The Dark Realm
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
Darkness engulfed me. Wind rushed up past my face and I felt my cloak flaring out behind like wings. The fall was longer than I'd expected and after a few seconds, I felt a twinge of fear that I'd made a big mistake. My heart pounded loudly as the thought shrieked through my mind that I should have sent Umdelor to fly down and check the path first. Then I rejected that thought. I had to go first as the Avatar. They would go through hell for me, but only if I was there to lead them. That meant I charged in first, and fled last.
The air suddenly became warmer, then hot - almost humid. My fall slowed, losing acceleration, then velocity resulting in an almost-gentle touchdown on a solid surface. Brushing the light sweat from my face, I quickly stepped aside for whoever was behind me in the jump.
The room was familiar, even though I could barely see in the gloom. I could hear the faint humming of shadowy force fields I knew encircled the perimeter and an almost imperceptible red glow from an unseen source allowed me to see a dim outline of myself, a square meter of ground and nothing else. I was standing inside the threshold of Dungeon Doom. With a grim smile, I fingered the orb of power that tipped Lord British's sceptre.
"AVATAR!" something screamed and a weight slammed into me from behind. I went sprawling and quickly rolled away, staring into the red-cast blackness.
"Bet Lor!" A tiny light formed at my spell, but it was bright enough to momentarily blind me.
A jingle of chain mail heralded Dupre's arrival from the fall.
"Dupre, look out! Something's down here!" I whipped out the Blacksword but the unseen creature pushed me forward again.
"Fool to return, Avatar!" The voice rasped like grating steel.
"What are you?" I took a defensive stance, looking around.
The answer was a malicious, barely audible whisper. "Daemon."
I spun and slashed to the sound of a shriek, struck again and a dark shape leaped into the air. "Arcadion," I said to my sword. "Get ready for some death!"
"With pleasure," the enslaved daemon sword replied dryly.
"I feel your anti-magic, Avatar," the daemon sneered. "It comes from that thing you wear on your head! I would have it, but I need not any magic to rip your skull from your shoulders!"
Looking up towards the source of the voice, I saw the creature descending on me. I barely had time to raise my blade and shout, "Now!"
The force drove me to my knees and flailing, red wings brushed my face as the daemon's death cry echoed through the chamber. I waited for the sound to fade and listened to the silence for a minute.
"Hello?" I called finally, wrenching Arcadion free of the daemon's chest.
"We're here, Elora. Tseramed and Umdelor are still coming."
Two torches flared to life in Shamino's hands and I got a better look at my assailant. It was still alive, but barely. Its fiery eyes opened and stared at the Blacksword in fear.
"Arcadion..." it croaked before its eyes went dark and the horn-crowned head bowed.
I took a deep breath to steady my heart rate, then strode back to my comrades. "A daemon. It's dead and it somehow recognised Arcadion." I cocked an eye at my sword.
"I know not how," the blade admitted in a reluctant voice.
Sheathing him, I swore. "Where's the sceptre? I must have dropped it."
Tseramed landed behind us and I helped him to his feet as Iolo and Shamino searched for the sceptre with their torches. It was found quickly and the bard handed it back to me as Umdelor touched the ground softly, his red wings spread out.
"What wilt thou do with that?" asked Spark, peering at the jewelled rod.
"Follow me, people." Not knowing which direction I was facing, I led them to a wall or swirling, violet mists that reached up too high for us to see and formed an impenetrable barrier. "We are on the fringe of the Ethereal Plane," I said. "Those are shadowalls. To my knowledge, only this sceptre can dispel them." I swept the golden rod through the mist for emphasis and it dispersed as if a fresh wind had blown it away. "And this is how we got out of here the last time. Follow me." I hooked the sceptre into my belt, drew the Blacksword once again and led my seven companions into the depths of Dungeon Doom.
"It's like the place hath been abandoned," mused Dupre. "That or Batlin killed everything on his way through."
"Almost everything," Jaana corrected. "Get some sleep, Sir Knight."
I yawned and lay down on my bedroll, my armour piled beside me. "Well, at least we made good time."
We were already on the third level of the dungeon and apart from the daemon I'd faced, the only resistance had been a single giant spider Spark had killed. The enormous arachnid had been about to drop on Shamino's head when the boy had let fly his sling. Actually, the spider still fell on Shamino, though the ranger - once he'd got back to his feet - had been alive to tell about it, and to thank his saviour.
"Just remember to wake me in four hours, milady," replied Dupre.
"Yes, milord," Jaana answered roguishly. "Now sleep, or must I cast a spell on thee?"
He snorted and lay down.
There was a single candle illuminating our site and I watched the tall still flame, finding it impossible to relax. It was as if something lurked around the corner and I was afraid of dropping my guard lest something catch me unawares. And the flame...the red-gold flame reminded me too much of the colour of someone's eyes.
"Where have you been?" I thought.
*Did you miss me?* Mock surprise tinged his Voice.
"You're the only one who seems to understand the significance of the Sword of Chaos."
*Ahh, yes. Better even than you.*
I closed my eyes to concentrate. "Explain it to me."
A chuckle. *I already told you.*
"A trap? Come now, there's more to it than that."
*There always is...but not much more.*
"I suppose I'll find out soon enough."
There was a positively gleeful pause. *Have you given any thought to my offer?*
"Of betrayal? Be serious!" *Before this quest is over, you will beg to join me.*
There was that in his Voice which grated on my nerves and made me consider my next words carefully. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a clever comeback. That kind of thing I usually left to Dupre, Iolo or Shamino. "You want me to replace Batlin, don't you?" I sent the thought, almost certain I was right. "Is this a test of some kind?"
The next pause made me feel very uncomfortable. *When next we speak, Avatar, you will kneel or die.*
"If I kneel to you, the Avatar will die."
The Guardian didn't reply and I actually felt smug at getting the last word in. Then wariness set in. From the Guardian's view, I'd serve him or die before this was all over. I wasn't one to blindly believe his words, but they always seemed to hold elements of truth, though always twisted. Half-truths were always painful.
Maybe if I pretended to kneel...? No. I would never serve or feign service. If the worst came to the worst, I could always cast 'Kal Lor' and get us the hell out of there before we perished. I just hoped the spell would work in the ethereal plane.
"Thou knowest," Spark said as we passed through a cave of pink and white shawl formations, "this place is almost beautiful."
I agreed. "Too bad we have to walk on it."
Despite the delicate appearance of the white crystal we trod on, they were surprisingly hard. In the firelight, they glittered like a garden of stars. Around them were white rock formations that looked like clouds or gently frothing bubbles.
"What causes it?" Shamino asked.
"Something to do with what's in the rock and how much water gets fed through the caves," I answered. "I think limestone is one element."
"I would love to study this wonder," the ranger sighed. "I could almost believe here that I spend too much of my time above ground."
Everyone laughed softly, but even then there were echoes.
"Not even the bee caves near Empath Abbey are like this," said Tseramed. "And those honeycomb caverns that virtually drip liquid gold are among the most wondrous sights I have ever seen."
"Poetic," I noted with a grin, which sparked more chuckling.
Most of the caverns were like that one as we continued our descent. Stalagmites and stalactites, shawls and crystals, more. Everything looked frail but was as hard as...well...rock.
"Look," I said, pointing out a gleam of metal. "Next ladder down."
The metal rungs were slick. Gripping them firmly, I went down first and caught the torch Shamino dropped down to me. The light proved unnecessary, however.
The ladder was in the middle of a beautiful marble hall. Carved pillars a milky pink colour connected floor to ceiling and flaming braziers stood between these columns. The floor was tiled in grey stone flecked with gold and it was free of dust. Apart from the ladder, there was only one other exit in the form of a massive set of bronze double-doors set into one of the walls.
Shamino drew a breath of wonder as he stepped away from the ladder. "I cannot remember this place, either."
I gave him back the torch and hurried to the door, hoping for a keyhole or something. Giving that idea up, I pressed my ear to the door, but it must have been thick, or maybe the room beyond was empty, for I heard nothing.
"I have a bad feeling," I told Shamino.
"I as well."
The others climbed down and stared around for a while before I spoke. "I'll open the door with a telekinesis spell. Iolo, Tseramed, Shamino and Spark..." the boy perked up. "Get ready to fire or throw on my order. Jaana, prepare any offensive spells. Dupre, stand with me."
Iolo loaded his crossbow. "Dost thou expect anything?"
I nodded tersely. "I expect everything." Rubbing the serpent symbol on the crown I wore, I added, "If it's magic, this will protect us, as will the Magebane sword."
He gave a calm nod. We'd all gone through this same routine several times before, but had never found anything to attack. But this hall...I sensed a trap in every fibre of my being.
I cast the spell and opened the door with my mind ten paces away. The hinges moved noiselessly and a sooty-red light filtered through the narrow opening. A few seconds later, we were staring at another empty room. One that had a ladder going down in the middle of the floor.
"That's the one which will take us to the prison room," I said steadily, though I was virtually trembling with excitement and impatience. "Wait here. If there is a trap, I'll spring it. Be ready."
I forewent any magical protection as mana was running low. I'd need it for Batlin and I knew he'd be here.
"Remember your promise to free me when you see Batlin in the flesh, Master," Arcadion murmured.
Shaking my head at both the stupidity of my oath and the thought that Arcadion seemed to have some kind of mind-reading power, I crossed the distance to the door and stepped over the threshold.
"Elora! The doors!"
Dupre's warning came too late. The bronze double-doors boomed shut as I spun to face them. I tried to force them with the spell I'd used just before, but nothing happened. Then I noticed the faint blue flicker of light around each door.
"Magically locked," I said with a sigh.
"I never would have expected an intelligent observation from a human," a deep, snarling voice stated.
I turned slowly. At least fifty daemons now stood by the ladder, each half again as tall as I and wielding black or fiery weapons. The speaker was unmistakable. Twice my height and possessing an impressive display of horns on his head as well as a wingspan longer than three two-handed swords, his eyes were like twin pools of molten lava.
I didn't fool myself into thinking a peaceable solution could be reached just because he could talk.
"A girl-human in royal jewels," the daemon went on. "You can't be Lord British, so you must be the Avatar."
The daemons behind the spokesman hissed and sidled.
"I am," I said, grateful my voice was not hoarse.
"How disappointing," the huge creature murmured. "Then why came you here? You already rescued your liege."
"Let's stop beating around the bush, daemon. Where is Batlin?"
A hairless brow raised mockingly. "I can be Batlin. Come, Avatar, you wish to kill me?" The red arms opened wide.
"He is not Batlin," Arcadion whispered. "But you must slay him."
"Why?" I whispered back.
"Or else you will never reach that ladder."
"The sword's right, you know," interrupted the huge daemon. His eyes narrowed as he peered at the Blacksword. "You must be Arcadion."
"How do you know this?" I responded calmly.
The daemon sneered. "I recognised his voice." Massive shoulders shrugged. "And one of my informants already met you both at Doom's entrance."
I caught sight of the daemon I knew I had killed! Why I recognised him, I don't know, but I did - and he was very much alive. I let out a bored sigh. "I just want to destroy the Chaos Sword, then we'll go and leave you."
The burning eyes narrowed even more. "'We'? Ah, yes. Your companions." The daemon seemed oblivious to anything else I'd said. "You left them in the other room, did you not?"
I froze only a split second...but it was too long. One clawed finger lifted and the fifty lesser daemons all leaped into the air and flew upwards into the red-tinged darkness with a great flapping of wings.
"So, where are your 'friends' going?" I asked when my heart started beating again.
He shook his skull-shaped head. "Really, I wonder what the Guardian sees in you humans sometimes. So stupid."
Gritting my teeth, I raised the Blacksword a little. "If my friends are harmed..."
The daemon feigned surprise. "Why, you knew where my brethren were going all along! You had me fooled, Avatar. I thought you were..."
"Shut up daemon," I spat, my patience and calmness frayed perilously thin. "I am the Avatar of the legends, embodiment of the eight Vir..."
"Yes, yes, yes," the daemon interjected with a bored note to his grating voice. "So what?"
This called for a threat. I was a bit out of practise as the sight of Arcadion's sword usually did the trick of turning my foes' legs to jelly. "Tell me where the Sword of Chaos and Batlin are. Then you will let me climb down that ladder unhindered and tell your cohorts to keep away from my friends back there, or by Infinity, I'll rip you to shreds and let Arcadion get revenge on you for usurping his position." Boy, that was lame. But I'd set one thing in motion. Hopefully I'd find out if this daemon was the Shadowlord of Doom's servant as Arcadion had been the Shadowlord of Cowardice's.
Again he shook his head. "Arcadion's powers are somewhat limited...unless you plan to release him?" When I gave no response, he went on. "And I think you'll find me more challenging than that fool Balinor." He drew a curving blade that was even blacker than mine, but it glittered and seemed to suck the light from the air. This produced an aura of non-light around the wicked sword and just looking at it made me want to turn and flee. "As for your demands, the Chaos Sword is downstairs, Batlin has already departed, my daemons will soon be enjoying your humans...but let you pass?" He hefted his scimitar. "I don't think so."
Batlin left without the sword? No, he had to be lying. "Then so be it," I said softly.
"I will help as much as I can, Master," Arcadion said. "I have no wish to see this fiend surpass me."
A frightening expression came over my adversary's daemonic features. "I already have." Then he charged me.
I had little experience when it came to hand-to-hand combating daemons. Usually the creatures would shoot balls of fire at me in hopes of crisping me to a cinder, or use their wings to hit and run. The Crown of Lord British fortunately prevented the former. But the latter? This foe seemed eager to engage me in a duel. Me! The Avatar! I changed my train of thought. It wasn't because he didn't believe in my strength, it was because he wanted to prove he was stronger.
His first attack was a flurry of blows aimed at my head and upper body. His sword was as big as mine, but his own size enabled him to swing the curved blade one-handed.
The weeks I'd used the Blacksword had accustomed me to fighting with more unwieldy weapons, though, and the Black Gate quest had kept me in peak condition. So physically, I judged us equally matched.
I parried, ducked, riposted, dodged, blocked and evaded with ease before getting any moves of my own on him.
"Fire!" I shouted, leveling the Shade Blade at my enemy and jumping back.
A think trail of fire snaked towards the daemon, who snarled, then spread vast wings to fly at me. Then the ground at his feet exploded upwards in a blast of furnace-heat and flames, completely enshrouding the daemon in red-gold light.
Squinting, I peered into the blaze.
"You'll have to do better than that!" the daemon shrieked.
I was flat on my back before I'd even noticed the creature launch itself at me. His speed was impossible!
A clang of metal and I felt like something had punched me in the stomach. Regaining my feet swiftly, I saw the daemon staring at me in stark disbelief.
In a close-to-incredulous voice, he said, "You're not wearing the Mystic armour!"
I risked a look at my breastplate. It bore a huge rent, which was actually peeling back like old paint and thin wisps of smoke rose up from it. This was not good.
The daemon spoke again, his voice avid in anticipation. "This will be easier than I thought."
I gripped the Blacksword tighter to hide the shaking of my hands, and attacked.
The routine felt so familiar. If not for the direness of my situation, the flow of movement I'd used so often in the past might have lulled me. Some britannians likened swordplay to dance steps. The steps I danced to had a fast tempo and were comprised of elegant, even graceful movements. I wove in and out with my winged partner, arms and wrists flexing with supple efficiency, each action executed to perfection.
I blinked blood away from my eyes that dripped down from a shallow gash across my forehead. The daemon had tried to fit the tip of his sword under the edge of the Crown to flip it off my head, but had failed. Arms aching with effort, I lifted and struck out again and again with a sword that grew heavier each passing minute. My hands were slick with perspiration inside the magic gauntlets and my body was sore all over.
No, nothing elegant about this, I decided.
We must have fought for at least an hour. Both of us had struck good blows, but I had been slow to notice one very important detail. The daemon's sword never failed to scar armour or draw blood, but mine continuously bounced off his body as if he wore some invisible force field. Even his wings, which should have torn like parchment against the razor edge of the Blacksword, were unscathed.
I was on the verge of collapse and had only one card left to play. "Arcadion, death on my signal!"
I felt Arcadion's presence manifest itself within me as I continued to strike. Abruptly, my attack became more focussed, more heated...more lethal.
Then my foe left himself open.
The Blacksword plunged into the daemon's chest and incandescent lightning flashed across his scarlet body. The daemon screamed as I tore my sword free, the final pull tearing my shoulder muscles and blinding me with pain.
I knelt before I fell, panting and waiting for my sight to return. Painfully, I managed to sheath the Blacksword without too much trouble. I took a deep breath of victory and let it out in a sigh, closing my eyes wearily.
Then a strong fist clenched around my throat and lifted me into the air. "You have failed, Avatar."
Breathing was cut off and my eyes snapped open to see fiery eyes surrounded by a black haze before the daemon hurled me across the room against the unyielding bronze doors. I felt something break and let out a moan of agony. Battle-instinct screamed at me to move or he'd be on me, but I had nothing left.
Dimly, I noticed the daemon standing over my beaten body, sword poised. He was breathing hard, but unwounded and upright and victorious.
"Valiantly fought, Avatar," he panted. "The Guardian has forbidden me to kill you for some reason, so I suppose I'll have to let your companions nurse you to some semblance of health before we cross blades again."
I struggled to move, sit up, anything, but searing pain ran all down my back and arms and I couldn't feel my legs.
"You know, it just occurred to me," the creature went on. "My Master told me to keep you from the Mirror Room. He said, 'Don't kill - fight.'" He paused as if considering something. "You're not from Britannia, are you?" A sinister smile. "That means you'll be down here a very long time."
I couldn't even shudder. He knew I'd never leave until I got the Chaos Sword first. But why hadn't the death spell worked?
The sound of a door being opened.
"Better luck next time."
A kick pushed me through the door.
"Until we cross blades again, Arcadion."
A second kick pushed me into oblivion.
"I warned you, Avatar."
The chains binding me to the wall were made of Blackrock. The stench of sweat caused my stomach to roil. Where...?
The Guardian paced before me behind a set of prison bars. He looked huge. Then I realised it seemed so because I was sitting with both my legs stretched out before me. Of course. I'd been crippled during my battle with the daemon. He must have broken my back or something.
"Look at you. You could have had all the power of both your worlds! Now you'll spend the last of your days here."
A prison cell? Small, dark, dank, bars, manacles - it fit the description. My armour lay in a broken heap nearby. It looked familiar...
"A forgotten hero."
I tried to think of some retaliation but my mind was foggy with pain and confusion. I wanted to shout out I was the Avatar of Britannia, friend of Lord British, protector of the shrines. A living legend.
"Legends are dead. As is British. As is Britannia. The shrines are gutted ruins."
So he'd won after all. I was too tired to care much. My eyes fell on the golden Ankh amulet which lay shattered on the cold, stone floor. Symbol of my Avatarhood. As broken as I.
"And you are finally mine."
My head raised as memories roused me. I stared balefully at the Guardian's ugly face, visions of friends and acts of Virtue lending me strength.
"I will never kneel to you!"
He glared down at me. "I've won and you dare deny it?"
"As long as I resist, your victory means nothing!"
"You are nothing!"
"I am the Avatar! I will never be yours and neither will Britannia. As long as I live, the land will live!"
"Britannia is mine!" he shouted.
"I AM BRITANNIA! You can kill me, but you will never break me!"
The Guardian growled in anger. "Kneel or DIE!"
What a way to go. "I'll never kneel." I repeated.
"Then die." He turned away and crooked a finger at someone I couldn't see. As he moved aside, the hulking form or a troll approached with a key in one hairy hand, and a barbed whip in the other.
"Quick, hold her down!"
Hands forced me to lie down on something soft. A wet cloth landed on my forehead, whatever foul liquid it held seeped down my face.
"Open her mouth."
Someone poured a concoction down my throat and I coughed violently.
"Elora, stop struggling! It's us! Thou art safe!" A human hand gripped one of my own. "See? It's me. It's Jaana. Relax."
What was going on? I could barely see. A dream? Or had the cell been a dream? Maybe this whole damned quest to Dungeon Doom had been nothing more than a nightmare. I swallowed convulsively. "Where..? What's going on?"
"That great bloody daemon kicked thee in the head and thou didst land out here," said Dupre's voice.
"Maybe thou canst tell us what is going on." This from Iolo.
Jaana helped me sit up and made me drink some more of what she'd given me before. Only now I recognised the restoring taste of a yellow healing potion.
I relayed as much of the battle and conversations as I could recall, not sparing myself anything, not even the shame I felt.
"That wouldst explain thy broken spine," said Jaana. "I healed it," she added when I looked at her in startlement. "Thou art almost completely recovered."
"Thy recuperating powers art truly amazing, my friend," Iolo told me. "Canst nothing kill thee?"
"He spared me," I said softly. "The Guardian has claims on my life." I stretched carefully, then looked at Dupre. "I'm sorry."
He blinked. "For what?"
"I should have listened to thee about the Mystic weapons."
Dupre shook his head. "Methinks none of us were thinking clearly that day. There was much to consider."
"No, Dupre. I was not listening to thee. It is my fault."
"The mistake can still be corrected," Shamino put in. "Use the orb."
"The orb hasn't worked since the generator was destroyed, Shamino!" I objected.
"Then why didst thou bring it?" He waited for me to think of an answer then said, "Like us, thou didst believe that the orb no longer functions in Britannia. We are no longer in Britannia, Elora."
"You're right, my friend," I admitted. "We're on the edge of the Ethereal Void. Do you think it will work?"
Shamino said, "I hope so, and there's only one way to find out, as the saying goes. One of us can go through and find the weapons and armour."
"We can open the moongate every hour," agreed Iolo. "Every minute if need be."
"A sword is all I need," I said firmly. "Armour will help, but without a weapon, I will lose." I touched the Blacksword. "Trying to kill a daemon with a daemon did not work."
"Like trying to put out fire with fire," suggested Tseramed.
"Or destroy evil with evil," agreed Dupre.
"Arcadion is hardly 'good'," said Spark.
I nodded somewhat glumly. "Don't take this wrong, but I think I should remain here."
They exchanged glances. "No arguments here."
"I'll go," Dupre stood and unfastened the scabbard of the Magebane sword. "I'll leave this here to use in place of Arcadion if thou dost wish. It may help."
I had doubts about the sword that had been found in the ruins of Stonegate, the Shadowlords old earthly fortress, but nodded.
"Wait!" Spark exclaimed. "If we brought a Virtue stone and marked it for here, Dupre would not have to wait for us to open a moongate!"
I shot a question to Shamino with my eyes, but he shook his head and said, "We didn't bring any Virtue stones. Even if we brought one, would a Recall spell work between worlds?"
"'Twas a good plan, in any case," said Iolo to the crestfallen Spark.
I looked around for my pack but Shamino had already extracted the orb. He passed it to me and I closed the small, not quite spherical stone in my hand. "So which way is north?"
"That way," replied Tseramed without pause. He pointed straight to the wall in which the bronze doors stood closed.
I blinked at the archer in surprise. "Thou art sure?"
Wriggling around on my bedroll to face the indicated direction, I held out my hand to angle down a few feet away then opened my fist to uncover the orb of the moons.
The orb grew suddenly warm and a horizontal sliver of crimson light materialised on the tiled floor. It rose up vertically in silence to form a shimmering red door. A moongate. The sight of it filled me with hope. It had worked.
Dupre stuck his head through a second then pulled back. "It's the throneroom. Looks like it must be night over there."
I reached up and shook his hand. "Good fortune, Sir Knight."
"And to thee, Avatar."
Umdelor's cry startled us all, almost as much as the sudden noise of beating, daemonic wings.
I looked up. The fifty daemons were descending from a swirling black vortex set in the roof. Rather than wonder at all this, I jumped up, grabbed the Crown and shoved Dupre towards the moongate.
"Go! NOW!" I screamed at him.
The knight seemed torn with indecision. It looked as if he wanted to help fight the attacking monsters. Friendship and valor demanded it. He said, "But Elora! What if I can't come back through the gate?"
I snatched up the Magebane before he could. "Dupre, GO! Or else we'll all die and Britannia will be doomed!"
He dove through the moongate at that and I hastily closed it after him lest a daemon seek to follow.
The boy neatly caught the Magebane. I knew it would be light enough for him to use, and a far better weapon than a sling, with or without great skill. I'd given him some instruction in swordplay myself.
Belatedly noticing I was only wearing leathers, and barefoot into the bargain, I slipped the Crown onto my head and seized my reagents. "Jaana! Let's make some magic!"
Either death didn't exist in the greater-daemon's room or it didn't exist in that particular daemon. In any case, these ones seemed mortal. Tseramed's hands blurred as he let fly burst arrows. He'd already felled five foes and wounded others who'd been caught in the magical blasts of his shafts. Shamino, Iolo and Umdelor were also doing considerable damage and the daemons weren't yet close enough to land.
"Vas Uus Sanct!" I intoned, invoking protection on myself and my friends.
"In Vas Por!" called Jaana and I felt her spell enhance my physical strength instantly, noting that the wounds inflicted on the daemons became more serious as the incantation affected the others.
"Vas Des Sanct!" I unleashed the curse at the daemons as Jaana let fly an explosion spell.
"Vas Flam Hur!" A detonation of fire and smoke erupted in the midst of the creatures.
They landed and I released one more spell before drawing the Blacksword. "Quas Wis!" Shrieks of terror broke out from the daemons as the fear spell took hold. Several tried to flee.
To myself, I whispered, "Let's see if these bastards bleed."
It felt great to let out my anger on these daemons. I might not have been able to kill their leader, but these ones...with the Blacksword in my grasp, these daemons fell like wheat to a scythe.
As Arcadion took the 'life' of a tenth daemon, I heard the doors open and whirled to see my winged nemesis appraising the carnage. Wondering bleakly if he'd engage me even now, I skewered a faltering enemy and sliced off the right wing of another.
"Well done, Avatar!" the large daemon called, clapping in mock appreciation.
This was too easy, even with the Crown's protection. Shamino took out the last foe and I made a swift, visual evaluation of my group. Minor scrapes only. Even Spark seemed relatively unhurt. I faced the one standing at the threshold and tried to look confident.
He leaned casually against the open door and raised a single, clawed finger. "Too bad it won't serve you any more now than it did before."
I steeled myself. By now I was ready for anything.
A red hand clutched my ankle and only reflexes spared me fang marks on my feet. Dispatching the daemon, I spun and noticed, to my horror, that every last one of the fifty daemons were coming back to life.
And this time, they wouldn't die.
"You can't kill something that's already dead, Avatar," shouted the greater daemon.
Hacking off the head of a fiend who was stalking Jaana, I watched as the decapitated corpse stood and wandered over to where it's head lay. Then the body picked up it's skull and put it back on its neck, much like we'd put on a helm.
This was bad. I might be under the Guardian's 'protection', but my friends were not.
"Arcadion, restore my powers." Quickly, I followed with a Time Stop spell. "An Tym!" The daemons all froze. My companions continued to attack until they figured out what was going on. By then, I was holding the orb of the moons.
"We will not leave thee!" declared Shamino, although one of his arms hung limp and he was using a magic sword instead of his massive hammer. "What if Dupre was right? We can go through the moongates from here, but will we be able to come back?"
"There is no time for this!" I argued. "I won't die but you all will!" I opened a moongate to the Castle. "I promise to call thee back when I've dealt with him." I pointed to the immobile greater daemon.
Jaana was already pushing a protesting Spark to the gate. "We shall help Dupre in his search," she said. "Good luck, Elora."
Tseramed inclined his head at me then followed leaving my two closer - and more stubborn - friends behind.
"Go!" I pleaded. "Look, I don't know if I'm right, but this is the way I see it. The location of the orb when the moongate is summoned is what matters. If that location is firmly anchored in the ether without disturbances, then the destination gate is secure."
They looked unconvinced.
"Ok, take it this way. When I opened the gate for Dupre, he stuck his head through and pulled it back without any trouble."
That worked, even if a shadow of doubt still lingered. Hell, I felt the same way. They glanced at each other, then nodded. "Very well," said Iolo. The bard looked at me. "I very much hope that thou art right. The Virtues keep thee safe, Avatar. Don't lose that orb."
Shamino smiled grimly. "And if the worst comes to the worst, cast Kal Lor."
Time restarted and they quickly jumped through. I closed the gate and shoved the orb down the front of my shirt. It was the only place I could think of. The stone quickly warmed between my breasts and I watched the daemons mill around in confusion.
"What trickery is this?" screeched their leader. "Where are your miserable comrades?"
"Safe!" I shot back. "Call off thy pets!"
The fifty maimed daemons instantly flapped aloft and vanished back through the vortex. A single red body remained lying on the floor.
I then remembered who I had not seen entering the moongate.
"Umdelor," I whispered, hurrying over.
"Resurrect the dead renegade, Avatar," the daemon crooned. "And I'll send my followers back again and again." Then he strode back into his room, the doors booming shut behind him.
Umdelor sat up. "At last."
My jaw dropped.
The gargoyle stood and flexed his wings. "To regret using deception, but to know it was the only way to remain here."
"..pretended to be dead so that you would not send me back through the gate." Umdelor frowned. "My jur to vas-mir-vag-lem Johne stands."
I cast my gaze around for any backpacks. Three were torn to shreds, a fourth lay spilled on the floor, one sat against a wall near the bedrolls and two were missing. Umdelor had probably hidden his somewhere, the cunning little... "What exactly did you swear?"
He fingered one of his horns. "To have sworn that anything related to the Shadowlords or the Black Jewel of Mondain will be investigated by me. All information will be relayed to Johne."
At least Jaana's things were still here. I picked up a roll of bandage and proceeded to swath my left arm in it. "To what cause?"
"To say he still blames himself for many things, including the destruction of my world."
Johne had found the jewel of Mondain in the Underworld of dungeon Despise when his shop had been swallowed by a whirlpool. The captain had come upon the shards, which had quickly driven him to madness. Using the shattered, sharp fragments, he had killed three of his companions - one his mage love, one his stalwart warrior friend and the third a travelling bard.
From their blood, the story went, had risen the three Shadowlords of Falsehood, Cowardice and Hatred.
They had captured and imprisoned Lord British in the mirror room of dungeon Doom, and freeing him had caused massive earthquakes and destruction across all Britannia and the land of the gargoyles.
Eventually, the Underworld had vanished completely.
"It was not his fault. I started it by taking the Codex."
"No. Naxatilor started it when he brought the Kodeks to our world from the Void. Johne still blames himself for what followed."
"But what could he do in any case?" I tied off the linen wrap.
"To observe he has helped you in the past."
"That was in an entirely different matter," I pointed out sternly. "And you know that. Translating languages is one thing. Confronting the Shadowlords is quite another."
"To say the point is, my promise must be honoured. To believe that what he does with the information is not what's important."
"Anything that is concerned with the world's safety is important," I said severely. "You must go. You are no good to me or him dead."
"Then to die is not an option," Umdelor stated simply.
"That daemon doesn't want me dead," I told him impatiently. "You, on the other hand, are expendable."
Umdelor sighed. "To not worry about me, Avatar."
Suddenly, I felt tired again. I reached up and gave one of Umdelor's shoulders a pat. "I have to worry, my friend," I responded softly. "I don't want anyone to die because of my oversights."
"The Mystic arms?"
I nodded once and withdrew my hand. "I suppose there's no harm in trying." Pulling the orb out, I faced north and opened a gate.
Tseramed's head poked through and I felt a wave of relief that the gates were clearly functional two ways. "Are they gone?"
"Don't come through. It's safer where thou art."
"Indeed. Avatar...is Umdelor..?"
"He's alive and here," I sighed in exasperation. "Hast thou found the Mystic arms?"
"Not as yet. I'm on watch here for the moment. Lord British ordered a search for the arms as soon as we left for Doom, so we have less ground to cover."
At least Lord British had the sense not to listen to everything I said. "Any leads?"
The ranger nodded. "Serpent's Hold and Skara Brae."
"Skara Brae?" I exclaimed.
"We thought Horance may know something."
Giving a bewildered shrug, I asked, "Why not Jhelom?"
"Our liege had Sir Sentri search there. Nothing."
"Ok. I'll check back in an hour if I can."
"Fortune be with thee, Avatar."
"And with thee, Tseramed."
He vanished and I let the red door sink to the ground and close.
"To ask, what now?"
I gifted my gargoyle comrade with a small smile. "We need to protect you."
"No buts." I hunted through the wreckage of a pack and counted out all the rings. "Here. Wear there." I dropped a ring of invisibility and a protection ring into his hand.
He slipped the latter on one finger then raised a hairless brow at the former.
I stamped on some leather boots, tied back my hair and readied the Blacksword. Armour was useless, but I could at least try to look like a hero. "Put on both of the rings, Umdelor," I said.
Then I approached the bronze doors.
"Avatar. What an unexpected surprise."
I noted the fifty lesser daemons - several holding severed body parts - gathered around the ladder, their leader towering over them. He leaned casually on his dark sword.
"Sleep well?" he asked maliciously.
The nightmare came back to me and I shivered mentally. "Why the concern?"
He chuckled. "Just making sure An-lor Zu-quas wasn't making your life hard."
Dark night-illusions? Nightmares? "The name of your weapon, I suppose."
"But of course. You know why it is called thus."
Had he seen what I'd dreamt? "So what do I call you?"
The daemon gave an irritated shrug. "And here I hoped we'd have another nice workout."
My shoulders tensed.
"Names are so trivial. I've had so many, you see. You may call me...Prilem Xencorp."
King Daemon? No...Daemon King. "That ambitious, are we? You may have fifty cronies, but stuck in this hole hardly makes you..."
"With the almighty Avatar at my mercy!" snapped the monster. He calmed then said, "Call me what you will. Flamvol, Anavatar, Kalansaegkt," he shrugged. "I am the Daemon of Doom."
So I was right. "Is there a Shadowlord of Doom as yet?" I inquired casually.
He grinned. "Maybe...maybe. You'll find out eventually."
"Is it Batlin?"
"That puling, weak, human mage?" he exclaimed so incredulously that I felt very strongly he was acting. "Never would I serve him!" Fiery eyes narrowed. "Didn't you believe me when I said he'd left?"
"I still don't."
The daemon waved a clawed hand. "No matter. You will never catch him, or kill him. That much I know."
"Yeah, yeah." I considered the odds of getting back through the door before he closed it. Then I figured it may be to my advantage to fight again, consequences aside. If I could learn his tricks...
He lifted his sword. "If that's all, we can spar again."
My stance shifted quickly and the Blacksword leapt into my hands, poised. "How about 'Quaskorp'?"
"'Fear'?" the creature translated skeptically. "More appropriate for Arcadion..."
"'Illusion of death,'" I corrected softly, a smile teasing my lips as I broke up the two syllables of Quaskorp. "'Illusion,'" I repeated pointedly.
The daemon stalked up to me and pushed the point of his sword against my chest. I had to bite my lip to keep from flinching as a dark sensation gripped my heart.
"This is no illusion," he snarled.
"But it is," I disagreed steadily. "Bluster, mock, wound, terrorise me all you like." I forced myself to stare the daemon in the eye the way Lord British did all his subjects. Pride without arrogance, power without tyranny, confidence without fear. "You can't kill me - won't kill me. An illusion of death."
"Taste the reality!" he shrieked, the curved blade slicing across my face.
I stumbled only a little as the steel drew blood. Restraining the impulse to touch my sore cheekbone, I kept my gaze locked with his. "Courage always conquers Fear."
"'Lor-ra!" he sneered. "Light of Valor! You claim to be a...Lightlord of Courage?"
He actually backed away a step. I caught my breath, but he instantly recovered and took back his lost ground, raising the scimitar to strike again. "Then Doom is stronger, Lightlord. I claim victory."
This time, I reacted and parried the blow. "You won't win until I lie dead!"
"Your virtues will not protect you here! What does your precious Codex have to say now? The Avatar humbled before a daemon and bending knees to the Guardian!"
"This is what the Codex says," I shouted, blocking another attack. "'Be of good Courage and it shall strengthen your heart!'" I counterattacked, pushing him back towards his followers.
Three smaller daemons jumped me, leaving me open. I threw one over my shoulder, disembowelled the second and kicked the third in the head. "'The Truth shall set you free!'"
Quaskorp screamed in rage and charged me.
"'Love never fails!'"
My sword bounced off him but I'd put enough force behind the blow to knock him back.
"And your Spirituality?" he spat.
"'We have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power - " I thrust with all my strength. "And love - " I evaded his counterstroke and arced my sword high. "And of a sound mind!" The Blacksword crashed down on the daemon's head.
He stumbled back, I jumped at the ladder and grabbed a rung with one hand.
Quaskorp seized me by the neck and lifted me up. "Nice try. This time, I won't let you off so easily." So saying, he dropped his sword and lifted the crown off my head. In a single motion, he closed his fist and crushed Lord British's magical crown.
I struggled to breathe as the daemon lifted me up to eye-level.
"Now hear the words of the Guardian. 'Hatred stirs up strife, all men are liars, fear controls the weak-minded. When desire has been conceived, it brings forth evil, and evil, when it is full-grown, brings forth death!'"
He threw me out through the open door and I skidded across the floor to a halt. Sitting up, I looked back and saw fire...quickly followed by oblivion.
The water ran down my face and I coughed a little as some trickled down into my throat. "Enough," I croaked, slitting my eyes open. "Umdelor?"
He nodded. "To say your burns are severe. To not be very good at healing."
My skin felt tight, as though stretched. "Pass me the reagents and I'll do it myself."
The gargoyle handed me ginseng, garlic, spider silk and mandrake root, then I cast "Vas Mani!" I tingled, but nothing happened.
"The spell failed?" Umdelor suggested. "Try again."
I took the reagents he offered and recast the spell but to no success.
"The rings of Regeneration ran out," he explained in an apologetic voice. "They healed you a bit, but..." he left it hanging.
"No fault of yours," I replied. My voice was strange to my own ears. Harsh and rasping. "Did he throw a fireball at me?"
"How bad do I look?"
He looked at me hesitantly. "To say you could almost pass for a gargoyle."
I closed my eyes and lay back. "The Crown?"
My eyes shot open again and rested on a mangled ball of crushed gold in Umdelor's hand.
"He threw it after you." He passed it to me and I felt the familiar weight in the unfamiliar shape.
Tears stung my eyes. I could only think of one thing to say. "Lord British is going to kill me."
Umdelor shook his head slightly. "To think he would miss you more than a crown - no matter how magical."
I cupped the broken crown in both hands. "Rel Sanct Ylem." The gold expanded. I kept my mind on the spell and mentally reshaped the Crown until it was fully repaired.
"How is this possible," asked Umdelor. "When healing failed to work?"
I set the Crown down on the floor and asked for more reagents, then retried healing.
"Something must be wrong," I said. "Has anything else happened?"
"No. No daemons, nothing."
I relaxed as much as I could again and lay down. "Then I think I will rest."
I woke instantly and glanced around. Umdelor had already put on the invisibility ring for I couldn't see him. Grabbing reagents, I lay still and feigned sleep. The sound of wings came first, then of snarling voices. Two daemons, I decided.
I sensed a shadow fall over me and felt heat as one of them peered closer at my 'sleeping' form. In a language I'd never heard before, a daemon sneered a string of words and laughed. The other daemon spat something back and a clawed hand roughly grabbed my face.
"Poor Avatar," it hissed. Then it shouted something over its shoulder and its companion jeered...then blurted in surprise as the daemon crouched over me was blasted backwards in an explosion of fire and dark blood.
I stood carefully, tied the blanket around myself and faced the second daemon, casually brushing a piece of wing from my face and putting forth the impression that blowing up daemons was a common past-time for me.
He appraised my un-avatarlike condition and smirked, then drew a fiery sword from thin air. I picked up Arcadion and raised a threatening eyebrow at the ambitious foe.
He sneered. "You are stronger than I thought."
"It will take more than your master's hellfire to kill me."
"Maybe. Maybe not. We know that to kill you invites death."
"Why?" I challenged. "Who wants me?" Alive?
The daemon's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "Umprilembal."
"But who? Who is the Shadowlord of Doom?"
"The one who holds the Sword of Chaos!" he screamed, as if the words had been forced out of him. He swayed slightly and I felt sure he'd attack, but he stood his ground. "The one who will kill you!"
"Oh, really? What makes you so sure that he can?"
"You don't know how to stop him from doing so."
I really hated fencing with words. "Arcadion...can you pry anything out of him?"
The Shade Blade shuddered and Arcadion's voice barked something at the daemon who made a move not unlike a soldier coming to attention. Then his eyes became slits of cunning.
"You hold no authority over us anymore - " the name he gave Arcadion was incomprehensible. "Our rightful ruler arrived years ago!"
"You will answer!" snapped the sword. "Who has supplanted me?"
The daemon let out a chilling laugh. I began to appreciate that although the lesser daemons were underlings, few could be accused of being stupid. "The one who holds the Scimitar of Nightmares."
I heard Arcadion mutter, "And I can't kill him. I am not strong enough."
I remembered what my friends had said about trying to combat evil with evil. "In this case," I told Arcadion, "your strengths make you weak."
He was silent a minute and I kept an eye on the waiting hellspawn. "You will have to explain this to me, Avatar."
"Later," I responded. I belatedly noticed that the pieces of the mutilated daemon were disappearing but by bit. To the 'living' daemon, I said, "So now what?"
"Your move," it hissed.
"Well, why did you come in here?"
"Our lord wanted to know if you are fit enough to provide a good fight later tonight." It regarded me critically. "A little burnt...but still capable as you showed before." It snickered.
I frowned then winced as the movement irritated my red, blistered skin. I was glad that there were no mirrors in the room. While not beautiful - I didn't even consider myself pretty - I was all the more sensitive about what I looked like. "Is there a field that negates healing spells over this room?"
The fiend adopted a cautious expression. "Maybe."
"Tell your 'lord' that I will come if he lowers the dampening spell. Then we will fight."
The daemon bowed mockingly. "Avatar." Then it leaped up and flew back into the vortex and vanished.
"To ask if you are mad?" demanded Umdelor, causing me to jump at the unexpected voice. The gargoyle materialised before my eyes. "Rest!"
I shook my head and picked out reagents. The healing spell worked. I ran a hand over smooth skin and touched my hair just to check. "Do we have any clothes here? Quaskorp burned the ones I was wearing off my body. I wouldn't look very impressive if I went to fight him naked."
Umdelor frowned, but went pack hunting. He came back with a padded leather vest and pants. "Only these."
I dropped the blanked and dressed, still feeling a bit ill. Putting on the boots - which had survived - I considered the Crown, then said, "Umdelor, you wear the Crown. It will be safe with you."
He retrieved the royal circlet and nodded silently.
"Now, where's my Ankh?"
"To point out that you wear it still."
I brushed a finger against the amulet in surprise and craned my neck to look at its still-lustrous golden sheen, undamaged by the fire. "Well...good." I paused. "In fact, if gives me an idea; Flameproof."
Umdelor nodded again, without smiling.
"Lighten up, will you?" I finally said. "What's wrong?"
"To not believe you can win! Not like this!"
I looked him in the eye. "I won't die," I said. "But if he comes out here, you will."
"To not believe you are doing this to protect me."
"It's one reason. But it's true. If it will make you happy, I'll check back at the castle first and see if they've found anything."
"To agree." He turned and went back to the packs.
I started to reach for where I had put the orb of the moons, then froze. I could almost feel my heart stop as I slowly pieced together the past events. Fireball, clothes destroyed...orb...gone! Broken or lost? I stood still, immobile with despair.
Umdelor must have seen the sick expression on my face. "The orb..." I began in a whisper.
He extended a hand and opened it to reveal the polished black stone. "Here. To have found it. It fell to the floor after he threw fire at you."
I sighed in relief, thankful that I hadn't sent the gargoyle away with my friends. Taking the orb, I used it to open a gate to the castle. The red door was barely halfway up when Jaana came completely through, almost bent double.
"What are you doing?" I exclaimed.
"Checking thee," she retorted, tossing back her long, pale blonde hair over one shoulder. "And don't tell me thou art fine. I know the signs of stress, weariness and the effects of a hastily cast healing spell when I see them."
I had NOT expected that last bit. "Sometimes you amaze me."
"Thou art easily amazed, my friend." Setting down the case she carried, she opened it to reveal all manner of potions. "Slowly!" Jaana cautioned as I eagerly grabbed a yellow vial and swallowed the restoring liquid in a single mouthful.
"That feels so much better," I said contentedly.
"Umdelor, wouldst thou..?"
"Of course, Inmanilem Jaana." He took the case carefully and carried it over to the other packs. Jaana turned back to me. "Dupre sent word from Serpent's Hold. He read an old book belonging to the armourer which speaks of significant weaponry. The Mystic arms have been in Serpent's Hold and were studied closely, then were sent back to Castle Britannia. But according to the logs in Britain, the ship never arrived! However," she continued as I groaned. "There were reports made by the survivors of the crew. The ship wast attacked by pirates and driven east almost all the way to the Isle of the Avatar."
"If there were pirates, how do we know this is accurate information?"
Jaana shook her head. "It's the best lead we have. Besides, the pirates never boarded the ship. Both were caught in a whirlpool. Several crew members had apparently given up and tried to escape in skiffs before it appeared, so they saw it all at a safe distance. Both ships were taken down according to the records. Lord British had shipping logs hundreds of years old dusted off and read by scribes in both Britain and Trinsic. Neither show receiving the swords or armour."
"Do we keep records that old?"
Jaana smiled wryly. "I asked the same thing of out lord. He said, ''Tis wise to keep a record of everything, milady. Thou dost never know when one might be useful.'"
"Looks like that wisdom paid off," I quipped.
"Don't lost heart. Listen, dost thou think perhaps that the whirlpool was a sign?"
I chewed the inside of my cheek. "Like that the Mystic weapons aren't needed up there?" I gestured at the roof.
"Aye. So maybe they are back where thou didst originally find them."
"But Jaana, that's a lava lake in the dungeon Hythloth! It would take weeks to get down there and back, plus the time to find the swords and armour!"
"Do we have an alternative?"
I shut my eyes and whispered, "No, and I am sorry for anyone who goes down there."
Jaana said nothing. Then, "I am more sorry for thee having to endure this place. Dost thou love Britannia so much?"
Meeting her compassionate gaze, I nodded firmly. "I do." My eyes went to the bronze doors. "And now I must prove it again. Thou shouldst go."
"Very well. Good fortune and may the Virtues guide thee."
"Oh, wait! Ask Lord British to set guards over the Eternal Flames. We can't let Batlin get the shards."
Jaana nodded her understanding then swiftly moved her arms in a complex shape. "Vas Mani!"
The greater healing completely restored me. I tried to enjoy the feeling for as long as I could. I knew the future would hold pain in abundance.
"The Virtues guide thee, Avatar." Then she slipped through the red moongate and I allowed it to close.
"Grim news with but a glimmer of hope," murmured Umdelor.
"Indeed." Picking up one of the pinkish potions, I drank quickly to avoid the bitter aftertaste and waited for the confident, protected feeling to come into play. "Here I go."
Crossing to the doors, I said, "Arcadion, renew my magic."
I felt him comply. "This may be the last time I can do this, Master. I gain no strength from killing the dead."
"Terrific. Maybe I can prevail upon Lord British to send in a few giant rats."
He ignored the sarcasm. "Meagre fare."
"Indeed." To Umdelor, "Rings on."
I threw the doors open wide.
For almost a full month I fell into a virtually mindless routine of pain, blood, fire and death, thought the latter - the one I began to long for - always eluded me. I would rise, fight, lose, heal, rise and fight again...and again...and again like a never-ending cycle. A living nightmare against the dead. The potions ran out fast and I began to give up hope after several reports of no news from the Castle.
Umdelor kept me hooked firmly to sanity, but after every fight, I could feel myself slip a bit more. My sleep was haunted and seldom restful. We both knew lack of sleep would drive me crazy and on two occasions that I remembered, Umdelor had forced an orange sleeping potion down my throat.
But they didn't stop the dreams of horror.
He had offered to listen what they were about, so I'd told him the first one, then added that they were all the same every time. It was only a partial lie. The dream was the same but for one thing. Me. Each time my defiance of the Guardian was coming a little later, the hesitation was becoming slightly longer...I was growing weaker.
Umdelor suggested meditation. All I could focus on was my failure.
The Guardian growled in anger. "Kneel or DIE!"
How I wanted to end it all. I started to move into the final, restful, submissive pose... "I'll...NEVER...KNEEL!"
I stared at a daemonic face and lashed out with my fists in blind fear. The creature staggered back, blood smearing the left cheekbone. I blinked in bewilderment. The blood was the wrong colour.
"Avatar! To be Umdelor!"
The shadow abruptly passed. "Umdelor? Oh, by Infinity..."
"To be fine." He looked at me. "Quaskorp won again."
Fear won again, I added silently, bitterly. I shuddered. "Is there any food left?"
"Some." He hurried over to the packs. "Only jerked beef and bottles of water."
I had no magic to spend on creating food or healing by this time. Mental fatigue was draining my morale almost as much as physical tiredness.
"Are you going to check the Castle today?" he asked. "It has been seven days, by my count."
What's the point? "A week? Already?"
The title shamed me and I sighed deeply.
"At least for better food and healing?"
Nodding slowly, I stood, brushed back tangled, unwashed hair and opened a moongate.
Through it flew a shrieking, winged creature which almost bowled me over. My first thought was 'harpy', for it had feathers, but when it circled the room in obvious confusion, then alit on a precarious perch above the doors, I more than changed my mind.
"Am I dreaming?"
"To say not unless we both are," Umdelor answered.
"Umdelor...that's an Earth bird!"
The bird raised its vivid yellow crest and hissed at us.
"That gate leads to my home!" I exclaimed.
"To be sure?"
"It has to!"
"So...you are leaving us?"
There was only frank curiosity in the question and my excitement died like a snuffed candle. "No, of course not." The bird ruffled snowy white feathers and shrieked again. I hoped Quaskorp couldn't hear it. Then again, maybe it was a trick. "No, I won't even look through. That will make it worse."
"An Ex Por!"
The cockatoo froze in the middle of stretching a wing. Umdelor flew up to its perch after casting the paralyze spell and took the animal down carefully. Then he carried it back to the moongate and tossed it through, cancelling the spell at the last minute.
I shut the gate behind it and sighed wistfully.
"Avatar?" Umdelor said after a while.
"Sorry. Just thinking."
He didn't mention that it had been five minutes.
I raised another moongate by which Dupre came in.
"'Tis about time!" he exclaimed. "Look! We did it!"
His words barely registered. "What?"
"We did it! We found the Mystic arms and armour!"
I shouted aloud in pure exultation. "YES!" Then asked, "Well, where are they?"
A grin split his beard and he stuck his head back through the gate for a minute. I got the impression he was shouting. Then he was back. He motioned at the armour he wore. "I wear one of the suits."
Noticing it for the first time, I blinked. The 'metal' was a shining silver with golden inlays and etchings on elbow guards, boots, shoulder plates and helm. There might have been more, but it was concealed beneath the bright red tabard he wore over it all. The cloth bore a white outline of a sword.
"A sword?" I asked, to which he nodded.
"We did not remember either. Thou shalt soon see."
And we did. Shortly, Jaana emerged wearing an orange surcoat over her armour. It bore a tongue of fire, or a teardrop. Then followed Iolo wearing yellow with a heart, Shamino in blue with the image of a book, Spark in deep purple bearing a goblet, and Tseramed in green in green depicting a set of balancing scales.
"To ask how you found a suit to fit Spark?" Umdelor asked.
Jaana shrugged. "They all just...fit," she said, as if that explained everything. "Tseramed and Shamino...?"
Each held a bundle and I received Shamino's, unwrapping it to reveal another armour set with a dazzling white surcoat bearing a golden Ankh. As it was with most magical stuff, the equipment was light and showed no scars or dirt. Jaana helped with the straps and I felt the armour settle on my shoulders, moulding itself to my form. I strapped the Blacksword across my back again then belted the Mystic sword to my side, but I didn't unsheathe it yet.
"I'd completely forgotten what this feels like," I said.
"It is indeed incredible," agreed Tseramed, plucking at his surcoat. "Though I still prefer my bow."
Iolo chuckled. "I share thy sentiments, Tseramed."
"To find it more incredible that this armour was made for a gargoyle," interposed Umdelor.
Dupre had been helping him dress and shook his head in bewilderment. "The backguard is almost completely made up of light mail and scale to let his wings through! And the helm..."
Umdelor turned the helmet around so we could see inside it. It was ribbed cunningly to allow room for gargish horns. Dupre aided Umdelor to don his black tabard, again woven to accept wings. Pulling on the silvery gauntlets and the helmet, Umdelor ran a finger over the white shepherd's crook on his tabard, then said to me, "When questing, to remember having a conversation with a dragon. She seemed a prophetess of sorts, who lived apart from her race and sought knowledge on things beyond Britannia. The Kodeks, the Guardian, you..." I blinked. "She shared a prophecy with me and said that it would be useful to an old friend of mine - but at the time I was unsure of her meaning. Now it is clear that this message was for you. To say it as I remember it. 'Put on the whole armour of Spirituality, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of Doom. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the Ethereal places.'" He cleared his throat. "To remember no more," he finished in embarrassment.
"By Infinity," I uttered. "She was right!" I pointed at Umdelor. "Humility," Dupre, "Valor," Jaana, "Sacrifice," Spark, "Honor," Tseramed, "Justice," Shamino, "Honesty," Iolo, "Compassion." I finally tapped my own breastplate beneath the golden Ankh insignia. "Spirituality."
"By the Virtues," whispered Iolo. "We did not even see it!"
"But this prophecy is metaphoric," Shamino said to Umdelor.
He blinked in confusion. "Met-ah-for-eek?"
"Ah! Yes, symbolic!"
I waited. "Of what?"
Shamino nodded emphatically. "Dost thou not see? It speaks not of swords and metal armour and physical battle, but mind fighting! 'We do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers!'"
"'Against the rulers of the darkness of this age,'" I added softly.
Tseramed said, "I think I see where this doth lead. First, we combat the 'spiritual hosts of wickedness' beyond that door...with the mystic arms?" Shamino nodded and shrugged at the same time. "Then against this 'ruler of the darkness' with our minds. We had better believe in the Virtues, then."
"And the 'ruler' must be the Shadowlord of Doom," I said.
"If it's Batlin," announced Spark. "I get to kill him!"
A stray thought crossed my mind. And if it isn't?
"Ah, Avatar, you brought your friends with you this time!" Quaskorp appraised us swiftly. "You actually look like the legends stories make you out to be." He rested fiery eyes on me. "You finally look like how I first envisioned the Avatar. Impressive." Then a cruel smile crossed his face. "Though I think I can see a tired, weary, despairing face behind that helmet." He stood straight and brought up his scimitar of nightmares. "But it will take more than trappings."
I stepped closer. "This time, I will see your master."
Quaskorp shook his horned head. "This time, you will die."
I ducked under a vicious head slice then side-stepped a downwards cut. Jaana had healed me before we'd entered the room and though I felt unwounded, I was still tired. And the daemon lord knew it. That's the reason why he scored a glancing shoulder strike.
His blade bounced off in a shower of sparks without effect on the armour or even the surcoat. He drew in his breath sharply.
"What is this?" he snarled.
I drew my Mystic sword in a fluid motion and held the weapon before his eyes, exhilarated that this time...this time I could beat him. The blade shone like white diamond, glowing with a pure, inner light. "This," I said. "Is your ticket out of here."
A flicker of uncertainty crossed his skull-face, then it was replaced by fury. "ATTACK THEM!" he shouted to his daemons. "You may survive," he sneered, "but they will not!"
As the horde flew past, I watched Spark cut a daemon down. It fell, then vanished in a puff of greasy, scarlet smoke.
Quaskorp had seen it too. He sighed. "Let's make this quick, Avatar. After all, if I don't kill you here and now, we'll meet again after you confront my master. I will be reborn!"
"I fail to see your logic," I allowed myself a small smile. "But I will make it quick despite all that pain you caused me."
Dark fire rippled up Quaskorp's blade. "Then let it be decided now!"
My sword shot out white beams of light. "Agreed!"
Our blades clashed together in a flash of silver flames.
Both of our attacks were guarded, for although we had crossed swords many times before, this was a somewhat unique fight. We both knew I was the more experienced warrior - had I possessed the Mystic sword in any previous encounter, odds were I would have won. But also, in every previous encounter, Quaskorp had never been trying to kill me. In my mind, I again considered us equal.
Quaskorp tired of the testing spar first and soon pressed his assault against me with savage strength. I countered with ease as the combination he used was familiar to me. When he soon started to improvise his attacks, I ducked under a sweeping stroke and thrust upwards at his chest.
He moved left, but too slowly and reeled backwards with a bloody puncture in his right side. It was the first time I'd ever drawn blood on him, but I didn't shout in victory or even smile. It wasn't over yet. I drew back and waited, the dark blood disappearing from my bright blade as Quaskorp regained his balance.
"You won't be able to appreciate the kind of agony you put me through, Quaskorp," I said, my voice slightly thick with emotion and memory. "But maybe this will give you an idea of what it felt like."
He raised claws smeared with his own blood to his face and almost smiled. "Foolish mortal. Daemons thrive on pain!"
"But not on your own," I corrected.
The melee around us was dying down. There were perhaps half the original number of daemons, the rest were completely gone, vanished or escaped. None of my friends lay on the floor.
Quaskorp again rose to his full, impressive height and spread his wings wide. "You should have worn the Crown!" he screeched.
Crimson-gold flames enshrouded me, but didn't touch me. The heat couldn't even break out a sweat. I stepped through the intense light and stopped just at its edge so that the flames licked around my shoulders, head and legs.
"You will have to do better than that," I said softly, throwing his own words back in his teeth.
He pointed and a black death bolt sped towards my chest. I swung my sword and unerringly deflected the bolt away at another daemon who staggered drunkenly and then vanished before hitting the floor.
Quaskorp hissed in a deadly voice, "You think yourself powerful, Avatar. Without that weapon and armour, you're as weak as...as a human!"
I lashed out and he defensively closed his wings around himself like a giant shield. But the Mystic sword tore a bloody rent in the leathery hide instead of bouncing off as the Blacksword would have.
The daemon screamed and opened his wings again, attacking in a fury of anger and pain. I countered but felt my weariness coming back slowly and inevitably. Already my thrusts were slower and it took longer for me to dodge and recover. The battle around us had concluded and my companions, victorious, stood around us in a wide circle.
"Finish it, Avatar!" I head Dupre shout.
I twisted my sword on a parry and the dark blade fell to the floor with a dull clank. I pressed forward quickly, driving the daemon back.
Suddenly, he stopped. There was something in his hot gaze that made me hesitate. Then he unfurled his bleeding wings, stood tall and threw back his head. With a voice that shook the room, he shouted, "EVIL WILL TRIUMPH!"
Stepping forward, I lunged. The Mystic sword thrust deeply into Quaskorp's chest until the only thing preventing it from going further was the golden hilt. Daemon blood bubbled around the incision and I backed away as the mortally wounded monster moved his arms in what looked like a hellish incantation. Then he faltered and an expression of glee crossed his face. He fell backwards, the impact against the floor forcing the white sword to pop out of his chest and land on the tiled floor beside him.
Picking it up warily, I circled the spasming wings to stand at the daemon's head. He was still alive and I wanted to kill him quickly, not out of mercy, but because I wanted to get on with the quest and had no wish to leave him - no matter how bad his condition - behind us.
Quaskorp growled at me. "We will meet again soon, Avatar. Your weapon and armour mean nothing against what you plan to..." he coughed harshly. "...to go to next." His smile was frightening. "You have no idea how to win."
I raised my glowing sword and replied, "But I will." The downstroke severed his head and I noticed the surprise on his face before his corpse dissolved into black smoke with a hiss of finality.
"What about this?" Tseramed asked, gingerly touching the nightmare sword with his boot.
"I'll take care of it," I said, striding over. With a single stroke to the weapon's flat, it was shattered and also turned to smoke. Sheathing the Mystic sword at my side, I faced my friends. "Thanks, guys," I said with a tired smile. "You came through for me just in time."
They smiled and said not to mention it, but Umdelor pulled off his helm and interrupted. "No, Avatar. It is you that came through for us. To know of the choice you faced at the Black Gate - the option to go home. You stayed. Even in the terrible condition you were in before, you still remained. To know you to be worthy of respect and thanks."
I tried to forget the pain as my gargish fan explained the Guardian's second attempt to tempt me into going home, to my human comrades. But it lingered at the edge of my mind and it hurt. More so if I tried to face it. I'd thought beating Quaskorp might bring me release, now I knew I was wrong. "So what is it that bugs me?" I whispered softly. "Not Quaskorp..."
"Fear, Avatar," murmured Arcadion at my right ear. "You're afraid of being afraid."
Arcadion didn't usually have anything insightful to offer but this made sense. Fear wasn't new to me, ages ago I'd learned to control it, defeat it, pit it against courage...so why did it emerge so strongly now?
Guardian-enhanced, was my first guess, but it seemed too trivial, though still probable.
"Do we descend to face Batlin now?" Spark asked.
I nodded quickly. "Yes, of course. Do we have everything?" I made sure the orb of the moons was still close to my heart, then that Dupre had Rudyom's Wand. "Good. Follow me."
I descended the ladder carefully, not wishing to end my career with a broken skull caused by excessive haste and little heed. Finally, I could end this and take some time off. Much needed time off, I amended. Maybe around Cove...
The ladder was very long and despite the lightness of my armour, I was hot and sweaty when we eventually reached the landing.
Swiftly, I drew the Blacksword instead of the Mystic one. It had grown to be a habit drawing my weapon from my shoulder. I noticed my mistake, but still kept the Shade Blade in hand as I inspected the change in surroundings.
A richly furnished room. My eyes slid past the canopied bed, bookshelves and carved oaken table to the object at the far end of the room. A mirror the height of an average man. Through it, on the other side, I could see a shrunken, black-robed figure.
"There," I said to the near breathless Dupre at my side. "It's him."
"Short, is he not?" observed the knight.
"Batlin was always a pompous little man in my opinion," I said with a smirk.
He grinned and nodded. "What's the plan?"
"We go straight through the front door."
He sighed. "I guess there's no other choice."
I sobered. "No, there isn't." I clapped his shoulder. "I'll fight him and when I give the order, use the Wand to destroy his sword."
"What if we think thou art in danger?"
"Only when I say to," I repeated.
He fingered his moustache. "As thou wishest."
"Don't worry," I said. "We'll win. When have we not?"
"Just be careful of that Chaos Sword, Elora. We still know not its powers."
I nodded and sheathed the Blacksword.
"How do we get at him?" Spark demanded.
"Spark..." I went down on one knee so it wouldn't look like I was talking down to him. "I will fight him."
"But thou wilt let me slay him?" the boy pleaded.
"It won't bring your father back."
Tears filled his eyes and I was forced to remember how young he was. "But it'll make me feel better!"
"No, it won't. Next you'd go after the Fellowship leaders in Trinsic." I paused. "Wouldn't you?"
He frowned darkly. "If thou dost slay Batlin, I will never forgive thee!"
Iolo intervened. "There is a chance that the creature in there," he pointed at the mirror, "isn't Batlin."
"But if it is, I get him!" insisted the boy. "Let me!"
"And if it is, I get freed," Arcadion whispered in my ear. "Remember."
"I will," I said aloud. "No, Spark," I added when his eyes lit up. "I will kill him, not you."
"Fine!" he shouted, clearly upset. "Thou didst not need me on this quest at all!"
I stood. "I won't argue with you any more. I will fight whoever is in there and then destroy the Chaos Sword. After that, we can leave this hellhole."
"'Twill be good to return to my cottage," said Iolo.
"'Twill be good to return to mine ale!" added Dupre.
Spark looked sullen. He had nothing to return to. I took pity on him and drew the Mystic sword. "Kneel."
He blinked. "What?"
"Kneel, Spark," I repeated.
He did so stiffly, dropping to one knee.
"How many daemons didst thou slay in the previous battle?"
Spark shrugged. "Six, I suppose."
"A worthy number, especially against such odds." I noticed Dupre nod slightly. He knew what I was doing. "Who are thy parents?"
The boy's head snapped up as if I'd punched him in the face.
"Recount thy lineage, boy," instructed Dupre, softly.
Spark obeyed hesitantly.
"And hast thou renounced all thy family ties?"
"I have none. So, yes."
"Then wouldst thou consider service to Britannia?"
He gulped. "What art thou offering me, Elora?"
"Something to go home to, Spark," I said gently. "Knighthood."
His eyes widened and he pointed at Dupre. "Thou wantest me to turn into that?"
Everyone smiled, even Dupre after his initial spluttering.
"But thou must understand," I went on. "That a knight is a warrior of honour, valor and justice. Honour-bound to their liege, lord and country. Valiant in battle while only fighting for the Virtues and never for personal gain. Just and fair in protecting the innocent and chastising the guilty." Spark looked more and more depressed, but my impromptu ceremony continued. "As a companion of the Avatar, thou also standest in high regard and thine efforts for her cause have been noteworthy. Dost thou accept the charge of knighthood, first as a squire, then guard, then paladin of Britannia?"
Spark's voice was a barely audible whisper. "I do."
"And dost thou accept the code of knighthood, of honour, valor and justice?"
"I do," he repeated more firmly.
I looked at the only knight present. "Sir Dupre?"
The knight stepped forward. "I have seen this young man in battle," he declared. "He hath talent and I will gladly vouch for him if he desireth knighthood."
I glanced around at the others in turn, at Iolo, Shamino, Jaana, Tseramed and Umdelor. "Ye all are witnesses to this."
They voiced their assent and I once again looked down at Spark, then lightly touched his shoulders with my Mystic sword. "Rise, Squire Spark, future knight of the realm!"
The boy rose awkwardly to the sound of his companions clapping enthusiastically. "I guess this means I am not permitted to kill Batlin," he observed shrewdly.
I nodded once. "I'll do it for you."
"Art thou not a knight?" he asked, surprised.
"No, I'm an Avatar." I traced the Ankh symbol on my surcoat. "There's a difference."
"Elora serves all the Virtues, Squire," said Jaana.
"Well," Spark said. "If thou must kill Batlin, make it slow. Not too slow; he might escape again."
I nodded slightly. "No fear of that." Then I noticed Umdelor step forward and direct a slight bow to Spark.
"To acknowledge you are a child no longer, Squire," he said in gargish.
I translated, then added, "He'll call you 'Betmeklem' now, Spark. It means Squire, I believe."
Spark thanked Umdelor as I turned to face the figure in the mirror. You couldn't tell who it was. The black robe concealed every feature and on top of that, the 'reflection' was sort of hazy.
"Do we advance?" Dupre asked suddenly.
I nodded. "Yes. Let us end this." I tightened my hold on the Mystic sword and approached the mirror, the others following, though with their weapons sheathed.
With a steady hand, I touched the gold-chased frame, recalling the intricate details of the carved leaves and thorny branches circling the mirror, the shine of it undiminished in this unchanging prison.
I looked into the mirror where my own reflection should have gazed back. The glassy surface glowed faintly, though it was a sinister aura.
"Come on, Avatar," I whispered to myself. "Get him."
Without another thought, I reached out my left hand and placed it flat against the smooth surface of the mirror.