It was well into night when we returned to the Isle of Fire. The twin moons
were rising higher and the brilliant stars cast their silver-white glow
over the dimpled water of the bay. The air was cold, and the guards on
duty were trailed by small clouds of fog generated by their breath wherever
they went. I leaned against the battlements, halfheartedly flipping my
sword over and over so that the blade reflected the moonlight. I wasn't
tired and the undead apparently couldn't sleep.
What is there to do in the middle of the night? My computer was safe at home so I wasn't able to go online for a friendly chat. Then again, even if my computer had been here, I'd have been hard pressed to find an intergalactic internet connection.
With a snort, I sheathed my sword and took a reassuring glance around the battlements. Role-playing was nothing compared to this.
But at least I'd be alive.
"What are you thinking, Elora?" I muttered. "All the times you were on Earth you'd fantasise about Britannia. But when you're on Britannia you fantasise about Earth? Or is that just when the trouble starts?"
It had been fifteen, almost sixteen months now, since I'd left Earth. I thought I'd gotten over missing it.
"Return, Arcadion," I whispered commandingly.
A violet glow...the feel of a hilt...nothing.
"Avatar?" a nearby guard said, halting in his tracks and resting his halberd against one shoulder.
I blinked at him. "Yes?"
"Wert thou speaking to me, Milady?"
"Uh, no. Sorry, I was just thinking aloud."
The guard saluted and continued his patrol.
A few minutes later, I went downstairs. A few humans and a wingless gargoyle still worked the forge. Each of them were glistening with perspiration as they continued their various tasks: smelting ore mined on Ambrosia, hammering sword blanks into blades, carefully smoothing the exterior of a greathelm, twisting hundreds of steel rings that would be joined to make a single shirt of chain mail...
The cherry glow of the forge beckoned.
"Art thou the Avatar?" one of the smiths, a clean-shaven, heavily muscled man with black hair, asked suddenly.
"I thought so. Couldn't tell because of the hair. Here- " he handed me a pair of pliers that in turn held a sword blank. "If I don't recognise that look in thine eyes then I know not my trade."
Taking the tools, I flashed him a smile. "My thanks."
For the rest of the night, I became a swordsmith. I'm sure the others were a little surprised that neither the heat nor the activity made me break a sweat. Sparks flew all night, the ring of hammer on steel filled my ears and soot blackened every inch of exposed skin. I never felt tired and never felt sore. At one point, I even banged a finger with the hammer and didn't realise it until asked if I was ok. No pain. About an hour before dawn, my forging friends said "good morning," and went in search of their beds. Another group would be along to continue their work soon. I waved, then plunged a red-hot shortsword into the water trough which sent up great clouds of hissing steam. When it had cleared, I looked pensively at the reflection in the water.
Why was my image upside down?
The lips moved.
"Hello, Elora," my voice said.
My head snapped up.
It was like looking into a mirror. Every feature was identical to my own, save the fact that her hair was as long as mine had been before the funeral pyre. Recovering, I quickly evaluated the rest of her. She was wearing a mail shirt, green cloak, leather trousers and boots, while the scabbard belted to her back held the Blacksword.
"How did you manage to touch that Ankh without incinerating yourself?" she asked in a conversational voice. "You weren't wearing it when you came back from the dead, were you?"
"You." She smiled, but it was a cold smile. "A better version of you. I'm not forced to cling to the Virtues like you do." She raked back a drifting strand of waist-length hair. "And let me tell you, it's not because of any- " her face twisted, " -feelings that you're still 'alive'. It's because of the Guardian. I didn't have any problem with the idea of taking your aeth'raesh'al and ending your existence back at the Hold. That was a masterfully cast Mass Death spell, by the way. I don't think I could have done much better myself."
"Aeth'raesh'al? You mean the bracer?" She wore an exact replica on her left arm. Like she was a mirror image...
She shrugged. "It's a technical term. I'm not going to explain it all to you, though. It's to my advantage keeping you in the dark."
Very slowly, I pushed myself away from the trough. "Where are my friends?"
She absently rubbed at a dark spot on her ringmail shirt with the edge of her green cloak. "Sentri and Tseramed? Or did you consider the gargoyle a friend, too?" She met my eyes. "Poor Praetymdelem had the gargish equivalent of a heart-attack last night. It wasn't that difficult to engineer with someone whose name means 'Ancient One'." She laughed softly. The sound was all the more chilling because it was my voice. "Sentri and Tseramed never suspected - they're so blind. Because I'm the Avatar, they accept anything reasonable I say at face value."
"You're not the Avatar."
"Oh, and you are? A liche? I'm alive, as my reflection - and your lack of one - can attest." Her eyes narrowed. "What have you done to my hair?"
"Where are my friends?" I repeated softly, allowing a hint of menace into my tone.
"Why should I tell you?" she retorted, still smiling. "They are not your concern, at the moment. I am." Her voice became deadly serious as she pointed toward the gates. "When my army gets here, I will give you a choice. I'm telling you what it is now so that you get plenty of time to think of an answer." Slowly, she pulled the Blacksword from her shoulder scabbard. "Unless you want to make your decision now."
"And what might this choice be?" I asked, one hand loosening my longsword in its sheath.
"Surrender or die."
My lip curled. "I've already died."
My double gave me a sidelong glance. "You'll be deciding on a world scale this time, Elora. You'll be speaking for Britannia and Britannia's people." She ran a finger along her sword's edge, her green eyes becoming avid at the sight of blood. "And when you refuse to surrender, how sweet will it be to see your face as I execute my hostages one by one." Her voice lowered, but it burned with a dreadful eagerness. "People you have sworn to protect."
My hand clenched around the hilt.
"You once told the Guardian that you were Britannia," she went on, smiling again. "Well, now you are. And when you're the last person standing under this world's sun you'll know it...and curse yourself."
I ripped my weapon free, not knowing what had come over me, and lunged across the water trough. My double reacted instantly and turned the attack aside with the Blacksword. The clash of steel seemed immensely loud in the empty hall. I plunged my left hand into the water and pulled out the almost-finished shortsword, then scissored it and my other blade up to catch the descending Arcadion like a pair of pincers.
"Arcadion, return!" I commanded.
The ether gem pulsed then the whole sword glowed for a fraction of a second. "That could get annoying, Master," the daemon stated laconically.
"Indeed," his wielder said, pulling back. "I'm not here to fight, Elora. Not yet."
Hearing a noise, I flicked my gaze toward the corridor that led to the Statue Room. Mariah stood there with two guards.
"You don't want an audience," I muttered.
"On the contrary," she replied just as softly. "I want a big audience. The armies of the Guardian on one side and of Britannia on the other. Then everyone will witness the answer to the greatest question ever asked."
"Which is stronger?" I whispered. "The Light or the Dark?"
Her back was to Mariah, so she was free to give me a vicious smile. "See? We're not so different after all. Great minds think alike." The smile faded, her expression turned serious and her tone softened even more, becoming almost caressing. "We are the same, you and I."
"We're no more alike than life and death."
"Death is a part of life, Elora. Just as I am a part of you." A half-smile teased her lips, her eyes glittering. "I will become death. The destroyer of worlds..."
"What goes on here?" Mariah asked, approaching the side of the trough.
The guards, uncertainty on their faces, readied their weapons.
"Mariah," I said, remembering the name the Guardian had spoken to me upon the battlements of Castle Britannia, "meet Mellorin."
Mellorin's visage was perfectly calm. With a casual air, she sheathed Arcadion and said, "Did everyone make it safely back here?"
Mariah glanced at my still-drawn swords then came to her own conclusion. Fixing me with a less-than-friendly eye, she said, "Yes, Elora. We all made it. What happened at Serpent's Hold? Katrina said-"
"That I'd been captured?" guessed my double smoothly. "They did catch me for a while. I'll tell you about it later - Sentri and Tseramed are waiting."
She frowned. "What about Praetymdelem?"
A look of regret passed over Mellorin's face. "He...passed away last night. He was very old..."
Full points for acting, I thought acidly.
Mariah sighed. "I know. So why hast thou come here alone? To warn us about her?" she asked, jerking her head in my direction. "Where are the others?"
Mellorin looked at me pointedly. "I can't say. But I can take you to them if you want to come. We need help finding Shamino's trail. Tseramed tried, but..." she laughed wryly. "Shamino seems to have literally vanished among the trees." She stopped talking and something silent passed between the two.
Mariah glanced at me, then back to Mellorin. "I'll come. I have some spells that might be of use. Should I get the others?"
"Mariah, wait!" I interrupted.
The mage frowned with irritation. "Excuse me a minute." She crooked a finger at the guards then went off with them to a convenient corner nearby.
"I was good, wasn't I?" Mellorin murmured with a faint smile of triumph.
"What are you going to do with her?"
"You'll find out."
Mariah was gesturing in my direction. The two guards, wearing the expressionless masks of those who are about to perform their duties whether they like them or not, nodded and advanced on me with drawn swords.
Now what? Trying to stop them would only convince Mariah beyond doubt that I was as evil as she supposedly thought. A liche, capable of nothing but evil. I looked at Mellorin. She let absolutely nothing of her true feelings or intentions show. One hand gripped Arcadion's hilt and in her eyes was a perfectly done bleak warning that I'd better not harm the approaching guards. I had no doubt that nothing would give her more pleasure than playing her part as Britannia's Avatar by leaping to the guards' defence.
Keeping my movements slow and deliberate, I laid both blades across the top of the trough then extended my arms, crossed at the wrists, toward the guards.
One circled around behind me and put her sword to my back. The other remained facing me at easy striking range.
"Are we ready?" Mellorin asked calmly.
"Yes. The guards will take care of everything." Mariah paused. "Thou dost not want me to wake Iolo and Dupre?"
Mellorin hesitated, then answered in a soft voice, "I fear there's not enough time. Shamino's life is in danger and we dare not delay." She nodded to the guards. "The Virtues be with ye." Then she looked at Mariah and touched one of the facets of the central jewel of her bracer.
"Be careful," I telepathed to the mage as both she and my double vanished. There was a surge of ether as I felt them teleport off somewhere to the east. Verity Isle?
Those thoughts abruptly fled and an icy feeling came over me when I remembered the guards. As I pondered what course of action to take, the sword at my back was suddenly gone. The guard I was facing lowered his own sword and sheathed it. I lowered my arms and raised a quizzical brow.
"Avatar?" he asked rather hesitantly. "Lady Mariah asked us to give thee a message."
"How dost thou know that I'm the real Avatar?" I asked softly.
"We...er...don't, Milady," he stammered. "But hadst thou attacked us we would have known otherwise."
I let out an almost explosive breath of relief and looked up, saying a silent prayer of thanks.
The guard behind me came around and said, "Lady Mariah bade us tell thee this shouldst thou not resist us." She paused, mentally going over the words. "'After seeing two Avatars preparing to fight one another, it hath become obvious that only one can be real. Unless I am severely mistaken, I'm prepared to believe it to be thee. Thou hast had many opportunities to do great harm over the last week, but have taken none.'" She looked at her companion.
"'Even to killing our king,'" he continued. "’I will send word to Lord British if I can. If not, I'll do all in my power to warn Shamino.'"
A second sigh of relief passed my lips. The way Mariah had been acting in Mellorin's presence...strange that someone who had spent almost her entire life in the Keep of Truth had turned out to be a master of deception.
I just hoped that the other Avatar had been fooled.
At that moment, four gargoyles and three humans entered to take charge of the forge. Simultaneously, a large group of guards came in to relieve those still on the battlements.
"My thanks," I said to the guards over the din. "Did Mariah say aught else?"
"Nay, Avatar. She just told us to act as if we were taking thee into custody - oh, and to look mean."
I chuckled. "You both did well."
They saluted proudly then left to return to their duties. I gave the shortsword to a smith, kept my longsword, and made my way to my room in the Test of Truth. Someone had laid out a fresh shirt, leather armour and a green cloak on my bedroll. For a long moment, I simply stared at it. Then I changed out of what I was wearing and donned the new clothes. As I pulled the folded cloak from the bed I noticed the blanket of my bedroll was covering something hard. Tossing the cloak over one shoulder, I pulled the blanket aside.
Beneath was the Firedoom Axe. My eyes widened in temporary astonishment. I hadn't even missed it. Picking it up, I tested its familiar weight and balance before noticing the small scrap of parchment tied to the haft.
It was a note:
Since none seem to know where thou art, I'll leave thine axe here. The Isle still hath its share of thieves. The only reason armour is safe is because anyone owning or wearing it is automatically identified as a part of the fort's defence. Thou must have dropped the axe when we 'went swimming'. Two fisherpeople - Barraz and Chelly - found it tangled in their nets on Ambrosia. Thou owest them a new one, by the way.
I unbuckled my longsword and traded it for the axe. Then, after a glance
at the bracer, I headed back to the Statue Room hoping to speak with the
Statue of Truth. Since both the Flames of Courage and Love were out, Truth
was the only one left.
"Truth, canst thou hear me?"
The statue didn't reply.
"Truth, please. If thou canst answer me, I have need of thine aid."
The stone features remained cold and unmoving. No mind-voice answered my call.
I sighed and stared up at the monument for a minute, thinking. Truth had said that he would be able to speak for as long as the Flame of Truth burned, but the enemy didn't have control of the Lycaeum. Then again, they hadn't had control of Serpents Hold, and the Flame of Courage had gone out...seemingly of itself, I added. When I had died casting Mass Death. I blinked as that thought registered. What if my death had been the thing to cause the dousing of the Flame of Courage? According to Katrina, the two events had been almost simultaneous. And what if the Flame of Truth had also gone out at that time?
Spinning around, I ran from the room and through the forge to the stairs. Taking the steps two at a time, I hastened to the battlements and went quickly to the eastern wall. Leaning into one of the crenellations I sent my sight out over the water. It would have been difficult to navigate with no points of reference, but the stars were still bright. Keeping my attention half-fixed on some constellations, I sped through the night faster than an arrow. When I finally reached the shores of Verity Isle I paused to look at the army surrounding the Keep of Truth. They were not attacking at this time. Bright orange tents and banners depicting the Guardian's face surrounded most of the keep. Campfires aplenty flickered from the ground, glinting against the armour of soldiers unlucky enough to have pulled night patrol. Sparing a moment, I attempted to make a guess as to how many foes were here. With a sinking feeling I realised that unless a good number of tents picketed here were empty, there were at least as many soldiers here as there had been at Serpents Hold. Belatedly, I noticed a large pyre some distance from the northern wall. It seemed the enemy had already been paying a heavy toll in their efforts to capture the mages' keep.
Allowing myself a smile of approval for the defenders, I swept down to touch the mind of a mage on guard atop the Lycaeum's battlements.
"Greetings to thee," I began politely.
The mage looked up and, it seemed, directly at me. "Who art thou?"
A bit taken aback by the abrupt reply, I telepathed, "I am scrying from the Isle of Fire-"
"Then speak thy name. I know all the mages stationed there."
The connection was abruptly terminated and the mage turned to say something to his companions. I couldn't hear what was being said, but by the expressions of the mages, it appeared that something was amiss. I felt a couple of them brush tentatively against my mind before quickly withdrawing. After a minute of waiting patiently, albeit a little confusedly, I saw the mage I'd spoken to first look up to where my consciousness was hovering...then throw his right hand out to point in my direction.
Icy-white streamers of light lanced from his splayed fingers and I had only a moment to think, "This doesn't look good," before one of the bars of light struck.
Gasping, I was suddenly back on the Isle of Fire. I lurched forward into the crenellation, feeling certain I was about to throw up. It felt real enough, but, ultimately, nothing happened. In the time it took for the spell's effect to wear off, I decided that there must have been something to my mind that gave me away as an undead. Making a mental note to ask someone to check on the Lycaeum and its Eternal Flame in the morning, I headed downstairs for the teleport pad to Ambrosia. I might as well see if the liche could contribute anything.
There were clouds over Ambrosia, and a strong wind was blowing them north.
An odd, hollow noise was coming from the south-west, and it took me a moment
to realise that the sound was being caused by the wind blowing through
the two gigantic skulls surmounting the cliffs lining the entrance of the
bay. The sound was melodic and strangely calming.
I headed north. When I reached the entrance to the caves, I stopped and decided to go right rather than left. It seemed miners had opened up other passages and I felt like doing some exploring. Anyway, it wasn't like the liche in the western passage was going anywhere in a hurry. A small sign a little way down this new corridor gave me pause for a short while. It read, 'Authorised Personnel Only, by order of Lord Draxinusom'. After a moment's consideration on whether or not I was included in the list of 'Authorised Personnel', I moved on to wondering whether or not it would be Virtuous to keep going if I was not.
I was in a weird mood.
A few minutes of wandering accomplished nothing. The caves seemed quite empty and therefore quite boring. It wasn't until much later that I found a large branching passage that not only bore a crude sign, 'Danger! Do not enter!' but was also clogged with gigantic, sticky cobwebs. The large, rope-thick strands were spun from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. The tunnel itself looked perhaps wide enough for one tall gargoyle to walk down with outstretched wings. After a minute of searching the darkness for the spiders that had spun these webs, I concentrated and pointed. A fireburst melted through each strand that connected to the tunnel, causing the webs to collapse. I could have simply destroyed them by casting Flamewind, or by using my axe, but I'd reasoned that if they were intact, and if the tunnel was safe enough, someone could salvage the webs for spider silk. Also, I'd wanted to see how far my spellcasting could go before I felt mentally tired.
When I ran out of webs and was still going strong, I cast Protection. Foregoing hand gestures, I cast Flameproof. Ignoring spoken incantation, I cast Invisibility. With nothing but thought, I added Ironflesh, Mass Might, Speed and Telekinesis. Then I cast Negate Magic and cancelled it all.
"The taste of power is sweet, isn't it, liche?" a voice rumbled from down the large passage. "Soon wilt thou be using power merely for the sake of using it."
Glancing at the Danger sign once more, I shrugged and started slowly down the passage. "I prefer wit to magic," I replied, stepping over the sticky piles on the floor, then around a hidden trap set in the middle of the tunnel.
"We will see."
A red shape leaped at me from the darkness. My first thought, gargoyle, was swiftly dispelled by the sound of a hellish voice snarling a demand for blood. Wings extended and swept down, the daemon literally flying into my arms. I seized the wrists of the daemon's outstretched arms and heaved, leaning backwards and using his momentum to flip him over and my weight to force him to the ground.
My arms were almost jolted from their sockets when the daemon landed flat on his back on the trap, then was jerked halfway up to the roof by a rising spike of stone as a result.
"Well done," the rumbling voice said with grudging approval. "Thou seemest to be a wily one. I haven't had a good challenge in decades."
"I didn't really come here to fight," I said, standing and checking my arms still worked. Turning my back on the impaled daemon, I kept walking. "I'm exploring."
"Sure," the voice replied with heavy contempt. "That's what they all say. I bet thou wouldst not be so eager if mine hoard were somewhere other than here."
"Hoard? You're a dragon!"
"A dragon who is all to happy to flame any over-curious undead," was the ominous response. "Or art thou here to contribute something to my collection?"
"Well, I do have something. If you can open it, you can have it."
There was a pause before the voice replied. This time it sounded immensely curious. "Is that meant to be a riddle?"
"Do you like riddles?" I asked, relieved that the conversation seemed to be taking a more favourable turn.
"Doesn't everybody? I am nothing, I do nothing. Mine opposite doth destroy me even as it maketh me."
"Quick work," the dragon rumbled admiringly.
"Thank you," I replied modestly. "May I come in?"
"I suppose I can endure the presence of an educated undead for a while."
"Please don't breathe too heavily - I'm highly combustible."
There was a short laugh. "Why shouldn't I fry thee?"
What could anyone say to impress a dragon? "I'm a great heroine?"
"I'm the Avatar."
There was a roar of laughter and a bright, flaming light up ahead. "There's no way in the Eight Circles of Hell that the Avatar of Britannia is an undead, ice-hearted liche!"
"I thought there were only seven hells."
"Yeah? Well thou hast obviously not visited Pagan."
I edged closer to the entrance. "No, I haven't had the pleasure."
"Enter the cavern and you might," was the growling reply. "And since you aren't chewing your tongue off with all those 'thee's and 'thou's, why should I?"
"I'm coming in."
The dragon within lounged indolently on a large pile of gold coins. Some of them were even Britannian. Swords, spears and various other sharp and pointy things were piled to one side of the cavern while armour, shields and helmets dominated the other. There was also, I noticed with a twinge of unease, a rather imposing collection of bones strewn around. The glow of magic came from the wall behind the dragon. The dragon herself was a good sized one. She could have comfortably nestled into the garden courtyard of Castle Britannia - provided she'd ripped out the trees and fountain first. Her scales were a brilliant vermilion red, golden spikes streaked back from her brow and continued down her spine to the long, pointed tail, while plates of the same colour ran down her chest from neck to tailtip. Eyes that glowed like fire in a forge fixed on me menacingly and ivory talons grated against the coins of her golden bed as she pushed herself up and drew a deep breath, eyes glittering.
"Wait!" I shouted in alarm. I remembered the test Lord British had given to prove I was the Avatar. "Look!" I pulled at the Ankh's chain, almost panicked when I discovered it had caught on something and wouldn't move. Quickly, I tugged open the throat of my vest and shirt.
The dragon released her breath slowly, sending streamers of flame a short distance from her gleaming teeth. "An Ankh?" she said, puzzled. "How is that possible?"
"I told you," I said, pulling the chain harder. "I'm the Avatar." Yanking once more, I felt the closest thing to pain since the spell I'd cast at the funeral pyre. The Ankh had actually fused to my skin!
"But the Avatar is not a liche!" the dragon exclaimed. "Kemah-thra! Stop pulling that thing and look at me!"
I carefully touched the amulet with a finger, then looked up into the burning eyes above me. Holding up my right arm to display the bracer, I said, "This is how it happened. If you can remove it-"
"Kemah-thra!" she said again, in horror. Drawing back with wide eyes, she stared at me. "A black kel'al? That is forbidden!"
"Kel'al? I thought this thing was called an...aeth'raeshomething."
"Aeth'raesh'al. I take it you were wearing it and somehow managed to die?" I nodded. "Kemah-thra...there is a double of you out there? A black New Self? A black Avatar?"
I told her everything I could remember, not leaving out anything I thought important - not even the Guardian.
"Mors Gotha..." the dragon's eyes narrowed. "Ah, yes...the ka-thra. World traveller and Guardian servant. Well, that explains how the aeth'raesh'al got to Britannia, but not how it was made. Or by who." She paused and nodded at me. "Sit, Avatar. This explanation may take a while. I know you won't tire standing, but it makes me tired watching you."
"If it's from another world, then you..." I left it hanging.
The dragon nodded her huge head. "I am also from another world. Sit."
I sat and crossed my legs. "My friends are in danger - some were fooled by my double and went with her. I must find them as soon as I can."
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't hurry me, liche. I have no reason to like you. You killed Dracothraxus - she who was my friend."
The guardian of the Talisman of Courage, I thought.
"The only reason I'm helping you is because you're the Champion of Infinity, which means you are worthy of my aid. I have no affection for Britannia - it's not my home."
"Then what is?"
"I probably wouldn't recognise it if I found it again. It fell to the one who's currently after this world. I was saved by these caves. 'Lost Isle of Ambrosia', ha!" Her reptilian mouth quirked into a half-smile. "I've always found that Britannian human notion amusing. 'Lost Isle', indeed." She exhaled a short burst of flame as she laughed.
"What?" I shouted, as the noise echoed around the cavern. "What do you mean?"
"Ambrosia, as you call it, is not a fixed place." The dragon paused to chuckle again. "It travels. Comes a goes between worlds depending on the time, season, moons, stars, its mood-"
"It's mood? Is the island alive or something?"
The dragon shrugged her wings and glanced around at the stone walls with a curious affection. "Could be. There's no pattern to its actions. Some worlds I've seen as many as ten times, others just once - my own, for example." she looked a little sad at that. "Then again, maybe the island's just smart enough to know it's not safe to return there. Doubtless that big red muppet would have harnessed its power like he does with everything else."
"What!" I exclaimed. "Muppet? As in Jim Henson?"
"Oh, you've been to Earth?"
"That's my home!"
"Terribly stuffy place," the dragon rumbled. "And the people! No respect! First time I went there I almost got killed by some idiot called George."
She snorted. "Saint. Sure. Not only does he get that title, they make out that he kills me!" She laughed again. "Of course, it was more fun in those days. Today they'd as soon blow you out of the sky before considering a few human sacrifices."
I stared at her in absolute horror.
"Oh, please. I'd never eat, let alone kill, any sentient life. Sacrifices are flattering, but completely unnecessary. I soon made it clear that sheep or cattle were more to my taste."
"Uh...ok. So what was your island called on Earth?"
"Oh, um..." she frowned. "'Avalon', or something. Dreadful climate for a dragon. Too much mist. Britannia's much more to my liking, though the island's taking its time on this visit. Two hundred years now."
"Maybe it has something to do with the Guardian," I suggested. "The time lapse on Britannia between now and my last visit here is just over two centuries."
"Another reason for me to help you, eh?" she growled.
This was one unpredictable dragon. I wondered if she expected an answer.
"No, I think it had something to do with that kemah-thra damned meteor. Then that hydra moves in as if they own the place - my thanks for getting rid of them, by the way - and a fairy escapes from my collection of familiars! Love dust? Bah! I had to seal up my cavern to get any sleep!"
I cleared my throat delicately.
"Oh, yes. Help. You are wearing an artefact made by my people. It's called an aeth'raesh'al, which literally means 'Mind Split Prism'. The heart jewel, the kel'al, is the jewel of power. That's the one in the middle. It could be set in almost any crystalline matter that could be fashioned to be worn on an arm or hand - ring, bracelet, armband, so on and so forth. Let me start from the beginning.
"One branch of my people were called the Draconic Jewellers. These were the dragons who hoarded jewels and gemstones, as I do not. Perhaps it is a phenomenon, else it has only happened with my people and no other race or species I've met, but the longer these jewels spent in the presence of one of my people, the more power was transferred into them. Massive amounts of power. It didn't detract from my people, but it did add to the jewels.
"The most magically gifted among my kind discovered that the more potent stones could be 'tuned' in such a way that it linked to the mind of the user. It could change a person for better or worse, depending on how it was tuned. The greater the power, the bigger the change it could make."
"What do you mean by 'change'?"
"Change of mind. Change of heart. It would change your very life. It could make an evil person good or vice versa."
"I don't accept that. Nothing has the power to control an unwilling mind."
"Did I say the minds were unwilling?" said the dragon. "You're right, but all you needed was one split second of willingness to be changed, no matter how inadvertent, and you would be. Anyway, things progressed and my people vowed not to use their powers to tune evil stones." She looked at the bracer I wore. "Seems someone didn't take that vow seriously.
"In an attempt to stabilise that random power of the jewels, my people recruited a nubmer of powerful mage-weaponsmiths. The smiths first tried to link the jewels with swords, but the steel couldn't contain that kind of power - no metal could. Precious stones would be impractical for weapons, they thought, so they fashioned things like armbands out of agate, quartz, jade, onyx, obsidian and moonstone. Using their magic, and at the advice of the dragons, they cast several safeguarding spells on the bracers and kel'ali, which were then called aeth'raesh'ali." She raised a claw, extending one talon. "An aeth'raesh'al would resurrect its wearer's New Self as dictated by its tuning."
"Wait. New Self?"
"Unless it's been killed, there's another Avatar running around out there who looks exactly like you. It's alive as you are not. It is the one with the 'change of mind' I mentioned."
"Imagine a prism. Light shines through it and divides to form a rainbow spectrum. This prism could be fashioned so as to show only a part of the spectrum, or several parts, or none. Your mind is the light - the original light. When you died, it shone through the Mind Split Prism and produced a spectrum."
"But it was black. there's no such thing as black light."
"Think of your Virtues - and disregard Humility, here - as coloured light. Their opposites - Hatred and all - are the absence of that light. A black spectrum means no light and no Virtue." She sighed. "The purpose of the aeth'raesh'ali was to help make us into better people. They could filter out everything evil - all Deceit, Cowardice, contempt, everything."
"I'm starting to see a few holes here. How can these prisms filter out evil if evil is darkness? Couldn't they only filter out light?"
"Maybe I'm just terrible with analogies. No, they could filter good as well as evil. What my people didn't realise then was that some of the things they filtered out made them weak. Killing - violence, for example. Just after the vast majority of my people became fanatic pacifists, we were invaded by the Guardian's army. Those of us who still knew what fear was fled. As far as I know, I'm the only one who survived."
"Did all your people use these aeth'raesh'al things?"
"No. There weren't that many, actually, and they were hard to make. Of course, ours wasn't exactly a large population. Our lifespans are long and eggs are few and far between." she shrugged. "The aeth'raesh'ali could only be used once each. It takes centuries for the kel'ali to be recharged, and even then, it has to be done by the dragon who had tuned it."
"All right. Now, back to the main topic. Where does this New Self fit in?"
The dragon nodded. "As I said, the aeth'raesh'al is activated at its wearer's death. What it does then, is resurrect the wearer according to how the kel'al is tuned. So the likeness of you that's out there is exactly the same as you except for its personality or state of mind. That is your 'New Self'. A safeguarding spell was put on the aeth'raesh'ali to give the New Self the option of going back to what they used to be. To do this, the original mind had to be kept. I don't know the specifics, but the mage-weaponsmiths found a way to do this with sort of cloning or duplication spell. When the New Self is made - within twenty hours of death - a double of the body and everything it's wearing or holding is created to house the original mind." She paused. "I take it you weren't holding the Blacksword?"
"How did you know about Arcadion?"
The dragon shook her head. "Dracothraxus told me she knew how she'd be killed, once. I had no reason to disbelieve her."
I sighed. "I needed the Talisman of Courage."
"I know," was the sad reply. "One other thing, though. Were you wearing that Ankh?"
I started. "Yes."
She sucked in a breath. "You haven't seen your New Self, have you?"
"I did, but I don't remember her wearing an Ankh." I shrugged helplessly. "If she were, it must have been under her mail shirt. Is it important?"
"I don't know. Do you know what powers that amulet has?"
"You know, it's interesting. Those things are supposed to burn through the undead like a red-hot blade through butter. It's supposed to cause unspeakable pain. Does it hurt wearing it?"
"Only just before when I tried to take it off," I said, touching it. "It's...stuck."
"So it did burn you, in a fashion." She looked intrigued. "It must have recognised you." The dragon's scaly brows lowered into a frown. "It's an interesting amulet you have there. Symbol of life on several worlds, and no idea where it came from.
"Anyway, we have the New Self - alive and different - and the original - dead - which we called the Old Self."
"Yes. Right then, the New Self has the option of staying how it is and ending the existence of the Old. All it has to do is take the original's aeth'raesh'al and wear it. Then it would basically be end of story. The Old Self ceases to exist since the original mind is no longer needed, the aeth'raesh'al recombines and the kel'al rendered powerless. In your case, however, the New Self didn't take the opportunity of destroying you."
"The Guardian wants to see which of us is the stronger," I said.
"That's the kind of concept one would expect from him. He can't stand being beaten, which is why he won't leave you alone. He won't rest until either you're his, or he's dead." She shifted her wings a little before continuing. "After...seven Britannian days? Well, something like that, the Old Self is raised as an undead by the aeth'raesh'al. To do this, some fairly complicated spells had to be cast on it. Another thing I don't fully understand, but the Old Self had to be in a state other than death if the New Self wanted to surrender its aeth'raesh'al and return to normal."
"And that would be done by me wearing her bracer?"
"So all I have to do is take her bracer, then."
"Ahh, no, I'm afraid it's not that simple." The dragon hunched a bit lower. "Because of the vow made against creating evil kel'ali, it was assumed that any New Self would be better than an Old, so the power to remove either bracer was given solely to the new Self."
I lowered my head in dismay. "And that's the only way to get rid of her?"
"Well, no, you could kill her. That would certainly get rid of her. Even if she's dead, however, only she can remove her aeth'raesh'al. You can't take it."
"I can't destroy the bracer?"
"That would mean destroying yourself and her. The aeth'raesh'al is what keeps you undead. Until either she becomes you or you become her, it also keeps her in existence - she still needs you because her mind is based on yours. The magic isn't complete until the choice is made and only one of you wears the aeth'raesh'al."
"But I couldn't take it off before I died, either. Why is that?"
The dragon looked at her two outstretched talons, then extended two more. "The aeth'raesh'al could not be removed once its wearer spilled any kind of blood in violence with the arm wearing it." She gave me an expectant glance.
I slumped a little. "A soldier - a daemon. He was the one who put the bracer on me, then let me kill him."
She sighed. "That rule was instated when my people became pacifists."
"And because the bracer would make the wearer 'a better person', they decided not to let such violent people be able to remove it?"
With a shrug that made the light shift over her red scales, the dragon said, "Don't blame me. I didn't do it.
"Three you already know. A semblance of the wearer's original self, undead, would be raised seven days later in case the New Self was unhappy and wanted to return. Five: At the time between death and the resurrection of the New Self, anyone could remove the aeth'raesh'al. This period begins when the kel'al displays its tuning. In your case, black. Six:" she held up her other foreclaw, "aeth'raesh'ali cannot be removed after death by the Old Self at all, nor by the New Self, unless in the presence of the Old. She can't remove her aeth'raesh'al unless you are with her."
"So at least she can't destroy me by destroying her bracer while I'm not around to prevent it."
"Oh, she can, she just can't take it off. This was so a New Self couldn't accidentally lose its aeth'raesh'al." The dragon lowered her claws to the gold coins she lay on. "And since that's all I know, that's all I can tell you."
"But there's more?"
"There's always more, but I was young when the Guardian invaded. I never learnt it all."
I sighed and rubbed my hands over my eyes...then cried out in horror as they fell out into my hands. My vision took on an angry red cast, and when I looked at the dragon I saw little more than a formless mass of blazing colours.
"Calm down, liche!" she said with a roar. "You're only decomposing! It's quite a natural process with the undead."
I stared into my own eyes, shivering violently. "What should I do with them?"
"Kemah-thra! You have a long way to go." She snorted. "Keep them. Toss them. I care not. Look, liche- "
"Stop calling me that!"
"What then? 'Avatar'? Ha!" Flames licked around her teeth again. "An undead Avatar. We'll see how long that lasts."
I felt a sudden chill. "I'm not a liche."
"You are. The creation is a different process, but you are a liche, and how many good liches do you know...Avatar?"
I said nothing.
"Now, I'll tell you two things before you leave. One: you can slow your decomposition the same way you cast other spells. If it helps, I'd use the incantation Des Tym Corp. Two: you might consider using illusions to make yourself look alive. It wasn't too obvious when you first walked in, but glowing eyes are a dead give-away."
I looked up, my hand closing over my eyeballs. "Glowing?"
"A rather nice green, actually. Too bad you can't use a mirror to see for yourself."
"I can't see properly, anyway."
"It's all red. And you look like a damn rainbow."
"Oh. You're just using your undead eyes, then. You're seeing my aura, I think."
"So how do I change my eyes back?"
She growled. "Just imagine you're looking through your own eyes! It's only changed because you thought it should change! Undead magic is based on thought, Avatar, that's why they are so feared. There's nothing to restrain them - not even themselves."
"I can handle it."
"That's what they all say." She laughed. "And it still amuses me. The only thing going your way is that you didn't choose to become a liche."
I concentrated on the spells she'd told me of. Almost instantly, my vision returned to normal. "How do I tell if that Slow Death spell is working?"
"If you're thinking about it, it's working. Your illusion is in place - very well done, too."
"You mean I have to think about it all the time?" I exclaimed.
"Kemah-thra forbid, no! Just remember it every now and again. Think of it as a duration spell, then you should be fine." She scratched at her neck with one claw. "Besides, I'm sure there will always be plenty of people around you to point out when you start looking different."
We sat there in silence for a while. I went over the whole conversation, trying to find a way around the workings of the aeth'raesh'al. The way things stood, my only chance was to get Mellorin to give me her bracer. And how was I going to manage that? I frowned. There is always a back door. I'd learnt that lesson long ago.
"If I went to your world," I said suddenly, "would I find records of these things? More information?"
"Probably. But how would you get there?"
I stared at her in puzzlement for a moment. "The bracer has teleportation powers." The dragon continued to look at me blankly. "This one does, at least," I added. "Mors Gotha used it to transport herself and her army between the planes of reality. Maybe your world is still attuned to it."
The dragon shrugged indifferently and twitched her tail. A small avalanche of gold coins rolled down her hoard with a musical tinkle. "Then for what it's worth, my world was called 'Atarka'. My people lived in the Tuay Mountains, north of the Desert of Krain - the Northern Wasteland."
"You don't want to come?"
"Even if you do find it, Avatar, it was taken centuries ago. You can't save it now. I'll remember what it was - I have no wish to see what it has become." She gestured at the bracer I wore. "If any of my people live, that is testament to what the Guardian has corrupted them to do."
"There is more behind your words than what you're saying," I accused, rising to my feet. "I can't believe that you truly don't care, dragon."
Fangs bared, she snarled. "That is none of your business, liche."
"You didn't even try to save your home?"
"Not everyone is a heroine like you," she spat. "I wasn't about to defeat the Guardian, so why bother trying? That's not heroism - it's suicide." She drew herself up angrily, wings shifting. "My people alone know how to tune kel'ali. To face the Guardian meant risking capture and divulging that knowledge to him. I flew because I wasn't brave enough to kill myself."
"I'm sorry," I said softly, "but the Guardian is in the process of taking over Britannia. When he comes here and Ambrosia hasn't 'moved', what will you do?"
Smoke hissed from her nostrils. "I'll worry about that when it happens."
I looked down at my closed hands and caused the eyeballs they held to Vanish. Who knows when you might need one? Then I said, "Very well. Thanks for your help, dragon. If I manage to get through this and take Mellorin's bracer, I'll see what can be done to-"
"Mellorin?" she interrupted sharply.
"Yes. My double. The New Self."
"Oh." Whatever interest had sparked in her eyes seemed to vanish. "Yes, well. Have fun." She turned her head away.
I sighed and stepped to the edge of the tunnel. "For what it's worth, dragon, Dracothraxus isn't dead." Then I left.
The liche seized the bars of its prison window, its glowing crimson eyes
looking at me eagerly. "Hast thou returned to free me-" it's bloodless
lips twitched, "-Avatar?"
"Why are the undead gathering around Stonegate?"
"Prophecies, kinswoman, prophecies." The white fingers tightened on the bars. "One cannot tell if a prophecy is real until it comes to pass."
I let my 'undead vision' take over for a minute. Where the dragon had been every conceivable colour, the liche was a dull ash grey. Its eyes, however, remained red. I looked at my own hands and saw the same shade of grey.
"Thou seemest to be learning, kinswoman," the undead rasped. It smiled, revealing two straight rows of pointed teeth. "I can help thee. I can teach thee the ways of power."
"Tell me of the prophecies, first."
The liche's smile widened. "Thou knowest the prophecy - every undead knows it. Prophecy is the language of the Void - of Ether itself, kinswoman. Thou hast only to open thy mind and listen."
"Open my mind?" I repeated flatly.
"There is no danger. Just listen. Listen with thine undead senses, kinswoman."
....While living fight and living die,
The undead hosts will raise the cry:
"Death to all things great and small,
Death to those who rule them all."
Let all undead with flesh or bone
Gather at the Gate of Stone,
For one with Life still at their chest
Will unlock the door to seal their quest.
Descend, they will, descend straight down
To find our king's unholy crown.
When 'cross their brow the crown doth sit,
Our darkling flames will then be lit.
And life spells will by ours to cast
As this poor world doth breathe her last...
"It's happening as foretold," the liche hissed. "The living war and we
gather at Stonegate. We must hasten!"
I heard someone approaching me from behind, but felt no hostility. The liche backed away with a snarl and retreated to the far side of its cell. "What's beneath Stonegate that's so important?" I asked without turning.
The heavy steps halted and I felt heat against my back as I was answered. "The Crown of the Liche King." The dragon dropped to her haunches. "As far as I and Dracothraxus were able to determine, this artefact will give its undead wearer life. That undead will thereafter be able to bestow a measure of life to other undead."
"That means they can cast life spells, right? Spells with 'Mani'?"
"I don't think they'll be interested in opening any Healer Houses, Avatar. Ask any undead. Had they the life-force, they'd cast Armageddon."
"Not this undead." I paused. "Could I remove the bracer if I were alive?"
Her sigh was like a desert wind. "This I don't know. Anyway, the Gate of Stone can only be opened by one who still has life. Isn't that how the prophecy goes?"
"'One with Life still at their chest,'" I quoted. "Sounds like it. But you said only an undead can wear the Crown."
She shrugged. "So they become a liche after opening the gate and before donning the Crown. The Dark Prophecies hold little interest for me, Avatar. I want to ask you something before you go world travelling."
I looked at her curiously. "What is it?"
"Can I come?"
"What made you change your mind?"
"I don't need an aeth'raesh'al to change my mind for me," she said with a low growl. "I'm coming because I want to defy my destiny. It seems that today is the day for prophecies, Avatar. Not only am I forbidden to take the life of any sentient being, but if I fight against the Guardian I will die. That fate was laid upon me when I was a day-old hatchling. I won't fight for you, Avatar. I'll help, but I won't fight."
"So...why come? Why do you want to help?"
"You called your New Self 'Mellorin'. In the ancient tongue of my people, that means 'World Destroyer'. 'The black light will dawn upon the slayer of a thousand Atarkans as she standeth in the shadow of the Serpent. The very ground will tremble as her feet touch the ground, and she shall have a daemon for a weapon. In the day that the Spirit-soul payeth homage to her, despair. Our world, and many others besides, will be no more. The World Destroyer will walk among us.' You see? If she defeats you here, she will be responsible for the obliteration of more worlds than you can imagine. Including my own."
I hesitated. "What does Spirit-soul mean?"
"Ava-tar. Life." She lowered her burning eyes. "I do care, Avatar. It's just been so long that until now, I'd forgotten what it felt like."
I ventured to touch one of the red-scaled forearms, as if the dragon were an old friend. "I'd be very grateful if you'd come. When I reach your world, I'll need a guide."
The dragon nodded curtly, then turned and headed to the exit. "Let's go, then."
I sidestepped her tail as it swished around, watching her go back up the tunnel for a moment before looking at the imprisoned undead.
"Free me," the liche said in a dusty whisper.
"Would you cast Armageddon?"
"Who wouldn't?" the liche whispered. "The living are a plague. Bring them to our ranks and there would be true peace. Free me."
I looked at it. "Very well, but I'm releasing you from more than just this prison." And I pointed at the door.
The liche hurried forward eagerly, its face pressed against the bars. "Hassssste!" it hissed. Its command suddenly became an agonised shriek as the door burst inwards with a sharp detonation and exploded into angry red flames. Both door and liche were ashes a few seconds later.
The dragon suddenly returned, but her look of impatience vanished when she saw what I'd done. After the echoes of the liche's cry had vanished, she gave me an expressionless glance then went back the way she'd come.
I followed her a minute later. Already, power was becoming a part of my 'life'. Already, I'd used it without a second thought and I'd used it to kill. I clenched my right hand.
Already, it was frightening.
I tried to shrug it off. It was a liche! Wasn't it basically my duty to get rid of them? Even when they were helpless?
"Are you coming, liche?" the dragon demanded.
"I'm not a liche!" I protested vehemently.
"Yes you are!"
"No I'm not!"
"Yes you are!"
"No I'm not!"
"YES YOU ARE!" she bellowed. "What you just did...you're a liche!"
I sighed deeply. For some reason, though, I couldn't bring myself to apologise. "Just don't call me one, please."
She just laughed and continued down the corridor. "So I call you 'Avatar', then?"
I jumped her tail as it swished across in front of me. "Avatar is fine, thanks."
She snorted and muttered something about undead Avatars.
"What do I call you?"
"Whatever you want. I don't care."
"Don't you have a name?"
She ignored me and proceeded to step outside into broad daylight. The clouds above Ambrosia had blown away and the sun was almost at its zenith. A fresh, southerly wind was blowing and the grass looked very green.
"Stupid animal," the dragon muttered, and swatted a panic-stricken sheep with a foreclaw, almost knocking it unconscious.
The rest of the flock stampeded their terrified shepherd. I'd never...ever seen sheep stampede before.
"Climb up," the red dragon ordered me. "I hope you're not afraid of heights."
"Magic carpets only go so high," I replied, clambering up the creature's assisting foreclaw. "I've never ridden a dragon before."
"Probably has something to do with your reputation of killing them."
I felt it wise to shut up at this point, and simply hung on. The dragon crouched and spread her wings wide, gathering herself for a leap into the sky. I felt her muscles bunch, then her hind legs snapped straight out and pushed the two of us into the air. At the same time, her vast wings swept downwards and she let out a roar of fierce joy.
We were aloft.
Ambrosia quickly became smaller as we gained altitude. I could already make out land to the far west and to the north, but couldn't tell if this was because of my 'new' eyes. The sea was spread out between the landmasses, its intense sapphire and jade waves and sparkling diamond whitecaps shattering the sunlight and casting it in all directions.
"Are we going much higher?" I shouted as we lifted above an errant cloud. "I don't want to pass out from lack of air, you know!"
"You can't breathe, liche!" she shouted back, venting a short burst of fire.
I ground my teeth. "We need to go to the Isle of Fire, but if you insist on flying there, the people will attack-"
"I have every confidence that you'll talk them out of that."
She spiralled higher, stretching her wings to their limits until Ambrosia was little more than a speck below us. Then she turned southwest with a lazy beat of her wings and we shot forward like an arrow. Actually, it was more like a bullet. I held on tight and watched the world pass me by.
It was incredible.
All too soon, in my opinion, the mountainous island that was our destination appeared below us. It resembled nothing more than an oddly shaped rock sticking up out of the water.
"Wait!" I shouted, when the dragon would have begun her descent. "Let me try something." I turned my thoughts inward and sent them out. "Dupre! Can you hear me?"
The answer came almost immediately. "Yes, but how do I know that this is the real Elora?"
"You know I can't prove that without you seeing the Ankh. Look, is there a telescope anywhere near you?"
"I don't think so."
"If you're on the battlements, look up. I'm...I'm riding a dragon."
The dragon made it obvious that she could hear my every word by laughing. "'Riding'?"
"I'm sitting on your back, aren't I?"
"Anyone can sit on another creature's back and call it riding."
"Make that, I'm being carried by a dragon."
"I'll take thy word for it, Avatar," Dupre replied in a bewildered thought-voice.
"We're coming down. Don't let anyone shoot us."
"Very well. I'll pass the order." A minute passed before we got the 'go ahead'.
The dragon angled her wings, faced down, then dropped like a stone. My heart leaped into my throat. Some things undeath apparently didn't change. The wind screamed past us and the Isle of Fire approached at a very alarming rate. My eyes couldn't get any wider at this stage.
"Hold on, Avatar!"
Her wings flared out at the last minute and we swept over the battlements of the Fort. I looked back as we went north to see several guards regaining their feet. Then we were turning again, slowing down. The dragon flapped her wings and landed gracefully on the ramparts, her tail coiling around her so as not to crush anyone.
As I slid off her back, the guards suddenly started cheering. Surprised, I asked Dupre what was going on.
"The mages just reported two warships sailing towards this isle," he answered softly as he looked the dragon over with obvious admiration. "These people are cheering thee because they think thou hast brought the dragon to help fight the enemy."
"You told them this?"
"Not in so many words, Elora."
I looked up at the dragon who returned my gaze and made no comment. "How close are they?"
"They'll be entering the bay in scarcely four hours, they think."
"That close? Why didn't they find this out earlier?"
"It's not their fault, Elora. They knew several days ago, but there was no one in charge to report it to."
"Including Sentri and Tseramed," I muttered. "Clever." I quickly told him about my encounter with Mellorin and how Mariah had gone with her.
The knight rubbed his eyes wearily. "I see."
"Sir Dupre!" a warrior shouted, eyeing the dragon askance.
"The mages report, Sir Dupre! They estimate a hundred fifty foes per ship!"
"Thank thee." Dupre turned to me. "Now that we know the odds, we can mount a suitable defence."
I raised a brow, a smile teasing my lips. "'We'?"
"Of course, Avatar. Thou art going to lead it."
"I'll just perch up on the mountains," the dragon said with a shrug. "I
could shapechange if you really think it necessary, but I'll get a better
view as a dragon."
"Did I forget to mention my race can do that?"
"How silly of me." She suddenly started to glow, then shrink, her form distorting to that of a human. Then she was a human. Her long, red-gold hair tumbled down her back and she was very beautiful. It was almost embarrassing to look at her. She wore scale armour, high boots of some kind of hide, and a cloak, all the same red colour as her dragon form.
If the transformation hadn't caught the attention of the majority of the those on guard, her new form did.
I noticed a few of the other guards grinning openly at their companions’ slack jaws.
"That's...a useful talent," I managed.
"It's handy," the dragon-woman agreed, absently examining her fingernails. "But I much prefer my natural form. Humans are too mundane."
"So you're not going to fight in this battle?"
"No. I will watch. I've never seen the famous Avatar in battle before."
I got the odd feeling that she'd meant to say more, but hadn't. "I'll try to live up to my reputation."
A look of pity flickered across her face for a brief instant, but it vanished as she resumed her dragon form. "I'll be watching." Then she launched herself off the edge of the battlements and swooped over the bay, circling to find a vantage point.
"She doth make me feel uneasy," Lord British said. The monarch had approached me from behind, but now stepped to my side, his hair blowing back in the wake of the dragon's wings. "There's more to her than meets the eye, and I'm not speaking of her shapechanging powers."
"Any word from Mariah?" I asked softly.
"None as yet, Elora, but it hath not been long."
A loud scraping noise that immediately set my teeth on edge came from the north. The dragon was sharpening her talons on an outcrop of her mountain.
"Would you please stop that?" I asked her silently.
"As I said, she's strange." Lord British folded his arms across the front of his mail shirt and waited for the echoes of the scraping to cease. "I'm not sure I trust her."
This from the man who'd trusted Batlin? "What's wrong with her?"
"Nothing wrong...just suspect. Isn't it strange that she happens to be from the same world that bracer is from? And stranger that thou, the person wearing it, happens to find her?"
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "I'll keep an eye on her, Richard."
Just then, Iolo appeared with another ten archers. "Everyone's in position, my Lord," he reported. With a wave of his arm he sent his archers to join their fellow defenders across the battlements.
"And here they come," I said, pointing south.
The two frigates, one behind the other, had just started to sail up the channel towards the fort. I could make out Guardian banners floating from the topmasts above the large sails. Everyone just watched in silence as they approached. Today, people were going to fight. Many would never see daylight again before this war was over.
The ships eventually drew close to shore and somewhere near three hundred soldiers poured out onto the beach.
"A respectable number," Iolo said, fingering the point of a crossbow bolt. "Just say the word and mine archers will reduce it to something more manageable."
Lord British smiled.
This fort had been built for defence. We had archers standing in nooks and shallow caves all along the cliffs and lining the battlements. There wasn't a single place on the isle where one could disembark and be safe from ranged weapons. When Julia returned from Buccaneers' Den with the supplies - namely the cannonballs - no ship would be safe from even entering the bay.
"I'll see to our soldiers, Milord," I said, then descended to the courtyard where I'd lead the ground defence. Two hundred warriors - human and gargoyle - crowded the open area of the fort. We had between six and seven hundred capable fighters, but only arms enough for one hundred and fifty, not including the archers or gargoyles who preferred their own weapons and armour.
"Everything is ready, Avatar," Dupre said as I reached the closed portcullis.
I nodded. "By rights, you should be leading this charge, old friend."
"I'm happy enough giving leadership to thee," he replied with a smile. "This way, thou wilt get all the credit if we lose."
"Lose? Ha! Not one of those Guardian lovers will live to see another morning!" I put on my greathelm, since my undead body needed all the protection I could give it. I'd found I was able to support quite a bit of weight, so armour wasn't a problem there. On the other hand, it did detract from ease of movement, so I'd steadfastly refused the notion of wearing plate. Instead I was wearing hard leather boots, steel greaves, chain leggings, a chainmail shirt beneath a hauberk of studded leather, and a chain coif under my greathelm.
This would be no minor skirmish.
"In the name of the Guardian, we call upon the fort of the Isle of Fire to surrender!" someone from without shouted. "Give up the keep, the king and the Avatar, then the people will be spared."
I was suddenly reminded of the choice Mellorin had given me. Before I could be drawn into a brooding train of thought, Dupre murmured, "That one's mine."
A smile tugged my mouth. "Why?"
"He just issued a challenge, Elora. Thou must learn to take this kind of thing personally."
I fought hard to suppress a chuckle. "Oh? You're just insulted because you weren't included in his announcement."
The knight sniffed loftily, but had no chance to reply. Lord British's voice drifted down from above, then Iolo echoed him in a voice that reverberated throughout the entire bay. "FIRE!"
Bowstrings sang and crossbows clacked. A storm of Britannian blue-and-silver fletched arrows and bolts rained down on the invaders' hastily raised shields.
"Raise the portcullis!" Dupre roared.
The iron grating rose. I drew the Firedoom Axe and held it up. A steely rasp heralded the drawing of swords, the raising of axes and maces, of morning stars and halberds, of spears and iron-shod staves. "Form ranks!" I shouted, lowering my weapon in a cutting gesture.
While the archers kept the enemy at bay, my foot soldiers trooped out the gates and assembled near the walls of the fort. Dupre clasped my shoulder briefly then went off to join the east flank while another knight took the west. Fifty soldiers each and my hundred - the driving point of the attack.
I raised a mailed fist and called thunder. It was a signal to the archers to cease fire. The rain of shafts stopped, but the enemy, cautious, remained with their shields in place. Maybe fifty or sixty of their number littered the shoreline. Before they had a chance to recover, I thrust my axe into the air and shouted, "Charge!"
As with one voice, the soldiers running behind me bellowed, "Virtue!"
The enemy lowered their shields, saw us and ran to meet the attack with frenzied cries of "Guardian!"
Charging headlong at the enemy, I whispered, "Valour guide our arms, Justice be our shield. Courage live in all our ways and never let us yield."
Then the battle was joined.
There wasn't anywhere near the number of foes as we'd faced at Serpents
Hold, but being inside one battle is much like being inside another. I
was lost in a violent sea of friends and foes; adrift amidst the sounds
of screams, weapons and armour, the scents of blood, sweat and fear. Experience
enabled me to keep my head and fight well, but many of our fighters had
no actual, first-hand knowledge of this kind of thing. They'd been jerked
out of their homes as a hostile army marched across the land, then sent
to a place they'd never seen before and had a weapon shoved into their
"Courage be with us..."
It's almost impossible to describe a battlefield, as everything happens so quickly. My axe blurred as I dealt stroke after stroke, felled foe after foe. We cut deep into the enemy formation while the east and west flanks rushed in to attack from the sides.
"Ka-thra!" someone screamed, just before my axe crunched into her breastplate.
Then, without warning, as if driven by instinct, my magic came into play. Five Killorn soldiers were simultaneously struck down by Lightning. Two fell over when sudden Sleep gripped them. A second pair started throwing up as Poison lanced through their bloodstreams. Another ten tripped over their own weapons or failed to parry a Britannian blow as a Curse fell upon them. Letting a breath hiss out from between my teeth, I got a grip on myself. My shift in concentration almost cost me as a spear flew past my head from behind. Ducking instinctively, I whirled and abruptly found myself engaging the commanding officer.
"Ka-thra," he acknowledged calmly, blade lifting slightly in salute.
I returned the gesture with my axe then braced myself. A swift glance through undead eyes told me that this man was a daemon. A spell of Protection blanketed me just as I delivered my initial attack.
The daemon-soldier fought well, but was no match for the Avatar. I backed him up to the very edge of the waterline before he overbalanced and caught my axe-blade across his neck. Hot blood splashed into my face and I hastily wiped it off with my gloved hands before it could burn me. Then, with startling quickness, the commander regained his true form. Red muscles tore his mail apart and horns punched through his iron helmet. Taloned hands threw away sword and shield, then lashed out to rake deep grooves on my greathelm.
I ducked under the groping arms and tore a gash in the daemon's stomach. With a spurting noise, his entrails came boiling out and tangled his hoofed feet.
I hadn't considered that daemons might have intestines.
He fell face down with a horrible snarl, almost taking me with him as one vast, scarlet wing struck my shoulder. I managed to shove it aside, then, taking my axe in both hands, cut off the hellspawn's head. The corpse instantly burst into flames and vanished.
The battle was over and we'd won.
A cheer rose up from every human and gargish throat, whether on the field or in the fort. It grew to a mighty crescendo and I pulled off my helm, giving in and joining the celebration, letting the feel and sound of victory run its course.
It was a small triumph, but the effect on the morale of the people would be huge.
"So the big crunch is still coming, eh?" I commented to a grinning, unscathed Dupre.
"Looks like it, Elora. But look at these people!"
"I know!" I suddenly felt a tremendous jubilation. "They'd be willing to attack three times that number now. The taste of victory has a strange effect on some people-"
Dupre laughed loudly. "Care to continue this conversation over a jug of dark ale?"
"-but not everyone," I added, rolling my eyes.
The knight just shook his head and grinned. "Thou mightest not get thirsty, but I was born thirsty."
"I bet your mother raised you on ale," I quipped, wiping my axe-blade clean on a dead soldier's cloak. My eye was caught by the sight of people running from the fort gates, most faces among them grim. Healers, I realised. A few mages and their assistants came with them, hurrying to aid the wounded as best they could. Our dead would be carried inside to a place where Lord British would decide whether or not to use our precious reagent stores for Resurrections.
My mood darkened a little, though most of those who had fought with me today continued to cheer. Looking around quickly, I decided that few of our own could have been killed. The ground was covered with the dark gold tabards of Killorn Keep and the number of Britannians left standing had barely changed.
Warriors started picking their way past discarded weapons to the sanctuary of the fort. Enemy armour, weapons and clothes would all be salvaged, as well as the two ships. By ridding ourselves of three hundred foes, we'd greatly increased our own stores.
I watched two healers lift the still body of a human warrior and start slowly back to the fort. No matter what we'd gained, the price was still too high.
And I used my powers in battle without hesitation. Virtues...what am I becoming?
From the northern peaks, the dragon fixed me with her fire-eyed gaze.
Virtues preserve me...
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