The Dark Realm
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
I felt carved in stone as the last echoes of the Guardian's mocking laughter faded. Forcing down the panic that threatened to claw it's way out of my throat, I reminded myself that I couldn't let my companions see the fear the Guardian had planted in my heart.
Earth in danger? Impossible.
It had to be.
Anyway, I'd stopped him here with Rudyom's wand easily enough. On Earth, what could I do to him with a machine gun?
Provided I'd ever see Earth again.
"Avatar, art thou well?"
I stubbornly locked my shaking legs and opened my mouth to say I was fine, but my eyes rested on my outstretched arm which still pointed the wand at the now empty Chaos Dais. It was trembling violently.
"To hells with my pride," I muttered. "I'm only human." To the others I replied in an infuriatingly weak voice, "I think - I think I feel a little faint." There. It was out. I let mental and physical exhaustion bear me to my knees beside the dead body of one of Batlin's followers. But not surrendering to grief. That could wait for when I was alone.
Then Jaana was beside me. "It's no wonder," she remarked. "That gargoyle unleased a truly vicious blow to thine head." She pulled off the crystal-like helmet we'd fashioned from the meteorite on Ambrosia. As she inspected the lump swelling on my scalp, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.
*Yes, Avatar. Rest and heal. So that you are strong and able to face the perils before you. Pleasant...dreams...*
I opened my eyes to pitch-blackness and automatically cast 'Glimmer.' The Linear spell sparked to life and a golden pinpoint of light hovered over my face. The familiar sight of the roof of my room at Castle Britannia greeted me.
"Awake, I see, Avatar."
There was the sound of a chair being dragged forward and the Lord of Britannia's careworn face appeared in my dim light.
"Forgive me for not rising, my lord," I said wryly and he chuckled.
"Of course. How art thou feeling?"
I sighed and put a hand to my head. "Better. I must have passed out in the Black Gate chamber."
He grimaced above his silvering beard. "Actually, Jaana blew some sleeping powder into thy face and Shamino managed to use the virtue stones to bring thee back here."
"What?" I sat up and regretted it instantly. "Why'd she do that?" I mumbled.
"Because thou didst need it," he replied in a voice that encouraged no arguing. "Didst thou not feel the burn on thine arm or the sword gouge in thy leg or the bruises down thy back?"
"I can now."
"They're not half as bad as they were. Jaana and I have been working on them since yesterday."
"Thou'rt welcome. Now rest, Avatar. We can talk on the morrow."
I closed my eyes, but couldn't sleep. Instead I lay still long enough for Lord British to leave the room, and then I got up. The dizziness returned so I sat on the edge of the bed and waited for the white spots dancing in front of my eyes to vanish.
It gave me time to send some curses I hadn't thought of in the Guardian's direction.
There was no reply.
Wearily I stood up, pulled on leather leggings and a clean, white tunic, soft boots and my Ankh. As I picked up the Blacksword - not because I feared danger in the castle but because I didn't really have any choice in the matter - my spell winked out, and the daemon jewel filled the room with its blue radiance.
"What will you do now, Avatar?" it mocked quietly. "I can help you still."
I strapped the huge scabbard across my back and slid the sword into it. "Sure you can," I replied, a little angrily.
"Temper, Avatar. It is no fault of mine that you are stranded here."
I hadn't tried the orb of the moons yet. I hadn't used it since the destruction of the Sphere Generator, which had consequently caused the deactivation of the moongates. The Time Lord's information of the orb's now powerless state to generate moongates had been accepted at face value. Maybe - hopefully - he was wrong and I could use it to go home.
Eagerly, I went for the pack near my bed and rummaged through it, tossing bits and pieces aside. Reagents, spellbook, keys galore, the Fellowship medallion...I grabbed the last item up in a sudden storm of fury and hurled it to the carpeted floor without the satisfaction of a crash. Growling incoherently, I seized my reagents and incanted. The prepared lightning bolt flickered in my fist, awaiting release. I stared at the blue and white electricity that was reminiscent of the Blacksword's glowing gem and frowned in bewilderment. Hatred and fear such as I had not felt since the Shadowlords' time died in me and I aborted the spell, appalled. I was supposed to be the embodiment of the virtues!
Finding the door, I quickly and silently left my room, got my bearings and took the closest ladder I found up to the battlements. The air was warm, the black, velvety night sky dotted with infinitesimal, diamond-like stars. Leaning against the parapet, I wondered rather morbidly which one belonged to Earth, or even if it still existed.
It was only then that I realised what was wrong with me and there was no point in denying it any longer.
"I am afraid."
*Poor Avatar! Poor, poor, Avatar!*
Better to admit it now than let it eat at my soul like an acid slug eats through metal.
*You are stranded in Britannia...*
A strangled sob escaped my lips and tears sheened my eyes, blurring the brilliance of the stars.
*Or you can step into the Black Gate and go home*
"Why can't you just leave me alone?" I snarled.
"Avatar?" inquired an uncertain voice. I turned to see Geoffrey, trailed by two guards. Their mail gleamed dully in the dim light.
Shaking my head, I said, "Thy pardon, Geoffrey. I was not speaking to thee."
The captain of the guard gestured to the two behind him to continue patrol then stepped towards me. "It pains me to see thee like this," he murmured.
"And consider what the guards will think. Avatar, we know each other fairly well. I know as well as any what thou hast sacrificed...now please tell me. Dost thou believe the sacrifice worthy of the goal?"
"I would do almost anything to keep Britannia safe from a being as evil as the Guardian seems to be."
"And yet, many think thou hast abandoned thine own world to him."
*It is your choice.*
I shied away from the Guardian's taunting voice. With a breath that shuddered in my lungs, I replied in a not-so-steady voice, "Never think I am without fear, my friend. I love Britannia, maybe more so than Earth, and I don't know what the future, or the Guardian, will bring either." I looked into his compassionate eyes. "If I'd left Britannia to the Guardian, never would I have forgiven myself. If I can find a way back to Earth to save it, I would take it, but only if Britannia were safe."
"I don't envy thee thy decisions, Avatar," he responded. "And I hope thou dost not come to regret them."
I looked up at the serpent flag snapping from a pole atop a guard tower in the night breeze. Proud, almost alive in its sinuous undulations.
To Geoffrey, I said, "No."
Despite my gloomy attitude, the next day dawned bright and clear. I hadn't returned to my rooms, being in no mood to sleep. After Geoffrey had left, the early morning had passed silently and uneventfully. I'd got so used to being careful and watching my back all the time in the past weeks, I'd almost forgotten the meaning of peace.
I looked at the perfect sunrise with an irrational sense of betrayal and wound the Ankh's chain around one finger. My head throbbed, my leg tingled painfully and my arm felt numb from shoulder to elbow.
"And how are you feeling this fine morning, Guardian?" I murmured. "Trapped in the Void, perhaps, or plotting revenge? Just who the hell are you?"
The reply was so sudden, I wondered if I'd just imagined or remembered it.
Shrugging, I looked down on Britain and pondered the whereabouts of Batlin. What would Lord British do about the Fellowship - the Guardian's cult of followers? Then there was still the problem of the human and gargoyle relationship, which didn't look like it would end any time soon.
Time passed unnoticed as I watched light glint off the rooftops of the buildings below, the shadows begin to shorten and the sun climb higher into the azure sky. Soft footsteps behind me heralded another visitor.
"Yes?" I sighed.
Their pace quickened and I half-turned, puzzled. Pain exploded in my side and all I could think of for a sickening instant, was what could have happened had I not have turned.
I'd instinctively drawn the Blacksword and taken a defensive stance to face my unknown assailant. A boy. A boy, who couldn't possibly be older than ten years, gaped at me with sky-blue eyes then turned tail and dashed for a stairwell, his blond curls bouncing. I cursed as I wrenched the dagger from my flesh and, when my vision cleared again, ran after him. Fortunately, I was faster.
My vices didn't include slaughtering children - not even little boys who tried to stick sharp objects between my ribs - so I stood over him with the imposing form of my sword inches from his chest and glowered.
It occurred to me that the scene might look slightly ridiculous.
"Stay thine hand, Avatar!" shouted a guard. She came closer, warily, halberd at the ready. "What art thou doing?" I gestured at my side with the bloodied dagger; the silent testimony of the boy's scarlet hands impressing itself on the guard instantly.
"What wouldst thou have me do?" she asked, frowning.
"I wish to speak with him first. Boy, why didst thou do this thing?"
"Because of thee," the child shouted. "We no longer hear the Inner Voice!"
The guard reached for the boy who flinched away, but she seized the necklace he wore and pulled it from his shirt. "By the Virtues," she muttered. "Did the Fellowship recruit children, milady?"
I didn't doubt the Guardian would stoop to manipulating the young. I was sure he had before in Paws. "It appears to be so," I replied. "Are there others who think like thee?" I asked of the boy.
"We all do!"
"Who are 'we'?" I demanded sharply.
He looked at me as if I were stupid. "The Fellowship, of course!"
I wondered if any of my companions had salvaged the Cube Prism from the wreckage of the Black Gate. Then I'd get the truth out of this little fiend. "Guard, please take this would-be assassin to the brig. I'll take word to our liege."
"Yes, milady. Come along, boy!"
I waited for the two to leave before trying to sheath the Blacksword. My hands were shaking so badly I missed twice. Then I hastily mixed some reagents and cast a spell on myself. One I sorely needed.
The dripping wound sealed as my magic knit it together. Then psychic weariness set in again and I sat down at the top of the stairs, wiping blood on my leggings unselfconsciously.
Would I have no peace this morning? I looked down at Iolo. The old bard took stock of my appearance and took the first few steps, eyes widening.
"What happened to thee?"
"Someone tried to kill me." I shrugged indifferently. There wasn't anything unusual about it, after all. More commonly though, it was something.
"Here? In Castle Britannia?" His tone was incredulous.
"Yes, Iolo, here in Castle Britannia." I looked at his haggard face. "What's wrong?"
His greying head bowed and he sighed in sorrow. "Spark died last night."
My heart gave a sick, sideways lurch and I raised myself slightly. "Oh, by Infinity, no!" I stared at him in disbelief. "How?"
"He took a serious wound to his head during the battle. Jaana caught it in time...she said he should not have died! She's beside herself. There hath been so much for her, Nystul and Lord British to do."
I belatedly noticed the bulge of bandages pressing out from beneath Iolo's brown shirt. "I can resurrect him!"
Iolo shook his head. "Lord British already tried. It's too late. His spirit hath departed."
The boy who had attacked me deserved death more than Spark had. I wanted so much to reverse their places...but I couldn't. "Please, take me to him."
Iolo nodded his assent.
Sightless eyes, lank hair, cold flesh...tears stung my eyes. Spark had been so young, so much the boy, always finding some way to lighten the spirits of the travellers - usually involving some prank on Iolo, or more often, Dupre. I knew such thoughts would eventually make me smile.
"Avatar? What is it?" Jaana's subdued voice asked.
"I was thinking of when we all went to the Bath House at Buccaneers' Den," I answered with a small grin. "Remember how Spark tried to convince the doorman he was old enough to enter?"
Iolo made a soft sound and turned away.
Jaana rallied with a smile. "That young braggart reminded me of a certain knight when he was younger."
"I had thought he might."
Jaana rubbed her eyes. "I think I need some sleep."
I picked up a nearby jar of sleeping powder suggestively and she rolled her eyes skywards.
"Who told thee?"
"I think I can manage on mine own," she said and left.
I pulled the white sheet up to Spark's neck, closed his eyes gently, and then tucked it over his head. "Tell me, Iolo," I said steadily. "How fare the others? How are Shamino, Dupre and Tseramed?"
The bard sighed deeply. "Fine, Avatar. Fine."
"I don't believe you."
"Thou shouldst be in bed rest-"
"I have spent enough time on myself! Let me help someone!"
"Then help me," a new voice said from the door.
I turned and bowed with Iolo. "My lord," we both said.
Lord British gazed at the silk-shrouded form on the bed and rubbed a hand over his own face with a sigh. "Iolo, Avatar, I would speak with both of ye."
We bowed again and followed him to his private chambers. He gestured for us to sit.
"Avatar," he began. "Every time thou hast come to Britannia, thou hast battled evil, then departed when thou hadst triumphed. But thou didst always bemoan the fact - to me at least, - that thou didst never have the chance to see Britannia when it was at peace."
Was he suggesting a holiday?
"The Fellowship is still at large. Not all its members are peaceful."
I wondered if he already knew about the attempt on my life. "What are you advising, Richard?"
"Until now, thou wert absent from Britannia for two hundred years! Thou art a legend to almost all who live - a myth, a bedtime story. Avatar...make thyself known again! Become the living hero children only read about." He paused. "Mayhap there is a reason why thou art still here. Thy quest is not over yet and it won't be until thou canst return to Earth."
Nope, no vacation here. A heroine's work is never done.
"And if thou wantest to do something so much...while thou'rt at finding a way home, try to find Batlin."
Of course! The leader of the Fellowship had escaped me before, but he wouldn't this time. I would make him pay for Spark's death...no! What was I thinking? Revenge wasn't one of the Virtues!
I was taking too long to answer.
"Guards have already searched the Fellowship hall here in Britain," said Lord British sombrely. "But the other halls remain, as does the 'base,' as thou didst call is, on the Isle of the Avatar."
"Where should I start looking?" I asked softly.
The King was looking at the blood-soaked rent in my clothes. "Methinks thou shouldst take thy companions with thee."
How humiliating. Did I seem so helpless to him? "But, my lord - "
Iolo coughed and cleared his throat meaningfully. "I shall travel with the Avatar if it is needful. Even if it is not," he added pointedly.
I sighed in exasperation and grinned, surrendering. "Fine, then. That means I'll be lost in Dupre's shadow when it comes to swordplay, ignored when it comes to Iolo's archery and a follower when Shamino points out landmarks or leads us through some stinking swamp!"
"And a patient when Jaana decides thou needest healing," remarked Lord British, his eyes twinkling.
I chuckled. "There had to be a catch." I sobered. "My lord...about Spark..."
His face clouded. "Yes?"
"I must try for myself."
"Elora, dost thou doubt mine abilities?" he asked gently.
"Never, Richard! I just feel that...I...must try. He was my responsibility."
"Where would he go if he lived?" asked the King. "His father was murdered by the Fellowship and he had no other family...what had he left?"
"Wouldst thou turn away a hero who fought by my side?" I half-snarled. "Thy pardon, my lord."
He sighed. "Forgiven."
Iolo said, "Avatar, Spark's soul hath departed. If thou wert to bring him back, would he thank thee?"
"I will speak with him first, then."
Both men looked uncomfortable at the prospect of a Seance. I felt the same...but was determined.
"If thy plan fails, wilt thou subside?" demanded Lord British.
I bowed my head. "Yes, my lord."
He sighed again and I was shocked to realise how old he looked. Physically and emotionally. "Very well. After sunset, then. For now, breakfast should be ready in the Great Hall. Ye two go on, I have lost mine appetite."
Since his mood was already bad, I told him about the origin of the hole in my shirt. He covered his eyes and I wondered if he wept. But when his head rose, his eyes were dry and his face set.
"I shall tend to that matter. Go eat. Please."
"Isn't that a bit heavy for breakfast?" Iolo asked Dupre.
The knight lifted his third tankard and drank deeply. "This is for all the years Spark will never have an ale."
"Getting drunk in his memory sounds like a good idea," murmured Shamino as Iolo and I sat opposite them at the small table.
"Thou mistakest mine intentions," Dupre responded. He took another swallow then elaborated, "To block out the memories."
I peered at his stone-cold-sober eyes and said, "Is it working?" when what I really wanted to ask was, "May I join thee?"
Dupre put down the empty tankard with a perfectly steady hand. "No. Not yet, anyway."
I took a fresh bread roll from the plate on the table and half-heartedly smeared some butter on it. What I would have given for a bowl of cereal...
"Elora here is intending to conduct a seance tonight," Iolo told the other two in a low voice. "She thinks Spark can be saved."
"A noble hope," Dupre intoned, raising his refilled tankard. "Good fortune to the Avatar! May she succeed!"
Dupre was rarely like this, even when upset.
"After that, we're going after Batlin," finished Iolo.
Dupre's eyes sparked and he fingered his moustache. For a minute, I thought he'd jump up and urge us to stop talking and get moving...but the light died and he went for the ale decanter again. "When?" he asked disinterestedly.
"Tomorrow morning, we think."
Shamino folded his hands on the table. "Who is going with thee?" he asked me.
"Iolo, Dupre and you, if it you wish," I replied.
Shamino nodded acceptance. "Jaana and Tseramed?"
"Jaana is resting, so I'll ask her later. As for Iolo's greatest fan..." I grinned at the glowering bard. "When he comes in I'll ask."
We sat in silence a few minutes, watching as the castle occupants entered to take seats. I found myself staring at the empty chairs behind the high table. Lord British's, Dupre's, mine... "Dupre? Will you be coming with us?" I asked the knight suddenly.
He stared unblinking into his tankard, but his voice was crisp, unslurred. "Of course, Avatar," as if he were surprised I doubted it.
"Any ideas where to look first?" Shamino asked.
"We could ask the wisps," suggested Iolo dubiously.
I looked at him in disbelief. "Do you remember what happened last time we did that?" I hissed. "That mage in New Magincia was killed by Batlin at the Guardian's command...because we showed the wisps information which they showed the Guardian, who decided it was too close to the truth for comfort!"
"I was there, Avatar," Iolo reminded me. "I know the risk. He died, but the information the wisps gave thee in return convinced Lord British to dismantle the Fellowship!" His voice rose. "Thou didst the right thing! One death more than balances all the deaths that information hath prevented!"
Another death I blamed myself for. Returning the book to New Magincia, we had entered the mage's house and I'd heard the Guardian.
*Thank you for the information in the book, Avatar. It was most interesting!*
Inside...a murder. The mage, dead - ritually gutted. That death had shaken me more than the others I'd seen. Stumbling against a table, I'd turned away and stared into the crystal ball resting there.
To see a mage being hacked at by Fellowship members. Had one looked like Batlin?
"The least we can do is ask them and hear the price," Iolo was saying. "And then decide."
Shamino backed me. "Showing them a book sounded harmless. But it was deadly."
"The risk is too great," I added. "And a journey into the Deep Forest will waste our time."
Dupre refilled his tankard and stared at the empty jug.
"They will know!" insisted Iolo.
"And who will pay the price for the knowledge?" I asked angrily.
"We don't even know what the price is!"
Conversation paused as Tseramed entered, garbed in green, his left arm in a sling. He drew a chair up to the table we were sharing and helped himself to some cheese.
"How?" I asked him, indicating his arm.
"Silliest thing, I should have seen it coming," Tseramed replied. "It's not enough to blame it on magic." He looked curiously at Dupre. "What's wrong?"
"Spark died," the knight replied simply, before downing his last drop of ale.
The kitchen hand, Charles, wordlessly approached the table, collected the empty pitcher, and placed a full jug on the table before leaving again.
I took the jug by the handle and deliberately moved it away from Dupre's side of the table. He looked at me resentfully.
"If thou'rt not using the ale, Avatar, pass it here, please," he said.
"You've had enough," I replied bluntly. "We will need you capable tomorrow."
Incredibly, he still looked sober as he stood, perfectly balanced. "I have the whole day to recover," he said coldly. "Excuse me."
More than likely, he'd head off to his quarters and the dozen or so bottles of ale he kept there. "Sit down, Dupre," I ordered in my most commanding voice.
He hesitated, then obeyed. I was the Avatar, after all. "And don't glare at me! What by Dungeon Doom is wrong with you?"
An expression came over Dupre's face as if he were about to admit to something he didn't want to. "I can hear the Guardian."
I swore silently. What did he want now? "And?"
He shook his head. "Please, I don't want to speak his words."
"So thou art also drinking to block out his voice?" asked Tseramed.
"Yes. A few more mugs should do it. Please, Avatar..."
Never had I seen Dupre look so desperate. I had to pass the drink back to him. "Just don't let the Guardian make you drink yourself to death," I told him, allowing a hint of worry into my voice.
Surprisingly, Dupre grinned. "Remember who thou art speaking to, Elora," he answered. "I am very experienced in this kind of thing."
"Almost as good as he is at swordplay," teased Shamino.
Dupre gave a complex snort.
"Ah, Dupre, I keep meaning to ask thee...where is the best place to buy the best quality ale?" asked Iolo.
Dupre pursed his lips. "I still have to finish my surveys of the taverns, but so far..." then he said in a certain voice, "Jhelom."
"Well then," Iolo beamed and rubbed his hands. "After we find Batlin, let's sail over there and thou canst buy me the drink owed me!"
Dupre's eyebrows shot up. "What?" he exclaimed.
"Thou didst bet that there was no such thing as a talking horse! I haven't claimed our wager yet."
I choked on laughter and Shamino - who had a mouthful of food - went into a fit of coughing while Tseramed thumped him on the back with his good arm.
Dupre gaped at Iolo. "Smith? That creature never spoke a word of sense!" he cried. "He's in league with Chuckles the Jester!"
"To whom we spoke for two solid hours," put in Shamino.
"And who sent us from town to town on a wild goose chase," I added.
"Not to mention when Smith told us to 'find the sandalwood box Lord British keeps his orb in before going to find him'...after we'd already found him," agreed Shamino.
"And that gibberish he spouted about Martians!" finished Dupre.
Iolo looked injured and sniffed. "Our barter was that he could talk."
Dupre scowled at him.
"Actually, Dupre," I said. "The Martian stuff might have been helpful had he told me sooner."
"What is a Martian?" asked Tseramed.
I launched into a greatly embellished story about how I'd gone to Mars in the distant past. They found the ideas of time travel, space travel and Dream Machines a bit too unbelievable. I made a mental note to make the part where I single-handedly flattened a horde of creeping cacti with a sabre sound more plausible. And the part...
"The Shadowlords living in each of us," said Shamino is his quiet voice. "Not a pleasant thought."
He was referring to when I had activated the Dream Machines and gone into the Dreamworld. There I had met beings I had thought long gone: the Shadowlords. The experience had not been pleasant. The whole telling had taken a good couple of hours. I hadn't thought I was that good a storyteller.
"Their essences, perhaps," corrected Iolo. "When I think of confronting them, speaking to them...even in my mind..."
"But I suppose we deal with them every day," Shamino added. "The Shadowlords were just visible forms for our less admirable qualities. Hatred, Falsehood and Cowardice still exist, as much as we might like to deny it."
Dupre leaned back in his chair. "Blackthorn's Age," he said. "Not a good time for anyone. We all had to live in hiding remember? I in Bordermarch with Sentri..."
"I in the Deep Forest," nodded Iolo. "Though it's become my home more than a hidey-hole."
"And I wherever the winds blew me," said Shamino. "Usually on an errand for Elora's companions."
I smiled and extracted my lucky coin from a trouser pocket. "Remember this?"
Shamino stared at it in amazement. On its silver surface was the design found on the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. "That's the magic coin I had minted to summon thee back to Britannia!" he exclaimed.
"The very same." I rubbed a finger over the star and circles before replacing the talisman. "What happened to the man you commissioned to make it? Last I saw he was hiding in a lighthouse!"
"It hath been centuries for us, Elora," Iolo reminded me. "But at that time, after thy departure, Lord British set all right again. People who helped thee were rewarded."
"What about Saduj?" I'd made the connection with his name a long time ago, but had never found the time to ask. 'Saduj' was 'Judas' spelled backwards. The name of a traitor.
"The Oppression guy pretending to be a gardener?" Shamino guessed.
"Snooping around Lord British's room every night," Iolo added.
"I thought it strange that thou didst ask him to join us, Avatar," remarked Dupre.
"I thought I might be able to keep an eye on him," I told them. "I didn't know he'd try to stick a sword between my shoulder blades at the earliest opportunity."
"After thou told him to leave, we never found him again," Iolo shrugged. "But he's long dead, in any case."
"You're probably right," I said casually. With mild surprise, I noticed Dupre hadn't touched the ale that had been sitting on the table for over two hours now. It appeared that the talking was keeping his mouth - and mind - busy.
"Thou seemest obsessed with the time of the Shadowlords today, for some reason, Elora," Iolo continued. "Is something amiss?"
Something was nagging at the back of my mind. "There is something," I confirmed. "But I don't know what it is."
My companions exchanged glances. They were used to my 'hunches' and the fact that they were usually important and almost always right. They also knew how to poke me in the right direction.
"Connected to the Shadowlords?" suggested Shamino.
"Not sure. Maybe."
"Blackthorn?" guessed Dupre.
"Something he did?" asked Iolo.
"I think so."
The Great Hall was starting to get noisy as more and more people came in. Most were literally singing my praises. One particularly vocal drunk - even at this hour - shouted out, "Avat - urrrpp - ar!" I looked over my shoulder and my forehead connected with the crosshilt of the Blacksword.
"Art thou all right?" asked Tseramed, for I was staring straight at the sword without even blinking.
A sword. I tried to shake the dizziness from my head. Over and over the words repeated almost of their own accord. A sword.
"Avatar, what is it?"
"A sword," I replied, trying to find the meaning of my words.
"Well, we know that," retorted Dupre. "Why are thou staring at it?"
I forced myself to keep looking. A few more seconds and I'd have it. "The sword...in Blackthorn's Palace!"
Iolo, Shamino and Dupre drew in their breaths sharply. "The Sword of Chaos?" asked the former.
"That's the one!"
"Well, what about it?"
I pried my eyes from the black hilt and gazed at the middle of the table instead. We had found the Chaos Sword in Blackthorn's Palace, concealed behind a maze of magically locked doors. Beautifully balanced, black as midnight and studded with diamonds up the centre of the blade such that it had looked like a star-strewn night sky. I had taken the blade and we'd left before being discovered. No one had gainsaid my decision to take the weapon. Everyone had felt the fey power emanating from it. Nothing had happened until we were attacked later by a band of orcs. The prospect of a fight had sung through my blood and I'd drawn the Chaos Sword...my mind and body subject to the will of another. I had then turned on my friends and launched myself at them with a speed that almost killed Shamino and greatly wounded Geoffrey. It had taken the combined magics of Mariah and Jaana to immobilise me so that the threat of the orcs could be stopped before we were all slain. Then the battle-frenzy had fallen from my mind and I'd returned to normal, though I could remember everything I'd done.
I told all this to Dupre and Tseramed, as neither had been present at the time, though the knight knew of the blade's existence.
"I was loath to leave such a weapon behind for anyone to pick up," I concluded. "But now that I think about it, I know what it's made of. Blackrock."
"Art thou certain?" demanded Iolo.
"After carrying the Blacksword, yes, I am." In fact, only the hilt of the Blacksword was made of Blackrock. How anyone could make a blade from the strange material was beyond me, but I somehow knew that the Sword of Chaos was Blackrock from pommel to point. "Now, tell me if you remember. Where were all the things we found put after I left Britannia that time?"
Dupre pushed himself to his feet and planted both fists on the table. "Why is this important?"
Shamino had made the connection. "Batlin and the Guardian have seen how powerful the Blacksword it. We didn't examine the Chaos Sword so we don't know its limits. The Guardian may send Batlin to find it."
"But how would either know the sword even exists?"
I spoke up. "Dupre, I read the Book of the Fellowship cover to cover. Batlin is no mean scholar or loremaster. He may know of the sword, obscure though its origins may be."
"'Obscure'?" echoed the knight incredulously. "Thou didst only know about it after finding it! How will Batlin find it?"
"I have a feeling that he and the Guardian can...trace Blackrock," I replied slowly. "We know that but for Rudyom's wand, that stuff is indestructible. If it's in Britannia and he's looking for it, Batlin will find it."
Dupre swore and sat down. An instant later, "Forgive me. I know not why, but just hearing the name, 'Sword of Chaos', seemed to strike an off-key chord in me."
Iolo raised an eyebrow at the musical metaphor but said nothing about it. Instead, "For all I know, it was left in the Mirror Prison the Shadowlords trapped Lord British in."
Shamino blinked as if awakening. "That's exactly where it is! I remember asking Lord British about it - after Elora left but before we did - and he said it would probably be safe leaving it in the Prison!"
"Yes!" agreed Iolo, nodding. "I remember!"
"Wasn't the Dungeon Doom destroyed?" asked Tseramed.
"That may be," responded Iolo. "But the Prison was set apart in the Ethereal Void, probably so the Shadowlords could travel there more easily."
"But how will we get in, let alone Batlin?"
We were silent a minute.
"The Mirror," I said finally. More silence greeted my idea and I regarded each of my friends in turn. "We don't know if the dungeon is destroyed, but the Mirror is a gateway that wasn't closed. If it is now, fine. But we don't know." I stressed the words and Dupre lowered his gaze. "We have to be sure, and the only way to do that..." I took a deep breath. "We're going back to Dungeon Doom."
I watched the last golden rays of the sun vanish behind the western mountains and waited for the fiery light staining the sky to fade...pink, royal violet, dark blue, black. Below, the quiet ritual of street lamps being lit commenced. The serenity of the ordinary, everyday task usually soothed me, showed me that some things continued uninterrupted despite the troubled times. But tonight each glowing lamp reminded me of the eyes of the Guardian. I shut the window and curtains then turned and gestured with the words, "In Vas Flam."
Every candle sprang to life sending their light over me, the few present and Spark. I didn't look at the expressions on faces turned towards me, but turned all my attention to that which I knew I could do.
"Let the Seance begin," I said softly. Taking up the prepared reagents, I first summoned Spark's spirit. "Kal Corp Mani!"
The flames trembled as if stirred by a breeze and a luminous form coalesced above the body of Spark, misty and indistinct.
"Kal Wis Corp!"
The ghost turned to me and I saw familiar features, though strangely lacking, as if I was looking at him through water and all the lines and curves were blurred.
"Avatar, why am I here again?" Spark's voice seemed to echo slightly and as he fell silent, I listened to the faint echoes. A chilling feeling came over me as I tried to hear where the echoes ended and I turned my mind back to the ghost. "Am I alive?"
"No, Spark, I summoned thee to ask if thou wishest to live."
"Is Batlin dead yet?"
"No, he escaped. But we stopped the Guardian!"
The ghost looked down at his own corpse. "Batlin did this to me and my father. I want to get him back."
"Then I can resurrect you?" I asked quickly.
I seized the readied spell and opened my mouth...Spark's ghost started to fade.
"Avatar! Help me! Something's pulling..."
I heard a roaring sound like a hurricane had suddenly centred in the room we stood in. Reaction from the others showed me that they could hear it too, and I shouted out the resurrection spell as fast as I dared, casting the reagents across Spark's body which jerked in response.
Abruptly, the boy's eyes opened - and he screamed.
Something stabbed from one side of my mind to the other as the spell was disrupted and I fell to my knees, clutching my head. Dimly, I saw Lord British and Nystul trying to dispel the magic, but the channel between Spark and I was open and my life started to flow to his lifelessness, filling it.
Only Spark wasn't keeping it. Someone else had tapped my lifeline.
*I promise I will use your gift well, Avatar.*
Had the Guardian's voice come from Spark's lips?
The pain doubled and my scream echoed Spark's. I couldn't stop the spell! He was draining me like Dupre drained an ale bottle until not even a drop remained. I was dying.
A shadow fell over me and I looked up uncomprehendingly at Dupre. The knight drew back his fist and I suddenly felt it connect with my jaw.
"...whole idea about the Chaos Sword is far fetched."
"She's determined to find it."
"If only she had proof - anything that made her conclusion more logical."
"If we found proof, I'd consider it a trap. Like Dungeon Destard."
I wondered if I should open my eyes.
"In which case the Guardian could have planted this whole idea into her mind to start off with! It could still be a trap. I wholeheartedly approve of getting Elora's mind off what has been happening of late and her inability to return home, but this...this quest back into Doom is insanity."
"And without the mystic arms and armour - suicide."
"But with weapons as we have today...will those ones be necessary?"
"I know not, my liege." There was a heavy sigh. "I know not. But if she is correct in all her assumptions, how do we bring the sword back without it making us kill each other?"
"How thou wouldst get back is the problem. With the orb disabled, there is no way out of the Prison short of casting Kal Lor - and I'm not entirely sure that would work." There was a pause. "Which also makes me doubt the teleportation properties of the Virtue stones as an alternative. As for the sword, if it is Blackrock, thou canst use Rudyom's wand to destroy it."
"What effect would the sword have on Batlin, I wonder?"
No one was talking when I awoke the second time. I listened to the quiet, my breathing, the regular, steady beat of my heart. My eyes opened to darkness. What had gone wrong with the spell?
Ah, yes. The Guardian. Always the Guardian. I had given him the life force meant for Spark. I frowned. The original spell had been of my own casting, but I'd been unable - incapable? - of terminating it. If not for Dupre's quick intervention...
*I suppose you could say you couldn't consciously stop it,* mocked the familiar Voice.
"What do you want of me?"
*I want you.*
*Think of the power that could be thine.*
"I thought you'd decided you want me dead."
*You are a prize fit for the taking, Avatar. Your talents are wasted on this paltry world. I can give you command over legions, rule over galaxies.*
"Your ways are not mine."
*No? Had everyone followed the Fellowship philosophy, everyone would have been happy.* The Voice seemed to caress the last word.
"But they didn't, Guardian," I replied. "No more than they do the Virtues."
*My way is better.*
"Your way?" I kept my voice low as seething fury tried to elevate it. "I saw your way within five minutes of my arrival in Trinsic, and it was nailed to a floor and ripped apart!"
A heartbeat of silence. *Thus, all who oppose me.*
The darkness lifted...
Lord British's face appeared before my eyes. "Elora?"
I had to smile at the worry in his features. "Richard."
Jaana's voice said, "She should be well enough to sit up."
My vision swam as I was helped into a sitting position but it passed quickly. It was light outside and I was in my own room in the castle.
"How art thou feeling?" the healer asked intently.
"Everyone's been asking me the same thing over and over these last few days," I observed wryly. "I'm fine, all things considered." I stretched my arms carefully and noticed the green glint of a regeneration ring on each hand. "And now I see why."
"We had almost all Britain torn apart to find these rings," Jaana said. "Even the bruise Sir Dupre gave thee is gone. I pronounce thee fit to get out of bed!"
I sniffed loftily. "Thank thee, milady."
"I would speak to thee after breakfast, Avatar," the King said before he and Jaana left me alone. I noticed that he had used the word to instead of with. Seemed like a lecture was coming my way.
After dressing, I made a relatively feeble effort to clean the area where I'd been excavating my backpack earlier. Scrolls and Virtue Stones were strewn about - the red stone had actually landed on my desk where it had upset several books - and some reagents had been mashed into the floor rugs.
I shrugged and gave up. This could wait. As I crossed my room to the door, I whispered, "Well, Guardian, what surprises will you gift me with today, I wonder?"
The Great Hall was starting to empty by the time I got there, but the table my companions shared was still full except for one chair. I crossed over and pulled it back to sit down...only to fall back in astonishment as Spark crawled out from under the table holding a fork.
"Oh, by Infinity, I'm dreaming!" I blurted.
"Hey," Spark complained. "Get thine own chair!"
The others were laughing at the foolish grin I knew had spread over my face.
"You're alive," I managed.
"Thanks to thee!" Spark agreed, hugging my legs. "And I do thank thee, Elora."
"Thou art welcome," I stammered before meeting Jaana's eyes. "But...I felt sure that I'd failed!"
She nodded. "Later, Lord British and I tried thy spell again and resurrected Spark properly."
"But they would not have tried if not for thee," smiled Spark. "I owe thee my life! Where are we going to look for Batlin first?"
In a Hell we're all likely to die in before reaching our goal, I thought. "Thou'rt coming, I suppose?"
Spark took his seat back and scoffed. "Of course I am! Thou wouldst wither away and die in the company of these bores - excepting Lady Jaana."
The healer nodded graciously as the four men sputtered in indignation. Spark grinned and looked back at me condescendingly. "See? Isn't that a sight to amuse!"
I rolled my eyes theatrically. "Good to see thou hast not changed!" Pulling up another chair, I grabbed an apple and bit into it.
"So? Where are we going?"
The only other person who met my eyes was Jaana. Did she know yet? I bit my lip as last night's overheard conversation came to mind. "The Deep Forest," I said, earning blank stares from Iolo and Tseramed, a confused gaze from Dupre and a raised eyebrow from Shamino. "We'll ask the wisps and see what happens."
"I have the emps' whistle in my bag still, I think!" Spark said.
"Don't forget it. We'll need it to call the wisps to us. Will you be ready to leave today?"
"He'll be fine," replied Jaana.
"The Virtue stone of Justice is Marked for the wisps' tower," said Shamino. "Depending on what the wisps ask of us, we may get this over with quite quickly."
I put the apple core down and took a roll. "'Depending on what they ask of us,'" I echoed.
When I told Lord British about the change of plans, he nodded approval and said he'd talk to me when we returned instead of now, then wished me luck.
The companions gathered at the fountain in the courtyard. Only Dupre and I felt the need to encase ourselves in steel, though no trouble was anticipated. Spark wore the whistle on a string around his neck, Shamino carried the virtue stones for me, Jaana had her satchel of medical supplies, I had the reagents and spellbook...I went over everything again and nodded. We were ready.
"Everyone ready?" Why had I asked that?
We all gathered around the stone and I cast 'Recall'. The stone flared with white and blue incandescence, distorting perceptions and sensations, extending the mind and physical form across the length and breadth of the land...a brush against ether...the feeling of rushing backwards, light diminishes, clarity returns definition and form sculpts the landscape into new patterns.
A stone tower surrounded by a sea of green trees and crowned with glittering blue globes of brilliance.
I nodded to Spark and the boy passed me the whistle, which I blew.
One of the blue wisps descended and hovered before my eyes. Before it could telepath anything...
"I need information on the whereabouts of Batlin of Britain, leader of the Fellowship, servant of the Guardian."
The wisp glowed. "What would 'you' give in exchange for this knowledge?" The melodious voice sounded in my head, only I could hear it.
"What would you ask of me and who wants it?" If the Guardian wanted what I had to give them...
"Entity 'Guardian' will exchange 'your' desired information for a scan of 'your' mind."
You've got to be kidding. "What for? Memories?"
"All knowledge of weapon called 'Sword of Chaos' as well as all things 'you' have read from book called 'Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.'"
"Chaos Sword? I was right!"
"Avatar..?" one of my friends asked hesitantly.
I told them the words of the wisp.
"The Guardian may have anticipated this, Elora," Shamino disagreed. "To throw thee off the scent. Batlin could be anywhere."
"And anyway," Iolo added. "What dost thou know that can help him?"
"I know I will regret this," I said darkly. "But the Codex? I can't give him anything I've read from it! It's not...well...virtuous."
"How can it hurt us?" asked Iolo. "Maybe all the good things in it will help him to change," he tacked on, though there wasn't much hope in his voice.
"Okay, wait." I turned back to the wisp and tried to ignore the feeling of dread that came over me. "Agreed."
The creature came closer and something like a camera flash blinked in my eyes.
"Location of human 'Batlin' is below the surface of Britannia at entrance of location 'Dungeon Doom'. Transfer of information is compl..."
My swearing drowned out even the mind-voice. "Quick! We have to get back to the castle and get Lord British's crown, sceptre and amulet and then get down to the dungeon!"
"Batlin's there?" gasped Iolo.
Then it dawned on me and I cursed again. "That's why the Guardian wanted a scan of my memories about the Codex! He now knows the word of power to open the dungeon!"
Shamino instantly opened his pack for the stone that would take us back to the castle. I tossed the whistle to Spark and drew the Blacksword.
"Arcadion!" I snapped. "Can you transport us to Dungeon Doom?"
"The centre of the world?" mused the daemon. "No."
I had another idea. "Do you know of the Chaos Sword?"
The Shade Blade let out a long sigh of what sounded like satisfaction. "Ahhh. Yes. But I will only tell you about it if you make a promise to release me."
"I shall release you, Arcadion, but not until I need to."
"This is not an agreement I favour."
"Consider the alternative. Bound to me forever."
"Avatar, here." Shamino handed me the stone and I swiftly repeated the spell sending us back to the courtyard.
"Dupre," I said. "Quickly! Find Lord British and beg him come with his regalia. Iolo..."
"Elora, wait!" the bard said sharply. "We still need to prepare - get weapons, armour, food, supplies - we can't just go!"
"I can create food and light aplenty," I replied. "Iolo, thou and the others prepare to leave. Be back here in one hour or I will go alone."
Iolo nodded curtly, gestured to Shamino, Tseramed, Spark and Jaana then strode inside with them following. Dupre remained.
"Avatar, without the mystic weapons we will not survive!"
"We have no choice!" I replied. "Batlin is going after the Chaos Sword and we have to stop him!"
"We know not even if the blade will aid him."
I still held the Blacksword. "Arcadion knows of it. Please, Dupre. Do as I ask. Trust me."
The knight looked unconvinced, but nodded. "Always, Avatar."
Sitting on the edge of the fountain, I spoke to the pulsing blue jewel in the sword. "Now."
"As you wish, Master." The metallic voice took on a lecturing tone, as if it were enjoying the fact it had a chance to prove I didn't know everything. "The Sword of Chaos is know to me because it was forged by daemons at the command of the Shadowlords. It was infused with their anti-virtues that would affect anyone who was not one of them. Falsehood would cloud the wielder's perceptions of ally and foe, Hatred would stir up blood lust and battle frenzy, Cowardice would make you attack anything that came near you in sheer terror."
"How would such a thing serve Batlin?"
"If the Guardian's slave is strong enough, evil enough, Batlin will be able to use it the way the Shadowlords had intended. Foremost, Batlin will have powers to rival yours - even with me - and with the Guardian helping him, maybe he'll be powerful enough to destroy you."
So what? I faced overwhelming odds every day. "What else?"
"The Shadowlords always intended for the shards of Mondain's gem to be reunited as a whole, uniting them. The jewel was to have been placed in the Sword of Chaos like I am in this one."
"It was to be the Shadowlord of...Doom's sword?"
I considered. "But without the jewel..."
"The three shards still exist. The Eternal Flames merely confine them. The Shadowlords never told the daemons what would happen if the jewel and sword were joined."
I sought the blue of the sky to drive out the horrible visions that his comment brought to mind. "Arcadion...how do you know all this?"
I had expected his answer though it surprised me, as it was more than I had anticipated. "I was one of the three daemons who forged the sword. Each Shadowlord had a...representative. Sin 'Vraal for Hatred, Balinor for Falsehood and I for Cowardice. I alone remain as you killed Balinor at
Stonegate and Sin 'Vraal was converted by your Lord British."
"And being captured in the mirror on Fire Isle has extended your life or something. Or at least, protected you," I added, thinking hard.
"Just remember your promise to free me, Avatar. Being the Guardian's slave will be much worse that being yours."
"I promise, Arcadion," I replied in my most convincing voice. "And I'll do it before I next see Batlin in the flesh."
The jewel flickered. "I hope honesty is your favourite virtue...Master."
I ignored that and asked another question. "Does the Guardian have any link to the Shadowlords?"
"That I don't know. It's possible. He seems to have all the right instincts."
Half talking to myself, "It's as if he's been here before. As if he ruled here before Lord British came."
"That was before my time," the daemon said indifferently.
I sighed. More problems to worry about. "One more thing. Should we go to the Mirror Prison in Doom, would you be able to transport us back to the surface? Does your power extend that far?"
"You're forgetting something, Master," Arcadion chided, almost smugly. "The Prison isn't in Britannia. I could no more return you to Britannia from there than I could were you to stand on the surface of a moon."
I nodded, reluctantly accepting his words. "Thank you. I'll speak to you more later."
"One moment, Avatar," the sword interrupted as I raised it over my shoulder to slide into the scabbard. "I have a question for you." It paused and I detected a hint of malice when it finally asked, "You defeated the Shadowlords and are the embodiment of all the Virtues and you couldn't withstand the evils of the Chaos Sword?"
A chill shook me from within. "What are you saying?"
"Only that if it was that hard for you while trying to work in harness with the blade...how much more difficult will it be to have it used against you?"
"I've changed since then."
"I hope it's enough," the voice held a smirk in it and I sheathed the Blacksword before Arcadion could say any more.
"So do I," I whispered to the empty courtyard.
When we gathered next, everyone was ready - or as ready as one can be when preparing to enter the Shadowlords' former dungeon realm.
Lord British handed me his crown, sceptre and amulet with no hesitation in his movements. He now wore on his head a different crown of flat, metal plates that were linked together. Each plate bore either an Ankh, a serpent or a sword etched into its golden surface. "I won't insult thee by asking thee not to lose them," the King said with a small smile. "Just bring them back in one piece - same as thou, I hope."
I grinned. "Thank thee, milord. Keep Britannia safe while we're gone."
Lord British raised his eyes in resignation. "Yes, milady Avatar."
The ranger showed me a very old, yellowed map. "I conferred with Nystul and Lord British," he said. "Dungeon Despise is supposed to have vanished a long time ago," he explained. "Lord British and the Great Council arranged for maps to be corrupted to make it seem like it was actually Shame that disappeared." He indicated the old map and pointed out the two separate dungeons, Despise to the north of Britain and Shame to the west. "Remember that Shame looked out over a lake, just like Despise does today?"
"What is called Despise now is really Shame." I summarised. "Why the deception, though?"
Lord British said, "I thought it would be better if Dungeon Doom remained unexplored by ambitious adventurers. This way, no one got killed and things better left buried were forgotten."
I couldn't avoid his gaze. He was talking about the Chaos Sword and we all knew it. I changed the topic slightly. "Do we have a Virtue Stone marked for Despise - I mean Shame?"
Shamino shook his head. "Not since thou didst destroy the generator it sheltered."
"It's not that far a ride," interrupted Iolo. "Just make sure we've got the Orb of the Moons and let's go!"
Telling them what Arcadion had said had lent everyone a sense of urgency. They had seen the danger of letting Batlin get hold of the Sword. We had to get down there, even if only to make sure no one could take it. Moreover, I had mentioned that because the Prison wasn't in Britannia - as Arcadion had said, - then the Orb should work there. The generator's effects only blanketed Britannia...or so I hoped.
I had no choice, I reminded myself. The Prison itself was more important than how we were going to get out of it.
One thing Batlin didn't have - and the Guardian couldn't have gleaned from my memories - was maps of the dungeons. Especially Doom. And with luck, the monsters stalking the corridors would attack him just as I knew they'd attack us.
I took the letter the King offered me. "It's a royal commission. Any horses and riding gear you need from my stables will be paid for by the crown."
Nodding thanks, I bowed low. "My liege," I said. "We will see thee again after we return victorious."
If he had any doubts, they were hidden well enough that I couldn't see them. He merely responded to my formal tone in kind. "I pray that it will be soon."
My companions bowed, and then we all turned and left the Lord of Britannia beside the crystalline fountain.
Chuckles saw us as we hurried through and the jester clapped a hand to his forehead causing the bells on his hat to chime loudly.
"They're at it again!" he moaned tragically. "Another quest! Well, while thou'rt at it, don't forget to look under the flower pot in..."
He was totally ignored.
Six valorian steeds were readied in good time and we were galloping west along the King's Highway in less than two hours. The day was perfect. Flawless sapphire sky, warm, bright sunshine, a brisk wind that blew both my hair and Jaana's out behind us like flags. We sped past the border of Britain and trees flew behind us as we picked up speed.
I hadn't ridden in quite a while and knew I'd be sore all over by tomorrow, but I didn't care. It was a great feeling, enhanced by Spark's excited whoops and yells.
The boy was riding double with Shamino and having fun at the experience. His only knowledge of horses was in a wagon, so he didn't know how to ride.
"If thou dost not stop all that carrying on, thou shalt frighten him," Shamino declared.
"I want to name him!" Spark exclaimed. "How about 'Batlin's Bane'?"
"I think Elora has precedence on that job. Besides, we'll have to let the horses go when we get to the dungeon."
"Fine then!" Spark was silent a minute. "'Silverwind'?"
I grinned as Shamino's surprised answer was, "How didst thou come up with that?"
Creative," Jaana said admiringly.
As we came to the fork in the road that led south to Skara Brae and north towards Empath Abbey, something flew past my ear and I heard Dupre let out a grunt, which was quickly followed by a clatter of armour.
Dupre's riderless horse shot past me as I reined in sharply, turning in my saddle. Everyone else stopped and Jaana swung down to kneel by the knight who lay stunned on the road.
The Blacksword came out with a steely slither. "Can you see it? Them?" I asked, looking around at the trees and bracken.
All was silent. Eerily silent. This felt like 'Return of the Jedi,' when princess Leia was on the moon of Endor and being shot at from she-knew-not-where.
Then, I saw it. Tall, stark, leafless, human features of eyes, nose, mouth, cleverly camouflaged amidst weathered bark and cracked wood. Dead, but alive.
"There," I said softly, pointing with my blade.
A twang sounded from my left and a wooden clack from my right. An unearthly shriek echoed in the still air as a green-fletched arrow struck through the reaper's closed left eye, and a glowing, magical crossbow bolt pierced the other.
Shamino's Juggernaut hammer smashed a huge hole in the lower half of the trunk and I charged my horse forward, ducking under the return of the warhammer and praying that none of the wild bolts of lightning thrown by the infuriated, ancient tree would hit me.
They didn't. The Shade Blade sheared the reaper in half as easily as a knife passes through warmed butter. Reddish sap oozed feebly down the dark wood and the animated tree soon stopped thrashing, and crumbled.
Turning my face away from the sudden stench of rotting wood, I walked my mount to the others.
"Good shots," I said to Tseramed and Iolo, who nodded at the compliment and lowered their weapons. To Shamino, "Nice throw. Aim for its head next time."
He grinned. "I was busy persuading Spark here that his sling wouldn't do much good."
"Not fair!" the disgruntled Spark complained.
Jaana had Dupre back on his feet. "Sir Dupre is fine, Elora," she reported. "His armour - and probably the Magebane sword - absorbed most of the magic bolt. He was merely winded when the force landed him on the road."
"I'm sorry, Avatar," Dupre said. "I should have seen it coming."
"As long as you're well, my friend." I wiped the hardening sap off my sword and onto the saddle blanket. "Jaana, would you or Dupre mind if your horse was shared?"
At this, Dupre looked around for his own mount and cursed when he couldn't see it.
"I am fine with it," replied Jaana. "But we'll have to slow the pace."
"I'll try a strength spell on her," I answered. "With luck, Dupre's horse hasn't gone far."
We never found Dupre's horse. Fortunately, though, Jaana's mare kept up under her double burden and we were fording the narrow creek that fed the lake outside Dungeon Shame half an hour later. The clear water was as still as a pond and reflected a precise, inverted image of the mountains surrounding it.
I scowled at Iolo as the bard opened his backpack. He had insisted on bringing torches and, furthermore, had brought them.
"I won't have thee - and thy liege agreed with this - wasting thine energies on Light spells. We're going to be down there a long time."
I sniffed. "Not as long as we could be."
Iolo unsaddled his gelding. "What meanest thou?"
"Thou hast lived longer than I, dear friend. That tends to cause memories to dribble out of thine head." With a smack to its rump, my horse galloped away towards the narrow pass through which we'd come.
"So remind me! What plan hast thou?"
"Oh, just a useful spell I learned a long time ago."
Iolo sent his horse after mine. "How long?"
"The Age of Enlightenment."
"That is a long time ago. Many spells were made then."
"Yes, I know." My head turned to the left in response to someone tapping that shoulder, then Jaana's voice came from my right.
"Don't tease him, Avatar. I think she is referring to Z-Down, Iolo. Or was it Y-Down?"
"X-Down, for all I care," I replied. "But it doesn't matter. Damn it, Jaana, I was having fun!"
She smirked. "Yes, I know."
"Hey," shouted Spark. "Can I play too?"
"Thou preferest teasing Dupre more, dost thou not?" called Jaana.
"It's no fun when he wears armour! I cannot get his attention." Spark's sling whirled in the air and a small stone bounced off the back of Dupre's helmet with a metallic ping. Dupre, intent on unstrapping the bridle on his horse, merely gave an irritated shrug.
"Dost thou think the spell will work in Doom?" Iolo asked me, turning us to the original topic.
I sighed. "It's doubtful. I don't think I'll have the mana necessary when we get there, in any case."
"We're ready, Avatar," called Tseramed from where he had been stashing the riding equipment.
Shamino lit a torch. The flames looked weak in the bright sunlight.
I looked up at the vivid sky and sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening. Then, "Let's go." Shamino, beside me. Tseramed and Dupre, rear-guard. Iolo and Jaana, midrank with Spark."
"Midrank!" Spark protested. "But..."
A shadow passed over us all and we instinctively scattered. If it was a dragon blocking the sun, it wouldn't be able to get us all at once with a breath of fire. I squinted upwards at a winged creature that was coming closer and saw that it was much smaller than a dragon. It was a gargoyle. The red-skinned creature beat leathery wings and landed before the dungeon's opening.
"To beg pardon," it said. "To think a warning should have been given before approaching."
We gathered back together to view the stranger. He had glowing brown eyes, broad shoulders and wore the traditional gargish raiment of white loincloth and thin, flat metal bands which crossed each shoulder, met at midchest, then vanished around the opposite hip. A glowing boomerang was hooked into his belt and on seeing it, I wondered for the hundredth time how primitive Australian weaponry had got to Britannia in the first place. Or even the other way around. Otherwise, the gargoyle was just an ordinary, unremarkable gargoyle.
As he had spoken in the common tongue, I replied in kind, though with the gargish affections. "To believe we don't know you."
"To disagree. To know you know me." The skull-like head grinned. "To know it has been a long time. To look different, to be different."
I shared a glance with the others, who shrugged in bewilderment.
The gargoyle's smile widened. "To say that when last we met, my name was Beh Lem." My eyes widened. "To be grown now, and to be called Umdelor."
"Beh Lem!" I exclaimed. "Umdelor, whatever you wish to be called! To have not seen you since returning the Codex to the Void! It's great to see you!"
In gargish, Umdelor replied, "Vestas leg-le de te kodeks."
I raised an eyebrow. "Lok."
"An-ord-mek te sadis-turn bal."
"How..?" Chaos Sword in Dungeon Doom?
"We can talk as we travel, Lor-ra," our former companion said, using my gargish name. Valorous Light.
"To have made jur to friend Captain Johne after consulting the bal-sil of the kodeks."
Johne had been instrumental in the raising of the Shadowlords; a pawn of Mondain's Black Jewel. Of course he'd be interested in anything to do with them. But how had Beh Lem - Umdelor learned about our mission?
"To have helpful information also."
That cut it. I needed anything that would give me an edge on Batlin.
"To agree, then. But you know the danger."
He nodded. "To understand. To think, hopefully, my ta-re-por will prove useful." He patted the boomerang affectionately.
I smiled grimly. "We will need it." To the others, I said, "Umdelor will be accompanying us."
"All the way?" queried Iolo.
"Yep, all the way."
"To remember three of you besides the Avatar." A long-nailed finger pointed at Iolo. "Aud-char-lem Iolo...mek-lem Dupre...ter-vas-arb-lem Shamino."
Each bowed slightly at being named.
I quickly introduced the other three. "Arc-lem Tseramed, in-mani-lem Jaana and bet-lem Spark."
Umdelor seemed particularly interested in the boy. "To partake in a quest such as this at so young an age..." he smiled as if remembering something. "Be grateful for the honour of it."
Spark gave a solemn nod, then asked, "What did Elora call me?"
"Let's go!" I announced. "Quickly, now. Umdelor, front-rank with Shamino and me. Shamino, light another torch for Dupre. Move, people!"
Times like these, I loved authority.
Dupre took the second flaming brand and we all moved into the shadow of the mountains, the urgency of our mission returning.
I didn't hesitate as grey rock replaced the azure sky. Drawing out reagents, I recalled the ancient spell and used it to transport us down into the depths of a dungeon that, centuries ago, had been called Dungeon Shame...and had opened out to the centre of the world.
*Do not go in! It is a trap! Do you not see? It is a trap!*
I woke, sheened in sweat, to the sound of Shamino calling the alarm at an attack. Still fully armed, the Blacksword appeared in my hands as if by magic and I took position at an opening of our small barricade erected around the campsite. Shaking the fuzziness of sleep from my head and aching in numerous places from the riding yesterday, I tried to see what was hidden in the gloom.
A squeal split the humid air and was followed by a wet splat.
"Giant bats!" Tseramed shouted as his bowstring sang.
"Where away?" called Iolo.
"North and east!"
"Dupre, watch the swamp!" yelled Jaana.
I thought I saw a darker shape move in the air a distance in front of me.
"Grav Po-" I choked on the second syllable as pain flashed through my chest.
"Avatar! No spells!" Iolo called the rebuke from nearby.
"Arcadion," I called to my sword. "Restore me!"
The blade glowed and I felt the intoxicating flow of power rush into me. The pain vanished completely to be replaced by an almost overwhelming need to use this newly gained power. My mind cleared. I chose to succumb to this need.
"Jaana, take my place!"
She obeyed without comment, but I saw the surprise in her eyes.
Circling the small cookfire to stand beside Tseramed, I shouted, "In Flam Grav!" casting reagents at the ground away from us.
Fire blossomed, then roared to life in a blazing inferno. A bat flew directly into it then fell screeching as its short fur caught alight.
The rest of the bats, seemingly blinded by the sudden, intense light, flapped around in confusion for a while, then flew off.
Releasing the magic had taken away some of the pressure. Sometimes Arcadion gave me too much.
"Dupre!" Tseramed shouted into the fire-lit darkness. "Didst thou find him?"
I frowned, peering into the dark swamp. I caught sight of fire gleaming against metal, then the faint glow of the drawn Magebane sword.
Dupre gave the fire field a wide berth, preferring to walk through the mud. The helmeted head shook in a negative answer and the shoulders slumped.
"He wanted to bring a bat down on his own," called Dupre in response to a question I shouted. "I can't find him anywhere."
"Spark?" I guessed in a controlled voice, and the archer nodded.
The beat of wings returned. "They're back!"
"An ta!" a gargoyle voice cried.
"Don't shoot!" Dupre yelled to Tseramed. "It's Umdelor!"
The gargoyle landed and deposited Spark on the ground. The boy stood stock-still a minute then ran into the shelter without speaking.
"To believe he was scared when he was snatched up out of danger by me," Umdelor apologised softly. "To think he must have thought me a daemon."
"Shall we get ready to move on, Avatar?" Tseramed asked as Dupre trudged up to where we stood.
"How long have we rested?" I asked.
"A few hours, I think."
"All right. Yes, get ready to move." I stopped the gargoyle as he started past me. "To speak with you is my wish."
He nodded. "To agree. Of what would you ask?"
In gargish, I said, "How did you know we were going to find the Chaos Sword, for one?"
"Inwisloklem heard you speaking to one with whom he doesn't know. He knew I sought information on the Shadowlords, so when he heard it all, he sent me a message."
Frowning slightly, "How? Who was his messenger?"
"What?" I exclaimed in normal speech. "That's just perfect!"
Umdelor looked confused.
"Sarcasm," I explained, then switched to gargish again. "How much were you relayed?"
"All of it. Up to when you agreed with the unknown one that you hoped 'it will be enough.'"
"Well, this is the long and short of it. The Guardian now knows everything I said and the...other guy said. Every advantage I might have taken with that knowledge is lost!" Without waiting for an answer, I hurried into the camp and gathered my things. The companions were silent until Shamino spoke.
"Avatar, don't forget thy swamp boots."
I nodded. "Thanks," then made the switch. "Ready?"
The only one who didn't have to slog through the mud and stinking cesspools was Umdelor. Watching him fly back and forth to scout our surroundings almost tempted me to try a 'Fly' spell. The gurgling quagmire sucked at our boots and every step resulted in new, revolting stenches. Clouds of insects hovered around us, the multitude of beating wings more than an annoying buzz that just kept going...and going...and going. It reminded me of a small plane continuously flying overhead.
Being a person with the kind of blood a mosquito loves to feast on, I was not having a very entertaining time, especially since the little blood-suckers were desperate and kept flying at the only skin I had exposed - my face.
Spark's luck was worse. A few minutes into the swamp, we'd reached a particularly boggy place and the boy had lacked the strength to pull his feet and boots out of the muck.
The boots had been left behind - claimed by the murky water and sludge. By the time Spark had thought to ask for help, fetid water was almost over his boot-tops and none of us could manage to pull the green footwear out.
Umdelor had offered to carry him. Spark had adamantly refused. For want of us to hurry, I cast a levitation spell on him and he hovered between Jaana and Iolo, who held one of his hands each and pulled him along.
The ground eventually became more solid, though there was a considerable layer of slime lying over it that made every step a potential slide back down into the swamp. Fortune was with us, however, and we managed to reach the western border of the subterranean mountains without incident.
"One hour break," I announced, dumping my pack on the relatively dry rocks scattered near the foothills.
The others took instant advantage and sat down with audible sighs. I lowered Spark and he put on his normal leather boots again.
Though the trek through the swamp had taken at least three hours by my judgement - I'd forgotten my pocket watch - and I was as tired as they were, I kept my eyes up to watch for Umdelor.
The gargoyle swooped down a few minutes later and rested his wings. "To report all is clear to the east," he said, "but there is a strange darkness there. Blacker than anything ever seen by me."
"'Beyond this darkness lies the core of the world,'" I murmured, quoting the Codex. "That's where the opening of Dungeon Doom is. Sadis-turn bal." I sighed. "Sit down and rest a while, Umdelor. You've more than earned it."
"To not be tired," he grinned, sitting anyway. "Such an adventure at your side again is not something one sleeps through! But if we were to...lok..."
I raised an eyebrow at the shift in languages and kept my gaze roaming the edge of the swamp. "About?"
In his own tongue, he went on, "Inwisloklem mentioned the one you were speaking to refer to Sin 'Vraal."
In gargish, I replied, "Yes, what of it?" Though I knew what he was going to say, and I almost kicked myself that I hadn't asked Arcadion about it myself. Sin 'Vraal was a gargoyle, not a daemon!
Umdelor said as much. "Sin 'Vraal was not a daemon. He was a gargoyle."
"You're right." I pulled out the Blacksword with a groan. The horse-riding pains were starting again, reinforced by the hard walk through the swamp. "Maybe you should learn what you don't yet know." Speaking normally, "Arcadion?"
The gem in the hilt shimmered. "Yes, Master?"
Umdelor gasped. "It speaks!" He said in the common speech.
"There is a daemon in this jewel," I explained. "Arcadion was the servant of Nosfentor, Shadowlord of Cowardice."
Umdelor nodded, as if the identification confirmed a suspicion. "This was the one Inwisloklem heard you speaking with?"
"It is." I half-expected Arcadion to say something like "Behold, the wondrous talking sword!" or "You should start charging admission for this, Avatar."
"Please, to ask it about Sin 'Vraal."
"Arcadion, you said Sin 'Vraal was a daemon, but he was a gargoyle."
"Don't be naive, Avatar," the Shade Blade snorted. "Do you truly believe the similarities between daemons and gargoyles are limited to what they look like?"
"To not be a daemon!" retorted Umdelor with vehemence.
"Of course not. Wings, red skin, glowing eyes, horns, magic..."
"To say it proves nothing! We have not tails nor talons nor goat legs..."
"Gargoyles are the descendants of daemons."
"Like...evolution?" I asked as Umdelor spluttered in outrage.
"Perhaps. Lord British corrupted Sin 'Vraal, turning him to the 'good' path, when the Shadowlords imprisoned him. Maybe Astaroth punished Sin 'Vraal by mutating him and reducing his magic, taking flight from his wings."
"But to point out that was but one gargoyle!" objected Umdelor. "What about all the others? We can fly."
"I don't know all the facts, gargoyle," sneered Arcadion. "But daemons have more power then you and we all look remarkably similar."
"Maybe the daemons that became good were turned into gargoyles," suggested Iolo, who had been listening in.
"You'll probably have the opportunity to ask the Shadowlords if Batlin reaches the Chaos Sword before you do."
I wondered if the Shadowlords really could be recalled since I'd destroyed the three counterparts of Hatred, Falsehood and Cowardice. True, the shards were not destroyed, but confined within the eternal flames. So what exactly would happen if Batlin tried to get them and put them in the sword?
Iolo shrugged at Arcadion's taunt, then lowered his head back to the rolled up cloak, watching the occasional flash of stars against what should have been the cave roof. "How did the gargoyles get to Britannia?"
"Banishment," replied the daemon. "That's my opinion, anyway. Who would want to live here?"
I started at a slithery noise and stood warily, peering around. Nothing. I sat down again. "How long to go?"
Shamino was watching a candle marked at regular intervals to time our rest period. "It's only been ten minutes, Elora."
I nodded. "Okay. Umdelor, get some rest."
The gargoyle glared at the Blacksword. "Yes, Avatar." Then he sat against a small, upright pillar and his glowing eyes went dark.
"Umdelor," I asked, "one question?"
The eyes opened again. "Yes, Avatar?"
"Your name. Where did you get it? What does it mean?"
"To believe you said 'one question,' Avatar," he replied with a vague smile. "It is a long story that can wait for later. To say for now that it was taken up in honour of a drak."
"A dragon, you mean?"
"Yes, a dragon. A curious, strange dragon who for some reason, saved the life of a young, foolish gargoyle." His eyes dimmed slightly. "To tell you the whole story later."
I sheathed Arcadion and opened my pack. Reaching inside, I pulled out a long, slender, grey chain from which hung a shiny silver serpent overlaid with a bluish tint. Tracing the curves absently, I wondered what powers the Guardian had that allowed Batlin to pass through the darkness around Doom.
My thoughts turned back to the discussion about daemons and gargoyles.
"Maybe Iolo is right," I pondered silently. "Maybe gargoyles are the good version of daemons. But there are evil gargoyles. Forskis is one example. It doesn't matter much, I guess. Sin 'Vraal served Astaroth, he told me as much. Gargoyle or daemon, there are good and evil of the former, probably of the latter though I've yet to see it. Even humans served the Shadowlords, like Blackthorn. Maybe what they really wanted was someone to like serving them." Shrugging at my own speculations, I hung Lord British's amulet over one knee, pulled out the pouches I kept my reagents in and started to mix spells.
The effect was similar to 'Recall,' but with the weird feeling of sliding through things. First was the cold stone of the crags. I concentrated on the patch of land between mountains and a lake Umdelor had told me about. Before long, we were there. The ground was blessedly firm and a very small beach met the edge of dark waters to the east. Though the light of the torches didn't reach very far, I felt I could see the darkness on the barely visible island in the lake's centre.
"Come on," I said. "We're almost there!"
"We've hardly begun," I heard Dupre mutter.
Turning southeast, we skirted the edge of the lake without encounter until a bridge could be seen stretching form our side to the island.
"I don't remember this," I frowned, brushing a fingertip over a carved, stone banister.
"Man-made," Iolo agreed. "Or, at least, something that can make such incredible detail."
The railings were indeed impressive. Magnificent headpieces of a dragon adorned left and right sides, wings stretched out in flight and graceful necks craned forward. Each statuette sported eyes of faceted garnet. The dark orange stones glowed as they hoarded the firelight. The railing was obviously meant to be the dragons' tails. They trailed off into the gloom at a slight rise, suggesting that the bridge was arched, or at least went up.
"Whoever did this was a master artisan," declared Iolo. "Each scale is depicted with...all I can say is...its own individuality!"
He was right. Every small scale was subtly different. Magic? If not, this bridge - this masterpiece - would have taken years to make.
The path of the bridge was also carved with scales, though much larger. In fact, each could have equalled the size of a battle shield.
It occurred to me the others were waiting for my decision. Cross it, or magic ourselves across?
"Let's not take chances," I said. The thing would probably come to life or vanish completely when we were halfway across. "Gather around." Facing north, I repeated the teleport spell. "In Por!"
And came face to face with blackness. A feeling of vast unease turned me around to see the startled expressions of my friends. "Douse the torches. We won't need them for a while." I pulled Lord British's amulet out of my pack and hurriedly clasped it around my neck. "Everyone, join hands."
Gloves and gauntlets were removed as hands were gripped. No one would get lost if I could help it. Then I slowly turned to face the darkness, seeing the line it made against what I could already see. The amulet didn't seem to diminish the lightlessness at all.
"May persistence and precision lead to success," I heard Umdelor say in a tongue everyone could understand.
Silently, I replied I'd be happy if we just got out of this alive.
Okay, why did black have so many nice-sounding synonyms? Ebony, sable, raven, dusky...even sooty held a hint of what I could only call 'cuteness'. How could anyone like the colour? It wasn't even a colour in itself! I reviewed the less popular words. Murky, gloomy, dark, coal, pitch, swarthy...too many. My conclusion: This place was blacker than the Stygian Abyss, a place named for being dark.
No one spoke after the confirmation that everyone could see me, just not each other or even themselves. We just walked through the darkness, eyes straining to see what wasn't there, expecting to trip over things on the ground that we couldn't see. Just shut your eyes, block your ears and walk. How would you feel? Apprehensive, afraid. Now try imagining walking like this for a full quarter hour. That's how long it took, though it seemed much longer.
I wondered if I was going a little mad. There was a lighter bit of black up ahead. My eyes fixed eagerly on it and I tugged at the hand holding mine. Walking slowly, I moved towards it.
A gigantic rock plugging a huge hole in the obsidian floor.
"Obsidian. Enough with the 'black' words, Elora," I muttered.
"That's it!" Shamino exclaimed. "We made it!"
"Get ready," I ordered. "Quick rest, then we go in." They almost reluctantly released hands before complying. My gaze again went to the smooth rock.
Silvery-grey, flawless in shape and texture. Almost beautiful if not for the dread it kept at bay.
Spark pushed a piece of beef jerky into my hand and I chewed at it like it was a strip of old leather. It certainly tasted like one.
"Let's at least feel healthy when we go down there," I said. "In Mani Ylem!"
The garlic, ginseng and mandrake root fell to the ground and became a roasted chicken, a berry pie, a pumpkin, some baked potatoes and a grilled fish. The aroma was devastating.
My mouth was suddenly watering. "I bags the pie!"
"Avatar..." groaned Iolo.
"Thou dost not see me complaining," said Spark, pouncing on a steaming potato.
"Well, it is too late now, Iolo," agreed Dupre. "Some chicken, Jaana?"
She tossed away her jerky. "Please."
"But Lord British said-"
"Iolo," said Shamino as he divided the hot, spiced fish between himself and Tseramed. "Dost thou like jerky?"
"It's not even in any of the five food groups!" added Spark. "Chicken, pie, potato, fish and pumpkin!"
I smirked around a mouthful of pie. The raw pumpkin lay unclaimed and Iolo was eyeing the chicken wistfully. "Umdelor?" I inquired. "Pie?"
"To graciously decline." The gargoyle had brought his own food - a substantial supply of horse chops. "To prefer these."
Dupre suddenly laughed out loud. "I was in the royal stables a while back when two gargoyles came in asking to purchase horses. The stablemaster asked them if they wanted valorian, mountain or desert breed, and they replied..." he laughed again. "'To inquire which kind tastes better?'"
We laughed with him and my spirit lifted with the sound.
"Why would a gargoyle need to ride a horse when he hath wings?" said Iolo. "I wonder what Smith would think of this conversation."
I gave the bard half my pie and kicked the pumpkin into the darkness surrounding us. "Who knows?"
Taking off my helmet, I donned the bejewelled Crown of Lord British. The heavy, magical ornament felt cold against my skin and a faint tingling shot through me as I settled it on my brow. Then I picked up the golden sceptre and faced the dungeon, my companions taking position behind me.
Shoving all thoughts aside about whether I looked foolish or regal, I yelled a single Word at the top of my lungs.
The ground trembled and some mystical force lifted the rock high into the air until it vanished beyond the darkness above us. Wasting no time, I approached the gaping, black entrance to Doom...and jumped in.