I will come
Like a thief in the night,
Like a stalker of shadows,
Unexpected, unheard of and unseen.
I will take
That which is yours,
Your breath, your mind, your life,
And vanish, that you think me a dream.
I will steal
Those dear to you,
Your people, your family, your friends,
And I will cherish your scream.
I will live
Your life for you
And you will fade away forever,
As if you'd never been.
I've never really been successful at keeping a regular journal since my
last ones were published. Maybe now because I only need to put things in
Well, there's one thing to put in perspective right there. Life. I don't have one. It was stolen by my 'New Self', a being who is me in every sense except state of mind. Even that difference may not be long-lasting. With the awakening of my undead powers, I feel as if my humanity is starting to slip away.
There was a battle yesterday. Our people fought two hundred foes and won. I fought with them, with both weapon and magic. I didn't give a damn at the time how the enemy were killed. If they're dead in the end, what does it matter? I can't tell whether or not if using any offensive spell other than an outright Death Bolt is good. Am I more the monster for dealing out slow deaths?
I can't stop myself using magic. Even now, an illusion hides what's slowly happening to my body. An illusion hides the fact that I have no eyes and that I'm...decomposing. Magic is my lifeblood. I can stop it flowing through my veins no more than I can make my heart start beating again. But I must try restraint. I must control my thoughts, for they dictate the magic.
Other things press on my mind. Before I travel to Atarka to find more information on the aeth'raesh'al bracer, I must find Shamino. Mariah discovered his location with her magic and sent word to Richard early this morning. She was unable to communicate with Shamino but saw enough. How he managed to get the Emps to leave their Silverwood trees, I've no idea, but he's sheltering with them in the Bee Cave near Tseramed's hut, south-west of Empath Abbey. I can only guess that the Emps use their empathic abilities to calm the giant bees, else how would they survive? I rather doubt Shamino would have been able to talk them out of eating the bees' honey.
Other than this, Mariah had little news. She attempts to keep my double, Mellorin, busy in the Deep Forest by reserving the western side as her own scrying area. As long as Mellorin keeps her magic in the east, she won't find Shamino.
Sentri and Tseramed are well, she thinks, but she hasn't been able to speak with them out of Mellorin's hearing. I hope they're careful.
There is more news, and it's bad. Jhelom has fallen to the enemy. The only city we have left is Trinsic, and of the keeps, the Lycaeum and Serpent's Hold. Even now, the mages on the Isle of Fire are planning to build teleport pads for the latter, which I'll be able to transport with my bracer.
Nystul has nothing to report from Castle Britannia, and has been informed of the situation with Mellorin. That should help prevent infiltration.
I myself sent my sight over Stonegate. A horde of undead gather, even as the liche on Ambrosia had said. And on the Isle of the Avatar, I found the enemy mages. They are attempting to destroy the Guardian Statues - to break through the shields protecting the Shrine of the Codex...where the Black Jewel of Mondain rests within the Flame of Infinity.
And a war fleet has set sail from the docks of Minoc and Jhelom. At the best of conditions, we'll be seeing over two thousand men and women invading our islands in about two weeks. Unless the Jhelom ships decide to stop over at the Isle of Deeds and finish off Serpent's Hold first. Mages keep watch even now, so if the worst occurs, I can be contacted, teleport to the Hold and evacuate everyone. We all hope it won't be needful, but I think it will be. The thing is, the bracer isn't attuned to the Isle of Fire. To get back here, I'll have to talk the dragon - who still chooses to remain nameless - into carrying us.
Maybe I should just call her 'Draco', or something. For all I know, she might have seen the movie.
I've just realised I'll have to burn this entry when I finish. It wouldn't do for Mellorin to discover where Shamino is. I'll use the candle, though. No magic.
With that, I'll close. It's time to go.
--Elora, Avatar of Britannia
"I don't need a sword," the dragon-in-human-form was telling Dupre. "I'm
a dragon! Believe me, I don't need that metal toothpick to defend myself."
Dupre looked slightly offended as he turned to put away the shortsword he'd offered.
"You don't really have to fight with it," I told her, giving the blue sky above an approving glance. "You'll just look more convincing as a warrior if you have a weapon."
"I don't need- " she began, then broke off with a cry of surprise as Dupre spun, kicking her legs out from under her and landing her flat on her back. Lying on the stone roof of the fort, she stared open-mouthed at the blade Dupre was holding a hair's breadth from her neck for a moment, then her brows rushed together into an angry frown.
I prudently took a step back.
Dupre's breath exploded from his lungs in a loud "Oof!" and the knight flew backwards. He did it very well, for someone without wings. When he sped over the edge of the battlements, he hung there in midair as the dragon prevented his fall.
"Are you ok?" I shouted to him.
He made a strangling noise. Seemed like he hadn't regained his breath as yet.
"Was that really necessary?" I asked the dragon.
She stood, tossed her red-gold hair and picked up the shortsword. "Nobody threatens me. Not even when they're trying to make a point."
"Well, I think you've made yours."
A gasp came from Dupre's direction as he realised his current location, some twenty or so feet above ground level.
I went over, climbed up into one of the crenels and grabbed the hand Dupre held out to pull him down. Once his feet were safely on the ground, he braced himself against my shoulder until he'd steadied himself.
"Are you scared of heights?" I asked him curiously.
"Why dost thou think I always kept mine eyes closed when thou wert flying that damned magic carpet?"
The dragon-woman's eyes lit up at this piece of information. "I'd like to offer my services as a mode of transportation to you, Avatar," she announced graciously. "As a way of thanking you for promising to take me home, of course."
Dupre gave her a hard look, which she returned with transparent innocence.
"Are you sure the bracer can take us there?" I asked. "To this Atarka?"
"Of course I am." She shrugged. "Maybe it's easier for me to feel how that thing works," she added, meaning the bracer. "Gemstones are largely used for magical practises on my world." She indicated the coloured jewels on the bracer, the ones not touching the large, central stone. "These gems are used to take you between the planes or worlds." Then the ones touching the central stone, a different coloured one to each of its eight side facets. "These gems are used for teleportation within a plane."
"So which of the...world jewels will take us to Atarka?"
"The orange one - the shem'al."
"Sand Jewel, is your translation."
"Oh. I thought it was amber."
"Speaking of Amber," Dupre said, "we'd best start searching for her man."
I nodded. "Iolo and Katrina are down below?"
"Aye. With Lords British and Draxinusom."
The dragon-woman handed Dupre back his sword. "Let's hurry along, then. The sooner we find your friend, the sooner we can leave Britannia."
"How could you tell which jewel leads to your home?" I asked her as the three of us went downstairs.
"I'm not precisely sure. I just looked at it and...I knew. There's a strong sense of 'home' when I concentrate on it." She shrugged.
"Maybe one of them leads to my home," I said softly, half-daring to hope it were true. Would I return to there if it were possible?
"Only you can tell, Avatar," the dragon said. "It's your home, not mine."
I gave the bracer a long look, watched how the light glinted off the multi-faceted jewels and caused the milky, moonstone-like substance forming the main body of the bracer to glow. In turn, I glanced at each of the small jewels, not knowing what I was trying to feel. Only two of them made me pause. The emerald - but probably just because I had a thing for green - and the diamond. Every conceivable colour winked back from within its complex structure and I so lost myself regarding its beauty that I almost tripped when we reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Anything?" the dragon murmured.
"I don't know. The diamond, maybe?"
She shook her head. "Can't be - that's Britannia. It's easy to tell since we're here. The tuning of the gem and this world are the same."
Maybe Britannia is my home, I thought to myself, but I resigned myself to pondering that at a later time. We'd reached the place where Iolo, Katrina and Britannia's two Lords were waiting.
"Good fortune to thee, Avatar," Lord British said, his voice slightly louder as he spoke over the noises of the nearby forge. "The Virtues guide thee and bring thee back to us!"
I smiled and clasped his hand briefly. "Thank thee, my Lord. I'll certainly do my best to come back in one piece."
"To bid you good fortune, Avatar," Draxinusom added in gargish. He awkwardly held out one of his red hands and I took it in my own. "To hope you find your friend."
"To thank you, prilem." I turned to my four companions. "Ready your weapons, friends. We don't know what's on the other side." Then I touched the facet of the central jewel that was edged by the emerald.
The world abruptly came into focus. We were standing just outside the Shrine
of Justice and no one was in sight. The sky was clouded and the iron-grey
waves of the sea to the north, east and west could be heard crashing against
the bases of the rocky cliffs. The ground was wet, as though it had been
raining, and there was an unpleasant squelching noise as Dupre and the
dragon moved out a little to look for any nearby enemies.
"So we try to cut straight through the forest?" Katrina asked me.
I looked south to where the cape widened to join the mainland and the Deep Forest began. Under the sunless sky, the trees looked dark and forbidding. "Yes. Even though we'll be Blinking across it, I don't need to remind you to keep a lookout for soldiers. Those tabards should be easy to spot." My eyes drifted to the shrine and something strange caught my attention. The monoliths surrounding the altar were rough and pitted. I knew there were strong magics on the shrines to prevent damage from wind and weather.
Iolo ran his hands lightly down one of the pillars. Black, gritty stone crumbled off it at his touch. "This should not be," he said, dusting off his hands. He took a step back and looked up, his brow furrowing.
"Something to do with the Flames?" Katrina suggested.
The bard shrugged. "I don't know. Elora?"
"I'm not going to make any guesses," I said, approaching the altar. That it needed to be repaired was not in doubt, but the others knew as well as I did that it would take too long. There was more to it than just shouting out a Word of Power.
There was a large split down the middle of the pedestal...almost as if someone had thrust a sword into it. At first glance it seemed the fissure had gathered rainwater, but when I brushed a finger over its top, it came back crimson. "Blood," I whispered.
Iolo and Katrina came closer to see. "I don't like this one bit," the former said.
"Do the druids practise animal sacrifices?" Katrina ventured.
"Not that I've heard," I replied, raising my hand to smell and then taste the blood. I spat. "Besides, this isn't just animal blood." I looked at them both, concerned. "It's human."
Their eyes widened.
"There's something else here that I can't place. A...presence?"
"A ghost?" Iolo suggested.
"No...sort of." I let out a low growl. "I think I'd be able to sense it if I were alive. I don't know."
"Dost thou want to do something about it now, or should we find Shamino first?"
"Shamino," Katrina said.
I nodded slowly. "I have a bad feeling...Blackthorn once found a way to destroy the shrines. It's said that all he needed was the mantras, but I think that was only one component. Maybe he needed a sacrifice. He also needed power - or an item with destructive capabilities."
"The Sword of Chaos," Dupre said as he returned. "And Mellorin hath the Blacksword, not to mention power. Thou knowest, that reminds me," he added as we all struck south, "I think the one cinching point that made me reject all the Guardian's offers while we were trapped in the Castle was something he said to me before we went after the Chaos Sword."
"Was that when thou wert drinking?" Iolo asked him. "After Spark died?"
He nodded. "He said something like, 'Knowest thou to where thy precious Avatar will lead thee? To thy Doom. Doom, Death and Chaos.'" He grinned. "And I'm still alive and kicking."
The dragon-woman snorted. "Your kicking could stand a little improvement..."
I didn't hear the rest. Dupre's words had suddenly pushed my mind back to remember a vision I'd seen in an orb on another world. An orb that had shown the future...and had predicted Dupre's death.
The future isn't decided, I thought stubbornly. We make it what it is, and I won't make it that.
"...was saying things about Gwenno in a frozen wasteland," Iolo was saying. "I hope she's all right."
"One thing I've learned about the Guardian," the dragon said, "is that he rarely lies. He has no need to. The truth can be much more destructive and much more satisfying."
There was a frigid silence.
"Thanks for your comforting input," I said dryly.
"It's an important thing to know, Avatar. If you could understand how he thinks, you'd know what he's thinking."
"Are you saying you do?"
A strange light lit her golden eyes. "Perhaps."
Katrina silenced us. "Look," she said, pointing toward the treeline. "I mark four...five soldiers."
I looked and nodded. "Good job. Iolo?"
The bard raised his crossbow. "Thou canst wave two of them goodbye." He fired, rewound his weapon with impressive speed, fired again.
"Not bad for a human," the dragon said. "You might want to do something about the other three coming our way."
Iolo grinned and patiently set to work reloading his crossbow. "That's their job."
Dupre, Katrina and I charged forward to meet the attackers.
"Take one alive," I shouted, then ducked under a sweeping blade and smashed the blunt end of my axe-head across the soldier's knee.
"Which one?" Dupre asked, parrying a swordthrust.
"What do you mean, 'which one'? Any one!"
The knight laughed, which seemed to offend his opponent for some reason. "Well, thine doth not look overly intelligent, Elora."
"Looks can be deceiving," Katrina observed wickedly. "One hath but to look at thee, Sir Knight, and- "
"What?" Dupre spluttered. Deftly, he cracked his swordhilt against his opponent's skull then turned to blister Katrina's ears with his tongue.
I was laughing so hard I almost got skewered. "Oh, stop it," I told the soldier. "See this bracer?"
His eyes bulged in horror.
"Yes, that's right. I'm the Ka-thra."
Katrina's adversary spun around at this then fell as she broke his neck with her staff. Katrina herself knelt down to check his pulse.
"Human fool!" The fallen soldier grabbed at her arm, twisting it as he jumped up and snarled at the glowering Dupre. "Keep thy distance, ape-man, or she dies." He closed his other hand around her throat, a hand that suddenly bore crimson skin and long, yellowed nails.
The soldier I was facing stared at his companion with a look of horror, then narrowed his eyes and spat.
The daemon-soldier smirked as it slowly regained its true form and said something in a sneering voice. Then it turned its fiery eyes on me. "The Guardian will reward me for bringing thee to him." It leered at Katrina, bringing its fangs close to one of her ears. "Do I need to make an example of this one for thee to come quietly?"
I stalled, quickly evaluating what our chances were. The daemon was facing me and had Katrina in front of it, so anything I tried to throw at him would likely hit her. Iolo stood behind with his crossbow at the ready, but I knew he wouldn't fire. The force of a crossbow bolt would drive right through the daemon's body, killing both it and Katrina. Dupre was on its left with his sword drawn, the Killorn soldier on its right, his eyes burning with anger. "What does the Guardian want with me?"
"Wilt thou come?" the daemon shouted, drool flying from its fangs and its claw tightening on Katrina's neck.
The human soldier suddenly leaped forward and ran at the daemon with his sword, but the undead willed forth a wall of fire without even turning its head. The soldier plunged straight into it and dropped to the wet ground, screaming.
A shimmering began in the air above the daemon and its captive. Quickly, it took the form of the red-scaled dragon. Her two massive foreclaws were planted on either side of the daemon and her neck arched down and around so that her burning eyes were level with its. Baring her gleaming fangs, she rumbled, "Hellfire is nothing compared with what I'm going to do to you."
And, of course, the daemon made its last mistake by dropping Katrina and letting her get away.
Turning my head away from the gruesome little bonfire that had suddenly sprung up between the dragon's foreclaws, I ran over to where Katrina stood catching her breath and asked if she was ok.
"My neck feels burnt," she said, wincing slightly.
"Let me see." She lifted her chin and I examined her throat, seeing she was right. It wasn't bad - the worst she'd suffer would be peeling skin - but I could see the reddish tint on her neck was taking on the shape of a hand. "Nothing worse than a sunburn, I'm thinking."
She looked relieved. "I didn't expect him to jump at me like that."
"It's ok. I should have checked them to see if they were human."
"Katrina! Art thou all right?" Dupre asked as he hurried over.
She nodded. "I'm recovering."
"Where's that other soldier?" I asked, glancing beyond the dragon. "Wait, I see him. Coming?"
The three of us circled the dragon and her smouldering prey to her other side. The soldier I'd originally fought was writhing on the marshy ground, most of his body blackened and smoking. Only a glance was needed for me to know he wouldn't be alive much longer.
"What about your soldier?" I asked Dupre.
"Dead," the knight replied. "I hit him too hard."
I nodded and frowned. "Well, let's see if this one can tell us anything." Kneeling beside the burnt soldier, I made sure he could see me before asking, "What happened at that Shrine to the north?"
The soldier groaned once, then took a deep breath and babbled something incomprehensible.
"Can't he speak?" Iolo asked, as he approached with his crossbow slung over one shoulder.
"Look." Katrina pointed at the man's blistered right hand. The palm bore what appeared to be a crescent moon symbol, the lines standing out in bright red. "What's this mean?"
"Marini." The dragon snorted disdainfully from above us. "These weren't even warriors. They're probably just being used as lookouts so the capable fighters don't have to be wasted, and the daemon used as a means of communication." She rolled over the corpse of Dupre's soldier with a foreclaw and craned her neck down to peer at the hands. "This one has the same mark. These are priests from the Temple of Silence."
"Doth 'marini' mean priests?" asked Iolo.
"'Marini' means 'worshippers'. These particular people are akin to druids; given to meditation and not much fighting, though a large group of them can be a death-sentence. They are relentless, given a cause."
"Canst thou understand me?" I telepathed to the wounded soldier.
"Ka-thra!" his mind screamed. Eyes widening, he clapped his hands to his ears.
"What happened at the Shrine?"
His eyes suddenly glazed over and he sat without moving. The dragon looked as if she'd expected nothing less. With a muttered, "Marini," under her breath, she lashed her tail impatiently. "Trance. Kill him and let's go."
"We can't really kill a defenceless man," Dupre told her.
"Kemah-thra! Why not? You're not against violence!"
"This is different. It's not- "
"Virtuous?" she sneered through bared fangs.
The knight sheathed his sword.
"Humans!" She shook her huge head. "You have such strange concepts. Killing is killing, on the field or off. How can one way be better than another? The result is the same."
"We can't leave him here to waylay our own people," Katrina noted. "Or to get eaten."
"I certainly hope you're not intending to take him with us."
I probed gently at the soldier's mind and found it completely blank - wiped clear of thought. There was, however, a section that was still conscious. "Knowest thou who I am?" I asked.
The reply was much calmer than the first response I'd received from him. "Thou art the one known as the Avatar."
"And the Ka-thra?"
"There is only one Ka-thra, and thou art not her."
"How canst thou be so sure?"
"She beareth the daemon sword. Thou dost not."
"Then why didst thou call me Ka-thra just before?"
"An error," he replied simply. "I saw the bracer and made an assumption."
"We're getting somewhere, it seems. Now, tell me what happened at the Shine of Justice."
There was a silent stream of laughter. "No. And don't bother threatening me with death, Avatar. I'm not afraid."
"I've no need to threaten. Thou art already dying."
There was a mental sigh. "I suspected as much. And by daemon-magic..."
"The daemon is dead."
"Both of them?"
I stopped short.
"What of the large one with the wings of gold and voice like thunder?"
"That...was a dragon."
A hand shook my shoulder. "Elora? Elora, he's dead. He's stopped breathing."
I withdrew from his mind and looked around at my friends. "I didn't get anything out of him." Standing, I looked up at the dragon. "Except that he thought you were a daemon."
Her form shone and reduced in size, changing shape until she looked human again. Giving each companion a long look, she finally said to me, "He's probably never seen a dragon before. If there aren't any left on my world, then..." With a shrug, she added, "Can we go? Or were you intending to bury him as well?"
"Wait just a minute. Who exactly are these people?"
"The Silent Ones." The dragon paused then sighed. "Their philosophy of hearing an 'Inner Voice' was just catching on before the invasion of my world." Iolo, Dupre and Katrina had already heard her history, so they knew what she meant. "If it hadn't involved cutting out your own tongue, I might have been willing to listen."
"Inner Voice?" Iolo repeated as we started walking again. "Thou meanest the Guardian?"
The dragon sighed again, her eyes becoming somewhat distant. "It became the Guardian later. Earlier, before my time, the Silent Ones were but a group of simple people who meditated and communed with the aeth'er'eal."
"The Ethereal Void?"
"The same. The 'Mind of Stars', my people called it. The correct term was actually aeth'o'eali, but it changed with the passage of time and growth of languages." She smiled at her own memories. "Anyway, Silence became the issue when the supposed voice of the aeth'er'eal spoke back to them, basically telling them to shut up, listen and obey."
"That's terrible," I said.
"Yes. And terribly clever. The druids had waited their entire existences for a reply. Any reply. And the Guardian gave them one."
We had reached the border of the Deep Forest. The two soldiers Iolo had shot lay dead nearby, crimson staining their orange-gold tabards. When we checked their hands we found the same markings on the right palms.
"What does it mean that they're in the army?" I asked.
"Mean? Nothing other than that the Guardian ordered them to come! He probably stripped my entire world bare to take Britannia. What is it he wants here?" She was looking straight at me as she asked this, and for some reason I got the impression that she already knew.
"Thou supposedly knowest what he's thinking," Dupre put in. "Thou shouldst be able to figure it out."
"You don't like me, do you?"
"'Tis thine attitude that doth make thee unlikable. I could get to like thee very much if I could just get over this urge to try and kill thee every time thou openest thy mouth."
"Well said," Katrina murmured.
The dragon smiled coldly then tripped over something. "Blasted two legs!" she snarled, brushing bits of bracken and dead leaves from her leather armour. Suddenly, she frowned. "I think there's something under here."
She got up and moved aside as Dupre and I lifted the long, slender trunk of a freshly fallen tree. Rolling it to one side, the others helped to shift broken branches. Something else was there. Something red. And there was the stench of blood.
It was a gargoyle.
"Oh, Virtues," Katrina whispered, her face pale. "Praetymdelem!"
The gargoyle had been torn apart in the ritual Fellowship manner. I'd never seen any guttings of his race before, and it was much worse than a human murder because of the wings and horns. The former had been cut to ribbons - each segment between the thin wing-bones sliced with almost surgical precision. The main wing-bones themselves had been ripped out at the shoulders. The two horns on Praetymdelem's head had been gouged out, hanging on to his skull only by two tiny flaps of red flesh. The legs, arms, head, torso turned inside out...
The dragon looked truly shaken. "I've never seen anything like this. What does it mean?"
I didn't hide the revulsion in my reply. "You know how you were telling us of the Guardian's rituals among his worshippers on Atarka? How he had his followers, the Silent Ones, cut out their own tongues? Well this is one of the rituals among his followers here."
"But...this creature wasn't alive when they... Was it?"
I opened my mouth to say "No," but Katrina answered before I could.
"He was alive." She pointed at Praetymdelem's face. It was contorted into an expression of utmost horror and supreme pain. She shuddered. "I thought thy double said he was dead, Elora."
"She did. Maybe she lied."
"Or maybe she Resurrected him so he'd be alive when she..." Iolo left his sentence unfinished and swallowed hard. "Dost thou think it was his blood we found at the Shrine of Justice?"
"No," Katrina said, "Elora said it was human bl-" She broke off abruptly.
"We have to hurry," I said softly. "Or this won't be the last murder."
For now, I dropped the restrictions I'd placed on myself concerning magic.
Blink was a very handy short-range teleport spell, and I used it to transport
our group across the terrain and through the Deep Forest. As had been the
case with the spell while I'd been alive, however, I always felt a momentary
dizziness after four or five consecutive Blinks, so I'd have to wait a
minute each time. When the dragon complained about the delays, Dupre asked
her if she'd like to materialise inside a tree. She actually accepted that
without talking back.
Then we reached the wisps' tower.
"Should we speak with them?" Iolo asked. "We don't have that whistle..."
"I don't know if I want to hear what they've got to say," I replied, sitting down before I fell off the log I'd appeared on. "That's not normal wisp behaviour, is it?" I added, pointing.
Three wisps were speeding toward us from the tower. They were almost incandescently white with no hint of their regular blue colour about them.
I got no further than "Hi," before a bolt of energy knocked me off my seat. Picking my way out of a small bush, I said, "They must think I'm undead!"
"You are undead!" the dragon said.
The others had drawn weapons, but the wisps ignored them. Buzzing like three swarms of angry wasps, they hovered above me and let loose a second bolt. It knocked me back a few feet, but did no damage, so I didn't bother raising a shield.
"Can 'we' speak?" I telepathed, using the strange emphasis wisps placed on some of their words. "'I' am entity known as 'Avatar'. 'I' would like to exchange information."
"They said to tell you that they don't converse with the undead," the dragon said calmly. "Was there anything you wanted me to ask them?"
Standing still, I stared at the three orbs of pulsing light without blinking. "How do I remove the aeth'raesh'al?"
A strange yet clearly audible voice came from one of the wisps. "'You' can't." Then the three of them, still buzzing, vanished from sight.
"Where'd they go?" Katrina exclaimed. She looked around. "Did they all leave?"
"Were there others?" Iolo asked her.
"I saw a couple near that tower, and a third behind that tree."
"Britannia has become too dangerous for them," the dragon said. "In exchange for an answer, I told them that a new Avatar, spawned by a black kel'al, is on the loose. I think they doubt your chances of winning this war."
I said nothing. My mind drifted back to Praetymdelem's body and my only thought was of the promise I'd given Lord British to return in one piece.
There was no sight of Mellorin, Mariah, Sentri or Tseramed as we continued
to Blink through the forest. I was steadily becoming more proficient in
my castings; my range had increased and I'd discovered the 'trick' of giving
everyone a gentle landing, since the ground we stood on was always uneven.
It took us until nightfall to reach the western edge of the Deep Forest.
Considering that to walk the same distance without benefit of a road was
likely to take in excess of two, maybe three weeks, we'd made excellent
When we arrived at the borderline of trees just east of Iolo's hut we were forced to wait and hide. The bard's face was grim as we watched ten Killorn soldiers help themselves to his stores of grain, wood and food and carry them off.
"I hope Smith got away," he whispered, to which I nodded (as solemnly as was possible with Dupre looking like someone had not only just paid off his bar tabs, but given him his own tavern). There was no sign of his horse.
One thing had become certain. The Guardian wanted Britannia intact. To all reports, not a single building from castle to hovel had been destroyed.
When the patrol had left, we crossed the clearing (Iolo declined to see what state the soldiers had left the inside of his house in. Dupre remarked it couldn't be much worse than the state the bard himself had left it in) and reached the road that led north to Empath Abbey. I could make out the forms of the soldiers marching north in the darkness, but was sure none of them would be able to see us.
"The Bee Caves are on the other side of the road, just through that stand of trees," I whispered to Katrina and the dragon. "There's a log house near it. If you think you're lost, stay there and don't move."
To the others, except maybe the dragon, it would be very dark. The sky was still clouded so no moons or stars lent their light to us. Our destination wasn't really that far away, but it never hurt to be a little cautious.
Iolo, Katrina and Dupre went first, the latter with his cloak drawn tightly about himself to hide the gleam of his mail shirt. The dragon yawned, then disappeared.
I shook my head slightly. "Invisibility sort of takes the fun out of it, dragon."
There was a disembodied snort followed by a faint rustling of leaves as she brushed past a nearby plant.
I counted to ten, having no wish to run into her by accident, then dashed across the road, almost diving into the plants beyond. Ducking under a branch and jumping a gnarled root, dodging a trunk and leaping a mossy boulder...I stopped only when the dark shape of Tseramed's hut loomed up between the trees.
A voice right beside me made me jump. "So, where are these caves?" The dragon-woman flickered into view.
"Follow me," I muttered, and led her further west where the mountains lay.
It started to rain.
When she and I reached the cave entrance we found the other three were waiting for us there. We entered, and only then did I make a light.
"What? AARGH! *snort* Intruders! *whinny* Sound the *neigh* alarm!"
"Smith?" Iolo said.
The horse, apparently more startled than we, merely shouted, "Abandon ship!" before snorting, turning tail, then galloping down a passage. A second later there was a muffled crunch, followed by an irritated buzzing noise.
"Maybe he broke his neck," Dupre whispered to me. "Then I won't have to get Iolo that drink."
"I heard that!" the bard said, swatting his arm.
"Thou hearest pretty well for an old fossil!"
"Well, well," a new voice interrupted. "It's a wonder ye two got here without being seen. Or, rather, heard." A grinning Shamino stepped out from around the corner of the passage Smith had fled down. "Hello, my friends."
Almost involuntarily, I let out a "whoop!" and then everyone crowded around him, talking all at once.
Shamino quickly silenced us and said, "Come deeper into the caves. The enemy patrols the road every night and we're close enough to it to be heard if we stay here."
We followed him in, being careful not to disturb the drowsing giant bees in their alcoves of honeycomb. The light played off the golden, hexagonal structures and made them glitter with a strange beauty. Shamino paid them no heed but led us straight down the main passage, my Light spell hovering above him as I walked at his side.
The dragon-woman tapped my shoulder as we walked and I reluctantly fell back to talk with her. "What's up?" I asked softly, not wanting my voice to echo down the hive.
"Is that your friend?" she asked, pointing at Shamino.
"I thought that would have become obvious a few minutes ago."
"Is he?" she pressed, her eyes narrowing.
Her manner gave me pause. "Yes, that's Shamino," I replied slowly. "Why the concern?"
She gave me a hard look before regarding the back of Shamino's head thoughtfully. "Just making sure." Then she kept walking as if nothing had passed between us.
"What was this we heard about the Emps?" Dupre was asking softly.
"When we saw the beginnings of the invasion," Shamino replied, "a large number of soldiers started to comb through the Deep Forest. I took a trip to Empath Abbey to see what was going on and found it totally overrun by men and women who wore uniforms I'd never seen before. I returned to the Silverwood grove where the Emps live and explained to them the danger, convincing them to come here with me. The promise of honey was the only thing I could think of that would make them move." He led us down a branching tunnel. "The Emps had already begun scouting around when I'd left. One went so far as to scale the lower foothills of the Serpent Spine to see Castle Britannia."
"And he saw a blackrock dome?" I asked.
"It was a she, actually. But yes. A dome. I decided to lead the Emps to safety before making any plans to investigate, so I guided them all here and they've been able to keep the bees under control with their empathic powers. Indeed, the bees have protected us in here more than once."
"And Smith?" Iolo asked.
"I let him loose when I went to Empath Abbey and told him to stay nearby for when I returned. It would have been too hard to drag a horse through a forest as thick as the Deep. Then, when I came back with the Emps, I took him in here."
"I can't imagine him wanting to be in a cave," the bard noted, glancing around the cave.
"Yes, well," Shamino replied with a faint smile. "The Emps had a hand in that business. Or should I saw 'paw'?"
We reached the inner cave and found most of the small, ape-like Emps asleep. A few of their buzzing protectors hovered nearby. Shamino motioned for us to sit, then looked at me.
"What's happening in Britannia?"
I related the whole story, starting from the invitation to the banquet at Lord British's Castle. Iolo and Dupre chimed in if I forgot anything, but otherwise stayed silent. It was late into the night by the time I'd finished.
Shamino was quiet for a time, then nodded. "Mariah told me to expect thee, but she didn't get around to telling me what was going on...other than to be careful if I see one who looks like thee. How do I know that thou art the real Avatar?"
Iolo, Dupre and Katrina exchanged glances and said nothing.
"I can't prove it," I told him. "I can only show you this-" I flicked a finger at the Ankh, noticing a faint glimmer of apprehension in his eyes as I did so, "-and let you decide."
"Thou art undead?" he asked.
I hesitated, then allowed the illusion around me to slip away. Immediately, the cave was filled with the green radiance shining from my eyes. I kept control of my sight, however. I only wanted to see my friends as my friends - not as formless blobs of colour.
Shamino wasn't the only one to look startled. Aside from the dragon, no one had seen what transformations were occurring or had already occurred. Feeling self-conscious, I erected the illusion again and held out my arm for Shamino to try and find my pulse. "Convinced?"
He nodded. "I believe thee." He glanced at the companions. "And them."
"What do we do now?" Iolo asked. "Return to the Isle of Fire?"
"The Emps will be safe enough here," Shamino said. "As will be Smith. I think he's actually grown fond of them. Fond enough to let them ride him."
"Ride?" Iolo echoed, amazed. "Ride? Smith?"
The dragon, whom I'd introduced during my narration, said, "It would be safer if I flew you back now. Not as many people will see us by night."
Shamino gave her a sceptical look. "Thou art really a dragon?"
She returned his look with thinly-veiled irritation. "What do I look like?"
"Look closer, Ranger."
He gave her a confused look, then quickly turned to me. "I'll tell the Emps I'm leaving." Standing, he crept over to where the creatures slept.
"What was all that about?" Dupre asked the dragon.
"Look at me," she commanded. "Do I look like a dragon to you?"
"In all honesty, I'd have to say no."
"You humans...always looking with your eyes instead of your mind. It's pointless asking you anything."
Dupre shook his head and let that pass. "Wilt thou be all right carrying five of us?"
Before she could answer, two humans entered the cave. They were both dressed in the garb of rangers and they both drew their weapons at the sight of us.
"Where is Lord Shamino?" the woman demanded.
"I'm right here, Kylanne," Shamino said. He quickly introduced us.
The two rangers looked awed and quickly put away their hunting knives. "The Avatar? Truly?"
Shamino nodded. "I'll be going with her."
"Going?" Kylanne exclaimed. "Can't we come?"
I looked at the dragon. "Can you carry two more?"
"Not all the way," she said. "We'll have to stop somewhere so I can rest. There's nowhere safe between here and the Isle of Fire except Castle Britannia… or we could go west."
"West?" Katrina exclaimed. "There's nothing that way but the edge of the world!"
The dragon looked irritated. "There's the Void." She seemed to take hold of her annoyance with an effort. "I suppose you can't be expected to know, since Britannia dragons don't have the talent. I can fly through the Ethereal Void."
"How will that help?" I asked.
"Since our destination is still on this world, it will be almost instantaneous. I can transport us from the western edge of Britannia to the east."
"The Lycaeum," Iolo said suddenly.
The rangers put down the berries and nuts they'd been collecting then the man, who introduced himself as Yavin, said, "Transport?"
The companions all looked at the dragon, who smiled and gave a mocking bow. With a gesture toward the corridor, she said, "Shall we?"
"It would be safer if you cast 'Mass Invisibility'," the dragon shouted
to me. She set her head against the gale-force wind and driving rain, wings
beating steadily. "Or at least get someone at the Lycaeum to do it."
"I'll do it," I telepathed. "Just tell me when." We'd discovered the futility of trying to yell over the storm. 'We' meaning the humans. Keeping a grip on one of the dragon's spines, I turned slightly and told the others what I was going to do.
The transition across the Void had been completely unspectacular. It might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the change of the weather and a brief, barely felt chill.
I made a mental note to speak further to the dragon about her strange talent at some stage.
We were now flying low enough to see the grey waves below us. The frothing whitecaps smashed against each other and spray reached out like claws that glittered when lightning struck. I was finding the lack of sensation when rain lashed my face disconcerting. The instinct to blink to protect my eyes had gone. On top of that, I could see our surroundings quite clearly - as clearly as day, even though it was most definitely night. I didn't know how well the dragon could see, but she said she could see Verity Isle just after I made it out on the edge of the horizon.
"Hold on," I thought to the others, and called forth a cloak of Invisibility to cover each of us and the dragon.
When first my hands, then the dragon faded from sight, my eyes widened and I tightened my grip. It was like I was sitting on nothing! If not for the warmth rising from the dragon's body and the feeling of her spines and scales... A glass-bottomed air-ship was about the closest thing I could liken the experience to, but I doubted the dragon would appreciate the comparison. As the island drew nearer, my momentary discomfort faded and became something close to exhilaration. The urge to spread my arms and fly was so powerful that I threw back my head, gripped the dragon firmly with my legs, then let my hands go free.
Wind and rain flew between my fingers like fine skeins of silk. Lightning split the air beside us close enough for me to touch. Thunder exploded overhead and the dragon seemed almost to shudder beneath us in its wake. Salt spray touched my lips as we dropped even lower, the fresh smell of Verity Isle's forest coming with it even through the storm.
Another flash of white fire and I could see the gleam of wet plate mail and swords of the army surrounding the Lycaeum.
"Hold on!" the dragon roared, her voice almost lost amidst a crash of thunder.
I found my invisible handhold and gripped it tightly.
We accelerated, passed straight over the enemy's heads and landed on the flat stone roof of the Keep of Truth.
The six mages on watch all turned in our direction as one and began incanting a spell that would cancel the Invisibility.
Then they froze.
"What..?" I began.
"Hurry it up, Avatar," the dragon growled. "This isn't easy."
"Everyone off," I said. "Carefully. Shamino, you're at the back so you go first."
Invisible, dismounting took a while, but everyone managed and we were soon standing on solid ground again. There was a ripple of ether as the dragon changed her shape.
Remembering the reactions of the mages last time I'd tried mind-speech with them as an undead, I instead spoke aloud. "Listen, mages. We're not here to attack, so don't try anything." I dispelled the Mass Invisibility then telepathed to the dragon, "Let them go."
"Avatar!" one of the mages exclaimed. "Lords Shamino and Iolo! Sir Dupre! This is indeed a welcome surprise!"
A couple of the mages looked more wary. "Couldst thou explain how thou didst manage to disable all of us?"
I half-turned to raise a brow at the dragon-woman, who murmured, "Racial talent," then examined a sleeve of the scarlet robe she was now wearing.
"No matter!" The first mage was beaming. "We merely need to tighten our defence. We had not considered the possibility of an attack by air. In any case, welcome, all, to the Lycaeum, Keep of Truth." The grin suddenly fell from his face and he sighed. "If that can still be said."
"What meanest thou?" I asked.
The mage pointed out a closed trapdoor set into the middle of the roof and murmured an Unlock Magic and Dispel Trap incantation. "Get thee out of the rain, Milady. Another can answer for me."
"Thank thee." I motioned to my companions. "Let's go."
Dupre lifted the trapdoor and we went inside the upper level of the Lycaeum.
"By the Serpent!" An elderly mage fell out of her chair and the book she'd been holding dropped to the floor with a rasp of parchment. "Knock next time!"
"Sorry," I said, unable to hide a grin. "Hello, Thanis."
The woman cocked an eye at me. "Well, well. If it isn't Elora! Didst thou manage to evade Mariah?"
I laughed. "Aye, thanks to thee!" Then I explained to the others that Thanis had been one who had helped me during my period of isolation after the events with the Sword of Chaos. "And how is Penumbra?" I asked, helping the old woman to her feet.
"Oh, she's fine. She's busy researching texts in the catacombs on the Praetair Imascus Candier theory." Thanis looked up at Dupre. "Close the trapdoor, young man, and come in where it's dry."
Dupre complied, and the noise of the raging storm was blocked out. The trapdoor glowed briefly. I guessed the wards had been replaced.
We were standing in a large, lamp-lit library. Golden-textured marble walls rose up all around soft white carpets - that seemed to stay clean no matter what touched them - that rested underfoot. Mahogany shelves, desks and chairs abounded, and books were everywhere - some open, some shut, several stacked. Thanis retrieved her book, '101 Ways To Skin a Cat', and put it away on a shelf.
I introduced the others and she looked at me with shrewd, black eyes.
"Thou didst never tell me thou wert the Avatar." She shrugged. "I suppose I would have guessed had I been wearing my spectacles when thou wert standing beside that painting last year."
"That one." Thanis indicated an almost life-sized work of me facing Faulinei, Shadowlord of Falsehood, before the Eternal Flame of Truth. A black shard was clenched in my hands above my head in a dramatic pose, and my expression fearless.
"Hey," Dupre said, taking a closer look. "If thou lookest really hard at the background, thou canst make me out!"
Iolo rolled his eyes and muttered something highly uncomplimentary.
Shamino asked if he could borrow '101 Ways To Skin a Cat'.
The dragon tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the painting and asked, "Who's the guy wearing the black bedsheet?"
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