Beauty rivalling deepest seas
This vast expanse of sand...
Sun-bleached, wind-blown, dead and dry,
Here you drown on land.
The Sands of Flame
Dazed, the people glanced at their surroundings. Gone were the stone walls of the Keep of Courage. Instead, a thick forest stood around us in a wide circle, and it immediately became apparent that it was night. We stood in a clearing, which was dominated by a round pool of shimmering water. What puzzled me was the ground. Sand. Red sand, as though each grain were stained by blood.
"Are we in Atarka?" I asked the dragon-woman.
She pointed up. "Count the moons."
I did. "Five."
"And that constellation up there is the kha - the cat. This is Atarka." She frowned. "But I don't remember this place...come with me. I want to see something and you should come."
I nodded and turned to Lord British. "I'll be back in a minute, ok?"
"I'll keep an eye on things, Elora. We'll see if we brought any food, and we'll get our water skins filled."
"No," the dragon said, and the king blinked at the interruption. "Don't let anyone touch that water. Not yet."
He shrugged. "Very well."
"Let's go," I said.
"I'm coming," Dupre said, falling in beside us.
The three of us went into the trees - north, as far as I could tell, but I had absolutely no way to be sure - pushing aside dense undergrowth on our way. The vegetation was very green, but strange. I recognised none of the species I saw, though some were similar to Earth or Britannian breeds.
"Kemah-thra," the dragon muttered at last. "It's about time..." She pushed aside a branch to reveal the end of the trees.
And the beginning of a desert.
"The Krain Desert. Named after the oldest of my kind," she added softly.
"We can teleport somewhere else," I said. "We don't have to cross this desert."
"Use your magic, liche," she replied, her voice heavy and without its usual mocking edge. She pointed north-west. "Look that way until you see a change in the scenery."
I faced that way and sent my sight toward the horizon. Across a vast sea of crimson sand I flew, veering around dunes and the occasional solitary rock. When there was no change in what I saw after a minute, I went faster. The sands sped past in a blur, a smear of moonlit red. It seemed a long time before I could make out a difference in the horizon. Mountains. They still looked a long way off.
I jerked my vision back where it belonged and told my two companions what I'd seen.
"The Tuay Mountains. That is where the Dragonlore is kept - or it was, when I lived there."
"That is our destination?" I exclaimed. "We can't walk that far!" I paused. "What if only a few of us went? I could Blink us there. You could fly us there!"
"Not me," the dragon said adamantly. "Not even if I was Invisible the whole way."
"And how would we return?" Dupre asked. "With no point of reference, we could easily miss our starting point." He turned to the dragon. "How big is this forest?"
"It's barely a pocket of green in the middle of this wasteland. Your knight is correct, Avatar. Even with your powers we could miss this grove a hundred times." She hesitated. "You didn't see any dragons, did you?"
I shook my head. "No, but I wasn't very close to the mountains."
"But what about the bracer?" I said, returning to the topic. "We could fly or Blink or whatever to those mountains then I could just teleport us right back here!"
"That might work."
Dupre asked, "Should we see if we can find a place that's closer first?"
"I'm going to make a guess here," the dragon said. "In Britannia, the aeth'raesh'al teleports to locations near shrines - places of Virtue. This grove is a shrine - a temple. The Telomar of Silence. I'm assuming that the other teleportation locations are also telomari."
"So you know where they are in relation to those mountains," I said.
"Yes. And this one is the closest."
I considered this. "Let's go back to the others."
"Not much in the way of good news," Richard told me when we returned. "What food we have will only serve as a small snack once it's divided. We have enough water for half a day - longer if we're careful with rationing."
"Half a day," I said, then lowered my voice. "Richard, we're in the middle of a desert."
The dragon scratched a rough map into the sand. "We're here," she indicated the mid-west of the Krain Desert. "Here are the Tuay Mountains-" she made some lines that stretched all around the north, west and south of the desert like a hand forming a 'C', only with long horizontals stretching east to west and a shorter vertical forming the north-to-south western border. "The dragon caves, here, north-west of us and something like an eight to ten day trek for a fully provisioned group. That's just a guess, of course. I've never actually had to walk across the desert."
"We'd never make it," Richard said, one hand rubbing his bearded chin. "The mountains to the west are closer. Is there aught that way?"
"The Castle of Flames - Krain Castle - though that's the centre of power in Atarka. I don't know if we should go there."
I held up a hand to halt Richard before he could ask another question, then said, "A few of us can Blink to the mountains then I can use the bracer to bring us back here."
"We can't just teleport to the caves?" he asked.
"If I'm right," the dragon-woman said, "and the aeth'raesh'al only teleports us to telomari like this one, then we'll only get further away from our destination."
"Where are the other telomaris?" I asked.
"Telomari. The 'i' makes it a plural, Avatar." She shrugged and pointed at the map in the sand. "There's one here on an island in the Great Sea to the south. That's not a good idea, since it's too far to swim to shore. There's another here," she pointed to a spot in the north-west, far beyond the spot marking the dragon caves. "That's relatively close, but the telomar is in a volcano. Unless you can fly everyone out, I'd forget that one, too." She pursed her lips. "There was another on the eastern edge of the desert atop Highrock-"
"Closer to the dragon caves, if you please," I said.
She made a small impression in the middle of the top half of the desert with one fingertip, a frown creasing her brow.
"There aren't any closer. There are no telomari on the northern side of the Tuay Mountains." She pulled a small twig from her map. "Still, the Krain was never hospitable. Perhaps it would be better if we teleported to the one in the volcano."
"What is a telomari?" Richard queried.
"Shrines. Temples. Places of worship. This is the Telomar of Silence."
Those nearest us suddenly fell silent, and it grew until a hush had fallen over the entire clearing.
The dragon-woman snorted. "Idiots. You can still talk, Silence is just for those who are intending to listen to the words of the Guardian."
That took a few seconds to sink in. Suddenly, everyone was talking.
"Humans!" she exclaimed, exasperated. Turning to me, she added, "At least I can talk to you without having any of my kin laugh."
This reminder that I was a liche was not appreciated. She ignored my icy stare, however, and swept on.
"This is the reason why I said not to drink the water. It is imbued with druidic magic. Anyone who drinks of it will have to prepare themselves to go into an extended trance."
As she said this, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. "She's here."
"Mellorin?" Richard asked. "I thought I felt something faint."
"Not faint enough," I replied, and pointed south-east. "That way."
"Highrock," the dragon said. "If I were you, I'd order your humans to start marching west now. Teleporting is no longer an option."
"To that Castle of Flames?" Richard asked, keeping his protest as soft as he could. "We won't make it!"
"No, there used to be a village between it and us. With luck, we'll reach it."
"I'll raise a scrying shield," I said. "She won't find us unless she teleports here, or I teleport and lower the shield. Can you tell what time it is, dragon?"
"Before midnight, I think."
"Then we can get quite a distance before the sun rises." I frowned and turned to Dupre and Richard. "Gather the people on the western side of this forest, right on the edge of the desert. Dragon, go with them."
They moved off and I thought it might be a good idea to organise everyone into groups later. That way it would be easier to keep track of what was going on.
"Shamino!" I called.
The ranger looked over from where he stood.
"Grab Iolo and Katrina, then come here, please."
"What do we do?"
"Make it look like no one was here. Help me pick up anything we've dropped. And hurry. Mellorin's looking for us."
"She's here?" Iolo said as he approached.
I nodded. "Come on."
When the area had been cleared of people, the four of us combed the sand for anything we'd left behind. A scrap of cloth, a broken arrow-shaft, a torn piece of leather - everything was collected. With the keen eyes of the ranger, bard and shepherdess, I had little doubt we'd overlooked anything.
"Footprints?" Shamino asked.
"I can handle them," I said. "Stand back behind me in the trees." I called forth wind to blow across the sand, being careful not to blow too much into the pool. The clearing certainly looked better than it had a minute ago. I shook my head. There was no way we could entirely hide that a lot of people had just passed through.
"That will do," Shamino said, but we knew it was more because we were out of time than that the traces of five hundred people had been effectively hidden.
Katrina said, "Maybe she won't follow us."
Shamino only shrugged. "Where do we go from here?"
"West," I answered in a grim voice. "Across the desert."
"There used to be a human settlement to the west of here - a village,"
the dragon told me. "They'd built their homes around a large oasis. It
should take four or five days to get there." She'd changed her armour into
some light clothes - a robe of cotton or linen that matched the colour
of the Krain. There was a hood that she could raise once the sun rose,
and a veil-like cloth to protect the face from wind-blown sand.
"Richard is able to duplicate water until then," I said, "for as long as his strength holds up. I only wish I could help him."
She nodded. Creating or duplicating food and water, substances of life, required life. "I will help if there is need."
I was a little startled. She didn't usually offer anything unless there was something in it for her. "Thank you."
The dragon-woman shrugged and continued walking in as much silence as the sand would allow.
I looked back. Five groups, composed of seventy knights, ten archers and twenty townspeople each, followed behind us. They were all under the care of Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, Katrina or Julia - one companion to a group. Further back the wooded grove of the Telomar of Silence could be seen - a dark blur on the horizon after our so-far three-hour trek. I'd felt Mellorin teleport herself there a while ago, but if she'd seen us, she apparently wasn't going to give chase. Still, there was no way to be sure that my double had left Atarka to search other worlds. I could only sense her arrival, not her departure.
"You look tired already," I said as Richard caught up to us. "How far did you-"
"That's one thing I should tell you," the dragon interrupted. "Atarkans speak with 'thee's and 'thou's, and so on."
"Ok, thanks." I turned back to Richard. "How far did you get with the water?"
"I've managed to double the amount," he told me. "That's all we can carry, though. I've filled every water container we have."
"So we can last a full day?"
Again the dragon spoke up. "Half a day."
"That was before."
"The days here are longer."
If my heart hadn't been beating it would have stopped. I stared at her with sudden intensity. "How much longer?"
"Seven days on Britannia is roughly equal to five days here. Each day is about...thirty-three of your hours."
"Virtues..."Richard whispered. "How much of that hath sunlight?"
I tried to keep my tone even. "Is there anything else we should know?"
She returned my look without expression. "I'm sure I'll think of something."
"How are the others keeping up?" I asked Richard.
"Fine, for now. The nights here aren't anywhere near as cold as the ones in Britannia's desert. Makes me wonder how hot the days are." He raised a brow at the dragon.
"Depends on the season," she grunted. "Don't ask me. I don't know how much time has passed since I was last here."
"Elora," Richard said suddenly, a look of alarm on his face. "What if time runs differently here to Britannia? We could be here a day, and a year could be passing back home!"
"I never considered that," I whispered, my left hand rubbing the bracer. "But if that were so, would Mellorin have come here looking for us?"
He kicked at the sand and it went flying in a fountain of pink grains. "I hope thou'rt right." Letting out a deep breath, he glanced back at the five hundred or so men, women and children following us, his face deeply troubled. And afraid. "This could be bad." There was no question that some of these people would never make it.
"Very bad," I agreed softly.
At that moment, Iolo came up to us. "Elora, Milord," the bard said, inclining his head slightly, "I'd advise we stop and rest for a while. Some of the people are having trouble keeping up. Mainly the young, the old and any wounded."
"The old, eh?" I said, grinning at him.
He rolled his eyes skyward then exchanged a grimace with Richard.
"Ah, to be a hundred years old again," the latter sighed.
I laughed. "Ok, Iolo, who did you leave in charge of your group?"
"Sir Horffe, the Gargish knight. Dost thou remember him?"
I nodded. "I'll tell him and the others we're stopping. An hour or half that, do you think?"
Iolo's brow creased a little and he scratched his white beard. "We don't want to waste time before sunrise."
I told him what the dragon had said about Atarkan days.
"Virtues," he said softly, then shook his head. "I'd say we see how everyone feels after half an hour. Should we need more time..." he shrugged.
"Ok." Halting, I sent a telepathic message to stop and rest to those in charge of the separate groups. An instant later the words were called out aloud and the sound of people stopping and lowering themselves to the sand followed.
"How bad are the wounded?" Richard asked Iolo.
"Not seriously enough for thee to worry about. Just the kind of wounds that make walking a little harder."
"Tell me if they get worse."
The bard nodded. "I will. How art thou feeling?"
"Unfit," he replied wryly. "I can't remember the last time I had to walk this far."
"Welcome to the esteemed ranks of those who follow the Avatar," Iolo said extravagantly.
"Must you?" I asked, giving him a sour look.
Iolo grinned, then glanced behind me and his expression changed. "Excuse me a minute," he said abruptly, and hurried off to a knot of people sitting in the sand.
Shamino, Dupre, Katrina and Julia chose that moment to join us at the head of the groups. We spent a minute asking after each other's health and sat in a circle on the sand, the light of the five moons more than enough for us to see clearly. Iolo rejoined us a minute later.
"Sorry," he said. "A couple of children were about to use some water for a sandcastle." He sat down between Richard and Dupre.
I told them how long Atarkan days were first. A brief look of despair crossed their faces only to be replaced by a stiffening resolve. They weren't going to give up any time soon.
"We should get rid of our armour while we can, then," Dupre said. "Now that we're far enough away from that grove, we should bury any metal armour under the sand. It will be too much effort to carry."
"And suicide to wear," Shamino added.
Dupre undid the straps of his own breastplate and let it fall to the sand with a dull ringing sound. As he shrugged out of the light mail shirt he wore underneath, he said, "I just hope we won't need these later."
"What should we expect at this village around the oasis we're walking to?" Julia asked the dragon.
"Most importantly, water is for the taking," she replied. "Though, unless things have changed, the people are sympathetic to the Guardian. You should tell your humans to watch their tongues. From there we can decide where to go next. I should see how much has changed first."
"You said the desert wasn't hospitable," I said. "Anything we should look out for?"
She let out a thoughtful breath and squinted at the sky, as if remembering. "I'm fairly sure there would still be shem'lysiei out here, no matter how much time has passed. Sand serpents."
"Snakes?" Shamino asked.
She shook her head. "Not of the normal kind. Take one of your Britannian sea serpents then let it swim through sand instead of water. That's a shem'lysie."
"How do they swim through sand?" Julia objected.
"All along their bodies they have hundreds of thousands of air sacs. When you release air into sand, it becomes almost liquid. Watch." She looked at me. "Avatar, put your hand in the sand and summon air to flow out through it."
I scraped a hold in the ground and did as she said. There was a fuzzy feeling as the grains started to swirl around my hand, remaining at ground level, but floating on air.
"Now you-" she pointed at Dupre, "-take her hand."
Dupre moved to dig a hold as I had, but his hand passed easily through the sand. His eyes widened and he cupped his other hand, scooping up a handful of red grains as one would lift water. Then he found my hand and grasped it.
"Now cut off the air flow," the dragon instructed.
I did, and the sand immediately settled, effectively burying our hands halfway to the elbows.
"That's how they move. Breathing is a different matter; they have to surface every once in a while both to replenish their air sacs and to take another breath. They can hold that breath for a very long time, though. They'll just lie under the sand where it's cool, closing off their air sacs until they feel inclined to move - and that's usually when they sense something passing on the surface overhead."
"Like us?" Dupre asked, digging his hand free.
"They'd take me on even in dragon form. They're very aggressive to intruders."
"And there's no way to tell if we're on their land," I said frowning. "Unless we see one surface."
"That won't happen unless it's a decoy. They'll feel us tramping around up here ages before even they could see us. If they have to surface, they'll do so where they won't be seen."
"That's all we have to worry about," Julia muttered. "How hard are they to kill?"
"Now this is a human I could get to like," the dragon telepathed to me. Ignoring my smile, she said aloud, "Depends on how many there are. We'd have little trouble with one, but a single shem'lysie is unlikely to attack a group this large unless it's desperate. Just think of it as attacking a sea serpent without benefit of a ship."
"Can they breathe fire?" Richard asked.
"No. But they can blast you with enough sand to flay the skin from your bones."
"Lovely," Katrina murmured.
The dragon shrugged.
"Is there any way we can sense them by magic?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Unless undead eyes can see through tonnes of sand, I don't know. We're safe if we get to that village. Most of the ground is solid rock."
"What if Elora teleported herself to one of those shrines and tried to lead Mellorin away?" Julia suggested. We all stared at her as she expanded her idea: "If Mellorin's still on this world, she's bound to follow, right? If she doth not show up, we'll…" she faltered. "…well, we won't know she's not on this world…"
"Say she does follow," I said, "what would I do then? She'd never believe me if I said I left you guys on some other world."
We thought on that for a moment, but couldn't come up with anything.
Dupre stood and undid his greaves. "I'd best tell my group to doff their armour. If we're finished here?"
I looked at the dragon, who nodded, and said, "Yeah, that's it for now. Get some rest and I'll contact each of you when it's time to move."
Richard, the dragon-woman and I were left sitting where we were. The former rolled up his cloak, put it under his head and lay facing the stars. A second later, his blue eyes were closed.
"A good fighter learns to get sleep whenever he can," I said softly. It was something ingrained in everyone who trained in a martial following.
Richard didn't open his eyes. "I haven't heard that line in a long time."
"Neither have I. It's good advice."
His lips curved into a smile. "I know."
"What about you?" I asked the dragon silently.
"I can go for weeks without sleep."
"As a dragon, you mean."
"Kemah-thra," she muttered. "Very well, you have me there." She arranged her robe then lay down on the sand, but didn't close her eyes. Stirring the sand with a finger, she looked up at the stars and moons. "It's different, Avatar. Everything has changed." She sighed sadly, and looked at her human hands. "Even me."
Even me... What about my home? What could the Guardian do with a place like Earth? I shook my head. I thought I'd gotten over all that long ago. Banishing the image of nuclear explosions on every horizon, I settled down to wait.
Dawn came. The blazing orb of the sun rose behind us and its heat followed
"Now," I telepathed, and heard the word echoed aloud by my companions to their groups.
Everyone hunkered down in the sand, hollowing out shallow nests for themselves and drawing their cloaks over their heads. The cloaks were propped up near the face by anything that would serve - arrows, daggers, anything to provide breathing space. Those who had no cloaks - mainly children - shared with others. It was the best protection they had against the sun. It would be murder trying to sleep as the morning progressed, but there was nothing more to be done.
I made one round of the entire group to check on everyone before returning to my place at the front.
"Want me to 'In Zu' you?" I offered after watching Richard shift around in the sand for five minutes.
"I'm just getting comfortable," he replied, though sweat beaded his brow and darkened his blond hair. "The sand's cooler deeper down."
After a while I rechecked my scrying shield and sent my sight out to have another look. I went up for a bird's eye view and peered down from above. I even zoomed further west to see if I could find that village.
It's hard to have hope when it looks like there's no end to where you are.
The following night was practically the same as the first, save the people
were more subdued. Although everyone had slept, none had slept well, and
it was too much effort to talk. Food ran out and Richard replenished some
of our dwindling water supply, but only managed to do half the amount he'd
done before. The dragon did the rest.
We reached an end to the flat part of the desert after a few hours and entered the dunes. This was when things got harsh for the Britannians, as we had to climb the shifting sand. The gruelling activity on legs already weak from a long journey across the desert took its toll. We were forced to stop and rest more regularly.
I was almost shamefully glad that, being undead, this was barely affecting me. Every break I'd go to the rear of the company and do my best to hide the wide trail we were leaving behind us. Every break I'd wander between the groups, speaking with those still inclined to use their strength speaking, reassuring those who needed it...staying silent when I overheard people whispering things like, "She's the Avatar. We'll be fine. The Avatar..."
An undead Avatar. None knew but those closest to me.
The last rest period before dawn, a weary Richard looked at me and thought what he was too tired to say. "Something is wrong. What is it?"
I sighed and sat down next to him, staring over the moonlit sands. "Doubting myself. Doubting my chances of getting everyone through this desert alive."
"They all have such hope in me," I went on, gesturing at the Britannians. "They believe that if we make it, it will be because of me."
"They're right." He let out a long breath and scratched his beard. Grains of sand sifted down from it. "Thou'rt the only reason they've managed to come this far. Remember that if not for thee, we'd all have fallen to Mellorin's army at Serpent's Hold."
I gave a bitter laugh. "If not for me, Mellorin wouldn't exist."
"Let them believe in thee," Richard thought. "If it maketh them stronger-"
"Let them believe a lie?"
He looked at me thoughtfully, eyes suddenly alert and penetrating despite how tired he was. "Thou meanest, 'Let them believe in a lie,' dost thou not?" When I didn't answer, he asked, "What did Mellorin tell thee? That thou canst not be an Avatar if thou art undead?"
"It's true. No, it is," I insisted before he could argue otherwise. "I'm losing it, Richard. How can I have Compassion for these people when I can't feel their pain? As for Valour...what's Courage when you have nothing to fear for? And Truth? Look at me. I'm hiding behind a lie as we speak." I allowed my eyes to glow for a brief time to emphasise my point. "Face it. I am a liche. I'm an affront to the Virtues."
After a short silence, Richard leaned forward and pressed a finger against the golden Ankh I wore. "If that were true," he said softly, meeting my eyes, "thou wouldst not be here."
Terrified screams turned my head. There was a roar and the sands trembled.
A large reptilian head reared up above the dunes behind me. It tilted back,
lifting its chin and flipping a limp, human figure into its dagger-toothed
maw. A barely audible crunch of bones reached my ears and the sand serpent
looked down with flat black eyes, as if determining who to devour next.
"Over here, you bastard," I muttered, summoning a globe of raw energy and throwing it at the monster's head. It struck full on in an explosion of crackling, violet-blue lightning.
The serpent shrieked and swung its head toward where I stood, which was a few dunes away from where the Britannians were resting in the midday sun's blistering heat. I hurled another spell and drew my axe.
"Come on!" I shouted.
The creature ducked, hissed, then thrust itself upwards - its long, orange-red scaled body arching higher than the tallest tower of Castle Britannia. When its head drew equal with the sun above, the sand serpent curved over and plunged straight for me at breakneck speed - its jaws opening in a scream of death and its teeth glinting like polished steel. At the last moment the creature abruptly veered to one side, and the Swordstrike spell I'd intended to hurl down its throat glanced against its massive body, slicing the scales as it spun away into the sky and the serpent dove into the sand.
Before I had time to ponder the serpent's actions, the sand suddenly turned to water beneath me.
"Avatar!" I heard someone shout before a second sand serpent swallowed me whole.
Daylight vanished and I found myself sliding down what would have been a pitch-black throat to anyone else. Keeping my wits, I threw the Firedoom Axe hard against the wall of the slick tunnel and heard it rip as I continued to fall. The sand serpent jerked, convulsing from the pain, and I lost my grip on the axe-haft. Sparing a curse as I hurtled downwards and lost sight of the axe, I looked down instead and pointed, unleashing a volley of fiery explosions. I had to get out of there before I found myself under the ground. I wouldn't suffocate, but it might take me a day or two to dig my way out of several tonnes of sand.
The sand serpent convulsed again and its throat contracted, halting my fall. Just as I was considering an attempt to hack open a hole with my boot daggers, there was an upheaval. I was being thrown up! I rushed upward at a tremendous speed and was soon seeing daylight framed by two rows of long teeth above me. Gathering myself, I dropped a Delayed Blast in the monster's mouth just as I was spewed forth into the desert sky.
The serpent hissed menacingly as it saw its tormentor flying away and whipped its head after me, teeth ready to bite me in two.
For a second, I was staring down its throat again.
A sudden BANG echoed between the dunes and the sand serpent's head exploded in a cloud of sooty flames. I was thrown even faster through the air and crashed into someone who dragged me aside as the stump of the serpent's neck and body crashed down. Sand, blood and gooey grey stuff flew everywhere.
"Thou dost never cease to amaze me!" Shamino shouted from nearby. "Now wouldst thou mind helping us with the other one?"
But the first serpent, apparently unwilling to linger after the death of its companion, arched backwards and away from the humans before vanishing beneath the sand.
Cheers broke from the Britannians as weapons lowered.
"Don't let your guards down," someone shouted. It was the dragon-woman. "It'll be back soon!" She looked at me. "I told you - they're aggressive. Be ready!"
The people looked around warily and fell silent.
"It'll go through the middle of the group, parallel to the ground," she telepathed, "trying to scoop up as many humans as it can before going under for another pass."
"Pretty sure." Suddenly, her eyes widened as she and about fifty others sank down into the sand up to their waists. Shorter people were buried to mid-chest. "But I'm occasionally wrong."
"How do we fight this?" Shamino asked. His magical Juggernaut Hammer was out and ready to throw. "An earthquake, perhaps?"
"Tremor," I said, snapping my fingers. "It's worth a try." I struck the ground with my mind and it trembled slightly at first, but then with a greater intensity. Sand spilled down the dunes and I concentrated on keeping the Britannians steady, even as I shook the desert.
The sand serpent emerged, obviously confused by its homeland's violent shaking.
"Well done!" the dragon's mind-voice said, sounding both surprised and relieved.
Britannian archers loosed their arrows. Shamino threw his hammer, both Richard and I sent bolts of lightning lancing through the air.
The sand serpent roared.
"Look out!" the dragon shouted.
I raised an Energy Field just as the serpent's jaws parted and a devastating blast of crimson sand screamed towards those closest to it. Sand and arrows both bounced back as they hit the field. A second later the serpent itself slammed up against it. As it stopped, screaming its fury, I dropped the field. "FIRE!"
Arrows struck. One eye was pierced and the serpent went mad. Its head reared back and its spiked tail suddenly appeared on the opposite side of our group. Three people were impaled before a knight got close enough to hack it short. Other knights went for the neck as the serpent's head evaded both missiles and magic. It swept down to snap at the sword-wielding humans and someone leaped atop its head, grabbing hold of the spiny crest.
"Dupre, thou'rt mad," Shamino breathed as I simply stared, speechless.
The serpent shrieked and shook its head wildly. The tiny form that was Dupre reversed his sword and, while gripping a bony ridge atop the head firmly with his legs, drove it down into the huge skull with both hands. Again the serpent screamed. Its long body formed coils as its head swung round in circles and it vainly sought to get at the knight with its teeth. Then it fell, smashing through a dune and shuddering from head to severed tail. Only when it lay still did anyone approach.
"Not as impressive as thine," Dupre admitted to me as he casually shook sand from his hair, "but at least we get the same result."
"That was...amazing," I said, grinning.
"That was insane!" Shamino retorted.
Dupre looked down his nose at the ranger and sniffed. "Thou'rt just jealous!"
I shook my head and regarded those gathering around the dead sand serpent. "Lend a hand, everyone," I shouted to them. "We have to dig the others out." I flung a hand out to indicate those who were half-buried in the sand. "Before they roast to death," I added softly to my two friends. They nodded and quickly moved to help clean up the mess our dead attackers had left us.
Later, I listened to the death tally. Seventy-eight killed or missing. Another eight severely wounded.
"We need your strength to make water," I told Richard quietly. "Heal if you must, but don't Resurrect. More lives will be lost if there is nothing to drink."
He shook his head, frustration evident on his haggard face. Shielding his eyes from the westering sun he looked down at the row of bodies lying on the sand, awaiting burning. "I'll never get used to feeling helpless," he said, and started down the dune.
"At least you can Heal," I murmured.
Iolo was standing on my other side and, as he heard this, he smiled and patted the broken arm he now bore in a sling. "He can only Heal us in body, Avatar."
I shook my head. "Whatever. Why aren't you resting?"
"Mind's too busy. I've been trying to think of a way to turn all this into a tasteful saga. How doth this sound?" He cleared his throat.
"Terrible. How did you get a cold in a desert?"
"Oh, very funny."
"Thank thee," I said modestly.
"There you are." The dragon-woman climbed the dune to where we stood and faced me. "What are you planning to do now?"
I frowned. "Did you have a suggestion?"
"I'm just making sure I don't have to dissuade you from any stupid notions of staying put until the wounded heal."
Iolo bristled at her tone, but I shook my head. "Richard's helping those he can right now. We'll move on at sunset."
"Since he can only spare enough to aid those who can't walk, why dost thou not help him?" Iolo suggested stiffly.
She regarded him coolly. "I take it you don't like me either."
"Dupre explained it pretty well last time. 'Tis thine attitude and thy damned indifference."
She went back down the dune without answering.
"Wait," I telepathed to her as Iolo sighed in exasperation. "I want to ask something. Can we extract any water from the sand serpents' bodies?"
"You can," she replied, still picking her way downdune. "But it will be too salty to drink, and we can't spare the time to purify it. Besides, I don't know where they store their water, and there's a lot of body to cover."
"She is so annoying," Iolo fumed.
"You don't usually stir so easily," I observed.
"It's the heat." He tried to fan himself with one hand and quickly gave up. "I think I'll try to get some sleep. Wilt thou be fine without me?"
"I'll try not to wither away while you're gone."
He chuckled and followed the dragon's tracks down the dune.
I lowered the illusion of health on my right arm and stared at my dead-white hand. Fine lines wound around the fragile-looking skin like spider webs, and the fingernails were yellow. Clenching the hand into a fist, I watched blue veins bulge as the skin was pulled taut. "I'll try," I whispered.
One more knight died before sunset. After the body was laid out with the
others, Dupre announced the names of the slain and Lord British followed
him by calling on the Virtues to guide their spirits home.
Then I invoked fire.
As the bodies burned, I noticed that many of those alive were weeping. Their tears shimmered in the light and I remembered that almost all these people were from Serpent's Hold. Not one of the deceased was unknown to another. In one afternoon, some of these people had lost their entire families.
Finally, I stepped towards the pyre. I could feel no heat, so I was probably much closer than someone living could comfortably stand before I turned to face the Britannians. I hadn't intended to speak, but I'd come to realise that by my words, I could heal people in another fashion.
"Sacrifice...hath two symbols: The Flame of a candle that doth continuously give of itself to provide others with light, just as these men and women gave of themselves in the act of saving Britannia - in the act of giving others a chance of life; and a Teardrop. At the moment, tears are all we can give to them in return, and compared to their sacrifice, ours may seem worthless. But consider where we are. In this land, every drop of water, every tear shed is as precious as diamonds. With each tear, ye give of your lives to those who have already given theirs.
"Weep not overmuch, for they did not sacrifice themselves for us to die so soon and so far from Britannia. They died that ye might live. They died that Britannia might be saved. So while we might never forget that they gave their lives, neither must we forget why...and neither must we let their deaths be in vain.
"This is the Truth - that they came to this place with Courage and for Love of their land and people. In your hearts, never let these flames die...and they will never die...Britannia will never die."
As a breeze blew over the desert, the ashes were lifted into the air like a grey veil. For a minute they hung low in the sky, swirling and shifting. Then the breeze came again and the Britannian ashes were scattered across the red desert of an alien world.
The next day, the Britannians started to die. Despite every precaution
that was taken to shelter from the sun, the desert heat was a relentless
foe that, unlike the sand serpents, couldn't be fought off. It sapped their
strength and leeched away the water in their bodies. The light glared against
the harsh, red sand in a way that made every mirage look like a river of
blood. The wind was hot and dry, evaporating sweat or the moisture in one's
mouth in an instant, so that one couldn't so much as spit. Sand was like
fire to walk on after a mere two hours of sunshine. Not a few people suffered
burned, bloodied feet after walking off barefoot to relieve themselves.
The water supply was stretched perilously thin, even under the strict rationing that had been implemented to spare Richard and the dragon from having to expend all their energies in replenishing it.
It was this day, the third, that Shamino said there was a sandstorm coming.
"I'm positive," he told me in a dry, harsh voice. "After being caught in two back on Britannia, I learned to recognise the signs. It's coming up from behind us, Elora, from the east." With a weary sigh, he closed his eyes and continued: "The wind is picking up. We're walking right in front of the storm, and unless it dies out it will catch us tomorrow night."
"What else can go wrong?" I muttered.
His expression mirrored my sentiments. "Unfortunately, there is something else. Footprints."
"They weren't made by any of us. Someone or someones who are light of foot - they made almost no mark on the sand."
And they would have to be new, or the wind would have swept more sand over them and rendered them invisible. That meant whoever had made the prints had been there today. "How far away from the camp?"
"Not far. One or two dunes to our north."
"And what were you doing up there, anyway?" I demanded, my irritation at not having seen the owner of these tracks directed at him.
The corners of his mouth quirked up in a smile. Squinting at me, he said, "It's too damn hot to sleep."
I shook my head and wove a Sleep spell around him. He looked surprised for a second, then slumped as his eyes rolled up. "Sorry," I said, catching him under the shoulders. "But if I don't do this you'll be too damn tired to walk." I half-carried, half-dragged him down into a dune's lengthening shadow, and, making sure his cloak was under him so no exposed skin touched the hot sands, laid him down.
Then I turned to find Katrina staring at me.
"I was just about to turn in-" she began hurriedly.
"I'm sure you were. What's up?"
"Nothing. Most of my flock are asleep. I came to see how thou art doing."
"Oh, fine," I said, starting off toward the north. As Katrina kept pace, I added, "Maybe this Undeath stuff isn't so bad. You know, I can't feel the heat, I don't get tired or thirsty... pretty handy considering our current situation. Then there's this matter of power." With a thought, I parted a dune in our path up the middle. The sheer walls of sand stood still for a minute before collapsing inward with a rushing sound of falling grains. "No limit to the number of spells I can cast. The ether is open to me and it's vast, Katrina. Infinite. The more I access it, the more I want to continue accessing it...just to find the ends of something that's endless-"
"How doth that make thee feel?" the shepherdess interrupted.
I walked on in silence for a while, aware that she was watching me closely.
"Afraid?" she asked finally, which was what I knew she'd wanted me to say.
"Not exactly. Sort of. Look, I've taken you on the magic carpet before, haven't I?"
"How did you feel when we did dips and loops?"
She smiled at the memory. "Excitement, some fear. It was the thrill of the ride that would make thee go on it again, even if it were the scariest thing thou hadst ever experienced."
"That's almost exactly what this is like. Excitement, some fear, though not nearly as much fun." I paused, then corrected myself. "No fun at all. And it's when I start to enjoy all this power that it'll be time for you and everyone else to run for your lives. Because then I'll be a liche at heart."
"Only for more power."
"And your friends?"
My mind turned back to the conversation I'd had with the liche on Ambrosia. "I'd hate you because you're alive. I'd hate you because you'd fear me since I'm undead. I'd hate you because you'd abandon me, even though it would be at my request."
"But not now?"
I blinked - a gesture of surprise, nothing more. "No, of course not. Never, if I can help it. I just have to limit my magic before I get used to the idea of semi-omnipotence."
Katrina chuckled, shielding her eyes from the sun as we topped a dune on the northern perimeter of the camp.
"Virtues, isn't that a horrible thought?" I added. "What would I do with power like that?"
"Thou couldst kick the Guardian's big red behind, for one thing."
"That is something I could look forward to with great anticipation."
I pointed north-west where mountains rose beyond human sight. "I'll find a way to defeat her when I get up there. The dragon's people made these bracers. There must be some record about how to remove them."
"Didn't she say that only Mellorin can remove them?"
"She also said that she didn't know everything. There could be another way. Let's concentrate on getting to that oasis first, though, shall we?"
Her expression clouded. "Should we not make it by tomorrow-"
Firmly, I said, "We will."
We have to.
A full thirty people died of the heat or dehydration before the sun had
set. Another nine suffered sunstrokes so severe that they were unable to
continue. It was left to me to probe the mind of each, seeking any conscious
thought that could answer one simple, terrible question: die now or be
left behind? There was no other choice. The strength expended to carry
them onward would only serve to slowly kill more people.
Not one person chose to be left to the mercy of the desert, and it again fell to me to end the lives of each. As I disconnected minds from bodies in a painless method of granting instant oblivion, it was all I could do to assure distraught families and friends that they were now at peace.
Hardest of all to deal with were the children and babies. They simply didn't have the endurance…
So the bodies of thirty-nine Britannians burned on the red sands two hours after the sun set. Those who remained continued west with the hope of water, food and shelter before them, all unwitting of the sandstorm chasing them from behind.
Richard and the dragon-woman walked with me at the head of the procession, though both were, for the most part, silent.
I only called one meeting that night. We had to decide whether or not to keep walking should we not reach the oasis and its settlement before sunrise.
"The problem isn't what damage the storm will cause should we be caught in it," the dragon said. "I'm sure that we three-" she nodded at Richard and me, "-could shield everyone from it easily enough. What worries me is how long it will last."
"Feels like a few days to me," Shamino supplied.
"And your humans won't last that long," the dragon said to me, seeming to accept Shamino's judgement without rancour for once.
"We wouldn't have to stop," Richard said. "We can make the shield move with us."
"Wonderful," she replied dryly. "And when we walk straight past our goal because we can't see it through the sand, then what?"
"Speaking of things we can't see," Shamino put in, "I found more footprints to our north just before. Someone who's not one of us was watching us yesterday. Neither Elora nor I have seen anything of them, save tracks."
"Doth anyone live in the desert?" Katrina asked the dragon, who was frowning. "Besides villagers, I mean?"
"Only the mezzini," she answered, her tone brooding and dark.
"What are mezzini?"
"They're humans. Wanderers. Desert nomads. Their people and mine were very close before the war. I think it unlikely that they're who we're dealing with. They'd have approached or challenged us by now." She shrugged. "Furthermore, they openly opposed the Guardian, as we did. Either the mezzini are dead, or in service to him, which I very much doubt."
"'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,'" Iolo quoted. "Let's imagine that our watchers are these mezzini. Would they help us?"
"They would if I told them to."
"The mezzini used to serve our people in exchange for the education we could give them in lore and magic. It almost verged on open worship."
"Returning to our previous topic," I said. "What do we think? Keep walking when morning comes or rest as usual, then ride out the sandstorm when it blows over us?"
"Keep walking," Dupre and Shamino said in unison, though neither appeared to relish the notion. The others only nodded.
"Tell some of your people about the storm," I said, "but only those whom you think can take it. The others will see the truth soon enough."
Shamino nodded. "Dawn."
"Why tell anyone?" the dragon asked.
"Because they have a right to know," I answered. "Did anyone want to add anything?"
The dragon spoke again. "Yes. You might want to hide that." She pointed at the bracer. "Only one other person ever wore it. There are imitations out there - bracers are worn as status-symbols - but it will draw attention."
"I have a question," Dupre said. He looked at the dragon. "What happens when we reach this village? Do we just march in?"
"They're used to it. Being marched over, that is. There won't be anyone to stop us if I'm right about the Guardian stripping the world of fighters. All you'll have to worry about is paying for food. Water has always been free."
"And we hope it still is," Katrina said.
The dragon dusted sand from her hands. "Agreed. Either way, you'll need funds. Neither food nor lodgings are free."
"What's the local currency?" Iolo asked curiously. "I wouldn't think they'd be interested in gold, living out here."
"You're right there. The only metals they deal in are bronze, iron and anything else strong enough to be forged into a weapon. What we need is jewels."
"Jewels?" Katrina exclaimed.
"They're just as impractical as gold!" Julia seconded.
Pausing in the act of wrapping my bracer with a strip of leather, I managed to say, "Maybe not," before the dragon could make a retort. Everyone looked at me and the half-concealed bracer, and got my drift.
The dragon said, "Jewels are a primary component in elven and human magic on Atarka. The size, cut and colour determine how much power they can hold - don't ask for specifics."
"Art thou saying the people on this world can't cast spells without jewels?" Richard asked.
"No. Only that spells cast from jewels cause their wielders no exertion. Useful if many high-power spells need to be cast in succession. They're always used out here to fend off the shem'lysiei."
Dupre was thoughtfully rubbing his thumb over the pommel of his sword. "Could steel hold magic? Like a sword?"
"Metals can be enchanted - strengthened to lend accuracy and force, but they cannot contain actual spells."
"What about Elora's axe?" he protested.
"That had a ruby in the haft, remember?" she almost purred. "That jewel held the magic."
"Then it's jewels," I said. "Since we're almost out of time now, ask your groups for their..." I sighed. "...their valuables next time. If they ask why, tell them the truth."
"And if they refuse?" Katrina asked. "We'll be appropriating wedding rings, here."
"If they're adamant about not giving up their jewellery, send them to me. I'll try and explain to them that when we reach this village, they have a choice of eating food or choking down their gemstones."
There was a pause, then Richard pulled off his signet ring - a silver band set with a flat oval of sapphire into which was engraved the serpent of Britannia. "Might as well make a start," he said as he held it out to me.
"No regrets?" I asked.
The others began searching themselves for jewellery as the monarch shrugged. "It's just a ring. It'd be different if I had to part with my Amulet."
"You're a mage," the dragon said suddenly. "May I?" she extended her hand for the ring and I gave it to her.
"I thought you gave that away," I said as Katrina handed me a locket.
"I did." Her expression turned sad. "Henry and Constance were both killed on the ship that sailed from New Magincia to the Isle of Fire. Sea Serpents."
"Ah. I'm sorry."
"I don't think they even felt it. The fireball hit them full-on." She looked at Julia. "Didst thou have trouble sailing to and from the Den?"
"None - excepting those Virtues-damned pirates." The tinker gave me a steel circlet set with a thumb-sized emerald as she went on about her trade venture.
"What are you looking for?" I asked the dragon, for she was looking at the ring with intense concentration.
"Some of my kind had a theory that other races couldn't transfer raw mana into jewels because they don't live long enough."
Richard said, "I've only had this ring for fifty years."
"Oh." She gave me back the ring. "You don't have anything a little older?" she asked hopefully.
"My serpent Amulet, but it's metallic."
"What about my ring?" Iolo interrupted, offering a gold band set with a small diamond.
"Gwenno will murder thee for this," Shamino said with a snicker.
The bard gave him an ominous look. "Only if someone doth tell her about it." His blue eyes became distant. "For the first time, I'm actually glad she's not in Britannia."
Dupre clapped him on the shoulder. "She'll be fine."
Iolo looked dubious, but nodded. He was probably remembering that dream the Guardian had sent him about Gwenno being in great danger, I thought. "Shamino," he said suddenly. "Hast thou any word on Amber?"
The ranger's face turned bleak. "No. I can only hope she stayed on at Trinsic when Lord Draxinusom evacuated Britain."
The dragon passed me Iolo's ring.
"Anything?" I asked.
She shrugged and shook her head.
"What do you mean by raw mana, anyway?"
"Raw mana is raw mana, Avatar. Pure, magical energy. A gem can be used to store it. Such a stone can be used to aid in casting a spell that would normally exhaust its caster. The village won't use them that way, however. They can't. As far as I know, only my kind can charge jewels, and only over long periods of time."
"Speaking of time," I said.
Everyone fell silent.
"It's time to go."
This was it - the last leg of our race against the desert. No more rests, not even should dawn come before we reached the oasis.
It was all or nothing.
Virtues be with us.
Only a few protested about the jewellery. For some, a ring was all they
had left to remember a loved one. With as much gentleness as I could, I
informed each that should they not surrender their gems, chances were they'd
be joining their loved ones. And others would follow. Replies were
bitter, tearful, and generally unhappy. What made it worse was that some
of them seemed to believe that I could make everything better with a wave
of my hand. They even asked why I didn't do as much. I could only say that
making everything better would require a lot more effort, which resulted
in people returning to their groups in a mood more bitter than the one
they'd come to me in.
People would lose heart before they lost their lives.
"I so wish I could just teleport everyone back to Britannia," I muttered to Richard. "Half of them are probably thinking that death in battle would be a better fate than this. Even I am."
"The Guardian's army...taketh prisoners...remember?" the monarch said in a faltering voice as he walked at my side. "We'd probably...suffer worse than...this."
"I'm sorry," I thought to him. "I shouldn't be adding my worries to your own."
"Thinkest thou...I have not worried about...the same things?"
"Of course not. It's just..." I sighed. "I wish I could do more. Or do better."
His cracked lips formed a small smile. "Thou'rt doing more...than any of us could."
"You don't think they'd have followed you?" I asked with some surprise.
"They might, but not with as much conviction as they follow thee. Thou art the Avatar," he added simply, as if that explained everything.
I said nothing, but thoughtfully brushed one finger against the Ankh as the sky above us grew lighter. The stars vanished one by one, the five moons followed. In this time before the sun topped the horizon behind us, the red sands were almost dark enough as to appear black.
"Look," the dragon-woman murmured as we reached the top of yet another dune.
The last dune.
What lay before us now was an expanse of desert as flat as a sword-blade. Sand as far as the eye could see, but there were mountains in the distant west. Snow-capped peaks reflecting sunlight we couldn't yet see, the bright glitter of cold, white ice standing out sharply against the still-dark sky.
"I don't see any villages," Richard observed as he stumbled down the dune's western side.
"Nor I," I said softly. And I'd searched for it from the sky every day.
"It shouldn't be much further," the dragon assured us, though her golden eyes weren't as certain as her voice.
Richard upended his waterskin. Not a drop fell from it. "I hope not." There was not even the faintest glimmer of accusation in his eyes, and perhaps that's why the dragon-woman was forced to avert her gaze.
I knew we didn't have another choice but to trust she was right.
We kept walking.
The sun rose up like a burning eye once more. The heat hammering on the backs of the Britannians caused our pace to slow to a crawl. Already weary from lack of rest and nutrition, they plodded after my lead without speaking. No one could talk. Opening one's mouth was to invite the sun to evaporate what little moisture their bodies retained. The only sound was that of boots on sand. That noise never stopped. Sometimes I thought I could hear the Guardian chuckling softly in every footstep.
"Do you know where we are?" I thought to the sky. "I bet you do. And as long as you're enjoying the show, you won't change the channel. As long as we stay here, you won't do anything."
This time there was no mistaking the deep, sinister laugh. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who heard it, either. Richard jerked his head up sharply, defiance in his eyes. The dragon merely glanced at me with one brow raised.
"We'll win, Guardian. We'll beat you yet. Watch us."
Now everyone heard the laugh. The people paused in their steady march to look around for the sound's source, but there was nothing to see.
No...wait...a gleam of metal over there...
"Richard," I began warningly.
As if by magic, a group of robed figures rose from the sand. Their clothes matched the desert's colours perfectly, and they were armed.
"Mezzini!" the dragon whispered to me. Quickly! Tell everyone to sit, hands open and palms up on either knee. It is... it was the accepted symbol of peaceable intent."
I quickly evaluated our chances in a fight before conceding. As I relayed the dragon's words to my companions, who'd give them to their groups, she added, "There are more mezzini out there than you think. All they need is a pile of desert sand and they can vanish."
"Will they attack us?" I asked, slowly lowering myself to the ground.
"I don't know."
The exhausted Britannians sat on the burning sand, shielding themselves and each other as best they could with what remained of cloaks and clothing.
"Avatar," the dragon whispered as the desert people came nearer, "you might want to incorporate some dirt into your illusion - or at least a sunburn. You don't look like you've been in the Krain Desert for more than an hour."
I nodded and instantly acquired a nice red tint to my skin.
"Who is thra of this company?" demanded one of the mezzini.
"I assumes that means 'leader'?" I whispered to the dragon.
"It's close enough," she replied, seemingly unconcerned. "It means the same as 'lord' or 'lady'; someone in whom others have put their trust."
I stood up. "I am thra."
The nomad stepped forward, spear pointed in my direction as one hand pulled back the sand-coloured cloth wrapped around the lower half of their face. The full sight of it verified what my ears had guessed from the stranger's voice. The nomad was a woman. "What is thy business in the shem'o'krain, intruder?"
"We seek a desert village we thought was nearby."
Several of the nomads behind her broke into laughter. The woman before me showed no change in expression. "No village hath existed in the Krain for many years," she replied, her tone flat and distinctly unfriendly. "And no one but my people have dared to attempt crossing it on foot in five times as long. Where dost thou hail from, stranger?"
"Most recently, the...ah...Telomar of Silence-"
"Guardian oraini!" she snarled, her spear coming down to level with my chest. Her people moved as one to ready their own weapons - spears, short bows and throwing knives for the most part. "Thou darest-"
"We are enemies of the Guardian," I interrupted, gambling everything in one throw. This was one of the Guardian's worlds, after all. I could only hope that the mezzini still opposed the Guardian as they had when the dragon-woman had lived here. "We came here fleeing the armies of his former Ka-thra Mors Gotha."
She lifted her spear in a swift movement to rest beneath my chin. Instantly, there was the rasp of metal as the Britannias strove to draw weapons.
"Stop," I commanded, still watching the nomad.
"That is impossible," she said. "We had word that Mors Gotha's army went to another world."
"So they did," I agreed, feeling the point of the spear touch my throat with every word. "Britannia - the world we are from! We came to this place in particular seeking information about a certain item possessed by Mors Gotha. The knowledge can be found in the Dragonlore."
"You have a daemon in your company."
"Horffe is no daemon. Look at him closely - there are many differences. On Britannia his kind are called gargoyles. They are a good, strong, loyal people."
"It is no assurance, intruder. Daemons are capable of changing their form to anything remotely humanoid if it will suit their needs."
"All I have told thee is true. Right now, we search for a village with water, but our goal is the caves of the dragons and the Dragonlore."
"Then thou art doubly a liar," she replied coldly. "For how couldst thou know this unless either thou art in league with the Guardian or a dragon told thee? And there are no dragons."
"Thou art wrong," I said.
The dragon-woman suddenly shimmered a brilliant gold. With a vast roar her form changed, growing larger and longer and more magnificent with each passing second. Glistening wings stretched out and shielded the Britannians from the sun's glare as her head rose up upon a sinuous neck, her mane of golden spines glittering and her eyes blazing as she roared again. Her long tail stirred up a cloud of sand as her red-scaled foreclaws came down, one on either side of me in a very obvious gesture of protection.
The mezzini surrounding us all let out a great cry and fell to their knees. Only the one before me remained standing, though her expression showed no less wonder. Lowering her spear, she stared straight up into the dragon's burning eyes. "Kra'lysie," she breathed reverently. "Kemah-thra...it hath been so long!"
"Assist these who travel with me, Mezzin-thra," the dragon said. Although it was a whisper, the ground beneath us rumbled at her words. "They are under my protection and thou shalt aid them in all ways possible. Heed the words of this creature," she went on, lowering her head to look at me, "for they are true."
"Yes, Kra'lysie!" The nomad's words were completely without fear. There was awe in them, adoration even. "Mezzini! Quan!"
The desert people leaped to their feet and rushed to the tired, footsore Britannians with water-skins. I watched the people drink their first mouthful of water all day...and remembered what hope was.
"It is a short walk north to our camp, Kra'lysie," the leader advised. "We won't have enough water for all thy people just here."
"I understand, Mezzin-thra. It would be wise to move on in any case. The sandstorm..."
She nodded, then regarded me. "This one is thra of thy company?"
The dragon chuckled. "This one is such, Mezzin-thra. She is the Avatar."
A couple of nearby mezzini seemed startled at that, but their leader simply nodded. "That would explain my mother's dreams the past several nights." She inclined her head slightly and touched her right hand to her heart. "Welcome, Avatar. We are honoured."
"Thou hast heard of me?" I asked.
"Legends, for the most part. But my mother claims to have met thee. We can speak of these things later. It would be best if we leave the open desert as soon as possible." She nodded her head meaningfully in the direction of the approaching storm. "I am given the name Jae'tar. Kra'lysie, Avatar, if your people would follow mine we can reach a place of safety."
The dragon resumed her human form as I telepathed the news to my friends. "It's fine. The mezzini are taking us to a place where we can rest and shelter."
"Thank the Virtues," whispered Iolo's voice.
"How far?" Julia asked.
"Not far. We're headed north. Can you get everyone ready?"
A mental murmur of assent came to me. A short while later, everyone was getting up and preparing to move.
The mezzini replaced their face-cloths and spread out around us, ready to assist anyone who faltered. Jae'tar and the dragon walked in the lead together, talking softly. I followed with Richard. The Lord of Britannia managed a smile as I got his arm around my shoulder.
"I'm not an invalid yet, Elora."
"I know. I'm just making sure that you're not one later."
"What dost thou make of our dragon?"
"She's said that her people were once served by the mezzini. I think that means 'wanderers', by the way."
"'Shem'lysie' means 'sand serpent' and 'kra' means 'fire'. Fire serpent?"
"Dragon. I'm wondering what 'Avatar' meaneth to them. Didst thou see their reactions to thine identity?"
"Yep. It means 'spirit-soul', which in turn means 'life'. She told me earlier."
He lapsed into silence and concentrated on walking. A few minutes later, the dragon-woman and Jae'tar fell back to walk with us. As we went, the nomad leader began to talk.
"According to our histories," she began, "Atarka was once a free world much like thy Britannia. Our peoples lived in relative peace and the Guardian was unheard of. We who wandered the Krain, the mezzini, sought out the kra'lysiei, who dwelt in the northern Tuay Mountains, because of the shamaness with us at the time. Not one of her prophecies had failed, and this one involving the kra'lysiei told us that one day a dragon would save the world from a deadly evil. Without our assistance, however, she said the prophecy would fail.
"The dragons accepted us, but wouldn't allow our self-bestowed servitude to go unrewarded. In exchange for our service and protection against dragon-slayers - for they would not even kill to save their own lives - they taught us their magic.
"Much time passed and we continued to live thus, both races happy with the arrangements binding them together. Then, one fateful day, a Voice spoke to those who meditated at the Telomar of Silence. This silent speaker called himself the Guardian. The druids obeyed his words without question - they cut out their own tongues so they could not speak then went out from the Krain, proclaiming the Guardian's call to submit to his authority with their minds. That common humans suddenly acquired the power of telepathy was so great a wonder that many flocked to the various telomari, eager to be initiated and to gain this knowledge. It was found that a different power was bestowed at each different telomar. Some of our own people joined in order to verify this, and we think that's how the Guardian learned of the prophecy concerning the dragons.
"It wasn't long until the command came to wipe out all kra'lysiei, who were then branded daemons, on Atarka. Most were too deep in their adoration of the Guardian to have the willpower to refuse. They came against the dragon caves in force, but the mezzini were able to repel and defeat them with each assault. Then the outworlders came. Led by a woman called Mors Gotha, they and the Guardian's followers on Atarka attacked with renewed strength. We fought well, but their numbers never lessened. The Guardian was forever calling more of his fighters into Atarka to replace any killed.
"At length, the dragons ordered us to flee the Tuay Mountains and return to the Krain. We refused at first, convinced that only the dragons could stop the Guardian, but they reminded us of our oath to obey them in all things.
"'Leave us to our fate,' they said, 'it is not finished yet. Live in the land that birthed ye, but never give up the fight against the Guardian. Protect the Lore from his people and always remember us.'
"So we hid the Dragonlore in the caves and fled into the Krain. With enchanted weapons, we fell upon every Guardian-serving city, village or household within our desert, razing each to the sands. Such was the fate of Telsen Shemquan - the village thou wert seeking. In fact, thou didst pass over its very location. Its ruins and water have long since been buried by sandstorms.
"Then came a day, months after we left the dragon caves, that my people saw a speck in the sky. At first, we thought 'Kra'lysie!' because nothing could be so high nor so large. A whole clan of us went north to meet it. They were all killed. It was no dragon, as we later discovered, but a keep. One of the two places we hadn't managed to destroy. Killorn Keep."
I gave a start and stared at her. "Killorn Keep? The keep that floats above the desert? The one ruled by a Lord Thibris?"
Jae'tar nodded, and I looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. The dark skin and eyes... I suddenly knew who her mother was.
"Thou art Altara's daughter?"
She nodded again, but returned to the topic of Killorn Keep. "By the will of the Guardian it flieth. Those within can rain down arrows on us should we seek to pass by, and we cannot touch it. When we saw its stone hulk drifting above the desert, and no dragons soaring the skies, we knew they were gone." Then she looked at the dragon-woman. "Or we thought we knew."
"Kra'lysie?" I telepathed to the dragon.
"It means 'dragon'."
"I thought as much. Would you mind if we used it as your name?"
Her eyes twinkled above the face-cloth she wore. "So instead of calling me 'Dragon' in your tongue-"
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
"It's fine, Avatar," she replied, her thought-voice amused. "I don't mind."
Jae'tar suddenly stopped and removed her face-cloth. After a long, satisfied sort of look, she gave me an unexpected smile. "Welcome to the camp of the mezzini, Kra'lysie and Avatar." Extending her spear, she held it out in the air to point at the empty sand flats before us. I said nothing, for the air around the spearhead began to ripple like a pond. Shimmering circles widened around the point, and in the tiny waves I thought I could see more than sand.
"A shield," Richard murmured. "I've never seen one that hideth things from both naked- and mind's-eye!"
"Merely one facet of Kra'lysie magic," the nomad leader said. "This one hath become invaluable."
"Shem'al?" Kra'lysie asked.
The dragon-woman frowned slightly. "I'm not familiar with that substance. Darkstone?"
"The Guardian oraini call it Blackrock. It's the most powerful stone available, and it appeared after Atarka was overrun. Let's get thy people a place to rest 'ere we talk further." She pushed back the sleeve of her robe on her right arm to reveal a bracer similar in design to mine, though the body looked to be metallic - bronze. She touched a jet-black stone and traced a design in the air with her spear. There was a whisper of ether and the air rippled with more vigour, then I felt the entire southern wall of the shield fall away.
"Get everyone inside," Jae'tar called as she moved forward to pass between two blackrock obelisks.
I couldn't help spending a minute to gape before following, helping Richard down the stone steps encircling the perfectly round perimeter of what appeared to be a crater...and in which an entire village nestled. Stone houses, canvas tents and fenced paddocks abounded around the edges, but the first thing to catch my eyes was the colour. Enclosed by the outer circle of houses was a wide ring of grass. Fresh and green and healthy. Fruit trees were here and there, and a large pool of silver water could be seen in the middle of it all, around which was the garden and then the buildings. Thin, straight streams ran from the pool in each of the four main directions of the compass. When they reached the outer edge of the garden they stopped and flowed out at a slightly curved, perpendicular angle to join the end of another stream. This formed a large unbroken ring of water with four separate quadrants of grass and trees and living plants.
"It's cooler here," Richard said, and he straightened as though feeling revived.
"The shield that hideth us doth serve in more ways than one," Jae'tar explained. She looked back as we reached the bottom of the steps to wait for everyone to get in. "It also protecteth us from the heat - most weather factors, actually - and reduceth the sun's glare."
"Thou didst use our gifts with wisdom," Kra'lysie said. "This place is a haven."
"Many protested," the mezzin replied with a hint of bitterness. "They thought this-" she indicated the entire area, "-would make us weak. Harsh conditions breed stronger people." She touched her bracer and the shield went back up. "Come. We'll go to the lake and thy people can be refreshed."
The mezzini called this place Shem Mezzin'draco, which meant
'Sand Camp', and it was the only stationary home the nomads had in the
entire desert. As anyone who looked at it could guess, magic had played
a large part in its creation. Eight blackrock pillars stood around the
circumference of the site and I knew they were used for the shields. No
one could tell me how the pillars had got to where they now were.
When the sandstorm struck, we barely noticed. I'd heard not a whisper of wind to announce its coming, so it was only after I looked up, late afternoon, and saw a hazy, shifting orange glow instead of the blue sky that I knew. By that time, the Britannians were already resting indoors having eaten, drunk and had any wounds tended to. Everyone had had their feet bathed and bandaged due to the ravages of our desert trek. Even Kra'lysie and I, though my blisters and burns were all illusionary.
So as afternoon darkened into night, I spent my time alone in a small house and brooded on what would happen next. Jae'tar had steadfastly refused to tell me anything else until after I'd had a good long rest. Not being able to sleep, however, resting became a frightful bore. Brooding was the easiest alternative.
We were presently safe. So long as I didn't teleport and break the shields, chances were Mellorin wouldn't find us (provided she was still looking). What was more, the mezzini would be able to direct us to the Dragonlore and I'd finally find a way to get rid of the bracer. But then I thought, Why just do that? You're on one of the Guardian's worlds, Elora - Killorn Keep! Maybe you can find out some of the Guardian's plans...
"That's a rather good idea," I murmured to myself. Furthermore, I was fairly certain that the bracer could teleport me straight to the keep. Otherwise how had Mors Gotha got there so fast? I pondered this for a while, then grew bored again. Dispensing with the pretence of being footsore and weary, I got up, dressed in the mezzin robe and boots that had been left for me, retained my daggers and left my small house.
There wasn't much activity outside - the time being midnight and all. A few mezzini were about, but none gave me more than a cursory glance. It was easy to tell that I was not one of them since my skin was a lot fairer, and I was somewhat surprised that no one challenged me. After a while I felt a calm sense of understanding. I was being anticipated. Someone was waiting for me. Someone I knew, though they were not Britannian.
I reached the garden in the centre of the camp and paused to let my senses drink in the sights, scents and sounds of the place. No light came from the darkened dome covering Sand Camp, but the grass was dotted with small clumps of tiny berries that glowed a pale green. I kept walking until I stood at the edge of the pool in the garden's heart. At my approach, a figure standing on the surface of the water turned and came towards me.
"Altara," I greeted her, and she smiled. "When thou didst leave Killorn Keep, I had no idea I'd see thee here."
"Who knew we'd ever meet again?" the dark-haired mage replied. "I returned to my people, as thou canst see." She stepped onto dry ground and looked at me carefully. "I know thou didst succeed in thy quest to unravel the web the Guardian had spun between the planes, so why hast thou returned?"
I considered my reply and decided to answer her question with one of my own. "What hath Kra'lysie told thee?"
Altara shook her head. "Little. Enough that we know she deemeth herself under thy command, and thus she won't speak of thine intentions without permission. Permission! I don't know what thou hast done, Avatar, but a kra'lysie bending knee to a mortal is unheard of."
"She's not that submissive," I murmured. I made up my mind not to tell her I was undead. If Atarkans treated them like the plague - a version of it that could be killed with weapons and magic, - admitting it might not be a good idea. The mezzini hadn't had access to the Dragonlore in who knew how long, so chances were they'd have no memory of aeth'raesh'ali. That said, they'd most likely try to kill me before I could explain it to them. "Kra'lysie is guiding us to the Dragonlore," I said at last. "We need information on an object called an aeth'raesh'al."
"Aeth'raesh'al," Altara said softly. She frowned. "I know its meaning, but am unfamiliar with such an object."
"Mors Gotha had one. It was in the form of a jewelled bracer."
"I knew there was something strange about that bracer. I could feel it!"
I hoped she couldn't feel it now. True, the bracer was covered, but that wouldn't mask the sensation of magic. Or undeath. "I'm hoping to find a way to destroy it in the Dragonlore."
Altara nodded. "I can help thee a little. Come." She started to lead the way back to the city area. "My people have been unable to approach the Tuay Mountains where the caves are since Killorn Keep took its first flight. I have been closer than any other mezzin in some time, but not even my rank on the High Council could get me closer."
"Didst thou want to be sent to Killorn?" I asked.
"Not initially. There are other ways to get to the mountains - airships and shem'lysie barges. It was carelessness on my part that got me sent to Killorn." She shrugged. "Anything I did after that I had to keep secret. I was always being watched. I learned one thing," she added with a short laugh. "The keep can only be brought down from within. I was too afraid of being caught or killed to attempt anything. I had a duty to return to my people. I am one of the last great shamanesses left among my people - the only ones gifted with magic and high visions."
I raised a brow at her.
"I dreamed thou wouldst come back, Avatar, and I dreamed thou wouldst tear Killorn Keep from the sky and free us from the Guardian."
I didn't reply for a while. "Mine obligation is to Britannia first and foremost," I said slowly, watching her for any reactions. "Thou must understand that my duty is to them."
"I do." She smiled. "But I'm never wrong, Elora. I never have been." She waved a hand dismissively. "Thou shalt see."
"I don't like visions," I muttered darkly. "They make me feel I don't have a choice."
"They shouldn't," she answered. "Look. If I said, 'I saw someone drowning and thou didst run to the rescue,' what wouldst thou think?"
"I'm not sure... If I saw someone drowning I would try to save them."
"Thou seest? A vision hath nothing to do with predestination, but with foreknowledge. It doth not control thee, it just knoweth what thou wouldst do given the situation."
"So what's the situation with thine other vision?"
"I don't know. I just know what thou wilt do!" Altara smiled again. "Knowing thee, however, I'm sure it will be the right choice."
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