soldier flung themselves left and right to avoid getting fried inside their own armour, tripped over their dead or merely ran in a blind panic.
"Why not create a Death Vortex?" asked Dupre in a tense voice.
With a wave of soldiers coming our way, I knew how he felt. "Too difficult to control," I said. "It would probably turn and engulf the knights as well as the enemy."
I didn't say that I hated using Death spells, and only ever used them as a last resort.
The first few soldiers running ahead of their main forces reached us and hurled themselves against us with frenzied screams of "Guardian!" I ducked under a scythe-like blade and tore open a man's chest with a single precise motion. Kicking him backwards as blood fountained from his wound, I thrust at a second soldier. She parried and sliced at my left side, which I avoided easily. When she turned to block Dupre's blow, I brought the Blacksword up from right to left then straight right, taking the soldier's head off.
Dupre wiped some splattered gore from his face. "Thanks," he said sarcastically.
"Sorry," I said, rubbing my eyes. "I'm more tired than I thought. I'll be fine," I added as he gave me a worried look.
The knight roared, "Form up, people!" and the Britannians hurried to comply before the next Killorn soldiers reached us. "There's too many of them," he whispered to me. "Thy storm is doing well, but there must be at least two thousand of the bastards left. How can we win?"
"I have one plan." From the Hold, there was the distant sound of the gates being opened and the thunder of hooves. I couldn't see it, though, and was surprised enough that I could hear it. Quickly, I pulled garlic, ginseng, mandrake root, nightshade and blood moss from my belt pouch and fused the reagents together. Putting the mixture in a safe place, I met Dupre's eyes and said, "Mass Death."
He closed his eyes briefly and sighed.
"The knights will get here soon, but then we must get everyone back into the keep."
"Thou canst not simply cast the spell?"
I shook my head. "It's a bit like Death Vortex - difficult to control. It won't kill friends, but it will kill people I don't know, including most of our people here, our knights and the enemy." Picking more reagents from my pouch, I added, "But I can still curse some of them. Vas Des Sanct!" Targeting the middle of the army, I let the spell fly. Anyone within the area of the spell's effect would immediately suffer loss of agility and skill in fighting. It would aid the Serpent's Hold knights immensely.
But the enemy were still going to get here first.
"It's time to attack," I stated grimly, watching the inexorable approach of the Guardian's army. The knights had already reached their back and were hacking their way through, warhorses causing equal damage as they reared and plunged. Quickly, I cast a Mass Protection spell over our group from the Isle of Fire and felt a familiar pain in my chest when the energy was released. "Restore my powers, Arcadion."
The Blacksword glowed and a rush of energy infused me. "I hunger," the daemon growled, though blood already stained the length of his blade.
I looked at the advancing enemy, well within range of arrows and bolts we dared not fire. Step by step getting closer... "You'll get fed soon enough." I threw two wide Sleep Fields to the left and right, which would force the enemy to either go around them or suffer the obvious consequences. Then I used Arcadion to hurl another explosion between the fields. "Virtues be with us, Britannia!" I shouted, gripping the Blacksword firmly with both hands. "ATTACK!"
We ran forward to intercept those attempting to pass through the bottleneck created by the sleep fields and twisting columns of fire. Not even those who had entered the fields were spared. Soldier after soldier fell with agonised screams until all three obstacles I'd created vanished in a flash of pain.
Someone had dispelled them.
Quickly, I caught both my breath and my balance before plunging into the milling ranks of the enemy; my eyes firmly fixed on the forms of the embattled knights fighting astride their tall steeds. Dupre and Katrina were stuck to my sides like glue, both fighting to clear a path for those following behind.
Then we were adrift in a fire-lit, night-dark sea of orange-tabarded enemies. Bolts of lightning rained down from above, the ground trembled at the almost continuous roar of thunder, screams tore the air and the stench of burning flesh was strong. Steel flashed in the erratic light, flying droplets of blood stood out like ruby orbs, sweat and tears like diamonds.
Metal slashed my face. Dashing blood from my eyes I charged forward and narrowly avoiding slipping on the blood-slick grass. The soldier fell back with a startled look, desperately defending himself from my sudden attack. I lunged. The Blacksword sheared through his mail shirt and emerged dripping from his back. Pulling at the sword, I found it it wouldn’t come. Stuck in the dead soldier’s ribcage. Bracing my foot against the body, I heaved, but to no avail. "Arcadion, return!" I commanded, ducking under a sword-stroke.
The Blacksword shimmered with a violet glow then vanished from the soldier’s corpse, reappearing in my hands. Shifting it to my left hand, I kicked the body aside and grabbed a discarded hand-axe. Finding the loopy ropes of someone’s misplaced guts twisted around the wooden haft made me gag, but I gritted my teeth and shook it off.
I hacked my way through the enemy, sword and axe whirling in harness as we cut deep into the army, making straight for the approaching knights. There were screams and shrieks of pain as I passed through, my weapons smashing heads to pulp, tearing limbs from bodies and ripping gaping holes in every Killorn tabard.
Dodging an axe-blow to my head, I threw my axe into my opponent’s chest and stepped past him to engage another, the Blacksword in both hands again. Something wet struck my face and I quickly dashed it away before it could run into my eyes then lunged forward and stabbed a foe in the shoulder. Seizing the haft of the mace that whirled at me in retaliation, I tore it free from my opponent's grasp and used it to smash his head in. Then I pulled Arcadion free and took another step forward, engaging two more soldiers.
Both fell as the knights rode them down and moved to circle us in a protective ring.
It gave me a moment to realise how badly my left arm and wrist were hurting. The Blacksword wasn't really light enough for me to use one-handed without cost. Glancing around at the knights, I took the opportunity to heal myself and our people with a Restoration spell, then cast Mass Might.
"It's good...to see...thee, Avatar," a human knight panted. She raised the visor of her helmet and tried to calm her restive horse. "What are...thine orders?"
"We need to get back to the keep!" I shouted above a sudden roar of thunder, absently massaging my now-restored left wrist. "I can give us a good start, so just say when thou'rt ready!"
"We're ready, Avatar! The sooner we get out...of here the better!"
I nodded then incanted, "Vas In Flam Grav!"
Fire blossomed at the feet of every foe in the field. I winced as the number of pained screams escalated, echoing through the storm clouds above, but hardened my heart. They were the enemy - it was either them or us.
"I hate this," I whispered.
Nobody heard me.
"To the Hold!" the knight bellowed, and we were fighting again.
The field was completely lit up by the gouts of crimson flame and streaks of lightning. Many soldiers limped or bore livid burn marks on unprotected skin, others were barely touched, and few unwounded. Even so, there were a lot of them and we were struggling for every hand-span of ground. Most of the knights had forsaken their steeds and now fought on foot, though the warhorses continued to lash out with their lead-shod hooves at anyone foolish enough to approach them.
Fuzzy darkness clouded the edges of my vision and it was hard to breathe with the cloying, sick-sweet smell of roasting human flesh and blood. Combined with that was a tight feeling in my chest, a throbbing pain whenever my heart beat or I drew breath. I knew it was because I'd pushed myself casting too many spells and the choice to do so was now costing me. Only my superb skills as a swordswoman kept me going and focussed.
Both my arms were blood-soaked to the elbow. Crimson rivulets ran down inside my leather gauntlets to mingle with the sweat on my palms. As I claimed another life more blood splashed across me, but this was no time for Compassion. Not yet. Now I had to play my part as a killer.
A touch on the edge of my mind warned me someone was trying to take over the Magic Storm. I fought back, struggling to keep my mind with this psychic battle as well as the physical one around me, but there was more than one mind pitted against me and none of them were human.
My opponent saw an opening and lunged, his spear low. I twisted aside, gasping as steel sliced a shallow wound across my side. The Blacksword came down in a dark blur to shatter the spear haft, then lashed out again to shear the soldier almost in two at the waist.
Pulling Arcadion free again, I ducked a sword blade and felt the storm shift.
Lightning lanced down and incinerated a tall knight barely two metres to my right.
"Arcadion, restore me!"
The daemon, drunk on the carnage and bloodshed, let out a primal howl as the Blacksword flared brightly and power flowed into me.
But not enough of it. Killing humans with no magical talent wouldn't increase Arcadion's powers; it would only sate his appetite. The small measure of energy he'd just given me was all I had left to work with.
Gritting my teeth, I whirled and slew two more foes, ignoring the sound of tearing flesh and bones grating against steel. Then I sent my mind into the Magic Storm and attacked those who had turned it against the Britannians.
Five daemonic minds rallied against me in the dense clouds. I crushed two with the mental equivalent of a Swordstrike - spinning needles of pure, chill-ice energy that tore defences and minds to shreds. The other three threw spells back. I brushed each one aside with ease at first, then with growing difficulty as half my attention was drawn back to the lethal battle at Serpent's Hold.
Finally, I abandoned the mental combat through the act of canceling the storm. The clouds dispersed as if by a fresh wind, but the sky was still cloaked by the roiling columns of greasy black smoke.
Now I could see how close the stone walls of Serpent's Hold were. We were within range of the archers on the battlements. Although these archers still loosed shafts at the enemy, they kept their aim well away from the Britannians striving to reach the safety of the keep.
Abruptly, I found myself trying to break past three soldiers blocking my way. Throwing a Paralyse spell on the left foe, I sidestepped the thrust of the right one and smashed Arcadion against the side of his helmet. He staggered into his companion and I drew back the Blacksword to kill them both when pain exploded in my right shoulder. Giving vent to a sulphurous curse at my carelessness, I wrenched myself free and gripped my sword tighter with my left hand, spinning to defend myself.
It was the soldier I'd tried to paralyse, and from the wicked red light in her eyes, it was also a daemon.
"Die, Avatar!" she screamed, lashing at me with a bloodstained sword.
Bringing Arcadion across in an answering blow, I shattered her blade, reversed my own and thrust backwards to dispatch the soldier sneaking up behind me, then kicked the daemoness in the head. The Blacksword was wrenched from my grasp, but I didn't need a weapon to fight. Ducking, I drove my left fist into the creature's stomach and spun, extending a leg to kick her feet out from under her.
She landed hard and snarled, rolling aside as a Britannian tried to relieve her of her head. Then she cast a bolt of fire at me. In avoiding it and then the attack of another soldier, I was struck by a second fireball.
Biting down hard on a cry of pain as the flames seared my already maimed right shoulder, I blinked back tears and advanced as she stood and tried to slash my face with her broken sword. Leaning aside, I grabbed her arm, got my shoulder under her and threw her to the ground before crushing her neck with a well-placed kick.
"Elora, keep moving!" Dupre shouted from up ahead.
Seizing the Blacksword I hurried forward, claiming more lives as I went. Katrina was suddenly beside me again, her crook broken to the length of a quarterstaff.
"Thine arm," she shouted.
"I'll make it," I replied, plunging Arcadion into another heart. My shoulder burned painfully and I did my best to ignore it. "Watch your side!"
The shepherdess spun and cracked her shortened weapon across an enemy neck, breaking it instantly.
I killed another soldier who tried to take her from behind, wincing as the action jarred my shoulder.
Katrina urged me even closer to the Hold. "Heal thyself!"
"No - I need what's left for the Mass Death spell or I won't make it!"
She blocked a sword and evaded another, not bothering to answer.
I skewered a soldier, ignoring the blood that splashed over me in favour of a wide-eyed roan warhorse that suddenly reared up beside me with a frenzied animal-scream. Sharp hooves lashed out, one glancing against my sore shoulder. A guttural snarl escaped my lips as bright sparks exploded behind my eyes and a roaring sound reverberated within my skull.
"Stand!" I shouted, half-blind.
The horse's ears swiveled forward and he bared his teeth, rearing again.
Evading, I again commanded, "Stand!"
That was no Britannian voice. I suddenly realised I was cut off from the others, alone in a small circle of calm where beyond that, soldiers either stumbled around dwindling pillars of flame and smoke or tried to decide which way their adversaries had gone.
I could barely see them myself. A rain of arrows kept pursuing soldiers away as the small group of Britannians pelted toward the rapidly opening portcullis. Katrina, Dupre and three others fought a furious backguard action, but the eyes of my two friends kept flicking over to scan the army for a familiar face.
Seven soldiers ran at me, weapons whistling above their heads.
The warhorse's nostrils flared and he reared again, screaming a battle cry.
"STAND!" I roared and, grabbing a fistful of mane with my left hand, vaulted into the saddle and gave the animal a hard kick. "Yah!"
The stallion tossed his head and plowed forward at a dead gallop almost at once. I was almost thrown when he lurched to one side, his teeth tearing at a soldier.
Shifting the Blacksword to my left hand, I swept the weapon out and cleaved a skull, hacked off a hand that reached up to drag me from my seat...another...another...too many. Beset on all sides, my horse stopped, rearing up with a scream of rage as hands grasped at his bridle and rider.
I needed a good distraction and I needed one now…or I wouldn’t make it.
"Kal Vas Xen!" I shouted, sending my will to bring forth the most powerful creature I could with my waning energies.
A deafening, smashing sound - as of a giant mountain of glass being shattered - rang in my ears alongside screams of terror.
Fully ten feet high, a massive balron bellowed its fury. Flaming blue eyes fixed on the panic-stricken soldiers and in its hands was a mighty whip that cracked the air like a band of black lightning.
That got the attention of the enemy.
Grimly, I kicked the stallion again and simply hung on, keeping low as an arrow zipped past my ear from the Hold and a ball of flames hurtled over my head from the enemy to strike the wall of Serpent's Hold.
Dupre and Katrina ducked as brickwork fell near them and waved frantically for me to hurry.
"Get inside!" I yelled. "Get everyone out of sight! I'm going to cast the spell!"
"We cannot leave thee, Elora!" Dupre shouted back. "We're thy friends! We must stand with thee!"
The warhorse ran down the last soldier in my path and kept galloping, ears laid back and neck lathered. "You must warn those inside! Go!"
The two turned to face each other and I could see they were having a heated discussion. Finally, Katrina cast me a last glance then ran through the open portcullis.
"They're coming!" Dupre yelled as he pointed his sword behind me.
Suddenly, I caught sight of a fallen Britannian. Reining in, I swung down from the stallion and spared a glance over my shoulder.
They had bested the balron and were chasing me.
"Quickly, get on the horse!" It was a wingless gargoyle I helped to his feet. He had a horrible wound in his lower chest, but it would only prove fatal if it was left untended.
"Avatar- " he gurgled, then went into a fit of coughing.
I pushed him into the saddle and made sure he held the reins. "In-por!" I shouted to him, smacking the stallion's rump with the flat of the Blacksword. I waited long enough to make sure he made it to the gate. Dupre caught him as he fell from the saddle.
Thrusting Arcadion point down in the steaming, blackened earth, I met Dupre's agonised gaze calmly and said, "Go." He couldn't have heard it, but there'd be no mistaking the formation of the word on my lips.
The knight grasped the gargoyle firmly in his strong arms and stumbled through the gates into the safety of Serpent's Hold.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned to face the enemy. All one thousand-some-odd of them. I had a very good reason for not wanting even my dearest friends at my side now.
I didn't want them to watch me die.
Even now I could feel it. I'd exhausted my magical reserves, drained some of my vital energies as well. My heart was beating unnaturally slow, my breathing was unlaboured...every detail of the advancing army stood out in stark detail...moved in slow motion...and all I could hear were my heart and breath, the two sounding in unison as I pondered what I was about to do...
I'd seen the huge breach in the eastern side of the southern wall of the Hold. With the entire army running it as they were running me, Serpent's Hold - and the Flame of Courage - would fall.
There was only one thing left to do.
Stripping off my gloves, I knelt beside the Blacksword, eyes fixed unwaveringly on the slow approach of the foe. My right hand rested flat on the blood-soaked soil of Britannia, the left pulled forth the mixture I'd prepared for the spell, bloodied fingers clenching around the reagents as I extended my closed fist towards the enemy.
Eyes still firmly open, I poured every ounce of will, power and heart I had into the two simple syllables of an incantation that would spell the death of every living creature I could see, then spoke them.
With a great rush of ether, the very air exploded into a brilliance of light incandescent. Moving so swiftly that it almost seemed instantaneous, the brightness surged out in all directions like some massive, white wave, and I found myself swept along within it - the last vestiges of both my power and my life-force having caused it to be. Formed of my very being, my need and resolve to defend Britannia to my last breath, I suddenly realised that I was the spell. Reaching out with blindingly white arms, I rushed upon the enemy and tore through their ranks with more power than a gale-force wind. Each soldier, human or daemon, flew backwards as though struck by some titanic hammer, and I passed them by to hurl my huge, shimmering form upon those behind them who watched in a kind of rapt terror at my inevitable, fatal approach.
Then it was over. The dazzling light faded and, as a complete, utter silence greeted me, I suddenly found myself looking through my own eyes again. Night's darkness, although quick to return, did nothing to hide the fact that the field before me was absent of any living creature. Over two thousand enemy dead, and more than half that slain by me.
I was overcome by a dizzying sense of relief.
Serpent's Hold was safe...the enemy were dead...
As I felt the somewhat distant sensation of my head hitting the ground,
I suddenly realised that I was, too...