On the stroke of midnight, five winged gargoyles appeared as if by magic
out of the thick curtain of rain and under the cover of darkness. No torches
flamed in the garden's vicinity so as not to illuminate the red skinned
creatures as they entered. The five landed near the fountain and bowed
low to Lord British, who stood with most of the Castle's inhabitants under
the shelter of the roof.
"To greet you, Lord British," one of their number said, bowing. When the horned head rose to face us, I found myself looking into the luminous blue eyes of the gargoyle king Draxinusom!
"Thou dost honour me," Lord British told him. Like Dupre, Iolo, Julia and myself, he wore conventional leather armour, and a well-used longsword hung at his side. The only symbols of his rank he was bringing were his serpentine amulet and insignia ring. Crown and sceptre were both hidden somewhere within the Castle in a place known only to him.
I'd privately thought it a bad idea to leave them behind, as the magical nature of the Crown Jewels might be useful later, but had conceded that in order to use their powers, one would have to be wearing or wielding them. And someone standing atop the battlements wearing a Crown would be a target for every enemy archer.
Lord British looked surprisingly different without his royal robes. He appeared younger and his build seemed more athletic than the bulky robes had shown. Catching myself staring, I looked back at the gargoyles.
"To hope only that everyone will understand this gesture," Draxinusom said.
"Thy friendship was never in doubt."
"To know it is not by you, perhaps, Lord British." The gargoyle smiled sadly. He looked at me. "To greet you again, Avatar."
I inclined my head. "Prilem Draxinusom. Don grat."
His smile became more genuine. Few humans spoke gargish and fewer spoke it well. Most mages could understand it, as gargish syllables were the incantations of power they used in their spells, but fluent gargish rested with less than a dozen humans. Maybe half that. "To say that you are welcome, Avatar," he said. Then the gargish king looked at Lord British. "To ask if all are ready?"
I was aware that the gargoyles hadn't even stepped inside. Perhaps Draxinusom didn't want to leave puddles on the floor. Lord British nodded. Turning to Miranda, Nystul and Geoffrey, he gave them some last minute instructions then bade everyone farewell. He stepped into the rain beside Lord Draxinusom and I followed, going across to a different gargoyle while Julia, Dupre and Iolo followed suit. When my gargoyle pulled a tiny glass vial of silver-green fluid from his belt, my eyes widened.
"Silver serpent venom?" I exclaimed softly in gargish. "To ask why?"
"To doubt that we would be able to carry you all to the Isle of Fire without the venom's strength enhancements." He pulled out the tiny stopper and downed the liquid, which the other gargoyles were also doing. "To think one will be enough."
"And safe," I breathed. Too frequent use was an inevitable death sentence of great pain. Too large a dose at once was lethal. I had used the venom myself once only and knew from first-hand experience that the sense of power brought on by the stuff was accompanied by a feeling of invincibility. In humans, at least. Not only had I felt incredibly strong, I'd also started getting powerful urges to attempt smashing mountains into rubble...with my head.
The gargoyles took hold of us and their leathery wings beat powerfully. In seconds, we were airborne. A minute later, the grey stone of the Castle had faded away and there was nothing to see other than the midnight rain.
"To wonder how can you find your way?" I asked my carrier, for I couldn't see any of the others.
The gargoyle replied, "To ask if you have forgotten? To remind you that winged gargoyles are gifted with magic." He tilted his flight a little. "To know this way is south-east."
"To request your name."
"To be called Strongwing."
Our conversation had been in gargish, so his name, Strongwing, was Forvol.
Forvol told me that the flight would take several hours. Gargoyles flew much faster than a human could walk, and to walk this distance would take more than two days. Forvol added that even with the venom, they were travelling slower than an unencumbered gargoyle.
Some time later, I was listening absently to the rain splattering off Forvol's wings as if they were red umbrellas...and we stopped. We were still aloft, but Forvol was hovering rather than going anywhere.
"To ask what is amiss?" I said.
Forvol looked disturbed. "To not know. To feel that I have forgotten something." He looked around. "To not know..."
My eyes widened as sudden realisation hit me. With a groan, I said, "Arcadion!"
Without a word, Forvol wheeled and flew back in the direction of Britain. We cut through the rain like a knife, faster than I could have believed. The gargoyle couldn't know who or what Arcadion was, but something must have told him that I was right.
I'd have to talk to Arcadion about that.
While we flew, I concentrated and sent my thoughts out to Lord British. It took a while to locate him – there was a lot of ocean to cover – but I managed to find him before we reached Britain. "Richard, I’ve left the Blacksword behind. I’m going back to get it and I’ll just use it to teleport Forvol and myself to the Isle of Fire."
His thought returned with, "I hear thee, Elora. Take care."
It was still pouring when we reached the borders of the city, and the sky was becoming lighter. Dimly, beneath the watery veil, I could make out buildings. If any soldiers were up at this time and looked in the right direction, Forvol's red skin would stand out like a flag.
"There," I whispered, pointing.
He flew me further west until I saw the building sporting a candle sign. An inn. We landed in the street, I forced the door open and we went inside.
The inn was empty, which came as a surprise to me. Surely every bed in Britain would have to be occupied by enemy soldiers. I shook my head. They were all probably camped outside the city with maybe a few teams holed up in strategic buildings.
"Avatar," Forvol said. He pointed at bloodstains on the floor. "To believe there was a struggle."
"To get Arcadion and leave." All the chamber doors were open or smashed in and mine was no exception. Nothing of value remained in my room save the Blacksword. The weapon lay on the bed where I'd left it since the first day of imprisonment within the blackrock dome. The hilt bearing Arcadion's blue jewel cage rested on the pillow.
"Have a nice sleep?" I asked, picking up the blade and buckling the scabbard's belt across my chest.
"That was uncalled for," the metallic-sounding voice of Arcadion replied.
"I hope you were quite comfortable?"
"Daemons differ somewhat to humans, Master. Not only do we prefer live coals to feathers, we have no need to sleep."
"You must have been bored."
"Not really. I entertained myself with a few prospective thieves while you were...doing whatever it is you did."
"I'm still doing it, but I can't really go anywhere without you."
"I'm touched." He paused. "Why didn't you just summon me?"
I stopped short. "What?"
A faint sigh came from the jewel. "You could have simply called me into your hands at any time, Master."
"Could I summon you if we were separated by blackrock?"
Before he could answer, there was a clatter in the reception room. Ducking out of my chamber, I saw Forvol had stumbled against a small table and broken it. His face was drawn into a grimace of pain.
"To think the venom has run its course," he said in a slightly weak voice. "To take another and we'll leave..." He swayed unsteadily.
"No," I told him firmly. "No more venom."
"To be unable to carry you without it!"
"You seem to have a knack for attracting gargish companions, Master," Arcadion noted dryly. "Planning to get this one killed as well?"
"That's not funny," I snapped. No doubt another daemon would have found it hilarious.
"Well it looks like he's dying to me..."
"Familiar with the effects of ingesting silver serpent venom?"
"No," he replied grudgingly.
"This is them."
"The sword speaks," Forvol said faintly.
I helped the gargoyle up. "To tell you that there is a daemon trapped in the jewel," I explained. "He's the one doing the talking." I said a silent prayer of thanks that Forvol was apparently unable to understand a tongue other than his own.
Arcadion's words might have been a little hard to explain.
Forvol scratched his hairless scalp and looked out a window. "To regret we will not make it out before dawn." He sighed.
"To be sorry."
"To tell you that we can still get to the Isle of Fire," I replied. I unsheathed the Blacksword. "Arcadion, return us to the Isle of Fire. You, me and Forvol."
"Yes, Master, though why you'd want to go back there..."
The ether gem darkened and everything around us became steadily brighter. Then, the sudden incandescence forced me to close my eyes.
The man dropped a bag of sand with an oath of surprise. "Where didst thou
I glanced around swiftly. We were standing within the courtyard of the not-so-ruined fort on the Isle of Fire. A number of humans and gargoyles were toiling side by side to install a new door leading to the corridor to the north. Others were making use of the nearby forge, which generated enough noise to cover the exclamation of the man who'd seen us appear.
The man was looking warily at the Blacksword, which I held unsheathed in both hands. Quickly, I slid it back into the scabbard and he relaxed somewhat.
"Who art thou?" he demanded, this time loudly enough for some other workers to hear.
I repressed a sigh. There were portraits of me and my exploits in almost every establishment in Britannia and I was still having this problem. "I’m Elora – the Avatar."
The man scoffed. "She’s coming later with Lords British and Draxinusom. She won’t be here for at least another hour."
Being further east, it was already sunrise here. Through the open gates to the south, I could make out a soft drizzle sifting down from the sky and a rainbow arching above the island’s mountains.
"I took a short cut," I stated, truthfully enough but knowing instantly that such an answer was inadequate. "All right, how can I prove it? Does anyone here know this gargoyle?" I switched to gargish. "Strongwing, to ask if anyone here can vouch for our identities?"
Forvol, still a little woozy, called out something to some gargish workers over the noises of the forge. Three of them – one winged – came over and asked a few questions of him. Then the winged one turned to me.
"To believe," he said…in gargish.
"To ask if you speak the tongue of humans?"
He shook his head.
I sighed. So many gargoyles at the Isle of Fire and I’d got saddled with a group that spoke no other language but their own. Deciding that that wasn’t entirely fair, I added the thought that I’d also been saddled with a human that didn’t speak a language other than his own.
The gargoyle caught the human worker’s attention then pointed at me and nodded.
"What?" he demanded. "Yes she’s the Avatar or yes she’s a fake Avatar?"
The gargoyle, hearing two familiar words in ten – Avatar – hesitated a second, then nodded again. When that produced nothing more than a baffled look from the human, he tried tracing an Ankh in the air and pointing at me again. "Avatar."
"I can see she’s wearing an Ankh, Beninlem," the man said impatiently.
I rolled my eyes skyward. Reciting mantras wouldn’t work, as hardly anyone knew them all. Telling history wouldn’t work as most of it held the title of ‘legend’…
"Avatar!" someone shouted from behind me.
I turned. "Tseramed!"
The hunter carried two long spears and a bucket full of gleaming, silver-sided fish. Grinning broadly, he dumped it all and we embraced.
"How did you get here?" I exclaimed. "You were in Britain last I saw you."
Tseramed’s usually quiet voice was excited as he explained what had happened. When he’d arisen the morning after the Celebration of the destruction of the Black Gate, he’d seen the blackrock dome where the Castle should have been and had run to find Jaana. Both of them had sought out Katrina and Sentri – two well known companions of mine and friends of Lord British – and gone to the gargish part of the city where Lord Draxinusom was. The Gargoyle King had immediately ordered a group to travel to Cove and to retrieve Rudyom’s blackrock-exploding wand, for Lord British had had the wand returned to its owner some months earlier. Due to the general mistrust of gargoyles, the group had only been composed of seven humans. None had returned. Rather, an enemy army had come in their place.
The guard had tried valiantly to hold the city, but Britain had possessed no real army since the Triad of Evil. At best, they had defended the gates long enough for a minimal evacuation. Draxinusom had sent fliers to every city, towne and castle with words of warning, then had led the refugees south through Paws and on to Trinsic. Once there, he had conferred with Trinsic’s mayor and arranged ships to transport the people off the mainland.
Tseramed and Jaana had been the ones to suggest the Isle of Fire and the lost Isle of Ambrosia. When the fliers returned with news of just about every city either under attack or fallen and the three Keeps under siege, Draxinusom had agreed to use the two islands. The shipping had begun and daily reports revealed that the enemy army was moving unhurried towards Trinsic. Draxinusom had then ordered Terfin abandoned and every gargoyle there to bolster Trinsic’s garrison.
The attack had come a few days later with Draxinusom himself leading the defence. The city had held and, with most of the humans from Britain and Paws electing to remain in Trinsic, the gargoyles had left them and flown on ahead to scout the waters between there and the Isle of Fire.
"After we won at Trinsic, Katrina, Sentri and I came here with the ships." Tseramed smiled. "Jaana stayed at Trinsic because she deemed her healing skills were needed more there. And since then, my main duty hath been hunting. Every now and again I go to Ambrosia for game, but food isn’t a problem yet. I’ll let Katrina tell thee about it."
"Any sign of Shamino?"
Tseramed’s smile faded. "None. No one hath seen him since Lord British sent him to the Deep Forest."
"Ah…Avatar?" the workman interrupted hesitantly. "Mine apologies for not believing thee, Milady."
I shook my head amiably. "Never mind. Happens all the time."
"I can't for the life of me figure out how," Tseramed said with a sly grin. "There must be a portrait of thee in almost every establishment on Britannia!" He shook his head. "I suppose it's better to be cautious. Remember that false Avatar, character..?"
"He was a man," I said, my tone slightly offended. "How could even the stupidest individual mistake him - no matter how he dressed - for me?"
"It was a very good wig..."
I looked at him sourly.
He grinned, then quickly decided to change the subject. "Now that thou hast heard what happened out here…what went on inside the Castle?"
"That is a very long story. Show me around the fort and I'll fill you in."
The fort was rebuilt. I smiled in satisfaction. "It looks very good."
Sentri grinned. Tseramed had handed me over to him after claiming the task of having to clean the fish and take them to the storerooms. "The forge helped. Whoever decided to build it in the middle of the courtyard was an idiot, but I could hug him now."
"It was put there by magic," I laughed. "I used that forge to fashion the Blacksword. I'm glad it's being used for more mundane things."
Sentri led me into the chamber where stood the three statues of Love, Truth and Courage. The warrior was unofficial Guardmaster as he was the ranking warrior on the Isle of Fire. The force of fighters on the Isle was quite large - enough for a good defence. Most of Sentri's time had been spent training and organising patrols. Spare moments had been used checking inventory.
"Wait," I said. Approaching the statue of Truth, depicted by a wizened old man, I sent out my thoughts to it. "Canst thou hear me?"
"Greetings, Avatar," a distant voice replied in my mind. "What wouldst thou ask?"
I blinked. "Umm, nothing, I guess. I just wanted to see if I could still talk to thee."
There was a chuckle. "As long as the Flame of Truth stands, so too will I."
"Oh no," I whispered as I remembered what Nystul had said about Britannia's state. Empath Abbey, the keep of Love had fallen! I turned to the statue of a beautiful woman and tried speaking to it with my mind.
"What's wrong?" Sentri asked.
"Something," I answered. There was nothing I could do about it yet. "Anyway, where is everyone sleeping? I saw no camps…"
Sentri nodded. "When we touch a statue, we're teleported to one of the Testing rooms - according to Tseramed. They're completely empty, so that's where the people have started living - though the Test of Love has been reserved for livestock and a few shepherds." He pursed his lips. "I think most people are living in the Truth test."
"What about Lord Draxinusom?"
"Most gargoyles live in the Courage test."
Repressing a sigh of despair, I asked, "Any conflicts?"
"Surprisingly few. It's a bit hard to insult the ones who saved thy life." Sentri paused. "Personally, I think that those who don't trust the gargoyles all stayed in Trinsic. But if not for the gargoyles, we'd all probably be dead." He shook his head in admiration. "I saw Draxinusom fight at the battle of Trinsic. I'm telling thee, I'd never want to cross him. He is incredible!"
I hid a frown. Draxinusom was very old. I didn't know how long gargoyles usually lived or how long they remained strong and agile, but the few times I'd seen the gargoyle king over the past year and a bit he'd seemed tired. Like an old man.
"Do you know if they've been using silver serpent venom?" I asked intently.
"No," the warrior answered. "But I heard Jaana talking about the stuff back in Trinsic. Evidently several gargoyles had died with no obvious wounds. That sound like something the venom would do?"
"Yes. I think I'd better speak with Lord Draxinusom about it."
"And thou didst think that thou wouldst be here just for the sake of morale."
I gave a non-committal grunt. The others had arrived about an hour ago and had immediately started doing what I'd predicted they'd do. Lords British and Draxinusom were off somewhere discussing kingly things; Dupre was touring the castle and drawing battle plans; Iolo was training people to make bows and crossbows; Julia was examining the repairs…and I was doing nothing.
Sentri went on, "Thanks to some mining operations here and on Ambrosia, we raised enough funds to purchase supplies from Buccaneers' Den. Those pirates didn't even know that Britannia was under attack, and when we told them, half of them seemed inclined to join the enemy!" We walked back into the main part of the castle. "So we have oil, lamps, torches, blankets, hardtack and jerky in case we come under siege, tools for our artisans - picks, shovels, tinker things and the like, reagents, powder kegs, cannons and weapons. Actually, we're making our own swords and armour now since they found an ore deposit on Ambrosia."
"Wait," I interrupted. "How are we getting between these two islands? That's over a week of boat travel."
"We have a fair number of mages, Elora. Upon arrival, their main duty was to shield this island and to converse with other mages - at the Lycaeum, for instance. The first voyage to Ambrosia - that Tseramed led since he alone of everyone here knew the way - had some of the mages with them for communication and shielding purposes." He chuckled. "When we finally got a message from them, they told us that a fairy had been throwing colossal amounts of magic-inhibiting dust around the island. Until everyone in the group had let her kiss them, she had refused to stop!"
I laughed. What method had Tseramed come up with to convince those people that a sloppy kiss wouldn't kill them, I wondered with amusement.
"So the mages reported that the island was perfect - as long as people were careful in the caves. But they also came up with the same problem as thou didst. Distance." He gestured for me to follow him into the western room, which had previously housed Arcadion's former master. The mage had been killed by his own magic in an attempt to prevent my removal of an evil artefact called the Dark Core. "The solution, they said, was simple. Build teleport pads!"
The room within that room had once upon a time held a moongate that had sent me to the test of Love. Now it held a raised pedestal, glowing with magic, over which two men stood guard.
"Caros, Tef, this is the Avatar," Sentri said to them. "Unless our lords say otherwise, she hath free use of the pads." The guards saluted and Sentri added to me, "Not everyone can use the pads, for security reasons. Written permission must be carried, and I doubt very much that anyone can forge Lord Draxinusom's signature." He went up to the shimmering pad.
"Coming?" Then he deliberately stepped up onto it and vanished from sight.
I followed…and found myself standing in sunlight on a different pad atop a gentle, grassy slope beneath blue skies. Ambrosia.
"We're on the Serpentine Crest," Sentri explained with a smile. "That's what we're all calling these hills." He pointed to the southwest where a stone tower jutted up off a tiny islet in the bay. "From there it looks like the Britannian Serpent," he added, referring to Britannia's coat of arms. "This receiving pad looks like the serpent's eye. I think the mages were being creative."
"So where's the return pad?" I asked, looking rather longingly at the emerald grass and sparkling water.
"In the tower. When the fairy stopped throwing her dust, the mages were able to unlock the door. Sentries are posted there, also."
We walked over the hills and strolled south where Katrina was tending a flock of docilely grazing sheep. On sight of us, she threw back the hood that was protecting her fair skin from the morning sun and came to greet us.
"Elora! Sentri! What bringeth ye here?"
"Just visiting, Katrina," I smiled. "Richard, Iolo, Dupre and Julia are back on the other Isle."
"I heard the gargoyles were planning to carry humans to the Isle of Fire," Katrina nodded. "Well," she waved her crook towards the sheep, "meet the gang."
"When the gargoyles brought word to New Magincia of the invasion," Sentri informed me, "Katrina went with the ships to evacuate the towne."
The shepherdess smiled ruefully. "Getting the sheep onto the ships was easier than moving the people!" She leaned on the crook. "I knew we'd need a food source. When the teleporters to Ambrosia were opened, I had the sheep sent here."
"Good idea," I approved.
"In any case, our diet is likely to be mutton for a while. Some farmers have started to cultivate vegetables, but it will be a while before we see anything edible. Otherwise, there's fish."
My diet during the better half of our imprisonment had been entirely composed of fish, so I had no trouble looking disappointed. "I suppose reagent stores aren't strong enough for us to create food?"
Katrina shrugged, then asked Sentri, "Are they?"
Sentri shook his head. "That's why the mages wanted to construct teleport pads to the Lycaeum."
"Wanted?" I repeated.
"Besieged as it is, the Lycaeum doth not have access to the materials the pads require." He sighed. "And we can't help them."
I really wished I'd made the effort to pick up the Virtue stones in Britain. My eyes drifted thoughtfully to the bracer. Smaller, colourful gems encircled the central jewel, each one touching one of its single eight outer facets. "There has to be a way."
"Well, we won't find it with Katrina's sheep," Sentri grinned.
Katrina gave him a withering look. "Go on. Show her the rest of the island." She pulled up her hood again. "I'll see thee later tonight with the livestock reports."
I bade Katrina farewell with a promise to come again, and followed Sentri to a jetty that poked out into the small bay.
Two humans stood there, and two skiffs were moored nearby. I scratched my head absently and bit back a yawn. I hadn't had a chance to sleep since before leaving Castle Britannia. I couldn't remember the last time I'd truly slept without the fate of the world resting on my shoulders.
Sentri beckoned to me, and one of the men led us to a skiff. We boarded and he took the oars, rowing us towards the slender stone tower dominating the tiny island in the bay. The sound of the oars hitting the water with regular strokes…the ripples that surged gently around the prow…
I yawned, my jaw cracking loudly as I did.
Then the oarsman yawned and politely moved to cover his mouth with his right hand.
The right oar slid swiftly down into the water and proceeded to sink.
I moved without thinking and made a grab for the quickly vanishing handle.
The boat tilted dangerously, teetered on one side for a fraction of a second, then capsized, tossing all three of us into the cold water of Ambrosia's bay before anyone could say anything.
When I broke the surface, spluttering and feeling much more awake, the oarsman was clutching desperately to the bow of the overturned skiff but Sentri was nowhere to be seen. I took a deep breath, fully intending to dive down after him, just as he emerged with a splash and a gasp.
"Are you okay?" I asked anxiously.
He wiped water from his eyes and grabbed the side of the boat. "I'm fine, Elora. It just took me a while to peel off my mail shirt."
"I'm so sorry! If I hadn't tried to catch the oar…"
"No, Milady," the oarsman said, his teeth chattering from the cold. "Had I not dropped the oar in the first place…"
"But if I hadn't yawned…"
We stared at each other, aware that this conversation could only go so far before becoming ridiculous.
"How about we just agree that it's everyone's fault," Sentri suggested. He paused. "Except mine," he added blandly.
I deliberately splashed water into his face. "You yawned, too!" I protested as he shielded his eyes and spat out a mouthful of ocean.
"Uh, Milady, Sir Knight," the oarsman interrupted. "We appear to be drifting."
The strong current that rushed through the narrow entrance to the bay had caught hold of our small craft and was pulling us toward the sea. The tall cliffs lining the entrance were surmounted on either side by gigantic skulls - white bleached, hollow eyed and dagger toothed.
"Try turning the boat over," Sentri said.
We did, but without solid support beneath our feet, the skiff collected a large amount of water and wallowed hopelessly low on the surface.
"Magic?" Sentri suggested.
"I brought no reagents!" I replied helplessly.
"Well, we can't swim back…not against this current."
The oarsman glanced back at the jetty. "Where's Massav when thou needest him?" he muttered.
Then I had an idea. "I can still use linear spells. They don't need reagents. All I have to do is catch your friend's attention and get him to bring his boat." I gestured. "Bet Ort!"
A fizzing sound filled the air as colourful streamers of light shot skyward.
"Those fireworks won't be very visible in the sun, Avatar," Sentri pointed out.
"Do you want to do this?"
"No need to get defensive…"
I cast a second spell and the sound of thunder rumbled around the bay then let its full force loose in a deafening crash.
Someone appeared on the jetty.
"Wave!" I shouted, throwing up one arm and hanging onto the skiff with the other.
About ten or more minutes later, Sentri and I were huddled rather miserably in a pile of blankets at the tower. My uncontrollable shivering had stopped and I was again beginning to think that life might still be worth living.
"The smiths won't be happy about that chainmail," sighed Sentri.
I mumbled something unintelligible, then yawned in his face.
The tower was tall for its two stories. A stone staircase wound up the west and north wall to where the teleportation pad leading back to the Isle of Fire was. Otherwise, the tower was completely devoid of furniture.
"How long hath it been since thou didst sleep last?" Sentri asked presently.
"Really slept? I'm not sure. That Labyrinth of Worlds thing went on for some time."
"And is still going, it seems. Where are these invaders from?"
I told him about one of the worlds I'd travelled to, in which I'd visited Killorn Keep - a stone castle hovering by some magical means above a golden desert. I talked about its warlike people who followed the ways of the Guardian, and their fanatical pursuit of power and Guardian-given favour, the secret faction who resisted his ways, about Mors Gotha who had led the soldiers into Britannia and who had finally died at my hands - whether because the Guardian had refused to rescue her at the last, or because he couldn't activate a moongate in Britannia - about the warrior Lobar whom I had befriended over a mug of ale, and the warrior Relk who had conspired to kill me, knowing exactly who I was. As I was explaining about the Trilkhai - a race of large, telepathic cats - a red-robed mage entered. He regarded both of us a bit doubtfully.
"Am I to believe," he asked, "that I speak to Sir Sentri and the Avatar?"
I stood and tried to push back my half-dried hair into some semblance of order. "I'm the Avatar," I said. "That's Sentri."
The mage bowed low. He was polite, I'd give him that. "Annon at thy service. I'll be accompanying both of ye back to the Isle of Fire."
"May I ask why?"
His face turned grim. "The shielding spells which I and my fellow mages erected around Ambrosia to block scrying fell scarcely an hour ago. There was a tremendous surge of ether and our spells were thrown aside." Annon leaned closer and whispered, "The Guardian knows we're here."
We stared at him in dismay. "There's no doubt?"
"What about the Isle of Fire?" I persisted.
He shrugged. "I'll find out about that when I deliver my report to Mariah."
"She's here as well?" I asked in surprise. "I thought she'd be in the Lycaeum."
"Not since before the celebration and imprisonment, Elora," Sentri reminded me. "Mariah's our unofficial archmage, just like I'm the Guard Captain."
I looked at Annon. "You know Lord British has arrived, don't you?"
"Not that he'd actually arrived, Avatar," he answered. "But we all knew he was coming. That's good news."
The three of us went upstairs to where a pair of guards stood watch over a teleport pad. Sentri told the two who I was and we passed through. We found ourselves in the eastern wing of the fort on the Isle of Fire.
"Are these still here?" I asked, looking a bit skittishly at a broken mirror, seemingly made of shards of flame, and a stone pedestal on which had rested the Dark Core.
"Evidently so," Sentri replied.
"That’s a very annoying habit you have, Sentri."
"You always have to get the last word in."
I sighed. "So where are the lenses?"
Sentri blinked. "What?"
"Mariah hath the convex and concave lenses, Avatar," Annon informed me. "But she was loath to disturb the mirror. Is it important?"
"It used to hold a daemon," I said.
"Did the monster escape?"
"He probably wishes he did."
"Why would I want freedom when I could be bonded to an ignorant mortal who seems to be fascinated with the idea of trapising all over this hellishly cold world for no other reason than to have me chop up something insignificant with my almost limitless powers?" Arcadion muttered acidly into my ear.
"Limitless?" I riposted mildly.
The daemon paused. "I did say ‘almost’, didn’t I?"
"Say it all again and I’ll tell you."
"He said ‘almost’, Elora," Sentri said, backing Arcadion. "I was more interested in his comment about Britannia being ‘hellishly cold’. I didn’t think those two words were compatible."
"This is most uncanny," Annon stated.
"And of course, mages only deal in the mundane," drawled the Shade Blade.
"I don’t think he likes me."
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling. "Don’t be ridiculous. Arcadion likes everyone."
"Especially medium-rare…" began the daemon.
Annon peered closely at the pulsing blue jewel in the hilt of the blackrock sword with all the interest of a child watching a beetle. "I see." He frowned suddenly. "It is bonded to thee?"
I nodded somewhat resignedly.
"Interesting. Well," he straightened, "I’d better see Mariah. Coming?"
Sentri said, "I regret that I have duties now." To me, "I might see thee later, my friend."
"Bye, Sentri. Thanks for showing me around." As the knight turned Guard Captain departed, I turned to Annon and accepted his offer to visit Mariah. "Where is she?"
"In the Truth test, Avatar," he answered. "Thou mightest have trouble navigating the place at first. ‘Tis quite large, and larger still since our people have been working to make more room by tunnelling further into the mountains. There isn’t enough wood to make signs, so stone masons have taken to carving runes on walls and making plaques. Mariah is situated in the Alcove of Truth."
We came to the principle statues and I reached out, touching the stone folds of the statue of Truth’s robe. A faint ringing as of some tiny bell filled my ears and I was abruptly standing somewhere else. A small room without apparent exit, though the southern wall was deeply scored with runes. Scanning them quickly, I saw that they told newcomers of an illusionary wall – the way out.
Annon appeared and beckoned for me to follow. We passed through the insubstantial stone and into a candle-lit corridor, which in turn led to a large hall. The hall was strewn with bedrolls, blankets, fur pelts and assorted clothes and cloaks. Several people could be seen sleeping in various areas, and the hall was very quiet.
"Those fearful of the deeper passages sleep here," Annon whispered. "There aren’t many, but there are enough."
"Does this place have a name?"
"We call it Terquaskorp."
Place Fear. Quaskorp… My jaw tightened a little. "The superstitious?"
Annon shrugged. "Some. Most are just timid or old. A lot of people were forced out of Trinsic to make room for those who were able to defend it."
Picking our way around piles of bedding, we crossed to the other side of the hall and went through a second fake wall edged by runes reading ‘Alcove of Truth’. We reached the square room where I’d found the talisman of Truth more than a year ago. It now held a desk, a bedroll, books stacked in a corner, and a mage reading over a thick pile of parchment.
"Mariah?" I blurted in near disbelief.
She looked up and a smile of pure pleasure lit her face at the sight of me. But beneath her joy, she looked dead-tired. Her blue-green eyes were lucid from extreme lack of sleep, dark bruises of weariness circled them. Her brownish-red hair had been cropped short so that the curls swung above her shoulders, but they were dull and crushed as if she’d had no time to brush them.
"Elora! Ah, and Annon. What news?"
Her voice was not the same. It was the kind of voice one has having just arisen a few minutes earlier. Annon gave her his report and she quickly jotted down some notes.
"Not good at all," she sighed. "Tell the mages to start scrying the surrounding waters of Ambrosia. We must make ready for an assault."
"What of this Isle?" Annon asked intently.
"We’ve already started doing the same thing here." She fished out a sheaf of parchment and glanced at it. "Gadriel reported the Isle of Fire’s shield penetration early this morning. The same tactic – a surge of ether."
"But a concentrated surge on one place?" Annon objected. "Either it was systematic – which is doubtful – or our location was known and they only used their scrying to verify it!"
"A spy?" Mariah asked tiredly.
"Let’s not go into that, Mariah. There are only two possible parties to blame – human mages and the winged gargoyles. The last thing we need is a racist debate sparked by some enthusiastic, idiotic Britannian Purity League member. Things have been pretty calm in that area, so we’d best not stir it up. As for the human mages…the common folk seem to be harbouring resentment against us."
"They don’t understand the exertion we go through to cast spells. They think we just wiggle our fingers to perform feats, and walk around in perpetual clouds of mystery."
Mariah made a note. "Thank thee, Annon." She smiled slightly. "Perhaps it might help if thou wouldst spread the word to mages that we should make some attempt to look fatigued after casting a spell."
Annon made a face. "It’s so humiliating for someone with this kind of power to look weak."
"Humility is good for the soul, Annon," she replied with another smile. "And so is Honesty. Thou sayest we feel tired after casting a spell, so don’t try to hide it."
Annon nodded. "Very well." Then he looked at me. "Well, Avatar, I’d best return to my post. Looks like the war is coming our way again. It was nice meeting thee."
I bade him farewell and he was off. Then I said as bluntly as I could, "Mariah, you look terrible."
She chuckled, still looking at her parchments. "Thou art no better thyself."
Remembering my dunking in Ambrosia’s bay and my own lack of sleep, I relented. "Sorry."
Mariah grinned. "No doubt thy work within Castle Britannia was more strenuous than mine. Tell me about it."
"No way! That would take ages. Wait for Iolo to write a ballad."
"Elora, Iolo’s ballads take even longer," she pointed out. "Anyway, ‘twill be awhile before any of us get a chance to do something for fun."
"Administration?" I guessed, pointing at her papers.
She nodded. "It’s only got worse today since the shields were broken."
"Who broke them?" I put in. "From all we saw, they have no mages with their army. That only leaves one of us or the Guardian."
"Just because thou hast not seen an enemy mage doth not deny his existence," Mariah cautioned. "Look," she added. "I’m about to turn in for some sleep. Hast thou a room? I thought not. Come, let’s find one for thee. I’ll sleep if thou wilt."
I grinned. "Deal. But before we go, would you mind giving me some reagents? I know we're short, but I could really use some."
The mage smiled. "I know the feeling. It's fine, Elora. I'll give thee what I can." Opening a drawer in her desk, she pulled out a dark brown pouch and handed it over. "There should be ten of every kind of reagent in there; that's standard equipment for every mage with us at the moment. Will it be enough?"
"Yes. Thank you."
We returned to the main tunnels and as we walked, I asked, "Do you think we were detected when the gargoyles carried us here?"
"It’s possible. But thine arrival with the others was later into the morning. Furthermore, ‘twould not explain Ambrosia’s discovery."
I frowned. I had arrived over an hour before the others…
"It’s the Avatar!"
I was suddenly jumped by about ten young people of ages ranging between six and fourteen years. Literally bowled over, I tried to distinguish one question from the next dozen that were fired at me.
"Art thou here to save us again?"
"My favourite portrait of thee is when thou art facing Mondain! Is it true he could turn into a bat?"
"Dost thou remember my great-great-great-great grandfather?"
"Canst thou sign my mother’s sword, please?"
"I played the part of Dupre in my school play! Wouldst thou like to see mine impression of him drinking an ale?"
"Can I join thee in thy quest?"
I laughed out loud.
Mariah was busy assuring some more adult spectators that yes, I was indeed the real Avatar, yes, I was the same one who had killed Mondain, yes, I was here to help save Britannia, and no, I didn’t always look the way I did now.
"I’d be happy to answer any questions," I interrupted finally, "But on condition that I get to stand up first."
Instant cooperation. I was assisted to my feet by the two eldest in the group – who looked positively thrilled at the notion of helping the famous Avatar – then was swamped by more questions. Eventually, I managed to talk them into only asking one question each and things went more smoothly.
"Yes, this is a real Ankh. I got it when I truly became the Avatar in the Age of Enlightenment. Next? Yes, Mondain could turn himself into a bat. You? That’s two questions, I’m only going to answer one or it wouldn’t be fair. Oh, well, that’s easy. If I could turn into any creature in Britannia, I’d be a dragon. Because they can fly. Dragons are more impressive than birds. Or bats."
Finally, I got to the last question that was given by the eldest girl. "Art thou afraid?"
I looked at her. "Of what?"
"Of dying. Wouldst thou die to save Britannia?"
I thought a minute, then softly said, "That’s two questions with two different answers. Which one should I reply to?"
"Canst thou not answer both? Please?"
After a brief, uneasy pause, I nodded. "Yes. I’m afraid to die. But if I had to in order to save Britannia, I would."
"I didn’t know the Avatar could be afraid."
"If there wasn’t anything to fear," I told her with a smile, "there’d be no reason for Courage to exist."
Satisfied somewhat, this representation of Britannia’s younger generation thanked me with enthusiasm for my time, then ran off to do whatever it was children do at that age.
"I’m getting way too old for this," I muttered to Mariah.
She laughed out loud at that. "Try telling Lord British that!"
We kept walking and I turned my attention to the small metropolis that was forming around us. It was like an underground city. Children played in open areas with makeshift balls, and there were several barracks and posts from which the people could collect rations, candles and other necessities. Stonemasons had obviously been hard at work as there were many branches and passages that I didn’t remember from my last visit.
"Wood hath become too valuable to burn," Mariah said, explaining the lack of torches. "And with the enemy on our heels, oil is more use as a weapon that a light source." She made a tiny gesture and whispered a spell. A mere pinprick of light appeared – bright, but short-lived as it quickly vanished. "We mages have other options, of course, but even we are restricted."
"How bad are the reagent stores?"
"Bad enough. We’re going to have to buy them from Buccaneers’ Den at extortionate prices. Even then, it’s only a matter of time until the supplies run out."
"But there should be plenty of sulphurous ash on this island! All the volcanic activity- "
"Stopped," Mariah interrupted. "Ash stores are higher than the others save garlic, but we need to save everything. Candles suffice for now and they also provide some heat."
She pointed out various landmarks and houses as we continued on. A river running through the Test was the water supply and a small lake further down was the communal bathing area.
"Either that or thou canst haul buckets of water to thy room and warm them with thy candles," Mariah said dryly. "It’s amazing what some will do for modesty’s sake."
There was a middens pit to the southwest, and the canyon I’d seen while trying to complete the Test so long ago was forbidden ground. Guards had even been set there just to make sure no one was stupid enough to fall in.
Presently, we reached a stone chamber in which a stout, bald man sat reading a book. He looked up as we entered and smiled at Mariah, reaching for a quill and parchment. "Another refugee, Mariah?"
"Not exactly, Barl. This is Elora – the Avatar. Canst thou fix her a room?"
"I’d be honoured!" The little man extracted a thin map from somewhere on his desk and made a mark on it. "Room five in the First Sanctuary," he said, handing me a slip of paper. "Hold onto that in case some fool disputes thy right to be there, Milady."
"The First Sanctuary is where?" Mariah prompted.
Barl shot me an embarrassed look. "It’s just off Avatar’s Way. Eastern passages."
"Back the way we came, then. Thank thee, Barl."
"Any time, Milady. Avatar." He inclined his head to us.
Avatar’s Way was a street – or more correctly, an earthen passage – from
which branched several other tunnels and interconnecting rooms. The First
Sanctuary was the first such room which appeared at the end of a short
corridor. This room in turn gave access to several others, which were numbered.
Mariah walked me to the curtained door of number five where she bade me
good afternoon and took her leave. I wondered rather irrelevantly how she’d
known what time of day it was.
Sighing loudly, I entered and took stock of my room. Bedroll, blankets, candle, flint…Taking in my appearance in a fragment of mirror, I grinned. I looked as bad as Mariah. Then I sobered, remembering how shocked I’d been at the sight of her. I looked terrible. Moving slowly, I unbuckled the scabbard holding Arcadion and propped him in a corner.
"Home sweet home, hm?" I asked him as I took off my salt-stiff leathers.
"Truth isn’t always a nice place to visit, Master," Arcadion answered. His harmonic voice was brooding and dark.
"What Truth are we talking about?"
"Are you saying you don’t know what broke the scrying shields?" he asked incredulously.
I paused in the act of stripping off my trousers. "It's the bracer, isn't it." It wasn't really a question. "And those ether disruptions the mages were talking about, they happened both times I teleported."
He was silent for a while. "Now you just have to figure out why."
I gave the sullenly glowing jewel a worried look. "Do you know?"
"What I know isn't much. The bracer breaks down any scrying shields so you can't hide when you use magic to teleport. The pulses that break the shields also serve to give anyone who's paying attention a rough idea of where you've gone - provided they're on the same world as you."
"But who is this serving?"
"I don't know. You forget that I've been trapped in Britannia for some time, now. This bracer is obviously new technology - I've never seen its like."
What was going on? I sighed, then rather suddenly noticed the drab condition of the scabbard. I hadn’t been the only one who’d been tipped into the bay. With a muttered curse, I drew the Blacksword with the intent of oiling and polishing the metal blade, but I didn’t have the appropriate tools. A slight tarnish stained the sword and I hoped rust wouldn’t be forthcoming.
"You don’t look so good yourself, Avatar," the daemon stated.
I dropped him hastily and hauled my wrinkled cloak around myself, blushing furiously. "You can’t really see me!" I accused.
"You really should eat more," Arcadion went on clinically. "Your ribs are sticking out."
Picking him up awkwardly, I propped him against the wall with the gem facing away from me. I could have almost sworn I heard him laugh.
I put on the shapeless linen shift I found in a mesh bag, then turned my attention to the beef jerky I saw on a stone plate. I was almost hungry enough to eat it, but one unsuccessful bite at the hardened meat dissuaded me from doing so.
Looking at the bedroll, I decided that a bath could wait. I was really tired. Then, without another thought, I fell into the blankets and didn’t move for a long, long time.
Back to the Library