The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
Cold be our hearts,
Bright be our eyes,
Pale be our skins,
Breathless, our sighs.
Power, our hunger,
Hate be our drives,
Magic be lifeblood,
Death be our lives.
Voices emerge from the silence. Indistinguishable, incomprehensible. They float through the darkness, unheard amidst my own questions.
Where am I?
How long have I been here?
Who am I?
"The waiting period has passed," one of the voices states. Its tone is sibilant - reptilian. "You must return from death."
"Did I die?" The last word echoes as if through some impossibly large cavern. "die...die...die...die..."
"That is correct. But you still wear the aeth'raesh'al. Your New Self needs you."
"New Self? What? What am I?"
"This is the part that thou was. Thou art dead to existence, but cannot yet sleep separated from the part of thee that is."
"What should I do?"
"How do I return?"
"You shall return when I send you an image of that which you would live and die for."
"Why should I return?"
Silence. But the darkness is dispelled by the sudden appearance of a symbol that glows and writhes like living fire.
I am the Avatar.
"Send me back."
The Ankh's light fills the entire plane, bringing with it...Britannia...
It was still dark, but my skin registered heat. There was a hissing, crackling noise all around. My hands were clasped about a leathery cylinder. I moved my fingers slightly and discovered that it was a sword hilt. But it felt different… it wasn't the Blacksword.
Then I realised it was dark because my eyes were shut. Feeling a bit embarrassed, I opened them to find no change. It was still dark. The night sky, empty of moons and stars. I was lying flat on my back, face turned towards the heavens, a beautiful yet utterly useless sword resting on my body from breasts to ankles.
What was going on? Where was everyone?
Then a hazy, yellow-orange shimmering stained the darkness around me, reaching up higher each passing second. From time to time, small, bright, golden lights, like stars, would leap up into the sky to a cracking sound, then vanish.
No, not stars. Sparks?
A new sound emerged. Someone was singing. A resonant male voice I instantly recognised as belonging to Iolo. The deep, rich timbre that had only been improved with time's passage soared into the night alone at first, but was soon joined by the sad, rippling music of a lute. Only the bard himself could be playing it, I thought, watching the bright flecks of gold flee into the darkness. Voice and instrument combined into a harmony so heart-breakingly pure that I wondered why tears weren't falling down my cheeks.
Finally, I decided that it might be a good idea to get up - there was too much work to do for me to be lying down listening to classical. I turned my head to the right.
With a startled oath, I sat up and held the sword as if it would be an effective weapon against the flames surrounding me.
I was on a funeral pyre!
My nose was suddenly assailed by a strange smell, and I cursed again, knowing that my hair had caught. Wasting no time on sentimentality, I grabbed up all the waist-length strands, twisted them into a single fistful, then chopped them short with the barely sharp-enough edge of my sword.
The hem of the stupid white death-shroud caught next. I smothered it quickly and stood barefoot on the top of the burning pyre. Which direction to jump? There was no safe way to tell and I had no wish to make a heroic leap from a fiery death that would only end with a spectacularly broken leg. Or worse.
I took a deep breath that did little to calm my nerves, and clutched the sword with trembling fingers. This had better work...or my goose was cooked. "Vas An Flam!" I shouted, swinging the blade wildly.
I'd expected backlash effects for attempting a spell without reagents, but was completely unprepared for them. A sudden chest constriction forced me to my hands and knees while my head started to throb painfully. From narrowed eyes, I saw the fire vanish, leaving the last tatters of smoke hanging in the air above me.
Music ceased and was supplanted by a chorus of gasps from all around. I looked up slowly.
"Who hath dared disrupt this ceremony?"
Lord British's voice. It was soft, but carried around the entire area on impressive undercurrents of anger.
Turning towards the sound I somehow made out the standing figure of Britannia's king through the darkness; his silver serpentine amulet hoarding what little light there was.
I made my careful way down the charred wood and warm ashes to the blessed safety of the ground. The grass was cold and wet; someone had probably soaked the area around the pyre to prevent any accidents. The silence was profound as I stood before Lord British - Iolo and Dupre at his sides.
"Elora?" the king suddenly said, incredulity and a wild hope lighting his bearded face.
"Yes, my Lord?" I answered, mindful of the fact that we seemed to be in public.
"Yes, my Lord."
"Considering thou didst almost cremate me." The full import of my words abruptly registered on me, and I pointed the ornamental sword at him accusingly. "Thou didst almost cremate me!"
Lord British shifted his black mourning robes and gave me a rather defensive look. "Thou wert dead for a week!"
Conversation started through the crowd around the pyre. I saw that we were at Serpent's Hold. Lord British, Iolo, Dupre, Katrina and Mariah were the only people here I really knew. My companions, like everyone else, were dressed in black.
My eyes slid over to the small knot of gargoyles and I saw Lord Draxinusom among them. He and the other gargoyles wore a purple ring around their left horns.
Lord British gestured slightly and the torch held by the guard beside him sprang to life. Evidently I'd extinguished more than the pyre. Other torch bearers moved to light their torches as this one sputtered into golden flames.
"Why didn't you Resurrect me?" I whispered plaintively. "Why?"
Katrina said, "The healer here - Lady Leigh - tried without success. By the time Lord British got here..."
"You could have recalled my spirit like I did for Spark!"
"We tried," Lord British assured me gravely. "Nothing happened." He lowered his gaze. "We tried everything."
I stuck the sword point down into the turf. "Then why didn't you take the bracer off?" I asked softly, my anger returning. The sight of the armband made me pause. The central gem had gone opaque black, the others translucent, and the bracer itself as clear as glass. It looked the same as it had the day I'd found it on Mors Gotha's body.
Then I remembered the black mist.
Lord British met my haunted eyes steadily, as did Iolo, Dupre and Mariah. Katrina, though...her gaze was as disturbed as my own. When I put a scarcely perceptible, questioning frown into my expression, she looked away.
She knew. But knew what? What had she seen?
And where was the Blacksword?
"We tried removing it," Lord British said softly, referring to the bracer. "We...we gave up hope."
There was such guilt in his voice, such pain...I couldn't think of what to say. For a minute, there was complete silence. Then Iolo put down his lute and stepped forward to stand directly in front of me.
"Thou art alive!" he managed, his voice thick. A second later, he'd thrown his arms around me in a crushing embrace. "Alive!"
"Rejoice, Britannia!" Lord British shouted in so great a voice that I almost jumped. "Thine Avatar lives!"
Mourning turned to celebration in the form of a tumultuous cheer. I understood the king's motives, of course. He didn't want his people to worry that something was amiss. But I knew something was wrong...looking down at the bracer's black jewel...I knew. No one had resurrected me. I shouldn't be alive.
Gently, I disengaged myself from Iolo. The old bard was actually crying!
He could get so emotional at times.
Now don't get me wrong. I love Iolo's sentimental side - it's one of
the reasons he's such a superb bard. I have nothing against a scene where
emotions are flying and eyes glisten with unshed tears of joy - I'll even
admit that I got a lump in my throat when I saw him standing there all
weepy-eyed. But I had other things to think of that were more important
than friendly reunions...
After Dupre, Katrina and Mariah had given me fierce embraces of pure relief, Lord British noticed my shivering.
"Thy pardon, Elora," he exclaimed, showing a smile for the benefit of the people. "Thou dost need some warmer clothes and a bath."
I wiped a smudge of soot from my face to hide my expression. I hadn't been shivering from the cold.
The king casually turned to Mariah. "Wouldst thou?"
"Of course, your Majesty," she replied quickly.
As she led me through the cheering throng of black robed Britannians, I looked back at Lord British and Katrina, knowing that I'd been given over to Mariah's care deliberately. The shepherdess kept her eyes away from mine while the king continued to smile.
"Smile, Elora," Mariah murmured. "After all, everyone's happy thou art alive."
"Did we save the Flame?"
One of her brows raised a fraction. She'd obviously been expecting a different question. "No. As far as I can determine, it went out when thou didst sacrifice thyself." She shook her head wryly. "I have no idea how thou didst manage it, Elora. Thy spell completely annihilated the enemy army. Not one soldier was left standing, according to Katrina."
"It worked?" I asked, relief flooding in on me.
"Indeed it did. Thou didst save everyone in Serpent's Hold." An almost dreamy note entered the mage's voice. "I just wish I could have seen it. Feeling all that energy explode into one spell would have been something to witness." As we entered the Hold, she added, "I'm sorry about thine hair, though."
I raised a hand to touch the cropped remnants which hung just below my shoulders. "It probably doesn't look very good at the moment. Do you suppose you could, well, neaten it up a little for me, please?"
The mage stopped and took my hair in her hands. "I'm sure I could give it a try. I'm afraid it will only get shorter, though."
"At least it won't take as long to dry any more," I conceded. I paused a minute, wondering if I should ask about Arcadion or anything else that was pressing on my mind, but such thoughts fled when I noticed Mariah hadn't moved. Her hands were resting lightly on my shoulders near the base of my neck and were very still. "Mariah?"
She withdrew a little too quickly for comfort. "Sorry. Yes, I'm sure I can fix thine hair for thee. I'm pretty handy with a pair of scissors, actually. Shall we?"
Serpent's Hold, bastion of the Order of the Silver Serpent, Castle of the Isle of Deeds, and Keep of the Eternal Flame of Courage was in a festive mood the next day, despite the overhanging threat of war. I wandered the corridors of stone walls and carpeted floors, just watching the sun stream through the thin, rectangular windows set into the walls. The keep's inhabitants went about their daily routines - changed somewhat to account for possible attacks by the enemy - and a few hailed me as they passed.
Mariah had done me the favour of trimming my hair so that it actually looked neat. I did have to maintain appearances, being the Avatar and all. With leather trousers, a clean, white, sleeveless shirt, a longsword and soft leather boots that, being imbued with that strange quality all new shoes have, were probably wearing blisters into my feet, I travelled aimlessly down the passages of a keep I had recently died protecting.
I felt like an entirely different person.
I was also feeling very much alone. I never would have thought that I might miss Arcadion's somewhat caustic conversation.
"Return to me, Arcadion," I whispered again, half extending my hands as if to grasp a sword hilt.
For a split second - like every other time - I felt something solid appear between my fingers and a faint, violet light teased my eyes. Then, just as quickly, it was gone.
*"Maybe I can serve as a substitute."*
"What are you talking about, Guardian?" I demanded of the Voice silently. I wasn't this starved for company.
*"You know, a substitute; something different that is just as good. If not better."*
"Ok, I give up. I fail to see your double meaning."
*"What makes you think there is one?"*
"With you, there always is."
*"You know,"* he replied with mock wistfulness, *"I think I'll miss all these quaint little conversations with you, Avatar. There aren't many people who have defied me to my face."*
"And lived," I muttered aloud.
*"Your arguments have been amusing, but it's time for me to move on."*
"You're leaving Britannia?" I asked hopefully.
*"Now, now, Avatar. You belong here no more than I do. Are you planning to leave?"*
"Do I have a choice?"
I got the irrational feeling that he was laughing, but all he said was, *"I don't think we'll speak to each other again, Avatar. I'd bid you farewell, but that's not particularly appropriate under the circumstances."*
Then he was gone.
I stood like a statue in a bar of sunlight, not knowing what to think. An unaccountable sensation of loneliness welled up within me and I waited to hear the Guardian's taunt of "Poor Avatar!" but there was nothing. He was gone...and why didn't that make me feel in the least bit elated?
What the Hell was going on?
A servant answered the door.
"Is Lord British available?" I asked.
"I'll just go see, Avatar. And might I congratulate thee on an excellent recovery?"
I smiled wryly and the servant went back inside. Gone were the days when no one knew - or rather, believed - who I was. Anonymity did have its advantages.
When the servant reappeared, he gestured for me to enter. In the inner room, I found that Britannia's king was not alone. Iolo, Dupre, Mariah, Katrina and Draxinusom were also present.
I felt a little hurt that I hadn't been invited to their party.
Conversation had stopped, but they didn't try to hide their previous topic by starting another one about the current price of fish.
"Am I disturbing anything?" I asked.
"No," replied the king brusquely. "I was about to send someone looking for thee, as a matter of fact." He waved a hand at an empty chair.
I sat and accepted a goblet of wine the servant offered me. I had little taste for the stuff, nor was I thirsty, but I needed something to steady my nerves. After one bracing sip, I said, "I came to find out what's happening. Something has changed and I want to know what. Even the Guardian has stopped talking to me."
Lord British made a discreet motion to the servant, who bowed and took his leave, then dipped his hand into one trouser pocket. It emerged with my Ankh. "Before we begin, I believe this is thine."
I reached out my hand to take it, then paused halfway. The silence and almost palpable tension in the room rang warning bells in my head. A frown creased my brow as I realised every eye was on me, every breath held. I looked at the hand holding my Ankh.
It was trembling.
Withdrawing my own hand and relaxing back into my chair, I felt the tension mount.
Lord British shrugged and put the Ankh on the carved wooden table then clasped his hands tightly together.
"Well?" I asked finally. I hated long silences.
"What wouldst thou know?"
I smiled slightly and shook my head in exasperation. "Anything! What happened after I died would be an excellent place to start. How long has it been? Where's the Blacksword? Anything!"
They exchanged glances.
Katrina said, "The Blacksword was nowhere to be found after the fight. The area was thoroughly searched, so we have no idea where it is. Maybe it was destroyed?"
"That can't be right," I disagreed. "I called it to return and I felt it...then it pulled back. My bond with Arcadion still exists, and only some kind of magic can disrupt it."
Katrina frowned. "I can only say what I saw. Or didn't see, as the case may be."
Her slightly stiff tone made me pause. Had I said something wrong? "Well, what else did you see?"
Her eyes suddenly hardened. "I saw thee get killed."
What did it take to get these people to talk, I thought a little angrily. Capturing her eyes, I demanded, "What else?"
"I saw the Eternal Flame quenched!"
"I saw the healer, two Lords of Britannia and my friends try to revive thee without success!" she half-shouted.
"What else, Katrina?"
Her mouth snapped shut. I noticed Dupre had one hand on his sword hilt. There was so much animosity in the room that it was oppressive. Something was very much amiss and I got the feeling that I wouldn't like the answer as to what was wrong. But that didn't mean I didn't want to know!
"Thou wert about to send for me, my Lord?" I said to my king with stiff formality. "Here I am. What wouldst thou say to me that hath more importance than this?"
"That this ruse will not work," he replied coldly. "And that unless thou dost tell us where the Avatar is, thou wilt curse the day thou didst choose to serve the Guardian."
From there, what happened next passed so quickly that I could scarcely register it all.
Dupre leaped to his feet and drew his sword as Iolo pulled the blanket from his lap to reveal a loaded crossbow, which he levelled at my chest. Katrina stood, staff in hand, and Mariah's hands shimmered with the aura of a spell awaiting release.
The two kings remained seated.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I whispered. "I am the Avatar." I looked at my friends. "Why do you doubt me?"
Lord British said, "Don't move."
Dupre reached out his free hand and touched my neck. At first I got the frightening impression that he meant to strangle me, but all he did was leave his hand there for a second then withdraw. "It's true," he said.
"What's true?" I demanded as the others sidled and the kings frowned.
Dupre brought the flat of his blade up under my chin and forced my mouth shut. "Quiet."
"Sorry to doubt thy word, Mariah," Lord British said.
She nodded, but kept her wary gaze on me. "I understand, Richard. It was my word against the supposed Avatar's, after all."
"I can't say I'm happy to find that I didn't imagine what I'd seen," Katrina said.
This whole conversation was going way over my head.
"They didn't escape by ship, did they?" Lord British asked her.
"No. There were none reported nearby, and nowhere to embark without beaching the ship - or using smaller boats. Either way would have taken too long and we would have seen something when we gave chase."
"Magic, then." Mariah flicked her gaze meaningfully at my bracer. "If Elora still wore that, the enemy could have used her to teleport away."
"So what do we do?"
I opened my mouth and Dupre shut it.
"Would you stop that?" I thought irritably at him.
A flicker of uncertainty crossed his face.
"...are ways of making people talk," Draxinusom was saying. "To think that even in her case, something could be arranged."
"I've never liked using torture," Lord British began.
"To say that this is different, Richard. Pain won't work with her, but there are spells that will cause a similar effect." He raised a hairless brow at Mariah, who nodded.
"I can try this," she said, then flicked her spell at me.
I moved. My chair toppled backwards and I rolled away and to my feet. Something whistled past my ear.
"Don't move!" Iolo shouted. "That was a warning shot, liche. The next one will strike thine unbeating heart!"
The spell struck without warning.
I couldn't see.
Run, was my first thought. What were they doing? I stood still and tried very hard to keep my head. There had to be an explanation, and I'd never get it if I panicked and Iolo shot me full of bolts.
"It's been trained well," Mariah said. "That spell would panic most undead."
"How would that have helped?" Lord British asked.
"The undead are very susceptible to suggestion when they're unnerved like that. I could almost guarantee that she'd answer any of thy questions in all honesty just for the promise of restoring her sight. This creature, though, still acts as if it can see. My spell blinded it."
"Is there any way to change what it looks like?" Iolo's voice asked. "This...is hard. I really thought she was alive when she came down from the pyre..." he lapsed into silence.
Steel touched my chin again and I flinched involuntarily. "It's a very good illusion," Dupre said. "I can't tell the difference."
"As far as I can tell, it's no illusion," Mariah cut in. "A clone?"
"Richard," I thought to Lord British. "Can you please tell me what's going on?"
There was a brief silence.
"She's talking to thee, isn't she?" Dupre's voice said.
"That she is."
"A very good illusion," Dupre said darkly. "Now listen, imposter. Thou art going to tell us where the real Avatar is, and thou wilt tell us now."
"I've had about enough of this," I muttered. A mere concentrated thought returned my sight. I heard Mariah gasp as her spell was broken, but focussed my eyes on Dupre. "An Por!" I said, and, as every muscle in his body was paralysed, sidestepped his unmoving sword to blast Iolo's bolt into splinters before he could fire it.
Katrina's staff broke as she lashed it across the base of my skull. As surprised as she that the blow hadn't even hurt me, we stared at each other incredulously for a full five seconds before I said, "You tried to kill me!" then paralysed her.
Barely countering three spells thrown at me by the two lords and Mariah, I pointed at Lord British and shouted, "Stop!"
"Art thou threatening me?"
"Weren't you threatening me?"
"We have cause, liche."
"Liche? What are you saying? That I'm..." I trailed off, staring at him in sick realisation. With what seemed a great effort, I lifted my hand to the place Dupre had touched on my neck and felt for a pulse.
Then I discovered an equally disturbing fact...I wasn't breathing. I was still holding my breath from several minutes ago.
"...undead?" I whispered.
Draxinusom negated my spells, releasing Dupre and Katrina. Both regarded me with distrust.
"I'm the Avatar," I said. "I'm Elora! Tell me how I can prove it."
Lord British pointed at the Ankh on the table. "Pick it up."
Then I understood. The 'evil undead' would most probably have been reduced to a puddle of goo for so much as touching my Ankh. It was enchanted, I knew that much. The question was, would it recognise me in my current state? If not...what would it do to an undead?
"Pick it up."
I stepped close to the table, bent, lifted the Ankh by its chain, then fastened it around my neck. There was a flash of heat when the golden amulet touched my skin, but nothing else. I was still alive...sort of. "Satisfied?" I asked softly.
"Elora," he whispered.
Dupre's hands were shaking so badly that he missed his first two attempts to sheathe his blade. Iolo gave the crossbow bolt buried in the door a white-faced look then leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and murmured, "Virtues preserve us..."
"I can understand why you doubted," I said. "I can barely believe it myself, but please. You must know how this has happened. Tell me."
Katrina touched the broken end of her crook then said, "I'll tell thee
what I can."
"Thy Mass Death spell worked. I was up on the battlements when thou didst cast it, so when I looked down on the field I could see everything. Not one of the Guardian's soldiers had survived, but it seemed thou hadst. Thou wert standing in the same place thou hadst cast thy spell and a black mist was surrounding thee.
"Then there was something like an earthquake. I learned from others that at this time the Flame of Courage went out. No one seems to know how. After the quake I saw daemons rise from the ranks of the slain soldiers and they all closed on thee. Thou didst leap on one and kill it with the Blacksword, but there seemed too many for thee to fight alone - particularly after casting a spell of the magnitude thou didst use to flatten the Guardian's army!
"I ran down to the gates to rally some knights and come to thine aid, but by the time we passed without the walls of the Hold...thou wert gone and the daemons with thee. We approached the black mist and even it vanished. There we found thy body and I thought all I had seen to be a dream. I was the only one who had seen thee, after all. All on the battlements had been forbidden to stand and risk exposing themselves to thy spell until I allowed them. Dupre...well, he had been watching thee when thou didst cast Mass Death. That resulted in a temporary blindness.
"Yet if what I had seen had not happened, where was the Blacksword? No one was alive to take it, and would it even be possible with the bond to thee?
"Seven days passed during which we tried everything we could think of to revive thee. Nothing worked and we eventually gave up. There is still a war in Britannia and we would continue to fight it, even without thy leadership.
"On the eve of thy funeral...thou didst awaken! No act of our own caused this, so we were doubly surprised. But upon descending from the pyre, the mages among us - Mariah, Richard and Draxinusom - sensed something strange in thee. Mariah accompanied thee to the baths hoping to verify - or rather, prove false - what our lords suddenly suspected was occurring.
"That thou wert not Elora.
"Mariah was able to check thy pulse when she was attending thine hair. That showed thou wert not even alive. Yet thou wert under no illusion, so what was going on? Thou didst certainly look like Elora.
"We gathered here today to discuss what could be done. Where was the real Avatar? Who was this undead imposter? If the Ankh doth not harm thee, thou must be Elora...so what hath happened that thou art a liche? And if thou art Elora, why won't Arcadion return to thee when summoned? Moreover, where is Arcadion?
"And that's the story, Elora. Thank the Virtues that we didn't try doing
anything permanent to thee."
There was a brief silence.
"I'm a liche?" I said.
Lord British nodded slowly.
"I..." I'd cast those spells without reagents. "I'm undead. So what can I do about it?"
"Canst thou remove the bracer?"
I tried. "No."
"And thou canst not summon Arcadion?"
"No, but I can still feel the bond so it doesn't explain why he doesn't come."
Iolo opened his eyes. "Unless there is another Elora out there. Mayhap Katrina's eyes didn't play her false. 'Twould explain where the Blacksword and those daemons went."
I sat down before I could fall over. "I've never seen anything like this."
"To know only one thing," Draxinusom said. "To know that the Blacksword can teleport people to the Isle of Fire. To suspect that if the Blacksword is not here, then the enemy must have it...and will they not use it to go to the Isle?"
Lord British frowned. "Thou art right, my friend. We've lost a primary defence if the enemy are not obliged to sail down the channel into the Isle's bay. They can teleport themselves right onto our doorstep."
"Over it, rather," I corrected softly. "The Blacksword teleports to where it was created - the forge within the fort."
"Then we should go back," Dupre said. "Immediately."
"None of the gargoyles have had opportunity to rest yet," Richard warned.
Draxinusom shook his head and regarded his fellow monarch with glowing eyes. "To say that we will persist and endure. To say we will succeed."
Lord British sighed wearily. "I do not ask this of thee. There is much risk."
The gargoyle smiled. "To say there is more at risk if we don't return. To know the dangers of using the venom, but to assure you that every precaution will be taken."
"How many gargoyles are here?" I asked. "If there are enough, you may not need the venom."
"To say there are only seven winged gargoyles here, including myself."
"And including Sir Horffe," Dupre put in. "He came back with us from the Isle of Fire."
"What was he doing there in the first place?" I asked, perplexed.
"He carried word of thy death to me," answered Lord British, "then returned to the Hold with us. We had more than one gargoyle to a human and it took us almost three days to get here."
"Seven gargoyles and six humans," I said, looking around at the circle we were sitting in. A flight from here to the Isle of Fire would not be fun. We would be above the ocean a good percentage of the time, with few hospitable places to stop and rest. "And no time to waste."
No one answered. It was time to leave.
The next five days were unpleasant for all twelve of us: Draxinusom, Lord British, Inmanilem, Iolo, Terhurflam, Dupre, Ruaki, Mariah, Ortlem, Katrina, Forvol and myself. I was expecting we'd arrive at the Isle of Fire in four days at the most, but that was the day the silver serpent venom ran out. A storm blew up from the west on the second night but I was able to hold it back with my magic.
Horffe had been left behind. He hadn't seemed happy about it, but had submitted to Draxinusom's request that he remain. The gargoyle held a position of authority at Serpent's Hold that required his presence, especially during a time of war.
Food was a problem. We'd taken little from the Hold for fear of overweighting the gargoyles. Flatbread, dried fruit, jerky and water were cheerless fare and completely inadequate for the needs of the gargoyles - they were under a lot of strain carrying us and needed nutrition. Because of all the healing magic being used at Serpent's Hold there were no reagents to spare, so casting Create Food spells was not an option - not even to me. I attempted the spell a few times, but failed, even though the other spells I'd cast since coming back to 'life' had worked without reagents. Lord British suggested that maybe the undead couldn't use the syllable 'Mani', which meant 'Life'. It seemed he was right - any other spell I tried succeeded.
Food ran out on the third day, and, on the fourth, the strength-enhancing silver serpent venom, which was the main cause of our delayed arrival. We were forced to land, taking refuge on a tiny island - barely more than a large rock with a deep cave amidst the whitecaps - while our friends recovered. This second shortage was both good and bad. The gargoyles wouldn't keel over and die from an overdose, but the extended use of the drug had left its mark on our winged companions. For most of the day the gargoyles had gone into a period of withdrawal, alternating between sitting listlessly and muttering in irate tones their craving for more venom.
By then, we were on the edge of the smattering of volcano-made isles on the outer perimeter of the Isle of Fire.
On the fifth afternoon we dropped in to the fort that was the chief
stronghold of Britannia's defence.
"Ouch!" I exclaimed, rubbing my hip.
"To be sorry," Forvol said in a weak voice. He landed wearily beside me and I scrambled to my feet, helping him regain his balance.
"I'm all right - the fall wasn't very high." My exclamation had probably been an automatic reaction, I admitted a bit shamefully. Just like breathing, which did nothing more than empty and fill my lungs. I could still breathe, but it was no longer necessary. The fall hadn't made me feel sore at all, in fact, and I'd held up best over the journey. I didn't feel particularly healthy, but I wasn't suffering from dehydration, I wasn't at all hungry or tired, and I wasn't sick. My human companions were all the worse for wear and the gargoyles looked near to collapsing from exhaustion.
"To call to you for aid!" I shouted in gargish. The workers above us, who had been assembling a cannon on the rampart, hurried down.
"Thou must rest," Lord British was telling Draxinusom.
The gargoyle's usually bright eyes were dim as he smiled tiredly. "To not argue with you this time, friend." After his first unsteady step, Lord British took one of his red-skinned arms and flung it about his own shoulders.
"Thou hast carried my weight many times recently," the human king said. "Allow me to return the favour."
"To thank you," Forvol said as I supported him.
"To say it's no problem. To ask how you feel?"
He groaned. "To think a few days of sleep would not go amiss."
When we reached the fort's entrance the gargoyles were assisted to their chambers in the Test of Courage by others willing to lend a hand. This left the rest of us at the forge just inside. I found myself instantly looking around the forge, almost as if I anticipated enemy soldiers to be hiding around every corner.
"Everything looks normal," Katrina said. She rubbed her nose and sneezed.
"By which thou meanest an army hath not landed," Dupre replied. "Milord," he said to Lord British, "I think I should find Sentri and ask his opinion on what hath been going on in our absence."
Katrina scowled, but didn't bother making a snippy retort. Everyone was tired and Dupre probably hadn't intended any insult.
"And I'd best see if the mages have aught to say," Mariah put in.
Lord British nodded and both set off - Mariah for the Statue Room and Dupre for the battlements. As an afterthought he asked Katrina to check on the Isle of Ambrosia, and the shepherdess left for the teleport pads at once.
I tried a simpler method. "Excuse me, sir," I said, snagging a passing warrior by the arm. "Knowest thou where I might find Sir Sentri?"
He looked at me as if I were insane - the wrinkled clothes I wore wouldn't have helped matters. "Sir Sentri is in conference with the Avatar, Huntmaster Tseramed and acting Archmage Praetymdelem! Everyone knows that!"
I blinked, then carefully replied, "The Avatar?"
"Aye," he answered moodily. "She shows up a few days ago and orders a meeting as if she were Lord British." He either didn't notice or recognise Lord British himself moving closer to better hear the conversation, Iolo at his side. "They haven't moved from those caverns in four days!" He frowned. "Or is that five? In any case, it was not long after Lords British and Draxinusom flew off bound for somewhere with Lord Iolo, Lady Mariah and some gargoyles who for the life of me I can't remember the names of. Thou knowest how it is with them."
"Can we go back a bit? What caverns?"
"Oh...I don't know. Somewhere on Ambrosia, I believe."
"The Avatar did this?" I asked intently.
"Would anyone lie about something like that?" he demanded angrily.
"Yes, of course, Lady. And I beg thy forgiveness also. Most of us 'commoners' have been jumpy of late, what with the mages being thick as fleas on a dog around both our islands. Some 'surge of power' thing." He shrugged.
I extended my hand. "Thank thee, Sir. Thou hast been a great help.'
He shook my hand, some of the wariness leaving his eyes. "Pleased to be of assistance, Lady." As he let go he added, "Perhaps thou shouldst warm thy hands by the forge."
I nodded to him as he left. "What of Julia?" I asked Lord British, chafing my hands together. They didn't feel cold. "Isn't she here?"
"Two days after thou didst vanish, she left with our ships for Buccaneers' Den to get supplies. If all went well, she should be back any day."
Dupre chose that moment to descend from the battlements. "No sign of Sentri above, Milord," he reported to his king. "I'll try his 'office'."
"No need. Elora hath discovered where he is." Lord British looked concerned. "We should make haste in finding him and the others, Avatar. I have an extremely bad feeling about this double people are speaking of."
I told Dupre what I'd heard and he also frowned.
"I agree with our lord on this," he said. "We must hurry."
"Then let's go."
The instant we arrived on the lush green meadows of Ambrosia I felt a sense of unease. A strong sensation - as if someone had just released a very powerful spell - batted at my mind from the south-west. For a second, I got the impression that it was coming from the Isle of Fire.
"Did you feel that?" I asked the others quickly.
Lord British winced. "Any mage within several leagues would have, I think. Dost thou have to make so much noise?"
"That was me? But I thought it was coming from somewhere out there!"
The king looked at me closely. "I only felt a surge coming from thee, Elora. Just as we arrived here. Didst thou not feel that?"
I shook my head, frowning. "I wonder-" I stopped as I was interrupted by a different feeling. Something was tickling my mind...someone was calling for help. No, not calling...demanding. I turned my eyes to the mountainous peaks lining the north coast of the island and frowned thoughtfully. That's where the caves lay.
Then Katrina hurried over from where she'd been speaking to two other shepherds. "Thou wilt not believe this- "
"If it's about the Avatar being in two places at the same time," said Dupre, "thou'rt right. I don't."
The shepherdess nodded and pointed to the north. "In the caves, with Sentri, Tseramed and a gargoyle called Praetymdelem." She looked at us then hefted a stout staff she'd picked up somewhere. "I'm coming."
The five of us reached the caves a few minutes later. I conjured a light and drew my longsword, then led the way in. The sensation I'd felt upon arriving at the Isle became more insistent, tugging me from the west. I gestured to my friends and we headed in that direction.
"Where do we go first?" Iolo murmured. The old bard strode beside me with a loaded crossbow, eyes peering down every corridor we passed.
"The hydra's cave," I replied softly, squinting further down the passage we were travelling. "If they're not there we'll look elsewhere of course, but I have the strangest feeling..."
"Like someone or something is calling me from this direction-"
A strange, rasping voice interrupted. "There thou art!"
My friends and I came on guard in an instant, but lowered out weapons when we saw that the voice was coming from behind a magically locked door. Through the heavily barred window I could see a liche's face. The pallid features and blood-red, glowing eyes were fixed on me.
"I've been calling thee for help since I sensed thine arrival," the undead rasped. "What took thee so long?" It paused and looked the others over. "Stop to pick up a bite for us to eat, didst thou?"
"Thy strange feeling?" Iolo asked me.
"Looks like it."
The liche frowned, its brittle skin crinkling like fine white leather. "An undead walking with the living? Now I've seen it all."
"Forget the liche," I said, disappointed that the strange sensation had come from it and not from my missing friends. "Let's keep going."
"'Forget the liche'?" it echoed angrily. "Thou art a liche, in case thou hast forgotten! Come back!" it howled as we passed its prison. "We will meet again! Doors aren't strong enough to prevent me from answering the Call! Come back, liche!"
I didn't like hearing the reminder of what I was. I wasn't comfortable with the notion of undeath and I could tell my companions weren't either. A few sidelong glances were cast in my direction for a while, as if they suddenly expected me to turn around and go on a blood-lust induced rampage.
"Can you tell I'm a liche just by looking at me?" I asked Iolo with some concern.
He smiled encouragingly. "No, Elora."
"Are you sure?" I examined one of my hands for a second. "I'm not developing glowing eyes or anything?"
"Thou lookest the same as always, Elora - except for the hair, of course." He paused to glance down a branching passage before adding, "But I admit I do sense something strange when I am near thee."
I sighed. "Yes. That would be the same feeling that Richard, Draxinusom and Mariah got when I apparently returned to life. You're feeling it as well, but to a lesser degree because your magical power isn't as great."
"Thou canst not feel it?" he asked curiously.
"I'm sort of in a unique position, Iolo. I feel different, but, at this point in time, not so different that I'd immediately think, 'Gee, I'm undead.'" I remembered what the liche behind us had looked like. "I hope I can get my life back before I start feeling and looking differently."
We reached the hydra's cave. Thin rays of light shot through the gaps and holes in the walls of the stone 'house' within. There was an exit from the mountains in there that led to the fallen meteor of caddelite. I stopped everyone at the entrance, wove a spell of Protection, then cautiously peered in.
No one was inside. We filed in and looked around for a few minutes, but all we found was a single rolled up sheaf of parchment that was addressed to Lord British. I picked it up and handed it to him.
He opened it, read it, frowned and handed it back.
I rejoice to tell thee that the Avatar, Elora, doth live! She came here shortly after thy departure and called a meeting with Tseramed, Praetymdelem and myself to review all stores and inventory. We are going with her now to find Shamino, whom she believes is somewhere within the Deep Forest. After that we know not, for she doth seem loath to settle on another plan before the first is completed.
Elora doth send her regards and regrets that she could not speak with thee herself. Moreover, she asks that thou be careful, for she hath sensed powerful magic at work these past few days.
The Virtues be with thee, my liege.
I sheathed my sword. "I don't like this. If this clone serves the Guardian, she may now know everything there is to know of our defences." I paused. Seeing the uneasy faces of my companions, I asked, "Are you thinking that I'm the clone, still?"
"We've seen no evidence that the other is...well...is not the Avatar," Katrina said.
"You don't trust me." I turned away from the guilt in their faces. It hurt. It hurt more than I was willing to show. Doubted by my best and dearest friends. Doubted by myself. "I can leave," I offered. "I'm more than willing to find Shamino before whatever's out there does first."
No one answered me and I was out the door before anyone else could. It was pitch black, but I found I could see quite easily. There was something peculiarly comforting about the darkness of the caves. It was almost like a sense of security...I could hide in the shadows and never be found or troubled...never hurt anyone by accident.
"That's what liches do, isn't it?" I whispered to myself. "There's no such thing as a peaceful liche. Is that by choice or circumstance?" I added, even more softly. There might be a way to know, I decided, and walked back up the way we'd come, half-hoping and half-fearing my friends would follow. It wasn't long before I found myself back at the liche's prison.
"I didn't think it would last," the hissing voice beyond the door stated. There was almost a kind of soft regret in its tone. "The undead have no place with the living." Its face appeared at the grille. "Thy friends have abandoned thee?" It gave a short, crackling laugh. "As it was with me. Long gone, mine are, dead centuries past. Didn't want to consort with the undead, they said."
"My friends aren't like that."
"Then where are they?" The liche made a show of looking around, then stopped and regarded me again. "Thou shalt discover, in time, that thou hast no need of the living. They will perish before thou hast turned around twice. Dost thou not know? The undead are immortal! We can be slain at great cost, but left alone we will endure forever." It made a dismissive gesture with one pale, long-nailed hand. "Friends are of no moment at this time, anyway. Canst thou not feel it in the ground? The air? Ether itself? The Call hath been sent, kinswoman! We are being summoned!"
"I am no kin of yours."
The liche suddenly frowned. "That mode of speech...where have I heard it before?" The glowing eyes narrowed and its voice fell to a husky whisper. "I cannot tell. The aura of the undead is not false. What dost thou wear about thy neck? Who wert thou in life?"
"I was...I am the Avatar."
A moment of incredulous silence was shattered by insane laughter. 'Thou?" the creature cackled. "The Avatar? A liche? This is not possible!"
I shrugged and made as if to walk by.
"Wait!" the liche shrieked, its laughter cutting off. "Thou must release me! We are kin, thou and I! Kin in death as we were not in life. Our blood runs cold and our hearts beat not; breath doth not stir our bodies, but ether is our life. Our will. Our power."
"What would you do if I released you?" I asked emotionlessly.
The blood-red eyes brightened. "The Call! I will answer the Call! Canst thou not hear it? The undead gather! We must hasten!"
"I'm sort of new to this whole undead thing. Can you explain what you're talking about?"
The liche beckoned me closer, its movements almost frenzied. I took a couple of steps, but no more, and folded my arms. "It's the prophecy!" it rasped. "The prophecy! The living think it relates to their Avatar, but it is not so! 'One will arise with the strength of an army...' that is to be us! An army of undead! The prophecy is at hand!" it screeched. "We must go!"
I felt cold all over. "If the prophecy doesn't relate to the Avatar...then who?"
"Of course it relates to an Avatar, but to our Avatar! Where doth it say that an Avatar must be 'good'? An Avatar is merely blessed by a higher power and a possessor of power! Our Avatar is blessed by the Guardian, kinswoman. We cannot lose!"
"Where is the Call coming from?"
The liche hissed angrily, obviously upset that I wasn't just going to open the door for it. I could feel the magic-inhibiting field in its cell from where I was standing, which explained why it couldn't simply free itself. "We must go! Canst thou not sense the location thyself? How long hast thou been undead?"
"Not long. Not even a week, I think."
The liche looked disgusted. "Trust me to get stuck with a beginner, and a living-lover at that." It snorted - a rather revolting sound considering most of its nose seemed to have decomposed. "Why become an undead if thou dost intend to waste it with them?" Then it shrugged. "No matter. Thou shalt feel the Call soon enough and thou shalt answer it, as will we all. Stonegate, kinswoman." Bloodless claws gripped the grille tightly. "The keep of the Shadowlords!"
The keep of the Vortex Cube, the keep of the Magebane sword...I sighed with boredom. "The keep is a ruin, liche. What's so special- "
The liche hissed again and drew back into the deeper shadows of its prison.
"I'm here," I called, not turning. I'd recognise Iolo's voice anywhere.
The bard walked up to my side, a tiny Glimmer of light hovering at his shoulder. "I knew thou wouldst not leave without us."
I looked at him then. His face was serious, lined with concern, but free of doubt. "I was beginning to wonder if anyone would follow."
"I have always followed thee, Elora, and I always will, no matter where thou mayest go. Thou art the Avatar and thou art my friend. Nothing can change that." He smiled. "Now, wouldst thou mind coming back? We don't have torches or reagents, if thou dost remember. Blundering around in this place with only a few Glimmer spells would be unwise."
I rolled my eyes. "I've been demoted from Avatar to nightlight?"
Iolo's grin widened. "Thou hast ever been a light to those lost in darkness, Avatar." He gestured at the imprisoned liche. "Didst thou talk to it?"
"A little. It claims that there's some kind of undead army massing at the ruins of Stonegate."
"Dost thou believe it?"
"That's not all it said. I'll explain it when the others are here."
The liche was silent as we left and silent when we returned. Its burning eyes peered out from the grill in its prison door, glaring at the living with a malevolence that seemed to grow as I repeated our conversation.
"I'm wondering how the Guardian's army from Killorn Keep relates to all this," Dupre mused.
"Some of them are undead," Katrina said suddenly. "Daemons."
"But still," Lord British said, "their army is big enough. They hold at least three-quarters of Britannia. Why an army of undead?"
I shook my head. "I don't know."
It was well into night when we returned to the Isle of Fire. The twin moons were rising higher and the brilliant stars cast their silver-white glow over the dimpled water of the bay. The air was cold, and the guards on duty were trailed by small clouds of fog generated by their breath wherever they went. I leaned against the battlements, halfheartedly flipping my sword over and over so that the blade reflected the moonlight. I wasn't tired and the undead apparently couldn't sleep.
What is there to do in the middle of the night? My computer was safe at home so I wasn't able to go online for a friendly chat. Then again, even if my computer had been here, I'd have been hard pressed to find an intergalactic internet connection.
With a snort, I sheathed my sword and took a reassuring glance around the battlements. Role-playing was nothing compared to this.
But at least I'd be alive.
"What are you thinking, Elora?" I muttered. "All the times you were on Earth you'd fantasise about Britannia. But when you're on Britannia you fantasise about Earth? Or is that just when the trouble starts?"
It had been fifteen, almost sixteen months now, since I'd left Earth. I thought I'd gotten over missing it.
"Return, Arcadion," I whispered commandingly.
A violet glow...the feel of a hilt...nothing.
"Avatar?" a nearby guard said, halting in his tracks and resting his halberd against one shoulder.
I blinked at him. "Yes?"
"Wert thou speaking to me, Milady?"
"Uh, no. Sorry, I was just thinking aloud."
The guard saluted and continued his patrol.
A few minutes later, I went downstairs. A few humans and a wingless gargoyle still worked the forge. Each of them were glistening with perspiration as they continued their various tasks: smelting ore mined on Ambrosia, hammering sword blanks into blades, carefully smoothing the exterior of a greathelm, twisting hundreds of steel rings that would be joined to make a single shirt of chain mail...
The cherry glow of the forge beckoned.
"Art thou the Avatar?" one of the smiths, a clean-shaven, heavily muscled man with black hair, asked suddenly.
"I thought so. Couldn't tell because of the hair. Here- " he handed me a pair of pliers that in turn held a sword blank. "If I don't recognise that look in thine eyes then I know not my trade."
Taking the tools, I flashed him a smile. "My thanks."
For the rest of the night, I became a swordsmith. I'm sure the others were a little surprised that neither the heat nor the activity made me break a sweat. Sparks flew all night, the ring of hammer on steel filled my ears and soot blackened every inch of exposed skin. I never felt tired and never felt sore. At one point, I even banged a finger with the hammer and didn't realise it until asked if I was ok. No pain. About an hour before dawn, my forging friends said "good morning," and went in search of their beds. Another group would be along to continue their work soon. I waved, then plunged a red-hot shortsword into the water trough which sent up great clouds of hissing steam. When it had cleared, I looked pensively at the reflection in the water.
Why was my image upside down?
The lips moved.
"Hello, Elora," my voice said.
My head snapped up.
It was like looking into a mirror. Every feature was identical to my own, save the fact that her hair was as long as mine had been before the funeral pyre. Recovering, I quickly evaluated the rest of her. She was wearing a mail shirt, green cloak, leather trousers and boots, while the scabbard belted to her back held the Blacksword.
"How did you manage to touch that Ankh without incinerating yourself?" she asked in a conversational voice. "You weren't wearing it when you came back from the dead, were you?"
"You." She smiled, but it was a cold smile. "A better version of you. I'm not forced to cling to the Virtues like you do." She raked back a drifting strand of waist-length hair. "And let me tell you, it's not because of any- " her face twisted, " -feelings that you're still 'alive'. It's because of the Guardian. I didn't have any problem with the idea of taking your aeth'raesh'al and ending your existence back at the Hold. That was a masterfully cast Mass Death spell, by the way. I don't think I could have done much better myself."
"Aeth'raesh'al? You mean the bracer?" She wore an exact replica on her left arm. Like she was a mirror image...
She shrugged. "It's a technical term. I'm not going to explain it all to you, though. It's to my advantage keeping you in the dark."
Very slowly, I pushed myself away from the trough. "Where are my friends?"
She absently rubbed at a dark spot on her ringmail shirt with the edge of her green cloak. "Sentri and Tseramed? Or did you consider the gargoyle a friend, too?" She met my eyes. "Poor Praetymdelem had the gargish equivalent of a heart-attack last night. It wasn't that difficult to engineer with someone whose name means 'Ancient One'." She laughed softly. The sound was all the more chilling because it was my voice. "Sentri and Tseramed never suspected - they're so blind. Because I'm the Avatar, they accept anything reasonable I say at face value."
"You're not the Avatar."
"Oh, and you are? A liche? I'm alive, as my reflection - and your lack of one - can attest." Her eyes narrowed. "What have you done to my hair?"
"Where are my friends?" I repeated softly, allowing a hint of menace into my tone.
"Why should I tell you?" she retorted, still smiling. "They are not your concern, at the moment. I am." Her voice became deadly serious as she pointed toward the gates. "When my army gets here, I will give you a choice. I'm telling you what it is now so that you get plenty of time to think of an answer." Slowly, she pulled the Blacksword from her shoulder scabbard. "Unless you want to make your decision now."
"And what might this choice be?" I asked, one hand loosening my longsword in its sheath.
"Surrender or die."
My lip curled. "I've already died."
My double gave me a sidelong glance. "You'll be deciding on a world scale this time, Elora. You'll be speaking for Britannia and Britannia's people." She ran a finger along her sword's edge, her green eyes becoming avid at the sight of blood. "And when you refuse to surrender, how sweet will it be to see your face as I execute my hostages one by one." Her voice lowered, but it burned with a dreadful eagerness. "People you have sworn to protect."
My hand clenched around the hilt.
"You once told the Guardian that you were Britannia," she went on, smiling again. "Well, now you are. And when you're the last person standing under this world's sun you'll know it...and curse yourself."
I ripped my weapon free, not knowing what had come over me, and lunged across the water trough. My double reacted instantly and turned the attack aside with the Blacksword. The clash of steel seemed immensely loud in the empty hall. I plunged my left hand into the water and pulled out the almost-finished shortsword, then scissored it and my other blade up to catch the descending Arcadion like a pair of pincers.
"Arcadion, return!" I commanded.
The ether gem pulsed then the whole sword glowed for a fraction of a second. "That could get annoying, Master," the daemon stated laconically.
"Indeed," his wielder said, pulling back. "I'm not here to fight, Elora. Not yet."
Hearing a noise, I flicked my gaze toward the corridor that led to the Statue Room. Mariah stood there with two guards.
"You don't want an audience," I muttered.
"On the contrary," she replied just as softly. "I want a big audience. The armies of the Guardian on one side and of Britannia on the other. Then everyone will witness the answer to the greatest question ever asked."
"Which is stronger?" I whispered. "The Light or the Dark?"
Her back was to Mariah, so she was free to give me a vicious smile. "See? We're not so different after all. Great minds think alike." The smile faded, her expression turned serious and her tone softened even more, becoming almost caressing. "We are the same, you and I."
"We're no more alike than life and death."
"Death is a part of life, Elora. Just as I am a part of you." A half-smile teased her lips, her eyes glittering. "I will become death. The destroyer of worlds..."
"What goes on here?" Mariah asked, approaching the side of the trough.
The guards, uncertainty on their faces, readied their weapons.
"Mariah," I said, remembering the name the Guardian had spoken to me upon the battlements of Castle Britannia, "meet Mellorin."
Mellorin's visage was perfectly calm. With a casual air, she sheathed Arcadion and said, "Did everyone make it safely back here?"
Mariah glanced at my still-drawn swords then came to her own conclusion. Fixing me with a less-than-friendly eye, she said, "Yes, Elora. We all made it. What happened at Serpent's Hold? Katrina said-"
"That I'd been captured?" guessed my double smoothly. "They did catch me for a while. I'll tell you about it later - Sentri and Tseramed are waiting."
She frowned. "What about Praetymdelem?"
A look of regret passed over Mellorin's face. "He...passed away last night. He was very old..."
Full points for acting, I thought acidly.
Mariah sighed. "I know. So why hast thou come here alone? To warn us about her?" she asked, jerking her head in my direction. "Where are the others?"
Mellorin looked at me pointedly. "I can't say. But I can take you to them if you want to come. We need help finding Shamino's trail. Tseramed tried, but..." she laughed wryly. "Shamino seems to have literally vanished among the trees." She stopped talking and something silent passed between the two.
Mariah glanced at me, then back to Mellorin. "I'll come. I have some spells that might be of use. Should I get the others?"
"Mariah, wait!" I interrupted.
The mage frowned with irritation. "Excuse me a minute." She crooked a finger at the guards then went off with them to a convenient corner nearby.
"I was good, wasn't I?" Mellorin murmured with a faint smile of triumph.
"What are you going to do with her?"
"You'll find out."
Mariah was gesturing in my direction. The two guards, wearing the expressionless masks of those who are about to perform their duties whether they like them or not, nodded and advanced on me with drawn swords.
Now what? Trying to stop them would only convince Mariah beyond doubt that I was as evil as she supposedly thought. A liche, capable of nothing but evil. I looked at Mellorin. She let absolutely nothing of her true feelings or intentions show. One hand gripped Arcadion's hilt and in her eyes was a perfectly done bleak warning that I'd better not harm the approaching guards. I had no doubt that nothing would give her more pleasure than playing her part as Britannia's Avatar by leaping to the guards' defence.
Keeping my movements slow and deliberate, I laid both blades across the top of the trough then extended my arms, crossed at the wrists, toward the guards.
One circled around behind me and put her sword to my back. The other remained facing me at easy striking range.
"Are we ready?" Mellorin asked calmly.
"Yes. The guards will take care of everything." Mariah paused. "Thou dost not want me to wake Iolo and Dupre?"
Mellorin hesitated, then answered in a soft voice, "I fear there's not enough time. Shamino's life is in danger and we dare not delay." She nodded to the guards. "The Virtues be with ye." Then she looked at Mariah and touched one of the facets of the central jewel of her bracer.
"Be careful," I telepathed to the mage as both she and my double vanished. There was a surge of ether as I felt them teleport off somewhere to the east. Verity Isle?
Those thoughts abruptly fled and an icy feeling came over me when I remembered the guards. As I pondered what course of action to take, the sword at my back was suddenly gone. The guard I was facing lowered his own sword and sheathed it. I lowered my arms and raised a quizzical brow.
"Avatar?" he asked rather hesitantly. "Lady Mariah asked us to give thee a message."
"How dost thou know that I'm the real Avatar?" I asked softly.
"We...er...don't, Milady," he stammered. "But hadst thou attacked us we would have known otherwise."
I let out an almost explosive breath of relief and looked up, saying a silent prayer of thanks.
The guard behind me came around and said, "Lady Mariah bade us tell thee this shouldst thou not resist us." She paused, mentally going over the words. "'After seeing two Avatars preparing to fight one another, it hath become obvious that only one can be real. Unless I am severely mistaken, I'm prepared to believe it to be thee. Thou hast had many opportunities to do great harm over the last week, but have taken none.'" She looked at her companion.
"'Even to killing our king,'" he continued. "’I will send word to Lord British if I can. If not, I'll do all in my power to warn Shamino.'"
A second sigh of relief passed my lips. The way Mariah had been acting in Mellorin's presence...strange that someone who had spent almost her entire life in the Keep of Truth had turned out to be a master of deception.
I just hoped that the other Avatar had been fooled.
At that moment, four gargoyles and three humans entered to take charge of the forge. Simultaneously, a large group of guards came in to relieve those still on the battlements.
"My thanks," I said to the guards over the din. "Did Mariah say aught else?"
"Nay, Avatar. She just told us to act as if we were taking thee into custody - oh, and to look mean."
I chuckled. "You both did well."
They saluted proudly then left to return to their duties. I gave the shortsword to a smith, kept my longsword, and made my way to my room in the Test of Truth. Someone had laid out a fresh shirt, leather armour and a green cloak on my bedroll. For a long moment, I simply stared at it. Then I changed out of what I was wearing and donned the new clothes. As I pulled the folded cloak from the bed I noticed the blanket of my bedroll was covering something hard. Tossing the cloak over one shoulder, I pulled the blanket aside.
Beneath was the Firedoom Axe. My eyes widened in temporary astonishment. I hadn't even missed it. Picking it up, I tested its familiar weight and balance before noticing the small scrap of parchment tied to the haft.
It was a note.
Since none seem to know where thou art, I'll leave thine axe here. The Isle still hath its share of thieves. The only reason armour is safe is because anyone owning or wearing it is automatically identified as a part of the fort's defence. Thou must have dropped the axe when we 'went swimming'. Two fisherpeople - Barraz and Chelly - found it tangled in their nets on Ambrosia. Thou owest them a new one, by the way.
I unbuckled my longsword and traded it for the axe. Then, after a glance at the bracer, I headed back to the Statue Room hoping to speak with the Statue of Truth. Since both the Flames of Courage and Love were out, Truth was the only one left.
"Truth, canst thou hear me?"
The statue didn't reply.
"Truth, please. If thou canst answer me, I have need of thine aid."
The stone features remained cold and unmoving. No mind-voice answered my call.
I sighed and stared up at the monument for a minute, thinking. Truth had said that he would be able to speak for as long as the Flame of Truth burned, but the enemy didn't have control of the Lycaeum. Then again, they hadn't had control of Serpent's Hold, and the Flame of Courage had gone out...seemingly of itself, I added. When I had died casting Mass Death. I blinked as that thought registered. What if my death had been the thing to cause the dousing of the Flame of Courage? According to Katrina, the two events had been almost simultaneous. And what if the Flame of Truth had also gone out at that time?
Spinning around, I ran from the room and through the forge to the stairs. Taking the steps two at a time, I hastened to the battlements and went quickly to the eastern wall. Leaning into one of the crenellations I sent my sight out over the water. It would have been difficult to navigate with no points of reference, but the stars were still bright. Keeping my attention half-fixed on some constellations, I sped through the night faster than an arrow. When I finally reached the shores of Verity Isle I paused to look at the army surrounding the Keep of Truth. They were not attacking at this time. Bright orange tents and banners depicting the Guardian's face surrounded most of the keep. Campfires aplenty flickered from the ground, glinting against the armour of soldiers unlucky enough to have pulled night patrol. Sparing a moment, I attempted to make a guess as to how many foes were here. With a sinking feeling I realised that unless a good number of tents picketed here were empty, there were at least as many soldiers here as there had been at Serpent's Hold. Belatedly, I noticed a large pyre some distance from the northern wall. It seemed the enemy had already been paying a heavy toll in their efforts to capture the mages' keep.
Allowing myself a smile of approval for the defenders, I swept down to touch the mind of a mage on guard atop the Lycaeum's battlements.
"Greetings to thee," I began politely.
The mage looked up and, it seemed, directly at me. "Who art thou?"
A bit taken aback by the abrupt reply, I telepathed, "I am scrying from the Isle of Fire-"
"Then speak thy name. I know all the mages stationed there."
The connection was abruptly terminated and the mage turned to say something to his companions. I couldn't hear what was being said, but by the expressions of the mages, it appeared that something was amiss. I felt a couple of them brush tentatively against my mind before quickly withdrawing. After a minute of waiting patiently, albeit a little confusedly, I saw the mage I'd spoken to first look up to where my consciousness was hovering...then throw his right hand out to point in my direction.
Icy-white streamers of light lanced from his splayed fingers and I had only a moment to think, "This doesn't look good," before one of the bars of light struck.
Gasping, I was suddenly back on the Isle of Fire. I lurched forward
into the crenellation, feeling certain I was about to throw up. It felt
real enough, but, ultimately, nothing happened. In the time it took for
the spell's effect to wear off, I decided that there must have been something
to my mind that gave me away as an undead. Making a mental note to ask
someone to check on the Lycaeum and its Eternal Flame in the morning, I
headed downstairs for the teleport pad to Ambrosia. I might as well see
if the liche could contribute anything.
There were clouds over Ambrosia, and a strong wind was blowing them north. An odd, hollow noise was coming from the south-west, and it took me a moment to realise that the sound was being caused by the wind blowing through the two gigantic skulls surmounting the cliffs lining the entrance of the bay. The sound was melodic and strangely calming.
I headed north-west. When I reached the entrance to the caves, I stopped and decided to go right rather than left. It seemed miners had opened up other passages and I felt like doing some exploring. Anyway, it wasn't like the liche in the western passage was going anywhere in a hurry. A small sign a little way down this new corridor gave me pause for a short while. It read, 'Authorised Personnel Only, by order of Lord Draxinusom'. After a moment's consideration on whether or not I was included in the list of 'Authorised Personnel', I moved on to wondering whether or not it would be Virtuous to keep going if I was not.
I was in a weird mood.
A few minutes of wandering accomplished nothing. The caves seemed quite empty and therefore quite boring. It wasn't until much later that I found a large branching passage that not only bore a crude sign, 'Danger! Do not enter!' but was also clogged with gigantic, sticky cobwebs. The large, rope-thick strands were spun from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. The tunnel itself looked perhaps wide enough for one tall gargoyle to walk down with outstretched wings. After a minute of searching the darkness for the spiders that had spun these webs, I concentrated and pointed. A fireburst melted through each strand that connected to the tunnel, causing the webs to collapse. I could have simply destroyed them by casting Flame Wind, or by using my axe, but I'd reasoned that if they were intact, and if the tunnel was safe enough, someone could salvage the webs for spider silk. Also, I'd wanted to see how far my spellcasting could go before I felt mentally tired.
When I ran out of webs and was still going strong, I cast Protection. Foregoing hand gestures, I cast Flameproof. Ignoring spoken incantation, I cast Invisibility. With nothing but thought, I added Iron Flesh, Mass Might, Speed and Telekinesis. Then I cast Negate Magic and cancelled it all.
"The taste of power is sweet, isn't it, liche?" a voice rumbled from down the large passage. "Soon wilt thou be using power merely for the sake of using it."
Glancing at the Danger sign once more, I shrugged and started slowly down the passage. "I prefer wit to magic," I replied, stepping over the sticky piles on the floor, then around a hidden trap set in the middle of the tunnel.
"We will see."
A red shape leaped at me from the darkness. My first thought, gargoyle, was swiftly dispelled by the sound of a hellish voice snarling a demand for blood. Wings extended and swept down, the daemon literally flying into my arms. I seized the wrists of the daemon's outstretched arms and heaved, leaning backwards and using his momentum to flip him over and my weight to force him to the ground.
My arms were almost jolted from their sockets when the daemon landed flat on his back on the trap, then was jerked halfway up to the roof by a rising spike of stone as a result.
"Well done," the rumbling voice said with grudging approval. "Thou seemest to be a wily one. I haven't had a good challenge in decades."
"I didn't really come here to fight," I said, standing and checking my arms still worked. Turning my back on the impaled daemon, I kept walking. "I'm exploring."
"Sure," the voice replied with heavy contempt. "That's what they all say. I bet thou wouldst not be so eager if mine hoard were somewhere other than here."
"Hoard? You're a dragon!"
"A dragon who is all to happy to flame any over-curious undead," was the ominous response. "Or art thou here to contribute something to my collection?"
"Well, I do have something. If you can open it, you can have it."
There was a pause before the voice replied. This time it sounded immensely curious. "Is that meant to be a riddle?"
"Do you like riddles?" I asked, relieved that the conversation seemed to be taking a more favourable turn.
"Doesn't everybody? I am nothing, I do nothing. Mine opposite doth destroy me even as it maketh me."
"Quick work," the dragon rumbled admiringly.
"Thank you," I replied modestly. "May I come in?"
"I suppose I can endure the presence of an educated undead for a while."
"Please don't breathe too heavily - I'm highly combustible."
There was a short laugh. "Why shouldn't I fry thee?"
What could anyone say to impress a dragon? "I'm a great heroine?"
"I'm the Avatar."
There was a roar of laughter and a bright, flaming light up ahead. "There's no way in the Eight Circles of Hell that the Avatar of Britannia is an undead, ice-hearted liche!"
"I thought there were only seven hells."
"Yeah? Well thou hast obviously not visited Pagan."
I edged closer to the entrance. "No, I haven't had the pleasure."
"Enter the cavern and you might," was the growling reply. "And since you aren't chewing your tongue off with all those 'thee's and 'thou's, why should I?"
"I'm coming in."
The dragon within lounged indolently on a large pile of gold coins. Some of them were even Britannian. Swords, spears and various other sharp and pointy things were piled to one side of the cavern while armour, shields and helmets dominated the other. There was also, I noticed with a twinge of unease, a rather imposing collection of bones strewn around. The glow of magic came from the wall behind the dragon. The dragon herself was a good sized one. She could have comfortably nestled into the garden courtyard of Castle Britannia - provided she'd ripped out the trees and fountain first. Her scales were a brilliant vermilion red, golden spikes streaked back from her brow and continued down her spine to the long, pointed tail, while plates of the same colour ran down her chest from neck to tailtip. Eyes that glowed like fire in a forge fixed on me menacingly and ivory talons grated against the coins of her golden bed as she pushed herself up and drew a deep breath, eyes glittering.
"Wait!" I shouted in alarm. I remembered the test Lord British had given to prove I was the Avatar. "Look!" I pulled at the Ankh's chain, almost panicked when I discovered it had caught on something and wouldn't move. Quickly, I tugged open the throat of my vest and shirt.
The dragon released her breath slowly, sending streamers of flame a short distance from her gleaming teeth. "An Ankh?" she said, puzzled. "How is that possible?"
"I told you," I said, pulling the chain harder. "I'm the Avatar." Yanking once more, I felt the closest thing to pain since the spell I'd cast at the funeral pyre. The Ankh had actually fused to my skin!
"But the Avatar is not a liche!" the dragon exclaimed. "Kemah-thra! Stop pulling that thing and look at me!"
I carefully touched the amulet with a finger, then looked up into the burning eyes above me. Holding up my right arm to display the bracer, I said, "This is how it happened. If you can remove it-"
"Kemah-thra!" she said again, in horror. Drawing back with wide eyes, she stared at me. "A black kel'al? That is forbidden!"
"Kel'al? I thought this thing was called an...aeth'raeshomething."
"Aeth'raesh'al. I take it you were wearing it and somehow managed to die?" I nodded. "Kemah-thra...there is a double of you out there? A black New Self? A black Avatar?"
I told her what had happened, not leaving out anything I thought important - not even the Guardian.
"Mors Gotha..." the dragon's eyes narrowed. "Ah, yes...the ka-thra. World traveller and Guardian servant. Well, that explains how the aeth'raesh'al got to Britannia, but not how it was made. Or by who." She paused and nodded at me. "Sit, Avatar. This explanation may take a while. I know you won't tire standing, but it makes me tired watching you."
"If it's from another world, then you..." I left it hanging.
The dragon nodded her huge head. "I am also from another world. Sit."
I sat and crossed my legs. "My friends are in danger - some were fooled by my double and went with her. I must find them as soon as I can."
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't hurry me, liche. I have no reason to like you. You killed Dracothraxus - she who was my friend."
The guardian of the Talisman of Courage, I thought.
"The only reason I'm helping you is because you're the Champion of Infinity, which means you are worthy of my aid. I have no affection for Britannia - it's not my home."
"Then what is?"
"I probably wouldn't recognise it if I found it again. It fell to the one who's currently after this world. I was saved by these caves. 'Lost Isle of Ambrosia', ha!" Her reptilian mouth quirked into a half-smile. "I've always found that Britannian human notion amusing. 'Lost Isle', indeed." She exhaled a short burst of flame as she laughed.
"What?" I shouted, as the noise echoed around the cavern. "What do you mean?"
"Ambrosia, as you call it, is not a fixed place." The dragon paused to chuckle again. "It travels. Comes and goes between worlds depending on the time, season, moons, stars, its mood-"
"It's mood? Is the island alive or something?"
The dragon shrugged her wings and glanced around at the stone walls with a curious affection. "Could be. There's no pattern to its actions. Some worlds I've seen as many as ten times, others just once - my own, for example." she looked a little sad at that. "Then again, maybe the island's just smart enough to know it's not safe to return there. Doubtless that big red muppet would have harnessed its power like he does with everything else."
"What!" I exclaimed. "Muppet? As in Jim Henson?"
"Oh, you've been to Earth?"
"That's my home!"
"Terribly stuffy place," the dragon rumbled. "And the people! No respect! First time I went there I almost got killed by some idiot called George."
She snorted. "Saint. Sure. Not only does he get that title, they make out that he kills me!" She laughed again. "Of course, it was more fun in those days. Today they'd as soon blow you out of the sky before considering a few human sacrifices."
I stared at her in absolute horror.
"Oh, please. I'd never eat, let alone kill, any sentient life. Sacrifices are flattering, but completely unnecessary. I soon made it clear that sheep or cattle were more to my taste."
"Uh...ok. So what was your island called on Earth?"
"Oh, um..." she frowned. "'Avalon', or something. Dreadful climate for a dragon. Too much mist. Britannia's much more to my liking, though the island's taking its time on this visit. Two hundred years now."
"Maybe it has something to do with the Guardian," I suggested. "The time lapse on Britannia between now and my last visit here is just over two centuries."
"Another reason for me to help you, eh?" she growled.
This was one unpredictable dragon. I wondered if she expected an answer.
"No, I think it had something to do with that kemah-thra damned meteor. Then that hydra moves in as if they own the place - my thanks for getting rid of them, by the way - and a fairy escapes from my collection of familiars! Love dust? Bah! I had to seal up my cavern to get any sleep!"
I cleared my throat delicately.
"Oh, yes. Help. You are wearing an artefact made by my people. It's called an aeth'raesh'al, which literally means 'Mind Split Prism'. The heart jewel, the kel'al, is the jewel of power. That's the one in the middle. It could be set in almost any crystalline matter that could be fashioned to be worn on an arm or hand - ring, bracelet, armband, so on and so forth. Let me start from the beginning.
"One branch of my people were called the Draconic Jewellers. These were the dragons who hoarded jewels and gemstones, as I do not. Perhaps it is a phenomenon, else it has only happened with my people and no other race or species I've met, but the longer these jewels spent in the presence of one of my people, the more power was transferred into them. Massive amounts of power. It didn't detract from my people, but it did add to the jewels.
"The most magically gifted among my kind discovered that the more potent stones could be 'tuned' in such a way that it linked to the mind of the user. It could change a person for better or worse, depending on how it was tuned. The greater the power, the bigger the change it could make."
"What do you mean by 'change'?"
"Change of mind. Change of heart. It would change your very life. It could make an evil person good or vice versa."
"I don't accept that. Nothing has the power to control an unwilling mind."
"Did I say the minds were unwilling?" said the dragon. "You're right, but all you needed was one split second of willingness to be changed, no matter how inadvertent, and you would be. Anyway, things progressed and my people vowed not to use their powers to tune evil stones." She looked at the bracer I wore. "Seems someone didn't take that vow seriously.
"In an attempt to stabilise that random power of the jewels, my people recruited elven mage-weaponsmiths. The elvers first tried to link the jewels with swords, but the steel couldn't contain that kind of power - no metal could. Precious stones would be impractical for weapons, they thought, so they fashioned things like armbands out of agate, quartz, jade, onyx, obsidian and moonstone. Using their magic, and at the advice of the dragons, they cast several safeguarding spells on the bracers and kel'ali, which were then called aeth'raesh'ali." She raised a claw, extending one talon. "An aeth'raesh'al would resurrect its wearer's New Self as dictated by its tuning."
"Wait. New Self?"
"Unless it's been killed, there's another Avatar running around out there who looks exactly like you. It's alive as you are not. It is the one with the 'change of mind' I mentioned."
"Imagine a prism. Light shines through it and divides to form a rainbow spectrum. This prism could be fashioned so as to show only a part of the spectrum, or several parts, or none. Your mind is the light - the original light. When you died, it shone through the Mind Split Prism and produced a spectrum."
"But it was black. There's no such thing as black light."
"Think of your Virtues - and disregard Humility, here - as coloured light. Their opposites - Hatred and all - are the absence of that light. A black spectrum means no light and no Virtue." She sighed. "The purpose of the aeth'raesh'ali was to help make us into better people. They could filter out everything evil - all Deceit, Cowardice, contempt, everything."
"I'm starting to see a few holes here. How can these prisms filter out evil if evil is darkness? Couldn't they only filter out light?"
"Maybe I'm just terrible with analogies. No, they could filter good as well as evil. What my people didn't realise then was that some of the things they filtered out made them weak. Killing - violence, for example. Just after the vast majority of my people became fanatic pacifists, we were invaded by the Guardian's army. Those of us who still knew what fear was fled. As far as I know, I'm the only one who survived."
"Did all your people use these aeth'raesh'al things?"
"No. There weren't that many, actually, and they were hard to make. Of course, ours wasn't exactly a large population. Our lifespans are long and eggs are few and far between." she shrugged. "The aeth'raesh'ali could only be used once each. It takes centuries for the kel'ali to be recharged, and even then, it has to be done by the dragon who had tuned it."
"All right. Now, back to the main topic. Where does this New Self fit in?"
The dragon nodded. "As I said, the aeth'raesh'al is activated at its wearer's death. What it does then, is resurrect the wearer according to how the kel'al is tuned. So the likeness of you that's out there is exactly the same as you except for its personality or state of mind. That is your 'New Self'. A safeguarding spell was put on the aeth'raesh'ali to give the New Self the option of going back to what they used to be." She raised a second talon. "To do this, the original mind had to be kept. I don't know the specifics, but the mage-weaponsmiths found a way to do this with sort of cloning or duplication spell. When the New Self is made, within twenty hours of death and housed in the original body, a double of the body and everything it's wearing or holding is created to house the original mind. A corpse. You, still dead." She paused. "I take it you weren't holding the Blacksword?"
"How did you know about Arcadion?"
The dragon shook her head. "Dracothraxus told me she knew how she'd be killed, once. I had no reason to disbelieve her."
I sighed. "I needed the Talisman of Courage."
"I know," was the sad reply. "One other thing, though. Were you wearing that Ankh?"
I started. "Yes."
She sucked in a breath. "You haven't seen your New Self, have you?"
"I did, but I don't remember her wearing an Ankh." I shrugged helplessly. "If she were, it must have been under her mail shirt. Is it important?"
"I don't know. Do you know what powers that amulet has?"
"You know, it's interesting. Those things are supposed to burn through the undead like a red-hot blade through butter. It's supposed to cause unspeakable pain. Does it hurt wearing it?"
"Only just before when I tried to take it off," I said, touching it. "It's...stuck."
"So it did burn you, in a fashion." She looked intrigued. "It must have recognised you." The dragon's scaly brows lowered into a frown. "It's an interesting amulet you have there. Symbol of life on several worlds, and no idea where it came from.
"Anyway, we have the New Self - alive and different - and the original - dead - which we called the Old Self."
"Yes. Right then, the New Self has the option of staying how it is and ending the existence of the Old. All it has to do is take the original's aeth'raesh'al and wear it. Then it would basically be end of story. The Old Self ceases to exist since the original mind is no longer needed, the aeth'raesh'al recombines and the kel'al rendered powerless. In your case, however, the New Self didn't take the opportunity of destroying you."
"The Guardian wants to see which of us is the stronger," I said.
"That's the kind of concept one would expect from him. He can't stand being beaten, which is why he won't leave you alone. He won't rest until either you're his, or he's dead." She shifted her wings a little before continuing. "After...seven Britannian days? Well, something like that, the Old Self is raised as an undead by the aeth'raesh'al. To do this, some fairly complicated spells had to be cast on it. Another thing I don't fully understand, but the Old Self had to be in a state other than death if the New Self wanted to surrender its aeth'raesh'al and return to normal."
"And that would be done by me wearing her bracer?"
"So all I have to do is take her bracer, then."
"Ahh, no, I'm afraid it's not that simple." The dragon hunched a bit lower. "Because of the vow made against creating evil kel'ali, it was assumed that any New Self would be better than an Old, so the power to remove either bracer was given solely to the new Self."
I lowered my head in dismay. "And that's the only way to get rid of her?"
"Well, no, you could kill her. That would certainly get rid of her. Even if she's dead, however, only she can remove her aeth'raesh'al. You can't take it."
"I can't destroy the bracer?"
"That would mean destroying yourself and her. The aeth'raesh'al is what keeps you undead. Until either she becomes you or you become her, it also keeps her in existence - she still needs you because her mind is based on yours. The magic isn't complete until the choice is made and only one of you wears the aeth'raesh'al."
"But I couldn't take it off before I died, either. Why is that?"
The dragon looked at her two outstretched talons, then extended two more. "The aeth'raesh'al could not be removed once its wearer spilled any kind of blood in violence with the arm wearing it." She gave me an expectant glance.
I slumped a little. "A soldier - a daemon. He was the one who put the bracer on me, then let me kill him."
She sighed. "That rule was instated when my people became pacifists."
"And because the bracer would make the wearer 'a better person', they decided not to let such violent people be able to remove it?"
With a shrug that made the light shift over her red scales, the dragon said, "Don't blame me. I didn't do it.
"I’ve already explained the third safeguard, I think; a semblance of the wearer's original self, undead, would be raised seven days later in case the New Self was unhappy and wanted to return. Five: At the time between death and the resurrection of the New Self, anyone could remove the aeth'raesh'al. This period begins when the kel'al displays its tuning. In your case, black. Six:" she held up her other foreclaw, "aeth'raesh'ali cannot be removed after death by the Old Self at all, nor by the New Self, unless in the presence of the Old. She can't remove her aeth'raesh'al unless you are with her."
"So at least she can't destroy me by destroying her bracer while I'm not around to prevent it."
"Oh, she can, she just can't take it off. This was so a New Self couldn't accidentally lose its aeth'raesh'al." The dragon lowered her claws to the gold coins she lay on. "And since that's all I know, that's all I can tell you."
"But there's more?"
"There's always more, but I was young when the Guardian invaded. I never learnt it all."
I sighed and rubbed my hands over my eyes...then cried out in horror as they fell out into my hands. My vision took on an angry red cast, and when I looked at the dragon I saw little more than a formless mass of blazing colours.
"Calm down, liche!" she said with a roar. "You're only decomposing! It's quite a natural process with the undead."
I stared into my own eyes, shivering violently. "What should I do with them?"
"Kemah-thra! You have a long way to go." She snorted. "Keep them. Toss them. I care not. Look, liche- "
"Stop calling me that!"
"What then? 'Avatar'? Ha!" Flames licked around her teeth again. "An undead Avatar. We'll see how long that lasts."
I felt a sudden chill. "I'm not a liche."
"You are. The creation is a different process, but you are a liche, and how many good liches do you know...Avatar?"
I said nothing. My thoughts momentarily flicked to my friend Horance of Skara Brae, formerly known as the Liche Lord, but despite his powers he was only a ghost.
"Now, I'll tell you two things before you leave. One: you can slow your decomposition the same way you cast other spells. If it helps, I'd use the incantation Des Tym Corp. Two: you might consider using illusions to make yourself look alive. It wasn't too obvious when you first walked in, but glowing eyes are a dead give-away."
I looked up, my hand closing over my eyeballs. "Glowing?"
"A rather nice green, actually. Too bad you can't use a mirror to see for yourself."
"I can't see properly, anyway."
"It's all red. And you look like a damn rainbow."
"Oh. You're just using your undead eyes, then. You're seeing my aura, I think."
"So how do I change my eyes back?"
She growled. "Just imagine you're looking through your own eyes! It's only changed because you thought it should change! Undead magic is based on thought, Avatar, that's why they are so feared. There's nothing to restrain them - not even themselves."
"I can handle it."
"That's what they all say." She laughed. "And it still amuses me. The only thing going your way is that you didn't choose to become a liche."
I concentrated on the spells she'd told me of. Almost instantly, my vision returned to normal. "How do I tell if that Slow Death spell is working?"
"If you're thinking about it, it's working. Your illusion is in place - very well done, too."
"You mean I have to think about it all the time?" I exclaimed.
"Kemah-thra forbid, no! Just remember it every now and again. Think of it as a duration spell, then you should be fine." She scratched at her neck with one claw. "Besides, I'm sure there will always be plenty of people around you to point out when you start looking different."
We sat there in silence for a while. I went over the whole conversation, trying to find a way around the workings of the aeth'raesh'al. The way things stood, my only chance was to get Mellorin to give me her bracer. And how was I going to manage that? I frowned. There is always a back door. I'd learnt that lesson long ago.
"If I went to your world," I said suddenly, "would I find records of these things? More information?"
"Probably. But how would you get there?"
I stared at her in puzzlement for a moment. "The bracer has teleportation powers." The dragon continued to look at me blankly. "This one does, at least," I added. "Mors Gotha used it to transport herself and her army between the planes of reality. Maybe your world is still attuned to it."
The dragon shrugged indifferently and twitched her tail. A small avalanche of gold coins rolled down her hoard with a musical tinkle. "Then for what it's worth, my world was called 'Atarka'. My people lived in the Tuay Mountains, north of the Desert of Krain - the Northern Wasteland."
"You don't want to come?"
"Even if you do find it, Avatar, it was taken centuries ago. You can't save it now. I'll remember what it was - I have no wish to see what it has become." She gestured at the bracer I wore. "If any of my people live, that is testament to what the Guardian has corrupted them to do."
"There is more behind your words than what you're saying," I accused, rising to my feet. "I can't believe that you truly don't care, dragon."
Fangs bared, she snarled. "That is none of your business, liche."
"You didn't even try to save your home?"
"Not everyone is a heroine like you," she spat. "I wasn't about to defeat the Guardian, so why bother trying? That's not heroism - it's suicide." She drew herself up angrily, wings shifting. "My people alone know how to tune kel'ali. To face the Guardian meant risking capture and divulging that knowledge to him. I flew because I wasn't brave enough to kill myself."
"I'm sorry," I said softly, "but the Guardian is in the process of taking over Britannia. When he comes here and Ambrosia hasn't 'moved', what will you do?"
Smoke hissed from her nostrils. "I'll worry about that when it happens."
I looked down at my closed hands and caused the eyeballs they held to Vanish. Who knows when you might need one? Then I said, "Very well. Thanks for your help, dragon. If I manage to get through this and take Mellorin's bracer, I'll see what can be done to-"
"Mellorin?" she interrupted sharply.
"Yes. My double. The New Self."
"Oh." Whatever interest had sparked in her eyes seemed to vanish. "Yes, well. Have fun." She turned her head away.
I sighed and stepped to the edge of the tunnel. "For what it's worth,
dragon, Dracothraxus isn't dead." Then I left.
The liche seized the bars of its prison window, its glowing crimson eyes looking at me eagerly. "Hast thou returned to free me-" it's bloodless lips twitched, "-Avatar?"
"Why are the undead gathering around Stonegate?"
"Prophecies, kinswoman, prophecies." The white fingers tightened on the bars. "One cannot tell if a prophecy is real until it comes to pass."
I let my 'undead vision' take over for a minute. Where the dragon had been every conceivable colour, the liche was a dull ash grey. Its eyes, however, remained red. I looked at my own hands and saw the same shade of grey.
"Thou seemest to be learning, kinswoman," the undead rasped. It smiled, revealing two straight rows of pointed teeth. "I can help thee. I can teach thee the ways of power."
"Tell me of the prophecies, first."
The liche's smile widened. "Thou knowest the prophecy - every undead knows it. Prophecy is the language of the Void - of Ether itself, kinswoman. Thou hast only to open thy mind and listen."
"Open my mind?" I repeated flatly.
"There is no danger. Just listen. Listen with thine undead senses, kinswoman."
....While living fight and living die,
The undead hosts will raise the cry:
"Death to all things great and small,
Death to those who rule them all."
Let all undead with flesh or bone
Gather at the Gate of Stone,
For one with Life still at their chest
Will unlock the door to seal their quest.
Descend, they will, descend straight down
To find our king's unholy crown.
When 'cross their brow the crown doth sit,
Our darkling flames will then be lit.
And life spells will by ours to cast
As this poor world doth breathe her last...
"It's happening as foretold," the liche hissed. "The living war and we gather at Stonegate. We must hasten!"
I heard someone approaching me from behind, but felt no hostility. The liche backed away with a snarl and retreated to the far side of its cell. "What's beneath Stonegate that's so important?" I asked without turning.
The heavy steps halted and I felt heat against my back as I was answered. "The Crown of the Liche King." The dragon dropped to her haunches. "As far as I and Dracothraxus were able to determine, this artefact will give its undead wearer life. That undead will thereafter be able to bestow a measure of life to other undead."
"That means they can cast life spells, right? Spells with 'Mani'?"
"I don't think they'll be interested in opening any Healer Houses, Avatar. Ask any undead. Had they the life-force, they'd cast Armageddon."
"Not this undead." I paused. "Could I remove the bracer if I were alive?"
Her sigh was like a desert wind. "This I don't know. Anyway, the Gate of Stone can only be opened by one who still has life. Isn't that how the prophecy goes?"
"'One with Life still at their chest,'" I quoted. "Sounds like it. But you said only an undead can wear the Crown."
She shrugged. "So they become a liche after opening the gate and before donning the Crown. The Dark Prophecies hold little interest for me, Avatar. I want to ask you something before you go world travelling."
I looked at her curiously. "What is it?"
"Can I come?"
"What made you change your mind?"
"I don't need an aeth'raesh'al to change my mind for me," she said with a low growl. "I'm coming because I want to defy my destiny. It seems that today is the day for prophecies, Avatar. Not only am I forbidden to take the life of any sentient being, but if I fight against the Guardian I will die. That fate was laid upon me when I was a day-old hatchling. I won't fight for you, Avatar. I'll help, but I won't fight."
"So...why come? Why do you want to help?"
"You called your New Self 'Mellorin'. In the ancient tongue of my people, that means 'World Destroyer'. 'The black light will dawn upon the slayer of a thousand Atarkans as she standeth in the shadow of the Serpent. The very ground will tremble as her feet touch the ground, and she shall have a daemon for a weapon. In the day that the Spirit-soul payeth homage to her, despair. Our world, and many others besides, will be no more. The World Destroyer will walk among us.' You see? If she defeats you here, she will be responsible for the obliteration of more worlds than you can imagine. Including my own."
I hesitated. "What does Spirit-soul mean?"
"Ava-tar. Life." She lowered her burning eyes. "I do care, Avatar. It's just been so long that until now, I'd forgotten what it felt like."
I ventured to touch one of the red-scaled forearms, as if the dragon were an old friend. "I'd be very grateful if you'd come. When I reach your world, I'll need a guide."
The dragon nodded curtly, then turned and headed to the exit. "Let's go, then."
I sidestepped her tail as it swished around, watching her go back up the tunnel for a moment before looking at the imprisoned undead.
"Free me," the liche said in a dusty whisper.
"Would you cast Armageddon?"
"Who wouldn't?" the liche whispered. "The living are a plague. Bring them to our ranks and there would be true peace. Free me."
I looked at it. "Very well, but I'm releasing you from more than just this prison." And I pointed at the door.
The liche hurried forward eagerly, its face pressed against the bars. "Hassssste!" it hissed. Its command suddenly became an agonised shriek as the door burst inwards with a sharp detonation and exploded into angry red flames. Both door and liche were ashes a few seconds later.
The dragon suddenly returned, but her look of impatience vanished when she saw what I'd done. After the echoes of the liche's cry had vanished, she gave me an expressionless glance then went back the way she'd come.
I followed her a minute later. Already, power was becoming a part of my 'life'. Already, I'd used it without a second thought and I'd used it to kill. I clenched my right hand.
Already, it was frightening.
I tried to shrug it off. It was a liche! Wasn't it basically my duty to get rid of them? Even when they were helpless?
"Are you coming, liche?" the dragon demanded.
"I'm not a liche!" I protested vehemently.
"Yes you are!"
"No I'm not!"
"Yes you are!"
"No I'm not!"
"YES YOU ARE!" she bellowed. "What you just did...you're a liche!"
I sighed deeply. For some reason, though, I couldn't bring myself to apologise. "Just don't call me one, please."
She just laughed and continued down the corridor. "So I call you 'Avatar', then?"
I jumped her tail as it swished across in front of me. "Avatar is fine, thanks."
She snorted and muttered something about undead Avatars.
"What do I call you?"
"Whatever you want. I don't care."
"Don't you have a name?"
She ignored me and proceeded to step outside into broad daylight. The clouds above Ambrosia had blown away and the sun was almost at its zenith. A fresh, southerly wind was blowing and the grass looked very green.
"Stupid animal," the dragon muttered, and swatted a panic-stricken sheep with a foreclaw, almost knocking it unconscious.
The rest of the flock stampeded their terrified shepherd. I'd never...ever seen sheep stampede before.
"Climb up," the red dragon ordered me. "I hope you're not afraid of heights."
"Magic carpets only go so high," I replied, clambering up the creature's assisting foreclaw. "I've never ridden a dragon before."
"Probably has something to do with your reputation of killing them."
I felt it wise to shut up at this point, and simply hung on. The dragon crouched and spread her wings wide, gathering herself for a leap into the sky. I felt her muscles bunch, then her hind legs snapped straight out and pushed the two of us into the air. At the same time, her vast wings swept downwards and she let out a roar of fierce joy.
We were aloft.
Ambrosia quickly became smaller as we gained altitude. I could already make out land to the far west, but couldn't tell if this was because of my 'new' eyes. The sea was spread out between the landmasses, its intense sapphire and jade waves and sparkling diamond whitecaps shattering the sunlight and casting it in all directions.
"Are we going much higher?" I shouted as we lifted above an errant cloud. "I don't want to pass out from lack of air, you know!"
"You can't breathe, liche!" she shouted back, venting a short burst of fire.
I ground my teeth. "We need to go to the Isle of Fire, but if you insist on flying there, the people will attack-"
"I have every confidence that you'll talk them out of that."
She spiralled higher, stretching her wings to their limits until Ambrosia was little more than a speck below us. Then she turned southwest with a lazy beat of her wings and we shot forward like an arrow. Actually, it was more like a bullet. I held on tight and watched the world pass me by.
It was incredible.
All too soon, in my opinion, the mountainous island that was our destination appeared below us. It resembled nothing more than an oddly shaped rock sticking up out of the water.
"Wait!" I shouted, when the dragon would have begun her descent. "Let me try something." I turned my thoughts inward and sent them out. "Dupre! Can you hear me?"
The answer came almost immediately. "Yes, but how do I know that this is the real Elora?"
"You know I can't prove that without you seeing the Ankh. Look, is there a telescope anywhere near you?"
"I don't think so."
"If you're on the battlements, look up. I'm...I'm riding a dragon."
The dragon made it obvious that she could hear my every word by laughing. "'Riding'?"
"I'm sitting on your back, aren't I?"
"Anyone can sit on another creature's back and call it riding."
"Make that, I'm being carried by a dragon."
"I'll take thy word for it, Avatar," Dupre replied in a bewildered thought-voice.
"We're coming down. Don't let anyone shoot us."
"Very well. I'll pass the order." A minute passed before we got the 'go ahead'.
The dragon angled her wings, faced down, then dropped like a stone. My heart leaped into my throat. Some things undeath apparently didn't change. The wind screamed past us and the Isle of Fire approached at a very alarming rate. My eyes couldn't get any wider at this stage.
"Hold on, Avatar!"
Her wings flared out at the last minute and we swept over the battlements of the Fort. I looked back as we went north to see several guards regaining their feet. Then we were turning again, slowing down. The dragon flapped her wings and landed gracefully on the ramparts, her tail coiling around her so as not to crush anyone.
As I slid off her back, the guards suddenly started cheering. Surprised, I asked Dupre what was going on.
"The lookouts just reported two warships sailing towards this isle," he answered softly as he looked the dragon over with obvious admiration. "These people are cheering thee because they think thou hast brought the dragon to help fight the enemy."
"You told them this?"
"Not in so many words, Elora."
I looked up at the dragon who returned my gaze and made no comment. "How close are they?"
"They'll be entering the bay in scarcely four hours, they think."
"That close? Why didn't they find this out earlier?"
"It's not their fault, Elora. The enemy must have a couple of mages or something onboard; the ships were blocked from magical view. A scrying shield."
"Damn." I quickly told him about my encounter with Mellorin and how Mariah had gone with her.
The knight rubbed his eyes wearily. "I see."
"Sir Dupre!" a warrior shouted, eyeing the dragon askance.
"The lookouts report, Sir Dupre. The ships are smaller fighting vessels. They could only sensibly hold one hundred soldiers each."
"Do we know they're carrying soldiers?" I asked.
"We can't see that close, Avatar," the warrior apologised.
"They're carrying soldiers," the dragon rumbled, her tone indifferent.
"You can see them from here?" I asked.
"No, I saw them before from the air."
"Thank thee." Dupre turned to me. "Now that we have a good idea of the odds, we can mount a suitable defence."
I raised a brow, a smile teasing my lips. "'We'?"
"Of course, Avatar. Thou art going to lead it."
"I'll just perch up on the mountains," the dragon said with a shrug. "I could shapechange if you really think it necessary, but I'll get a better view as a dragon."
"Did I forget to mention my race can do that?"
"How silly of me." She suddenly started to glow, then shrink, her form distorting to that of a human. Then she was a human. Her long, red-gold hair tumbled down her back and she was very beautiful. It was almost embarrassing to look at her. She wore scale armour, high boots of some kind of hide, and a cloak, all the same red colour as her dragon form.
If the transformation hadn't caught the attention of the majority of those on guard, her new form did.
I noticed a few of the other guards grinning openly at their companions’ slack jaws.
"That's...a useful talent," I managed.
"It's handy," the dragon-woman agreed, absently examining her fingernails. "But I much prefer my natural form. Humans are too mundane."
"So you're not going to fight in this battle?"
"No. I will watch. I've never seen the famous Avatar in battle before."
I got the odd feeling that she'd meant to say more, but hadn't. "I'll try to live up to my reputation."
A look of pity flickered across her face for a brief instant, but it vanished as she resumed her dragon form. "I'll be watching." Then she launched herself off the edge of the battlements and swooped over the bay, circling to find a vantage point.
"She doth make me feel uneasy," Lord British said. The monarch had approached me from behind, but now stepped to my side, his hair blowing back in the wake of the dragon's wings. "There's more to her than meets the eye, and I'm not speaking of her shapechanging powers."
"Any word from Mariah?" I asked softly.
"None as yet, Elora, but it hath not been long."
A loud scraping noise that immediately set my teeth on edge came from the north. The dragon was sharpening her talons on an outcrop of her mountain.
"Would you please stop that?" I asked her silently.
"As I said, she's strange." Lord British folded his arms across the front of his mail shirt and waited for the echoes of the scraping to cease. "I'm not sure I trust her."
This from the man who'd trusted Batlin? "What's wrong with her?"
"Nothing wrong...just suspect. Isn't it strange that she happens to be from the same world that bracer is from? And stranger that thou, the person wearing it, happens to find her?"
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "I'll keep an eye on her, Richard."
Just then, Iolo appeared with another ten archers. "Everyone's in position, my Lord," he reported. With a wave of his arm he sent his archers to join their fellow defenders across the battlements.
"And here they come," I said, pointing south.
The two small frigates, one behind the other, had just started to sail up the channel towards the fort. I could make out Guardian banners floating from the topmasts above the large sails. Everyone just watched in silence as they approached. Today, people were going to fight. Many would never see daylight again before this war was over.
The ships eventually drew close to shore and somewhere near two hundred soldiers poured out onto the beach.
"A respectable number," Iolo said, fingering the point of a crossbow bolt. "Just say the word and mine archers will reduce it to something more manageable."
Lord British smiled.
This fort had been built for defence. We had archers standing in nooks and shallow caves all along the cliffs and lining the battlements. There wasn't a single place on the isle where one could disembark and be safe from ranged weapons. When Julia returned from Buccaneers' Den with the supplies - namely the cannonballs - no ship would be safe from even entering the bay.
"I'll see to our soldiers, Milord," I said, then descended to the courtyard where I'd lead the ground defence. Two hundred warriors - human and gargoyle - crowded the open area of the fort. We had between six and seven hundred capable fighters, but only arms enough for one hundred and fifty, not including the archers or gargoyles who preferred their own weapons and armour.
"Everything is ready, Avatar," Dupre said as I reached the closed portcullis.
I nodded. "By rights, you should be leading this charge, old friend."
"I'm happy enough giving leadership to thee," he replied with a smile. "This way, thou wilt get all the credit if we lose."
"Lose? Ha! Not one of those Guardian lovers will live to see another morning!" I put on my greathelm, since my undead body needed all the protection I could give it. I'd found I was able to support quite a bit of weight, so armour wasn't a problem there. On the other hand, it did detract from ease of movement, so I'd steadfastly refused the notion of wearing plate. Instead I was wearing hard leather boots, steel greaves, chain leggings, a chainmail shirt beneath a hauberk of studded leather, and a chain coif under my greathelm.
This would be no minor skirmish.
"Remind me why we’re doing this again. Attacking, I mean."
"How long have our people been on the Isle of Fire?"
"A few months. But are they so keen to see action that they’re willing to die?"
"How many of their friends and family have died?"
"Point taken, but that’s not really a sensible answer. The archers could take care of everything."
Dupre nodded his agreement. "When we received the news, a lot of other people heard it. We have our own ideas of fighting this war, and other people, naturally, have their own ideas."
"They demanded we attack?"
"Lord British didn’t let it go that far, but it might have. The vote he arranged answered the question pretty quickly."
I sighed. "Yet so many of these people have never fought before? They’re not worried about dying?"
The knight shook his head then gave me a tight smile. "That should answer thine own question. They’ve never fought before." He returned his gaze to the army outside. "And in the ballads, the heroes never die."
"In the name of the Guardian, we call upon the fort of the Isle of Fire to surrender!" someone from without shouted. "Give up the keep, the king and the Avatar, then the people will be spared."
I was suddenly reminded of the choice Mellorin had given me. Before I could be drawn into another brooding train of thought, Dupre murmured, "That one's mine."
A smile tugged my mouth. "Why?"
"He just issued a challenge, Elora. Thou must learn to take this kind of thing personally."
I fought hard to suppress a chuckle. "Oh? You're just insulted because you weren't included in his announcement."
The knight sniffed loftily, but had no chance to reply. Lord British's voice drifted down from above, then Iolo echoed him in a voice that reverberated throughout the entire bay. "FIRE!"
Bowstrings sang and crossbows clacked. A storm of Britannian blue-and-silver fletched arrows and bolts rained down on the invaders' hastily raised shields.
"Raise the portcullis!" Dupre roared.
The iron grating rose. I drew the Firedoom Axe and held it up. A steely rasp heralded the drawing of swords, the raising of axes and maces, of morning stars and halberds, of spears and iron-shod staves. "Form ranks!" I shouted, lowering my weapon in a cutting gesture.
While the archers kept the enemy at bay, my foot soldiers trooped out the gates and assembled near the walls of the fort. Dupre clasped my shoulder briefly then went off to join the east flank while another knight took the west. Fifty soldiers each and my hundred - the driving point of the attack.
I raised a mailed fist and called thunder. It was a signal to the archers to cease fire. The rain of shafts stopped, but the enemy, cautious, remained with their shields in place. Maybe fifty or sixty of their number littered the shoreline. Before they had a chance to recover, I thrust my axe into the air and shouted, "Charge!"
As with one voice, the soldiers running behind me bellowed, "Virtue!"
The enemy lowered their shields, saw us and ran to meet the attack with frenzied cries of "Guardian!"
Charging headlong at the enemy, I whispered, "Valour guide our arms, Justice be our shield. Courage live in all our ways and never let us yield."
Then the battle was joined.
There wasn't anywhere near the number of foes as we'd faced at Serpent's Hold, but being inside one battle is much like being inside another. I was lost in a violent sea of friends and foes; adrift amidst the sounds of screams, weapons and armour, the scents of blood, sweat and fear. Experience enabled me to keep my head and fight well, but many of our fighters had no actual, first-hand knowledge of this kind of thing. They'd been jerked out of their homes as a hostile army marched across the land, then sent to a place they'd never seen before and had a weapon shoved into their hands.
"Courage be with us..."
It's almost impossible to describe a battlefield, as everything happens so quickly. My axe blurred as I dealt stroke after stroke, felled foe after foe. We cut deep into the enemy formation while the east and west flanks rushed in to attack from the sides.
"Ka-thra!" someone screamed, just before my axe crunched into her breastplate.
Then, without warning, as if driven by instinct, my magic came into play. Five Killorn soldiers were simultaneously struck down by Lightning. Two fell over when sudden Sleep gripped them. A second pair started throwing up as Poison lanced through their bloodstreams. Another ten tripped over their own weapons or failed to parry a Britannian blow as a Curse fell upon them. Letting a breath hiss out from between my teeth, I got a grip on myself. My shift in concentration almost cost me as a spear flew past my head from behind. Ducking instinctively, I whirled and abruptly found myself engaging the commanding officer.
"Ka-thra," he acknowledged calmly, blade lifting slightly in salute.
I returned the gesture with my axe then braced myself. A swift glance through undead eyes told me that this man was a daemon. A spell of Protection blanketed me just as I delivered my initial attack.
The daemon-soldier fought well, but was no match for the Avatar. I backed him up to the very edge of the waterline before he overbalanced and caught my axe-blade across his neck. Hot blood splashed into my face and I hastily wiped it off with my gloved hands before it could burn me. Then, with startling quickness, the commander regained his true form. Red muscles tore his mail apart and horns punched through his iron helmet. Taloned hands threw away sword and shield, then lashed out to rake deep grooves on my greathelm.
I ducked under the groping arms and tore a gash in the daemon's stomach. With a spurting noise, his entrails came boiling out and tangled his hoofed feet.
I hadn't considered that daemons might have intestines.
He fell face down with a horrible snarl, almost taking me with him as one vast, scarlet wing struck my shoulder. I managed to shove it aside, then, taking my axe in both hands, cut off the hellspawn's head. The corpse instantly burst into flames and vanished.
The battle was over and we'd won.
A cheer rose up from every human and gargish throat, whether on the field or in the fort. It grew to a mighty crescendo and I pulled off my helm, giving in and joining the celebration, letting the feel and sound of victory run its course.
It was a small triumph, but the effect on the morale of the people would be huge.
"So the big crunch is still coming, eh?" I commented to a grinning, unscathed Dupre.
"Looks like it, Elora. But look at these people!"
"I know!" I suddenly felt a tremendous jubilation. "They'd be willing to attack three times that number now. The taste of victory has a strange effect on some people-"
Dupre laughed loudly. "Care to continue this conversation over a jug of dark ale?"
"-but not everyone," I added, rolling my eyes.
The knight just shook his head and grinned. "Thou mightest not get thirsty, but I was born thirsty."
"I bet your mother raised you on ale," I quipped, wiping my axe-blade clean on a dead soldier's cloak. My eye was caught by the sight of people running from the fort gates, most faces among them grim. Healers, I realised. A few mages and their assistants came with them, hurrying to aid the wounded as best they could. Our dead would be carried inside to a place where Lord British would decide whether or not to use our precious reagent stores for Resurrections.
My mood darkened a little, though most of those who had fought with me today continued to cheer. Looking around quickly, I decided that few of our own could have been killed. The ground was covered with the dark gold tabards of Killorn Keep and the number of Britannians left standing had barely changed.
Warriors started picking their way past discarded weapons to the sanctuary of the fort. Enemy armour, weapons and clothes would all be salvaged, as well as the two ships. By ridding ourselves of two hundred foes, we'd greatly increased our own stores.
I watched two healers lift the still body of a human warrior and start slowly back to the fort. No matter what we'd gained, the price was still too high.
And I used my powers in battle without hesitation. Virtues...what am I becoming?
From the northern peaks, the dragon fixed me with her fire-eyed gaze.
Virtues preserve me...