The Dark Realm
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
An icy feeling washed over me for a brief second, but long enough for the chill to make me shiver involuntarily. There was the sensation of forward movement, then I was through, looking at an exact replica of the room I'd just left save for the eerie green cast on everything, lack of a way out...and for the black-robed, self-styled Shadowlord of Doom standing in the middle.
As my companions came through the mirror behind me, I swiftly evaluated the stranger.
Shorter than I, but the voluminous robes were pooled around the floor at his feet. Not a bit of skin was visible, not even from the sleeve-concealed hands that clasped the hilt of a jet black, diamond-studded sword.
"So we failed," I thought. "Batlin got the sword. But at least he didn't get Mondain's Black Jewel."
As if hearing my thoughts, the hands on the Chaos Sword moved to shift the sleeves which hid the crosshilt. I heard my friends shift uncomfortably, for there, in the dark metal, rested the Jewel. As black as a fragment of the night sky and just as empty of feeling. The white jewels marching straight down the center of the blade winked mockingly like stars.
"Oh, crap," I said, then sighed.
"Avatar...we set guards over the Eternal Flames, I swear!" said Iolo.
"I know." I reached back and touched the pommel of the Blacksword. "Arcadion?"
"I cannot tell who it is," the daemon said reluctantly. "But he is under a magical protection and he possesses much power."
I gazed at the Jewel I had shattered so long ago. The three remaining shards that rested in the hilt of the Chaos Sword seemed to fit together in a perfect circle, without visible stress lines or cracks. "Is he a Shadowlord?" I asked presently.
A whisper of undefinable voice echoed through the room. "I am the Shadowlord of Doom."
"Shut up, Batlin," I said. "Drop the sword and surrender."
We listened to the echoes of my demand bounce around on the walls and the robed-one didn't reply. I motioned for the others to stand their ground, then stepped forward until I was within striking range. "Arcadion, is he a Shadowlord?" I repeated.
I felt the Blacksword physically shudder. "He is more."
"Great," I thought. Aloud, "The Fellowship has been disbanded, Batlin."
No response, though I thought I detected a flicker of emotion. He didn't speak back, but it would take more than silence to make me feel irked.
"Lord British sent me to bring you back, but he didn't say how. Small pieces sounds good at this point of time."
Nothing. The head remained down, the face sunk in the deep, impenetrable shadows the large cowl provided.
"Give me the sword," I said softly. "You still have a chance to redeem yourself, but not like this."
He lifted the sword and I came on guard instantly.
"Batlin..." I began warningly. I wasn't worried about a fight. He was a mage after all, even though he had once been a warrior. I had never seen him with a weapon in his hands and doubted his skill against mine.
Then again, I only had a vague idea of what kind of influence the Sword of Chaos would have on him.
The Sword lashed out and I barely deflected its path towards my chest in time.
"Batlin," I repeated. "Look, I don't want to kill you. The Guardian used you, but you can still make up for the wrong you did!"
"Nothing can make up for what I have done," came the whispered reply, which again echoed through the room. "Wouldst thou forgive a Shadowlord?"
I parried a second stroke. "No," I admitted. "But you are only the Shadowlord of Doom if you want to be."
"I am the Shadowlord of Doom because of this!" he brandished the sword and attacked.
It quickly became apparent that Batlin was not going to move from where he stood, so I abandoned the idea of tripping him over his cumbersome robes. Where I gained in arm length, I lost by using the shorter Mystic Sword, whereas the Chaos Sword was two handed. I was amazed that Batlin possessed the strength to wield that thing. I circled around behind him. "Then drop it and be free!"
He turned fully around in a fluid motion. The heavy robes, which should have twisted at his movement, came around smoothly and unobstructively - as if he stood on some kind of turntable, I mused.
"I cannot," he replied, executing an inelegant two-handed swing.
Dodging nimbly, I said, "Then give it to me!"
I extended my left hand, offering.
Then..."No. Thou dost mock me. Thou hast not the power to wield this weapon without fear."
Whipping my hand out of the way as Batlin's blade descended towards it, I stepped to one side, then ducked in and cut across at his waist. The Mystic Sword rebounded off the black robes as if they were magically reinforced steel of maximum quality. The reverberations up my blade caused me to stagger and I quickly moved back out of range before Batlin could gain an advantage.
"Magical protection?" observed Spark.
"The Mystic Sword should have sheared through that cloth with ease," seconded Shamino.
When my sword finally stopped wobbling, I let the point drop and watched the robed figure carefully. He had also lowered his sword and stood as we'd first seen him on entering the Mirror Prison.
"Avatar," said Umdelor. "Remember what we spoke of before. Perhaps you truly cannot defeat him in a physical battle."
"I think you're right," I agreed. "But there may yet be another way." I faced Batlin and repeated, "Give the sword to me."
"What wouldst thou do if I did?" he replied.
"Take you back to Britannia, for one," I said. "Then we can destroy the sword the same way we destroyed the Black Gate."
"The sword is not even the greater half of the power I hold."
I shook my head. "Maybe not. But will it free you?"
"I know not."
I stepped closer, slowly, my sword held in an unthreatening position. "You know me, Batlin, if your Book of the Fellowship is any indication. I can handle that sword long enough to rid Britannia of it."
"Thou couldst not control it last time."
"I've changed since then."
"I hope it's enough."
The words caused me to blink.
The Shadowlord continued. "But thou hast changed. Thou dost walk more deeply in fear than ever before."
Unmoving, I waited for further words, but he had finished. "I am not afraid," I said, wondering deep down if I truly meant that. "Don't worry about me. Give me the Sword. You can still redeem yourself!"
He stirred slowly, then lifted the Chaos Sword. I raised my sword in response, but he reversed the blade and offered the hilt to me. "Redemption," he whispered, almost longingly.
I quickly took his sword, realising too late that it might not be such a good idea. I tensed for a surge of evil against my mind, but there was none.
A chuckle emanated from beneath the black hood. It gained volume fast and was soon a full-blown maniacal laugh. Then, abruptly, it cut off into dead silence and the head snapped up. From the darkness, two fiery eyes stared balefully at me. As the short figure became taller, only then I realised how much I'd underestimated Batlin's master.
"Guardian," I whispered, backing away.
He was now taller than I - taller even than the daemon lord I'd just vanquished. He was huge! One arm rose and the black sleeve fell away to reveal red skin and yellowed nails. The hand reached up and pulled back the hood.
"Oh damn," I said, despair threatening to overwhelm me there and then. I was in his arm's reach and he towered over me, the robe no longer spread out around him, the hem now lightly brushing the floor. He didn't need the sword! All he really had to do was step on me!
"Come now, Avatar," he said. "I told you it was a trap."
The hand holding the Sword of Chaos was starting to sweat inside its gauntlet. Forcing lightness into my voice, I replied, "I thought we already got through it."
He shook his scarlet head, still grinning. "That was a mere test. You won, though even I had my doubts. You defeated my daemon. I can't have a failure serving my cause."
"What cause?" I asked, frozen to the spot. I knew that to flee was to die.
He was momentarily silent, then gestured at the Chaos Sword. "Look into the Jewel."
I kept my eyes stubbornly away. "I'll not be trapped."
He sighed tiresomely. "If you wish to know, you will look."
My eyes flicked of their own accord to the Jewel and were transfixed. I tried to speak, but my lips wouldn't move. All I could do was blink.
"Knowledge costs much, Avatar," the Guardian said. "Watch and learn."
Visions played before my eyes in the Jewel's depthless facets. Faces long forgotten overlaid features of friends, superimposed on those of foes.
The Guardian spoke. "When I broke from my former Master," he began, his Voice betraying a sense of self-contempt that he himself had been a 'servant', "taking with me those who followed my cause, I vowed to bring all races to fight under my banner against his tyranny." He chuckled. "I quickly found that people thought my laws much more appealing than my former Master's. And while it is nearly impossible to change the ways of all beings on any world, it is simplicity itself to win the majority."
I mentally nodded. Hate and lies came more easily from one's lips than love or truth. He sensed my understanding.
"Yes. So, after I have established a foothold in a world, I can enter it through my followers."
I watched a scene taking place in the Jewel. A dark-haired woman held up a small black stone before a mass of people who chanted in a strange dialect. Suddenly, the woman shouted a single word then threw back her head in pain as the stone flared. The people leaped back in fear...then the woman recovered. She was different. More powerful, dynamic, strong...evil. I could almost see the waves of darkness rolling off her like steam. She raised the stone again and the masses cheered with insane fervour.
"That one is now ruler of her world," the Guardian said. "And a mighty warrior. Perhaps the mightiest. Maybe, Avatar, the time will come when you look each other down the length of a blade. My will fuses with the one who holds my...power source. If there is sufficient resistance against my conquest, I enter the world in person and set all right. But," he added. "It is rarely necessary."
I shivered as the woman seemed to look straight at me before vanishing in a whirl of other images.
"The leaders are useful in keeping my worlds loyal, as well as...converting those who are not." I heard the tinge of amusement to his Voice. "In Sosaria, Mondain gained my totem and proceeded to change the world."
Mondain? Mondain's Jewel! Really spooked now, I tried to drop the Sword of Chaos, but couldn't even open my fist. The Guardian either didn't notice, or didn't care.
"The Jewel of Immortality, it was called. The ruby jewel that harnessed the power of an entire sun! An affection referring to the colour of my eyes, I believe," he said with a mirthless chuckle. "The Black Jewel of Mondain. Thus it was after Mondain used it for its real purpose, not the meaningless tasks his father used it for. But before Mondain could summon me through it..."
The Jewel showed a reflection of a younger me clutching a sword. There was barely time to register all the emotions that suddenly rose within me before the Jewel flashed white. I knew I had broken it. Centuries ago, anyway.
"You broke my Jewel. Shattered it into many shards." He laughed suddenly. "Not the first time a 'hero' tried to stop me."
Fleeting glimpses of following events reached my eyes. Minax and Exodus...both thwarted by me.
"They were also tests of a sort," he said. "Like this quest. Testing you. As was the Quest in which you became the Avatar. I encouraged Lord British to help and he summoned you and charged you to become the 'embodiment of the Virtues.' I was sure that if you failed, self-hatred would make it easy to influence your mind."
He was probably right. Defeat at the daemon lord's hands had almost driven me to the brink of surrender.
"I threw all manner of obstacles in your path but you won past each one!" There was an element of disgust in his tone. "Thus was born the Avatar."
I saw myself kneeling before Lord British, then the scene shifted and I was reading from a golden book. The Codex!
"In moving the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, my next plan started," purred the Guardian. "The earthquakes set off much destruction and heralded a new age. My age. Three of the shards of my Jewel - the largest and most powerful - were dislodged and lost in the new Underworld, where they were eventually found by a traveller - captain of a ship downed by a whirlpool. Fortuitous."
I watched an unnatural storm gather and the sea became a mad vortex of water. A great ship was pulled towards it as passengers dove from the sides in terror, but not all escaped. The ship went down and smashed into the middle of a large, underground lake.
Then a vision of a man taking up the shards was shown. Captain Johne - Umdelor's friend. No stranger to the terrible mind-touch of the black shards, I would have wept, had I been able, as Johne turned on his three remaining companions and slew them with the dagger-sharp remnants of evil. I had never seen the whole story of how this had all happened - this probably wasn't even it, but it was more than I'd know previously.
The corpses flared with incandescent light, then inky mist rose from the blood spilled by the shards, which took the forms of black robed wraiths.
"With my power source divided, my power was divided. The mortal had raised the jewel and through it and him I entered Britannia, left his body and tried to regain my own." Anger burned in his Voice now. "I was divided against myself! I could still travel through the void and become whole, but my only way into Britannia was as three separate...antivirtues." He paused, then added softly. "It was enough."
The Shadowlords picked up the shards and whisked them away.
"Soon I found that I could not take the Jewel to the surface or even join the pieces together, so I concealed them in the Underworld until a suitable vessel could be found. Such was the power of division."
The gem clouded and I was soon looking into a black cavern. Dark cliffs rose on either side of a grey river. Then a light appeared on the water and came closer. It was a flaming torch held in the hand of a mail-clad warrior. He and several others sat in a small boat that drifted slowly down the river. As the craft reached the closest point of my 'vision', a hooded figure looked up from the stern and I found myself staring at the kindly face of Lord British.
"The perfect bait," the Guardian whispered, taking me completely off-guard. "I still had my sights set on the Avatar. Harnessed with my ideal, she would be invincible!"
"But...why not possess Lord British?" I asked silently, confused.
"Lord British was always too much of a pacifist. He always called you in to do his...dirty work. You were the fighter."
Returning my attention to the Jewel, I watched Lord British's company get slaughtered by the denizens of the Underworld, then looked on helplessly as the three Shadowlords themselves appeared and spirited the king away.
"Next I went to Blackthorn and pledged the immortality and power of the Black Jewel to him if he obeyed me. He was more than willing," he added reflectively.
I couldn't even frown or grind my teeth. I had never known Blackthorn before the rise of the Shadowlords, but common rumour was that he had once been noble and honourable. He had not been the only one to fall prey to the lust for power promised by the Guardian.
"As you know, I had my followers forge a sword which I left in Blackthorn's keeping as a deposit of sorts. He knew that the Sword was the object that would reconnect the shards so he assumed that, since he had the blade, he would be the one to wield it. At my order, he named your companions outlaws. For this there were three reasons: they would not be able to oppose what Blackthorn did after usurping the Crown, they would not gather to summon you before I was ready, and if you did get here, they would be too fearful to travel with you."
"Seems like thou wert mistaken on all three counts," I heard Iolo say boldly.
"Perhaps. You may have formed a Resistance, but it did little without the Avatar." He dismissed the subject of the group formed to oppose Blackthorn and returned to his story. "Through the Discussions between Blackthorn and the Shadowlords, the new Lord of Britannia discovered that I meant for the Avatar to raise the Jewel. So in jealousy, he affixed your name, Elora, to the outlaw records and hid the Sword of Chaos." In a Voice seething with controlled rage, he continued, "I was forced to act early. Despite Blackthorn's disobedience, he was still useful and I couldn't kill him yet. So I secretly aided your companions in calling you back to Britannia."
Someone - probably Shamino - gasped.
The Jewel pictured a man casting metal, a dark-shrouded figure behind him. In short order, a silver coin the size of a man's palm was extracted, already cool from the magic upon it. Then a young Shamino entered with someone who might have been Mariah in her youth. The mage took the coin and cast another spell on it which caused the amulet to shine brightly. The light pierced the cloak of the black figure who recoiled, then vanished.
"I didn't bargain for interference," the Guardian muttered. "That spell was meant to mask the summoning of the Avatar, so I had to keep careful track of everything after that."
"This is getting boring," I thought. "I know what happened - I won, you lost."
The pain that suddenly wracked my body was beyond belief. Fiery knives stabbed my brain and cramps twisted muscles in thighs and shoulders, cold flames erupted in my chest slowing my heartbeat so much that my vision darkened dangerously.
"You will listen. You will understand. You will obey me!"
The sudden termination of the agony hurt almost as much as enduring it. If not for the paralysis, I would have fallen, but I could do nothing. No outward signs showed my friends that anything had even happened to me.
*"It will do no one any good if you die now, Avatar,"* the Guardian's thought Voice caressed my bruised mind. Then he spoke aloud again. "I found you when you answered their call and was going to speak to you, but your friend drew his sword and attacked me. So I struck him down, yes, but did not kill him."
Shamino said, "What sayest thou? Thou hadst no wish to slay me?"
"That is so. I needed allies, not corpses."
"I don't believe it," Iolo muttered.
"Your belief is not required, old bard."
I sent out the thought, "I already know what happened next. I showed you the coin and it forced you to flee."
"And things progressed from there," the Guardian continued. "I stationed my three forms at different cities each day hoping to speak to you, but..."
"You attacked us whenever we met you!"
"No. You attacked me."
Visions danced through the gem, confusing me. "No."
"Yes, Avatar. Attacked without provocation."
The images continued, a blur of colour and motion, things I remembered and had forgotten, things I had been and now was...
"You never thought to speak to us."
...swords flashing and magic sending its aura of power in all directions, shadows real and imagined and substantial stalking the land...
"Of course, you spoke to others, but they didn't even trust you - their Avatar - did they? Is this your notion of loyalty and friendship from a land that you have 'rescued' time and time again?"
...through it all, a single question seems to be shouted at me, every time I speak to anyone they always ask the same question...
"WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?"
...Lord British, Mondain, Minax, Exodus, the Time Lord, Blackthorn, the Shadowlords, the Resistance, the Oppression, the Gargoyles, the Britannians, the Fellowship, the Guardian...
I no longer knew.
And it scared the hell out of me.
"You eluded me again at Stonegate so I had no chance of telling you about the shards that you were, by now, intent on destroying." He paused. "Then you found the Sword of Chaos Blackthorn had concealed. At least that showed me the sword's primary power worked. Didn't it?"
My eyes widened. I held the Chaos Sword at Shamino's throat as he stared at me with a mixture of horror and disbelief. With an inarticulate growl, I slashed at him and jumped past, the sword feather-light in my hand. I ran to engage Geoffrey...but...Geoffrey was at Castle Britannia!
The vision passed, but my heart was pounding.
"When you found the shards and returned them to the surface you cast them into the Eternal Fires and banished me from Britannia. So I waited."
Fire. It ignited the Black Jewel even as it showed them sweeping through a village in an angry red blaze and incinerating everything. From the thick smoke came one bearing a familiar face twisted by evil.
"I waited decades for someone to leave themselves open the way this fool did. Sending the ghost of Mondain into this mage's body created what you called the Liche-lord. It was he I used to aid my return. The first living being to set foot in Skara Brae after its obliteration was Batlin of Britain." His Voice took on a mocking note. "Did you ever wonder what the 'profound spiritual experience' he wrote of in the Book of the Fellowship was?"
The Liche-lord bowed low to the young man and I heard his rasping voice say, "The Guardian of Britannia bids thee welcome, Batlin of Britain." The undead led him to where a mighty dragon struggled behind a tower of Blackrock. Shimmering, mystic chains bound it to the ground and it strained against them with its considerable might, instinct demanding that it take wing and get airborne. Seeing the puny creatures below it, it shrieked in fury.
"Thou hast training in the arts of magic, Batlin?"
The man nodded.
"Then defend thyself!"
No sooner had the liche spoken then the dragon, roaring in pure anger, poured a tremendous gout of fire over them both. I could see a faint nimbus around Batlin signalling a Flameshield.
"Good," said the liche. "Now slay it."
Batlin blinked. "I? Kill a dragon?"
"If thou hast not the power to kill this animal," said the liche harshly, "Then neither my Master nor I have any use for thee."
Batlin frowned. "Thy Master is this Guardian of whom thou didst speak?"
"Yes," is hissed.
"What hath he to do with Britannia?"
The undead form of Mondain smiled a frightening smile. "He comes to guide us. He is our Guardian."
"I am unconvinced."
"Thou shalt know all afterwards, Batlin of Britain. Slay the beast, for it is in league with the Enemy, then my Master shall send thee on a quest. Upon completion, all shall be revealed."
The dragon howled and tried to break free with a mighty pull. Failing that, it crouched low and bared gleaming fangs the length of shortswords. It looked half-dead from fatigue already and its eyes were dull. Strange noises were emitted from its mouth, short growls and snarls as if it were trying to speak, but could not.
The dragon screamed and snapped its teeth at him, then convulsed and dropped dead, the death bolt momentarily sheathing its body in violet fire. The vast wings folded and crumpled around the great body.
"Well done," whispered the liche. He stood silently for a time. "My Master says, "Go to the three keeps of Britannia wherein lie the Eternal Flames and stand before each in turn. Shout the name of thy Master out then take what is revealed to thee and return here.'"
"Who is my Master?" questioned Batlin.
"If thou knowest not the answer to that, the simplest of questions, then thou art a fool."
Batlin looked at the dead dragon, then the liche. "Very well. I shall return."
The Liche-lord nodded. "That would be wise."
The Jewel went black.
"Batlin went to the Flames," said the Guardian. "He went years before your return, Avatar. This plan has been a very long time in the making."
The Jewel showed me Batlin again. He stood before the Eternal Flame of Love in Empath Abbey and seemed undecided. He didn't move for a long while before he straightened his shoulders, lifted his head and yelled, "Tir Mordreth!"
The Flame went out like a snuffed candle! Batlin approached the extinguished marble basin and reached into it. Drawing back his hand, I saw he held a midnight black shard. It was small, as if the confinement had diminished its size as well as its power.
The change in Batlin was instantaneous. Doubt was replaced by certainty, fear with determination, indecision by ambition.
Good was traded for evil.
"Not evil," corrected the Shadowlord of Doom. "Just a different purpose."
"All I can see is evil."
"You don't understand. But you will."
"Tir Mordreth is your Name?"
"I think you already know the answer to that, Elora."
The dragon had already started to rot. Before its massive head was a newly erected altar onto which the liche placed the shards.
"Hear us, Master," called the liche Mondain. "Once again thy power is present, but still it lies shattered and lessened by the accursed Avatar. It is beyond MY power to call thee into Britannia, as thou knowest well. But this mortal, Batlin of Britain, would serve in my stead. Wilt thou accept him?"
Fire encircled the altar in a ring and from it came the Guardian's Voice.
"Batlin of Britain," he said.
The man stepped forward and knelt before the fire. "Here, Master."
"Thou hast done well. I would meet with thee and tell thee of my Cause. This, then, is thy sacred quest. Take the shards of the Gem of Immortality and bring them to me."
"Master, where art thou?"
"The Jewel shall lead and protect thee. Come now."
"So he came here? How did he get past all the barriers?"
"With the shards, I could instruct and aid him. The shards were by then too weak to maintain the forms of the Shadowlords, but Batlin had strength enough to use the magic necessary."
"But the Word of Power..."
"Veramocor? You thought I didn't know how to unlock my own door?" He asked mockingly. "Yes, he came here. My only link to Britannia through the ether. Fortuitous that the Sword was here, also. Batlin put the shards in the sword and they joined, united again! I came. I spoke to Batlin and found him willing, but lacking. More than ever I wanted the Avatar, so I educated Batlin in everything you did, in Britannia's history. Then we planned to bring you back to Britannia."
"Then what was the real deal with the Black Gate?"
"Had I entered, I would have conquered Britannia," he said with a note of indifference. "But chiefly, it was to capture you. I knew by now that I would only be able to convert you in person, so I stranded you in Britannia. I sent Batlin to dungeon Doom after he performed a few...tasks, I left an adequate message with the wisps, then I planted the thought of the Sword of Chaos into your mind."
That wasn't good.
"And it worked."
That really wasn't good.
"And here you are."
My mind worked furiously to think of a way out.
"The beauty of my Sword is that whoever holds it, when it bears my Jewel, will become more than willing to serve me."
No...this couldn't be happening...
"So now," the Guardian whispered. "All you have to do is hold it up, and call the name of your Master. Then you will be mine and you will dethrone Cantabrigian British!"
I felt the stasis on my body vanish and lifted my head up to look at the Guardian. Words of defiance formed on my lips...but escaped my mouth in a gasp of surprise.
My left hand, which held the Chaos Sword, was raising of its own accord. Slowly, teasingly.
"I'll never say it!" I shouted. "Never!"
"Yes, you will," he answered. "And you will kneel."
"I'd rather die!"
"Avatar, drop it!" shouted Dupre.
"I can't! It...it won't let me!"
"You can't fight it," the Guardian murmured, his Voice almost lost amidst my futile grunts of exertion. "It is a part of you. Embrace it and become whole."
I released the Mystic sword and grabbed my left forearm with my right hand, but instead of slowing the ascent of the Chaos Sword, it was helping it. I half-sobbed with fear.
"Attack!" yelled Spark. As if his voice had been Commander Geoffrey's, the companions drew weapons and rushed the Guardian's titanic form. Umdelor took wing and flew at his face.
The Guardian laughed. "Can you smell the scent of battle, Avatar?" he taunted me.
"No!" I shouted, afraid the Sword would make me engage my friends. "Fall back! This is my fight!"
But they either didn't hear, or didn't listen.
The Sword of Chaos passed my brow, the Jewel drew level with my eyes and once again I was captivated by it.
"This is my cause!"
A positive maelstrom of images assaulted my every sense. With each image, scent, taste, feeling and sound came a thought, and emotion, an idea...an ultimatum. Self-awareness, knowledge, power, ambition, rejection, banishment, anger, revenge, hatred, deceit, fear, revenge, strength, cunning, revenge, defeat, Revenge, victory, revenge, Revenge, REVENGE!
As I struggled to think coherently, I realised I now held the Sword of Chaos up high, both hands clasping the black hilt above my head, the diamond-studded blade pointed straight up.
The Guardian's driving force was the need for vengeance! I felt that he somehow knew he'd never defeat his former Master for some reason, but the Guardian had planned to take as many races, planets, galaxies and everything to destruction, to complete obliteration as he could.
"It was always made more interesting when my former Master sent an Avatar to try and save worlds I took over. Sometimes the Avatar knew from whom it had been sent, sometimes it didn't. Often it never does. As in your case, some aren't even divine! But never, until now, have I been able to corrupt one to my cause."
I shuddered, sick to my very soul.
"Britannia, Aglaterre, Etheron, Kilrah, Scaeduen and more has he tried to save." He laughed. "One of our agreements was that he could only send one saviour to each world. If I was able to take one of these saviours, not only would I gain the world he was trying to protect, I'd also open a link between my powers, and those of my old Master."
I blinked. I had no powers out of the ordinary.
"Not yet, you mean. You just have not been exposed to the right circumstances. You potential is great. When your powers are maximised, I will be able to use you to take over half the universe!"
"What will that gain you?"
"You have no concept of what this pitiful universe means to him," the Guardian sneered. "He created it. He cares for it. Destroying it will gain me my revenge!"
I strained to throw down the evil sword and again break the foul Jewel, but couldn't.
"Know one more thing, Avatar of Britannia. Defy me here and you WILL die. He cannot send another to replace you. Britannia will be mine one way or another."
Umdelor suddenly landed before me. "To have been listening. Remember, this fight is not in the flesh, but between souls and spirits in the ethereal planes! Here you cannot best the Guardian!"
"Then where?" I asked desperately.
The gargoyle tapped my chest. "To fight in your heart," then my forehead, "and your mind," both his arms spread out, " and your spir-aarrghhhh!" Umdelor fell, consumed by black lightning. I saw the shadowy form of the magic arrow that the Guardian had sent protruding from between the gargoyle's shoulder and wing blades.
"Umdelor!" I roared, not able to save him. My call brought my human companions running.
Umdelor's wings trembled in spasms and the horn-crowned head turned to face me. Eyes already dimming met mine and he said in gargish, "Britannia an-tim pos-tim est an-eks." Then his eyes were dark.
Jaana shook her head silently and took her hand from Umdelor's neck where a pulse had used to beat.
Spark wrenched out the dark arrow and snapped it in two, then turned away.
I looked up at the sword, then at the victoriously grinning Guardian. For a long time, I stood still. Then I looked at my friends and said, "Wish me luck."
Dupre started. "Avatar...?"
Swiftly lest I change my mind, I screamed out a single name. "TIR MORDRETH!"
She looked around, wondering where she was. On every side, deep, velvety purple mists rose up like walls made of the very shadows. The floor was made of some smooth material that was warm against her bare feet, though invisible beneath a thick layer of dark fog. Above, stars whirled in a celestial dance and streaks of coloured fire sped across the black sky. Comets.
She lowered her emerald-green eyes and looked herself over. She wore nothing and a thought came to her that she should feel ashamed or afraid...but she didn't. Why should she?
Shrugging slightly, she shook her head at the strange thought and started walking towards the shadows. They closed round her, warm, inviting, comforting. A sense of well-being came over her accompanied by a strange hunger she didn't understand.
The shadows seemed to whisper words. "Embrace us. Become one with us and you will be made whole."
Indeed, she felt divided, as if a part of herself was missing or being restrained.
"Let go..." the shadows whispered. "Let us heal you."
More curious than afraid, she walked further into the mists. Without alarm, she wondered if she was lost. The shadows pressed in on all sides...
Then she saw the mirror.
As tall as she was and circled by a frame encrusted with glittering, translucent jewels, the beautiful looking-glass was topped with a black sigil that teased her memory.
In a gesture seemingly born of instinct, she raised a hand to her throat and connected with a small object chained about her neck. Only this one was gold.
Releasing it, she approached the mirror, confused as a reflection appeared in a full suit of black armour and holding a diamond-studded, midnight-black sword. The reflection removed its helmet to reveal her own face.
For a minute, she wondered on which side of the mirror she truly stood.
"And that's the question isn't it?" the reflection asked softly. Her own voice. "On which side do you stand? Whose side are you on?"
"Whose side are you on?" she echoed in a voice that was equally soft.
The reflection strode up close to the mirror and placed a black-gloved hand against the glass. "I am on your side," she said. "And you are on mine. We are on our own side. We serve ourselves. Join hands with me and make us whole. Let me show you what you have lost."
She stepped closer and placed her own bare hand flat against the palm of the reflection. The barrier seemed to fall away and their fingers laced together.
The black armoured reflection smiled...then the shadow-walls came crashing down around them.
The companions watched in an awful fascination as the Guardian's form turned indistinct like a bodiless red mist. As the heavy black robe fell to the floor, the mist drifted across the room then infused itself into the Sword of Chaos until it glowed like burning metal.
The Avatar stood motionless, her Mystic sword lying on the floor. A faint gleam of perspiration sheened her brow and her face was the perfect definition of calm.
"Is she winning?" Spark asked in a subdued voice.
Mondain's Jewel suddenly became the point of focus to which the red light centered. It was soon shining like a live coal, the sword once again black and the diamonds pinpoints of white fire.
"Arcadion," Shamino called. "Canst thou answer us?"
"I can," replied the daemon.
"Dost thou know how Elora fares?"
"She is...unaware of herself."
The companions exchanged puzzled glances.
"What meanest thou?" asked Dupre.
Dupre grabbed Rudyom's Wand but Tseramed and Iolo stopped him from pointing it at the Chaos Sword.
"Not yet!" Iolo ordered.
Tseramed said, "We know not what wilt happen to Elora if thou dost use the Wand now!"
Then Arcadion let out a howl of despair. "She embraces Doom! She has left us! She comes with the Guardian's will!"
The Avatar's face bore a sinister smile.
Dupre shook off the two archers and pointed the Wand, aiming for the Jewel in the hilt of the Chaos Sword.
"By the Virtues!" Shamino choked, for the red glow now stained Elora's hands and it was creeping down her arms.
"Dupre, no!" shouted Tseramed, aiming a kick at the knight's hand. But the kick landed just as Dupre fired and there was an explosion of Blackrock and sooty flames.
The Chaos Sword's blade splintered and the resulting fireball knocked the Avatar off her feet, but the red glow fled back up to the Jewel, which still rested unscarred in the hilt.
Rudyom's Wand skittered across the floor and stopped before the Avatar's feet.
She opened her eyes and lowered the broken sword. An expression of profound regret and sadness came over her face as she glanced at each of her friends, then finally at Dupre. Sorrowfully, she whispered, "I told you not to do that."
The red mist started to leave the Jewel, as if the Guardian was seeking to regain his form, but Elora quickly stood, removed the Black Jewel, dropped the useless hilt, then again closed her eyes. Iolo said to Dupre, "I overheard Umdelor speaking to Elora before he was slain. In a physical battle, she hath no chance against the Guardian. But in there," he gestured at the Jewel, "with her mind, she doth. The Guardian can only control her if she lets him."
"What dost thou mean?" Dupre retorted. "He controlled her before to raise that damned sword!"
"Her body," corrected Tseramed. "Not her mind."
Jaana pursed her lips. "The human body is easily taken over," she agreed. "Spells and injuries and so forth. But our minds are our true strength. They make us what we are."
"Then what did I accomplish in breaking the sword?" Dupre asked anxiously.
"You made her task harder," Arcadion snarled. "And I very much doubt she will win."
She stood back and appraised her reflection, then put on the dark helmet. What a fool she had been to fear this moment! The hatred was a strong, sweet wine in her body, bringing her fully alive, fully aware. She had been afraid of this potent, powerful, primal emotion. With it came others. She closed her eyes in pleasure, welcoming every sensation.
Nothing this good could be evil.
She raised a gauntleted hand and black lightning struck the ground. Gesturing with the other brought down a rain of dark fire. She could do anything.
Then she stopped and cocked her head, as if listening. Slowly, a rage came over her along with the hunger, the need....
She wanted it. Craved it. She would visit it upon every being who had sought to keep her weak and divided from herself.
"You are ready," a familiar Voice said. "Return to me."
"You are ready."
The Guardian's Voice whispered the words, but still they echoed through the mirror prison room. The companions each felt an oppressive presence sweep down among them.
"This is it," murmured Iolo. "The Virtues help us."
"What is it?" Spark asked, confused.
"If Elora gets into Britannia as a servant of the Guardian," Iolo explained, "we can bid all we know farewell. We must stop her here, or not at all."
"Thou meanest...kill her?"
Iolo fell silent and looked uneasy...and afraid.
Dupre drew his Mystic sword. "Only if we must."
"I shall attempt to paralyze her," Jaana said, grabbing reagents.
"That won't help you," said the Avatar.
The companions froze.
"Remember? I wear my Crown."
Jaana drew her sword slowly. "Lord British's Crown."
"Not anymore." Elora bent and picked up both Rudyom's Wand and her Mystic sword, putting them in her belt and scabbard respectively. "Well?"
Shamino ventured, "Then thou hast betrayed Britannia?"
Her green eyes ignited. "Whose side am I on?" she asked in a deadly quiet voice, biting off each word. "How can you ask that of ME, after all I have done? The answer is so simple, now. I serve myself!"
"Which is exactly what the Guardian wants!" Tseramed exclaimed.
"What a coincidence," she drawled. "I am returning Britannia to its true Master."
"The Guardian?" asked Dupre in an accusing voice.
Elora nodded. "Who else? Care to join me?"
The ones who hadn't drawn weapons now ripped them from their sheaths.
The Avatar laughed mirthlessly. "This will be interesting. Would you kill me even if you could?"
"What does she mean?" Tseramed whispered.
Shamino shrugged. "Mayhap she believes we can't kill her because we care for her."
Elora chuckled. "You never cared for me. Always stopping me from doing things that would have helped me; always there to reign me in if I felt force was necessary." She glared at Dupre. "Always there to breakthings that would make me rise above mortality."
"We were helping thee by stopping thee!" exclaimed Dupre. "Avatar...!"
She cut him off. "Actually, destroying the Sword of Chaos turned out to be useful. I should thank thee...Dupre," she said mockingly. "Too bad you did it for the wrong reasons." With that she turned away from them.
"What's she doing?" Spark whispered.
Red light blossomed, the new-born moongate rising directly before the Avatar. Then she turned and opened a second gate in a different direction.
Shamino swallowed hard. "The Castle...and the Codex."
"What to do first?" Elora pondered aloud. "Kill the king or call my Master to his throne? Your choice."
"No, my Avatar," said the Guardian's Voice. "As a final demonstration of your surrender to me and your rise to ultimate power, you will call me into Britannia in the place you used to hold most dear and sacred above all others!"
Elora frowned slightly, then smiled. "The Shrine of the Codex!"
"No," said Iolo. "Thou canst not!"
She laughed loudly. "Who can stop me?"
"I will!" The old bard jumped forward, the Mystic sword whistling through the air as he aimed to stab through her shoulder - a crippling, but not killing blow.
The blade bounced harmlessly off the mystic armour.
Elora shook her head and sighed. "I guess that shows me what friends are worth." She sounded genuinely disappointed. "Traitors." Then she reached over her shoulder and drew the Blacksword.
Dupre and Spark rushed to protect the dumbstruck Iolo while Tseramed and Jaana attacked their once-time friend, Elora.
Shamino had other plans. He edged closer to the Castle gate. If he could get through and warn Lord British, the king could use HIS orb to gate help to the Isle of the Avatar and stop Elora. No, his orb wouldn't work...the Virtue Stones. One of them was marked for the Isle, he was sure.
Elora's face was set in a cold expression as she easily defended herself. Only Dupre was her match with a blade, but now, skill meant nothing. Protected from the Mystic weapons by the Mystic armour she wore, and from magic by the Crown, here she was invincible.
Oh, her false friends tried to talk to her. They spoke of commitment and loyalty, friendship and past events, Britannia and Earth and more. But each held a different meaning to her, now. Especially Earth. She could go home and claim it in the name of the Guardian.
"Shamino, what art thou doing?" Spark shouted.
Elora spun about, every sense pointing at danger, so see the man in the blue surcoat preparing to jump through a gate. Ignoring the sword strokes rained down on her, she pointed at Shamino and called on the arts of the Shadowlords.
An arrow, ebony black, appeared out of nowhere and hovered in midair, directed at Shamino.
He froze to the spot, gaze riveted on the black bolt.
Elora nodded. "Remember this, do you? When I first struck you down with the same spell so long ago?"
With audible tension, he replied, "It was not thee."
"If you mean it was the Shadowlords, then it was me, for I am them." She smiled. "What did it feel like, Shamino?" she asked maliciously.
"Like pure evil," he whispered, trembling with fear.
Elora was delighted. "And you felt it at work in you. It would have been so easy to give up to its power. Now I'll give you another chance to do so."
Suddenly, Dupre was before her and he drove his fist into her face. Both grunted with the impact as the knight had struck the nasal-bar protecting Elora's nose, though that hadn't been enough to completely save her.
Dazed, the Avatar fell back and landed hard, shaking her head in confusion. Dupre merely touched his sore hand experimentally, then moved to stand above Elora. He held his sword so that the point dangled above her exposed throat - for she wore the Ankh instead of a gorgot or collar.
The Avatar blinked a few times, then waved a hand negligently.
Shamino's cry of pain turned Dupre's head and before he knew it, the Blacksword was buried in his stomach.
Elora smiled almost gleefully and twisted the sword in the knight's vitals, watching the blood pour freely.
"Avatar," he said weakly.
Shock abruptly registered on Elora's face and she caught Dupre as he fell, lowering him to the bloody floor. "Dupre," she whispered in horror, taking hold of the Blacksword's hilt. "By Infinity...what have I done?" She looked over at where Jaana knelt beside Shamino near the moongates.
The black arrow protruded from his chest and the Mystic armour shimmered strangely around the puncture. Sweat poured off his face and his teeth were gritted as his chest rose and fell rapidly.
"What have I done?" she whispered again. Elora stood up slowly, then pulled Arcadion free causing Dupre to double up in a fresh wave of agony. "Oh that's right," she said in an offhand voice. "I remember now."
"By the Virtues, Avatar," shouted Iolo. "Dost thou remember nothing?"
"Ah...the last of my 'Great' companions. Arcadion, you may Fire when ready."
"Yes, Master," the blade muttered.
"Arcadion," called Iolo. "Canst thou not stop her?"
"No," it replied. "But I think I've decided this might be...fun."
Iolo stood dead still and looked Elora straight in the eyes. "Then so be it. Kill me now so I don't have to see what Britannia becomes later."
Elora paused. "Now that is a good idea." She admitted. "A living Hell." Her face became reflective. "That brings back memories."
Jaana looked up from where she was trying to heal Dupre. "What art thou going to do?"
Elora pulled out the orb again and closed the gate which led to the Castle. "Leave you safely here until I'm ready to let you out. Might take a while..."
The orb of the moons suddenly flew from her hand as something small and hard struck her across the fingers. Angrily, she turned and scowled at Spark, who was fumbling desperately for another sling stone. "You will really regret that," the Avatar grated, raising her hand to point.
Spark dropped his sling and dodged with all the agility youth gave him.
Iolo and Tseramed sought to knock Elora down as she fired her black arrows. All three went down on the floor and two bolts were shot wild. Elora moved to get free, cursing her sword for being too large for close fighting.
Then she caught sight of Spark and fired. The arrow sped towards his heart...and pierced it to the sound of shattering glass.
Elora's eyes widened and she levered herself up and saw her own face appear at Spark's feet.
"The mirror," she said, then swore and leaped to her feet.
The ground gave a violent lurch and stress lines appeared across the walls and roof in imitation of the ones on the mirror. As a shard of glass fell, a cracking noise erupted from the room and a gaping black hole opened in the floor near Umdelor's body.
Tseramed grabbed the orb before it fell into the Void then dragged Umdelor back from the brink.
Elora sighed. "Well, gotta run. See you in Britannia - if you make it, that is." With a heroic leap, she cleared the hole and entered the remaining red moongate as the reflection of the mirror prison continued to self-destruct.
Dupre groaned as Tseramed helped him up. "Open a gate to the Isle..." the knight began before coughing up blood.
"No," said the archer. "To the Castle. Only Lord British can stop her."
"'Twill be too late!" Dupre protested, urgency lending him strength.
"Only if thou dost keep arguing!" With that, Tseramed opened a moongate to the Castle and the mirror prison collapsed.
On the Isle of the Avatar, it was raining. A steady downpour pounded the rocky cliffs and small beach forming infinitesimal rivulets of water which flowed freely down to meet the sea. The large bay seemed draped in a perpetual fog, as the rain stirred up a thick blanket of ocean spray. The steel-grey sky roiled with dark clouds and there was the distant sound of thunder.
Abruptly, the rain turned red as blood. A ruby door rose up from the sand and stood there a long, silent time before anyone emerged from it. But when someone did, all sounds were suddenly muted, as if in fear.
Someone dressed in Mystic armour and an Ankh-bearing tabard, and holding a black sword. Mailed hands removed a Crown surmounted helm to uncover a face familiar to this place...yet unfamiliar.
She dropped the helm and Crown on the wet sand, sheathed the sword in a scabbard slung across her back, then retrieved a small, black Jewel from the front of her armour.
Lightning split the sky with white fire and a deafening clap of thunder shook the air and the very island. The Avatar seemed amused at the display, as if she were secretly laughing at a joke only she understood.
The moongate gave a twitch then became narrower, closing the wrong way.
"Interesting," Elora mused aloud before returning her attention to the Jewel. "Now witness my unwavering loyalty to you, Guardian." She faced north and started to walk.
The rain-drenched cliffs lining the narrow path soon gave way to the gigantic statues, called the Guardians, which knelt one on either side of the path. The white and blue marble beings had been set there ages ago to guard the Shrine of the Codex, but since the Codex's removal to the Void, they had ceased to function. They slept.
"I always thought you guys reminded me of the Southern Oracle in 'The Neverending Story,'" Elora said as she passed between them.
The Guardians, silent for two hundred years, did not respond or deny her entry.
The Shrine itself was a masterpiece of architecture. Elora didn't pause to admire it, though. The graceful pillars and arches held nothing for her. She strode right up to the empty altar that was flanked by two burning, holy braziers. The firelight cast shadows everywhere, shadows that seemed to watch eagerly, awaiting release.
The Avatar looked at the wall facing her, which was etched with the six-pointed star and the triple-circle symbol that adorned the cover of the Codex.
"No prophecy prepared you for this," she said softly. "What page would you show me now, I wonder? Love and Truth and Courage!" she spat. "They are no match for what I have now. Love is no weapon, Truth is a flimsy shield at best and Courage will avail you nothing against what armies I will raise."
She held up the Black Jewel cupped in both hands above her head and raised her face to gaze into the gem. Power, freedom, immortality...she would have it all and more besides. Her Master had promised.
Parting her lips, she called out in a massive voice. "TIR MORDRETH!"
Lord British stumbled on his way to the throne and caught himself before falling. The incident should have humiliated him, but he had not faltered by accident. Something had...provoked the mistake. Turning to Nystul, he said, "something is amiss!"
The mage's face was pale. "I felt it also, milord. A terrible disturbance in the ether! It is directly effecting Britannia!"
"But what is it?" the king closed his eyes and incanted. "I cannot locate it."
A guard sprinted into the throneroom and barely managed to bow before speaking. Clearly agitated, he called, "My lord! There is an emergency in the central gardens! The Avatar..."
Lord British didn't wait to hear the rest. With Nystul and Geoffrey at his sides, he hurried out to the garden and sucked in a deep breath at the bloody scene before him.
"My lord..." Shamino said in a shallow voice.
Jaana was bending over Dupre's blood-soaked form and Tseramed was lowering an inert gargoyle body to the grassy ground. Iolo sat by the fountain, his face buried in his hands as Spark awkwardly patted his back. Swiftly, Lord British nodded to Nystul and the two started to perform healing spells.
"You are ready," a familiar Voice said. "Return to me."
But a second voice, strange to her ears but...not to her soul, said, "RETURN TO ME."
"She is MINE!" the first said.
"NO, SHE IS NOT."
"She was divided!"
"SHE WAS FREE."
"She was empty of the strength of Doom!"
"SHE WAS FULL OF THE POWER OF SPIRITUALITY."
Angry, she turned back to the mirror, intending to destroy it and negate the possibility of returning to her former weak state. But there stood a reflection and she could not avoid seeing herself.
The image was garbed in armour of purest white and bore an incandescent sword. With her free hand, the image removed her helmet and put it on the floor beside a shield. Then she looked up.
The face was her own.
"She had no knowledge of my Cause!"
"SHE WORE THE BELT OF TRUTH."
"She knew not the meaning of power!"
"SHE WORE THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS."
"She knew not how to make war!"
"SHE WORE THE BOOTS OF PEACE."
"She knew not whom she served!"
"SHE BORE THE SHIELD OF FAITH."
"She knew not that she was a prisoner!"
"SHE WORE THE HELMET OF SALVATION."
The white clad reflection reached out to her and she regarded the action with conflicting emotions. There was no accusation in the green eyes, no question of loyalty on her lips, just a simple offering to return. She looked her black armour over and saw only judgement and fear. A part of her noted that this time, she would be the one to incite that fear and a flush of anticipation washed through her...only to vanish as she again met the eyes of her opposite.
She had lost more in donning the evil armour than she had gained. These black virtues had no purpose. They were merely the absence of those the white figure stood for.
Purposefully, she reached towards the mirror and the first Voice vent a scream of furious denial...
"Iolo!" Lord British repeated. "Art thou hurt?"
The bard moved his hands and said bitterly, "in a spiritual sense, milord. But I'm sure the physical will set in soon enough." His tired body shook with silent sobs. "I will never hold my Gwenno again..."
Lord British frowned. "What happened since thy return to Doom?"
But Iolo wasn't listening. He lowered his head again and tears ran down his weathered face. "Ah, my lord, we lost her. She was not strong enough and he...he...the Guardian killed her, my lord. The Avatar is dead!"
Shocked whispers ran through the spectators and Lord British staggered against the low basin of the fountain. "Iolo," he whispered. "The Guardian slew Elora?"
"No," the bard said in a deathly quiet voice. "He converted her."
...And I found myself on the other side.
"She knows not how to defeat me!"
"SHE BEARS THE SWORD OF THE SPIRIT."
I blinked, as if awakening from a dream, though the shadow-walls, the area I vaguely remembered was still here, surrounding me.
I shook my head to clear out the fog and block out the voices of the shadows, but two voices remained clear, though they were now silent.
"Umdelor," I whispered, remembering. His last words - what had he said? Fight with the heart, mind and...spirit! I raised my right hand and felt the comfortable weight of a sword nestled in the palm. White as snow, long and straight and sharp...it radiated light more strongly than the Black Jewel could remove it.
Lifting the sword, I faced the mirror and without pause smashed it with a single stroke. Never would I join forces with the Guardian. I felt no reaction to the fact that I technically HAD. Had I rejected the Guardian and his offer in the Ethereal Plane, my friends and I would have been killed. Joining him without holding back, with only the faintest hope of breaking free once clear of the Mirror Prison, had been the only hope of victory.
Had we won?
The glittering fragments of the mirror vanished before passing through the mist shrouding the floor. The frame burst into scarlet flames and melted down to nothing in the passing of a few seconds.
"WELL DONE, AVATAR OF BRITANNIA," said the second voice, a voice echoing rushing water. "I AM WELL PLEASED WITH YOU."
In a flash of insight, I lowered myself to my knees, clasping the hilt of the Spiritblade - the reflection of my own character. It was white and shining. It bore no jewel or decoration, nothing to hide what it was or make it appear more than what it seemed. I felt the reassuring warmth flow through it and spoke into the mists. "Master..?"
The shadow-walls became less dark, pierced by light. "YES, AVATAR?"
I hesitated, feeling the way you do just when you're about to wake from a dream. "Master," I said again. "Who are you?"
The barren plain was drenched with sudden light as the voice replied, "I AM."
Then everything faded and my eyes widened, hands clenching around the Spiritblade's ivory-white hilt. In a voice overflowing with pure awe, I whispered, "Oh, my God..!"
The thunderous Voice brought me back and I looked around in bewilderment at my surroundings. The Shrine of the Codex...? I remembered...
I looked up past the sight of the Black Jewel and at the monstrous form of the Guardian. He stared down at me and his fiery eyes narrowed, as if sensing the fracturing of his carefully made plans.
"Britannia is mine!" he roared. "You know not how to defeat me!" He pointed with a gigantic finger. "Kneel or die! I am the Shadowlord of Doom!"
Shadowlord! The title clicked something in my mind, something from the distant past. My eyes focussed on the Jewel again, which I still held high. I blinked. This pose felt very familiar.
The Guardian's eyes widened in shock at the look of illumination that must have crossed my face. Throwing his arms across his face he screamed, "NO!"
I turned slightly to face one of the braziers and cast the Jewel of Doom into the Eternal Flame of Infinity!
A pillar of billowing flames exploded upwards from the basin to consume the Guardian, the conflagration blowing sky high. The second brazier, which held the Flame of Singularity, also roared to life and added the power of the gargoyles' virtues to those of the britannians. The Guardian vanished from sight, whether hidden by the influx of sapphire and amethyst flames or some other reason.
My eyes teared from the intensity of the light and I stared into the blazing sheets of flame, straining to see anything, but the Guardian was truly gone. I listened intently for a deep chuckle, a taunt, a threat...but nothing.
The flames slowly died down until they were merely flickering lights in the braziers again, and I whispered, "The doom of the Shadowlord of Doom is wrought," all the while wondering if those words meant anything.
A shimmering on the wall caught my eyes and I watched as the Codex appeared, surrounded by the starry emptiness of the Void.
"Umm, I didn't mean what I said before," I said. "Well, I guess at the time I did, but..."
The golden book opened and I bit my lip, then read what it showed me.
'One shall come with the strength of an army, the vision of a prophet and the heart of a saint. This Great One will bring about an end to the struggle between the darkness and the light.'
I stared at the ancient prophecy for a long time, then grinned.
"A soul trap is the best explanation I have," I told Arcadion. "I knew exactly what was happening before, but it was as if through another's eyes."
"But were your thoughts your own?" the daemon asked.
I considered. "I suppose they were...but they were the same as the thoughts of those who controlled me. It's difficult to explain." I sighed. "The hate was real...it all was. And it scared me to death."
Arcadion's jewel pulsed. "What made you turn back? A scarce few have, and fewer lived to tell of it. Many kill themselves from remorse."
Scraping back wet hair from my face with one hand and tracing runes in the sand with the other, I replied, "I...don't think I can explain it. You'd have to see it yourself."
"Hmm. It must be...indescribable."
I chuckled. "I suppose it was, at that. But unforgettable."
We were silent a while and I just sat there, listening to the rain and the rush of waves...revelling in all the sensations that had been absent in the dungeons. After passing back through the statues of the Guardians, I had somehow managed to awaken them and call for their aid.
"The shine is once again in need of protection," I had said. "Will you both resume your duties and guard against the threat which hovers over Britannia?"
In a musical voice - or maybe it was voices - they responded, "We will."
"People may enter, but none may leave with the Black Jewel of Mondain."
"How long do you think it will take for your companions to arrive?" Arcadion asked.
I shrugged. "If they escaped..." I fell silent, then continued. "I guess I could cast Gate Travel. No, that still requires moongates."
The Blacksword glistened wetly then Arcadion inquired, "Where are you going?"
"On a holiday." I stretched, feeling the rain wash the dirt of the dungeon from my face. "Maybe I'll stop off at the Castle first, I just don't know. I have a lot to think about." I scratched another rune in the sand. "To think about by myself."
"And Umdelor and the Guardian and everything. But I will never be that afraid again," I vowed.
"The Dark Realm," said Arcadion.
"It is the name daemons give for anything born of fear or terror. Few have wandered the Dark Realm and returned to the light."
"That gives a whole new meaning to the term 'blind with fear,'" I noted thoughtfully.
Arcadion fell silent and I looked around, trying to remember the last time I'd been here. Weeks, maybe months ago, when my friends and I had flown here to find the Fellowship leaders.
The Magic Carpet!
Standing, I grabbed the Blacksword and my helmet then attempted to get my bearings. It started to pour. I couldn't stifle a laugh as I was completely saturated. Tipping the water out of my helm, I set off in what I hoped was a westerly direction.
The Magic Carpet flew northwest over the snow-capped summits of the mountains. The rain had stopped only to be replaced by a full-blown gale which shrieked through the crags and blew my wet hair around my face. The clouds had broken, however, and the light of the sun hovering above the western horizon drenched the Isle of the Avatar in golden illumination.
"How do I steer this thing?" I muttered. Usually, the combined weights of four or more people could 'tilt' the carpet around...
I finally resigned myself to casting telekinesis and used the spell to aid in control over the carpet as the wind tried to take over.
Speeding between two glittering, icy peaks, I cleared the island's coast and couldn't resist looking back at the sheer cliff, pounded against by relentless, powerful waves. The sea threw itself at the rocks and exploded into dazzling scatterings of droplets.
The sound of them was almost inaudible amidst the wind. Turning back, I faced the vast, watery expanse before me...and blinked, almost falling in surprise.
A whirlpool. I stared down its gigantic, watery throat and imagined I could see darkness. Maybe it opened into the Underworld. The dizzying vortex mesmerised me and I shook my head to clear it, half-standing...then falling as a blast of wind buffeted me.
The world spun in a blur instants before I hit the water. Cold as ice, it closed over my hear and I struggled upwards against the drag of my armour. Above, I noticed the faint outline of the carpet drifting away without me. I broke the surface and took a ragged gasp of air and seawater before being submerged again.
Underwater, I reflexively coughed up the liquid from my lungs only to breathe more in. Instinct took hold and I tried again to breathe...my chest burned...my heart throbbed and pounded...my vision went black.
An ungentle, painful force pushed against my stomach and chest. I choked and retched violently for what seemed like ages. When no more would come, I blindly pushed myself up...and weakly vomited again.
Finally, I drew in a deep shuddering breath and opened my eyes to blackness. My chest constricted but I swallowed back the bile and hastily wiped my teeth with the cloth of my surcoat before the stomach acids could eat them away.
Then I lowered myself down again and groaned at the pain that flashed across my chest. The rocky ground jabbed me mercilessly through my armour but I couldn't seem to summon enough will to move.
"Hello?" a male voice called.
I tried to return the greeting but managed only an unintelligible, "urrrrghh..."
Hearing the unmistakable slither of a sword being drawn, I forced myself to stand and looked towards a glimmer of light coming nearer.
"Who goes?" the voice said warily.
Giving up, I turned my head and threw up. The stranger was beside me with a lantern before I was capable of doing anything else.
"Thou dost choose some strange ways to visit me, Elora," he said, helping me up.
I grinned weakly. "Hello, Johne."
"Draxinusom doesn't know yet," I added after telling Captain Johne all that had happened. "Should I tell him?"
The old man sighed. "Umdelor was special in the stance he took between gargoyles and humans." He stood and crossed over to a laden shelf so I took the opportunity to glance around from where I sat.
The small house, britannian to all outward appearances, was classic gargish on the inside. A few potted plants that could survive without sunlight, two sleeping mats - one of which I assumed Umdelor had used, three groups of three glowing spheres which hovered at various places to provide light...gargish art and science and more.
Johne put a heavy book down on the table. "I felt the need to record all information he gave me," he explained, opening it to somewhere near the end.
"Gargish runes?" I guessed, spotting the text.
Johne smiled. "I suppose a translation will be needed if this volume is to be of any use."
Regarding the sheer size of the leather-bound tome, I remarked, "That would take some time."
"Well, I'm going nowhere," Johne replied. "And it's not entirely my choice." He leaned over the table. "I feel them still, Elora. Even after so long...so very long...even now, they won't let me go."
I sighed. "Then it isn't over."
He shook his head sadly. "Nay, it isn't. But enough about the Shadowlords. With any luck, they won't be back for a while." He ran a finger down the yellowed page. "Yes...Umdelor. After his father died on Terfin, Beh Lem came back to me - don't ask me how. The company was mutually appreciated. Thou knowest the hatred some gargoyles have for thee?"
"Yes. They blame me for the Underworld's destruction."
Johne nodded. "Think of the hostility Beh Lem - who helped thee, would have endured." Johne sighed. "That is why he came back to me. Oh, he still had friends, but they were, plainly put, outnumbered."
I shifted uncomfortably, taking care not to upset the bandages around my chest. "He spoke of a dragon."
The former Captain chuckled. "Aye. Beh Lem went to the Codex's shrine seeking instruction on what he should do. The quest he was sent on led to the encounter with his dragon."
"This was after his oath to you?"
Johne let out an exasperated sound. "His oath was not made at my request," he told me. "Gargoyles get all excited when one mentions 'quest,' 'Avatar' and 'Doom' in one sentence."
"So do we," uttered Arcadion. "Except we don't go all gooey. Our reactions tend more towards homicide."
I ignored him, hoping Johne hadn't heard. "Then what was it? Umdelor seemed most adamant."
"I'm sure he was. I developed a very strong streak of stubbornness in his nature. What happened, was that I was telling him about why I lived apart from other humans." I nodded understanding. "I finished it by saying rather wistfully, 'Had I the courage, I would continue the Avatar's quest and destroy the remaining shards of the Jewel of Doom.'"
I blinked. "Remaining shards?"
Johne produced another book and blew dust from it. "There were more than three; though if this Guardian could use just those to come into Britannia in his full form, they're likely unimportant."
"I hope so," I said fervently.
"Anyway, Beh Lem got all enthusiastic and made the promise he told thee about. I decided he'd spent long enough down here, so," he shrugged. "I accepted."
I sighed. "I see."
"I think twenty years passed before I saw him again, and when I did, I barely recognised him." Johne passed the second book to me. "That was his journal. An affection," he added with a smile. "After I told him I had kept one as a Captain, he decided to follow suit." Johne stood. "Coffee? There is water boiling in the hot sprint outside."
I opened the cover. "Please."
He grinned and departed, leaving me alone.
I turned a few pages and was pleased to see Umdelor - or Beh Lem, back then - had written his journal in britannian runes. Speed-reading down a few leaves, my eyes were soon caught by a sentence.
'The Codex read - "Follow the footsteps of the creature of light, and thou shalt descend into the heard of darkness from which there is no return."'
I stared. Had Umdelor known that I had been leading him to his death? The following read, 'I took this to mean that if I follow the sun west, I will find the Black Jewel which will destroy me if I seek to control it unaided.' I shook my head and flipped more pages but I was tired and nothing grabbed me.
Johne returned with two steaming mugs.
"You pardon, Johne," I said. "But could I have tea instead? Coffee tends to keep me awake."
He nodded sagely. "Ahh, aye, of course."
I closed the book as he moved towards a bench. "Would you mind if I...um...borrow this book when I leave?"
I knew he smiled even with his back to me. "Feel free. I'll understand if I don't get it back any time soon."
I stood, suppressing a groan as my ribs creaked and went over to him. "Why, Johne? Why don't you go back above?"
Johne stirred one of the cups. "Avatar, thee and thy friends have mine eternal gratitude for taking me away from my sunked ship. Dungeon Despise was...inhospitable at best. But after Nosfentor struck me and thou wert forced to leave me in Moonglow..." he offered me a cup. "I despaired that the Shadowlords would ever be stopped. It was impossible for me not to speak of my part in the whole matter and...those that believed me drove me away."
"Johne, those people must have died ages ago!"
"Words live longer than man," the old Captain replied, returning to his seat. "I don't think I'd care to find out if my words still survive after the latest incident."
"I guess," I responded non-committally, leaning back on the bench. My chest protested and I resigned myself to walking back to my chair.
"Still hurting?" Johne asked, changing the topic with a complete lack of tact.
I laughed and winced. "Yes."
"Forgive me, I don't keep many potions or reagents anymore. The reagents ran out recently."
"Never mind. I'll leave you what I have left and bring more if I can."
Johne waved a hand absently. "Don't bother. Hythloth has many caches of reagents, though I find the ones I least need grow the best!"
I coughed on a mouthful and said, "Nightshade?"
"Aye," he replied with a smile. "All it's good for is poisoning the rats."
I laughed and winced again. "Maybe you should put something soft on those rocks for the next visitor," I suggested.
Johne said, "Thou wert lucky. Few things appear down here that don't end up landing in the lava lake."
"Lava lake?" My eyes drifted to the pile of armour in the corner, the Mystic sword lying atop it.
"Aye, and that's where I get all my heat from in this cold place." He sipped his drink.
"Were my friends down here before?"
"Indeed they were. Did some excavating of the lava lake, actually." He followed my gaze to the armour and sword. "I see," he said softly.
"Maybe Jaana was right about the whirlpool," I said, referring to the one that had sunk the ship carrying the Mystic artifacts.
Johne pursed his lips. "What wilt thou do?"
I drained my cup and stood. "First, I'd like to get a good night sleep - " with no dreams, I silently added, " - and I'll worry about tomorrow when it comes."
"Very well," he said, smiling. "Thou canst use that mat there tonight. Dost thou want a blanket?"
"No, thank thee," I answered, remembering my manners. "I'll just - " I yawned. " - collapse, if that's ok."
I lay down on the may finding it soft and springy. My tired body virtually melted into it and my eyes drifted shut.
"I'm flattered, Master," Arcadion's voice whispered in my ear, startling me out of my half-sleep. "But I doubt you'll find me a comfortable bed-mate."
Grunting a less than amused reply, I moved my hands the necessary few inches to the scabbard's buckle, unfastened it, and dumped the Blacksword on the floor.
"Pleasant dreams," the daemon muttered.
I lay still, then closed my eyes again. Listening to the soft clatter of Johne clearing the table, I smiled contentedly and relaxed...
...because the Voice I had most expected to speak those two words to me, was silent.
Taking the Mystic sword by the hilt, I swung it back over my shoulder and threw. The shimmering blade sailed through the darkness and landed point down in the glowing, molten lava.
"I wonder who forged them," Johne mused as the weapon sank beside the spot where the armour was submerged.
"We forge them," I said absently, watching as the pure white light, untinged by the lava's red, sank lower.
I frowned slightly, perplexed at my own words. "They are...symbolic," I replied at last. "They are a reflection of ourselves. Our spirit."
The hilt vanished beneath the liquid rock and the darkness of the cave became darker without the blade's illumination.
"Like the Spiritblade thou spokest of?"
"I guess so," I agreed. "Physical manifestation? I'll have to think about it."
We sat staring at the crater of sluggishly moving lava for a while, the heat only just bearable. I was wearing clothes borrowed from Johne - though they were definitely female garments. Johne had said only that he had retrieved them from his sunken ship and he seemed reluctant to speak further on the topic.
The skirt was forest green as was the light doublet, which left my arms and shoulders bare. On my feet I wore finely crafted leather thigh-boots which fit me to perfection. My old clothes I had worn under my armour I had tossed into the flaming magma.
"Johne," I said presently. "How did my companions seem to you when they came down for the Mystic gear?"
"Worried," he answered. "They spoke of little else but the daemon and thee for the few days they spent with me." He regarded me closely. "But they never doubted thee. They never considered that thou wouldst change sides."
That hurt more than anything the Guardian had thrown at me. "I betrayed them," I whispered. "For all I know, Dupre and Shamino...all of them could be dead."
"Elora, it is not thy fault."
"I took that sword up and tried to kill them!"
"The Guardian was using thee."
I sighed. "I knew exactly what I was doing - I wanted to do it." Shaking my head, "I hated them so much. I meant everything I said...it's as if the Jewel magnified all my negative emotions a thousandfold."
The old Captain nodded, his eyes revealing long-buried memories. "That is exactly what it does. It enlarges the shadows until they cloud out all the light." He put a hand on my shoulder. "It's not thy fault."
I met his gaze. "If I believe it, will you?"
He smiled sadly. "I guess I asked for that."
Reaching up, I gripped his hand. "You'll find rest one day, my friend."
"May the Virtues grant that we both do."
"That's where they tunneled through," Johne said, pointing.
The cave mouth was jagged and debris littered the area. The opening into the dungeon Hythloth which led back up to Britannia was pitch black.
"So the Underworld did collapse?" I asked.
"Aye, and truth to tell, I expected this place to go first." Johne rubbed a floor-to-roof stalactite almost affectionately. "Stronger than I thought."
Already I'd been down here a week. The first night had seen me sleeping for almost two full days, according to Johne. Hot springs and soap provided bathing to rival the bath-houses at Buccaneer's Den and the food Johne had was thankfully much better then jerky.
After the lava lake, he'd shown me the caved-in tunnels which had led to the gargoyle land, various caverns and subterranean gardens, and lastly, the way my companions had entered.
I knew Johne didn't want me to leave too soon, heaven knew he must be lonely, but I didn't have the luxury of isolation. Too many things had been left undone and I had to attend to them.
The greenish-grey lichen was brittle and crunched loudly as I approached the opening. Marks on the rocks indicated the use of mining tools.
"I heard all the clatter they made and called through the rocks," he continued. "When Dupre shouted back, then I grabbed up a pick and started to help."
"How long did it take?"
"I believe Dupre said two days before I came along...so three, maybe four?"
I smiled. "Dupre was never one to lie around."
Johne brought the lamp closer and the dim light revealed the dark-brown earthen walls beyond. "Nor art thou, I take it."
I sighed. "I must go back."
His eyes gleamed in the light. "I understand."
"Do you want the clothes back?"
He looked me up and down and I hoped I wasn't blushing. "Nay, keep them, Elora. They look good on thee." Turning towards the path which led to his house, he added, "But there is an easier way to leave here than through Hythloth."
I paused, staring into the dungeon. Something was watching us.
"Your friends brought some...um," he fumbled for the words. "Virtue Stones? Aye, that's it. Anyway, they left one here..."
I heard him turn. "Aye?"
"Do you have any trouble with monsters down here?"
He chuckled. "Not much. There WAS a scuffle with two trolls after that cave was unblocked, but..."
Catching a flicker of movement beyond the cave mouth, I assumed a defensive stance with one arm close to my side and the other bent up to protect my face.
A troll jumped forward and stopped, its attack prevented by an invisible wall. I watched as the creature attempted to push its head through the barrier, the only effect being his face squashing up like he had it flat against a pane of glass.
Johne grinned. "Aye, I had to block the entrance with a force field."
Laughing, I relaxed and watched the troll scrabble at the field.
"What form of open-hand fighting is that?" Johne inquired as we walked away.
I smiled. "On my world, it's called karate. Remind me never to leave my sword behind again!"
We passed between two large boulders encrusted with rust-coloured loam and were back in the main hall. Despite my hunger to see the sky and feel the fresh wind again, I was forced to admire the stark beauty of this place.
Years uncounted had seen to the construction of massive stalagmites which reared up straight and tall; their number making Hythloth seem like a forest of leafless, grey trees.
I shook my head, wishing more than ever for the green surroundings of Spiritwood or even the dead, golden sands of the desert.
A mongbat swooped down nearby, chittering in its strange language and pointing with a human-like hand.
Johne had pointedly told me that not every monster down here was evil - no matter what he or I might like to believe. As far as I could tell, Johne had made 'friends' with a family of mongbats, a giant spider, an old cyclops and - surprise, surprise - a wisp, which he occasionally prevailed upon for information. Except for the wisp, each primary encounter with Johne's neighbors had inevitably begun with me drawing the Blacksword. The mongbats had stared at me, the spider had actually laughed - according to Johne, and the cyclops had suffered a minor heart attack.
The entire ordeal had convinced me to leave Arcadion behind.
"He says there are creatures like us at my house," Johne said, his brow furrowing. "They appeared out of nowhere." He made a few squeaky noises and the mongbat landed on a rock, nodding its head in a strangely human gesture.
"What?" I asked. "Who are they?"
"I asked him if they wore snakes on their chests and he said yes."
I let out a sound of comprehension. "Silver serpent tabards!"
Johne nodded. "Lord British must have sent them."
The winged monkey chattered excitedly.
"Only a few wear snakes?" translated Johne. "Others bear strange symbols."
"My companions," I whispered.
The mongbat gave me a suspicious look.
"What wilt thou do?" Johne asked of me.
"You said they left a Virtue Stone here?" I asked.
"Aye. It goes to Castle Britannia."
"Fine. I'll grab the Blacksword and teleport away."
"I have a Recall scroll you can use. They're both on my desk."
I sighed. "I hope you understand why I can't face them yet."
"I understand perfectly," Johne said. "I'll try to distract them long enough for thee to escape."
I embraced him. "Thank you, Johne."
He hugged back. "And thank thee, Elora. I hope everything turns out well."
"I'll return. I promise."
Johne drew away. "I would appreciate it," he said with a smile. "The Virtues be with thee. Now go."
The mongbat screeched and took wing as I passed quickly towards the dimly lit shape of Johne's house. I conjured a glimmer of light, as large as I dared, and took a deviation from the main path. The uneven ground and irregular placements of stone pillars conspired to slow my progress. John's house only had one door and by the time I reached the building, Johne was already there, speaking to six others a short distance from it.
I doused my fire and examined the visitors. Three were clearly of the Guard, two wielding halberds and one a two-handed sword. The other three were recognisable from their bright tabards and softly glowing armour.
"Jaana, Tseramed and Spark," I whispered, wondering how the latter had convinced Lord British to let him come. Johne had mentioned not seeing a small boy among his last lot of visitors.
I stalked closer and crouched in the shadow of a wall, listening intently.
"...know she's here. When thou didst not answer the door, we went in and saw the Blacksword."
I let out a slow breath, knowing it would now be next to impossible getting inside undetected.
"I won't lie," Johne said. "She was here."
"Where is she?" the sword bearing guard asked, and I recognised Geoffrey's voice.
Johne pointed down the east path with a vague wave of his hand. "I last saw her down there, but that was five to ten minutes ago. She somehow knew ye six had arrived, then left the path."
"How did she seem to thee?" asked Jaana.
Johne started recounting some of our conversations and I considered my dilemma.
The house had one window. It was openable, but too small for me. Nevertheless, I crept around the back of the house where a hot spring sent clouds of steam into the air. The single window let out a bar of light which refracted off the evaporated water like a searchlight.
I crept to the other side of the house.
"Why did she do that?" Tseramed was asking. "She was invincible with that armour."
"Because she isn't the person who joined the Guardian!" Johne exclaimed. "She banished him!"
I could see the expressions on their faces quite clearly. None were rude enough to suggest that Johne was serving the Shadowlords, but I knew they were thinking it.
"Whose side are you on?" I muttered, disgusted.
A chorus of shrieks signalled an assault a split second before one began. About ten mongbats dove at the six visitors - Johne backed prudently away - and diverted their attention. I leaped up while the startled humans ducked and turned, their eyes following the flight of the group towards the north, their hands drawing weapons.
I took the opportunity to sneak inside.
Books were stuffed into an empty pack before I snatched up Arcadion and crossed to the desk. A white Virtue Stone sat next to a silver-chased scroll case. I opened the case and extracted the enchanted scroll, then frowned. Chances were this would teleport me to the central garden where I would certainly be seen.
I cast about quickly and found Johne's small collection of potions on top of the book case. Two were black, invisibility solutions, so I took one, hoping Johne wouldn't mind.
A tapping sound caused me to look towards the door. I waited, frozen, until the noise came again. Realising it came from the window, I turned and saw a mongbat regarding me with velvet brown eyes.
I grinned at it and waved, wondering if he would understand the gesture. To my surprise, the creature smiled back, waved, then was away.
Swiftly, I strapped pack and sword on, then pulled out the cork in the bottle with my teeth and drank the potion.
I didn't particularly like black potions as they tasted foul, and seemed to burn on the way down. My vision blurred, then colours faded to shades of grey and I knew I was now invisible to the naked eye. Picking up the scroll, I read the incantation and focussed my will on the Virtue Stone which lay on the desk. The shades of grey faded to blackness.
Disjointed voices reached my ears.
"Mmmmy llllord, dost thou ssssense ssssomething?"
"The shhhhifting of eeeether wwwwaves."
"Mmmmayhap Geoffrey is rrrreturning."
A brief flash of colour and a heartstopping instant of thinking the potion had worn off.
"Nnnno, the disturbance iiiis too small."
The greyness gave way to a blinding flash of light as my eyes, unaccustomed to the sunlight after the days underground, were laid bare to the sun's rays. Biting back a cry of pain, I squinted.
"I ssssaw something!"
Blinking furiously, I strained to see anything but the blurred greyness. I stood still, heart pounding. Sound was first to reorder itself.
"'Twas naught but a shadow."
A sigh. "Iolo was certain. But nothing has happened. Then when I sent a company to the Isle of the Avatar..."
"'Tis a mystery, milord."
"Will she return, I wonder?"
I finally made out the figures of Lord British and Nystul. I wasn't standing in the garden, but in the throneroom, so the light must have been from the many sconced candles and torches. Backing away slowly, I noted with regret the look of sadness and stress on my king's face, but continued my retreat. Guards were unaware of my passing as I walked between them, taking a right turn towards my room.
The door opened silently, for which I was grateful, as Iolo's room was nearby and so was Dupre's. Entering, I quietly closed the door and looked around, finding it in the same condition as I'd left it. Opening my pack, I plundered my drawers and chests for reagents, clothes and anything else. Sweeping my gaze over my tabletop, I stopped dead. A dagger lay on the table. Of course, I remembered how I'd come to own it. It had been plunged into my side, after all, but that's not what caught my memory. The dagger was a precise, miniature copy of the Sword of Chaos, with glass beads as imitation diamonds. I picked it up slowly, staring, wondering how I'd failed to notice it before.
All at once, a wave of nausea hit me and I could see colours again, the potion's effects having run its course. The dagger wasn't black, but a dark grey. The hilt was wooden...but the shape was exact, even to the hollow in the crosshilt where the Jewel would have fit.
I chewed my lip and put the weapon down. A few more things I crammed into my pack, one of which was the red Virtue Stone - the only one left in my room. It had been overlooked, buried as it had been under a pile of books. I had no idea to where it was marked, but I knew it no longer led to its original mark in Jhelom. Then I picked out reagents and cast Invisibility. Leaving my room, I dodged guards and castle staff, heading towards the prison. The guard room was open and congested with warriors. As I weaved between them, snatches of conversation told me most were confused, half anticipated some sort of war - probably with the gargoyles, and a few predicted the return of Mondain.
Geoffrey's second in command wasn't doing well in his attempts to calm them down.
No one noticed any shoving as I moved through to the jail. Once in, I peered into each small room. They were all empty. There was always a chance that Lord British had moved the boy, but...I squinted, trying to make out a grey shape on the stone floor of a cell.
A Fellowship medallion.
Looking both ways, I made sure no guards were nearby and cast telekinesis. The amulet lifted and flew to my hand, but remained visible. I turned it over and saw runes etched into its surface. They read, 'Too easy.'
Mentally replacing the medallion where I'd found it, I silently left and returned to the throneroom. It was empty save for the honour guard, so I went to Lord British's room and snuck in.
It too was empty, but I wasn't looking for people. On his table lay two black stones - two orbs. I touched each one with invisible fingers. One was warm with the after-effects of summoning a moongate. I took it, hoped it would still work, then left the room.
Back in the throneroom, I watched curiously as Lord British, Nystul, Iolo and six guards almost ran from the western passage towards the eastern.
"Someone cast a spell there!" Nystul was saying animatedly. "Now the prisons!"
I walked further into the room and blinked, for two of the guards were staring at me.
"Look!" one shouted. "My lords!"
I glanced around in desperation. I was still invisible...
Lord British, Nystul and Iolo came back into view, all three looking where I stood.
"Elora, wait!" Iolo shouted.
Then it struck me. The orb of the moons was visible!
Guards closed in and I held out the orb, concentrated, then willed as many moongates into being as I could, thereby surrounding myself with red doors. The doors wavered crazily and thin lines of bright lightning lanced across their crimson surfaces. Even as I watched, one of the gates collapsed and I was forced to raise another. They didn't look very safe. I clenched my hand around the orb and felt it growing colder by the second.
"Avatar!" I heard Lord British call. "What art thou doing?"
I put the orb on the floor then removed my Ankh, laying it beside it. "I'm going away for a while," I called, giving up the pretense of invisibility. "My lord, I need time to myself. I need to think and I need to be alone."
"May we not speak first?"
"Rest easy, milord," I said. "I am no enemy of thine nor of Britannia."
"I never doubted it," the monarch replied, his voice nearer. "But what has happened?"
"Talk to Captain Johne. I told him everything. Or wait until Iolo composes the ballad," I added, amused.
With a hint of reproach, "Elora..."
"Please, my lord. I'm going and don't follow. I beg thee, don't look for me unless thy need is urgent."
"How will we find thee?"
"I'll be around," I answered, retrieving the Virtue Stone and some reagents. "Britannia still needs protecting."
I cast Recall.
"Thy pardon, milady."
The man hoisted his bundle of wood across his shoulders again and continued to walk on his way east, as I travelled west. Around me, the gigantic Yew trees of the Deep Forest rustled in the breeze, their broad branches reaching up to embrace the noon sky. The air was fresh and clean, carrying scents of the forest and the promise of clear weather.
Since leaving the Castle of Lord British, my basically aimless wanderings had taken me almost everywhere. Verity Isle, Serpent's Hold, Minoc and Vespar, Dagger Isle, Terfin...even Skara Brae.
Few recognised me unless I told them my identity. I supposed I looked very different without my armour and without my friends. I shook off my pensive mood, thinking.
The encounter with Mariah at the Lycaeum had almost seen me discovered, as had the run-in with the warrioress Syria at Jhelom. As far as I knew, only three people knew of me as I was now. Penumbra had been particularly helpful in providing me with advice and magical equipment. Draxinusom of the gargoyles, once I'd shared my news with him, had been more than willing to supply me with more mundane gear and anything else I required.
"The child was the link between our races," the ancient gargoyle had said. "Has it been severed, do you think?"
"No," I had replied in his own tongue. "Never that. Just weakened."
"But how can the breach be repaired? Some humans will never accept us."
I hadn't denied that humans more than gargoyles were the main problem. "To be afraid only time and work will build the bridge you need."
"You said Umdelor had a journal?"
"Yes, but he wrote it in Britannian runes. I'll translate it for you and send it here, if that meets with your approval?"
"We thank you again, friend Avatar."
"To only wish I could do more, prilem Draxinusom."
I shifted the hunting bow on my shoulder and considered the other one. Horance, ex-liche lord had recognised me instantly. It had something to do with spiritual auras, he had said. Mine was evidently distinct. My stay in Skara Brae had been a long one as the ghost actually remembered the presence of Mondain. More, he could glimpse parts of Mondain's shady past. Our conversations had lasted many, many nights.
Now I traveled to visit Nicodemus, the mage of Empath Abbey. If I walked a bit faster, I might even make it that day.
An arrow struck the ground before me and I halted. Travelling alone certainly had disadvantages. Hostile encounters had been numerous since I had very limited means of magical travel available. Traversing Britannia's roads had been an education - two of the lessons had almost ended up with me failing.
"Drop thy weapons!"
Rolling my eyes in boredom, I lay down my unstrung bow and quiver of arrows. Unsheathing the Blacksword, I stuck it point down in the dirt. A couple of guarded whistles of admiration could be heard at the sight of the weapon.
"Daggers too, milady."
Only one was visible, so I tugged it from my belt and sent it to the road with a flick of my wrist.
Two leather-clad men approached from the trees, one holding a shortsword, the other a spiked mace, so I guessed the archer had a bead on me from some unseen position. At least three bandits. The two came on cautiously, for though I was only a woman, that I was under arms suggested that I knew how to use them - however badly. Women were generally held in higher regard here than on Earth, but they were still only women.
I tried not to smirk.
"Take her weapons," someone called. "Then take her."
"Dead or alive?" shouted the swordsman.
"Whichever the lady prefers."
This remark brought several laughs. My face clear of expression, I counted and guessed six bandits total.
"Careful, Mace, that one looks like a fighter," said one of the two.
"I know what I'm doing, Dirk," the maceman retorted.
"What's this?" I asked, letting amusement show.
"Thou hast been waylaid by the Arsenal, milady," said the one called Mace with a courtly bow. "Wilt thou come quietly or shall I let Longbow shoot thee down?"
That suggested only a single archer, but I wasn't willing to bet my life on that. "What?" I replied, an evil smile crossing my face. "Thou art incapable of taking one defenceless girl alive?"
"Hey, Mace, this sword won't let me pick it up!"
Two more men appeared and I noted one wearing chain mail and a sabre, the other in leather and holding a two-handed hammer.
"Sabre, this thing is magical!"
A fifth and sixth man climbed down from trees then faced me, bow and crossbow ready to fire.
My arms were suddenly grabbed roughly and pinned behind my back by a seventh man I hadn't seen. As my backpack was pulled off me, I ground my teeth and waited patiently. "How's this think work?" said Dirk, holding a firewand. The thing suddenly discharged, sending a fireball into his face. The man screamed as he flew several feet down the road, convulsed, then lay still.
Mace swore. "That bitch killed him!"
The archers tensed.
"I did nothing! It's no fault of mine he's never seen a firewand!"
"Sorcerous bitch," the hammer man spat.
"Wait up, boys," Sabre said. "Hammer, get those magic shackles and put them on her. We can still have our fun and get her to show us that sword's powers without danger."
I almost laughed. Anti-magic chains? Someone had really ripped off these fools. I hoped.
While we waited, Longbow stood with his fellows and took my arrows and spare bowstrings. Sabre forbade anyone to look through my pack - Dirk's partially burned body as the warning.
"She seems strong enough," observed the man holding me from behind. "How long dost thou think she'll last?"
Mace laughed harshly. "Not long enough if thou dost get first go!"
The wait drew longer.
"Where by Hythloth is he?" muttered Sabre.
I began to wonder the same thing.
Sabre looked hungrily at the Blacksword. "How's this thing work, wench?"
"Well, I can show thee if thou dost let me go."
He snorted. "Sure."
Innocently, I said, "Thick-skulled, aren't they, Arcadion?"
"I am forced to agree, Master," the blade replied.
"Shades and daemons!" Mace blurted, jumping back with bulging eyes.
"No, just a daemon," I corrected smoothly. "But he's such a nice daemon!"
Arcadion made a noise somewhat like an ironic snort.
"Don't be modest," I murmured with a grin.
"This is degrading."
Barely suppressing open laughter through the act of biting hard on my tongue, I pretended the tears that formed in my eyes were because I was upset. "Thou dost not appreciate me!" I whimpered.
The bandits blinked in confusion as I pulled free of my captor and caressed the glowing jewel in the Blacksword. Sabre waved away the man who had been holding me.
Arcadion said, "What a revolting development."
"Don't be stupid," I hissed softly, irritated.
"Yes...dear," the sword drawled.
I pulled him free. "Arcadion is very useful," I told the bandits. "Watch, he helps me start fires." Pointing the blade in the direction of Mace, Longbow and Sabre, I said, "Fire, please."
"Since you asked so nicely..." the daemon sniffed, though I detected he was enjoying the sham.
A thin trail of flames snaked along the ground towards the men, bypassing dry leaves and grass in some way. Finally, it reached their feet and stopped.
"Hardly useful," Sabre managed in a disappointed voice.
I shrugged. "It is if thou dost intend to do some cooking."
The flames exploded.
I threw myself forward over the fire to separate myself from the man behind me and ducked low, dropping Arcadion and drawing a dagger from each boot. Screams and shouts sounded over the crackling flames as I peered through the hot curtain, seeking targets. Balancing a dagger, I threw and heard a gurgling cry. Something zipped past my ear and I hurled the second dagger, then grabbed Arcadion and crawled for the cover of the trees.
"Good work," I muttered.
"Hardly worthy of my powers," the daemon said reproachfully.
Some minutes later, the fire sputtered out and vanished. I counted the six bodies then retrieved my gear, sparing a sigh for my bow and arrows which had been incinerated. Three of the corpses were still smouldering and I felt sick at the sight, so I quickly quit the scene, turned west and bumped into someone.
"Shamino!" I blurted, almost going limp with relief.
His eyes widened. "Elora..!"
I backed away and tried to calm down as he simply stared at me.
"If thou hadst not run into me and spoken my name, I know now it I'd have recognized thee!" he declared. He looked at Arcadion's hilt, which peeked over my right shoulder. "Then again..."
I gestured at the bodies behind me. "Bandits. One got away."
Shamino patted his Juggernaut hammer. "No, he didn't." He appraised the carnage as I grinned. "Thy prowess is truly amazing."
"I got lucky. What art thou doing here?"
"So formal?" he asked curiously. He saw my slight frown and hastily said, "I was going to visit the emps. Lord British sent me to find out more about them."
I nodded and we both stood silently for a few minutes. I uncertain, he wary.
Suddenly my eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Shamino," I whispered.
He hesitantly stepped forward and embraced me. "There is nothing to forgive."
"There is," I argued, laying my hand on his shoulder and holding him fast.
"Then I forgive thee," he said simply.
I sighed. "Thank you, my friend. It means a lot to me." I pulled away and smiled at him. "What's up at the moment?" I asked.
The curious expression on his face turned to an answering smile. "Lord British has managed to take over all the Fellowship Halls and reassert the law. The gargoyles recently opened new communications to us from Terfin and Lord Draxinusom visited the Castle for a time. We had Umdelor's funeral and entombed him in the mountains in the gargish tradition." He paused. "We returned the Mystic arms and armour to Hythloth - Geoffrey was really put out at thee for escaping like that!"
I laughed. "I almost didn't."
Shamino went on, "Then...um...there was a search...for thee."
"I asked him not to do that."
"He didn't. I assume thou meanest our liege?" I nodded. "He did nothing to help - or hinder - it. Geoffrey directed the search."
"Well, now you've found me." My eyes narrowed. "So?"
"When art thou coming back?" he asked.
"When there is need. And that is not now."
The ranger sighed. "Very well. What should I say?"
"To the emps? Nothing."
He chuckled. "As thou wishest. I shall absent myself from court for a few months. Who will find me, anyway?"
I offered to walk east with him for a while and thanked him for his discretion and company. There were certainly disadvantages to travelling alone.
'The similarities between gargoyles and daemons appear to extend further than the superficial.' I dipped my quill into an inkwell and put it to parchment again. 'Once, Arcadion mentioned "the Dark Realm," a metaphoric term for "fear." After reading the journal of Umdelor, it is apparent that this term was known to him also.'
I sat back in my chair and said to the Blacksword, "Remember when the Guardian said I walked more deeply in fear than ever before?"
"Of course. He was right."
I re-inked the quill. "And now?"
"You will always walk in fear, Avatar. You always did and always will."
"But I destroyed my fear, didn't I?
The sword glowed. "You of all people should know that Courage is not the absence of Fear, but the overcoming of it. As fear increases, so must your courage."
I sighed and wrote that down, then added, 'You have to appreciate the irony of the fact that I'm getting instruction on Courage from the Daemon of Cowardice.'
The small house that had been my home for several months now nestled next to the Serpent Spine mountains. A narrow pass lay a day's walk east which opened passage south to the Castle. The cottage had been abandoned and slightly run down so hadn't been short of chores.
The time alone had done me good, I thought. It had given me the opportunity to evaluate my thoughts and come to grips with the past.
I rubbed a hand over my face and capped the inkwell. "Time for some air, I think," I said, picking up the Blacksword.
Once outside, I locked the door - I was quite pleased with myself that I'd managed to find the key - and walked towards the small lake I used as a water supply. In the sunlight, the ripples glittered and blurred the reflection of the forest. I sat on a small rise near the lake and closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth and the sounds of birds and insects.
"Times like these, I wish I had a camera," I confided to my daemonic companion.
"Whatever you say," he replied.
I smoothed my green skirts and looked around. "Yes, definitely a panorama."
A deafening roar from the west made me turn that way and blink in amazement. A flight of five dragons soared across the sky, blackly silhouetted against the blueness, but close enough that I could see sunlight play off coloured scales. Crimson, emerald, golden, black and bronze. I watched them in open admiration, thinking of the dragon Umdelor had written of. Now that I looked at the astounding beauty of these creatures, I knew I'd never think of them as monsters again.
I followed their course to the eastern horizon before my eye was caught by a red glow on the other side of the lake. I lowered my sight to look at it.
"Moongate," I whispered, not moving. I stared at the scarlet door for what seemed an eternity, knowing to the very depths of my being that it led home.
Stumbling to my feet, I dashed headlong down the slope and around the waters edge.
"Wait!" I shouted desperately as I reached a stand of trees. One struck my shoulder as I ran past, almost dislocating it. I stopped, panting, and gripped the slender trunk, the pain making me see things with crystal clarity.
"I would not return to Earth unless I knew Britannia was safe."
My own words. I sank to my knees, watching as the gate sank with me, and wondered if the Guardian would have let me enter. Although he had not spoken to me since I'd defeated him, this was proof enough that he was still around.
I grimly waited until the moongate was fully closed, then stood, rubbing my shoulder. The glimmer of hope that had flared in my heart went out. Looking up at the sky, I whispered, "This is far from over, Guardian."
Then I turned and walked back to my house.
"I fail to see how it works!" I stated.
"Magic binds us, magic can separate us," Arcadion replied blithely. "How did you feel riding as far as halfway to the pass without me?"
"Insecure," I snapped, knowing it wasn't the answer he wanted. "Very well." I sat down. "I can't explain it. I couldn't go any further. Nothing was stopping me, I just...couldn't go any further!"
"Aside from irritation? No. I just couldn't! The horse stopped and refused to keep going to I dismounted and tried to walk. I just couldn't go any further without you."
"How touching. Well, at least you know the limit of the binding now."
My reply was interrupted by a knocking on the door. I called, "Who is it?"
"Royal messenger! I bear a letter for the lady Elora!"
I cracked the door open enough to see a young man in the garb of Lord British's couriers. Opening it wider, I demanded, "How didst thou knowest where I live?"
"I'm sorry, milady, but I don't. I'm just here to give this to thee." He held out a scroll sealed with silver wax bearing the king's serpent insignia.
I took it. "Thank thee. Um...wilt thou be staying?"
"No, milady. I must be away. Good day to thee."
"Fare thee well."
The boy walked over to the foothills, mounted a grey, valorian horse and cantered off to the west.
I shut the door and shook my head. "How did he find me? Not even Shamino knew about this place."
"Maybe the moongate last week?" suggested Arcadion.
I grunted. "Possibly. Well, anyway..." I broke the seal and slid off the blue ribbon, then unrolled the scroll and sat down.
The first words made me smile with genuine affection.
'Dear Avatar, I hope this letter finds thee in good health...'
I whooped with pure excitement as my horse plunged through the field, scattering small animals. The wind whipped back my hair and the force of it made it seem like I was going even faster.
"I fail to see what's so exciting," Arcadion noted.
"It's almost a full year since I blew up the Guardian's Black Gate," I replied. "Lord British is planning this big celebration!"
"In your honor, no doubt," the daemon said dryly.
"Well..." I began, somewhat immodestly. "Yeah, I guess so!"
"I despise parties."
"That's no problem. you're not invited."
"Now wait just a minute..."
The ground angled up and my horse slowed down. I'd found him wandering the lake's edge and since he was already wearing a saddle, it had been a simple matter of catching him to claim ownership. If catching a horse was ever simple, that it.
Atop the ridge, I reined in and looked over the view of Castle Britannia perched on the edge of Britanny Bay and surrounded by the city of Britain. Down at the city's border, I saw a familiar figure standing with an honour guard.
My horse reared up and I drew the Blacksword, waving it in a wild salute that Dupre returned, sunlight reflecting brightly off his polished blade.
With an elated smile, I rode towards him.