While my companions slept the rest of the night away, I roamed the Lycaeum
in the company of a scholar named Gethsem. Already he'd shown me the empty
basin of the Eternal Flame of Truth, and according to what he'd told me
of the time it had gone out, the Flame had extinguished itself at the exact
time and day of my death at Serpent's Hold. I found the news disturbing;
"Though by all rights," he'd said, "it should have sprung back to life when thou didst."
To which I'd said nothing.
The Lycaeum was more than a library. It was a keep of lore and beauty. Tapestries and paintings abounded. There were statuettes, glass cases with displays ranging from ancient texts to fabulous gemstones, examples of old, magical implements, more. The catacombs were much the same as the upper levels of the keep, though most of the candles and lamps were unlit at this time.
"Here we are," Gethsem said at last. He adjusted the spectacles on the bridge of his hooked nose and squinted at the spines of a row of books. When he selected a thick, leather-bound volume with the faded title, 'Goblins and Gatekeepers', I raised a brow at him.
"It looks like a book of fairytales."
Gethsem's wrinkled face drew into a grin. "No doubt some of it is. Goblins, for example. What on Britannia are they?"
"They were around in the days of ancient Sosaria, I believe." And still were (in the sewers, at least), but it was probably better for everyone if the goblins were left undisturbed.
"Oh. Well, anyway, this is the only book I know of that describes what thou'rt looking for. Mordra's 'Artefacts of Darkness' mention the crown, but doth not tell thee anything about it."
"Thank thee, Gethsem."
"Any time, Elora. I'll let thee study that in peace." The old scholar lit a lamp from the candle he carried then left me.
Sitting at a relatively clear table, I opened the book and ran a finger down the table of contents. There was only one section called 'The Crown of the Liche King', so I flipped over to that page.
"Before the keep of Stonegate was built, a liche of awesome power had been
using all the magic at his disposal to find a way for the undead to cast
life spells. His dream was of Britannia to be a kingdom of undead under
his command (hence he called himself the Liche King), and to do that, he
would have to cast Armageddon (Vas Kal An Mani In Corp Hur Tym). Because
of Mani, the spell was classed as a life spell. Therefore he would need
life to cast it. He discovered a great repository of power in a small valley
deep in a range of mountains, so he called forth a horde of skeletons to
dig it up.
"Thus was one of the Magebane swords unearthed. It was found nestled on a tiny island of stone amidst a vast lake of molten lava. Here was a weapon that could disrupt the waves of ether...could it be used to disrupt the waves of life itself?
"The Liche King sealed himself up inside this fiery tomb by blocking the entrance to the diggings with solid stone. He used all his power to ensure that only an undead with life-force would be able to open this gate of stone, meaning that he himself would be locked inside until he discovered a way to have life. He used death to seal the gate, and only life can open it.
"From there, only rumours returned. Some undead claimed that the Liche King spoke to them, saying that he had created a Crown with the aid of examining the Magebane. This Crown would grant its wearer life, enabling them to cast Armageddon or any other life spells.
"The reason why the Liche King himself didn't use the Crown was because of the Magebane. Since he'd wakened it to disrupting life, its presence negated or damped all his efforts to use life magic. He couldn't get rid of the sword, couldn't throw it far enough out into the lava lake for its ether-disrupting effects to leave him undisturbed. The small island of stone had been at a good enough distance, but it had crumbled into the lava scant minutes after the Magebane had been taken from its shores. In his last attempt to be rid of the sword, the Liche King waded out into the lava in order to throw the sword even further away. This resulted in the liche's body being destroyed and his 'life' ended.
"The Crown of the Liche King remained beneath the gate of stone, that only an undead with life could unlock.
"Years later, the keep of Stonegate was built to be the earthly stronghold of the Shadowlords. These spectres were either ignorant or uncaring of the Crown, because they made no effort to gain it. Indeed, they used the lava lake beneath their keep to serve as a trap for the unwary.
"But the Crown was undisturbed. The Magebane, however, surfaced more than two hundred years later. Swamps had taken over the ruins of Stonegate, and water had caused the lava to harden. Before that, however, there were extreme earthquakes and geysers, which lifted up the blade and literally spat it out onto the surface of the world.
"The Crown, though, remains locked beneath the stone gate."
"Stonegate," I whispered. "By the Virtues..." Then I remembered the prophecy
I'd learned on Ambrosia. 'Life at their chest'? Frowning, I touched
the Ankh amulet hanging around my neck and stared pensively into the lamplight
"It's time to go."
I looked at the dragon-in-human-form. Not only could she change her shape, she could change her garb. Right now she wore a concealing robe of vivid scarlet with golden runes embroidered around the hems. An ornate belt of the same colours encircled her waist. "Why so soon?"
She looked around the coolly lit catacomb-turned-library. "I'm not sure I like this place. It answers too many questions." She shrugged. "Oh, your knight asked me to tell you something."
I closed my book. "What?"
She looked exasperated. "I said- "
"What did he say?" I interrupted.
"Some mage gave him a musty old book, and in it he found something about the nature of the Eternal Flames. Turns out that they maintain the field between something he called the Guardians."
I frowned. "The Guardians are the two statues standing on either side of the road leading to the Shrine of the Codex," I said. I'd done some scrying earlier and had seen little change on the Isle of the Avatar. No one had so much as stepped past the Guardians, let alone into the Shrine, yet all three Flames were out. "Unless that counts the Flames of Infinity and Singularity," I muttered. "This news is intriguing."
"I found it more intriguing that your knight could read."
Sighing, I fixed her with a chiding smile.
"That's better. You've been looking a little too grim of late. Now you look more- " she rolled her eyes, " -human."
"Is that a compliment?"
"I'll let you decide that one."
I stood quickly, something alerting my mind to danger. "You can't kill, can you? Can you protect?"
"That is allowed. Why?"
"The Lycaeum is under attack."
"See to the southern wall!" I shouted to the mage over the loud splatter
of rain on stone. "I'll handle the east!"
"But alone?" he shouted back, wringing one sleeve of his sopping robe. "Avatar- "
Dupre grabbed his arm and led him away at a half-run to where the other mages were defending the walls against scaling ladders and grapple-hooks. The Lycaeum had no moat so its defences were limited to stone walls and magic.
I waited for ten soldiers to lift their battering ram and begin a charge at the gate before I struck. Lifting one hand, I caused the wind to blow across them from the side.
Several soldiers lost their footing and toppled like felled trees. Those carrying the ram swerved left and bashed ineffectually into a stone wall. I felt an insane urge to laugh when they shook their heads - as if trying to determine how they'd missed a target as wide as a wagon. Then I sent them to sleep.
Twenty more ran forward to retrieve the ram, and another fifty with ladders and ropes rushed toward the wall. Still smiling, I concentrated - and the Keep of Truth was encircled by a ring of scarlet-gold flames five times the height of the average human. Screams of pain, panic and terror filled the air from those attacking the other walls. The stink of burning flesh was quick to assert itself. Looking down into the blaze, I noticed the ram and five Killorn people charring within the flames...a twinge of conscience made me pause. Let them die? No, they're helpless. Wake them? But the pain they'd endure... Kill them outright? Helpless...
Why was I feeling Compassion for these people? My lips twisted. Angry that I felt like I was sparing pain to those who were supplying it in abundance, I sent five Death Bolts to claim their lives.
Why not spare them all?
I killed the other five sleeping by the ram.
I flung out an eleventh bolt. A twelfth. More. Not even able to see targets through the ring of fire, I summoned a Vortex of pure death and sent it spinning out toward the eastern grounds.
A hand grasped my arm and turned me around. "Elora, what art thou doing?" Iolo shouted.
"Defending Britannia!" I retorted, shaking him off.
"This is slaughter!"
"Avatar, there is no Honour or Valour in this!" Dupre added, dashing rain from his eyes.
Spare them ALL. Defend Britannia from the living...
"Mass Death," I whispered.
"Virtues, NO!" Dupre seized my shoulders. "Thou art sworn to protect!"
"I'm also sworn to defend!" I shouted angrily. "If I kill this army-"
"Thou art not killing them to defend us," Iolo interrupted. "Look at thyself. Thou art enjoying it!"
"No." I clenched my hands into fists - a gesture both my friends noticed but didn't react to. They knew me. "You're right." I knew better than this - power had never got the best of me. Disengaging myself from Dupre, I turned the Fire Ring into an Energy Field that covered the Lycaeum as the blackrock dome had enclosed Castle Britannia, only you could see through it. And I could see the Death Vortex zigzagging through the fleeing enemy army, leaving a wide trail of corpses as it passed. I leant against a parapet and watched the carnage for a minute, but still I couldn't bring myself to feel Compassion for them. Or remorse for my actions. I hadn't hurt anyone on our side, had I?
"This is all very nice," the dragon said suddenly, indicating the field that protected us from both enemy and storm, "but how are we supposed to leave?"
No one else was talking. The mages stared in awe at the dome, my companions stared at me.
"Don't worry about that," I told her. "Wait." I went over to a group of mages. "I have to leave, so I'll transfer control of this field over to you. Since the casting was mine- "
"We need only our energy to sustain it," one of them finished. "No reagents."
"Just be careful," I cautioned. "Some of them are likely to be non-human - daemons - and they'll try to dispel the dome."
"If enough of us work to sustain it, we'll be fine."
It was made easier with use of the telepathy, but I had to be careful not to let them realise I was undead. Whatever I did, it seemed to work. I simply thought the basic structure of the spell into their minds. They nodded, concentrated, kept the image steady, and I withdrew from a spell they now maintained.
"Uh, Avatar," one of the mages began. "Thine eyes are...glowing."
I pretended to rub them - hid a shudder as my fingers touched the back of vacant eye sockets. The illusion had slipped so I tightened it, praying the ethereal disturbance this caused would be too small to attract attention. "I must be tired," I said, removing my hands, hoping the mage would pick up on my words instead of my eyes. He did.
"No wonder. I've never seen anyone cast so many-"
"Avatar! We should depart now while the enemy is in confusion!" The dragon-woman - dry despite the rain that had drenched everyone else - strode up to me. "Come on! We've found your ranger. I want to see my home again." She faced the mages and, in a tone only slightly more respectful than the one she used with normal humans, told them to stand back.
"Who art thou to command us?" a black-robed man demanded arrogantly.
She stared first at him, then at me, obviously unable to decide how to react. "I'm a dragon! Are you blind?"
"Nonsense. I can sense an illusion easily!"
I coughed loudly and covered the lower half of my face to hide a smile.
The mage gave me a suspicious look.
"It's no illusion, Mage," the dragon said. "I'm a shape-shifter."
Leaving the two arguing, I returned to Iolo and Dupre. "Thanks for the help you gave me before, guys," I said softly.
"What was wrong?" Iolo asked.
"Some kind of undead thing, I think. I kept getting the idea that I should defend Britannia against everyone alive. Hence the reason I said 'Mass Death'."
"Definitely an undead thing," Dupre agreed. "But I'm sure thou wouldst never have cast something like that when the lives of Britannians were at risk. Thou art too strong to give in so easily."
Iolo gave me a worried look. "Thou wouldst not cast Armageddon, wouldst thou?"
I smiled and shook my head. "There's a bit of relief there, at least. I can't cast that spell because one of the syllables is 'Mani'. An undead can't manipulate life."
"And art thou feeling better now?"
I nodded, then looked around. "Where are Shamino and Katrina?"
"They're looking in to getting a store of reagents for the Isle of Fire. Art thou sure thou'rt all right?"
"I'll live," I said automatically, then winced at the term. "No, really, I'll be fine."
"Seeing thee go into battle like that-"
"You can't see any wounds, can you?" I challenged.
"In thine eyes, Elora," said the bard softly.
Some things illusions couldn't hide. I nodded slowly. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened," I told my two friends. "Remember that liche on Ambrosia? I killed it. While it was still trapped." They glanced at each other. "I didn't feel sorry for it then and I don't now. Not even for that." I pointed at the field below the Lycaeum. The Vortex had vanished a few minutes ago, but not its path of destruction. "They're the enemy." I shook my head, frowning in annoyance. "And I keep trying to use that as an excuse!" I exclaimed.
"Is the Guardian doing this?"
"No, he hasn't spoken to me since the morning after I came back to life. It's just being undead. Everything started to make sense in a different way." I fumbled for a way to express the feelings I had. "We're trying to stop the enemy, right? What better way than to kill them all? I have the power - I could have done it here like I had at Serpent's Hold. But then it changed. I wasn't killing them to save the Lycaeum...I was killing them just because I could." I looked at Iolo. "I wasn't revelling in the slaughter, but in the power."
"But thou hast it under control now?"
"I hope so."
Shamino and Katrina appeared with several bulging bags of sackcloth. Each one was filled with pouches or small boxes of reagents. Inspecting some black pearls, I smiled in satisfaction.
"Excellent. Our spellcasters will be happy to get these."
Dupre said, "If Julia's expedition to Buccaneers' Den was successful enough, we should have arms for over a thousand foot and three hundred ranged. With that and these reagents, it looks like we might finally stand a chance."
"So what are we intending to do when we get to the Isle of Fire?" asked Shamino.
"We're going to the dragon's world," I said. "Since her people made these bracers, we're hoping to find out more about it there. Maybe a way to get it off my arm."
"It's pointless trying to explain anything to your kind!" the dragon stormed, angrily walking over to us. "Are all humans so Kemah-thra-damned thick-headed?"
"Not all of them," Katrina murmured.
She shrugged in irritation, then looked at me. "Are you ready to go yet?"
I nodded. "Let's fly."
Dupre looked a little ill at that.
"Get everyone to stand back, Avatar," the dragon said, moving toward the centre of the roof. "I'll turn invisible and shift to my true form, pick all of you up and set you on my back. All you'll have to worry about is making an opening in this protective field."
"What? You can't just Blink through it?" I asked.
She faded from view and I heard her snort. "When you had this field in mind, Avatar, you thought of it so that nothing could get through."
"Oh. Ok, I'll handle it."
"Good," her draconic, voice replied. A second later, Dupre gave a startled yelp as he seemed to levitate into the air. "It's just me, Knight," came the dragon's irritable rebuke.
Turning from the spectacle to regard an open-mouthed mage, I arranged for him to get the other mages to open the dome, lowering it to the height of the ramparts. That done, I felt a large claw wrap around my midsection and lift me up.
"Invisibilising your friends is up to you, Avatar," the dragon rumbled.
When I found my seat and steadied myself with the invisible spines, I complied. "Ready."
"Then hold tight." Her muscles bunched and a tremendous whoosh of wind signalled the downsweep of her wings. A few mages below us were flattened. As they scrambled to regain their feet, we rose into the sky once more and started west. I felt the field being restored to its original form as we got out of range, and below the keep I could see the demoralised army of the Guardian attempting to regroup - many dragging their own dead to some nearby location.
For now, the Lycaeum was safe.
We reached the Isle of Fire around noon. Visible, we glided over the battlements
as I asked those on patrol to clear out of the way. The dragon came to
a gentle landing and I saw Julia appear at the top of the stairs.
The tinker stared, mouth agape as she watched us dismount. When I waved at her to come over, her expression became one of incredulity.
"It's safe!" I assured her.
She took a cautious step forward and looked at the intimidating - yet completely disinterested - dragon. "Thou art sure?"
"Would I lie?"
"That's an unfair question coming from thee, Avatar!" she accused. "By the Virtues," she breathed, coming forward. "It's not that I doubted Lord British's word, but..."
The dragon folded her wings and - to the surprise of Julia and several others on guard - resumed her human-warrior form.
"Amazing!" Julia said. "Thou canst shape-change?"
The dragon gave Julia a withering look with her golden eyes, then said to me, "At least she didn't ask me if I was really a dragon."
"This is Julia," I replied. "Tinker by trade and a good friend."
Then someone else caught Julia's attention. "Shamino! 'Tis good to see thou'rt alive!"
As she didn't say something similar to me, I wasn't sure if Lord British had told her what had happened. I decided to keep quiet about it until I could talk to her away from those who didn't need to hear.
"Our lookouts sighted ye a while ago," Julia went on. "Lord British wants to speak to all of us, but-" and here she gave me a grin, "-decided to give ye time to 'freshen up' first."
I rolled my eyes skyward and sighed.
In a more serious tone, the tinker added, "He'll be with Lord Draxinusom in the Test of Courage. He particularly wishes to speak with thee, Elora."
"Hm. I'll find out soon, I guess. Now, I'm for a bath."
"There are fresh clothes in everyone's rooms," Julia said. "Shamino, thou wilt have to come with me for thine." She looked speculatively at the dragon-woman. "Sorry, I didn't catch thy name."
"That would be because no one mentioned it."
Julia flushed a little, but didn't press the issue. Instead she asked, "Needest thou anything?"
"Now that you mention it, a cow and a sheep or two wouldn't go amiss." Giving me a reproving glance, she went on, "I haven't eaten a full meal since meeting up with her. If I'm going to Atarka, I might as well fill up while I have the chance."
Julia stared at her.
"I'll organise it as soon as I change," Katrina offered. "Canst thou wait?"
"I suppose so," the dragon-woman replied, her voice a little ungracious.
"Good. See thee in, say, half an hour?"
The dragon sighed. "Very well. Then I eat and we leave."
"After we talk with Lord British," I put in.
She sighed again and went to lean against the battlements, one hand running absently over the barrel of a cannon.
I hoped it wasn't loaded.
"So," Julia said as she led us to the stairs. "After Lord British, where are we going?"
"The trade worked exactly as we'd hoped," Lord British said. "We have arms
and armour enough to pose at least a small threat now. Once the teleport
pads between here and Serpent's Hold are completed, we'll have more - and
the support of the knights. Then we can try for Trinsic and the Lycaeum."
"We can't set Trinsic up with a pad first?" Iolo asked.
"They don't have the materials, unfortunately, and they're too heavy for a gargoyle to carry. Even one using venom. We'd need to deliver them over sea and land, or have Elora teleport them."
We were sitting in a circle near one edge of a large cavern - none other than the one in which I'd fought and defeated the dragon Dracothraxus to complete the Test of Courage. All kinds of training equipment could be found here. Practise dummies, targets, balancing beams and some odd structures the winged gargoyles used. It was empty but for us, and I once again wondered why we were talking here.
"Our mages have contacted others of their profession in Trinsic. I myself spoke with Nystul at Castle Britannia. Both places are now aware of the situation with Elora and Mellorin, her double."
Draxinusom, Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Katrina, Julia and I nodded. I'd found that Julia had been told everything - had demanded to know everything when she'd returned to the Isle of Fire. Somehow, word of my death had reached Buccaneers' Den. Julia had told us that many of the pirates were considering to join the enemy - not openly, of course. Avoid enemy ships, sink a few Britannian ones, who'd notice? They'd been waylaying Britannians for centuries.
"Trinsic doth not look likely to last long," the king went on. "Double the number the enemy had at Serpent's Hold. That is how many there are surrounding the City of Honour. They aren't even attacking; they're just waiting. Starving our people out. Sooner or later...unless we find a way to free them, they'll have no choice but to attack or surrender." He gave me a level look. "There are so many foes there that I doubt even thy power could take them all out, even as thou art now."
"I'm not certain my power has limits," I replied. "Shouldn't I at least try?"
"I wouldn't advise it, Elora. Shouldst thou teleport there, methinks thou wilt arrive just near the Shrine of Honour as thou didst at the Shrine of Justice. That place is under heavy guard."
I shrugged. "I can handle a few soldiers."
"Not just soldiers. Daemons."
"I can handle a few daemons."
I paused. "Ah. In that case, maybe not."
He smiled slightly. "Undeath doth not mean invincibility."
"That's right - go ahead and destroy all my fantasies," I said, grinning. Then I became serious again. "Can I add something here? The Shrine of the Codex. It's also under attack - the enemy are trying to break down the field between the Guardians."
"That explains why thou wert asked to protect the Flame of Courage," Julia said. "Dupre mentioned the Flames generate the Guardians' field."
"Yes. All three Flames are down, though. Even Truth."
"Just what is so important about this Shrine of the Codex?" the dragon interrupted. With nothing better to do, she'd decided to sit in on our discussions.
"Hast thou heard of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom?" Lord British asked.
"Yes, of course. My people were quite upset when someone lifted it from the aeth'er'eal." She looked at Draxinusom pointedly. "But it's back there now. So?"
"I have two theories," I said. "One: the Guardian wants the Codex. Why not? He wanted the Horn of Praecor Loth. Where is that, by the way?" I asked Lord British.
"Ok. So, he can have his cronies perform the same ritual the gargoyles did. They just need the position. Naxatilor could only summon the Codex to a particular place, right?"
"When I moved it to the Isle of the Avatar, later returning it to the Void, I changed that position."
"So thou thinkest the Codex can only be summoned to where it last was?" Iolo asked.
"That's my guess. Then they just need the Vortex Cube, which is in Britain, the moonstones, which are also in Britain, and the Convex and Concave lenses." I sighed. "Those Mellorin picked up the first time she came to the Isle."
"And now they just need to get in to the Shrine," Lord British said. "So the Guardian might want the Codex. What is thine other theory?"
"That he wants the Black Jewel of Mondain." To the dragon, I said, "That is trapped within the Flame of Infinity. Of course, he could always want both."
"That wouldn't surprise me," the dragon muttered. "So if the three Flames are out, as you say, why is that field between the Guardians still up?"
I pointed at Lord British.
"There's a title that was given to him a very long time ago. 'The Bearer of the White Light'. Richard is the Eternal Flame of Spirituality."
Everyone stared at him in amazement.
Lord British endured it for a minute then admitted, "I'd almost forgotten about that."
"Then why was Mellorin after me?" Shamino asked.
"I don't know," I answered.
"Nor doth Mariah," Lord British added. "She contacted me yesterday evening. Both she and Mellorin sensed thy Blinking, Elora. They know thou didst go to Iolo's house on the edge of the Deep Forest. The only reason they didn't follow is because they ran out of the appropriate reagents, and the Blacksword apparently didn't have enough power to enable Mellorin to attempt Blinking without them."
"So now what, then?" Julia asked.
"I'm going to another world to find out about this bracer," I told her. "I must find a way to stop Mellorin and restore my life. While I'm there, though, I'll see what I can learn of the Guardian's plans."
"We're accompanying thee?" Dupre asked as the companions exchanged glances.
"I wouldn't mind the company," I said with a smile. "But I'm not sure if you should all come unless you can all find replacements for yourselves on our islands."
"Already done," Iolo said, to which both Dupre and Katrina nodded.
"I don't think I've been here long enough to be missed," Shamino noted.
Julia said, "I can get several replacements. Nothing's going to keep me away from this. By the Virtues, I missed one opportunity to explore other worlds..."
"I'll be coming, too," Lord British said.
There was a pregnant silence.
"We know Elora hath lost the ability to heal - to use life spells. I will be needed."
He had a point.
"I'm a more than able swordsman," he added.
If that wasn't an understatement; Lord British was probably the greatest swordsman in Britannia.
"So it's agreed."
He looked at me suspiciously. "Would everyone excuse us, please?"
"Leave?" Dupre echoed blankly.
"Fool," Iolo said with a snort. He leaned over and whispered something to the knight...just loudly enough for everyone else to conveniently hear. "They're going to have a fight."
Lord British gave the bard a reproving look. "Dost thou mind?"
"What?" the bard said defensively. "It's true, isn't it?"
Dupre's eyes had brightened. "A fight? And thou wilt not let us watch?"
"Up for a little duel, are you, my Lord?" I asked the king, my eyes dancing.
Dupre let out a mournful sigh. "The greatest duel we'll ever see and we can't watch." He frowned. "Greatest duel...?" I could have sworn I heard something click in his head, at this point. The knight leaped to his feet, eyes wide. "Everyone, stay calm!" he said, though his excited voice did little to inspire serenity. "Iolo, Shamino, Katrina, Julia-" he pointed at each companion with a trembling hand, "-book-keeping! Quickly, my friends, there's no time to spare!"
"Thou'rt placing bets?" Lord British spluttered.
I tried very hard not to grin. "Uh, Richard, you do realise that this is the kind of thing you'll have to endure should you choose to follow me."
The monarch gave out a faintly martyred sigh and looked at Dupre, who was pacing impatiently as he listed - aloud - possible gamblers.
"And who wilt thou bet on, Sir Dupre?" Katrina asked silkily.
The knight came to an abrupt halt as both Lord British and I looked at him expectantly. Giving Katrina a helpless look, he muttered something that could have meant anything then left the room with unseemly haste.
Katrina, struggling to hide a broad smirk, went after him with Julia at her side and the dragon-woman following. Iolo rolled his eyes and admonished both of us to be careful. Shamino - taking no pains to hide his grin - and Draxinusom left with the bard, leaving Lord British and me alone in the chamber.
"So...what are we going to fight about?" I asked blandly.
Lord British was silent for a minute, probably deciding on the best way to answer. "I'd like to come with thee," he said at last. "Draxinusom hath things well in hand here and I'd be doing more good assisting thee- "
"Your Majesty..." I used his title deliberately. He was my friend, but he was also the King of Britannia and I wasn't about to let him forget that, or the responsibilities that went with it. "I won't insult you by warning you how dangerous this will be, but...I really think you'd be better off staying here. Accidents do happen. If Draxinusom is killed, who will lead the people?" I left it unsaid that it would be a major catastrophe should Lord British himself die, but he knew exactly what I was thinking.
"Elora, I've been fighting monsters since before thou didst become the Avatar. I know I can be of use to thee." He paused and looked at me with worried blue eyes. "Is it a bad idea?"
"We will be going to a Guardian-dominated world, Richard."
"I want to come," he said, his voice softly insistent. "I can look out for myself." Then he laughed. "What? Do I have to make my point by actually challenging thee to duel?"
I could tell he was only joking, but I seriously considered it. If Mellorin was after him he'd be safer with me, no matter where I went. That said, I wanted the Lord of Britannia along on this mission as much as he did. Still, I wanted to see if he was as good as his reputation made out.
And how I'd compare.
Not that I had any doubts, of course...
"I accept," I said gravely.
He wasn't quite able to stifle a groan of chagrin.
"If you win, you can come with me to Atarka. So, what if I win?"
"Thy choice, Avatar."
"Your Majesty is too kind." I gave him a smile. "We'll see." I drew the Firedoom Axe and he readied his sword, then we both walked to the centre of the cavern. It had been purposefully left clear for sparring, so we had no need to move anything as we stepped inside a wide circle drawn on the floor. I shrugged out of my cloak and tossed it outside the ring with a flourish, then extended my weapon. Lord British held out his own and they tapped together lightly, signalling that the fight could begin.
"Ready?" I asked, then whipped my axe around at him without waiting for an answer. It whistled over his head as he ducked and grimaced.
"Yes." He slashed at my legs and I waited until the last instant before evading and loosing a spell of Paralyse.
"Not good, Richard," I chided. "Being helpless is a good way to get killed." Stepping towards him to claim his sword, I almost lost due to overconfidence as he suddenly moved, left leg sweeping out to trip me, sword whistling toward my chest. I kept my feet, however, and managed to turn his blade aside, though almost stepped outside the circle. Sidestepping away to his left, I grinned. "Nice bluff."
"Not bad for a guy over three hundred years old, is it?" he returned, smiling back, though keeping his full attention on what I was doing rather than what I was saying.
Smiling inwardly, I circled him and backed toward the middle of the fighting area to give myself more room. He followed at a cautious walk, eyes on mine so as to catch anything I might give away on what I'd do next. Suddenly he jumped forward and lunged. I smacked the blow aside and retaliated with an overhead stroke, which he dodged. Pushing toward him, I swung the axe over his head and forced him back to the edge of the circle. One major advantage an axe had was that it was much heavier than most swords, so it was difficult for a swordsman to defend against. Lord British was using a longsword so it would be easy for me to break his weapon if he blocked at the wrong time. Therefore it was smarter for him to just try and get out of the way rather than engage in hand-to-hand.
"You're about to walk off the edge of a very high cliff, my Lord," I warned as his back foot almost touched the edge of the circle. "Casting a Fly spell won't count, you know."
"I had another spell in mind," he said as he twisted away from another attack. "An Xen Corp!" A brilliant white light sprang up around him and I found myself trying to turn my face away from it. It hurt to look at it and closing my eyes did no good.
I backed away, trying to shield my 'eyes' with an upraised hand. Even then I could feel the presence of the spell. "Repel Undead?" I said, keeping my distance.
He came closer, forcing me back without having to do anything more than approach. When I attempted a quick move to the right he cut me off.
"What doth it feel like?"
I told him, then looked down and saw my feet on the line of the circle. Time to go forward again. Incanting the spell Leap in my mind, I jumped clear over the Lord of Britannia's head, the magic enabling me to reach a height that's normally reserved for pole-vaulters. Then, in the name of pure art, I added a flip so that I landed facing my adversary on the opposite side of the duelling circle. As he quickly moved toward me again, I cast Negate Magic, which cancelled both his spell and mine, then swept out my axe to catch his sword. The fight stayed with our weapons from there. I learned that, if anything, Lord British exceeded his reputation. He was extremely good with a sword and had very few weaknesses. He might even be better than Dupre, I conceded as I defended myself from a flurry of slashing attacks. In a one-on-one situation, anyway.
But I was still better than both of them. It wasn't pride talking, just fact.
In the end, I pulled up just short of cutting his head off and he paused a hair's breadth from plunging his sword into my chest.
"Who wins?" he panted.
"I do," I replied. "That stroke wouldn't kill me."
"But if thou wert alive-"
"I wouldn't have even let you get that stroke through," I interrupted seriously. "The point is, I ignored a blow that would have hurt me in favour of getting in one that would kill you. Remember what you're fighting." I withdrew my weapon. "You don't disappoint me, though. The rest of the fight was excellent."
"The imprisonment in Castle Britannia gave me plenty of time to practise," he replied lightly, and sheathed his sword. "We'll have to spar again when this is over."
Rubbing my temples, I agreed. "That was a nasty spell you cast. I always knew that it repelled undead, but I never considered how. It's passing."
"'Tis a good thing thou didst remember Negate Magic." He grimaced. "Hadst thou not, I would have used it as another reason why I should come."
"The last time you went off on an adventure you ended up getting trapped in a mirror."
His blue eyes hardened. "That's not funny, Avatar."
"I wasn't trying to be funny, my Lord. I'm just pointing out that this will be dangerous. I'm not about to let you get yourself killed."
"I can take care of myself." He looked me square in the eyes. "I'm not afraid. It's time for me to fight, Elora. It's my duty as much as thine to protect Britannia."
"I'm glad you feel that way. I want you to come."
He stared at me.
"You're right, Richard. I will need your help." I extended my hand and assisted him to his feet. "The dragon could probably cast healing spells, but if she's not to be trusted as you think, we might be in trouble when the time comes for her to use her magic."
"There's another reason, isn't there?" he asked softly.
I sighed. "Yes."
I nodded and said nothing more. She could enter the fort at any time with Arcadion's magic. From there, it would be a simple matter of reaching Lord British's room, overcoming the guards (which we both knew, modesty aside, that the Avatar would have little trouble accomplishing), then attempting to murder the king. It was safer for him to be with me than to stay here.
Lord British sheathed his sword with a wry smile. "So this means I'll be under thy command, doesn't it?"
My humour returned. "I wouldn't presume to tell thee anything, your Majesty."
He made a face. "Please, Elora. Being called that in the Guardian's lands is likely to get me killed."
"Well, what else is there? British, Cantabrigian or Richard?"
"Why couldn't my parents have given me a nice, inconspicuous name? Cecil, for example."
I broke out laughing. "Lord Cecil? I doubt your people would have been impressed."
"I was joking. Richard will be fine. I think we'd be in more trouble should someone call thee 'Avatar'."
"Maybe. We don't know that." Looking around, I said, "I guess we should get ready to- "
"My Lord! Avatar!" Dupre's voice was clearly audible before the knight himself entered the room at a run. Bracing himself against the entrance of the cave, he paused for breath then said, "Serpent's Hold is under attack again! The mages just reported the enemy ships dropping anchor south of the Isle of Deeds. They're preparing to disembark!"
"Grab Iolo, Shamino, Julia and as many archers as are on guard," I said quickly. "Meet in the courtyard. I'll contact Katrina on Ambrosia and have her and the dragon meet us at the Hold."
Dupre nodded once and left.
I sent my thoughts north-east and sped over the ocean, reaching Ambrosia in under a minute. The scrying shields were no longer in use, so I easily found the dragon's huge scarlet form as she daintily plucked up a sheep, broke its neck and proceeded to eat it.
"I'll fly the shepherdess there," she promised, and with that I returned to the Isle of Fire.
Lord British was waiting for me.
I nodded. "Let's go."
When Lord British, Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Julia, fifteen archers and I teleported
to the Isle of Deeds, I immediately spun to look west. The masts of warships
could be seen rising behind the small town surrounding the Hold, and the
sound of an army gathering was distant.
"They'll be marching this way soon," Dupre said tersely, "even if the port had some defence. We should make straight for the Hold."
I agreed and cast a glance at the sky. "We'll walk. We have to wait for Katrina and the dragon. Let's get inside before deciding what to do next."
We started off at a fast pace, trying to ignore the increasing volume of the enemy's cries of "Guardian!" Halfway to our destination, I felt a strong surge of ether and stumbled as it nearly knocked me off my feet.
"What was that?" I shouted as Iolo and Shamino helped me keep up.
"I don't-" Lord British began, then was cut off as Dupre deliberately knocked him down.
A bolt of crackling lightning rocketed through his previously occupied space.
I looked back.
"Run," I said softly. "Get to the keep as fast as you can and don't stop."
They obeyed without question and I followed behind, ready to block any spells my double threw at us. Glancing over my shoulder a few times, I noted that she wasn't following, but was holding her position at the top of the small rise she'd teleported to. She seemed to be wearing the same things I'd seen her in last time, and the Blacksword was still strapped to her back.
"Surrender your king to me, Elora," her mind-voice commanded.
I ignored her, not about to fall into the trap of challenging her to try and take him. Instead, I stopped and turned to face her, one hand drawing my axe. "Would you care to fight me now?"
"Not a large enough audience," she replied, folding her arms. "That will be remedied soon enough, though."
"I can see the aeth'raesh'al gave you a full measure of Cowardice."
She laughed. "You're the one running, Avatar. Look at you! This time you have the strength to wipe out ten times the number of attackers and live, and you're running!"
A deafening roar exploded overhead as the dragon plummeted from the sky with Katrina clinging to her neck. Mellorin looked up then went into an instinctive crouch as the huge reptile swept low over the ground and breathed fire across it, hiding my double behind a wall of flames.
"Arcadion!" the dragon screamed in a voice full of hatred. Turning on a wingtip, she flew back over to Mellorin's side of the flames with talons outstretched and fangs bared.
"Dragon, no!" I mind-shouted, horror-stricken. "You're no match for her!"
"Keep out of this, liche! Arcadion killed Dracothraxus. It's him I want."
"Listen to me! Dracothraxus isn't dead, but if you insist on pursuing your thirst for vengeance to its final stupidity, let Katrina down first!"
There was a mental snarl of frustration.
"What's she doing?" Dupre shouted to me.
I quickly went up to where he stood with the others beside the rapidly opening portcullis of Serpent's Hold. "She wants to kill Arcadion."
"Who doth not?" the knight shrugged.
"This is a little more serious." I concentrated and managed to Douse the dragon's fire.
"Virtues!" Iolo gasped, and the others drew in sharp breaths.
Now that the fire was gone, a vast enemy army could be seen nearing the position where Mellorin stood throwing Arcadion's fire magic at the circling dragon. Even at this distance I could see that the army was huge. Sunlight glinted off armour and the light wind stirred the many, many banners and pennons bearing the Guardian's face.
"There must be thousands of them," Dupre whispered.
"And I could kill all of them and end the threat," I thought bleakly to myself. "Nothing is stopping me. Except me."
"Quickly, friends, inside!" a knight said, gesturing from inside the gatehouse. He vanished within, standing beside a guard who was readying himself to close the portcullis as soon as we got in.
"Come here, NOW!" I telepathed angrily at the dragon. "Or you will be left behind!"
With a furious roar, the dragon broke off her attack and flew in our direction, the enemy soldiers immediately giving chase as Mellorin pointed at her with the Blacksword and shouted something that we couldn't hear over the cries of "Ka-thra!" I noticed, with a sinking feeling, that some of these soldiers wielded bows. A closer look at the dragon as she approached revealed she hadn't got away unwounded. She landed quickly near us and Katrina slid off her back.
"Hurry!" the knight's voice came from the gatehouse.
The dragon flickered out of sight.
"What are you doing?" I demanded, patience worn thin. "They're coming, for Virtues' sake!"
"I'm not going to let them see me change shape," her voice replied, thick with suppressed anger. "They'll know what I am. I'll explain later, if I haven't already." There was a faint ripple of ether and a lurid curse directed at the fragility of human bodies.
I dispelled her Invisibility and sucked in a breath at the sight before me. Three arrows stuck out from her human flesh - left thigh, left shoulder, low in her right side.
"I barely felt them," she whispered, then collapsed.
"Dupre!" I shouted. "Help!" I glanced up at the advancing army and felt a chill run through me. If I'd thought seeing an army march at me the last time I stood at Serpent's Hold was bad... This time there were more of them, I could see every one because it was day, they were running...and they were too close for comfort. Archers on the battlements started to loose arrows.
Dupre reached me and together we carried the dragon-woman inside. The portcullis grated shut behind us. Lord British came over and began a healing spell.
"Shamino," I called, and he came over. "We're not going to defend the Hold. I want you to get everyone to go under the keep where the Eternal Flame of Courage is. Was. Have Iolo, Julia and Katrina help."
"Thou wantest the knights to surrender Serpent's Hold? What if they won't listen?"
"Order them in Lord British's name if you must, but do it. We'll take them all to Atarka. If we just teleport somewhere else in Britannia, Mellorin will sense it, follow with her army and wipe us out."
Shamino, Iolo, Katrina and Julia went to carry out my instructions.
There was a cry of pain as Dupre pulled an arrow free from the dragon's shoulder. "The eastern half of the southern wall won't hold," he told me. "It's too weak - hath not been fully repaired since the last attack."
The knight on guard nodded. "We have had a pit dug around the area and filled with caltrops, Sir Dupre."
I looked at the mass of soldiers through the bars of the portcullis. "But where has Mellorin gone?" I muttered to myself, for I couldn't see her.
"Mellorin? Thou meanest the dragon?" the knight asked. "Was that its name?"
A weak snort of contempt came from Lord British's patient.
"Forget it," I said. "Takest thyself to the Flame Chamber, Sir Knight, and go now."
"Yes, Avatar," he said with a salute, and hurried off.
"I can walk," the dragon said as Dupre helped her up.
An arrow hissed past my head and there was a loud clang as another struck the portcullis. The dragon reared back as an arrow sped at her, its head slicing a thin gash across her brow as it continued its flight. "Kemah-thra!" she snarled. "Why me?"
"Go!" I said, then raised an Energy Field just outside the portcullis. Two arrows shattered against it almost instantly.
We hurried down the eastern corridor, but hadn't gone far before I felt a tingling touch against my mind. I shared a startled glance with Lord British and we both shouted, "Get down!"
An ear-splitting crack of breaking stone sounded just in front of us, and a whole section of the solid wall to our right exploded inwards. Suddenly the passage was filled with dust, shattered rock and enemy soldiers. There was no pit outside. This wasn't even the weak part of the wall.
Our weapons were out in an instant and we charged forward, seeking only to pass the breach and get to the stairwell on the other side. Unfortunately, the purpose of these corridors was to make it easy to stop people from getting through.
The tingling feeling came again and I reacted at once. Shoving my will up against the still-standing wall to our immediate right, I held it steady as an explosion slammed against it from the outside. The force of it still threw me off-balance, and I narrowly avoided a sword-thrust through the skull, but the wall didn't even tremble.
"Keep coming!" Shamino's voice shouted from the other side of the breach. As I felled a soldier, I caught a glimpse of the ranger, Iolo and some knights attacking the enemy from the rear.
"If we can force them back through the hole, I can seal it off," I told Lord British and Dupre, none of us slowing in our fights.
"Why not use magic to scare them off?" the dragon asked from behind us.
"Nowhere for them to run," Dupre shouted as he blocked a foe. "They're all streaming toward this one hole in the wall. There's no way out except through us." He jumped forward as his opponent fell, sword whipping out like red lightning.
I cast Mass Protection and charged after him, my axe striking left and right and tearing through armour and flesh with equal ease. Lord British kept to my left side and we were halfway past the hole when he decided to use magic. Half a dozen foes stopped in their tracks, Paralysed. They fell over like immobile statues as those behind pushed forward and trampled them.
"Thou knowest," the king said, panting slightly, "it's not completely immoral for thee to use thy magic. Just keep it under control."
"That means I have to think," I replied, skewering a soldier with the axe's balancing spike as the monarch defended my side. "And to quote one of my favourite movies, in a battle, 'You don't have time to think out there. If you think, you're dead.'" Nevertheless, I called on my undead powers and started to use them. "Get down!" I shouted to Dupre, who was in the way, then threw a Swordstrike through the gap in the wall.
The pinwheel of flashing blades spun from my hands and cut through the foes attempting to enter the Hold. The screams of agony as they were horribly sliced up went on and on as those beyond the breach were forced into it by those pushing from behind, unaware of the danger ahead. Blood, and worse, sprayed all over the place in a grisly, red fountain.
The few soldiers left inside the passage were quickly dispatched, then we joined Iolo, Shamino and the knights and continued on to the hall below Serpent's Hold.
"Nice fight," commented Shamino. "No one on our side dead; what more canst thou want?"
"Everyone on their side dead," I muttered to myself as the screams behind us followed our dash down the passage.
Sir Horffe barred the only door to the hall. I stood on the other side,
next to the empty basin of the Flame of Courage, with my companions and
Britannia's Lord. The hall was vast; easily large enough for the several
hundred people of Serpent's Hold. Times long past it had been used for
knightly gatherings, but I'd been told that the tradition had died out
a few decades ago. Long enough ago that many junior knights hadn't known
this hall even existed. A thick, stone pillar supported the roof at each
of the four corners of the room, and the northern side had a small, raised
dais with a few steps leading up to it. Huge tapestries dominated the walls
to the north, east and west, each displaying a different facet of Courage:
Valour, Honour, and Sacrifice. The residents of Serpent's Hold, everyone
from knight to peasant, were all gathered here, and they spoke quietly
amongst themselves. Most of those under arms stood near the door with their
Master at Arms, Sir Horffe, in case they might be needed.
"We must take them with us to Atarka, Richard," I was saying softly. "If I teleport anywhere within Britannia, Mellorin will know, and she'll follow with her entire army."
"That maketh me wonder if we can ever return safely," he replied, but agreed. "Should I announce it, or wilt thou?"
"You're the politician, my Lord," I pointed out with a faint smile. "Try to come up with something that doesn't make it sound like we're running away."
He gave me a withering look.
"And I'd hurry," I added as the faint echo of footsteps drifted from the outer corridors. He turned to address the people and I jumped down from the dais to confer with the dragon. She stood beside Dupre, using her own magic to complete the healing Lord British had begun on her.
"What?" she asked me.
"Do you know what we can expect on the other side? When we teleport to Atarka?"
"That depends entirely on where on the other side we go to." She shrugged. "Besides, how would I know? Aeth'raesh'ali never had teleportation attributes before."
"Just wondering." I brushed a finger over the bracer. "You did know where the orange stone leads to."
Again she shrugged. "In any case, I think it's just as well you're taking these people with you. Since the aeth'raesh'al was once Mors Gotha's, I think it's safe to assume that anywhere we go will be under the Guardian's rule, or invasion. If it's also under guard, you'll need whoever's a fighter."
"There is that."
The room suddenly erupted into thunderous cheers. I glanced around, startled to see that many of the knights had their blades up in salute. Lord British's sword was also aloft - its steely length still showing the stains of our last fight and providing silent proof that Britannia's king was willing to put his life on the line. That sword abruptly sliced down, swinging to point at me. "It is because of her," the king said, "that most of ye are alive this day. Not one of ye should have trouble remembering that she was not even spared death when she saved ye all from it. Fought with us and died for us. But now is not the time to repay that debt - not against them." He gestured above us in he direction of the enemy army. "Instead, she asketh that we follow her to the world from whence these invaders come!"
Conversation buzzed throughout the hall. I looked carefully at some of the peoples' expressions at this news. Not one person seemed surprised that I could take them to another world. Hell, after I'd obliterated over a thousand foes with a single spell, then came back to life on my own, they probably thought I could do anything.
"You really did that?" the dragon murmured.
"You just 'thought' some of your memories to me, Avatar. I saw you fighting a massive battle on both physical and magical levels. In order to save your people, you..." She shook her head. "I never would have thought such Love and Courage existed in a human."
I couldn't tell whether or not that was a compliment, so I didn't answer.
"Didst thou hear?" Dupre asked suddenly. "Richard didn't say why thou wantest these people along, but they've come to their own assumptions. They think thou'rt going to lead them against the enemy on their own ground!"
"Let them believe it," I replied. "I don't have any doubts we'll be doing some fighting over there. Maybe it is time to take the fight to the Guardian."
"That's my world you'll be marching over, Avatar," said the dragon, her voice ominous.
I looked at her. "I know. We'll want to avoid as many clashes as we can, anyway. At the moment we have to worry about retaking Britannia before we even think about liberating Atarka."
Lord British finally raised his arms again. The sound of enemy boots was getting louder. When the people fell silent, the king asked softly, "Are there any here who have no wish to come?"
No one moved for a minute. Then a knight called out, "Your Majesty, many of us have lost friends, family and homes to the enemy. My sister liveth in Moonglow, sire, and I've no idea how she fareth. I say, if the Avatar hath a plan that will help us, then I will follow her."
A murmuring of agreement followed the knight's words, and most of the people started to look at me with open respect and faith.
Dupre knew me well enough to know that I wasn't completely happy with the proceedings. "What's up?"
"Our wonderful Lord British has just succeeded in putting me in charge," I telepathed, unamused. "I don't want to lead several hundred citizens! That's in his job description!" I gave Dupre a sour look when he chuckled. "You're supposed to be understanding and sympathetic."
"Don't worry about that just now, Elora. Just get us out of here."
"You were never one to beat about the bush, my friend." I ascended the steps to where Lord British stood. "Why don't you crown me Lady of Britannia and have done with it?" I muttered.
"I'd never do that to thee, Elora!" he protested innocently. "But if thou'rt serious-"
He laughed softly. "Then let's go." He stepped down to stand with the people, leaving me alone on the dais.
"Everyone hang on," I called, and decided against adding, "I'm not entirely sure what's going to happen." Pressing the orange jewel that would send us between worlds, I then touched the facet of the central jewel that was edged by a second orange gem.
There was a slight lurch and I got the feeling I was looking at everything from underwater. Or perhaps through clear jelly, because everything seemed to slow down and wobble. I extended the field to surround everyone in the hall, and noticed that as they were included in the spell, I could see them as normal. Everything beyond the field wavered and became distorted.
Then a loud, reverberating crash came from the door, and five soldiers rushed in with drawn weapons. They gave no indication they could see us. As they turned to leave and continue their search for the Serpent's Hold defenders, everything vanished in a swirl of light-shot shadows...
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